The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?


For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.

While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.

When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.

We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.

Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!

I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.

“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.

Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.

Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.

My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”

“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”

As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.

Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.

I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.

In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.

I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.

Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.

After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.

Somebody please call the doctor.

Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at fsafran@hotmail.com.

Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.

It’s not camp, but it’ll do


Camp Hess Kramer broke my young and fertile heart. It was an instance of pubescent love that evolved into unrequited passion. For eight years, I frolicked in the crisp Malibu breeze, danced maniacally to Israeli folk songs and celebrated the Sabbath each Friday at dusk. It was eight summers of sheer, unadulterated bliss. Camp was where I discovered my Jewish identity, and it supplied me with religious pride and a newfound zest for Jewish culture. It was a safe haven and a supportive community. Camp comprised my heart and soul.

This summer, Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps — Camp Hess Kramer among them — instituted a gap year for students going into 11th grade, encouraging students to go to Israel, a common practice among Jewish summer camps.

A summer without camp? The thought was incomprehensible. I had my life ahead to travel and explore the world, yet only childhood for camp. Soon, I would be inundated with the stresses of being an adult, and it felt as if I was being forced away from my youth. I wanted to be in Malibu; I wanted to be a Jewish camper.

With a stance adamantly against the gap year, I argued with everyone in hopes of changing the program. Camp administrators, directors, counselors, campers, anyone who would lend a listening ear would be the victims of my anti-gap-year tirade. But, regardless of my presumptuous hopes, it was to no avail. I was banished from my second home, and my secure identity as a Jew was seemingly obliterated.

I stood at a crossroads, faced with two options, either go to Israel and contradict my initial stand, or just find other summer plans. My inherently obstinate nature would not permit me to choose the former, although I knew the trip ultimately would have been an unforgettable experience. So this summer, I set out on a quest to regain my Jewish sense of self.

I reluctantly joined the workforce. I found a job working as an editorial intern/reporter at the Beverly Hills Courier, and I was initially hesitant. It was my first job, and I was now to be treated like an adult. The daily grind, incessant traffic, 9 to 5 — could I handle it?

My worries dissipated the moment I entered the door. I was writing, earning bylines, and relaying information to a vast readership. I loved my topics, the work environment, the fresh smell of the paper off of the printing press every Friday.

But unbeknownst to me, through my job I was continually performing an act of kindness and righteousness. Each week, as I obtained information and then got it published for those who did not have the same resources, I was performing a good deed, a mitzvah. As acts of justice are imperative in being classified as “a good Jewish person,” I was not solely writing for the betterment of the community, but for myself. As the summer continued, my words inscribed on sheets of paper became symbolic of my progress as a Jewish person.

I worked at the Courier three days a week and also volunteered each Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. I made my weekly trek up to cardiology in my volunteer uniform and assisted the nurses in the department, whether by answering telephones or organizing medical charts. In my hours at the hospital, I gradually became closer to my Jewish enlightenment. I saw that an act of kindness as simple as a smile can improve someone’s day, and I truly felt like a more righteous being when I observed the wonders of the nurses and doctors.

At camp I didn’t really have an opportunity to help those less fortunate, even in the sense of health. Now, I could actually visualize the affects of my deeds and the joy they brought. My heart was steadily increasing with joy, and I could feel the outcome of repairing the world, one act at a time.

My Fridays were devoted to Bet Tzedek, a nonprofit organization that provides less fortunate Los Angeles residents with legal aid. Bet Tzedek, or “House of Justice” in Hebrew, warmed my heart while stimulating my left-brain. A brilliant staff has selflessly abandoned the inflated salaries of corporate law firms in order to help those who are less fortunate. While so much of Los Angeles dwells on monetary income, the best payment that Bet Tzedek receives is the joy of their clients.

Initially, I questioned whether I would ever regain my Jewish identity without Camp Hess Kramer. Yet, through my own path, I discovered that it does not take a camp or a synagogue to classify oneself as an observant Jew. My work this summer has empowered me to feel like a stronger Jewish person than ever. I hadn’t really lost my Jewish identity — I had just failed to recognize it.

Shayna Freisleben is a junior at Harvard-Westlake.

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

Dual Identity, Double the Questions


Chinese villagers found the baby, abandoned by her birth parents, in a basket on a riverbank.

“Just like Moses,” the child’s adoptive mother, Terri Pollock, says.
Today, Leah Hua Xia Pollock, 14, lives in Seattle and plays the flute in her temple’s klezmer band.

Last year, Leah became a bat mitzvah. As she stood on the bimah, looking out at the crowd of white faces before her, “it just dawned on me,” she said, “that even if I do look in the mirror and see someone different from the people around me, it doesn’t matter, because I’m accepted.”

Leah is among the first in a tidal wave of Chinese-born girls who are growing up in Jewish families in the United States. When she was adopted in 1992, she was one of only 206 Chinese children brought to the United States that year. Last year, Americans adopted slightly more than 7,900 children from China, nearly all of them girls.

China only opened its doors in a big way to international adoption in 1991 to help mitigate its problem of abandoned children, brought on by China’s one-child policy. That policy, which the government enforces by imposing economic penalties for noncompliance, combined with the traditional culture that sons care for their parents in old age, had resulted in a sea of neglected children, particularly girls.

These days, more American families are adopting from China than any other foreign country, and a large number of those families are Jewish. A wave of girls is now coming of age, starting to face challenging issues of identity.

There is the question of what it means to — look Jewish — for one — and the matter of who is a Jew in the eyes of the Jewish

Second-class Conservative citizens


When I first read that there would be a vote by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards regarding homosexuality and Jewish law, I was of
course interested.

I’m a gay man, and I have had both personal and professional ties to the Conservative movement since I was a child. In fact, some of my closest friends (and colleagues) are avowed Conservative Jews.

I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s in a Conservative synagogue in northern New Jersey. It was a dying synagogue due to shifting demographics. My religious school class was made up of about eight students. My venerable, grandfatherly rabbi and the young, well-groomed cantor knew all of us by name. Having always been drawn to Jewish ritual, one year I volunteered my house for the religious school sukkah (much to my parents’ chagrin). My seventh-grade class, along with my teacher, Rabbi Zitter, a 20-something guy sporting tzitzit, built a sukkah in my backyard. The Sunday of Sukkot the rabbi, cantor and religious school principal all visited the synagogue’s “satellite” sukkah. I felt so honored. (And for years after that my family built a sukkah.)

As a middle school and high school student I often attended services at my Conservative synagogue and likely brought the average age of the congregants down to 65. The only other young congregant was a handsome, strapping young college-aged guy who was often called on to lift the Torah. This was the time when I first began to feel the stirrings of same-sex attraction. I didn’t understand it but knew that something was different for me. I imagine that neither the rabbi nor the cantor had a clue that any of his students was beginning to come to terms with anything other than a heterosexual identity. If “gay” was on their radar, I imagine it was “out there,” outside the austere stone building in Paterson, N.J.

I was an active, practicing Conservative Jew. I belonged to USY for a time, I went to USY Summer Encampment, and I went to Israel for the first time with USY’s Israel Pilgrimage. During my college years, I regularly davened with the Conservative minyan at Brandeis University, and upon graduating taught at a Conservative Jewish day school in the Boston area. When I moved to Los Angeles, I began teaching at Adat Ari El in the day school and also taught b’nai mitzvah students there for many years; in addition, I taught at L.A. Hebrew High School. I am currently on the professional staff of Temple Aliyah. My Conservative movement ties run deep.

Honestly, I’m glad that the recent vote of the Conservative movement has opened the door a bit toward acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews. Now that this teshuvah, or legal interpretation, was one of two that received a majority vote, I know that this helps some of my gay “friends and family” squeeze sideways through the now partially open door. I nevertheless remain sad and disappointed that the door has only opened a little, and the idea that it is a qualified acceptance is troubling to me. (Let alone that it rests side by side with a standing ruling of nonacceptance, or that a third accepted teshuvah purports that individuals — I assume “straight” people too — can control their sexual orientation.)

I understand the notion of baby steps, and I understand the notion of compromise in the name of baby steps. But I don’t have to like it. I think this decision perpetuates a system in which gays and lesbians continue to be second-class citizens. It also perpetuates one specific interpretation of a biblical text, which has been interpreted in other ways. Take me for who I am or don’t take me at all. I too am created in God’s holy image.

When I came out I never felt an incompatibility between my Jewish identity and my sexual identity.

Perhaps I was lucky, perhaps naïve. Who knows? I never doubted that God loves me for who I am. I am a Jewish educator and a Jewish communal professional. And I am gay. I hope that my students have experienced me as someone who is caring, compassionate and dedicated. I hope they have seen me as a role model. And I believe that I am these things not despite the fact that I am gay, but in large part because I am gay. My identity as a gay man has helped me to learn to be more empathic, to embrace differences and to overcome my own prejudices.

While I am pleased that the Conservative movement has inched forward in the direction of inclusivity, I find it difficult to rejoice. When I am allowed to sit in the front of the Conservative bus (without being singled out to pass a litmus test; without being subjected to the whim of the driver of that particular bus), then I shall surely rejoice, and I will be at the front of the line chanting the “Shehecheyanu” blessing.

Jeff Bernhardt is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He works as a teacher, social worker and Jewish communal service professional with Reform, Conservative and trans-denominational Jewish organizations.

Films: The trials and tribulations of fathers and sons


For so many Jewish men, it always comes back to fathers and sons, despite what Philip Roth might think.
Look at the films of Daniel Burman, the rising young star of the New Argentine Cinema. “Waiting for the Messiah,” “Lost Embrace” and his latest, “Family Law,” which all revolve around a slightly feckless but well-meaning young man, played in all three by Daniel Hendler, and his relationship with an absent or soon-to-be-absent father.

Burman, 33, is a slender, good-looking brunette with long, arching, graceful fingers that he uses to adjust a cup of coffee on its saucer as he sits in the bar/lounge of a hip downtown New York hotel, answering questions for a parade of journalists. He smiles easily, if somewhat shyly, but carries himself with an earnestness that belies the wittiness of his films.

“We’re kind of shy in my family,” he explains through an interpreter when asked about his father’s reaction to the new film, which centers even more than its predecessors on the father-son relationship. “We react with understatement to everything. But when my father saw the film at the Berlin festival, he seemed pleased.”

Burman comes from a family full of lawyers, including his father. Like the father-and-son lawyers who are at the heart of “Family Law,” he worked in his father’s office, and he did go to law school briefly, but abandoned that career after less than a year.

“My family was very supportive of my career choice,” he says. “After all, I was already earning a living from film.”

One way he paid back his family’s support is in the affectionate portrait of Perelman, Sr. (Arturo Goetz) in “Family Law,” which he readily acknowledges was based largely on his father.

Does that mean that Hendler has been Burman’s alter ego through the unofficial trilogy of films on which they have collaborated?

“It’s hard to say,” he says with a slight wince. “There are some things we have in common. But we don’t share the same ego.”

His next project, a comedy about an older married couple who are struggling with the “empty nest” syndrome, will take him away from the trilogy, but he readily acknowledges that he will probably come back to Hendler and to his own growth in a few years, “maybe five, maybe 10.”

It’s an actor-character-director relationship that echoes the odd triangulation of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud and the fictional Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut-like protagonist of “The 400 Blows,” “Stolen Kisses” and “Bed and Board” among others.

That comparison tickles Burman immensely.

“I like Truffaut very much,” he says, beaming.

He is less sanguine about the frequent comparisons between his work and that of Woody Allen.
“It certainly doesn’t offend me,” he says. “A dream of mine is to present Woody Allen with DVDs of my films. But it’s not a fair comparison. We’re very different filmmakers.”

Certainly Burman’s characters are much less conflicted about their Jewish identity. They wear it with a casualness that is, quite frankly, alien to Jewish-American film.

“I think my parents taught me to enjoy being Jewish,” he says. “It’s not just about following rules or singing songs. It’s not as easy as just not eating ham. In the United States people seem to take a defensive attitude about being Jewish. For me it’s so intimate that I don’t need to express it all the time. It’s not damaged by the banality of daily life.”

Indeed, one might say that by its very nature, Jewish observance is defined by — and defines — daily life. Appropriately, that focus on daily life in all its ordinariness is a large part of Burman’s films, and that points up another place where he parts company with Americans.

“It seems contradictory, but the banality of daily life makes the dramatic incidents invisible,” he opines. “Life is not like it is in most American films, where something dramatic happens every few minutes. [In real life] the big existential themes express themselves in the everyday.”

Burman says that his writing is an outgrowth of that condition.

“When I write I don’t think about those things. It’s reflected in the mirror of the characters.”
“Family Law” opens Friday, Dec. 22 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 and Laemmle Town Center 5.

Alys Willman-Navarro assisted in this article by translating during the interview.

Rainbow-haired couturier takes fashion fun seriously


Her natural hair color is brown, but Nony Tochterman hasn’t shown her roots in about 20 years. These days it’s a bubblegum pink, and in the past she’s tressed herself in Skittles hues, including green, blonde, orange, purple, fuchsia and lavender.
Color, after all, is a lot of what the 40-year-old fashion designer is about. Her line is called House of Petro Zillia. Named after the Hebrew word for parsley, it is a perfect moniker for her design aesthetic, which takes fun seriously.

“I’m a colorful person,” Tochterman said. “I like color; I like texture; I like mixing things together. I think my customer is a sophisticated, ageless, confident woman.”

Such women have found Tochterman’s clothing in upscale boutiques since the company’s inception in 1996, but Tochterman says a store of her own “has been in my head for years.” This month, she and her husband and business partner, Yosi Drori, celebrate the grand opening of a flagship store in the trendy strip of West Third Street, between La Cienega Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue.

“The store is not just about my clothes,” Tochterman said, “but about everything that I love — furniture, knickknacks.”
Tochterman is known in the industry for her whimsical feminine pieces, bold designs and unexpected color combinations, as well as a penchant for knits and vintage-inspired looks. The fashion of Petro Zillia is eclectic. It encompasses a retro sky blue cashmere sweater, with a rainbow and hearts on the front, but also a subtler, but still quirky navy silk wrap dress trimmed with pompoms, and a serious gray tweed flare skirt.

Her new store’s interior reflects this point of view. Shoppers enter into an open space subtly divided into three sections.
Up front, the feel is midcentury, with walls decked in mod orange and green wallpaper. Through the center, the mood changes to neoromantic. Tripartite walls are painted crackle pink on top, lime green in a center ribbon trimmed with gold-gilt molding and papered in a blue floral on the bottom. From the ceiling hangs a sizable chandelier that Tochterman says her husband found at “like a JCC donation center or something.” (Drori is responsible for most of the interior design.) In the back is a shift to ’70s psychedelic, complete with facing lime green loveseats: one tweed, one plastic.

Tochterman and Drori hope to make the location a hangout, in addition to a shopping destination. There are plans for a garden in the back under a big magnolia tree left by the previous tenant, the Shambhala Meditation Center. Next door to the store is a space the couple is converting into Tochterman’s design studio — one arena that has never felt foreign to her.
Tochterman grew up in Tel Aviv with a fashion pedigree. Her mother had a chic boutique, and Tochterman said, “I used to go to her studio, and she allowed me to work on the overlock machine.” By the time she was 7, Tochterman had learned how to knit, sew and cut fabric, and she eventually sold some of her pieces in her mom’s store.

At 14, Tochterman moved to Los Angeles with her parents and siblings, but she had trouble adjusting and moved back to Israel after a year and a half, living with her grandmother while she finished school there.

She returned to Los Angeles after she graduated. Soon after, she moved to New York to work in the fashion industry. Capitalizing on a huge late ’80s trend by making clip-on button covers, Tochterman founded a successful accessories line, Nony New York, with Drori in 1986.

They made the most of it while it lasted, but the trend was dead by 1995, and they closed the business. They traveled, had a brief stint as owners of a Caribbean hotel on Saint Martin and eventually found themselves back in Los Angeles with their infant son, Etai, living with Tochterman’s parents.

Petro Zillia was born soon after — an accessories line that quickly morphed into a full ready-to-wear collection. Some 10 years later, her designs have been featured in Vogue and W Magazine and worn by trendsetters like Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz and Madonna.

Tochterman and Drori continue to work together on the business and personal life they share. The birth of Etai was followed four years later by a girl, Romie. The kids are now 11 and 7 years old, and in February the couple will celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Tochterman’s open personality translates into her life as well as her work. In her identity, she feels herself more American than Israeli. But she’s still “Eema” to the kids, and Drori is “Abba.”

Religion, too, is a relaxed thing. They celebrate Jewish holidays with the extended family but do not observe much at home. In terms of religious school, Tochterman and Drori have not made it a priority. The kids attend a secular private school in Santa Monica, where they live.

One could say her diverse fashion sense applies to her worldview, as well.

“The way we see it, we want to raise good people, religion blind, color blind, sexual-orientation blind — citizens of the world,” Tochterman said. “I like looking at the spectrum of their friends. Indian, Jewish, Italian — it represents the world better.”

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 2nd

This weekend represents a final opportunity to view two Skirball Center multimedia exhibitions. “Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography” presents photos, video and multimedia pieces by emerging and mid-career artists, exploring the theme of Jewish identity. “L.A. River Reborn” focuses in closer to home, on the Los Angeles River and the relationship between society and the environment.

Through Sept. 3. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” border = 0 align = left vspace = 6 hspace = 6 alt = “”>

Monday the 4th

This Labor Day the Workmen’s Circle hosts an opening reception for “Peter Whittenberg: Prints,” an exhibition of politically minded graphic art. The decidedly adult-only show features Whittenberger’s recurring character, Robert P. Vonruenhousen IV, who has male sex organs for a head, and represents what the artist feels is wrong with America today.

5-7 p.m. Free. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007. ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.thelikud.org.

Wednesday the 6th

Community spirit can be found at the Robertson Branch Library tonight. Families and kids of all ages are invited for “Neighbors Celebrating Neighbors: An Evening of Music and Stories.” The event features Uncle Ruthie Buell of KPFK, children’s book author Barney Saltzberg ,singer and recording artist Tiana Marquez and singer Tonyia Jor’dan.

6:30 p.m. Free. 1719 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 840-2147.

Thursday the 7th

The Academy does it short and sweet, this week. The Los Angeles International Short Film Festival, accredited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is the largest fest of its kind. Included among this year’s films are “George Lucas in Love,” directed by Joe Nussbaum (“American Pie 5: The Naked Mile”) and “In God We Trust,” by Jason Reitman, director of “Thank You For Smoking” and son of director Ivan.

Sept. 5-14. ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. ” align = right vspace = 6 hspace = 6 border = 0 alt = “”>
Homage is paid to the brothers Gershwin in the 1983 Tony-winner “My One and Only.” Head to UCLA’s Freud Playhouse to see Reprise’s production of this “Funny Face” adaptation, that also includes Gershwin music from other sources.

Sept. 5-17. $60-$75 (single tickets), $165-$195 (season tickets). Macgowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

Promoting Jewish Learning


On a recent Friday afternoon, the chapel bells at Duke University chimed “Shalom Aleichem” as about 1,300 educators gathered for the 31st annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).

Billed as “Jewish Literacy: A Learned Community and a Community of Learners,” CAJE 31 was a raw, messy, creative affair, with 20 sessions held every hour for five days on such wide-reaching topics as “God Shopping,” “The Jews of Sing-Sing,” “Assessing Our Relationship to Israel” and “Jews as Global Citizens.” Many of the sessions focused on teaching methodology, text-based learning and creative approaches to Judaism. Participants also met for in-depth discussions on every Jewish theme imaginable, all with the goal of energizing teachers and students for the coming year.

Teachers, storytellers, dancers, rabbis and teenagers training for future leadership positions ran through the southern heat across the sprawling campus looking for classrooms, some of which were buried two floors underground. They also browsed through Duke’s Bryan Center and an array of vendors displaying items such as teaching materials, custom-made crossword puzzles, jewelry and handmade Jewish arts and crafts.

Most of the sessions and evening keynote speeches addressed the issue of Jewish literacy, focusing on how being Jewishly literate means familiarity not just with texts, a bar mitzvah portion, Israeli history or Jewish dance, but with a stew of all those elements and much more.

In a session on adult learners led by Betsy Dolgin Katz, North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, one participant said, “Something that changed my life was learning to read Torah at age 40.”

The session also focused on how much emphasis is placed on children’s preparation for b’nei mitzvah and becoming full participants in Jewish life, while parents might not have had an equivalent education and may feel left behind.

Cherie Koller-Fox, a founder of CAJE, held a session on the challenges young teachers face when deciding whether or not to enter the field of Jewish education at all. She encouraged them to assert themselves when asking for the salaries and support they would need to make a career in Jewish education work for them, and urged them to take the reins of CAJE for a new generation.

“CAJE looks old and decrepit, but it needs to be yours,” she told them. “You desperately need it, but it desperately needs you.”

A special session was held each night where teachers and community leaders discussed how to teach the war in Lebanon in the upcoming school year and shared personal feelings about Israel. Some educators stressed the importance of promoting a connection between children and Israel. One participant said, “They should identify with Israel like it’s their own home being bombed, because it is their home being bombed.” Another participant grew pensive over the thought that peace in the Middle East would truly not be achieved in his lifetime.

A few teachers worried that children would grow up with negative impressions of Israel due to media coverage or bias, while others expressed happiness that some of the myths about Israel as only a heroic nation might dissipate.

The war in Lebanon aside, some educators, especially from small communities, were happy to be surrounded by so many fellow travelers.

Ellen Ben-Naim, a teacher at Los Alamos Jewish Center in New Mexico that draws much of its congregation from the nearby research laboratory, said that in her school of 20 students, 7,000 feet up a mountain, even the rabbi is also a full-time physicist.

“This is like a mecca for me. Well, maybe that’s not the right word,” she said, adding that the diversity of Jewish life exhibited at CAJE astounded her. Back home, she said, “there is only one tent in town for everybody.”

Lynne Diwinsky, a teacher at the New City Jewish Center in New City, N.Y., enjoyed CAJE as a prelude to the school year.

“I see [CAJE] as a renewal. It happens right before Rosh Hashanah to get ready for the coming year,” she said. “I love the interchange with other professionals.”

Eliot Spack, CAJE’s outgoing executive director, said, “CAJE provides a recharging of their batteries,” referring to the educators who attend.

He called the conference “a celebration of Jewish teaching: “CAJE has inspired people not in a manipulative or proselytizing way, but it’s helped people come to grips with their own Judaism.”

Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council and longtime CAJE-goer, said that making connections and being able to access new materials is important for educators.

“West of the Hudson River, where are people going to get this plethora of books and materials?” she asked.

Avraham Infeld, outgoing president of Hillel, delivered a fiery keynote address on the topic of Jewish identity. He said out of five legs of Judaism — memory, family, Sinai, the people and land of Israel and the Hebrew language — each Jew should learn three. That way, everyone would have at least one Jewish connection in common.

Infeld also mentioned a phrase his late father used to repeat that subtly echoed the conference’s theme: “A Jew has to know more today than he did yesterday.”

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.

The Making of a Jewish Teen


Community
by Lauren Schein, Tribe Contributor

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

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

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

That is, until I had some chicken.

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

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

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

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

Everyone at my table was laughing, including me.

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

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

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

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

Jewish Identity
by Mickey Brown, Tribe Contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel
by Kevin Senet, Tribe Contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God
by Natalie Paige Karic, Tribe Contributor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artists Dream in a Golden Age


Sam Erenberg spends most of the day, nearly every day, alone in a 1,000-square-foot box.

“It’s like a temple,” the painter says of his artist’s studio.

A lonely temple, that is.

“I’m the rabbi and congregation all in one,” he says with a laugh.

Working as an artist can be isolating, especially in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. And what good is inspiration without community?

The Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California exists for artists like Erenberg. The group, consisting of about 30 members, constitutes one of the nation’s first organized networks of Jewish artists. Its aims are twofold: to create a support system for local artists and to transform the way the Jewish community relates to art.

On a recent evening, Erenberg sat among other artists in a garage-turned-studio in Larchmont Village. He, for one, was happy for the company.

“This is my ad-hoc family,” he said to the painters, photographers and sculptors who had gathered there for the group’s monthly meeting.

The Artists Initiative emerged three years ago, when Amelia Xann of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles approached USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Xann wanted to create a program to promote visual art by Jewish artists.

The organizations decided to found a group that would put on exhibitions, host a lecture series and provide a space for artists to explore the relationship between their Jewish identities and their art.

So, the Artists Initiative launched, with $40,000 in foundation grants for a speaker series and Web site.

The group staged its first exhibition in 2004 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Too Jewish — Not Jewish Enough” showcased paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, ceramics and digital work that incorporated Jewish themes or adhered to “a Jewish sensibility.” (Art with a “Jewish sensibility,” Erenberg explained, exhibits “a kind of longing, a feeling that you’re connected to a long history.”)

The second exhibition, “Makor/Source,” concentrated on the sources of the artists’ inspiration. The exhibit opened this year at the Hillel: Centers for Jewish Life, at USC and UCLA.

Members are planning a third exhibition, which will likely have a California theme, to open in the next year or so at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Art historian Matthew Baigell will curate the show.

Ruth Weisberg, a nationally recognized artist and the de facto leader of the group, said the initiative has ambitious goals.

“We really want to be another porthole, another entrance into Judaism,” said Weisberg, who is dean of USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts. “Younger people, especially, are often more at ease entering the Jewish community through cultural events than any other way.”

Weisberg, who illustrated the Reform movement’s new haggadah, said she hoped the group would also encourage Jewish artists to treat Jewish themes in their work.

“Many Jews who are involved in the art world keep their Judaism in one part of their life, and their cultural [expression] in another,” she said. Jews may fear being categorized — or even dismissed — as Jewish, rather than mainstream, artists. But keeping art and religious identity separate “is, I think, unnecessary and not that productive.”

Not all of the group’s members agree.

“I’m here protesting,” Channa Horwitz announced at the last meeting.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m an artist, but I’m not a Jewish artist,” said Horwitz, who uses complex patterns and bright colors in her work. “I don’t think art has anything to do with religion.”

Horwitz’s response reflects the diversity of the group, which includes Jews across the religious spectrum, from around the world, including the United States, Israel and Russia.

Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, members find value in the group.

“It’s really great to sit in a room with people who get it,” said Laurel Paley, whose use of Hebrew text in her art has been criticized as “obfuscation.”

Members hope their network will become a model for communities across the country. To increase membership and public awareness, the group is updating its Web site. It has also applied for another foundation grant.

Should funding arrive in the fall, the artists hope to launch new projects. One idea they bandied about involves creating a Jewish community center for the arts, where the public can come not only to view art but also to create it.

As the artists speculated about the future, a sense of what could be — if only they had the world as their canvas — invigorated the group.

Exciting things happen when artists get together, said Bruria Finkel, a sculptor with works on display at the New Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

The Dadaists and Cubists of the 20th century began by meeting in groups, Finkel said. Now, with Jewish artists flourishing in the United States, especially on the West Coast, who knows what this group can accomplish?

“It’s a golden age,” she said.

 

School Risked Fiscal Peril for Its Students


Esther Nir knew she wanted her daughters to have a Jewish education. Although she and her Israeli-born husband, Ofer, were living in a decidedly secular kibbutz, Nir had attended yeshiva as a young girl in Brooklyn.

“I wanted my children to learn Torah and decide for themselves what they wanted to do when they got older,” she said.

But when the family moved to the United States from Israel in 1990, Nir was shocked by the cost of day school education. None of the Orthodox day schools she approached could give the family a financially viable offer.

“If a school cost $12,000 per year, they would go down by $2,000…. It was still out of reach,” Nir recalled.

One school implied that the family was not observant enough to be accepted.

Discouraged, the couple sent their three daughters to public school.

Four years later, Ofer Nir saw an article in a Hebrew-language newspaper about Perutz Etz Jacob Academy, an Orthodox day school reaching out to families of all religious levels, economic abilities and nations of origin. He looked up from the paper and said to his wife, “I think we’ve found the school we’re looking for.”

Located in a nondescript building on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue, Etz Jacob is not glamorous. The furniture is worn, the walls need a paint job and the outdoor play area is tiny.

The Nirs were undaunted. The following year, they enrolled their three daughters: D’vorah in eighth grade, Ayala in sixth grade and Kesem in second grade. Based on the family’s financial situation, tuition was initially set at $100 per child per month.

Etz Jacob prides itself on accepting children who would not otherwise get a Jewish education. Rabbi Rubin Huttler of Congregation Etz Jacob founded the school in 1989 as a haven for new immigrants flooding into Los Angeles from Russia and Iran.

“Other schools weren’t accepting these children,” he said. “So we decided to take on that mitzvah.”

Over the years, immigration slowed, but Etz Jacob continues to take students who have not been able to find a home at other Jewish schools for a variety of reasons. Some, like the Nirs, are struggling financially. Others have learning disabilities or emotional issues. A few have experienced discipline problems at other schools.

“We see the potential in the child, not what he’s doing now,” said Rabbi Shlomo Harrosh, the school’s principal. He believes it’s never too late to begin learning.

“Rabbi Akiba started studying the alphabet at the age of 40, and he became one of the greatest rabbis in history,” he said.

Only 5 percent of Etz Jacob’s students pay full tuition of $8,000, with the rest paying on a sliding scale. According to Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Los Angeles, 40 percent of all day school students in L.A. receive need-based financial aid. However, Graff noted, “Other schools with a high percentage of scholarships tend to have a support base that can sustain them from year to year.”

This is not the case with Etz Jacob. The school’s liberal admissions policy jeopardized its very existence. Over the years, Huttler and Harrosh struggled continuously to keep the school afloat. Over time, debt mounted. Last summer, Etz Jacob Academy owed an entire year’s rent. Huttler reluctantly concluded that he would have to close the school.

Enter Aron Abecassis. A go-getter who prospered in real estate, Abecassis had supported the school when he first heard it was having troubles making ends meet eight years ago. Then in 2004, when he learned of the impending bankruptcy, Abecassis took the school on as a personal mission. Although his three children were enrolled at nearby Maimonides Academy, Etz Jacob’s plight touched a chord: Abecassis himself had once been a poor immigrant in search of a Jewish education.

In 1970, his family fled Morocco because of the increasingly hostile climate for Jews. “We left everything behind,” said Abecassis, who was 9 years old at the time.

The family went to Canada, but when his father tried to find a Jewish day school for his three children, “they came up with all kinds of excuses not to admit us,” Abecassis recalled. “I always felt I missed the structure and foundation of a Jewish identity that comes through Jewish education.”

In addition to donating his own funds, Abecassis created a business plan to save the school. He enlisted rabbis throughout the community to appeal to their congregants for help. He solicited individuals to provide $10,000 student sponsorships.

“We’re Jews. And Jews all help people in need,” Abecassis said.

When Abecassis approached L.A. Jewish Federation President John Fishel about Etz Jacob’s financial plight, Fishel provided the school with a $50,000 emergency gift. The gift came with two conditions: That the school undergo accreditation and that it strengthen its leadership structure.

“Providing this support to Etz Jacob is consistent with the Federation’s aim of ensuring that a Jewish education is accessible to every Jewish child who seeks one,” Fishel said.

Regina Goldman, a former principal of Melrose Avenue Elementary now on Etz Jacob’s board, oversaw the accreditation process. The school just received accreditation approval from the prestigious Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which gives the stamp of approval to both secular and religious schools. It is in the process of applying for accreditation the Bureau of Jewish Education. Nancy Field, previously of the Harkam Hillel Hebrew Academy, has been hired as Etz Jacob’s general studies principal.

In what Abecassis describes as “a rescue effort by the Jewish community,” 17 local synagogues and foundations, including the Jewish Community Foundation, have provided funds to the school. In addition, 47 individuals have sponsored student scholarships averaging $10,000 each. Approximately $600,000 has been raised, enough to cover not only this year’s operating expense, Abecassis said, but also — for the first time in its 17 years of existence — Etz Jacob is now free of debt.

Ultimately, Abecassis hopes the school will be able to build a permanent facility that would allow it to double or triple its current 100-student capacity. He’d like to break ground within three years.

As for the Nir family, who found a haven at Etz Jacob 10 years ago, they grew more observant and eventually became baalei teshuvah. Two daughters now live in Israel, and the youngest is enrolled at Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Los Angeles. The Nirs say they are grateful for the impact the school made upon their family and heartened to hear that Etz Jacob’s future finally seems secure. “Torah is more important to them than money or a fancy building,” Esther Nir said. “The most important thing to them is giving a Jewish education to a Jewish child.”

 

Wiesel’s Words of Hope for ‘Uprooted’


When Elie Wiesel spoke last year at the 92nd Street Y, teaching about Jewish texts, his quiet voice had a trance-like quality, as he shifted between classic sources, Chasidic tales and his own views of world events. His fiction is similarly powerful. Sometimes the words have the poetic feel of liturgy, holy words.

“To write is to pray,” said the Nobel laureate, who will be the scholar-in-residence May 19-21 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“I want my stories to become prayers. I want my prayer to become stories,” he said, quoting Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, in an interview, when asked about the connection between fiction and prayer. “I love prayer. When words become prayer, something is added to the words. There’s purity in lashon kodesh [sacred language].”

“Wounds, too, can become prayers,” he added.

Wounds are plentiful in “The Time of the Uprooted,” an absorbing novel that moves back and forth in time, from 1940s Hungary to New York at the end of the 20th century, shifting points of view, with emotional intensity packed into memories and stories.

Ever gracious and eloquent, the author of more than 40 books spoke of his fiction and the all-too-true news of the world, with daily reports of newly uprooted souls: thousands who no longer have home addresses and are scattered far from the ground they know.

Not unlike Gamaliel Friedman, who plays the central role in “The Time of the Uprooted.” Gamaliel was born in Czechoslovakia and survived World War II in Budapest, left by his mother in the care of Ilonka, a non-Jewish cabaret singer. He escaped Budapest in 1956, leaving Ilonka behind, and moved to Vienna, Paris and then to New York, with stops in between. In New York, his closest circle is a group of exiles, each one with an intriguing story, spun with pain. Calling themselves, with irony, “Elders of Zion,” they help others who are either still in Europe or exiles like themselves.

“Once a refugee, always a refugee,” the narrator says of Gamaliel, and as Wiesel admits, could be describing the author, who feels close to fellow refugees. The narrator continues, “He escapes from one place of exile, only to find himself in another: Nowhere is he at home. He never forgets the place he came from; his life is always provisional. Happiness for him is a moment’s rest. Love never ending is the blink of an eye.”

The reader first meets Gamaliel as a child, still at home with his parents, when a vagabond storyteller visits; this begins his lifelong fascination with madmen. Later on, as a New Yorker, he is “no longer young,” walking hunched over. A ghostwriter, he makes his living by penning “love stories for shop girls, Kiplingesque adventures in exotic settings, financial conspiracies, gritty detective stories: scribbling, not writing.”

He thinks of himself as a banker, lending words to those who need them. At the same time, he is working on his own book, “The Book of Secrets,” which runs through the novel, unfinished. He is divorced, cut off from his daughters, dropped by the last woman he was involved with.

“No trees line the ways of our lives,” he notes.

His friends include Bolek, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto; Diego, who fought in the Spanish Civil War; Yasha, who survived Stalinism, and Gad, a former Mossad agent. They are agnostics and unbelievers, yet their conversation often comes around to God. Gamaliel is also close to Rabbi Zusya, a mystic who continues to believe. Suffering is what unites the group, although, together, they try to transcend it.

In this novel, perhaps more so than in Wiesel’s many previous books, women play key roles; several have had much influence over Gamaliel. His mother is never far from his mind. With love, tempered by guilt, despair and acceptance, he looks back at his time with Ilonka and at his ex-wife and other women who have been close to him.

Gamaliel learns of a hospitalized woman who may be in her last days, seemingly without an identity, who is said to speak a language that sounds like Hungarian. He wonders if she might be Ilonka, the woman to whom he owes his life, or perhaps someone else from his past. There’s nothing about her that he recognizes and it’s not clear that she hears him. But there’s some connection that draws him back to her, and also to a young woman doctor at the hospital, who wants to hear his story.

In this novel of ideas, Wiesel explores anew themes he returns to in his fiction and nonfiction: the link between memory and identity, dispossession, friendship, the mysteries of love, the constancy of suffering, the paths of writing and storytelling.

It’s also a novel of compassion. And when there’s compassion, there’s also hope and resilience. As the author does in conversation, Gamaliel uses the phrase “And yet” as though posing new possibilities, new beginnings. On many levels, this makes for timely reading.

He says that his sense of memory grows stronger as years pass. Now, he sees some things more clearly, more urgently: “I have to work hard. I have a feeling that I haven’t begun. With all the books, there’s still so much I want to say.”

Now 77, he keeps a steady schedule of travel and lectures, along with teaching at Boston University, where he has been Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities since 1976. Each year, he creates different courses — such as one course on banned books and another on Rabbi Nachman.

Usually, Wiesel spends his mornings writing fiction, sitting at his desk, and later in the day, turns to nonfiction and research in his library. He writes in French; the new novel is translated by David Hapgood.

The writer has no end of stories, pointing to an imagined pile under the table.

“I hear stories from people everywhere,” he said. “You can hear someone say good morning. It becomes a story by the way a person says it. There’s a story in every event.”

The master storyteller is often described as a messenger, telling of life before the war and of the Holocaust.

“I feel almost helpless,” he admitted. “I speak for many of us. It’s not easy to tell the tale, but we tried, and it didn’t change the world. The message was not really received.”

“To this day I have doubts,” he said. “Maybe if the survivors had all met and took a vow not to speak, the silence would have been so overpowering, it would have changed the world. I have a heavy heart. I don’t know where we are going. And yet, we have to overcome it. We have to create hope even when there is none.”

Sinai Temple will be hosting renowned author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel May 19- May 21. He will be speaking to young professionals at a special Friday Night Live on May 19. He will be addressing the whole congregation at Shabbat services on May 20. And, on Sunday morning, May 21, the weekend will culminate with a teen forum with seventh- to 12th-graders. For more information, call (310) 481-3343 or e-mail Centennial@sinaitemple.org.

 

What Do Gen-Y Jews Want? Everything


Brandeis University just released a new study of Jewish college students. It found that they’re proud to be Jewish, largely unaffiliated, attracted to Jewish culture more than religion, like diversity and don’t feel strong ties to Israel or Jewish federations.

Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes creative Jewish initiatives, just did a study of the same age group, and found that they’re proud to be Jewish, avoid institutional affiliation, are interested in Jewish culture and have diverse allegiances.

Sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York did a similar study, as did Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and they both found … guess what? Young Jews are proud, unaffiliated, pro-culture, pro-diversity and anti-tribal.

The last few months have seen a flood of studies of Gen-Y Jews — all trying to map their sense of Jewish identity, affiliation patterns, needs, hopes, beliefs and behaviors.

Why is everyone looking at the same population?

First, there are the numbers: almost half a million Jewish college students, the future of this country’s Jewish community. The very few studies on record, particularly the 1990 and 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Surveys (NJPS), indicate that large numbers of young Jews aren’t going to synagogue, joining Jewish organizations, marrying other Jews or giving money to Israel or Jewish charities.

They’re opting out, which has led to great hand-wringing and head-shaking on the part of American Jewish officials.

Yet the new studies show an up-and-coming generation that is proud of its Jewish identity and culturally creative, is coming up with new methods of religious expression and feels part of a global community linked by Jewish Web sites and blogs.

Researchers say it’s cause for cautious celebration.

“There has been a general angst about the Jewish future for the past two decades, a continuity crisis,” says Roger Bennett, senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which sponsored the March 2006 Reboot study, “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam: Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices.”

Describing his study’s findings as “very positive,” Bennett says, “I hope this study assuages almost all the fear. There’s plenty to be optimistic about.”

The question for Jewish funders and organizations is what they’re going to do with the information, Bennett says.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says that while Jewish leaders in the late 1960s and early ’70s were “very unhappy about developments in the youth culture, and took a long time to reconcile themselves to it,” today’s Jewish leadership “is inquisitive, wants to know more.

Even while the older generation “may be shocked at things like Heeb,” an irreverent youth magazine, it “sees that something is going on and is paying attention,” Sarna says.

But if all these new studies are yielding pretty much the same information, are they useful?

Yes, researchers insist. First, each study asks slightly different questions, reflecting the needs of the sponsoring organization.

For example, Hillel’s study was prompted largely by one figure from the 2000-2001 NJPS, which showed that two-thirds of Jewish college students don’t attend Hillel activities, says Julian Sandler, chair of the group’s strategic planning committee. Hillel will release its long-awaited study of Jewish college students in late May.

The statistic “troubled us immensely,” Sandler says. Hillel engaged in two years of research “to try to understand what it is that today’s Jewish students are interested in.”

Hillel already has put some of that information to work. One of the central findings of its study is that young Jews have “a strong desire to find out more about their Jewishness, especially from an ethnic perspective,” which can “be manifested in multiple ways.”

One popular way is through tzedek, or social justice work. To that end, Hillel last month sent hundreds of students on a spring-break trip to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild communities hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Tzedek will be a major emphasis [of Hillel programming in the future],” Sandler says.

Amy Sales, co-author of “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” a new study by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, says her data, collected in 2003, helps the people funding Jewish campus activities to use their dollars more effectively.

Her study found, among other things, that Jewish college students are interested in Jewish studies, want events that have a Jewish “flavor” but are open to non-Jews and need help in finding meaningful, compelling ways to engage in Jewish life.

She and co-author Leonard Saxe used that information to propose that Hillel customize its programs for each campus and develop better relationships with university administrations, other campus groups and local Jewish communities, creating “Jewish-friendly campuses” rather than focusing on simply reaching as many Jewish students as possible.

In fact, Hillel is doing just that, incoming President Wayne Firestone says. The group is convening a Washington summit May 21-23 to bring together funders, university administrators and Jewish organizational heads to talk about how to improve working relationships on campus, the first time such a targeted meeting has been held.

Researchers from all the studies agree that today’s young Jews can be a willing and energetic audience if the organized Jewish community steps up to the plate in time, and with a message that is relevant.

“They are looking for a positive Jewish experience, and every Jewish institution that answers that and puts its faith in young people will have a rosy future,” Bennett says. “Any funder that wishes to innovate is going to prosper.”

 

Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the Boys Aren’t


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Letters


Focus Attention

“After reflecting for a few painful and difficult days, I feel I should address some mistatements I made (“Uncertain Time for Likud in America”, 1/13/06).” Rather than spending precious resources on the symptoms of intermarriage, I was trying to focus attention on support for Israel as a basis of instilling Jewish identity.

The Jewish lay leaders and rabbis I know wholeheartedly love and support Israel and are instilling Jewish identity in our entire diverse community. In addition, all Jews, no matter what their sexual orientation, as well as Jews by choice, are sincere and dedicated Jews and should be respected. I sincerely apologize for the comments reflecting otherwise.

Myles L. Berman
Los Angeles

Great Cover

I applaud your great cover of Jan. 6 (“L.A.’s Top 10 Menches). It does not matter to me if you call these outstanding examples “menchen” or “menches.” What I find very important is that your cover and inside story focused on people doing great things for others.

Many times I find that the covers reflect a sensational aspect more in keeping with a magazine at a market checkout stand, than a vibrant Jewish community. Keep covering positive issues. Thank you

Esther Tabak
Beverly Hills

Wow! What a great choice for your [Jan. 6] cover. The Orthodox Jewish community is grateful to you for highlighting Avi Leibovic and the extraordinary work he does. The other community lights were an inspiration, and choosing among these heroes for the cover must have been a challenge.

Nevertheless, your choice was much appreciated as the Aish Tamid program has truly established itself as a essential and effective community resource.

Rabbi Meyer H. May
Los Angeles

Orthodox Women

As Amy Klein reported, the Friday night panel of the OU convention indeed featured a robust exchange concerning the place of women within Orthodoxy (“Orthodox but Not Monolithic,” Jan. 6). Though my views on the issue were described by as being “far left,” I would imagine that many readers would find them to be quite consistent with mainstream ethical and Jewish religious thought.

These views (all of which have been translated into practice at B’nai David-Judea) are a rooted in the fundamental idea that women should be able to exercise all of the religious opportunities that the halacha provides them with.

These include the opportunity to carry, dance with and (in a women’s service) read from the Sefer Torah; to pray in a women’s section that is an exact mirror image of the men’s section; to study Talmud without restrictions or limitations; to recite Kaddish for a deceased parent, and to be chosen for any position of lay leadership for which they are qualified.

If indeed there are “far left” views, then I suppose I must humbly accept this label.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
B’nai David-Judea

I write in response to Amy Klein’s thoughtful article on “Orthodox but Not Monolithic.” While your reporter generally presented both the spirit and the substance of my remarks on the issue of women in Orthodox Jewish communal life, I was misquoted as stating that no women currently serve on the board of the Orthodox Union.

While I noted that there are currently no women officers in the Orthodox Union, I did not suggest that there aren’t any women board members. I know better than that. My wife, Vivian, is one of the most active members of the Orthodox Union’s board of governors.

David Luchins
National Vice President
Orthodox Union

Westchester’s Bright Future

While I thank The Jewish Journal for commenting on B’nai Tikvah’s commitment to the Westchester community, I have to take issue with the statement: “The expanding airport and white flight reduced the once-thriving synagogue to a skeletal congregation” (“Still Strong in Westchester,” Jan. 6).

Our congregation is tightly woven with 100-plus families. We have actually bucked the trend by increasing our membership by over 10 percent since Reb Jason joined us. Our award-winning nursery school is going strong, and our religious school boasts over 40 children. The future is very bright for this “skeletal congregation.”

Art Wexler
Westchester

Links

Thank you for your very brave and truthful article, “Too Jewish to Play Myself” (Dec. 16, 2005). Hollywood’s weak link to reality is driving Jewish and non-Jewish actresses nuts. There seems to be a general dislike of what is really female, even including female old age. So go forth and be a strong link and seek other strong links; create a new Hollywood. There are many of us on your side.

Theresa Merrin
Thousand Oaks

‘Singlehood’

Thank you. Each week when I take The Jewish Journal, I always begin by reading the back page singles section. The singles section is my corner, even when I don’t like what someone writes, it still gives me food for thought about my own experiences of “singlehood” in Los Angles. While I often relate to the experiences of the columnists, I don’t often relate to their philosophies.

How refreshing it was to read Mark Miller’s thought (“Unhappy New Year!” Jan. 6). No, I am not desperate. Yes, I am living. Dating is about feeling comfortable in our own skin, leading an active social life, which can include, but is not limited to, attending cultural events and volunteering opportunities and meeting people along the way.

So thank you for the fresh perspective. It’s nice knowing that I am not alone in how I live out my “singlehood.”

Deborah Graetz
via e-mail

Reaction to Rosove

Rabbi John Rosove in his opinion, “IRS Errs on Endorsing Candidate Charge” (Jan. 6), commits an error of omission in not sharing with your readers how most of his congregants reacted to his extraordinary erev Rosh Hashanah sermon. Yes, undoubtedly a few congregants were alarmed that his “speaking truth to power” could threaten the temple’s 501(c)(3) status.

But the vast majority in the sanctuary responded very differently. They heard his prophetic reminder that Jewish values and traditions speak to our communal responsibility for caring for “those who are in the shadow of life.” They understood it to be a call to action, and they applauded!

Marjorie B. Green
Los Angeles

Sharon’s Legacy

Rob Eshman seems bewildered by the rehabilitation of Sharon’s legacy (“Scheinerman/Sharon,” Jan. 13). He doesn’t clarify that Sharon was truly despised by the Muslims and the European, as well as the Jewish left. History has proven that Sharon was ahead of the curve: He was the first true counterrorist leader, and worst of all, he was successful.

Though Eshman considers the Lebanon incursion to be a “disaster,” he is only viewing it from the point of view of Israeli public relations. The true reality was, in fact, a disaster for the PLO, whose murderous rampages in the Lebanese civil war against Christian, as well as Muslim Shiite Arabs, and cross-border rocket attacks against northern Israel came to a crashing halt as Sharon exiled Arafat and the Palestinian leadership to Tunisia.

It is no coincidence that bin Laden has repeatedly harped on this fact in his diatribes. Ariel Sharon was more accurate in his assessment of future threats to Israel than the Western world was to the threat of Islamo-fascism. He should be credited for this in his legacy,

Richard Friedman
Los Angeles

 

Curtain Rises on Mozart’s Jewish Tie


On Jan. 27, Austria is marking the 250th birthday of its favorite son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In honor of this sesquibicentennial, the city of Vienna is planning an impressive program of more than 1,000 events, including 350 public concerts and performances of the composer’s operas and sacred works.

But for the first time, the Viennese are doing something that has never been done before. After more than 200 years of silence — felt most deeply during Hitler’s rule — Austria is finally talking about Mozart’s Jewish connection.

“Mozart does not belong to any nation. It would be a total misunderstanding for anyone to lay claim to Mozart,” said Peter Marboe, Vienna Mozart Year artistic director. “That makes it obscene that the Nazis should claim him as an example of a great German artist and all the while hide his Jewish collaborators.”

In celebration of Mozart Year, which is being marked throughout Austria, the Jewish Museum of Vienna is presenting a look at the composer and his greatest collaborator, the Jewish-born Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist best known for “The Marriage of Figaro” (1786), “Don Giovanni” (1787) and “Cosi Fan Tutte” (1790), long considered the composer’s greatest operatic masterpieces. The exhibit, “Between Tolerance and Aryanization–Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart and Vienna,” which opens mid-March and ends Aug. 31, illuminates the effects of Nazi propaganda on our perceptions of both Mozart and his librettist.

Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in the Jewish community of Ceneda, Italy, in 1749. He converted to Catholicism, along with his entire family, shortly after his bar mitzvah, when his widower father remarried a Christian woman. He and his brothers were immediately sent off to a seminary to study for the priesthood, where he describes himself as an “inmate.” He later complained that “at that time, I intended to perfect my knowledge of Hebrew, which in my youth I had studied assiduously.”

According to his memoirs, Da Ponte became a Catholic priest at 20 in response to his father’s bidding. Da Ponte writes with great bitterness about his fate, which he blames for leading him to “embrace a way of life opposed to my temperament, character, principles and studies, thus opening the door to a thousand strange happenings and perils.”

Within two years, Da Ponte escaped to Venice, where he worked as teacher and poet. During that time, he had affairs with three society women. His exploits eventually caught up with him, and scandal forced him to flee Italy in 1782.

That year Da Ponte ended up at the imperial court in Vienna, where he met Mozart, who had just been kicked out of the service of the prince-cardinal of Salzburg. The collaboration of these two refugees from the church was to produce monumental results.

Their first collaboration, “The Marriage of Figaro,” was an enormous success.

But it was in their second collaboration that Da Ponte’s Jewish roots began to show. The tragic opera, “Don Giovanni,” is punctuated throughout with a sense of humor that was unheard of at the time. Commissioned for the Prague Opera, the so-called “perfect opera” reaches its climax when a huge statue comes to life to exact vengeance on a murderer. The oblique reference to the Yiddish legend of Der Golem was not lost on Czech audiences — in Prague “Don Giovanni” was an immediate hit. But in Vienna, it closed after 13 performances.

Da Ponte and Mozart collaborated once more on what would prove the composer’s final comic opera, “Cosi Fan Tutte.” The following year, Mozart died and Da Ponte was exiled to England for his scandalous affairs. The librettist eventually made his way to New York, where he founded the chair of Italian literature at Columbia University.

More than a century later, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and instituted the policy of Aryanization. Under the Nazi regime, Da Ponte’s Jewish identity was stolen by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, who banned all music by Jewish composers, including Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn, Jacques Offenbach and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. But Mozart’s music was too valuable to the Third Reich, so like Johan Strauss, Mozart’s collaborator was “Aryanized.” Hitler reportedly told critics: “I decide who is Jewish.”

After the war, Viennese city government worked closely with the Jewish community to help rebuild a society devastated by the Holocaust. Their projects included the funding of the Vienna Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial. This year’s Mozart celebrations provide the perfect opportunity to openly discuss Da Ponte and his contribution to Mozart’s greatest works.

The Vienna State Opera has performances of all three Da Ponte-Mozart collaborations slated for this season, running from January to April. If seeing Mozart’s operas in Vienna has ever been on your to-do list, now is the time. And when viewed in concert with the Vienna Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, you’ll see them in a whole new light.

 

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting


 

When attorney David Karp reminisces about his time in the Cub and Boy Scouts, the good memories come flooding back. He remembers taking long nature hikes, making close friends and fashioning a pinewood derby car from a block of wood, four nails and four wheels. The Scouts, he said, taught him how to work well with others, play fairly and know right from wrong — qualities that have served him well as an adult.

After the birth of his son, Samuel, in 1990, Karp decided that he would one day introduce the boy to the joys of scouting. But Karp wanted to touch more lives than just Samuel’s. Through the Western Los Angeles County Council Jewish Committee on Scouting of the Boy Scouts of America, he has found a way successfully to combine his two great loves: scouting and Judaism, both of which shape his ideas, values and conduct. In the process, Karp, a Reform Jew, has done more than perhaps anyone in Southern California to bring local Orthodox Jews into the world of scouting.

“Once I accepted that I wanted to make a place for Jews in scouting, it was only a matter of time before I decided we had to be inclusive of all Jews,” said Karp, who headed the Council Jewish Committee from 2002 to 2004 and remains treasurer.

Under his direction, Karp said he and other council members helped oversee the creation of a Boy Scout troop and later a Cub Scout pack at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Subsequently, Karp’s efforts have helped lay the foundation for other shuls to form scouting units.

“David Karp made it possible for us to have this program,” said attorney Yacov Greiff, scoutmaster of Troop 613 at Shaarey Zedek. “Aside from personal kindness and modesty, exemplary menschlichkeit and tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish community, he deserves particular recognition for going out of his way to reach across sectarian lines.”

Karp also helped make it possible for Orthodox Jews to participate in the Kinnus weekend, an annual committee-sponsored event that attracts hundreds of Jewish scouts and their families from the Southland and beyond. At the suggestion of several religious Jews, Karp and others approved the serving of strictly Kosher meals, offered Orthodox Shabbat services and set up an eruv, or boundary, which permits the carrying of supplies and other goods during the Sabbath. The result: Orthodox Jews now account for more than half of Kinnus, participants, up from zero in 2001.

“David’s been instrumental in uniting the three Jewish denominations into one identity as Jewish scouts,” said Jeff Feuer, cubmaster of an Orthodox pack sponsored by Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “In my personal opinion, it’s best if we work together and understand and learn to celebrate our differences.”

As a professional mediator, bringing together Jews under the banner of the Scouts has come naturally to him.

“I suppose I’m a facilitator,” said Karp, who is now a Boy Scouts of America district chairman for the East Valley. “I like to find common ground.”

 

David Karp

MORE MENSCHES


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

Proud to Have Guilt


Once Mireille Silcoff had been hired to edit a new quarterly Jewish magazine for young people, she needed to give it a name.

“At one point I just started asking people, ‘What are the first things you think of when you think about your Jewishness?'” Silcoff recalled. “You can’t imagine how many times ‘guilt’ came up. And ‘pleasure’ came up enough to be interesting.”

Guilt & Pleasure — “A magazine for Jews and the people who love them” — hit newsstands across North America last month, offering readers content ranging from long-form essays and memoirs to fiction, comics, photography and archival material.

The magazine aims not only to inform and entertain, its creators say, but to get Jews talking about issues they think ought to be more fully explored.

Each issue of Guilt & Pleasure will revolve around a theme. The first, called “Home & Away,” will examine issues of “place and identity and the nexus between them,” publisher Roger Bennett said. It includes original contributions from novelists Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar and Etgar Keret as well as graphic artist Ben Katchor. The second issue will look at fights and battles; the third will be about magic.

Each edition will be connected to interactive Web-based discussion guides.

As a “strong proponent” of secular Jewish culture, Shteyngart — who wrote the best-selling “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” — says typical Jewish newspapers, emanating from a “very organized community basis,” don’t speak to him. Guilt & Pleasure, which he called a Jewish Paris Review, does.

“For as long as there have been Jews in America, there have been Jewish secular cultural enterprises,” he said.

Still, he sometimes wonders what, if anything, binds non-religious Jews.

“What among secular Jews makes us a community? Are we a community? I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.

But he’s hoping Guilt & Pleasure will spur some discussion on the topic.

For more information, visit

Rice Weaves Rich Tale of a Young Jesus


“Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” by Anne Rice (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95).

Biblical fiction is a perilous business. Having committed not one but two such indiscretions in my time — a 1993 novel titled, “In the Shade of the Terebinth,” and a year later another called, “The Gospel of Joseph” — I know that many authors try to avoid the pitfalls of the genre by approaching the biblical tale from an odd or indirect angle. This is most often done through subsidiary characters, thereby shedding light on the story that everyone knows by telling a tale that no one does.

Anne Rice’s new novel, “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” the first, according to its author, in a projected three- or even four-novel “autobiography” of Jesus, will have none of that. She tackles her story head-on, framing it as a first-person narrative of the thoughts and fears of a 7-year-old Jesus en route from exile in Egypt to his family’s home in Nazareth.

From the first page, this is a Jesus bewildered by the unusual powers he discovers in himself. He can make it snow; he can raise the dead — all of which is material Rice has drawn from the so-called apocryphal gospels, third or fourth century collections of legends and sayings that are often focused on Jesus’ childhood. Most of all, he is haunted by a recurring sense that family members know something about his origins and identity that they’re not yet able to tell him.

“An angel had come,” Rice has her central character muse, “an angel to my mother; and no man had been my father; but what did such a thing mean?”

That, in a nutshell, is Rice’s story, the outlines of which are familiar to most readers, Christian and non-Christian alike. What is not so familiar is the rich tapestry of first century Jewish and family life into which she plunges her characters.

Often pictured in Christian iconography as solitary figures, lost in a unique and incommunicable holiness, Rice’s “holy family” of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, by contrast, is part of a large, boisterous, affectionate Jewish clan, living a full, observant Jewish life together, full of rituals and prayers and the rhythm of the holy day feasts.

“Finally, the Sabbath was upon us. It came so quick. But the women were ready, with all the food prepared ahead of time, and it was a feast of dried fish that had been plumped in wine and then roasted, together with dates, nuts I’d never tasted before, and fresh fruit from the farmland around us, as well as plenty of olives and other splendid things…. We said our prayers of thanksgiving for our safe homecoming and began our study, all together, singing and talking and happy that it was our first Sabbath in our home.”

This is the most persuasive aspect of the book: Jesus lives, sleeps, eats, argues, talks politics and prays with a gaggle of aunts, cousins and near relatives. I was instantly reminded of an Israeli friend in Jerusalem who, when I once asked him to lunch, responded laconically, “You can’t afford it. My family and I, we move in 30s.”

The degree of accuracy of Rice’s account of Jewish life in first century Palestine is less important than the considerable pains she takes to imagine Jesus in that vital cultural and religious context: praying in a synagogue, studying Torah, observing Shabbat, bathing in a mikvah, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

It’s a vitally important effort, and, perhaps, one of the most important services such fictional depictions of the life of Jesus perform for the reader. Such efforts situate Jesus in an authentically Jewish world and help us imagine him in it.

As such, they exemplify one of post-Holocaust Christianity’s most powerful, and salutary tendencies, the ongoing efforts to see Christianity as rooted in ancient Judaism, in common sources, in particular the Hebrew Scriptures and in a vital and living relationship with the Jewish people.

Contemporary Christians are only too aware that the imagination may be religiously misused to catastrophic effect. As the medieval Passion plays or the Oberammergau festival amply demonstrate, it is not a matter of indifference whether Jesus is pictured as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan, or as divorced from or hostile to his people and culture.

All this is quite a departure for Rice, who for decades has built her career on New Orleans gothic and an epic series of best-selling vampire chronicles. As one reviewer quipped, “What is this? ‘Interviews With the Messiah’?” a reference to Rice’s best-known book, “Interview With the Vampire.”

Rice, of course, is hardly alone in her literary attraction to the life of Jesus. It’s worth noting that the publication of Rice’s “Christ the Lord” coincides with the release of another piece of Christological fiction, “Jesus: The Novel” (Zondervan) by National Book Award-winner Walter Wangerin Jr. In fact, modern authors seem particularly drawn to the story of Jesus. Nikos Kazantzakis, Robert Graves, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, Anthony Burgess, the Yiddish writer Scholem Asch, Jose Saramago are a few of the major writers who’ve tried their hand at a Jesus novel or two.

Most of these novelists had axes to grind, however. Kazantzakis’ fiction, regardless of subject, is tormented by the dualism of flesh and spirit. Robert Graves’ “King Jesus” is less a study of the historical figure than a vehicle for the poet’s eccentric, though often entertaining, religious speculations.

Rice’s intentions are purer. As she puts it in her long author’s note at the end of the novel:

“The challenge was to write about the Jesus of the Gospels…. Anybody could write about a liberal Jesus, a married Jesus, a gay Jesus, a Jesus who was a rebel…. The true challenge was to take the Jesus of the Gospels … and try to get inside him and imagine what he felt.”

One of the pleasures of this book — indeed, of this whole genre — is placing the bare bones of biblical accounts into the imagined context of the times, of the sights, smells and rhythms of daily life in the ancient world.

Rice is very concerned to get the details right.

“At last we began dipping our bread,” Rice’s young Jesus relates. “It was so good — not just a sauce but a thick pottage of lentils and soft-cooked beans and peppers and spices. And there were plenty of dried figs to chew after the hot flavor of the pottage….”

She can be more than a little obvious in introducing every possible political actor in Second Temple period Palestine to the child Jesus, as he and his large extended family make their way to Galilee. (Roman soldiers, marauders, brigands, Zealots — Can the group not manage to avoid a single known peril?) Nevertheless, she places Jesus, accurately, in a first century milieu of political instability, rebellion, lawlessness and Roman brutality.

“I was so scared I couldn’t breathe. They [the Roman soldiers] had said ‘crucify,’ and I knew what crucifixion was. I’d seen crucifixion outside Alexandra, though only with quick looks, because we wanted never, never to stare at a crucified man. Nailed to a cross, stripped of all clothes and miserably naked as he died, a crucified man was a terrible shameful sight.”

Finally, it is Rice’s sincere and generally well-informed attempt to place Jesus not merely in plausible first century surroundings but in the rich and vibrant Jewish world we recognize from the ancient sources that make her exercise especially worthwhile.

In view of the long and tragic history of the evils to which a misinformed imagination can be put, Rice’s honest offering is no small thing.

Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and his book War and Faith in Sudan” (Eerdmans), has just been released.

Buckeye State Gets a Jewish Museum


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Jews Choose Offbeat Expression


A new study of Jews in their 20s and 30s reveals that though these young people are underaffiliated with traditional institutions, many have a strongly defined Jewish identity that they express in creative new ways outside synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and the federation system.

“There’s indirect evidence that young Jews care about being Jewish, but they are expressing it in ways that are not institutional,” Hebrew University sociology professor Steven Cohen said.

Cohen has been conducting research on Jewish identity and culture, commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York, with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion research fellow Ari Kelman for the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

The final reports won’t be released for several months, but the two men discussed preliminary findings from one of the studies, dealing specifically with younger Jews, with JTA.

“If younger Jews are not institutionally engaged, where are they engaged?” Cohen asked.

One place is with friends and family. Another is through cultural events such as Jewish concerts and film festivals, and one-third is through Jewish social service opportunities that are “oversubscribed, with many more young Jews willing to serve than there are places to accommodate them,” he said.

Above all, Cohen and Kelman said, the younger generation is expressing its Jewish identity through culture — a vibrant, socially inclusive, hybrid culture centered in New York and a handful of other cities that draws upon popular youth culture with a distinct Jewish aesthetic.

Noting the emergence of such things as klezmer-hip-hop bands, Heeb magazine, the “Hebrew Hammer” film and alternative holiday “happenings” in downtown clubs, Cohen and Kelman take the explosion of new Jewish culture as a given, and set out to determine what it means for Jewish continuity as well as the young Jews involved.

Is it just fun, they wondered, or does it have implications for American Jewry’s future?

“There are a lot of anecdotal impressions people have, but nothing has been done to date to show how prevalent these programs are or what impact they have on the participants,” said Jennifer Rosenberg, planning director for the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal of the UJA-Federation of New York, explaining why the federation commissioned the research.

She expects the final reports to help the federation and other Jewish organizations with their strategic planning.

Kelman and Cohen conducted their research at 13 Jewish events in New York City between December 2004 and June 2005, ranging from “Slivovitz and Soul” — a party held at a Lower East Side bar featuring Yiddish rapping, hora dancing and a disk jockey who sampled hip-hop and cantorial music — to “Golem Gets Married,” a mock wedding at the Knitting Factory club starring a cross-dressing bride and groom, and a band that played klezmer music, along with midcentury American dance favorites.

Several themes emerged from the interviews, they say.

First, the events were inclusive and pluralistic, open to non-Jews as well as Jews. Jewish literacy may help one understand the goings-on, but it’s not needed to enjoy the events.

The events are held in clubs, parks and other mainstream venues to make access even less threatening or ethnically specific. That removes a lot of the subtle guilt or sense of obligation that may be associated with attending events at synagogues or other Jewish institutions.

“The organizers would like you to come because they think they have a good product and you’ll have fun, but no one’s taking attendance,” Kelman said. “There’s no sense that you ‘ought’ to be there, or that you’re a bad Jew if you don’t come. It’s not like synagogue in that way.”

Second, the events mix music, dance and other entertainment with Jewish rituals, such as megillah readings or Chanukah candlelightings. Entertainment and ritual are interwoven and both are presented as equally valid, adding to the nonjudgmental, inclusive atmosphere.

Third, organizers and participants use irony and irreverence to distance themselves from Jewish tradition and community — creating a safe zone to explore their relationship to tradition and community, the researchers say.

“One of the hallmarks of modern culture is self-referentialism and playing with stereotypes, like Heeb magazine, but there ought to be substance behind it,” Kelman said. “Having the ability to laugh [at Jewish tradition] opens up a critical space” for Jews in their 20s and 30s to try on different aspects of Judaism and see where they’re comfortable.

That creative play often contains a serious search for meaning, he says. He points to one event where participants started dancing a hora while laughing at themselves — but they continued dancing.

“Really, dancing a hora and playing at it look really similar,” Kelman noted. “So the irony opens up a window to engagement.”

So what’s the message to the organized Jewish world? Though the final reports aren’t yet in, Cohen and Kelman are able to suggest certain guidelines.

First, they say, it’s time to pay attention to what’s going on and stop griping about how young Jews aren’t joining synagogues or showing up at singles events.

“There is an opportunity for organized Jewry to be more active in engaging younger Jews,” Cohen said. “Provide more frequent opportunities for cultural life, support for young artists, more social service opportunities, give them more opportunities to travel to Israel — there’s a segment that wants to spend significant time in Israel but doesn’t know how.”

That means money.

“A judicious use of money to support the cultural and social entrepreneurs” putting on these events would help them focus on their creative endeavors instead of “burning out doing fundraising and administrative work,” he said.

It’s wrong to think the young Jews involved in such events are alienated from Jewish communal life, Kelman said.

“There’s this myth of the ‘great unaffiliated masses,’ but those people are much less likely to come to these events,” he said.

Many of the participants Kelman interviewed had gone to Jewish summer camps and Israel programs, and still go to synagogue on the High Holidays.

“These people are not rejecting synagogue; some just haven’t found one where they feel comfortable,” he suggested. “Even those who told me, ‘I’m not involved,’ as we talked they said, ‘It’s important for me to marry Jewish.’ ”

But the researchers say this cultural renaissance is important on its own terms, and shouldn’t be viewed merely as a way to funnel young Jews into establishment institutions.

“If our research makes one impact, I hope it’s this,” Kelman said: “This is not a gateway drug. It’s not intended as, ‘Come to this, and now go to synagogue or now give money to federation.'”

 

525,600 Minutes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’Shanah Tovah.

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

A Rhythmic Spin on Boyle Heights’ History


Choreographer Heidi Duckler drove around Boyle Heights one day, in search of her next project and “feeling that my heart was in this community.” Suddenly, she saw a building with a striking dome and “I just knew it had to be a synagogue,” she recalls.

Sure enough, Duckler had stumbled upon a community center called the Casa del Mexicano, a former synagogue from 1914 until 1930, when it became the property of the Mexican Consulate.

“This building has been used for so many things,” she says. “It’s a survivor that adapts to its community.”

Called “the reigning queen of site-specific dance performance” by the Los Angeles Times, Duckler brought her dancers to the Casa del Mexicano and began to develop “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge.” The latest project by Duckler’s Collage Dance Theatre and titled after the talmudic adage, the dance, which premieres in early October, explores the unique history of Boyle Heights, while addressing the more universal issues of immigration and demographic shifts in communities.

With more than 40 works in her 20-year-old company’s repertory, Duckler has been a prominent choreographic force in Los Angeles, which according to the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, houses more than 100 nonprofit dance companies. And while certainly smaller than what’s found in New York, the L.A. modern dance scene continues to grow. On a fairly regular basis, both local and visiting choreographers show their work at venues like Highways, Electric Lodge or at the cutting edge Redcat in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Upcoming performances range from the fifth annual SOLA Contemporary Dance Festival in Torrance Nov. 4-7 to the acclaimed Montreal-based modern troupe, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, at Royce Hall Oct. 7-8.

Opportunities to view Jewish-themed dance by contemporary choreographers, however, do not occur every day and, in the case of Duckler, “Narrow Bridge” represents the first time she has explored issues of Jewish identity.

“The idea behind this piece is that often, when there’s a constant flow of immigration, no one remembers the history of who came here first and how did they arrive there,” she says over coffee at a Brentwood cafe. “Also, it’s a tribute to Boyle Heights, which I find so colorful. There’s the Hispanic community and remnants of this Jewish community, and if you talk to the old timers who live there they all remember things differently.”

Though Duckler interviewed longtime Boyle Heights denizens, including residents of a nursing home and consulted various books, old maps and Jewish scholars, she could not find further clues to Casa’s history.

“We know that the building was originally supposed to be a church but no one knows how it became a synagogue,” she says. “It’s a real mystery.”

Performed earlier this summer as a work-in-progress, “Narrow Bridge” featured dancers who are initially dressed like Chasidim as they leap over each other’s backs, roll on the floor and perform the more classic gestures of Jewish prayer, like beating the chest and swaying while standing. Later, they add colorful Mexican belts that punctuated their dark outfits and they pay more attention to the rope bridge in the center of the room. Three dancers hurl themselves over to one side of the bridge. One dancer lingers behind. Another dancer hangs upside down from the bridge. Meanwhile, a dignified couple in traditional Mexican costume start to waltz.

The dance also features music by Robert Een that is performed by a Mariachi band and draws upon both Latin and klezmer influences, while the audience is encouraged to participate in a responsive reading. Duckler’s still not sure where the audience will sit.

“We haven’t finished exploring the building,” she says. “What’s key to the process is that the dancers come into the space and they start to get physical with it. I tell them to leap off the stage, test the strength of the balcony. The movement comes from integrating into the environment of the space.”

Duckler, who grew up in Portland, Ore., and did plenty of ballet as a child, eschewed the idea of a conventional dance career early on.

“Dance was my medium but I couldn’t relate to a lot of it,” she says of her college experiences as a student at Reed College and the University of Oregon. “I wasn’t into looking at myself in the mirror or performing in little black box theaters. That seemed so confining.”

Interested in pop culture and the work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Duckler, who received a masters in dance from UCLA, knew she wanted to create the type of dance that forged a connection with the outside world. Her first work, “Laundromatinee,” took place at a Santa Monica Laundromat and dancers spun in dryers and dove into washing machines as they explored the plight of the housewife. The venues of her ensuing works have ranged from the Los Angeles River to an automotive repair shop to the Ambassador Hotel.

“My work is never about just lyrical abstraction,” Duckler says. “I’m always looking at a greater story, whether it’s psychological, cultural or political.”

Duckler maintains “it’s serendipitous” that she’s presently dealing with Jewish themes. Yet, “I’ve already explored my other identities, such as being a wife or artist,” she observes. “I guess it was time to deal with the Jewish one.”

Collage Dance Theatre performs “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge” Oct. 7-9 and 20-23 at the Casa del Mexicano, 2900 Calle Pedro Infante, Boyle Heights. Fri. and Sat. 7 and 9 p.m.; and Sun. at 7 p.m. Special benefit on Oct. 6. Tickets $25-$40. For information, visit www.collagedancetheatre.org.

 

Formula Could Combat Campus Racism


In the past three months, I have visited four “troubled” campuses — Duke, York (Canada), Columbia and UC Irvine — where tensions between Jewish and anti-Zionist students and professors have attracted national attention. In these visits, I have spoken to students, faculty and administrators, and I have obtained a fairly gloomy picture of the situation on those and other campuses.

Jewish students are currently subjected to an unprecedented assault on their identity as Jews. And we, the Jewish faculty on campus, have let those students down. We have failed to equip them with effective tools to fight back this assault.

We can reverse this trend.

Many condemn anti-Zionism for being a flimsy cover for anti-Semitism. I disagree. The order is wrong. I condemn anti-Semitism for being an instrument for a worse form of racism: anti-Zionism.

In other words, I submit that anti-Zionism is a form of racism more dangerous than classical anti-Semitism. Framing anti-Zionism as racism is precisely the weapon that our students need for survival on campus.

Anti-Zionism earns its racist character from denying the Jewish people what it grants to other collectives (e.g. Spanish, Palestinians), namely, the right to nationhood and self-determination.

Are Jews a nation? A collective is entitled to nationhood when its members identify with a common history and wish to share a common destiny. Palestinians have earned nationhood status by virtue of thinking like a nation, not by residing where their ancestors did (many of them are only three or four generations in Palestine). Jews, likewise, are bonded by nationhood (i.e., common history and destiny) more than they are bonded by religion.

The appeal to Jewish nationhood is necessary when we consider Israel’s insistence on remaining a “Jewish state.” By “Jewish state” Israelis mean, of course, “national Jewish state,” not “religious Jewish state” — theocratic states (like Pakistan and Iran) are incompatible with modern standards of democracy and pluralism. Anti-Zionist racists use this anti-theocracy argument repeatedly to delegitimize Israel, and I have found our students unable to defend their position with conventional ideology that views Jewishness as a religion.

Jewishness is more than just a religion. It is an intricate and intertwined mixture of ancestry, religion, history, country, culture, tradition, attitude, nationhood and ethnicity, and we need not apologize for not fitting neatly into the standard molds of textbook taxonomies — we did not choose our turbulent history.

As a form of racism, anti-Zionism is worse than anti-Semitism. It targets the most vulnerable part of the Jewish people, namely, the people of Israel, who rely on the sovereignty of their state for physical safety, national identity and personal dignity. To put it more bluntly, anti-Zionism condemns 5 million human beings, mostly refugees or children of refugees, to eternal statelessness, traumatized by historical images of persecution and genocide.

Anti-Zionism also attacks the pivotal component of our identity, the glue that bonds us together — our nationhood, our history. And while people of conscience reject anti-Semitism, anti-Zionist rhetoric has become a mark of academic sophistication and social acceptance in Europe and in some U.S. campuses.

Moreover, anti-Zionism disguises itself in the cloak of political debate, exempt from sensitivities and rules of civility that govern interreligious discourse. Religion is ferociously protected in our society — political views are not.

Just last month, a student organization on a UC campus hosted a meeting on “A World Without Israel.” Imagine the international furor that a meeting called, “A World Without Mecca,” would provoke.

So, in the name of “open political debate,” administrators would not think twice about inviting MIT linguist Noam Chomsky to speak on campus, though his anti-Zionist utterances offend the fabric of my Jewish identity deeper than any of the ugly religious insults currently shocking the media. He should be labeled for what he is: a racist.

Strategically, while accusations of anti-Semitism are worn out and have lost their punch, charging someone with racism makes people ask why anyone would deny people the right of self-determination in a sliver of land in the birthplace of their history. It shifts the frame of discourse from debating Israel’s policies to the root cause of the conflict — denying Israelis their basic rights as a nation.

Charges of “racism” highlight the inherent asymmetry between the Zionist and anti-Zionist positions. The former grants both Israelis and Palestinians the right for statehood, the latter denies that right to one, and only one side. This asymmetry is the most effective weapon our students should use in campus debates, for it puts them back on the high moral grounds of “fair and balanced” and forces their opponents to defend an ideology of one-sidedness.

For example, I have found it effective, when confronting an anti-Zionist speaker, to ask: “Are you willing to go on record and state that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a conflict between two legitimate national movements?” Western audiences adore even-handedness and abhor bias. The question above forces the racist to unveil and defend his uneven treatment of the two sides.

America prides itself on academic freedom, and academic freedom entails freedom to teach hatred and racism — we graciously accept this fact of life. However, academic freedom also entails the freedom of students to expose racism, be it white-supremacy, women-inferiority, Islamophobia or Zionophobia wherever it is spotted. Not to censor, but to expose — racists stew in their own words.

In summary, I believe the formula “Anti-Zionism = Racism” should give Jewish students the courage to both defend their identity and expose those who abuse it.

This opinion piece appeared in The New York Jewish Week.

Judea Pearl is a professor of computer science at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son. He is co-editor of “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

 

Time to Go Home


 

When my wife and I woke up on the day we made aliyah, we talked and decided that we felt good. Natural. Normal. A little excited. A bit eager. Somewhat tired from some late-night, last-minute packing. Above all, we were ready. It was time to go.

The family dressed in T-shirts that we had made for the day. The white shirts were emblazoned in blue with our Hebrew slogan for the trip: “Bashana Hazot,” which in English means “this year.”

Our shirts were inspired from the central motto of the Jewish people: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Thanks to some terrific support from friends and family, “Next Year” was now.

We had been staying with my parents, who could not have been more encouraging and supportive, for a last precious drop of a week with them. We will next see them in three months, at our new home, in Israel.

At LAX, our porter saw the boxes we were sending, asked a polite question or two and soon knew that we were moving. Before he left us, he said something very formally in Gaelic, which he translated as: “Have a safe trip home.”

Once at the gate, my 4-year-old saw the El Al plane with the giant Jewish star on the tail. He yelled: “Abba, that’s a Israel plane.” Exactly.

As the plane thundered down the runway, my wife looked a question: “Can you believe this is happening?”

I smiled and shook my head from side to side.

Like all flights to Israel, this one lasted a long time, but it did not end until I filled out the Israeli visa entry forms. Under reason for visit, I wrote, “Aliyah.” Under planned departure date, I wrote, “None.”

As we approached Israel, we dropped through a storm. Our 4-year-old saw a rainbow. I held my wife’s hand.

When we crossed over the Tel Aviv coastline, I experienced a flurry of emotions, which were magnified by a sense that this return was final.

I felt a great, humbling appreciation that I was now doing what so many of my ancestors had wished to do for thousands of years. I thought of the millions of Jews who had prayed to God for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel. I was grateful for the sacrifices of the early Zionists, who took sand and mosquitoes and made milk and honey. I considered the multitudes of people, both in America and around the world, who have prayed and worked for Israel’s safety. I recalled all of our friends and family who wished us the absolute best. And, I understood that the thoughts, prayers, dreams and hopes of all those people, going back all those years, were with us, right at that moment, right at that single point in our lives. It was overwhelming.

When our plane landed, my wife and I said the “Shecheyanu” blessing, and thanked God for allowing us to reach this day.

As we entered the terminal, we were met by a smiling official from the Ministry of Interior, who was holding a big blue and white welcome sign, and a volunteer who had previously made aliyah from the United States.

At the airport office of the Ministry of Interior, the kids got candy, flags and pins, and the parents got a new-immigrant identity card called a Teudat Oleh. My cousins brought us not one, but two cakes welcoming us to Israel and drove us to our new home.

As we left the airport, some 26 hours after our day had begun, our boys tried to imitate Hebrew. They laughed as they babbled together: “Cha-cha-cha, cha-moosh, cha-cha-cha.”

They sounded just great.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter lives in Rehovot, Israel.

 

‘Heaven’s’ Mysterious Spirits


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has done his part to keep the Jewish people, well, literate, by publishing such erudite tomes as “Biblical Literacy” (William Morrow, 1997) and “Jewish Literacy” (William Morrow, 1991). But it seems he also wants to keep us amused on airplanes, which is why he moonlights as a mystery novelist. He recently published his fourth mystery, “Heaven’s Witness” (The Toby Press), a page-turning whodunit about a creepy serial killer who has a thing for young, pretty girls stuck on Los Angeles canyon roads.

On the killer’s trail is psychoanalyst Jordan Geller, who is drawn into the case after a woman he hypnotizes assumes the identity of one of the murder victims — who was killed several years before the woman’s birth. The book, which Telushkin co-wrote with Allen Estrin, is peppered with talmudic and biblical axioms, and raises some lofty questions about the nature of the afterlife and what happens to us after we die.

Telushkin said that he was inspired to write the book, which CBS plans to bring to the small screen in fall 2005, after he conducted a hypnotic regression with a friend of his who went back to a life in the year 1853.

“She spoke in 19th century American English using odd terminology,” said Telushkin, who has also been the spiritual leader of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts since 1993. “When I asked her if she was married, she complained ‘that the men here are so refractory.’ She used names of relatively obscure 19th century figures, who, after months of research, I was able to trace.”

Telushkin said that he is “open” to the idea of reincarnation, and that writing mysteries does have religious implications.

“The genre of mysteries, like the world of religion, still insists that there is a right and wrong, that not everything is relative,” he said. “You might be able to explain the reason why somebody has committed a crime, but, still, it is imperative to the genre that the person is caught, and that justice should prevail.”

For more information on “Heaven’s Witness,” visit www.heavenswitness.com.

Reach Out and Touch Faith


 

When Elizabeth Cobrin goes to Israel this winter break with Birthright Israel, she and her friends have devised a plan to find each other when participants in all the different Birthright trips get together.

They are going to sing their camp songs really, really loudly, until they hear each other and can sing together.

Remembering the songs won’t be hard, since Cobrin will spend a week before she goes to Israel in Winter Camp at JCA Shalom in Malibu, her summer home for five years.

Cobrin, a freshman at CSUN, says that her experience at camp, from camper to counselor, has been central to her Jewish identity, and that it stays with her year-round.

“Now that I am a counselor and I’m teaching kids about Judaism and can influence them, it is an even more central part of camp for me,” Cobrin said.

For many kids and counselors who attend Jewish summer camps, these winter months bring a Diasporic separation from a source of spiritual and social life. Camp gives a 21st century context to Judaism, cements Jewish identity and perhaps, most importantly, introduces children to lifelong friends, colleagues and even future spouses.

E-mail, instant messaging and weekend cell phone minutes now play the role that stationery and stamps used to in sustaining relationships. Many camps hold weekend reunions or winter camps, and, of course, some campers return together as counselors to continue spending summers on the same hallowed grounds.

The trick seems to be to weave the threads of camp life into the cloth of daily existence. Jill Zuckerman Powell, director of admissions at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, has no trouble keeping in touch with her friends from Camp Alonim at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley more than 30 years ago.

“I’m related to them!” she laughs, explaining that her husband, brother-in-law, pediatrician and veterinarian are all camp pals. “I see them all the time, so it’s easy to stay in touch.”

Jewish camps are known to be one of the best tools of a Jewish education, with their emphasis on multidimensional teaching of values, Hebrew language, culture and religious customs. Young Judaea, a Zionistic youth organization with six camps across the United States, reports in a 1998 survey that 59 percent of alumni light Shabbat candles as compared to 20 percent of the whole Jewish community polled in a 1990 National Jewish Population Study.

The Limud Report, a research project conducted by an independent firm concerned with Jewish life at summer camps, found that 85 percent of Jewish camps conduct Friday night services and that campers cite it as the No. 1 source of spiritual and personal satisfaction in the camp experience. Many recall the magical feeling of standing with the entire camp dressed in white for Shabbat, and walking hand in hand to Friday night services.

For Cobrin, Shabbat services are the most powerful factor in building unity among campers.

“My favorite Jewish activity is Havdalah,” she said. “I think that after such a busy week, it is nice to get the whole camp together in one place…. Knowing that [it] could be the first time all week all the age groups are together and participating in the same program.”

A former camper notes that whether or not you enjoy services, you are there with everyone else with the single purpose of honoring Shabbat.

But it might be the informal weaving of Judaism into day-to-day activities that provides camp’s most powerful impact. Powell points to Alonim’s dancing, music and games that all have elements of Jewish culture. In this way, the construction of kids’ Jewish identity is not even conscious. It is not until they have time to think about all they have learned in the week or the summer that they notice the change in themselves.

“All my identity as a Jew is through camp. Hebrew school and Sunday school were negative experiences for me, as I think they are for many kids,” Powell said.

She met her husband at camp, has sent her two daughters to camp and recommends the experience for every child.

“I wanted to give my children that love,” Powell said, emphasizing camp’s pivotal role in fostering attachment to a Jewish heritage.

She has a tradition that started when taking her 8-year-old daughter to camp:

“You turn off the radio when you get there. It’s almost a spiritual experience, driving down the road to camp.”

And it is that experience that lives on throughout the year. Even in the darkness of winter, campers reach to reconnect with spiritual roots that lie dormant, knowing that the warmth of summer, though a few months away, never really recedes.

 

Hip-Hop’s Jew Crew Takes Center Stage


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Jews have been part of hip-hop since its beginning,” said Josh Noreck of the Hip Hop Hoodios, a Latino Jewish rap group based out of Los Angeles and New York. “Rick Rubin founded Def Jam records. Lyor Cohen started working for it right after. The Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass were huge old-school rappers. Way before Eminem, pretty much the only white rappers were Jewish. When I was growing up, I was conscious of that.”

And yet, hip-hop video producer Jeremy Goldscheider said, “Nobody realizes there is a Jewish hip-hop scene spread out in different parts of the world.” Eager to educate hip-hop fans about international Jewish rappers, Goldscheider recently joined forces with local Jewish singer, songwriter and music producer Craig Taubman, co-producing a new album, “Celebrate Hip Hop: Jewish Artists From Around the Globe” — the latest in Taubman’s “Celebrate” series.

From Israeli MC Sagol 59 to American MC Remedy, and from British group Antithesis to Russian group iSQUAD, the CD brings together mainstream and underground artists with diverse approaches to hip-hop. Canadian group Solomon & Socalled rap in Yiddish to a classic sthetl groove; Israeli artist Mook E raps in Jamaican-style dancehall; and American group Blood of Abraham raps in classic inner-city style.

Despite these marked differences, Goldscheider said, there are several factors uniting all the songs: “Every song on [the album] has a very strong point of view and a lot of heart, whether addressing political or personal topics. There were a number of artists I didn’t put on here because they had typical rap songs about women, partying, bling-bling. To me, they didn’t have anything unique to say about a Jewish experience. Every song on here has something Jewish about it, something positive, something that has some meaning.”

Goldscheider’s ultimate goal is to provide youth a new avenue for expressing Jewish identity: “I’m interested in how young people connect to Judaism. I don’t think there are a lot of interesting, unique, cool ways of doing it. I wanted to create a product that would help make young people proud of being Jewish…[This CD] is about being part of a larger hip-hop community, being proud of a Jewish voice in it. I felt this music would create new interest for a 15-year-old Jewish kid who doesn’t care about Judaism.”

“I think Jewish hip-hop is really important to Jewish identity today,” said Noreck, whose group is on the album singing “Ocho Kandelikas” — a rock/salsa/rap version of the traditional Ladino Chanukah song (see box). “Music like klezmer is for an older generation. You have to bring Jewish music up to date, and the most youth-driven genre today is hip-hop. To me, it makes perfect sense that someone does a compilation like this…. I think [it’s] long overdue.”

For some, however, hip-hop and Jewish music seem as far removed from each other as can be: Shortly after Goldscheider approached Taubman with the idea for this album, Taubman saw a “Jewish hip-hop” posting on the Jewish music listserv to which he subscribes. “One hundred people responded to the posting,” Taubman recalled, “saying that [Jewish hip-hop] is a joke, that if it does exist it shouldn’t.” That reaction made up Taubman’s mind to go ahead with the project. “I e-mailed back,” Taubman said. “I never e-mail in response to postings, but I was so incensed that I wrote and said I’m doing a compilation CD of Jewish hip-hop music.”

“The opposition is only within the Jewish community,” said L.A. rapper Etan G., whose song, “South Side of the Synagogue,” appears on the compilation. “With the exception of the Beastie Boys, there has never been a prominent Jewish hip-hop act that wasn’t about bagels and lox and dreidels and shmaltz and gelt and every other idiotic Yiddish word you can throw into a song…. Jews have no respect for Jewish hip-hop. They all listen to mainstream hip-hop, but when you come out as a Jewish rapper, they are not as into it, because it’s generally not as good. There is seemingly nothing authentic in Jewish rap; nothing that captures anything.”

“A lot of Jewish rap up to now has been about parody,” Noreck said. “I can’t stand it. If Jewish rap music wants a place of its own and wants to be taken seriously, it can’t be parody all the time.”

Goldscheider steered clear of such acts in this compilation CD. “First and foremost,” he said, “I tried to choose artists that were serious about their music…. I stayed away from Jewish hip-hop artists that do a shtick. I chose music that had something to say — musically or lyrically.”

Through songs like “Remember Ben” by Israeli rappers Sagol 59 and A7, the album does come through in addressing significant and timely topics: “I’ve seen many rappers come and go/I’ve seen many DJs with inflated egos/But I’ve never seen anyone quite like you/One hand on the turntables/One hand flipping through the Torah/You didn’t care if it was in a small club in front of three people/Or if in a huge festival in front of three thousand/You played Cube and Snoop, Common and Cyprus/I remember you always said, ‘I don’t spin on Shabbos’/But now you’re not here/You’ve fallen victim to the stupid war of small-minded people.”

“DJ Benny the B was an Orthodox Jewish guy from Pennsylvania,” said Sagol 59, who raps in Hebrew. “He came to study Torah in Jerusalem. He was a hip-hop DJ by night, with his kippah and tzitzit and four earrings in each ear, spinning Snoop Doggy Dog. The day before he was supposed to go back to America, he went to say goodbye to some friends at Hebrew University. He actually had the plane ticket in his pocket when he was blown up by a suicide bomber in the school cafeteria. He was one of nine people killed…. It was really difficult to record this song, and I still get choked up when I perform it.”

A7 freestyled his part of the song in English, taking his opening line from the words on a poster in the recording studio, “Eternal reflections: All things are destined to go back to the creator.” Growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, immersed in East Coast hip-hop, A7 began freestyling in first grade — going on to rap with Baltimore’s local group Triad and local crew Testament. At 21, however, he left his fellow musicians, family and friends, in pursuit of a new spiritual path — Judaism. “I started to read the Torah,” he said, “and it spoke to me…. I decided these are my beliefs, and I’m really serious about it. So there was only one place for me to be: here in Israel.”

Israeli hip-hop artists, A7 asserts, have something to teach hip-hop artists in America: “Because hip-hop is so international right now, rappers need to pay attention to the messages they are putting out there. As black rappers in America, we can get rich making albums about killing white people. For this reason, American rappers are not cognizant of the image we portray globally. But it’s more than our block now, more than our neighborhood, our side of town, our state, America. It goes around the world. So we have to be cognizant not to look like fools.

“One thing that the rest of the world has an understanding of, which American musicians don’t, is that what you say affects other people. In America, people can say anything they want, and whatever happens so be it. Here in Israel, you have to be cognizant of the words coming out of your mouth, because they can incite something negative. And you don’t want to do that in a place like this, where things are extremely sensitive and tense. As a Jew, I can’t make an album talking about killing Palestinians. If I’m a Palestinian, I can’t make an album talking about killing Jews. Only one message needs to come out in Israel — and that is peace.”

Peace is the message on Remedy’s track with RZA and Cliva Ringz, “Muslim and a Jew” — which encourages Jews and Arabs to remember that we come from the same blood line; and it also is the message in Antithesis’s track, “Just Peace,” chronicling the struggles of Israel since 1948. Goldscheider hopes these and other songs will get Jews talking — even more than usual: “There is discussion to be had from the songs, whether formally or informally, backstage among artists, or among listeners in classrooms and camps,” he said. “There are opportunities for discussion about Israel and about being Jewish and about working or playing in the secular world and also being very proud of your Jewishness.”

Among other topics, Goldscheider hopes this album will spur conversations about Jewish diversity: “Another intention of the record, from an educational point of view, is to make people understand there are Jews in Mexico, that there are Jewish rappers who sing in Russian. That’s an important thing to know about Jewish music and the scene: It’s global.”

Featuring rappers who are white and people of color, from Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds, the album definitely takes a step towards representing the global Jewish experience. Nonetheless, with no female rappers, and none of the prominent hip-hop artists from Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jewish communities, the album falls short of offering a complete Jewish hip-hop experience.

The artists who are on this album nonetheless make a strong case for Jewish hip-hop, and open the door for additional exploration of the scene’s thriving diversity. Whether the album’s message will make into the mainstream market, however, remains to be seen. A few factors are in favor of this possibility: As part of the popular Wu Tang clan, MC Remedy already has enjoyed mainstream success, with his single, “Never Again,” — about his family’s experience in the Holocaust — selling 250,000 copies since its release two years ago. In addition, the Hip Hop Hoodios have a strong cross-over appeal in the Latino market — as evidenced by the appearance of their videos on MTV Espanol.

As album sales get under way, Taubman is actively targeting the mainstream market, promoting it at Walgreens, Costco, and Ralphs, as well as at Jewish organizations — an endeavor made possible by the fact that there is very little cursing on the album. “It’s a very clean record, a family record,” Goldscheider said. Despite opening up numerous markets, there were some drawbacks in making the CD family friendly: “That caused limitations — some artists couldn’t get on, because the intention was to make it something palatable to schools and camps,” Goldscheider said. But the trade-off, he concludes, was ultimately worth it: “I want it to get into those places. I want it used by Jewish organizations, youth organizations, Hillels on college campuses…. It’s just edgy enough but clean enough. The intention was to find that balance.”

Taubman reports that Jewish high schools already have begun ordering copies of the CD, and that a curriculum program will be available to schools in early January. Meanwhile, Goldscheider is hoping to embark on an additional complementary project — creating a college campus tour and music documentary that follows artists on the album as they tour around the world. “What I hope the record does is create more interest in the music,” Goldscheider said, “and I want to document this interest.”

“Celebrate Hip Hop” is available at (800) 627-2448 or ” target=”_blank”>amazon.com or Ameoba Records in Hollywood.

“Celebrate Chanukah,” featuring the release party for “Celebrate Hip Hop” and MC Hyim, Dec. 13, 7:30 p.m. at the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 463-0204. www.knittingfactory.com. $10.

Loolwa Khazzoom is a freelance writer, editor of “The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage” and author of “Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape.” Visit her on the Web site at

“Ocho Kandelikas”


“Eight Little Candles”

Gift of Chanukah


 

To my husband, Larry, it’s “Project Yankee Doodle,” a circa-1960 rocket launcher made by Remco Toys.

To me, it’s a generic plastic pickup truck.

We’re talking favorite childhood Chanukah presents. And while Larry also recalls a toy robot and battalions of Army men, the truck remains the favorite — and only — Chanukah gift embedded in my memory.

“That’s it? That’s all you remember?” my mother asks.

I nod my head guiltily.

Perhaps I remember it because of the circumstances — a hastily purchased gift, one that I was allowed to select myself at Doden’s Drug Store en route to my grandparents’ house.

Perhaps I remember it because of the context — in 1956, in Davenport, Iowa, girls didn’t play with, let alone own, toy trucks.

As the mother of four boys and the chief shopper, wrapper and often exchanger of almost two-decades worth of Chanukah gifts, I feel my mother’s chagrin.

And, payback being an inevitable part of parenting, I feel my own.

“What’s your all-time favorite Chanukah gift?” I mistakenly ask my sons.

“I remember when I was 5 and got stuck with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles girl action figure, April O’Neal, because all the good ones were sold out,” Zack, 20, says.

“I don’t know,” Jeremy, 15, says.

“I don’t really like Chanukah presents,” Danny, 13, admits.

Only Gabe, 17, who will be visiting his girlfriend in Boston over winter break, responds positively: “My airplane ticket, of course.”

But here’s the up side. Far greater than that little truck — and the furry slippers, scarf and mitten sets, books and phonograph records that I undoubtedly received — was another gift: a love of Chanukah and a love of being Jewish.

“How did you do that?” I ask my mother.

This is important to Larry and me. We want to ensure that we have Jewish grandchildren, although — and I can’t emphasize this strongly enough — not yet.

And this is important to Jewish spiritual leaders and educators across the country and across denominations who seek to discover sure-fire forces that forge strong Jewish identities.

Maybe the answer isn’t Jewish day school, a bar or bat mitzvah, a Jewish summer camp, a Birthright Israel trip or a subscription to Heeb magazine. Maybe the answer is as simple as this: unmemorable Chanukah presents.

Along with a memorable Chanukah.

Growing up in Iowa, even with only three other Jewish kids in my elementary school grade, I never felt left out or less than. I never felt the desire to sit on Santa’s lap in Petersen’s Department Store or have a big flocked and frosted Christmas tree in our living room. And it wasn’t as if — sorry, Mom — Chanukah was a big blow-out in our family.

“Go and make Christmas out of Chanukah,” my mom always said, quoting her friend, Alice Weitzman.

But she did better: she made Chanukah out of Chanukah.

A holiday of joy and warmth. Of chanting the blessings and lighting the “lion” chanukiyah, of eating freshly made latkes with burnt edges that my mother cooked in the electric frying pan, of playing dreidle with my siblings and parents and betting with gold-foil wrapped Chanukah gelt. Of driving across the river to Rock Island, Ill., to celebrate with my grandparents. Of baking poppy seed cookies using my grandmother’s recipe and the dreidel-, Star-of-David- and menorah-shaped cookie cutters.

A holiday that reflected the anti-assimilationist ideals of the Maccabees, that ancient band of guerilla fighters who, unaware of what an identity crisis was, refused to submit to the Syrian Greeks. Who were willing to sacrifice their lives to continue studying Torah, observing Shabbat and circumcising their sons.

But the threat to Judaism, interestingly enough, was internal as well as external. Many Jews of the second century BCE were easily drawn into the dominant Greek culture. Not unlike today, where, according to the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-01, 42 percent of Jews who define their religion as Jewish describe their outlook as secular. And where we have to work hard to remain Jewish in a non-Jewish world.

Chanukah gives us that challenge and opportunity. Especially since younger Jews already tend to express their Jewish identification through the celebration of holidays, according to “The Sovereign Self: Jewish Identity in Post-Modern America” by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen (Indiana University , 2001). And since, according to the NJPS, 72 percent of all Jews already profess to kindling Chanukah lights.

And so this year, emulating my mother, I will once again try to make Chanukah out of Chanukah. I will go through the ordeal of buying, wrapping and perhaps exchanging all those Chanukah gifts, which dollars to donuts — or, more appropriately, gelt to sufganiyot — my kids will soon forget.

And maybe that’s OK.

As Zack says, “Ten years from now will I remember all of the presents I received? No. But will I remember that magical feeling of celebrating Chanukah? Absolutely.”

And, I hope, that magical feeling of being Jewish.

Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino and has four sons.