Books: Land of ‘Golden’ dreams and tarnished identities


When Jews at the turn of the last century wistfully spoke of the goldene medina (golden country), they meant just one place: America. The phrase evoked images of a land of “freedom, justice, opportunity — and protection against pogroms,” wrote Leo Rosten in his 1968 classic, “The Joys of Yiddish.” But when “spoken in irony or sarcasm,” he added, the goldene medina also came to signify “a miraculous hope that ends in disappointment.”

Which makes the title of Jennifer Gilmore’s debut novel, “Golden Country” (Scribner, 2006), especially apt. In her intricately plotted story, Gilmore deftly weaves fact into fiction as she traces the fortunes of three intertwined families of Jewish immigrants in early 20th century New York. The result is a compelling portrait of hopes, both realized and dashed, that explores questions of identity, self-invention, women’s roles and the definition of success.

Embracing American culture in all its fluidity, the Brodsky, Bloom and Verdonik families navigate the tantalizing opportunities and surprising limitations of their new land. Solomon Brodsky escapes his shtetl-like neighborhood of Williamsburg by way of the mob, causing a keen sense of shame in his mother and younger brother, Joseph. Hardworking, dutiful Joseph ekes out a living selling household cleaning products door-to-door, but catapults to success when he invents the first cleaner miscible in both oil and water (which he calls Essoil, in tribute to his wife, Esther).

Neighbor and landsman Pauline Verdonik yearns to join Solomon in his new life of luxury; when she becomes his wife, she shares his success and exile from their families. Pauline’s less glamorous, resourceful and plucky sister, Francis, marries the brilliant Vladimir Zworykin (another transplanted landsman), who later invents the foundation technology for television. Francis’ long-held dream of stardom is first realized and then limited by her husband’s invention, as she becomes the first star of Essoil’s TV commercials.

Fellow immigrant Sarah Rosen Bloom is less lucky. Her theatrical ambitions are quickly defeated and she descends into alcoholism, even as her husband, Seymour, moves from salesman to gangster (under Solomon’s wing) to Broadway musical producer — miraculously surviving the transition back into “legitimate” business.

Moving back and forth in time, revealing deep ties strained by years of disappointment and resentment, Gilmore’s story unfolds as an explication of why a marriage in the following generation — between Miriam Brodsky and David Bloom — is an emotional landmine for all.

While “Golden Country” is undeniably a Jewish story, Gilmore’s characters move in decidedly secular worlds: theater, inventions, sales, crime. Like many immigrants before and since, these families seem to have shed all trappings of their religion when they set foot on Ellis Island (save for one shiva minyan that occurs late in the story).

Gilmore relates to her own Jewishness in much the same way. The writer, whose work has appeared in anthologies — including the upcoming “How to Spell Chanukah,” due out this fall — grew up outside Washington, D.C. Although she attended religious school, Gilmore didn’t have a bat mitzvah and characterizes her childhood home as “not very religious.”

As an undergraduate at Brandeis University, Gilmore felt she “was probably the least religious person there, at least from this country.” She became fascinated by “what made people Jewish…. I’d always felt 1,000 percent Jewish, but it obviously wasn’t religious,” she said.

While in graduate school at Cornell University, Gilmore saw her experience mirrored in many of the books she read in Jewish American fiction classes. Pursuing her master’s of fine arts degree and teaching courses of her own design, Gilmore’s academic work merged with long-held interests as she studied the myriad ways Jewish identity was being defined in America — through ethnicity, culture, humor, even stereotypes.

“I wanted to deal with those tropes — money, noses, intellect — that are typically ‘Jewish,'” Gilmore said. In addition, “everyone in my family was Jewish, and I was always fascinated with their stories.”

Gilmore enjoyed a close relationship with her grandparents when she was growing up, and was “especially interested in their experiences as immigrants in America,” she said. After the death of her maternal grandmother, with whom she’d been very close, the family discovered years’ worth of scrapbooks and diaries.

“My grandmother had been this amazing, hilarious storyteller,” Gilmore said, and the writings she left behind captured her vibrant spirit. She had kept meticulous records of her daily life and thoughts, including details of her courtship with Gilmore’s grandfather, Sid. “Every day they went out, she’d mark with a star. Some days, three stars. I never found out exactly what that meant,” Gilmore said teasingly.

The intimacy of her grandmother’s diaries helped Gilmore create the female voices in her novel.

“I loved their inner lives,” she said, and she wanted to show how they struggled with desire and ambition, even if they had been largely thwarted.

But while she “originally had written a lot from [the women’s] point of view,” over time Gilmore felt she needed to take out some of their self-expression “because of the time period they lived in.” Ultimately, Gilmore said, “I knew that seeing their lives through their son’s or husband’s perspectives was more appropriate.”

Among her grandmother’s effects, the family also found a self-published book titled, “Just the Two of Us.” It had been written by the widow of the man (a distant relation, as it turned out) who invented the household cleaner Lestoil, which became the inspiration for the novel’s Essoil. Like Gilmore’s grandmother, this woman wrote about her romance with her husband, but she also wrote about how they’d come to America from Eastern Europe, invented a time-saving household product and become rich.

“I became interested in how that generation came over and invented things that people used in everyday ways — Sweet N’ Low, depilatory cream [invented by a rabbi in Portland, Maine] — things that changed our everyday lives,” Gilmore said.

She had also long been fascinated by questions of success and failure, of how we define those terms and how they in turn define us.

Letters to the Editor


Chamberlain Ad

I do not know if I can communicate how deeply offended I was by the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Neville Chamberlain ad on page 6 of the Sept. 8 Jewish Journal. Besides the complete lack of intellectual honesty, the appalling lack of logical reasoning fails beyond the pale to measure up to the traditions of Judaism specifically and humanity in general:

Rather than deal with the threat that Al Qaeda actually presents to our national security, President Bush has chosen to waste hundreds of billions of dollars on a personal vendetta in Iraq washed in five years of the blood of the Iraqi people and citizenry of our great nation.

Rather than communicating with a government seeking to open communication between the United States, President Bush consciously closed all potential paths of dialogue and continuously vilified and threatened a sovereign nation in a tinhorn cowboy attempt to force Iran into a diplomatic mistake of nuclear proportions.

Rather than assist Israel to defend itself against continuing malicious attacks from Hezbollah or Hamas, Bush specifically chose to do absolutely nothing for five years, and more importantly, two weeks of Israel’s invasion into Lebanon, then sent the single most ineffectual secretary of state within the last century to negotiate a failed cease-fire proposal.

If The Journal is so strapped for cash, it would be a far better use of its ad space to place a plea for donations and financial support from its readership, rather than compromising all dignity and integrity by running further tripe from the RJC.

Richard Adlof
North Hollywood

Shame on the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) for running two ads which desperately tried to denigrate the Democratic Party.

First, shame on the RJC for taking an issue of great bipartisan agreement — support for a strong U.S.- Israel relationship — and turning it into a wedge issue for tawdry partisan political advantage. Any objective observer of U.S. politics has to agree that both of our major political parties are remarkably supportive of Israel. This fact is crucial in maintaining the strong relationship between the United States and Israel. For the RJC, however, it appears that twisting the truth for some petty partisan gain is apparently more important than maintaining bipartisan support for the Jewish state.

It is true that in both parties there are a handful of politicians who are not part of this bipartisan consensus. Carter is one of these outsiders who find no support for their positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict within their own parties.

Jewish newspapers, like all newspapers, have an obligation to not print false and misleading ads. We hope in the coming weeks, as RJC slings more mud, this newspaper will fact-check their ad copy to make sure the RJC doesn’t continue to use these pages to violently twist the truth.

Marc Stanley
First Vice Chair
National Jewish Democratic Council

The Republican obsession with Iraq has left Israel open and vulnerable to the possible nuclear overtures of a Holocaust-denying Iran. The Republican obsession with the Cold War almost led to a military defeat for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War (and did lead to a country-permeating malaise). The Republican obsession with a fundamental Christian theology that is based on the apocalyptic demise of not only Israel but Jews everywhere is too eviscerating and too self-evident to even require an elaboration.

Does any Jew still believe that the Republican party has their true interests at heart?

Marc Rogers
Thousand Oaks

We applaud the recent public discussion about the support for Israel by the political parties (“GOP Sees Israel as Way to Woo Democratic Jews,” Sept. 1).All who are pro-Israel should appreciate the positive influence our growing Jewish Republican community is having on the GOP. Our access to senior GOP leaders is warmly encouraged, and, in return, the Jewish community is increasingly impressed by an administration and a Republican Congress that have been deeply pro-Israel.

The example of U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is instructive. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) was virtually alone among national Jewish organizations in supporting the nomination of this hero of the Jewish people, who not only helped to defeat the odious “Zionism is racism” resolution years ago, but who now vigorously defends Israel at the United Nations against unfair demonization and delegitimization. Many Jewish Democrats now see that Bolton is the right man at the United Nations.

Putting aside the issue of Israel, moderate Jews might approach 21st century American politics with an open mind on who is best on both national security and domestic public policy issues. It is time that respectful attention be paid by Jews to positive GOP ideas about economic growth, welfare and entitlement reform, medical liability and tort/legal reform, energy independence and educational choice and competition to best serve children.

To the benefit of Israel and the United States, the days of one-party Jewish voting are, thankfully, over.

Joel Geiderman
Chairman
Larry Greenfield
Director
Republican Jewish Coalition, California

Illegal Jewish Immigrants

Your articles focused on illegal Israeli immigrants who are not terrorists and do not take low-paying jobs away from minorities (“Living and Working [IL]Legally in America,” Sept. 8). Instead they engage in commercial activity that is beneficial to Israel.

Thanks to your article calling attention to them, perhaps immigration officials will divert attention from terrorists to crack down on these Israelis.

Are you The Jewish Journal or the anti-Jewish Journal?

Marshall GillerWinnetka

The Jews Didn’t Do It

Not all conspiracy theories are equal (“The Lie That Won’t Die,” Sept. 1). Richard Greenberg’s article asks us to believe otherwise, holding out only two possibilities to the American public: Either you accept the government version of Sept. 11 or you are a “conspiracist.”

But the world is much more complex than these two positions allow, and the democratic process itself depends on citizens who question official stories. David Griffin, author of “The New Pearl Harbor” and three additional books on Sept. 11, raises important questions about the adequacy of the Kean Commission report.

Five Gold Bangles and World of Difference


The morning of my wedding day, my mother called me into her bedroom.
“Come sit with me,” she said quietly, patting the spot next to her on the bed.
I sat down beside her, the softness of the mattress causing our shoulders to touch.

She turned her face toward mine, looking happier than I had seen her look in years. I attributed it to the fact that her almost-30-year-old daughter was finally getting married. Smiling, she handed me a box.

“Open it,” she urged.

Inside the box were five beautiful, gold-filigree bangle bracelets of different patterns. The gold was unlike any I had ever seen and warmed to my touch. They were not new, their shapes having been altered from perfect circles to imperfect ones by the wrists they had adorned.

I turned them over in my hands and, one by one, slid them on my right arm. They were truly beautiful.

“Oh, Mom, I love them! Where did you get them?”

She answered by telling me a story about my great-grandmother, Jemilla Danino, who, at the age of 12, married a man more than three times her age to become his second wife. Born in 1882 to a poor family in Alexandria, Egypt, she had no choice but to respect the arrangement her parents had made. One afternoon he arrived, and within the week she left with her new husband to live in Haifa, never to see her parents again. The bracelets on my arm were the same ones that Jemilla had received from her husband as a token of his commitment to marry her.

Living in the 21st century, it is hard to fathom an arrangement like the one Jemilla’s parents made for her. I barely get a vote as to whom my own daughter dates, let alone a veto. And I cried for three nights when I sent her off to summer camp and she was the same age that Jemilla was when she left home forever. And knowing, as Jemilla’s parents surely did, that I would never see my child or my grandchildren, is a thought I don’t even want to entertain.

It’s hard to believe that as recently as the early 1900s, my great-grandmother lived in a harem; marketing, cooking, washing and cleaning side by side with the other wives who shared her husband’s bed. Yet for Sephardic Jews who lived in communities influenced by Islam, like Egypt, Yemen, Morocco and Turkey, polygamy was an accepted practice.

This is in contrast to the Jews of Eastern Europe, where Rabbi Gershom decreed a ban on polygamy in the 10th century. Sephardic Jews did not accept Rabbi Gershom’s ban however, and when Israel was created in 1948, the state faced the problem of what to do with Jewish immigrants who had multiple wives. The Israeli government permitted those marriages already in existence to stay in effect while forbidding any future ones. Today, the ban on polygamy is universally accepted in the Jewish world.

The Bible is filled with stories of the problems and the unhappiness that exists in a polygamous marriage: Sarah was derided by Hagar because she couldn’t have a child, Leah was jealous of Rachel because Isaac loved her more and Solomon’s many wives brought idolatry into the land of Israel. My great-grandmother suffered a similar fate when, at the age of 13, she gave birth to my grandfather amidst women who could not bear children. Barely a teenager herself, she learned how to care for her child in a home where her life was made miserable by the disappointment and bitterness of other women. What saved her during those difficult years, and throughout her life, was her wit, wisdom and undying love for her son, my grandfather.

There are other laws that have been changed or prohibited throughout Jewish history. Another example is Rabbi Gershom’s decree prohibiting a man from divorcing his wife against her will, for any or no reason at all. This reversed a long-standing injustice that left women totally vulnerable in a marriage. The law was changed requiring the consent of both parties to a divorce, although there are still problems when a husband refuses to give the woman a bill of divorcement, or a get in Hebrew. (But I will save that topic that for another time!)

I treasure wearing my gold bracelets for many reasons. They help me remember my great-grandmother, a woman whose courage, strength and devotion carried her through a lifetime of struggle. They remind me of my mother, who wore them as a young girl when she was raised by Jemilla as a result of her own parents’ tragic and untimely deaths. And they give me a sense of optimism about our future as Jews.

For it is through the wisdom of the Jewish tradition and its ability to change and respond to laws that are patently unfair or result in causing hardship and injustice, that our greatest hope for the future lies.

Latin American Jews Create L.A. Oasis


Imagine that you live in Latin America and you’re Jewish. Typically, you and your family would belong to a full-service Jewish club with cultural, recreational, educational and athletic activities for all ages. The club is reasonably priced, promotes Jewish identity in a secular manner and is the backbone of your social life.

You spend a lot of time in club-sponsored activities with your nuclear and extended family, and with friends from the club: Friday night dinners, Sunday afternoon barbecues, weekends in the country, vacations at the seashore — a full and active communal life.

Now imagine that — mainly for economic reasons — you emigrate from such a country and come to Los Angeles. You have your nuclear family, but you’re separated from your extended family and friends. You may know enough English to earn a living, but you’re not at ease with the language. As a result, it remains difficult for you to have a social life with English-speaking friends, or participate fully in an American cultural life — whether you’re a new arrival or have been in the country for a number of years.

And even though you have a strong Jewish identity — you may speak Hebrew and/or Yiddish — you’re not really interested in a communal life that revolves around a shul: first, you’re not observant and you don’t want to make a shul the center of your life; second, it would be in English, not Spanish; and third, it would mean spending more than you feel you can afford. The Jewish Community Center (JCC) might be a possibility, but in the last few years there has been a cutback in JCCs in Los Angeles, and what they offer is not exactly you’re looking for.

So what do you do?

What you could do is start your own Jewish organization, using the Latin American model. That’s what happened in early 2005 when the Latin American Jewish Association (LAJA) was founded by several people with exactly that idea.

Omar Zayat, director of LAJA and one of its founders, said the “drive to create this organization came from the fact that after 2001, with the economic crash in Argentina, many Jews left there, and a lot of them came to L.A. Once here, they wanted to recreate the kind of community they’d left behind, and creating their own club seemed a good way to go about it.”

In Argentina, Zayat had worked for Jewish groups, organizing children’s summer camps and programs for seniors and other age groups, so it was logical that he would continue doing that kind of work here. He’s not a hands-off administrator: LAJA presents evening dance workshops that are both energetic and sweat-inducing and where about 20 to 30 people get a good workout in Israeli and other kinds of dance. Zayat himself leads these groups.

“For now,” he said, “we have 85 families signed up and many more come when we have special events. We have the names of 400 families that we contact for these events, like movies that someone has brought from Argentina or casino night or a tango show.”

One of the challenges for LAJA has been to adapt to Los Angeles’ sprawling area, which has meager public transport. Here, a parent needs to drop off and pick up a child, which takes getting used to by Latin American parents whose children were accustomed to using good public transport or cheap taxis to navigate their own way around a city like Buenos Aires. It also means scheduling activities to fit working parents who double as chauffeurs.

LAJA divides its activities into youth, Jewish education, university student programs, adults, sports, arts and drama and marketing. Youth activities are handled by teenage madrichim, Hebrew for guides. Zayat said that “using the Latin American model, older kids are trained to guide the younger ones, encouraging Jewish identity and having fun while doing it.”

LAJA is co-sponsored by The New JCC at Milken in West Hills, which has provided office space and other facilities. Since many of the new immigrants arrived with limited resources, the JCC has permitted them to become members at a discounted price.

If you go to The New JCC at Milken nowadays, you’re as likely to hear Spanish as English. There’s an unmistakable spark of creative, communal energy in the air, whether one attends a workshop that helps new arrivals get oriented to life in Los Angeles or a Latin American-style barbecue or a musical recital.

Michael Jeser, director of development and community affairs at The New JCC at Milken, noted that “one of the most exciting pieces in working with the Latin American Jewish Association is that the JCC, historically, has been a home for new immigrants and a venue for the absorption of new immigrants into American society. And here we are in 2006, and it’s really no different. When the Latin American group came to us and said, ‘We’re looking for a home,’ it was a really natural partnership, and we’ve sort of adopted them, made them into one of our own programs, and have watched them flourish.”

Jeser said that “seeing how the members are interacting with our other JCC members, it’s the extension of a real family, and the feeling of a real international ethnic Jewish community, even beyond Los Angeles’ typical ethnic diversity. The JCC has been home to a large Russian community, a large Persian community, a large Israeli community, and now with the growing Latin American group, it’s just getting larger. And we are very proud to have this community [because] they have a strong history with Jewish community centers in Argentina, which lent itself to this partnership.”

“Having them here is like having a piece that we were missing,” Jeser said. “Now we’ve filled that void in the community and are looking to expand it.”

?LAJA is located at The New JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. They can be contacted at (818) 464-3274. Their Web site (in Spanish) is

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.”

 

A Banner Day


At the beginning of the month, I joined the hundreds of thousands of people who marched from MacArthur Park to the

La Brea Tar Pits in support of basic rights for immigrants, the strangers among us. I was worried about my family becoming separated in the throng of marchers, so I brought a bicycle flag, a little neon triangle on a tall lightweight rod, upon which I’d written in sharpie: “Klein Family.”

We were surrounded by banners, some hand-painted, some mass produced, words passionately imploring in Spanish and English, flags of different countries rippling toward helicopters as we marched ever so slowly.

At one point my husband and daughter became separated from my son and me. My son held up the little orange flag to reunite us. It was just an orange fleck in a sea of waving banners, with no message, no political statement. It said simply: “Here we are. Find us, join us. Don’t let us be lost. We love you.”

Perhaps that was the essence of every banner that was flown that day.

This week’s Torah portion creates a picture of the 12 tribes of Israel marching over the wilderness terrain in well-organized troops, the divisions of Judah to the east of the tabernacle, Ephraim on the west, and the other tribes assigned to positions in between. An army of men, women and children who once marched hunched over from intolerable service to Pharaoh were now marching upright, in formation, in service of God, with banners streaming above them, as it is written: “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house” (Numbers 2:2).

Some imagine the 12 banners were designed each according to the character of the sons of Jacob, much like the signs of the 12 months of the year in the zodiac. Others say that the color of the banners matched the colors of the 12 gemstones imbedded in the High priest’s breastplate, ruby red, golden topaz, glittering sapphire.

According to the Midrash, the Israelites witnessed the angels at Mount Sinai, each with their flowing banner, singling them out as precious to God. The Israelites also wanted to be unique, to be counted. Bamidbar is primarily focused on counting and arranging the Israelites, who stands where in relation to the Tent of Meeting.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) explains: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself upon Mount Sinai, 22,000 angels descended with Him, as it is said, ‘The chariots of God are two myriads, two thousands; The Lord is among them at Sinai in holiness'” (Psalms 68:18), and they were all arrayed under separate banners, as it is said, “Marked out by banners from among myriads” (Song of Songs 5:10). “When Israel saw them arrayed under separate banners, they began to long for banners, and said, ‘O that we also could be ranged under banners like them!’…. They said, ‘O that He would show great love for me’: and this is also expressed in the text, We will shout for joy in Your salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners.’ Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to them, ‘How eager you are to be arranged under banners; as you live, I shall fulfill your desire!'”

As a child, my family would often spend the summer on Fire Island, off of Long Island. I remember walking all the way to the tip of the island, where there stood an old weathered lighthouse that had become a museum.

Inside, there were old pictures of the original family who operated it, parents with two children. The docent explained that the father would make his children wear bright red hats while they played on the reed-swept dunes. That way, when he was high in his tower, he could look down and know exactly where they were.

We run through the reeds, explore the dunes, and our Father, the light-keeper, keeps His eye on us. Not one of us should be lost. At the end of the day, not one of us should be left out. Not one of us should be unembraced by the banner of love, when evening falls, like a blue-and-silver-threaded tallit over creation and everything in it.

Zoe Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

 

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

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Wandering Jew – A Relief to Laugh


As master of ceremonies of “Middle East Comic Relief 2,” Peter the Persian, a stout Iranian American comic who moonlights as a labor attorney, says of the comedians performing on a recent evening, “We’ve screened all these Middle Easterners. We’ve cleared them out. They’re all Jewish friendly.”

That gets a roar from the mixed crowd.

“Most of them are Jewish friendly.”

Another roar.

“Some of them are Jewish friendly.”

Peter the Persian is certainly one of the friendly ones at the Levantine Cultural Center in Culver City, an organization dedicated to fostering cultural awareness among all Middle Easterners. And this is a friendly house, even if it’s located on a dead-end street amidst desolate warehouses and almost no street lighting. It’s the kind of street Bugsy Siegel might have once used for silencing a rival hood.

Inside this cavernous barn with Persian rugs draped like curtains over the back walls of the elevated stage, there are no mobsters or secret cells from what we can tell. There are just ordinary citizens, but that doesn’t stop the host, Jordan Elgrably, a svelte man in a black shirt, from saying, “All those who are working here for Homeland Security, please raise your hand.”

No one here is from Homeland Security, but there are “all kinds of creatures” at this event, as Peter the Persian says.

A few rows in front there is a middle-aged man with a 5 o’clock shadow, who wears an unusual furry cap. It looks a little like the Siberian beaver caps once fancied by Mikhail Gorbachev, except it’s not quite as furry and mixes black and white hues.

“What do you call that cap?”

“It’s a Karakul,” says the man with the stubble. “From Kashmir.”

His female companion wears another exotic hat.

“It’s a Manali,” the man says.

“Is that in Indonesia?”

“Manali, India,” she says. “In the Himalayas.”

Elsewhere, a man holds a glossy Iranian American magazine called Namak; he has opened it to a two-page spread with the headline, “God & Allah Need to Talk.”

“Any Muslims here tonight?” Elgrably asks.

Only one person, a grinning young man, raises his hand.

“You can drink,” he’s told.

The rest of the crowd, several hundred from a glance, settles in as Peter the Persian introduces the first comedian, a 30-something woman of Syrian descent named Helen Maalik, who has come from New York to appear tonight.

Though Maalik is Syrian American, and this evening’s entertainment is billed as a post-Sept. 11 satire, she focuses initially not on the Middle East or national security concerns but rather on dating.

Wearing jeans and a faded yellow and green striped shirt, the attractive, petite Maalik says that she doesn’t have much sympathy for women who complain about not getting dates.

“Put out,” she says in a voice that suggests a whine and a smidgen of urban anomie. “Do it, especially on a first date.”

Continuing her riff on dating, she relates the tale of a young woman who complains about a homeless man asking her out–“Those guys come with a lot of baggage.”

Maalik says in that whiny voice, “Stop it. We all have it. His is just plastic.”

Then she switches to ethnic concerns. “I’m 100 percent Arab, not 50 percent Arab and 50 percent normal,” she says, but people often tell the light-skinned Maalik that she looks Jewish. “I don’t mind looking Jewish. I have no problems at airports.”

The crowd breaks up at that joke, as it does when she says, “My husband is Indian Muslim, I’m an Arab. So we’re on the FBI list twice.”

She leaves to much applause, after which Peter the Persian introduces Sanjay Shah, an Indian comic from Los Angeles, and then Nasry Malak, an Egyptian American who, like Maalik, hails from New York.

“I’ve never done stand-up comedy in an airplane hangar before,” says Malak, who resembles Johnny Mathis not only in his smooth good looks but also in his velvety voice.

A political comedian, Malak jokes about how his family has decided to “turn his father in” to the authorities. Not that his father has done anything wrong, but it would be a patriotic act.

Then he says that “the homeless of America should not be smarter than the president of America. Bush might be the dumbest man in the world.”

Upon reflection, he adds, “Sometimes I think Bush might be the smartest man in the world. He’s messed up this country so badly that immigrants don’t want to come here anymore.”

As Malak leaves the stage and intermission arrives, Peter the Persian ascends the platform and then asks us all to say “Bush.” He extends the U like it’s two or three O’s. Everyone says, “Booosh.”

At the break, a woman tells Peter the Persian that he looks Jewish. Putting down his Pilsner Urquell beer, Peter, for once at a loss for words, says, “I am … I am … nothing.” Then he adds, “I am a populist.”

I tell Peter that I must leave. It’s 10 p.m.

“I’m not offended,” he says in a slight deadpan and hands me his business card.

“He’s really brilliant,” says another woman, who tells me that the best acts are coming after intermission.

“What about the premise of Albert Brooks’ new movie? Obviously, there’s comedy in the Muslim world,” I say.

Laughing but with a bit of regret in his voice, Peter says, “This is not that world. They’re not laughing over there.”

On Saturday, Feb. 25, at 8 p.m., the Levantine Cultural Center will host “An Evening of Palestinian Literature and Music”; Elias Khoury will present his novel, “Gate of the Sun,” along with a concert of Palestinian music and song with the Naser Musa Ensemble. 5920 Blackwelder St., Culver City, (310) 559-5544.

Wandering Jew – A Nosh of the Big Apple


It seemed the perfect thing to do on a recent winter Sunday in New York — visit some synagogues and nosh on ethnic foods.

So my husband and two sons got in the car, drove through an amazingly empty Manhattan to the Lower East Side and joined the second annual Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy Noshing Tour Extravaganza.

Once home to 500 houses of prayer around the turn of the 19th century, now only about 20 remain active on the Lower East Side. The area has gone through numerous incarnations since after World War II, when many Jewish families moved up and out to other parts of the city or to the suburbs.

At one point the neighborhood was considered so dangerous, people were afraid to walk the streets at night, but now it is experiencing something of a renaissance among Jews and non-Jews alike.

We had no idea if we would be the only ones to brave the cold and damp but were pleasantly surprised; about 30 people made up our tour.

The first stop was Congregation Chasam Sopher, which was built in 1853 and is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Lower East Side.

The synagogue underwent a $3 million renovation and now is a stunning jewel boasting beautiful stained glass illuminating the 12 tribes, chandeliers and polished pews.

“This building was done from the ground to roof,” Eugene Weiser, president of the congregation, told us. The previous temple president, by the way, was his father, Morris Weiser, a Holocaust survivor.

The snacks, cookies and other sweets were a welcome treat, especially for our sons, Ben and Gabriel, ages 10 and 7.

Our next synagogue was Congregation B’nai Jacob Anshei Brezezan, also known as the Stanton Street Shul, where we gathered in the basement for herring, garbanzo beans and potatonik heated on the radiators, just as it is every morning for the men who gather for a minyan. (This nosh was appreciated more by my husband and me than our sons.)

Founded in 1894 by immigrant Jews from the town of Brezezany in Poland, the synagogue is tall and narrow, a classic example of tenement-style synagogue architecture.

Elissa Sampson, Lower East Side native, synagogue historian and enthusiastic speaker, stood on a table and told us about the stages her shul has undergone in trying to survive over the years.

She showed the synagogue’s constitution, which stipulated how much each member could expect in burial money as well as the amounts of aid tendered to the disabled, widowed or orphaned. She brought alive the sense that each of the synagogues that used to densely populate the area were tight-knit congregations that mirrored not just the recent immigrants’ home country, but their hometowns.

B’nai Jacob also is “one of the last functioning synagogues in the area that has old-timers and new arrivals,” she said. One of their youngest congregants, a 3-year-old, entered the synagogue, then grabbed a cane, so he could be like the old men he sees at prayer.

After our snack, we went upstairs to the shul. Divided by a curtain between men and women, it’s in shabby condition, with peeling frescoes, decades-old round fluorescent lights and a few boarded-up windows.

The good news is, the buckets once needed to catch the rain are gone, because the roof has been fixed.

“The windows still need to be repaired,” Sampson said. “It’s a race against time.”

The tour continued, but we almost gave up at that point. It was rainy, we seemed to be walking forever and, despite the delicious food, our spirits were flagging.

But we continued, and were glad we did. The final synagogue was Kehila Kedosha Janina, the last remaining Greek-language, Romaniote-tradition synagogue in the western hemisphere — and it is still operating in its original form.

We had never heard of Romaniote Jews, an obscure branch of Judaism, a tiny minority within a minority.

They are Jews who, after the destruction of the Second Temple, were sent on a slave ship to Rome. Instead, a storm forced them to land in Greece, where over the next 2,000 years they developed uniquely different ethnic and religious customs.

Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, president of the Association of Friends of Greek Jewry and the synagogue’s museum director, showed us the beautiful Torah scrolls wrapped around such heavy tubes that during Simcha Torah, she said, they put out a call for some of the younger, stronger men to help carry them.

The synagogue has no paid membership, but a mailing list of 3,000 households nationwide, and its leaders organize annual visits to Greece to help revitalize its Jewish community.

“We are the remnants of the Romaniote Jews,” Ikonomopoulos said.

A Holocaust memorial sits in the corner of the shul, easy to overlook but breathtaking in its simplicity. It is a Mogen David, with shards of glass representing Kristallnacht. Six memorial candles burn, for the 6 million killed. And on the ground are stones taken from Corfu that Greek Jews walked on when they were rounded up on June 9, 1944, never to return.

The building is undergoing the first stages of interior restoration, which will replace the antiquated electrical system and add air conditioning, along with re-doing plastering and painting while staying as close as possible to the look of the original interior.

Our tour ended with stuffed grape leaves, sugary sweets and, of course, olives. We then stepped out into the streets of the Lower East Side, which now — to our newly educated eyes — seemed to have a patina of the 19th century overlaid on modern Manhattan.

For tours of the Lower East Side synagogues, visit

Where Streets Were Paved With Sorrow


“Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas” by Isabel Vincent (William Morrow, $25.95).

Memory is a central concept in Judaism. When someone dies, we say that he or she lives on in how he or she is remembered by others. Countless museum exhibits, oral histories, films, books and archives that memorialize the Holocaust repeat the mantra, “We will never forget.”

Conversely, the biggest insult that any Jew can face is to be forgotten — by fellow Jews, by history, by the country in which he or she lived. This was the fate that nearly awaited the Jewish “shtetl girls,” who were lured to South America by wealthy-looking men who promptly sold them into lives of prostitution. Thankfully, Isabel Vincent, a journalist who spent five years researching these women and their situation, rescues them from obscurity in her new book, “Bodies and Souls.”

Vincent introduces us to three women who illuminate three very different aspects of the shameful reality of white slavery that existed in Latin America between 1860 and 1939. Sophia Chamys excitedly came to the Americas with Isaac Boorosky, a pimp who she believed — at some level, until her death — was her husband; Rebecca Freedman first became a prostitute in New York and then went on to work for and lead the Society of Truth, an organization devoted to giving Jewish prostitutes a proper Jewish burial; and Rachel Liberman was instrumental (at great personal risk) in helping police plan a series of raids of the Zwi Migdal crime syndicate.

One of the most profound ideas that Vincent gets across is the sense of cosmic disappointment that is common to the three women. We have all heard horror stories of shtetl life, the violence and fear that lurked around every corner — but to read about how America turned out to be nearly as terrible for these eager girls is almost as heartbreaking as the physical pain and degradation that the prostitutes endured.

The narrative arc of the book, from Sophia’s crushed naiveté to Rachel’s open resistance, makes Vincent’s work a deeply Jewish story where out of abandonment, suffering and disillusionment come self-determination and a fierce survival instinct. Ultimately the shock and shame of learning about the atrocities that Jewish pimps inflicted on their modest shtetl sisters is somewhat rescued by the nobility that many of the women managed to salvage for themselves.

If Vincent has misstepped at all in this book, it is largely in her overuse of theoretical language: “Maybe, in order to make her feel better about her situation, Madame Nathalia told Sophia that she was one of the lucky girls.” “It must have taken a tremendous effort of will for Julio Alsogaray to remain calm throughout the lengthy interrogation.” Nearly every page contains some similar stylistic hedging.

This linguistic tic seems more a mark of Vincent’s careful reporting than of mere misjudgment, especially since, as she notes, most of the 20,000 women who were involved in the trafficking could not read or write. Historical records were quite hard to come by. But reading “might have,” “must have,” “may have” and “perhaps” over and over again throughout the book had the net effect of leaving the reader questioning how sure Vincent was of even those things she did report as fact: She knew that “tin cups and utensils were set out on coarse blankets on the whitewashed floors” of a Buenos Aires immigrants’ hotel, but had to say, “flustered, Sally must have also shown the stranger her first-class ticket.”

Although it’s annoying, this stylistic choice further highlights the sad reality of the subjects of Vincent’s book: how history, religion and shame conspired to threaten these Jewish prostitutes with that most dire of prospects — to be forgotten. There was sparse historical record, few survivors and even fewer family members who were willing to speak openly with Vincent. One might wish that Vincent had opted instead to write a work of historical fiction in which she would not have to constantly apologize for her lack of reportable material. But there is a certain amount of intellectual honesty in her choice. It is not merely that she resisted the temptation to falsely beef up her work; by choosing to acknowledge this story as a real chapter in history, Vincent affords her subjects the dignity of not being “spoken for,” as they were so often and so cruelly during their lives.

This article was reprinted courtesy of The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Mass.

 

French Riots Show Need for Pluralism


For once, it would appear that Jews, Judaism and Jewish interests are not the target of violence in Paris and in so many cities across France.

After a surge in anti-Semitic hostility and incidents in recent years, that comes as something of a surprise. This time, it appears the rioters are burning their own cars and neighborhoods, rather then aiming their anger at the symbols of some outside enemy.

In today’s France, we witness riots without obvious enemies or proper targets — just bursts of pure anger.

After the burning of thousands of cars and shops, the French government announced two steps and two policies to stop the violence. First, it gave permission to strong repressive measures, such as house arrests and curfews, measures that the government has criticized when used by Israel. It also announced a plan to help the social and economic situation in the affected suburbs, promising to create 57,000 new jobs.

This second step is late and based on the wrong assumption — namely, that the present wave of anger is driven mainly by a harsh economic situation. In truth, this is an insult to the millions of people who struggle every day to make a living, but who never riot because they respect the life and possessions of others.

What’s really at stake is that many of the 7 million Muslim immigrants and their descendants in France feel discriminated against in the French political system, where their religious identity often is seen as suspect.

Unless religious and cultural expressions of identity are permitted and valued in a diverse society, violence is a likely response to the perceived lack of recognition. Only a year ago, the French government banned the use of visible religious symbols, such as the Islamic head covering. This was done in good faith for the higher purpose of secularism, as well as to curb trends of religious radicalism and fundamentalism.

But how wise is it to prevent such expressions of diversity and identity in a society that prides itself on being multicultural? Is France today paying the price of its policy of integration into a society where secularism is seen as the highest value?

What’s taking place these days on the streets of so many French cities should remind us that in a diverse society, it’s dangerous to put one set of values above others. The basis of a diverse society should be a sufficient set of common values that allow citizens to live together, rather then the establishment of a hierarchy of values that elevates some and deprecates others.

Let us not forget that as Jews, we, too, are often first- or second-generation immigrants. More then 75 percent of French Jews are from North Africa. For the Ashkenazim, many do have issues and problems with a French society that only 60 years ago turned its back on us, stripping us of citizenship and denying us protection from the Nazis.

Concerned by the events of the past two weeks, let us go beyond simple condemnations of violence and avoid the trap of playing the secular French card of order and citizenship against the Muslim immigrant card of violence and hooliganism.

The images can be misleading. The real danger today is not the lack of order and the burning of cars, the danger is the political impact that such riots could have on many French citizens.

In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, reached the second round of France’s presidential election. After these riots, we fear that many will again turn to Le Pen and his ilk for simple and radical answers, which could bring to an end the dream of a diverse religious and cultural society.

Two years ago, CEJI, the French acronym for the European Jewish Information Center, warned the French government that diversity should never be taken for granted, and that unless society learns how to deal with pluralism, it will face difficult times ahead. We offered training for teachers and civil servants, but the government didn’t follow up.

Through our work in schools and peer training, implementing the World of Difference educational program and constantly working in the field of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and European integration, we know that education is the key to a peaceful society.

When violence erupts, it’s not the time to give up on our dreams and turn to simple and radical solutions. Rather, today is the time to work even harder to make our dream a reality. By valuing each other and discovering each other, we believe we can still create a more cohesive society in Europe.

Ronny Naftaniel is executive vice chairman of the European Jewish Information Center, and Rabbi David Meyer is a member of its executive board.

 

Rhodesli Keep the Faith in L.A.


As a student at Cal State Northridge more than 30 years ago, Aron Hasson wrote a paper about the Sephardic synagogues of his ancestral homeland, the Greek island of Rhodes. His professor was so taken with Hasson’s research that it ended up in a history journal.

Hasson paid his first visit to Rhodes in 1975, after a stint in an Israeli kibbutz. In 1997, he returned with his teenage children. Standing in the 400-year-old Kahal Shalom Synagogue, where three of his grandparents had once worshipped, he realized that the tourists who gaped at the Judeo-Spanish wall plaques had no knowledge of Rhodes’ rich and complex Jewish history.

Hasson’s first response was to create a pamphlet, “The Jewish Quarter of Rhodes,” for distribution in Kahal Shalom. Next he turned the synagogue’s women’s prayer rooms into the Rhodes Jewish Museum, in which old photographs and artifacts document the thriving Jewish community of pre-World War II Rhodes, once some 4,000 strong. Now, through his nonprofit Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, the Westwood attorney works toward the restoration of other old synagogues and holy sites that can be called “Rhodesli” (or “pertaining to Rhodes”). Hasson has also sponsored the visit of an 800-year-old Sefer Torah — which had long ago been carried from Spain to Rhodes before ending up in Buenos Aires — to Sephardic synagogues across the United States. Although not a religious man, he feels great pride when other Rhodeslis acknowledge his efforts with a heartfelt “Kol Ha Kavod.”

Hasson’s obsession with Rhodes mirrors that of an earlier generation of Angelenos. Cousins Art Benveniste and Shirlee Peha, now both in their 70s, remember growing up in South Los Angeles when the area was a magnet for Jews from Rhodes. Their immigrant parents and relatives, all of whom left the island before World War II to improve their economic prospects, spoke Ladino (also known as Judeo-Spanish) in the home. They helped found the Sephardic Hebrew Center, a Ladera Heights congregation that merged in 1993 with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, as a way of preserving Rhodesli religious practices. They also instituted the custom of group visits to Catalina Island, whose location resembles that of Rhodes in relationship to Turkey.

“It was natural to them to take a boat across the water to an island nearby,” Hasson said of the immigrants,

By the time Benveniste and Peha reached adulthood, members of the close-knit community were starting to scatter. The annual Catalina trips, which currently attract about 40 of the 900 Rhodeslis now living in the L.A. area, could not fully satisfy their desire to meet and mingle. Since then, they’ve inaugurated regular luncheon gatherings at a local restaurant, and their yearly picnics bring together 200 people representing several generations: on the menu are all-American hot dogs and hamburgers, along with more exotic treats. Benveniste, who also participates in a Ladino-speaking havurah, has made numerous sentimental journeys to Rhodes. His last visit came in 2002, when a group of 20 Rhodeslis traveled from Los Angeles for the dedication of a Holocaust memorial in Rhodes’ Square of the Martyred Jews.

If Benveniste and Peha represent an older generation of Rhodeslis, Rachelle Hasson stands for the future.

At 21, Aron Hasson’s daughter feels increasingly connected to her roots. Having inherited from her Rhodesli grandparents a love for baking, she takes pride in the flaky bourekas, boyos and masas de vinou (Passover wine cookies) that have her family begging for more. In school she elected to study Spanish, because “in the back of my mind I always wanted to learn the language of my ancestors.”

Now, at UCLA majoring in world arts and cultures, she has just returned from a junior year in Spain. She chose the University of Granada partly because it offered courses touching on the Sephardic tradition. Since she’s come home, she delights in chatting with her grandparents in Ladino and said one day she will be the keeper of their memories of Rhodes: “I feel it’s my duty to continue the tradition and keep it alive.”

 

The Many Lives of Lev Nussimbaum


 

“The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House, $25.95).

Lev Nussimbaum lived as though life were theater, inventing an identity, dressing the part, shifting scenes, seeking audiences everywhere. He thought he could keep rewriting the ending, believed he could talk his way out of anything including his Jewish past, but ultimately he could not.

Nussimbaum was born in Baku in 1905, the son of a Russian Jewish émigré who made a fortune in the oil business. In a case of hiding in plain sight, he later on became known as Essad Bey, a well-known writer of books on Islam and global politics, and then Kurban Said, a novelist whose best-known work, “Ali and Nino,” published in 1937, is still in print.

Tom Reiss spent seven years trying to untangle the threads of this most unusual life. His new book is a richly detailed biography that’s also a memoir of his quest and an uncommon view into the Holocaust era. “The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life” (Random House) makes for fascinating reading.

From childhood, Nussimbaum daydreamed of the East, of Turkish warriors, Persian princesses and Arabic architecture. After the Russian Revolution, he and his father fled from Baku to Turkestan and then across the desert in a 50-camel caravan, finally arriving in Constantinople and then Paris. They moved to Berlin, where he secretly attended high school and university simultaneously, “cramming his head full of the mysteries of the East,” as Reiss writes.

At a time when many European Jews were interested in Orientalism, Nussimbaum went a step further and converted to Islam. He enjoyed dressing in full regalia, and was celebrated in literary and intellectual circles for his work, publishing 16 books — including biographies of Lenin and Stalin — before the age of 30. As Essad Bey, he married a Jewish heiress, and when their marriage fell apart in the late 1930s, the story was reported in tabloid newspapers around the world.

He died in Positano, Italy in 1942 at age 36, while under house arrest; although the courtly gentleman was known by townspeople as the Muslim, his Jewish identity was suspect. He was impoverished, unable to collect royalties due on his books. One of the remaining mysteries of his life is why he went to Italy — and offered to write a biography of Mussolini — and then chose to stay there, when he might have had a chance of escaping to the United States or elsewhere. He’s buried in a cliffside cemetery in Positano, the tombstone set to face Mecca.

It’s no surprise that researching a life as unusual as this one would entail remarkable adventures. Reiss, who was dogged in his research and reporting, traveled to 10 countries, interviewing a range of relatives, publishers, aged childhood friends of his subject in Baku, others who claimed to know another author of “Ali and Nino.” Doors seemed to open to Reiss at unexpected moments, yielding gifts.

Reiss found the woman who took over the publishing company (after the Jewish owners were expelled) that published much of Nussimbaum’s work in Vienna. She had gone to see Lev in Positano, and returned with six small leather notebooks in which he had handwritten his final and unpublished work, “The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love.” She kept them in a closet for more than 50 years and presented them to Reiss, who was then able to fill in many gaps in the story. Another great discovery was a box of letters, recording a correspondence between Nussimbaum and Pima Andreae, an influential Italian salon hostess who tried to help him in Positano. Nussimbaum was a man who never wrote a boring letter. Theirs was an intellectual love affair, and she was his last link to the outside world. He reveals his deep sadness that in the end he could no longer protect his father, who ultimately died in Treblinka.

Reiss was drawn to Nussimbaum’s story during a trip to Baku in 1998, on assignment for a travel piece. A friend recommended “Ali and Nino” as a useful guide to the city. The author named on the cover was Kurban Said, and Reiss learned there was some disagreement as to Said’s true identity. At the same time, he happened to pick up one of Essad Bey’s early books in his hotel, a memoir and history titled “Blood and Oil in the Orient,” and he immediately saw connections between the two works.

As he got more involved in tracking down the truth about Nussimbaum, the 40-year-old Reiss came to see his subject as a character he had been waiting his whole life to meet, as he said. Reiss is the grandson of German Jews who left in the 1930s, although many relatives remained trapped in Europe; his mother came to the United States in 1948 as a French Jewish war orphan. In his early childhood years, Reiss lived among relatives in Washington Heights before his family moved to Texas and then Massachusetts. The book is dedicated in part to his late great-uncle Lolek, an émigré who would have been Nussimbaum’s contemporary and regaled him with stories of his adventures.

Offhandedly, Reiss refers to himself as a novelist.

“That’s how I write,” he said, “through the experiences of individuals. I think of myself as a novelist who must write the truth.”

He added that he has been obsessed with facts since childhood.

If there has been a theme to Reiss’s books and articles — he wrote about neo-Nazis in Dresden for The Wall Street Journal, a book called “Fuhrer-Ex” on the neo-Nazi movement in Europe — it has been “trying to find the back door into the Jewish experience in Nazi Europe,” he said. “I’ve always tried to find a way of seeing it that pulled me away from the clichés of the era.”

“In some ways, I’m very attracted to the assimilated Jews of Europe,” he said. Reiss has come to see assimilation as a profoundly creative act, particularly in Nussimbaum’s case.

“He was a Jew being forced to become anything else but a Jew,” he said. “Forced to assimilate all the other cultures of the world as a way of running away from being Jewish.”

In talking about his subject’s capacity for self-invention, Reiss sees Nussimbaum “as an unusually American character for a European Jew.”

Over the years, in his different guises, he rewrote his autobiography several times, another quality that strikes Reiss as American.

The multicultural Nussimbaum didn’t write directly about Zionism but one of his last published works, “Allah is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World,” published in 1936, was co-written with Wolfgang von Wiesl, a leading Zionist who was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s right-hand man. In Weimar Berlin, Nussimbaum found a number of other Jewish writers who “sought refuge from the new political realities in esoteric vistas on sympathetic Orientalism.” They saw the Jews as mediators between East and West.

Working on this project has influenced the author’s view of history.

“It made me see the whole early 20th century as one continuous tragedy beginning in 1905 and ending in 1945,” he said. “It was a disaster that began in Czarist Russia, for Jews and for everyone else.”

Did Reiss like his subject?

“I grew very attached to Lev, as often happens with a biographer,” he said. “I grew defensive of him in an odd way and went through stages of being disturbed by his disguises and choice of friends. Over time I grew to not exactly admire him, I grew deeply sympathetic. I guess that means I like him.”

“He feels like a friend who you would want to shake, to come to his senses,” he added. “But what does it mean to come to one’s senses if living in Nazi Europe. If he was crazy in behavior, most people were much crazier. There’s something inspiring in him — he’s someone who creates ways of escape even if in the end it’s just imaginative.”

Reiss, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with his wife and two daughters, still has the last notebooks and correspondence. His hope is to find an institution, perhaps in the United States or Israel, interested in creating a collection. He could see the letters published as “one of the most interesting 20th-century correspondences.”

To Andreae’s practical questions, Lev would often respond with fantastical tales, drawn from the invented life he lived.

“Up until his last letter,” Reiss said, “he thought he could save himself.”

 

Aspirations and Anxiety in America


“The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000” by Hasia Diner (University of California, $29.95)

In the late 1970s, a time when Jews in the United States had arguably achieved more status and social acceptance than in any previous era of their long Diaspora, American Jewish groups began work on a project that culminated in 1993 with the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Mall, of course, is the heart of monumental Washington. It pays tribute to the nation’s most revered icons and heroes. The new museum was a powerful symbol of how thoroughly integrated Jews had become in the fabric of American life and culture. The museum itself was dedicated to the memory of Jewish victims of Nazi fascism. At the very moment that Jews had become an accepted part of the majority culture, they were memorializing their history as a persecuted minority.

The dueling combination of aspiration and anxiety has always characterized the American Jewish experience. But paradoxically, over the past several decades, as Jews have risen to admirable prominence in U.S. society, victimization has become ever more central to American Jewish identity. Even as the last vestiges of anti-Semitic barriers were removed and the vast majority of Jews achieved comfortable, upper-middle-class lives, the Holocaust was elevated to iconic status. The struggle against oppression and discrimination remained at the core of the American Jewish narrative.

But unlike in Europe, where they had long been the quintessential “other,” Jews were never the paradigmatic outsiders in America. While they were at times stigmatized for not being Christian, Jews were nonetheless white people in a nation whose social hierarchy was based on race, not religion. Although some may have questioned Jews’ claim to whiteness, no movement in the United States ever sought to strip them of their citizenship, nor deny them the political rights — voting, holding office and serving on juries — to which white men were entitled. In other words, the discrimination that Jews did face was never comparable to that experienced at various times by blacks, Chinese and other nonwhite groups. Indeed, since the Colonial era, the religious and ethnic tolerance of America has been a relief to the many Jews who’ve arrived on these shores.

In her book, “The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000,” Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish History at New York University, seeks to recast history in light of that fundamental fact. Without ignoring the significant anti-Semitic episodes that did occur nor disavowing the real sense of vulnerability that Jews have often felt, she nonetheless attempts to balance the realities of prejudice and progress. She chronicles Jewish life in America since the first Sephardic refugees arrived in New York City from Brazil in 1654. She explains how both the fluid nature of American identity and the pragmatism at the core of American culture worked to the benefit of Jews. In the 17th century, the relative tolerance Jews enjoyed stemmed from their usefulness to the colonial enterprise. As Diner writes, “trade made the colonies, and Jews made trade.”

Under European colonial rule, Jews did not enjoy full political rights, but from their earliest days of settlement in America Jews sought relief from the highest seats of power. Indeed, their refusal to accept America as it was is what distinguishes the Jewish experience from so many others.

When Peter Stuyvesant sought to exclude the first Jewish refugees from the colony for fear they would destroy its Christian character, the settlers appealed to the Jews of old Amsterdam to intercede on their behalf to the Dutch West India Company. By the time of American Independence, a handful of Jewish merchants had amassed huge fortunes and become pillars of society. Some, like Haym Salomon, who has been called the “financier of the American Revolution,” utilized their trade connections on behalf the colonies’ struggle for independence. The Constitution, which framed America as a society built on individual entitlement rather than on corporate identity, created a “Jewish comfort zone.”

From 1820 to 1920, millions of Jews, primarily from Russian and Eastern Europe, migrated to America. Their growing numbers brought greater confidence and communal diversity. They also drew greater resistance from society at large. By the 1880s, a racialized view of Jews had emerged and some rights were compromised. Jews were refused entry into luxury hotels and denied access to jobs at some elite universities and law firms. At the same time, however, their political rights remained unchallenged. Indeed, their political influence only grew. As anti-Semitic rhetoric rose, greater numbers of Jews entered the political arena. Indeed, political participation, along with philanthropy and programs for self-improvement, were part of a broader effort at Jewish self-defense. As Diner writes, Jews “believed that if they met with the right officials, showed their deep patriotism as Americans and behaved respectably, they could prevail.”

And they did. Even at the peak of American anti-Semitism from the 1920s to the 1940s, Jews progressed. Elite colleges imposed quotas on Jewish students, and affluent neighborhoods sometimes imposed restrictive covenants to prevent Jews from buying homes. But there is nonetheless little indication that these restrictions hampered Jewish mobility. Furthermore, they were also an indication of Jewish ascendance in American society. By the mid-1940s, the majority of Jews were white-collar workers. In terms of education and income, they “far outpaced” the children and grandchildren of other European immigrants. In the postwar years, Jews could afford to suburbanize more than most other Americans. As of 1953, one-sixth of American Jews had graduated from college, compared to one-20th of the population at large.

Even as they moved out of their ethnic urban enclaves, Jews tended to cluster in suburbs that had a strong Jewish presence. Their choice to live with other Jews was driven by preference rather than anti-Semitism. Unmoored from the neighborhood bakeries, bookstores and delicatessens that once defined Jewish life in the city, suburbanites had to redefine what it meant to be Jewish. Suddenly, American Jews, who had been observing fewer and fewer aspects of Jewish ritual, returned to synagogues as the locus of their religious and ethnic identities. The postwar years saw a remarkable explosion in synagogue construction. Between 1945 and 1950, American Jews spent upwards of $500 million erecting new religious buildings. More Jews were affiliated with synagogues than at any other time since mass migration began in the early 19th century.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, no fields of endeavor denied access to Jews. That Jews were prominent in nearly every sector of American life was no longer a subject of much discussion. Indeed, this very diffusion of Jews into all aspects of American society challenged Jewish identity. For many, Jewishness no longer determined “with whom they socialized, whom they married, where they resided, or how they spent their leisure time.” To be Jewish increasingly became a matter of choice. As a result, many of the organizations that had been founded to defend Jews began to spend more energy on preserving Jewish culture and identity in America.

Diner pays particular attention to the ebbs and flows of Jewish identity throughout American history. Just as Jews never felt obliged to accept America as they found it, neither were they afraid to reinterpret Jewish identity to fit the times. “The Jews of the United States” is both balanced and comprehensive. For that reason, however, it is not Diner’s finest work. The sweeping format prohibits her from injecting the texture of the Jewish experience into her interpretation.

While solid and authoritative, “The Jews of the United States” lacks the intimacy and detail that characterized two of Diner’s previous books, “In the Almost Promised Land” and “Hungering for America.”

Still, Diner’s willingness to take on some of the shibboleths of the popular American Jewish narrative is welcome. Indeed, it is what keeps this book from being just another history textbook.

Gregory Rodriguez is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

The Arts


The three A’s in “Natasha” are filled in by tiny stylized Matryoshka dolls, the traditional Russian stacking dolls,
on the book jacket of David Bezmozgis’ radiant debut (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $18).

In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother,
father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from
the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.

Like his narrator, Bezmozgis is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He left Riga in 1979 and arrived in Toronto
in 1980 at the age of 6. But the stories are “not very autobiographical – they are only superficially based on my family.
It’s a combination of incidents that happened, things I misremembered, stories that happened to other immigrants,” he said.

Bezmozgis writes with a beautiful economy of words, and with warmth, wit and loyalty toward a community he feels very much part of.
The first story opens soon after the family arrives in Toronto, and they live “one respectable block” from the center of the Russian
community with its “flapping clotheslines” and borscht-smelling hallways. Through the stories they struggle and progress to better
apartments and to a suburban house “at the edge of Toronto’s sprawl.”

Each story is a fully lived moment on the Berman family’s journey toward fitting in. In Latvia, Roman Berman was a massage therapist, a
trainer of Olympic athletes. Sometimes, when the father isn’t around, the young boy takes out and studies an old photo of his father in Riga,
his face carrying the “detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary.” For the boy, “it was comforting to think that
the man in the picture and my father were once the same person.”

In the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” the father passes difficult certification exams, sets up an office with his name on
the door and then waits for clients. A rabbi suggests advertising, and they pass out copies of a flyer full of newly acquired superlatives.
When a doctor calls and invites the family to Shabbat dinner, they accept, full of hope.

He writes, “Before Stalin, my great-grandmother lit the candles and made an apple cake every Friday night. In my grandfather’s recollection
of prewar Jewish Latvia, the candles and apple cakes feature prominently. When my mother was a girl, Stalin was already in charge, and although
there was still apple cake, there were no more candles. By the time I was born, there were neither candles nor apple cake, though in my mother’s
mind, apple cake still meant Jewish. With this in mind, she retrieved the apple cake recipe and went to the expensive supermarket for the
ingredients.”

They arrive at Dr. Kornblum’s home with “feigned confidence” and a warm apple cake. The doctor means well, but is patronizing, even insulting,
sending the family home with their cold apple cake. Fearing more bad luck and rejection, they dump the cake, expensive ingredients and all.

With poignancy, Bezmozgis shows how the yearnings of the immigrants and the good intentions of others don’t quite match. Other stories
reveal gaps of understanding between the family and friends they left behind, and between members of the larger family.

Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are a troika of young Russian Jewish émigré fiction writers of considerable talent. They
write of a sense of being between worlds, although each is quite different: Shteyngart is the satirist of the group. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar,
who has also published a collections of stories, are more similar in their spare, understated style, although most of Vapnyar’s stories are
set in the former Soviet Union, while Bezmozgis portrays one émigré family, and through them, the larger community.

The three follow in a long, respected line of Jewish writers who have creatively mined their immigrant pasts and ethnic neighborhoods
in fiction. Writers like Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud come to mind.

“It’s a dream to be part of that tradition,” Bezmozgis said, although he feels most akin, stylistically and thematically, with writers
like Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels.

For the author, being Jewish is very important. “I’m an atheist. I think that limits what kind of religious life I can have without
being a tourist or hypocrite. Being part of a community, at synagogue, gives me pleasure.” He added, “You put me in a synagogue with old
Eastern European Jews, and I’m likely to break down in tears. That is my idea of Jewish tradition and my identity.”

Growing up, he was the family’s translator and since he was 10, he would write letters for his father, a massage therapist like
Roman Berman. The author attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from
McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before
moving back to Toronto.

He admittedly has a poor memory, and finds that can be valuable. About Latvia, he remembers nothing. “It allows me not to be too
deeply connected to things. I can’t be faithful to something I can’t remember.” In writing he tries “to find the emotional truth,
not a documentary truth,” he said.

Music Man Silenced at 82


Film composer Elmer Bernstein, who died last week at the age of 82, was born in New York, the son of immigrants from Ukraine and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After being blacklisted during the McCarthy era he came back to pen such classic scores as "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Man with the Golden Arm," "The Magnificent Seven," "The Age of Innocence" and "The Grifters." In a 1998 interview with The Jewish Journal, he shed light on his musical roots.

"I spoke Yiddish before I spoke English. I was largely brought up, for the first four years of my life, by my grandmother and grandfather. They were "Fiddler on the Roof" kind of people, like people from Anatevka. Their friends used to come over and sit around the kitchen with the glasele te, and I stayed for the stories. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us — I was very fond of her — was conventionally religious.

I was brought up listening to my grandmother sing Jewish songs all the time. The first songs I learned were in Yiddish. It influenced me in the sense that it’s powerful."

Russian Emigre’s Tales of New World


The three A’s in "Natasha" are filled in by tiny stylized Matryoshka dolls, the traditional Russian stacking dolls, on the book jacket of David Bezmozgis’ radiant debut (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $18).

In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother, father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.

Like his narrator, Bezmozgis is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He left Riga in 1979 and arrived in Toronto in 1980 at the age of 6. But the stories are "not very autobiographical — they are only superficially based on my family. It’s a combination of incidents that happened, things I misremembered, stories that happened to other immigrants," he said.

Bezmozgis writes with a beautiful economy of words, and with warmth, wit and loyalty toward a community he feels very much part of. The first story opens soon after the family arrives in Toronto, and they live "one respectable block" from the center of the Russian community with its "flapping clotheslines" and borscht-smelling hallways. Through the stories they struggle and progress to better apartments and to a suburban house "at the edge of Toronto’s sprawl."

Each story is a fully lived moment on the Berman family’s journey toward fitting in. In Latvia, Roman Berman was a massage therapist, a trainer of Olympic athletes. Sometimes, when the father isn’t around, the young boy takes out and studies an old photo of his father in Riga, his face carrying the "detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary." For the boy, "it was comforting to think that the man in the picture and my father were once the same person."

In the story "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist," the father passes difficult certification exams, sets up an office with his name on the door and then waits for clients. A rabbi suggests advertising, and they pass out copies of a flyer full of newly acquired superlatives. When a doctor calls and invites the family to Shabbat dinner, they accept, full of hope.

He writes, "Before Stalin, my great-grandmother lit the candles and made an apple cake every Friday night. In my grandfather’s recollection of prewar Jewish Latvia, the candles and apple cakes feature prominently. When my mother was a girl, Stalin was already in charge, and although there was still apple cake, there were no more candles. By the time I was born, there were neither candles nor apple cake, though in my mother’s mind, apple cake still meant Jewish. With this in mind, she retrieved the apple cake recipe and went to the expensive supermarket for the ingredients."

They arrive at Dr. Kornblum’s home with "feigned confidence" and a warm apple cake. The doctor means well, but is patronizing, even insulting, sending the family home with their cold apple cake. Fearing more bad luck and rejection, they dump the cake, expensive ingredients and all.

With poignancy, Bezmozgis shows how the yearnings of the immigrants and the good intentions of others don’t quite match. Other stories reveal gaps of understanding between the family and friends they left behind, and between members of the larger family.

Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are a troika of young Russian Jewish émigré fiction writers of considerable talent. They write of a sense of being between worlds, although each is quite different: Shteyngart is the satirist of the group. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar, who has also published a collections of stories, are more similar in their spare, understated style, although most of Vapnyar’s stories are set in the former Soviet Union, while Bezmozgis portrays one émigré family, and through them, the larger community.

The three follow in a long, respected line of Jewish writers who have creatively mined their immigrant pasts and ethnic neighborhoods in fiction. Writers like Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud come to mind.

"It’s a dream to be part of that tradition," Bezmozgis said, although he feels most akin, stylistically and thematically, with writers like Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels.

For the author, being Jewish is very important. "I’m an atheist. I think that limits what kind of religious life I can have without being a tourist or hypocrite. Being part of a community, at synagogue, gives me pleasure." He added, "You put me in a synagogue with old Eastern European Jews, and I’m likely to break down in tears. That is my idea of Jewish tradition and my identity."

Growing up, he was the family’s translator and since he was 10, he would write letters for his father, a massage therapist like Roman Berman. The author attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before moving back to Toronto.

He admittedly has a poor memory, and finds that can be valuable. About Latvia, he remembers nothing. "It allows me not to be too deeply connected to things. I can’t be faithful to something I can’t remember." In writing he tries "to find the emotional truth, not a documentary truth," he said.

Exploring Mexico City’s Jewish Past


For someone wandering the cobblestone streets of Mexico City’s Historic Center, where the sound of the cathedral bells fills the air and the streets have names like Jesus Maria, it’s hard to imagine that this neighborhood was once the heart of the country’s Jewish community.

But here, where the streets are now crowded with vendors selling everything from tacos to baseball hats, Mexican Jews founded their first synagogues and community centers. Centuries before that, it was the area where Jews were burned at the stake during the Inquisition.

For nine years, Monica Unikel-Fasja has given Jewish historical tours in Mexico City’s oldest neighborhood, a dilapidated area that is now under construction as part of Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s plan to revitalize what has been the city’s nucleus for centuries.

Unikel-Fasja guides groups through streets where Jewish immigrants found their first homes in converted convents and established their first clothing and jewelry stores, the places where they began their lives in Mexico.

“I think you can appreciate history more when you see it visually, when you retrace the steps,” said Unikel-Fasja, the author of a Spanish-language book that translates as “Synagogues of Mexico.”

Unikel-Fasja begins her tours at the city’s main post office, a beautifully preserved building decorated inside with ornate gilded metal.

The post office? Unikel-Fasja explains that it’s the perfect place to start because when Jews first immigrated to Mexico from countries like France and Syria, it was a gathering place — a place they would go to send and receive mail from loved ones.

“Jews laughed here, they cried here,” Unikel-Fasja explained. “Some would go every day to their post office box to check for mail from home.”

The first Jews came to Mexico in the 16th century. When the Spanish Inquisition arrived in the New World they were forced to convert or practice Judaism in secret.

Another wave of Jewish immigrants, including many from France, came during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz (1877-1911), who invited Europeans to immigrate to Mexico.

But the immigrants who form the base of Mexico’s modern Jewish community didn’t arrive until the 20th century, Unikel-Fasja said.

In the early and mid-1900s, Jews arrived from Turkey, Greece, Syria and Eastern Europe.

Today, Mexico is home to about 40,000 Jews, most in the capital, Mexico City.

Walking through the narrow streets, Unikel-Fasja says she gives tours in Spanish or English whenever people request them. In addition to her Historic Center tour, she gives a Jewish history tour in the Roma neighborhood of the city.

Most of her visitors are Jewish, but not all.

“I think it is important that non-Jews come on the tour,” she said. “Mexico is the product of a cultural mosaic, and we don’t know or understand members of other groups.”

On one recent tour, most people are Jewish, and there also is a Catholic couple that has heard Unikel-Fasja interviewed on a local radio program.

“We are fascinated with the history of other religions,” says Ofelia Hernandez, who attended the tour with her husband, Jose Manuel, and their 3-year-old grandson. “We have been to Israel, but we never knew about the synagogues in Mexico.”

Jews built their first synagogues in Mexico City’s Historic Center, but they abandoned them and built new ones and as they acquired wealth and moved to other parts of the city. Some of the old synagogues remain in the Historic Center, still owned by the Jewish congregations but rarely used.

The Sephardi synagogue at 83 Justo Sierra St. was Mexico’s first, built in 1923. Sometimes, Jews who work in the Historic Center pray there on weekdays, but usually is empty on the Sabbath.

Just down Justo Sierra is another abandoned place of worship, Mexico’s first Ashkenazi synagogue, built in 1941. There, the floor tiles are mismatched and the old wooden pews creak loudly when someone sits down, but the intricately painted ceiling gives a glimpse of its past beauty.

“It’s a piece of Lithuania in Mexico,” Unikel-Fasja says.

Unikel-Fasja’s tours focus more on Jewish life than anti-Semitism, but it’s chilling when she points to the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, and explains that it Jews were executed there during the Inquisition. Centuries later, anti-Semitic demonstrators marched there, demanding that the government expel Jews from Mexico.

But Mexico generally was a good place for Jews, Unikel-Fasja says. At times when other countries — including the United States — shut their doors to Jewish immigrants, Mexico welcomed them.

“Mexico opened the doors to Jews, gave them the freedom to set up their lives,” she said. “Gracias, Mexico.”

More information is available about the history of
Jewish Mexico City at

‘Heart’ Celebrates a Nation’s Dream


Controversy sells movies. Remember "The Passion of the Christ?" Now Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing "Fahrenheit 9/11" is raking in millions since launching its own firestorm when Disney refused to distribute it, citing the studio’s nonpartison history. This July 4 weekend, "Disney will offer a counterdocumentary called ‘America’s Heart and Soul’ with panoramic vistas, soaring music and heartwarming profiles of cowboys, gospel singers and handicapped athletes," Newsweek said.

If the controversy pumps up "Heart," its Jewish filmmaker, Louis Schwartzberg, isn’t taking advantage. The 54-year-old is hardly as flamboyant as Moore, nor has his face been all over the news. Rather, he has been quietly attending Q-and-A sessions about his film, which Disney is promoting via word-of-mouth screenings — a less incendiary marketing tactic borrowed from "The Passion." His powerful, jaw-droppingly gorgeous documentary has been shown to dozens of targeted groups, from Jewish musicians to Future Farmers of America.

The Journal recently caught up with Schwartzberg on the Disney lot between screenings for radio host Dennis Prager and an evangelical Christian organization. Soft-spoken and dressed in jeans, he almost faded into the background as the dynamic Prager conducted an informal Q and A.

"My parents are Holocaust survivors who came to this country with nothing," he said. "They instilled in me a strong appreciation of the American ideals of tolerance, freedom and opportunity, which I wanted to celebrate in a movie."

"Heart" presents 26 vignettes of ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories (think Studs Terkel) including a blind mountaineer, a klezmer clarinetist, and an ex-con who heads the Olympic boxing team.

But don’t call Schwartzberg the anti-Michael Moore. Some of the media spin "makes it seem like [Moore’s] the left and I’m the right, but that’s not true," he said. Schwartzberg describes himself as politically liberal (he’s a board member of two environmental groups); he didn’t intend his film to be "a whitewashed, Pollyanna greeting card vision of America."

He believes it depicts the flipside of the American dream, including homelessness and unemployment, while celebrating the proverbial devotion to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"It doesn’t matter if these values aren’t perfect or whether they even exist," he said, later, while sitting in a gleaming lobby amid images of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. "I know there isn’t yet equal opportunity for all, but shouldn’t we strive for that? That’s what I’m hoping my film will inspire people to do."

"Heart" ends with breathtaking images of Fourth of July fireworks near Ellis Island, which Schwartzberg also traces to his parents.

"The Statue of Liberty is the first thing they saw when they came to this country, and it represents the ideals that brought them here," he said.

Although he shares these ideals, he didn’t always share his parents’ politics. During the Vietnam War, his father, a tool and dye maker from whom he inherited his love of photography, worked for a military aircraft manufacturer; Schwartzberg, meanwhile, shot photo essays about police violence during demonstrations at UCLA.

Rather than go to work for the audio visual department of dad’s company after graduation, he developed a reputation as a preeminent time-lapse photographer. Later he directed commercials and spectacular time-lapse sequences that have been featured in films such as "American Beauty," among other endeavors.

It was while traveling the country to direct promotional spots for local news broadcasts that he got the idea for a movie featuring vignettes that, strung together, "would provide a snapshot of the American character." He spent millions of his own dollars to shoot "Heart," which uses 35mm stock and looks like the priciest of IMAX films. ("I’m out on a limb, big time," he said of the expense.)

Schwartzberg persevered even as every studio in town rejected his film; Disney finally bought "Heart" 18 months ago, well before the Moore brouhaha.

If generating movie controversies has become as American as apple pie, Schwartzberg wants no part of it. "For me, it’s a nonissue," he said.

He’s equally direct with those who might label his film as right wing or naive: "I don’t think it’s hokey to love your country," he said.

"America’s Heart and Soul" opens today in Los Angeles.

Persian Arrivals


Tribes of Jews move through the history of Los Angeles in predictable cadences. First as new immigrants, raw and clannish and eager to succeed; then as successful citizens, integrated or assimilated, their accents lost in their children’s mouths. Finally they earn the right to choose the life they want: to identify themselves with their traditions or not, to shape the city or withdraw into its shapelessness.

My mind wandered in these directions as I sat watching stunning Persian Jewish men and women dance the night away at a gala event Saturday night inaugurating Neman Hall, a sumptuous ballroom at the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in West Hollywood.

A ballroom is a ballroom, right? Wrong. Neman Hall, designed by architect Abdi Khoranian, happens to be quite elegant, more fairy tale than function-room, though its mirror-paneled walls do hide a state-of-the-art Internet hookup, satellite receivers and flat-panel displays.

But this night was, ultimately, not about celebrating architecture, but arrival. "It is a kind of renaissance," said Joe Shoshani, one of the evening’s organizers. "We are having freedom both in Israel and the United States, and our people are flowering in both."

To drive home that point, the honored guest Saturday night was Israel’s Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz, 56, was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at age 9. His rise to the top of Israel’s army as chief of staff, and his subsequent appointment to what is widely considered the No. 2 post in the government, is a source of great pride to the Persian Jewish community here.

On a two-day visit, Mofaz spoke at a fundraiser at the Beverly Hills home of Parviz Nazarian for Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, a pro-democracy project founded by Nazarian. Mofaz was the keynote speaker at a major fundraiser the next day for Israel Bonds, and in between he cut the ribbon at the Neman Hall event.

"I can’t speak Farsi," he told the crowd Saturday evening. Nevertheless, he said he shared in their pride and congratulated them on their achievement. He received several standing ovations.

The 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey put the number of Persian Jews living in Los Angeles at 18,000. Others put the number at up to six times that, but demographer Pini Herman, who conducted the survey with Bruce Phillips, has said it is unlikely the number, if it is higher, is higher by much.

"You see the same people at every event," one partygoer at Neman Hall said. "Maybe there are only 200 of us."

But numbers — and there are more than 200 — matter less than impact. The Persian Jewish community has established itself economically, and as IAJF President Shokrollah Baravarian said at the event, it has successfully created mechanisms to transmit its values and concerns to the next generation. The IAJF building houses social-service outreach to new immigrants and the needy; organizations like Magbit and Nessah provide cultural and social support, there are singles groups, religious study groups and now, with Neman Hall, a social gathering spot open to the entire community, a room of one’s own.

There are other religious and cultural centers for Persian Jews of the Westside and the Valley, but one advantage is that the West Hollywood locale allows for festivities to continue until 2 a.m. That comes in handy, as dinner doesn’t appear at many Persian events until 10 p.m., following an onslaught of hors d’oeuvres.

"It brings the community together," Leon Neman said. Neman’s brother, Yoel, spearheaded the two-year effort to construct the $1 million hall, named for and largely financed by their late father, Feizollah Neman. Brothers Leon, John and Yoel run Neman Brothers and Associates, a major textile concern.

"The Persian Jews fled Iran, but here we’re showing what we can be," Leon Neman said.

David Nahai, an attorney who served as master of ceremonies, took the idea a step further.

"This hall bears silent witness to the fact that we have spread our roots in the community," he said. "We have gone from stunned, wide-eyed immigrants to an affluent community with incredible potential."

Nahai is a member and former chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, active in Jewish life and in political and environmental movements. Such involvement is the natural next step for a community that has, as Nahai said, already spread its wings so successfully.

"We can no longer be insular," Nahai said, "because we are not immune from the events that go on around us."

Nahai urged the attendees to apply their resources and skills to improving the lot of all Angelenos and Californians.

That, I realized, is the next step in the immigrant story: Immigration, success, organization and then outreach. Time and again Jews have come to this city and done just that — made the city work for them, then worked hard to make the city better. And that is when you know they’ve arrived.

Cal State Bridges Culture Gap


The Los Angeles campus of California State University hardly seems fertile ground to introduce studies on Jewish culture and history.

Located five miles east of the downtown Civic Center, Cal State L.A. has some 21,000 students, of whom more than half are Latino, almost a quarter Asian American and 8.4 percent African American.

Among the 15.7 percent non-Hispanic whites, Jews make up such an insignificant portion that no statistics, or even good guesstimates, are available.

It is precisely because of this lopsided ethnic minority makeup that Carl M. Selkin is working hard to add a Jewish component to the curriculum.

"Our students, who are tomorrow’s public school teachers, have no connection with Jews in their lives and studies," said Selkin, dean of the College of Arts and Letters. "Many are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and they need to know about the Jewish contributions to American society and the building of Los Angeles."

The campus site is near Boyle Heights, once home to a vibrant Jewish community before and during World War II. But by the time the campus was opened in 1956, almost all Jews had departed for the Fairfax area and the Westside.

That means that few students have had any regular contacts with Jews, leaving only a residue of anti-Semitic stereotypes and myths.

The Jewish studies program will start out fairly modestly next year (2004) by expanding present courses to reflect Jewish contributions in a given field. Selkin expects that the first such courses will be in the history of the film industry and in American literature.

As the program — and financial resources — grow, he hopes to add Jewish-oriented lectures by visiting experts, research projects, scholarships and special events.

These studies and activities will be part of the university’s American Communities Program, which has received challenge grants form the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation.

However, to put the Jewish program on a sound financial footing, Selkin is seeking an endowment of $200,000 from Jewish community organizations and individuals.

The obvious question remains whether Latino, Asian and black students will have the interest, and time, to study about American Jewish culture, history and the immigrant experience.

Spare time is a factor since most students commute to campus, hold part-time jobs, and frequently are older men and women preparing for second careers.

Nevertheless, there are "lots of possibilities for the program to make an impact, if carefully planned," said professor Peter Brier, who taught English on campus for three decades.

"Many students are curious about Jews, beyond the myths and stereotypes," he said. "There is a growing interest in religious studies, including Judaism and Islam."

Brier also thinks that the current students, drawn largely from East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley, may show a historical interest in the Jewish immigrants who preceded them in their communities.

Rabbi Michael Perelmuter, who worked with the now defunct Hillel Extension program on campus, believes that many Christian students, especially among Asian Americans, will wish to explore the Jewish roots of their faith.

"It will take an effort, but it is important to keep Jewish culture and history on the radar screen," he said.

One plus factor is the relatively large number of Jewish faculty members on campus. Seymour Levitan, who served as chairman of the psychology department, recalled that, in the 1960s, roughly one-quarter of his 100 full- and part-time academic staff was Jewish.

Although the number has declined as the older Jewish professors retire and are largely replaced by non-Jewish faculty, there still remains a sufficient core who could serve as instructors and supporters of a Jewish program, if they are willing.

Cal State L.A. has never approached the Jewish activism and presence found at the top American academic institutions, private and public, with their large and largely affluent Jewish enrollment and attractive Hillel centers.

On the other hand, the L.A. campus has been largely immune to pro-Palestinian demonstrations and confrontations.

"These issues don’t really interest our student body," Brier said.

However, there was a time, from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, when Cal State students regularly met for Shabbat dinners and Passover seders at off-campus homes, Perelmuter recalled, and there was even a short-lived Aish HaTorah campus chapter in the 1960s.

Between 1975 and 1991, Perelmuter served as the "itinerant" Hillel Extension rabbi for Occidental College, Caltech and Cal State L.A., until the extension program was axed for lack of funds.

"We weren’t all that large, but we had up to 50 Cal State students signed up with Hillel, we had speakers and cultural programs and some excellent interfaith dialogues," said Perelmuter, who is now director of interreligious affairs for the regional American Jewish Committee.

For more information on the Jewish studies program at Cal State L.A., contact Dean Carl M. Selkin at (323) 343-4001. Tax deductible contributions can be sent to Selkin, College of Arts and Letters, Cal State L.A,. 5151 University Drive, Los Angeles, CA, 90032-8100. Checks should be made payable to "The CSLA Foundation/Jewish American Endowment."

A Sparkling Life


When Anthony Kantor was orphaned on Russia’s streets a century ago, narrowly escaping the pogroms that killed his family, he couldn’t have imagined that he would one day make his living trading diamonds and other precious stones in downtown Los Angeles.

Nor did the late Kantor, a founding member of Hollywood Temple Beth El and an underwriter of Bais Yaakov High School for Girls, dream of the impact his success in the diamond industry would have for Jews in Los Angeles.

Kantor’s daughter, Irene, son-in-law, Conrad Furlong, and grandson, Aaron Henry Furlong, expanded the business begun by the Russian street child, who closed deals with a handshake and a mazel und brucha (luck and blessing), the traditional closing of a deal in the diamond trade. For the past 35 years, the Furlongs have designed and manufactured high-end jewelry in their Hill Street office tower, located in the heart of Los Angeles’ Diamond District. They are one of many third- and fourth-generation Jewish families who have had a profound impact on the enigmatic and tightly knit jewelry industry.

"Back in my grandfather’s time, the diamond business was almost entirely Jewish," Aaron Furlong said, as he graded small stones. "Mazel was your word, and if you went against it, you were ostracized from the business."

Today, estimates put the number of Jews in the diamond trade at roughly 50 percent. Immigrants from countries like Armenia, Lebanon, Turkey and India have poured into Los Angeles’ diamond center, much like the wave of Eastern European Jews did after World War II.

"Despite the changes," Furlong said, "this industry is still mostly family run. There’s a long-standing code of ethics, and reputation is the only thing that separates the different firms."

The mazel code that Furlong cited — mazal u’bracha in Hebrew, mabruk in Arabic — has guided generations of Jewish diamond families. Accounts date it back to Maimonides, the medieval philosopher who purportedly asked his brother, a precious stones trader, to conclude all of his business dealings with a mazal u’bracha.

Furlong’s father, Conrad, was raised Episcopalian, but converted to Judaism five years before hanging out a shingle in the storeroom of Kantor’s building. Initially spurred on by his marriage to Kantor’s daughter, Irene, his conversion ultimately found a spiritual pitch within his daily life.

Today, Conrad Furlong, one of Los Angeles’ premiere diamond setters, dons his pale blue smock each morning to work at a bench just a few feet from his son. The two employ tools as small and precise as those used in the dental field.

Diamond setters — Jewish or otherwise — only teach the business to their sons and sons-in-law. Conrad Furlong was an exception.

Furlong was able to learn the trade by virtue of Kantor’s industry friendships. During his apprenticeship, he was only allowed to look over a setter’s shoulder and could not say or touch anything. To develop his skills, Furlong built a workbench in his apartment and with fake stones and silver mountings, reproduced everything he saw — from memory.

"When my son was born, I went into business for myself," Conrad Furlong said. "Later, I took my six best employees and moved to Hill Street to do only high line [setting, building and designing high-quality jewelry]." His wife still takes care of the bookkeeping.

Aaron Furlong, who also creates jewelry under the name Aaron Henry Designs, received his graduate gemologist degree at the Gemological Institute of America in Los Angeles. He fabricates intricate gold and platinum mountings with torch and solder.

His love for colored stones — emeralds, sapphires and rubies — has earned him design and manufacturing awards from the American Gem Trade Association, De Beers and other industry organizations.

"I first began separating burrs [tiny texture grinders] in my grandfather’s store when I was 7," Furlong recalled. "That was when the industry was only about five or six buildings on Broadway, not the two dozen on and around Hill Street it is today. The diamond dealers would join together after work to drink whiskey," he said. "They’d walk around with parcels of stones worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and do deals in the elevators."

The grandson, who was raised Conservative, takes pride in the Jewish legacy his industry has fostered and in the reputation his family has achieved.

"Things like ‘blood diamonds’ [stones Angolan rebels sold to the diamond trade to finance their terror campaigns] and the harsh checks De Beers imposed on miners years ago to prevent smuggling have made the industry police itself," Furlong explained. "We do background checks on all our suppliers" he said. "And I’ve visited one of our dealer’s cutting centers in India to affirm the working conditions with my own eyes."

To ensure their stones are "clean" or legitimate, the Furlongs belong to the American Gem Society and the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, groups devoted to upholding industry ethics. "Anyone running afoul of watchdogs like the Diamond Council will have a hard time surviving in this business," the grandson stressed.

A diamond’s journey from mine to showroom is a convoluted one. Global conglomerates own the mines and offer site-holders, of which there are about 80 to 120 worldwide, the ability to purchase raw stones, called "roughs."

Site-holders transport the roughs to cutting centers. Manufacturers like the Furlongs buy parcels of cut stones directly from site holders and sell the finished pieces they’ve created from them to wholesalers and retailers. Because the mines for colored stones are less controlled and scattered throughout the globe, supplies come directly from the mines or the cutters.

"If there is a cornerstone of Judaism in this business," Furlong said, "it’s the diamond cutters and brokers. They come from Tel Aviv, New York and South Africa and meet at the Diamond Club down the hall. That group speaks with a unified voice for L.A.’s Diamond District."

Irene Furlong, now in her mid-50s, hasn’t known any other life but gems and diamonds. Her childhood was spent in her father’s showroom, "shooting marbles" with his inventory of pearls.

"Everything is done with memos [written receipts for loose stones] these days, and we’ve lost many of the old traditions," she said wistfully.

"I remember one client we had who had a three-band Pavee ring and was stung by a bee," she recalled. "The paramedics couldn’t cut the ring off through the diamonds, so they called Conrad, who takes the jobs no one else can do. He went to the ER and removed each stone from its setting. The whole time, the client’s husband was yelling: ‘Be careful. Don’t damage the diamonds!’"

In a luxury industry that generated more than $42 billion in jewelry and watch sales in the U.S. last year and $54 billion in worldwide diamond sales alone, the Furlongs, like many other diamond industry families, are reluctant to draw too much attention. In Los Angeles’ Diamond District, uniformed and undercover police patrols keep a close watch on area.

"The Jewish immigrants who built this business came from very harsh backgrounds, and were attracted to the beauty of precious stones and gems," Aaron Furlong said.

"They were multifaceted people," he said, smiling at the pun. "As it was in my grandfather’s time, 50 years ago, this business is a blend of instinct, engineering and art."

"It doesn’t matter if it’s diamonds or colored stones," he continued. "The challenge is to build a luxury piece that’s timeless and beautiful. And to conduct your business in an honorable way" — with a mazel und brucha, as Kantor would say.


David Geffner can be contacted
at liturkfilm@earthlink.net

.

Aliyah Perspectives


From Los Angeles, Israel is 20 hours away by plane and 10 hours ahead on the clock; it’s also a world apart. But in the past 55 years of the State of Israel’s independence, thousands of Jews have made aliyah from L.A., generally forfeiting a more comfortable lifestyle to follow their dreams. Why did they move there? How did they do it? How do they feel about it in hindsight? How has the country changed since their arrival? The Jewish Journal went to Israel to speak to former Angelenos, to find out how life in the Jewish state compares to life in the Golden State.

The Good Soldier

Tahg Adler is at the cusp of his youthful idealism, the end of the period when dreams give way to the reality of, say, putting food on the table. The bright light of conviction still emanates from his blond California face as he talks about his move back to Israel. “I felt a sense of attachment, a sense of belonging,” the 26-year-old explains from Atara’s Cafe in Rehavia, the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood in which he has lived since the fall.

Adler has been back and forth between California and Israel for a number of years, first attending the Otzmah one-year program in 1988, after receiving a B.S. from San Diego State University. He returned to California to become the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s West Coast student organizer and made aliyah in January 2000, at which time he took intensive Hebrew at Ulpan. He then served in the Israeli army for nine months, until a stress fracture resulted in his release three months early.

It was back to San Diego for grad school in exercise physiology for him, but he quickly realized “he wasn’t feeling it,” he says, because “I wanted to go back to Israel.” In order to keep that connection, he came to Los Angeles to work at the Israel Aliyah Center as a program recruiter to encourage students to go on programs to Israel.

It’s not hard to see why students might be encouraged by the passionate Adler, who had been voted model soldier when he served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). During his time in L.A.,the center sent some 160 students on programs to Israel, the feeder for future aliyah. “I wanted to take my experience and pass it on to other students,” says Adler, who believes he was successful because he actively went out to campuses, Israel fairs and Jewish events to engage students and help them find the right program to go to Israel. Despite the fact that they were successful during such a tough year of tourism for Israel (“many more students wanted to go, but their parents wouldn’t let because of security; instead they turned proactive about Israel on campus”), six months ago Adler decided to send himself — instead of others — to Israel.

He continued to work with the Aliyah Center until February, serving as a touchpoint for some of the people he helped make aliyah, however, he is primarily focusing on his own acclimation. During the day, Adler takes on private clients as a personal trainer and also plays drums in a band. In addition, at the unusual hours of 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., he works for CSM (IDT in the United States) as a customer service representative for overseas telecommunications to the United States. “It allows me to live here,” he explains.

The son of Yeshiva University College Dean Dr. Norman Adler, Tahg Adler has a unique perspective on the Los Angeles community, because he worked in it as a recruiter. “I think the L.A. community can raise the Jewish consciousness exponentially by raising its connection to Israel.” True to his background in physiology, Adler gives the following metaphor. “World Jewry is the body, and Israel is the heart. You need a strong heart to keep the body going.”

The Kibbutz Milkman

Boy, does it reek at the Ma’aleh Gilboah milking center in the Jordan Valley. But Lenny Kaplan seems unaffected by the unusual surroundings of two rows of cows flanking him for their daily milking.

That’s probably because Kaplan has been at the kibbutz since 1976, when he moved to Israel. “Bnei Akiva [the religious Zionist youth movement Kaplan had belonged to in Los Angeles since the fourth grade] told us they were establishing a new kibbutz and needed people to go there, so I came here.”

Kaplan’s idealism is a product of his upbringing. Born in Seattle, Kaplan moved to Los Angeles when he was a year old and grew up in the Fairfax area, where his family attended Sha’arei Tefilah, and he went to Hebrew Academy. After the Six-Day War, his father, a Jewish educator at the school, decided to send Kaplan to Israel for the first year of high school, but Kaplan managed to extend his stay for the next three years.

“By the time I was 18, I was very involved and knew it was going to be my home,” Kaplan says. He did return to the United States with the intention of attending law school, but with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Kaplan returned to Israel as a volunteer: He and his friends served as manpower on kibbutzim. Kaplan worked for three months raising turkeys on Kibbutz Yavneh — replacing the men who were fighting. He went back to L.A. to finish college. “I think that those three months strengthened my yearning to come back to Israel.”

Kaplan, now 49 with five children, manages the dairy farm and also serves as a consultant to agriculture companies. (One of the kibbutz’s innovations is that its milk has the kosher certification of the “Edah Haredit,” the ultra-Orthodox of Israel, because the kibbutz discovered a way to milk cows on Shabbat that does not violate the law.)

When Kaplan made aliyah in 1976, the Kibbutz had just started. Now with over 55 families — 300 people — it recently turned into a moshav kehilati, a privatized community where people earn their own living and reside in their own homes, as opposed to the communal, socialized ideal of the kibbutz, which in the last decade has been in great decline all over Israel, because the younger generation has not opted to live on kibbutzim.

Kaplan says that it’s a pity that the kibbutz movement today is not as attractive as it was 25 years ago, but being pragmatic, the only way the kibbutz movement can survive today “is to make the changes needed, and the only way is to privatize and turn them into agricultural communities,” Kaplan explains. “It’s the only way that [agricultural communities] can exist. It’s important to me that they continue to strive,” he says. “The ideology is less important to me.”

In his yellow plaid shirt and work boots, Kaplan is the very picture of the kibbutznik, not one of those immigrants you can really imagine living anywhere else but here on Ma’aleh Gilboa. He has spent three years in the United States as an emissary “It’s important for my kids to experience what I grew up with, but I don’t regret for a moment making aliyah. I’m very happy that I was born American and very happy that I’m living in Israel.”

The newest soldier

The Israel Defense Forces doesn’t quite know what to do with Ariella Askrin. Since she joined over a month ago. It’s one of those bureaucratic mix-ups that happen in Israel all the time, especially in the army and especially to new immigrants. “I’m kind of in the middle of a bunch of frameworks, and they don’t know where to put me, and it’s kind of hard,” Askrin says, sounding like a confused and scared 19-year-old.

The mix-up centers around an old test score that shows Askrin’s Hebrew is not good enough to qualify her for the army course she wants. Askrin says her Hebrew has improved since she took the test, but in the meantime, she sits all day at the base in the Galilee and studies Hebrew with an IDF commander. “It’s really important, and it shows me that they care,” Askrin says about her personalized Hebrew lessons care of the IDF.

Askrin’s move to Israel was not the steady religious-Zionist path. Born to a strongly Zionist father, Askrin grew up in West L.A. and attended Hamilton High School for two years and Santa Monica College on early admission. Last year, she went on the Young Judea one-year program.

“On Young Judea, I just fell in love,” Askrin told The Journal. “I came back [to Israel] to go to the army. I didn’t think it was fair if they’re dying for us, and we don’t have to fight for ourselves.”

Before this current stint in the army, Askrin went on Ma’arva, a three-month army basic training program for foreign citizens, to see if she liked the army. On Ma’arva, she met her current boyfriend, who was a commander; when they’re off duty, they live together in Ma’aleh Adumim, a city outside Jerusalem.

Although she finds living in Israel hard, scary and “at times, sad,” she thinks that she will stay.

The hassles have not weakened her resolve. “I came here to go to the army … and that’s the best, because even no matter how hard or boring it is … I know that I’m doing what I came here to do.”

From Boyle Heights to Cairo

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and his older sister, Shimona, were raised in such a Zionist household, that their Russian immigrant parents spoke to them only in Hebrew in order to prepare them for life Israel. Founders of Habonim, the labor Zionist youth movement in Los Angeles, their parents were both Hebrew teachers and took the children to Israel for six months when Zev was 5 and Shimona was 13.

“That clinched it for me,” says Shimona — now Kushner — explaining her move to Israel that fulfilled her parents’ dream a few years after her mother’s death.

That trauma is what Yaroslavsky says probably caused the different paths that he and his sister took. “The question I’m asked is why she did and I didn’t [emigrate],” the supervisor says, wondering if his life would have taken a different turn had his mother not passed away when he was 10.

“If my mother had lived longer, and if I had the opportunity to benefit from her mentorship during my teen years, maybe I would have made ailyah,” says Yaroslavsky, adding that his mother was the one who took them to Israel, and she was the one who gave them Bible lessons each Saturday morning. Not that Yaroslavsky’s career is something to scoff at: his commitment to Judaism, activism and support of Israel are a testament to his parents, but he is glad that at least his sister moved to Israel.

“I know how much it meant to both my parents, and she’s carrying on their tradition and idealism, far more than anyone could have expected an American youngster growing up at that time.”

Kushner’s parents indeed would have been proud — and perhaps even surprised — at where their daughter has ended up. After three sons, four grandchildren and a career as a professor at Haifa’s Technion University, Kushner, now 62, and her husband live in Cairo, running a research library for Israeli and Egyptian students. The library was created 21 years ago as an addendum to the peace treaty with Egypt to promote peace and understanding between the two countries on more than the diplomatic level.

Egypt never opened a similar center in Israel, and since the intifada, attendance at the library has dwindled from about 20 students a day to five, although the number is increasing.

While Kushner and her husband — who is the director of the center — are ending their two-year term in Cairo in September, she hopes their stint abroad promotes peace. “The man on the street has been very friendly, [they say], ‘We are brothers; we should be on good terms,’ but it’s the academics and journalists who were never warm to the peace process,” Kushner says. Although it’s been an uphill battle, she continues, “you hope it’s a long-term investment.”

Nechemia Myers

Nechemia Myers has had one of those careers typical for new immigrants from the United States, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, before he did a lot of something else, finding an opening wherever English-speaking immigrants were needed.

Also active in the Habonim as a child growing up in East L.A., Myers was 20 when he made aliyah in 1951 as part of a garin, the Hebrew word for seed, to build Kibbutz Urim for eight years. He then worked at the Israeli government press office in Jerusalem for four years, before finally settling into his job as the head of public relations at Weizmann Institute in Rehovot for 32 years.

Along the way, and more frequently now that he’s retired, Myers has written for science publications, such as Nature, and for California papers, among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the now defunct Heritage and this publication.

Looking back, his five decades were harder than they sound. “Certainly, it wasn’t easy,” Myers told The Journal. His time in kibbutz was the first time he ever went hungry. “Generally, I grew up with everything you wanted and there was no shortage of anything, the war [World War II] didn’t impact on someone living in L.A. Then you come here and you get a tiny piece of meat once a week; olives and bread were the major staples,” he said. How did he deal with it? “There are a lot of things that you can handle if you’re young,” he says.

Recently, Myers attended a meeting with former Habonim members, and the question was asked that if knowing what they know now, would they make aliyah again? Some people said yes, and others said no, that if they knew what Israel was going to be like, they wouldn’t have made aliyah.

“They are disappointed with how Israel’s turned out,” Myers explains, “but I don’t feel that way. I have taken part in a real extraordinary experience. If I compare myself with my brother and others [living in Los Angeles], they have two cars and a swimming pool — I have an old car and no swimming pool. But if I look at what I’ve done with my life — during my life — I look at my [three] children and [seven] grandchildren [who all live in Israel], I think it’s been worthwhile.”

A Taxing Double Dip


It took Herb and Barbara Greenberg 10 years to realize their dream of making aliyah so they could live near their children and grandchildren.

But when a long-debated tax reform goes into effect in Israel on Jan. 1, they may have to consider leaving.

Many immigrants like the Greenbergs, former teachers who retired to Israel, came with the understanding that they would not have to pay Israeli taxes on income from their overseas assets. Like all American immigrants, the Greenbergs already pay U.S. taxes on that money.

That understanding will be reversed by the new tax law.

The revised tax law makes radical changes in the way immigrants’ overseas assets are treated, including passive income, pensions and income earned abroad.

"We’re living on a fixed income," Herb Greenberg said. "We’re not talking about stock investments or passive income from real estate investments. We’re not talking about big money."

The government’s beleaguered tax reform was first recommended in the autumn of 1999 by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. It proposed lowering income tax rates while instituting a 25 percent tax on all profits made in the capital market.

For American immigrants — many of whom are retired and living on fixed incomes — it would involve paying taxes both here and abroad.

According to the Tax Reform Action Committee (TRAC), an ad-hoc group of concerned immigrants, the tax implications will vary for immigrants from different countries.

For a retired American couple with $36,000 overseas dividend income, who pay $3,124 in income taxes in the United States, the new law would force them to pay an additional $9,476 in Israel.

Besides the financial hardship, what angers many immigrants is the apparent contradiction between the reforms and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s repeated calls for a million new immigrants in the next decade.

Sharon has named immigration as one of his government’s top priorities and has emphasized the need to encourage immigration from the West.

"We believe that the prime minister is sincere in his desire to encourage more olim [immigrants], particularly from Western countries," said Marvin Silverman, national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. "However, unless this tax legislation is amended, we are not only going to witness a dramatic drop in Western aliyah but, worse yet, the division of families that came to be reunited in Israel."

Dan Biron, executive director of the Israel Aliyah Center for North America, said he doesn’t think the tax changes will deter North American immigrants.

"They’re going on aliyah for ideological reasons," Biron said. "They’re willing to contribute to the strength of the State of Israel."

In fact, the government recently decided to up the immigration benefits offered to North American immigrants to match those offered to olim from distressed areas. The increased benefits will kick in Dec. 1, a month before the tax changes.

The roughly $8,000 starter package given to a family of four in its first year in Israel first was made available to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It later was offered to immigrants from Ethiopia, and then to those from Argentina and France.

North American immigrants were believed to need less help, but the government changed its mind earlier this year.

In addition to the $8,000, immigrants receive free one-way tickets to Israel, rent subsidies or cheaper mortgage rates for five years, customs rights on imported goods for three years and free health insurance and Hebrew study for six months.

Some might say that the increased benefits — intended to give North Americans an incentive to make aliyah — and the tax changes are working at cross-purposes. Not Biron, however.

"Compared to the benefit of what the State of Israel is providing to new immigrants," the tax changes are negligible, he said. "It’s almost next to nothing."

But the tax legislation certainly would affect the Greenbergs, who live in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana, near their daughter’s family.

"We give financial help to the kids," said Greenberg, who has two married children and nine grandchildren in Israel. "A lot of young families come to us to help convince their parents to come here. And a lot of future olim from Western countries will have to factor in whether to come if their parents can’t come."

TRAC calls the legislation a "breach of contract" of government promises to olim who came to Israel with the understanding that they would not have to pay tax in Israel on the income from their overseas assets.

The group is seeking amendments to the new tax law, making the effective date for taxation of passive income either 10 years from the date of immigration or 10 years from the effective date of the law, whichever offers immigrants more time.

The committee also is seeking to broaden the definition of pensions to exempt all types of retirement income that retired immigrants receive from overseas.

The tax reform passed as a law in early 2002, meaning that the only way to change it is through amendments in the Knesset. The problem is, the Knesset will be out of session until after the Jan. 28 elections, and the new law is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.

If the amendments aren’t passed this week before the Knesset recesses, the process will have to begin from scratch when a new Knesset convenes later this winter.

Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky, who heads the immigrant party Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, recently tried unsuccesfully to add the two TRAC changes to a list of more than 30 amendments offered by Finance Minister Silvan Shalom.

Shalom "thought it would open a Pandora’s box" and encourage other interest groups to propose their own changes to the law, said Eli Kazhdan, executive director of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah.

The Finance Ministry said it had no comment on the matter.

Yitzhak Heimowitz, an attorney and co-chair of the TRAC executive committee who has followed the issue since it was introduced in 1999, wasn’t surprised that Shalom took a "hard-nosed attitude" to the proposed amendments.

"Their attitude is not to concede anything until the very end, and then they concede very little," he said. "The only way they can be overcome is politically."

That is what happened two years ago, when the tax reform was almost passed. Then-Finance Minister Avraham Shochat agreed to delay Israeli taxes on new immigrants’ overseas assets for 10 years, and five years for veteran immigrants.

When Barak’s government collapsed, however, the tax bill was left in limbo.

The National Religious Party, Israel Our Home and the secular Shinui Party have joined Yisrael Ba’Aliyah in the tax reform battle. Kazhdan is hoping that Benjamin Netanyahu, the interim foreign minister who is running against Sharon in the Likud Party primaries, will come on board.

"Yisrael Ba’Aliyah are fighting like the devil, but they’re not strong enough," Heimowitz said. "The only one who’s strong enough is Arik Sharon, but he doesn’t seem to care."

Sharon has "been off the radar screen" on the issue, Kazhdan agreed.

The Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors unanimously passed a resolution last week calling on Sharon to abolish the "anti-aliyah" taxes. The agency has "a moral responsibility" to ensure that the immigrants it brings to Israel have a successful absorption, Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor said.

The TRAC team hoped the board of governors’ support would make Sharon "tell Silvan to straighten it out," Heimowitz commented.

"It could still happen if he thinks he’s about to lose" the immigrants’ votes in the Likud primaries, Heimowitz said.

While Sharon hasn’t made any statements on the tax law, Netanyahu told TRAC that if elected prime minister, he is committed to "immediately abolishing legislation that imposes tax in Israel on foreign source income of olim."

Kazhdan said the changes would hurt both those who have immigrated to Israel and those considering aliyah.

"If five people make aliyah and 500 make yeridah" — that is, leave Israel — "then we’ve lost," he said. "It’s not just about finances; it’s the message, it’s totally the wrong message. Not everyone coming from America comes with a million dollars."

The Russian Club


What the Russian Jewish immigrants of Orange County lack in numbers they make up for in passion.

There are between 3,000-10,000 Russian Jewish immigrants in Orange County — no one is quite sure of the exact number.

Most of these newcomers have only a slight connection to the larger Jewish immigrant community. They may run into each other at the only Russian deli in Orange County or come to a concert at the Russian Club that meets once a month at the Jewish Community Center in Costa Mesa.

But other immigrants make a point to reach out and stay connected.

Some six decades ago, Olga Filatova was a 19-year-old medic in the Red Army, tending to wounded soldiers on the front lines. Later she finished medical school, had a successful career as a physician and eventually settled in Orange County. Ten years ago, she and a few others founded the Orange County organization of war veterans from the Soviet Union. “They voted me in as president 10 years ago and they keep re-electing me every year,” Filatova said. “I guess they like me.”

There is also, she acknowledges, a smaller pool from which to choose.

“We have about 300 members now,” Filatova said. “When we started there were 475, but so many have died. We are old.”

Filatova doesn’t sound old. Her voice is strong, energetic, full of life. She laughs readily, as she is now, when I ask her how old she is. “I spoke to a man in New York who had written a book about veterans organizations and he asked me the same question. I told him that I was 80. He said that I was just a kid, that he was 104 and writing books. You don’t get old when there are things to be done.”

The Red Army veterans are an integral part of the Russian Club — they provide much of the talent at the monthly meetings. There are skits, singers, poetry readings and, once in a while, a performance by an invited violinist or pianist.

“I am very happy in America,” Filatova told me. “We have a good organization. We have people in charge of artistic matters, of collecting dues or planning trips. And we have one person” — her voice lowered — “who takes care of the funerals. This too has to be done, you know.”

The Russian Club has 95 dues-paying members, according to club leader Olga Dubnikova. But, she said, many nonmembers come to the events, which include ballet performances by students who are taught at a nearby ballet school by non-Jewish former Soviet dancers. There is an English-language preschool at the Jewish Community Center, but only two immigrant children go there. From time to time there were efforts to create a facility to teach Russian to the children and grandchildren of immigrants but nothing really worked. Most kids speak very little Russian, even fewer are able to read or write it.

I told Dubnikova that Americans always like to tell me that their grandparents came from this or that Russian gubernia, an archaic term for a geographic division that has not been in use since the 1917 revolution. It is rare for them to know anything else about their heritage.

She laughed, sadly. “Yes, our children will also grow up knowing little about their background, where they came from. There is little we can do about it. We do what we can, but this is America, after all. It would be nice if we could have someone give lectures on the history of Russian Jews, on what was done for us so that we could emigrate. We know so little.”

The Russian Club makes an attempt to celebrate the Jewish holidays and will probably have a High Holidays service if a rabbi can be found to conduct it.

“Synagogues? I really don’t know how many of us have joined synagogues here. The Russian Club is mostly old people — the younger ones don’t really come here. I don’t know if they go to American synagogues.”

Dubnikova told me that they had Passover seders in Russian at the center, conducted by Chaim Marcus, a young American businessman from a rabbinical family who had spent several years in the Ukraine. He provided Russian haggadot, matzah and led the services.

“If we want to see a Jewish concert by a group from Russia that is touring California or go to a Jewish museum, we have to go to Los Angeles. Very few come to Orange County. And, of course, there is the question of money. We pay $2 a month in dues, but we also send packages to Russia and make contributions for Israel so that there is really no way we can rent a bus or pay for the tickets for our members.”

Dubnikova tells me that the club had placed an ad in the Jewish paper but that the response was very minimal.

“But what about your children? They are all working and making money, aren’t they?” I asked.

“Yes, they work, of course, they work, but they pay taxes, they have families, they have expenses, you know,” she said defensively.

“But so do the Americans, right? And they give to good causes. Why not the Russians? Why can’t a Russian doctor write a check for a thousand or so?” I ask.

“Who knows,” she said. “Our people just don’t. No one will write a check like that. I know the Armenians take care of their own and the Vietnamese, and even the Iranian Jews. But our people are less willing, they just aren’t used to it, I guess.”

Funny ‘Guys’


In between schmoozing with kids for his acclaimed Fairfax High documentary "Senior Year" in 1998, filmmaker David Zeiger hung out with the funny old guys who did lunch with his dad on Tuesdays at the Mulholland Tennis Club.

The result is his new doc, "Funny Old Guys," which captures the lively interaction of a dozen Jewish octogenarian TV writers who kibitz and kvetch over Cobb salad and chicken soup.

The Algonquin Round Table it isn’t. Instead, the guys reminisce about working for shows from "Bonanza" to "The Brady Bunch," tell off-color jokes and argue about subjects such as the early days of TV to the state of their prostates. The film takes a serious turn when one of the guys gets cancer.

David Shaw, a veteran of 1950s TV dramas, and Frank Tarloff ("The Dick Van Dyke Show") describe how they met at age 12 while living on the same street in Brooklyn. They became writers when Shaw came out to Los Angeles to visit his brother, novelist Irwin Shaw, met Irwin’s writer friends and then told Tarloff, "We’re funnier than they are."

But the youths didn’t have artsy ambitions. "Like all the guys, they grew up poor, the sons of immigrants," Zeiger told The Journal. "There wasn’t money for medical school, so they became writers to make a good living."

Zeiger’s dad, Irv, a businessman, the only non-writer at the weekly meetings, met the guys at the tennis club in the 1960s. "But I didn’t pay any attention to them, because I kind of saw them as ‘old farts,’" says Zeiger, 52, who was more interested in counterculture politics.

When he rediscovered the "Guys" in 1998, he says he "had an epiphany that these were the guys who had created the TV shows I grew up with. I also wanted to learn how they were facing life’s biggest challenge: The End."

Zeiger and "Guys" will appear at a Museum of Television and Radio screening on Sept. 4. For more information, call (310) 786-1000.

Born in East L.A.


The East L.A. community of Boyle Heights has always been a neighborhood dominated by immigrants. Today, it’s a poor Hispanic neighborhood. But Hershey Eisenberg, 75, remembers a different Boyle Heights: It was during the Great Depression, when the community was poor and Jewish, but the sense of community was very rich.

"We always went visiting," says Eisenberg, who slept on a Murphy bed in his modest house. "We didn’t have TV. We were very provincial out here."

"Everything happened back East…. I’d get up and run down to the drugstore to see if DiMaggio got a hit that day. We were a big small town," he says.

Although the populace of that small town — located just east of downtown Los Angeles — changed dramatically after World War II when Jews migrated west and north, Eisenberg and his peers continue to keep memories of their childhood world alive through the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights. The 125-member social club, which meets biannually, boasts a predominantly Jewish membership, but also includes members of Latino, Japanese and other ethnic groups that lived there at the time.

"You really get a warm feeling every time you meet your friends and talk to each other," says Jake Farber, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles chairman, who is a high-profile member of Wabash Saxons and once served as its treasurer. "It’s a great thing for us. If Gene [Resnikoff] and Hershey did not keep this up, I don’t know if we would have this kind of organization."

Eisenberg, the reluctant leader of the group, considers himself just another member and does not even assign himself a title. But in truth, Eisenberg and Resnikoff have organized Wabash Saxons events and fundraisers since the 1970s.

In 1988, the various Boyle Heights factions were brought together under the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights umbrella. The group consolidated as an amalgam of Roosevelt High-spawned athletic leagues in the 1940s, which had names like the Cardinals, Stags, Jasons, Palavers and Saxons.

"We met at Salavatore’s in Montebello, and we started with 25 guys," says Resnikoff, 78. "Since 1990, we have been meeting twice a year on the closest Friday to June 6, the invasion of Normandy, and Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor."

Judge Harry Pregerson of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a Roosevelt student body president in 1939, was the first Boyle Heights native to speak to the group. Others included Harold Williams, former executor of the Getty Foundation, and boxer Art Aragon.

It was only fitting that when the members and relatives of the Wabash Saxons-Spirit of Boyle Heights met in June for their biannual luncheon, the event was held at Taix, a restaurant with Depression-era roots — a time when Caesar Chavez Avenue was Brooklyn Avenue, and when Brooklyn Avenue was the heart of Jewish Los Angeles.

"The Heights was very Orthodox," recalls Eisenberg. The Jewish borders spanned from First Street (bordering Little Tokyo) to State Street to the Los Angeles County Hospital. About 30 shuls — from Breed Street Synagogue to Cornwall Street Shul — served the area.

While Jewish neighborhoods built around Temple Street and Central Avenue predate it, Boyle Heights has become our city’s definitive old Jewish quarters.

"It’s the Lower East Side of Los Angeles," says Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles, which is currently restoring the dilapidated Breed Street Synagogue and turning it into a community center.

Sass notes that the continuity of the Wabash Saxons’ ties are unparalleled.

"They had these newsletters," he says, "and while they were away during World War II, their wives would continue to publish their newsletters while they were away. It’s like this big extended family."

While the synagogues were where Jewish teens would socialize, the playground and adjacent library on Wabash Avenue were big destinations for Heights youths. Wabash Playground was where Coach Lee Helsel, a USC graduate who was not Jewish, formed the Saxons in 1939. These teen clubs were grouped by age (Saxon Ones through Saxon Fours).

"The thing that motivated them all was athletics," Eisenberg says. "My cousin was a Saxon One; I was a Saxon Two. Then the war came, and almost all of us went to the service.

During World War II, 36 Boyle Heights youths served in the military, many of them stationed in Europe. Out of that number, 35 returned home. But one, Willie Goldberg, was killed in combat.

"Roosevelt High School was the melting pot," Eisenberg continues. "We had Japanese students. We had a big Malkan Russian population who lived in the Flats."

Eisenberg recalls occasional friction between Jewish teens and Mexican gang members. But overall, he says, "we all got along very well. The first year I went to Roosevelt, we had a black kid, Jesse Dumas, who was president."

Eisenberg’s father made $18 a week working at May Co. on Brooklyn Avenue. "I always thought we were rich because I always had shoes," Eisenberg says, "The Mexican kids used to come to school barefoot."

"It was just a unique neighborhood that you didn’t have to leave," Cardinal member Herb Rothner says. "We had social activities right there. It was like a shtetl."

Now a Tarzana resident, Rothner remembers his childhood in the early 1940s, running around with Wabash Saxons members Eisenberg, Jack Marks, Jack Standel, Dave Barris, Irving Weinberg — all schoolmates and Aleph Zadik Aleph alumni.

For Rothner, the club is more than just nostalgia. "It brings back old memories and old friends," says Rothner, "but we do a lot of things in the community."

Indeed, the Wabash Saxons are very philanthropically focused and community oriented. American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI) has been a pet charity for the group. In 1973, the group purchased three ambulances for Israel bearing the slogans "Brooklyn Avenue Special," "Spirit of Boyle Heights" and "Wabash Avenue Cannonball." This year, members successfully raised the funds to purchase a new ambulance, which will be dubbed "Spirit of Boyle Heights II."

"We had a point where we had $50,000 and we needed $60,000," Eisenberg says. "One of the guys called up. He said, ‘How much you need?’ I said, ‘$10,000,’ and he said, ‘You got it.’ The ambulance is being made right now at the Ford factory to ARMDI’s specifications."

"Nobody says no," Resnikoff says. "Whenever we ask for it, we get it."

"I was in Israel many years ago," Farber recalls. "We were driving, and I told the driver turn around. We drove up to an ambulance that was one of ours. It said ‘Spirit of Boyle Heights’ on it. I was so proud, I took pictures, and when I came back, I told them, ‘We really do have an ambulance there.’"

Today, few vestiges of Jewish life remain in Boyle Heights. Zellman’s Men’s Wear, which opened in 1921, finally closed its doors six months ago. Roosevelt High is predominantly Latino. Nevertheless, the Wabash Saxons still direct much of their philanthropic efforts to the Heights. Farber and his brother have set up college scholarships at Roosevelt in memory of their mother.

"There’s a real generosity of spirit in the group," Eisenberg says. "Five years ago, when Roosevelt High needed football helmets, in one mailing we raised $8,500 in 10 days. Someone once asked me, ‘How come you give money to Boyle Heights? There are no Jews there.’ We never even think about it. We just give it away right away. We have no money in the treasury."

Members are happy to have this seven-decade connection to an era in Boyle Heights that now mainly lives on in the history books. Farber maintains a direct connection with the area. His business, Alpert and Alpert Iron and Metal Inc., is on the Boyle Heights border near Vernon.

"It’s a great thing seeing these people," Farber says. "A lot of them I’ve known for 70 years or more. Hershey was a little baby living on the same street as we did."

Max Fine, who once worked as a reporter in the Kennedy White House, flew in from Washington, D.C., to reunite with his childhood cronies at the Taix event. Fine was raised by a single mother, who worked as a seamstress, during the worst economic conditions. Yet he still has fond memories of the Jewish social scene, which included Wabash Menorah Center, the Jewish community center at Soto Street and Michigan Avenue.

"You have to have grown up in Boyle Heights during the Depression to understand what brings me back here every year," Fine says. "It established a camaraderie as kids, and it’s never ended."

Now Hear This


Jewish (and other) radio listeners will be able to time travel back to the world of their immigrant ancestors when "The Yiddish Radio Project" debuts March 19 on stations coast-to-coast.

The 10-part National Public Radio (NPR) series will resurrect the golden age of the Yiddish radio, roughly from 1930-1955, with its rich daily fare of dramas, music, game shows, advice columnists, talent shows, man-on-the-street interviews and commercials for Manischewitz matzah and Barbasol shaving cream.

Among the highlights will be the amazing story of "Levine and His Flying Machine," Yiddish melodies in swing, sage advice by "The Jewish Philosopher" C. Israel Lutsky, the gripping dramas of Nahum Stutchkoff and Rabbi Rubin’s "Court of the Air." Showcased will be Seymour Rexite (the Frank Sinatra of Yiddish radio) singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" in the mamaloshen.

For the linguistically challenged, English translations will be rendered by the likes of Carl Reiner and Eli Wallach.

The 10 segments will air on consecutive Tuesday afternoons, March 19-May 21, during NPR’s "All Things Considered" program.

Complementing the radio programs will be a live touring company presenting a multimedia show with archival photos, radio excerpts, projected English translations and music by the Yiddish Radio All-Star Band, whose five instrumentalists range in age from 62 to 84.

Included will be a documentary on the last of the radio segments, dating from 1947, in which a Holocaust survivor — before the term was even in use — is reunited with relatives live on the air.

In Los Angeles, the show’s one-night stand will be on April 15 at the Skirball Cultural Center, sponsored jointly by KCRW and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Responsible for the radio series are historian-musician Henry Sapoznik and producer David Isay, founder of Sound Portraits Productions, who will also host the live show.

Historically, Yiddish was the language of some 2 million Jewish immigrants who came to America from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. As the last great wave arrived at Ellis Island in the 1920s, radio was beginning to make its mark on American society.

The Jewish immigrants embraced the new medium and, by the early 1930s, Yiddish radio flourished across the country, with more than a dozen such stations in New York alone.

In 1985, Sapoznik came across a large reference recording of one of the Yiddish radio programs. These recordings were required by the Federal Radio Commission so it could investigate any complaints about the content.

The recordings were mainly on large acetate discs with aluminum base, most of which were melted down during World War II scrap metal drives.

For the next 15 years, Sapoznik searched through attics, storerooms and even trash cans and rescued more than 1,000 of the fragile discs for his archives.

The radio project will also spawn two CDs. The first set will feature music and commercials from the broadcasts. The second set, not available until the fall, will include stories from the series and a historical account of the rise and fall of Yiddish radio.

The series will air on KCRW (89.9 FM) in Santa Monica at 5:30 p.m. and on KPCC (89.3 FM) in Pasadena at 3:30 p.m. Following each of the 10 radio segments, the program will be available online via Real Audio at www.npr.org. To order the broadcasts on CD, visit www.yiddishradioproject.org. For tickets to the live broadcast at the Skirball, call (323) 655-8587.

Golan Under Development


What is the safest place in Israel?

The answer, according to Ronnie Lotan, is the Golan, which hasn’t had a single terrorist incident since the Heights, captured in 1967, were formally annexed to Israel 20 years ago.

Lotan, an avuncular looking man of 55, was in town to help organize Monday’s tribute dinner to Jerry Weintraub, the first major fundraiser for the year-old Golan Fund. Lotan, the fund’s president, says that his relatively modest goal for the next three years is to raise $3 million, with three projects topping the list.

Natura Village, a residential and social home for some100 adults with mental and behavioral problems, due to open in July.

Ohalo College in Qatzrin, capital of the Golan Heights,and the only college in Israel’s far North. Scholarships will help trainteachers in physical education and fitness.

Fellowships and scholarships for the Golan ResearchInstitute, which promotes knowledge and economic development of the region.

Cost of these and all other development projects are split — with the Israeli government paying two-thirds, and the Golan Fund providing the remainder.

A native of Tel Aviv, Lotan moved to the Golan in 1968 and now lives in Kibbutz Mevo Hama, one of 32 communities on the Golan. The region now has a population of 18,000, of whom some 7,000 live in Qatzrin. About 45 percent of Qatzrin’s residents are Russian emigrants. The Golan, which has no Arab residents, is an integral part of Israel, in contrast to the Jewish towns and settlements in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Fortunately, the region has been able to avoid the sharp ideological and religious confrontations plaguing much of the rest of Israel.

About one-third of the residents are observant Jews (though there are no enclaves of fervently Orthodox) and two-thirds are secular. There is one unified school system and kibbutzim and moshavim operate under a joint governing council. Lotan cites as the Golan’s biggest concern a slow drain of young people to the cities, where job opportunities are more varied and plentiful. One of his main goals is to create more good jobs in the region to staunch the drain and attract newcomers.

The father of seven children, Lotan declares proudly that five have remained on the Golan — the other two couldn’t find the right jobs.

For more information on the Golan Fund, check its Website at www.golanfund.org

Jewish Germany’s Growth


“My message to American Jews visiting Berlin is: We’re not the last Jewish remnant but a vital, growing community. Help us develop.”

The exhortation and plea comes from Dr. Andreas Nachama, president of the Berlin Jewish Community, as he spoke last week at a breakfast meeting hosted by the American Jewish Committee.

There are now some 15,000 Jews in Berlin, in large parts immigrants from Russia and other Eastern European countries. The community celebrated a milestone in its history last year, when 13 students received their diplomas from the Jewish day school, founded in 1986.

A physical landmark is the domed, renovated New Synagogue in the Oranienbergerstrasse, which is now at the center of Jewish cafes, little theaters and bookstores.

Jewish culture is “in,” even in remote German cities and towns, said Nachama, “so that now we have the phenomenon of Jewish culture in places where there are no Jews.”

The 49-year-old Nachama holds a doctorate in Jewish history and is a “double” rabbi, with both an Orthodox and Conservative ordination. His Berlin-born mother survived the war as a hidden child, while his father is a Greek Jew.