War enhances intensity of Israel trip

The siren went on for at least a minute.

It was a Friday evening in early July 2006, during the war with Hezbollah, and I was sitting on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, getting ready to welcome in the Shabbat with the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.

Unlike the previous week, when we quickly evacuated the north, the siren we were hearing now was not an air strike or emergency alarm. It was the customary siren sounding the start of Shabbat, unique to Jerusalem.

Along with 44 other teenagers and six staffers, I was on the Eastern Europe-Israel Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. We had arrived in Israel that week after spending two weeks traveling through Prague, Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow and Budapest, and everyone was so enthusiastic and completely ecstatic that the air was charged with happiness and excitement. As we sat there, we had a moment of silence listening to the alarm.

We had been supposed to spend our first week on the banks of the Kinneret, but the plans were canceled after five rockets hit a town 15 minutes from our hostel. Even though it was Shabbat, we were immediately evacuated back to Jerusalem. Later, our free time in public places was suspended because a suicide bomber was caught right before entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate, which we used regularly.

While our family and friends back home voiced concerns for our safety when we called them, nobody in our group felt in danger or unsafe. Nobody wanted to go home. Instead of fear, I felt anger that there was a war and anger that Israel still has to fight for her existence.

Being at that hilltop as we welcomed the Shabbat and listening to the siren and watching the Old City’s walls as the Holy City went dark, I felt so many emotions. Though we had been there a week, the realization that I was in Israel — the country of the Jewish people — our land — hit me hardest at that moment. I held back tears of gratitude, joy and happiness as we went around the circle we were sitting in, discussing our favorite part of the week. Mine was that moment.
The strong feelings I had came not only from the realization that we were in Israel. It was the magic of the moment or the magic of the city — the lights were so astoundingly beautiful, the walls gave off an air of age, history and religiousness and the view could not have been more perfect. The breeze ruffled the treetops, and I felt that God was hovering over us, watching.

What made this unforgettable experience even more irreplaceable was the two weeks that came before renewed my understanding of how much Israel means.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, our close-knit group visited the concentration camps, sites of mass murder and mass graves, the ghettos and places of resistance. Viewing all these places where history made its horrific mark was actually proof of what we had been learning since elementary school. We saw the gas chambers, the crematoria, the indentations in the earth that formed years after a mass grave was filled.

We saw what happened, and it became real in our eyes. It was no longer something we read about in textbooks — the ashes kept at Majdanek were once people, Jewish people; at Mila 18 in Krakow, the bunkers where the partisans of the Krakow ghetto had once fought. I understood more about the Holocaust and the resistance. I also understood how much Israel means to our people and to me.

I looked at the partisans, the resistance fighters, the Zionists, the Haganah fighters, the early halutzim or pioneers, and I saw the determination and love they had for Israel. I understand now that Israel is not just the place toward which we face when we pray daily, or the distant homeland, or the place where our forefathers lived but our haven and our land. It is the place where Jews from all over the world look to for hope in seemingly hopeless times.

Especially the week after being in Krakow, when the war started, I felt so lucky to be there, so lucky to actually have an established Jewish state.

Instead of making me feel cautious and insecure, being there during a time of war allowed me to connect more with Israel. I only realized with stronger effect that Israel truly is my homeland and haven — the one place in the world I can be a Jew in the land of my forefathers.

While I was in Jerusalem, I bought a ring that I hope to wear at least until I return. On it is engraved a passage describing my sentiments exactly: “Libi be’mizrach, veanochi b’sof ma’arav,” meaning, “My heart lies in the east while I am far to the west.” Especially after my journey, Israel will never be far from my heart.

Daniela Bernstein is an 11th grader at the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.

Q & A With Rabbi Ed Feinstein

After more than 20 years at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein recently was named senior rabbi at the Encino synagogue, succeeding Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Recently, Rabbi Feinstein, 51, began teaching an adult education course called “Knowing God: The History of the Jewish Spiritual Journey.” The Jewish Journal spoke with him about his vision for the synagogue and the problems facing the Jewish community.

The Jewish Journal: So why did you decide to teach about God? Did you think people don’t know the basics?

Rabbi Ed Feinstein: Sometimes a teacher can help you discover what you already know. The Jews in my community have a lot of latent knowledge of our tradition, but it’s not conscious so they can’t share it with their kids. One of the complaints among the young people I went to school with is that we never talked about God. So I decided, let’s talk about God un-self-consciously. How do Jews think about God? It’s a historical view of theology. God talk is unfamiliar to those who teach our kids. The whole culture is awash in spirituality except for us.

JJ: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

REF: My father’s a closet philosopher, and he would hold big Jewish discussions around the table on Friday night; Jewish ideas were always part of the conversation. There was serious discussion at my table: whether a Jew can resist the draft, or whether we owed it to the country to serve. (It turned out I didn’t have to.) We talked about Israel. We talked about Jewish life in America, whether the synagogues were worth saving.

I felt the synagogue was cold. I went to my rabbi, and I said, “I can’t relate to the shul anymore.” He gave me Heschel and I started reading how religion “became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” It was my luck to find in my adolescent rebellion sources within the tradition to respond to my problems in the tradition; to find these guys who were willing to show me how to find an outlet for my own ’60s rebellion within the Jewish tradition.

JJ: What were you rebelling against?

REF: The government betrayed us by sending us to Vietnam; our parents betrayed us by giving us materialistic values; and Judaism betrayed us by becoming boring. But I could be a rebel in the Jewish community. Now I am a ’60s radical … I make a great radical, get the respect of the community and still say all the things I wanted to say when we were kids.

When Rabbi Schulweis came to [VBS] my father ended dinner early, and we started coming here. Rabbi Schulweis gave me a way to be religious without having to compromise the intellectuality that I grew up with.

JJ: You gave a sermon on Yom Kippur outlining your vision for the synagogue. Can you sum it up?

America gives us many gifts: freedom, security, hope. But there’re two huge holes in American culture. One, it’s very individualistic, and therefore lonely. And two, American culture doesn’t provide a sense of the purpose for living. And these happen to be the two things that Judaism does best. It connects us with each other into community. And it reminds us that we live for each other and with each other and provides a sense of purposeful living.

JJ: What is the most serious problem facing the Jewish community?

REF: The most important problem that I deal with is how to get people to take belonging seriously, and not think of themselves as consumers of the community, but to truly think of themselves as members, that the community belongs to them and they belong to each other and they belong to the community.

That’s the problem that all non-Orthodox synagogues have, because non-Orthodox people have an identity called the sovereign self. American individualism is reticent to join, to belong, to feel committed to something, to feel claim to something. The capacity of community is to make them feel like they really belong, and they’re not here just to consume the services of the synagogue when they need it, and [to leave] when their needs are fulfilled — it’s not Wal-Mart. That’s the problem that all of us deal with.

JJ: How do you deal with it?

REF: I deal with it in a couple of ways. I try to build personal relationships with lots of people and make myself accessible. I try to emphasize that the synagogue is not just for kids. We’re also here to create a vibrant Jewish culture. We welcome people of all kinds of backgrounds. We don’t assume that anyone knows anything when we start. We try to have lots of gateways for people to come in, lots of ways to get involved. We have people going to Habitat for Humanity to build houses. They don’t go to shul — that’s their Judaism. There are lots of gateways for lots of spiritual types: All trying to connect with each other and connect with the shul.

JJ: How do you try to attract the unaffiliated?

REF: You try to create a culture of adult Judaism that is compelling and you try to invite people to join. In the end, the thing that works best is nursery school. When people have kids, they begin thinking differently about their lives. We keep the doors open to singles, but people of that ilk tend not to join — their lives are very fluid and flexible, because they should be.


Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where India Meets Neil Simon

Michael Schlitt sees a definite connection between his type of Jewishness and his reasons for directing a Neil Simon play in India. Being drawn to India and all things Eastern is Jewish, he says. And so is asking a million questions about everything.

“Basically, my work is very Jewish, even if it’s not about something Jewish,” declares the 44-year-old actor, writer, director and founding member of the Actors’ Gang theater company, now based in Culver City. “I’ve always been a searcher, the wheels in my head always spinning. A rabbi once told me that’s as Jewish as it gets.”

Schlitt spent the past five years transforming a midlife crisis, a professionally disastrous trip to India, and his burning and failed ambition to make a movie about that disaster into a one-man show called, “Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure.” A play about a film about a play, Schiltt’s work premieres Friday at EdgeFest, the annual Los Angeles festival dedicated to new and experimental theater. His play’s script reads like a page of Talmud, with the central event of the India adventure framed by commentary about the trip itself, the filming of the trip and the questions that inevitably arise from the failure “to create a masterpiece.”

“If someone told me to see some one-man show about a guy’s attempt to make a movie about his trip to India, I’d probably say ‘No thanks,'” says Schlitt over coffee at a Culver City Starbucks. “But on the other hand, there’s a real hook to the show. Neil Simon in India is bound to pique curiosity.”

Directed by Nancy Keystone, who’s also married to Schlitt, the play, at its core, addresses the painful realization that certain youthful dreams will never materialize, “that moment you understand you’re never going to make ‘Citizen Kane,'” Schlitt says. “Rarely is the journey what you think it’s going to be.”

In 1999, a producer of questionable repute invited Schlitt to direct a production in India of Simon’s “They’re Playing Our Song.” In the throes of a midlife crisis, Schlitt, who detests this play, ignored his intuition and accepted the offer to put together a production ASAP and tour it in three Indian cities. His rationale: He’d make a movie about whatever happened because that’s been his dream, even though he despises the movie business.

“All my life there had been this strange tension between working in the theater and working in film. I mean I live in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world,” he writes in the script.

“The whole prospect was so shady,” Schlitt recalls. “I thought I would just bring the cameras and I would have this great film, some kind of cross between ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘Salaam Bombay.’ Instead, I wound up butting my head against the wall for years.”

Unable to complete his film, Schlitt finally listened to the advice of a filmmaker friend and returned to the theater.

“You could say it was the path of least resistance, but it’s where I needed to be,” he says. “I know the theater and that feels great.”

“What I love about Mike’s play is that it’s blazingly honest,” says Keystone, whose directing credits led her to be named as one of 2005’s “Faces to Watch” in the L.A. Times. “He exposes everything, including some unpleasant aspects of himself, and I have a lot of admiration for him.”

Describing himself as “a laid-back neurotic,” which he attributes to growing up first in New York and later in Berkeley, Schlitt says his Jewish education ended after nursery school and until recently, “never thought of myself as Jewish.” Raised by his mother, who once aspired to be an actress, Schlitt also credits his father, who wrote for the 1960s TV show, “The Monkees,” as a considerable artistic influence.

“He was the kind of Jewish father who got me reading Kierkegaard at age 4,” he says.

As a theater major at UCLA, Schlitt met the future famous actor Tim Robbins. And they and other fellow students formed the Actors’ Gang in 1981, a company that rose to prominence in the L.A. theater scene for its often provocative, avant-garde productions.

“We were this group of guys who all hung out together,” he says of the Gang’s origins. “There was a lot of testosterone but we all had this great passion for the theater.”

Standing in as leader of the Gang when Robbins left for a life in New York with actress Susan Sarandon, Schlitt worked on some 40 productions. This included directing the American premiere of George Tabori’s “Mein Kampf,” an adaptation of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and performing his critically acclaimed solo show, “Drive, He Said.” In 2000, Schlitt essentially parted from the Gang, a move he’d rather not discuss in great detail. It did, however, have something to do with the midlife crisis that led to his current show. “For 16 years, I was the company’s resident Solomon,” he says. “It was time to step away.”

Though Schlitt says he hasn’t completely given up on finally making his movie, the play he wound up with instead “has definitely gotten the monkey off my back. I have fed myself artistically,” he says. “And if it’s between the artistic or the commercial path, I know which one I’d choose.”

“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” runs Oct. 7-23, 9:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tickets are $15 or $8 with EdgeFest Passport. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.edgeoftheworld.org.


Irvine Orthodox Plan to Erect Eruv

Ten years ago, Sean and Linda Samuels moved to Irvine, home to both a Chabad center and the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, along with other synagogues.

As the couple grew more observant and had children, they wanted the family to be part of their journey, which, of course, included weekly walks to shul.

But how? Irvine had no eruv, an unbroken boundary that uses existing electrical lines and fencing to encircle a synagogue and neighboring homes, which, according to rabbinic law, encloses a “private” space where observant Jews may carry objects on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. Without an eruv, people who need to carry, or push strollers or wheelchairs, are stranded at home.

Sean Samuels, a Beth Jacob board member, was instrumental in the quest to erect Irvine’s eruv, which should be operational by Rosh Hashanah. His initiative underscores Irvine’s reputation for welcoming people of many faiths and how the Orthodox community aims for inclusiveness.

At least eight others eruvs are in the works around Southern California, too, a reflection of observant communities taking hold outside urban areas. With an estimated 5-mile perimeter, Irvine’s boundary is a triangle bordered by the San Diego Freeway between the Michaelson and University exits, and University and Harvard avenues.

“It’s going to make Irvine this whole new playground,” said Samuels, who still needed to raise two-thirds of the eruv’s projected cost, $27,000.

“Having an eruv is a huge attraction,” he said, claiming property values will increase within its boundaries because of demand by observant Jews. Howard Shapiro, the project manager of a 50-mile perimeter eruv in West Los Angeles completed in January 2003, is now consulting on eight projects regionally. Most are on the scale of Irvine’s, he said.

“An eruv becomes another sign the community is coming of age,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, the West Coast director of the Orthodox Union, whose members are Modern Orthodox synagogues. “It’s a very important sign that people don’t look singularly in Pico-Robertson and North Hollywood,” he said, where eruvs have existed for at least 20 years.

The number of observant Jews and their proportion among American Jewry appears to be increasing, as does the potential for municipal clashes over eruvs.

An eruv is a modern phenomenon, Kalinsky said, which was unnecessary in Europe’s walled cities and enclosed ghettos, but were erected beginning 40 years ago in the New York area. The highest-profile and longest-running eruv battle divided Jew against Jew and sparked charges of anti-Semitism in Tenafly, N.J. Although the resulting court case focused on the legality of allowing a religious use of public property, proponents say the eruv’s critics, including some Reform Jews, exploited the constitution to bar Orthodox Jews from their neighborhood. Opponents of the eruv said their opposition was not based in anti-Semitism, rather in the fact that Orthodox Jews often spoiled community endeavors, such as public schooling (they send their children to private school) and local politics (they don’t participate).

Orange County’s Jewish denominations lack the rancor seen in Tenafly and other Eastern cities, said Benjamin Hubbard, chair of Cal State Fullerton’s comparative religions department. “Here, there is not the same history of bad will; interreligious feuding is the nastiest kind,” he said.

Without dissent, the eruv was approved on the consent calendar by the Irvine City Council on July 13. Even so, the project took two years to complete because of the number of public and private entities involved, including supervision by an eruv authority, Rabbi Gershon Bess of the Rabbinic Council of California, whose members are Orthodox rabbis. Besides stringing fishing line between 58 Edison poles, Bess required installation of five new poles and the addition of four poles to existing fences.

Samuels said Irvine’s Chabad is considering expanding the eruv to encircle its location in Woodbridge. The Chabad’s Rabbi Alter Tanenbaum could not be reached for comment.

While in some areas of Los Angeles an eruv tended to buoy property values in a flat market, Ethyl Krawitz is uncertain Irvine will experience such a phenomenon. “It’s only appealing to the very observant; it means nothing to anyone else,” said Krawitz, a RE/MAX Realtor in Irvine whose clientele is 80 percent Jewish.

Irvine’s new Jewish Community Center already is a more potent magnet, she said. Krawitz sees the JCC’s location influence housing decisions of people relocating to the area, as well as Jews relocating internally from Anaheim, Orange and San Juan Capistrano.

“It’s a wonderful draw,” she said.

To maintain the eruv, the line’s integrity will be checked weekly. Once the eruv is up, results will be disseminated by e-mail and at www.irvineeruv.org. For more information, e-mail drsamuels@pacbell.net.

A Towering Achievement

At a willowy 5-foot-10 1/2, Jennifer Rosen ticks off the quandaries of growing up supertall, female and Jewish: At her Miami Beach religious school she scraped her knees on the desk, which practically stuck to her backside when she stood up. At her Conservative bat mitzvah, she danced with boys who had to lean their heads on her chest. While reciting her Haftorah, she even towered over the rabbi: "He was wearing a bad toupee, and I was looking down on it," said Rosen, now in her 20s.

Her height felt all the freakier because Jews are generally more vertically challenged than, say, Swedes.

Rosen, who now wears high heels, eventually embraced her stature. It’s a journey she recounts in her debut monologue, "Tall Girl," a visiting production at The Groundlings Theatre, directed by Groundlings founder Gary Austin. The tall tale is a more G-rated version of the kind of comic monologue, celebrating the liberated self, epitomized by shows such as Margaret Cho’s "I’m the One That I Want."

In the highly physical piece, Rosen plays herself and a variety of characters, such as classmates who called her Big Bird and Daddy Long Legs. Throughout her childhood, she said, "There were stares and people pointing at me and thinking I was older. I felt extremely awkward, unsure of what to do with my limbs."

Her mother shlepped her to endocrinologists and also to acting class, which helped draw the painfully shy teenager out of her shell. After graduating from Stanford, she studied at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square theater school and with Austin, who taught her to use her long limbs to comic advantage.

"Initially, Jennifer was more self-conscious," recalled the director, who has also coached stars such as Helen Hunt. But as he helped her develop "Tall Girl," she "became much more committed to using her whole body, not just while playing herself but in the extreme character work."

These days, the poised Rosen still stands out at Jewish singles events such as Friday Night Live, where she’s taller than many of the guys. "But that no longer bothers me," she said.

"Tall Girl" runs Tuesdays through March 30. $15. 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-4747.

Escape to Shanghai Saved Refugee’s Life

At a time when the world shunned them, an estimated 20,000 Jewish refugees from Russia, Germany, Austria and elsewhere made their way to Shanghai before World War II. Jews in this forgotten corner of the world survived on donations from the Joint Distribution Committee, whose financial support paid for three meals a day, then two and then one.

As difficult as life was for Shanghai’s Jews, it was certainly better than the alternative, said Michael Berenbaum, director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, which explores the religious and ethical implications of the Holocaust. The Jews in China "didn’t know the language and were impoverished," he said. "But comparatively speaking, they were free. The people they left behind died."

By the late 1940s, Shanghai’s Jews had largely immigrated to the United States and Israel, closing a little-known chapter in Jewish history. Most of them have since succumbed to old age and illness, taking their memories to the grave.

In San Juan Capistrano though, 80-year-old Kurt Wunderlich remembers. The spirited, retired music shop owner — "I like the Beatles and Stones, but most of the stuff today is crap" — recently described his wartime experiences to a visitor at his modest but comfortable Orange County home.

Wunderlich, a diminutive man with a strong, direct gaze, escaped from Germany in 1939 with his lawyer father, Felix. They fled soon after the Nazis sent his father to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin for one week for the crime of being Jewish. The elder Wunderlich was released only after promising to leave Germany within six months.

But where to go? Almost no countries, including the United States, wanted Jewish refugees. China was an exception. So Wunderlich and his father were among the 459 Jews who chartered a ship built for 200 and sailed on an arduous, nine-week journey to Shanghai. The Nazis permitted each passenger to leave with only one suitcase and $4.

Wunderlich’s mother, Margarete, had planned to meet up with her son and husband within months. She never made it. Through a German friend, Wunderlich later heard that she had died in the death camps or poisoned herself before boarding a train bound for them. No one is really sure.

In Shanghai, the bewildered 14-year-old and his father settled in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, teeming with 5,000 other refugees. They lived in abandoned schoolhouses, 120 to a room. Wunderlich said he endured those grim conditions for nine years.

Shanghai’s Jews, as best they could, though, tried to recreate the rich cultural lives they had left behind.

"Jews opened operas, nightclubs, restaurants," Wunderlich said. "There were clubs. There was soccer. We found things to do."

But life was by no means carefree. Violence and danger lurked.

Wunderlich remembers a young friend who used to bicycle around Shanghai. A truckload of Japanese soldiers grabbed the boy and his bike; he was never seen alive again. Another time, a Japanese soldier put a gun to Wunderlich’s head for violating the prohibition against gambling. Instead of killing him, the drunken soldier punched him in the back.

In 1943, American bombs destroyed a Japanese radio station in Wunderlich’s neighborhood, killing 17 Jews and wounding 53 others. He remembers pulling limp bodies from the rubble. Around the same time, Wunderlich said he contracted dysentery and nearly died after losing 20 pounds from his already skinny 100-pound frame.

A couple years later, chaos descended on Shanghai, when the Japanese evacuated the city after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that ended World War II. For three days, Chinese looters ravaged the city, stealing everything they could, Wunderlich said.

"Nobody wanted to stay there one day longer than necessary," he said.

But stay he did. In 1948, Wunderlich and his father finally emigrated and arrived in San Francisco, where the younger Wunderlich met his future wife, Jane. The couple, who married in 1950, later moved to Houston and then Mexico City, before making their way to Southern California. The Wunderlichs had three children. His wife did in 1994.

Today, Wunderlich lives a relatively quiet life. He remarried in 2001, wedding Nenita, a Filipina he met on the Internet, who is in her 40s. He lives on dividends from mutual funds, a monthly Social Security check of $836 and reparations from the German government.

Looking back, he finds it difficult to believe that he survived when so many others perished.

"I’m not a religious person, but I think God has looked out for me," he said.

Star Struck

Lately, more people than ever have been staring at my chest. But it’s not what you think. They are looking at a necklace hanging from my neck.

When my boyfriend, Josh, handed me a red paper mâche-wrapped little box for my birthday this year, I never would have guessed it was a piece of Judaica. But sure enough, inside the box was a sparkly silver and crystal Jewish star dangling from a chain. Unlike any other I had seen, the star was about one-fifth-inch thick and had hearts cut out along the sides. The face shimmered with a collection of tightly packed clear crystals. I quickly put it on and have seldom taken it off since.

A secular, nonpracticing Jew, Josh does not wear Judaica. Purchasing the necklace for me was therefore as selfless a gift as he could have given. The necklace, he said, represented his support for me working in the Jewish community, and his respect for my willingness to move to a different state in order to continue doing so.

For me, the necklace has become a simultaneous expression of romantic love and religious identity — a synergy I have never before experienced. I am excited to put it on each day.

I used to believe that wearing a religious symbol implied an unconditional endorsement, like sticking a sports team logo or candidate’s bumper sticker on your car. Since a large part of my personal relationship with Judaism occurs internally — in my head and my heart — how, I wondered, could I wear a symbol around my neck that publicly announces my religion to everyone else?

Wearing the necklace habitually has been an enlightening exercise; because of it, I have stumbled across many new perspectives. It has also led people to make incorrect assumptions about me — that I am an Orthodox or traditionally observant Jew, that I am a staunch supporter of Israeli military actions or that I keep strictly kosher. Though pieces of each of the above hold true in the nonsuperlative sense, there are caveats and loopholes to each. Assumptions are dangerous things for anybody to make, but I would be ignorant not to at least recognize that wearing this symbol will lead many people to make them about me.

Wearing a Star of David has also helped me to work on caring less about what other people think of me and not needing external approval as regularly. I do not wish to hide or deny my religious identity, but symbolically wearing it daily on my chest signals me loudly as "other" and potentially as a target for hatred.

When I hesitate about wearing the star, however, I think back to a not-too-distant atrocity — the Holocaust. Whatever anti-Semitism and resulting paranoia we may be experiencing in this country today, we still possess the freedom to express our religious and cultural identities. There is a big difference between the threat of oppressive violence and the reality of it. While it is only a threat and freedom continues, we have the right, perhaps the obligation, to express our heritage and ourselves.

In a generation from now, I wonder, what will this star around my neck mean to me? What will it mean to the Jewish people? As with most symbols, its meaning will likely change over time.

Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest kabbalistic scholars of this century, wrote in the "Encyclopedia Judaica" that historically, the Star of David has had a proliferation of meanings, many of which have been mystical.

In the 17th century, he writes, alchemists called the Magen David the "shield of David" and they believed the opposing triangles to be an alchemical symbol for the union between the diametrically opposed elements of water and fire. At that same time, kabbalists were calling it the "shield of the [Messiah], the son of David."

Also, according to Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch in "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols" (Jason Aronson, 1995) the Star of David’s geometric symmetry has led "anthropologists [to] claim that the triangle pointing downward represents female sexuality, and the triangle pointing upward, male sexuality; thus, their combination symbolizes unity and harmony."

Interestingly, the Star of David has only taken on the symbolic representation of Jewish identity and the collective Jewish peoplehood in the last 200 years. Before then it had been, among other things, "the insignia of individual families or communities." In fact, according to Frankel and Teutsch, Theodor Herzl chose it as the symbol for the State of Israel because it was widely considered to be a secular symbol.

I have begun to develop my own interpretation of the Star of David. As I wear it today, the open space at the center represents the answers I have yet to find — the cultural, personal and religious identity I am still forging. The balanced and opposing triangles symbolize my struggle between personal reflection and public promotion.

In the past year I have gone from being single, living in Boston and editing a magazine that speaks to a generation of young adult Jews, to being one-half of a two-person whole, living in New York and traveling as an individual writer on a spiritual and religious journey. When I look at it, the star around my neck reminds me of the many ways in which my personal identities have been modified.

As time moves on and I assume new roles yet again, I am sure new symbolic meaning will continue to unfold.

Jodi Werner is the assistant director of Publications for the Jewish Theological Seminary and former editor of GenerationJ.com. Reprinted From GenerationJ.com, a service of Jewish Family & Life!

Coming of Age on a Basketball Court

Eight years ago, public relations guru Dan Klores received a distressing telephone call from Steve Satin, his childhood friend from Brooklyn’s 2nd Street Park. In high school, Satin had been popular, co-captain of the basketball team and, presumably, bound for medical school.

But his life had unraveled during years of addiction to cocaine and heroin, Satin told Klores. Although he eventually got sober, his 5-year-old son died of leukemia, his second marriage failed and he found himself homeless and wandering the streets with a suitcase in 1995. Finally he took refuge in the Port Authority bus terminal, where he spent nights moving from bench to bench so as not to draw police attention. Three months later, he did draw their attention, for writing bad checks; he was about to be arrested, he told his old friend.

"So he came to see me and it was pretty shocking," said Klores, whose tender documentary, "The Boys of 2nd Street Park," revolves around Satin and their Jewish basketball-playing gang. "He hardly had any teeth in his mouth, his nose was bashed in, he wore a suit that looked like he hadn’t worn it in 20 years … he just looked like a beaten-down man."

Klores got Satin an attorney, a dentist, an apartment and a job driving a taxi, but he, too, felt beaten down. Around 1980, he had given up his first love, writing, for public relations, eventually landing clients such as Jennifer Lopez and Donald Trump.

"But I never really liked it," he said from his Long Island beach home. "In spite of my success, PR never gave me the feeling of satisfaction I’d had writing a book or a magazine piece."

For 20 years, he hadn’t used his creativity to express himself, and he felt "trapped" and "frustrated."

As Klores pondered how to solve his dilemma, his thoughts turned to Satin and the other boys with whom he had shot hoops in Brighton Beach. He decided to make a film not about his rich and powerful clients, but about the friends of his youth.

"I knew this could be a good story because so many different things had happened to people," said the soft-spoken Klores, sounding more like an introvert than a schmoozer. "You have a group of guys, and one is homeless, one wins a $45 million lottery, two lose their children and one lives without electricity or running water in Woodstock, N.Y."

According to Satin, now a chemical engineer, the film works because Klores did the interviews.

"We opened up to him because we trusted him," he said. "Dan may not physically be in the movie, but it’s really his story, too. He has the same background and he was there with us, part of it."

Like the other "boys," 53-year-old Klores grew up in a one-bedroom apartment, 30 yards from the "L," sharing a bedroom with his brother while his parents slept on a convertible couch in the living room. The 2nd Street Park provided a refuge from the cramped quarters and from the tedium of religious school: "Even on the High Holidays we’d sneak away and shoot hoops in our sports jackets," he said.

Klores’ working-class parents, meanwhile, had ambitious plans for their eldest son. "The mantra was, ‘All we want for you is to do better than us,’ which is one of the things I reacted against," he said. The perceived Jewish pressure to excel did just the opposite; by the 10th grade Klores had become fiercely rebellious.

"I was the perfect candidate for the counterculture," he said. "I was alienated and angry and all of a sudden everyone was alienated and angry."

Klores said he failed classes, cut school and began using drugs at age 17. With Satin and some of the other "boys," he grew his hair long, spent weekends at an upstate New York farm and took road trips in a VW van.

The change came in 1973: "I woke up one day and I said, ‘Whoa, wait a second,’" he recalled. Klores quit drugs, finished school and landed his first real job, at 29, writing political ads for $100 a week plus a bottle of Scotch. He went on to write a book on the popular culture of college basketball and to freelance for publications such as New York magazine; he switched to PR for a more steady paycheck around 1980.

Since founding Dan Klores Associates in 1991, his assignments have included representing Sean "Puffy" Combs after his infamous arrest and Rudolph Giuliani during his prickly divorce. Eventually, his past caught up with him.

Around the time Satin phoned in 1995, Klores was diagnosed with hepatitis C, contracted as a result of his youthful drug use, he said. He began an excruciating, year-long regimen of drug therapy that at the end, left him bedridden with pneumonia. It was that brush with mortality — plus Satin’s haunting story — that helped push the now-healthy Klores to pursue more fulfilling work.

To make "Boys," he turned to another park friend, Ron Berger, a prominent advertising executive with ample production experience. The co-directors put up their own money for the summer 2001 shoot, when Klores traveled to nine states to interview 25 subjects, ultimately narrowing the major characters down to six.

"While we were editing the film, Dan would be dealing with his high-profile clients and taking calls from Giuliani," Berger said. "Meanwhile, I would be dealing with my high-profile corporate clients. But then at the end of the day we’d be in this small editing room, working on stories from our childhood and making them come to life, which was so fulfilling."

Satin said telling his story on camera was "cathartic and healing."

For Klores, who’s now working on his second documentary, the process was also transforming.

"What’s amazing for me is how the movie has resonated with people all over the country," he said of his film festival experience. "At the outset, the movie appears to be about Brooklyn and basketball but then it becomes something much more universal. A lot of people of our generation have taken a parallel kind of journey…. The film is about a particular generation as told through the lives of six boys turning to men."

"Boys" airs on Showtime Sept. 28.

Walk Your Dog

The two suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Rishon LeZion occurred Tuesday, the day I was booking my flight to Israel for later this fall.

I fear what I’ll find when I get there is a country caught up once again in a crescendo of violence. The brief calm that offered the barest of reasons for hope is no more. "We have to learn to see the lulls as the exception to the rule," an American diplomat told me last month. At the time, I could only hope he was wrong.

Then again, this is September, a month that optimists measure in dog years: the Sept. 5, 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes; Sept. 28, 2000, the beginning of the intifada, which has cost hundreds of innocent human lives; Sept. 11, 2001; and Sept. 13, the 10th anniversary of the Oslo accords, the failure of which is as much a result of terror as it is a cause of future terror.

On Tuesday morning, I attended a meeting with John Miller, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, and it became clear to me that American Jews are in the midst of completing a double major in terrorism. America’s war on terror is far from over, and we watch in horror as Israelis suffer its consequences abroad. Being ahead of the curve on this test is no comfort.

Miller is the former ABC News reporter and anchor who landed the only interview any American journalist has ever conducted with Osama bin Laden.

On May 24, 1994, bin Laden’s fellow sociopaths took Miller and his camera crew on a tortuous journey into the Afghani highlands. Someone at the American Jewish Committee briefing asked Miller why, if he could find bin Laden with $70,000 and an SUV, our military cannot. Simple, said Miller, "He wanted me to find him."

Bin Laden used his prime-time appearance to declare war on the "Jews and the Crusaders," meaning Israel and America. His organization, which Miller said is less of a terrorist band and more of a sponsor and facilitator — "the Ford Foundation of terror" — has been active ever since. We’ve bagged some of its chieftains, but many others, including all the bombers of the U.S.S. Cole, are at large, and stocks of the deadly nerve agent ricin, which we know they’ve been working on, are unaccounted for.

So our war on terror is not over, and according to Miller, the war in Iraq (which evidently isn’t over either) has, if anything, distracted us from making our own city safer. Two years after President Bush and the Department of Homeland Security swore to help cities finance anti-terror measures, the money is finally beginning to trickle in from Washington, Miller said, and even then it is not enough.

Los Angeles is a "target-rich environment," Miller said, from our amusement parks to our government buildings, our infrastructure and our film studios. The sharp eye of a single U.S. Customs agent averted what would have been a calamitous explosion at LAX planned for Jan. 1, 2000, but Al Qaeda isn’t done with us. More than a dozen of their operatives are known to have passed through Southern California (three of the Sept. 11 hijackers lived in San Diego), and training tapes captured in Afghanistan show operatives practicing English 101 on pretend hostages. "Why are they training in English," asked Miller, "if they don’t intend to use it?"

Several immediate fears bubbled up at the briefing. Will suicide bombers strike our malls and cafes? Miller suggested instead that Al Qaeda’s MO is large-scale, well-planned and well-spaced attacks, about every two years. Are our synagogues safe during the High Holidays? Miller said that religious institutions, some of which his bureau identifies as "high-quality targets," receive extra attention at sensitive times of year. But, he added, Al Qaeda plans and executes operations when they’re ready, not according to any holidays or anniversaries.

The question is not if we are we safe, but what can each of us do to be safer? The idea is to find the balance between alert and alarmed, between giving in to our fears (and to fear mongers) and giving up.

The best intelligence the task force has received recently, said Miller, came not from CIA signal intelligence in the mountains of Afghanistan, but from a woman in Los Angeles out walking her dog.

"She saw something that just didn’t feel right and called us, and the information is panning out," he said.

Miller refused to go into more detail, but there was a strange comfort in the anecdote. To make our city safer we should call our City Council representatives and tell them to fund counterterrorism in Los Angeles. But we should also keep living our lives, walking our dogs and buying tickets to Israel.

The Frozen Chosen

Although my rabbinic colleagues will always go the extra mile to serve their communities, I believe I actually cover the most miles in my commute: Every other month or so, I start my journey at 4:30 a.m. in the North Valley and end it some 10 hours later in a small airport in Juneau, Ala. Outside the gate, a member of the Juneau Jewish Community (JJC) smiles and waves to me — a weekend of serving the Frozen Chosen begins.

Through many years of rabbinic traveling and teaching, I’ve been blessed to serve congregations from Long Island to Maui and from Canada to Australia. I’ve prayed in shuls from Transylvania to Argentina, and I’ve discovered that in all the world Juneau’s community is unique. The fusion of Alaskan life and Jewish tradition never ceases to amaze me.

The JJC presently has about 40 core households and no permanent building. We often pray in local senior centers, churches or members’ homes.

I began learning about Alaskan customs during my first Shabbat morning service in spring of 2001. I sat in a cozy, rustic living room, and as I prepared to sing an opening nigun, I looked around the crowded room and realized I was surrounded by a circle of smiling faces and wiggling toes — I was the only one wearing shoes. I then noticed the mountain of rubber shoes and winter boots piled near the door.

"It’s always snowy, slushy or just plain muddy in Juneau," the president said. "We don’t wear shoes in our houses."

So I quickly added my black dress heels to the pile, and now know how to lead home-based services in stocking feet.

Jews initially arrived in Alaska in the mid-19th century as whalers and traders. Eventually, Jews began to settle in the territory, teaching their traditions and learning about native ways. Over time, Jews married natives and Jewish family names are not uncommon among native peoples. An unexpected name emerged among the natives of a Northwestern tribe, which resides in the area around Bethel. The tribe is known as the Yupiks, and numerous marriages have occurred between Yupiks and Jews. The offspring actually call themselves "Jew-piks," proud of each culture and welcome in Bethel’s small Jewish community.

Of course, Juneau is Alaska’s capital; this year, when the legislative session began, the Jewish population swelled, because four Jewish legislators and their families joined the JJC. Juneau is a very political little town, and many JJC members serve the government in some capacity. Before one of my last visits, one of the members unexpectedly arranged for me to open a session at the state House of Representatives. Although I was ambivalent at first, because of church-state issues, I realized that my participation was important to the Jewish community.

"A rabbi hasn’t opened a session in years," they told me, "and most legislators have never even heard of a female rabbi."

With some hesitation, I accepted the honor, viewing it as a unique opportunity to teach and to offer a context for making the decisions of governing. Careful to avoid explicit reference to God and phrases such as "let us pray," I offered these words to open the legislative session on Jan. 27:

"In ancient days, the sages of the Talmud — who compiled Jewish law and lore — taught that ‘every deliberation conducted for the sake of heaven will … have lasting value.’ As it is said in the ancient tongue: Kol machloket she’he l’shem shamayim, sofah l’hitkayem. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

"May your deliberations, in these honorable halls, truly be for the sake of heaven. May your discussions genuinely be for the sake of the men and women who depend on you, as well as the innocent children and the wild creatures whose care is entrusted to you. Through your debates, may you honestly pursue the best interests of those who dwell in the cities, towns, villages and untamed places of this great state. May you also fulfill your sacred obligation to protect this precious land itself.

"May you continue to be a privileged partner with the Eternal Holy Source of Life to protect and promote the well-being of those you serve — and may all your deliberations truly be of lasting value. Cain y’hi ratzon, so may it be."

While remarkable opportunities like addressing the House make serving in Juneau exciting, unexpected daily activities and conversations make it unforgettable. In the winter, it was amazing to sing "Shechecheyanu" as congregants and I stood beside an iceberg that had frozen in Mendenhall Lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. An equally memorable moment occurred on an earlier visit, as I discussed a bar mitzvah project with a 12-year-old Alaskan student; he wanted to make a shofar.

"Great," I said, "what kind of horn will you use?"

He replied "Dahl sheep — they’re all over."

"And how will you get the horn?" I asked.

"Well," he said matter-of-factly, "Dad and I will go hunting."

Only in Alaska, I laughed to myself, feeling, again that the commute is always worthwhile.

Sheryl Nosan is rabbi of Temple Beth Torah of the San Fernando Valley in Granada Hills. She will be returning to Alaska on May 30.

Offbeat Austrian

The opening scene of “Gebürtig” is as clever and shocking ascene you’ll see on screen this year: The cold, mist-covered grounds of aconcentration camp. Skeletal Jews in ragged clothes huddle together for warmth.Nearby, SS officers in thick wool coats smoke, laugh and drink. An old Jew slips,collapses. An SS man rushes over, extends his hand, helps him up and offers himhis cigarette.

These are actors in the midst of shooting a major Holocaustmovie, and in the course of “Gebürtig,” set in Vienna during the Waldheimaffair of the late 1980s, we will get to know how they and others deal with thereality of what they are paid to fictionalize.

Gebürtig, Austria’s entry into the competition for BestForeign Film in the upcoming Oscar race, is a clever and mostly engaging moviethat goes after the big questions: Is the Holocaust best told as documentary orfiction? Are its terrors better left to historians or storytellers? Are itstruth found in the courtroom or in poetry? In other words, how do you come to termswith coming to terms with the past?

The movie, based on a 1992 novel by co-writer andco-director Robert Schindel, has a delightfully jaundiced view of the wholeHolocaust movie industry. It’s a Holocaust movie that could, and should, onlybe made in the wake of dozens of more serious Holocaust movies. It has, too, amuch more serious take on how Austrians themselves have or have not come togrips with their history.

The movie tracks a handful of Austrians as they come togrips with how the Holocaust, or the aftermath of the Holocaust, influencestheir lives. A Viennese journalist sets out for New York to convince Jewishimmigrant Hermann Gebirtig, whose name is spelled differently than the film’stitle, to return to the town of his birth and give evidence in court against aformer concentration camp supervisor. A famous German journalist is forced tofinally face the fact that he is the son of a high-ranking SS doctor. Jewishcabaret artist Danny Demant and his circle of theatrical friends — the mixed-togetherchildren of victims and aggressors — vie for parts in a Hollywood Holocaustmovie, even as Demant tries to forget his Jewishness in the arms of a beautifulER doctor.

“Once the world capital of anti-Semitism, Vienna has becomethe capital of forgetting,” Demant sings in his cabaret.

The stories come together in a very European, untidyconclusion, when Gebirtig does return to testify, only to see the defendantreleased for lack of evidence. Was Gebirtig’s journey a waste of time? The oldpoet shrugs.

“Vienna is a beautiful city. To die for,” he says.

So is much of this movie.

The Academy Award nominations will be televised at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 11 on ABC.

Uncommon Journeys

Excerpted from "Common Prayers: Faith, Family and a Christian’s Journey Through the Jewish Year" by Harvey Cox. (Houghton Mifflin, $24).

It is September. The trees are in full leaf, and here and there a splash of amber or scarlet presages the foliage feast to come. The air has a bite; the atmosphere crackles. Energy is high. Children have returned from camp suntanned and taller. Back-to-school sales are under way. It is a time of year fairly popping with new beginnings. But before they officially ring out the old and ring in the new, most people will have to wait until the end of December. And it will happen during the darkest days of winter, crammed into an already crowded "holiday season.

For those attuned to the Jewish calendar, however, which follows the lunar rather the solar cycles, early autumn is precisely when the new year does begin. It would be nice to think that the rabbis took all these seasonal and psychological elements into consideration when they set the date, but I doubt it. Predictably, there were centuries in which Jewish authorities differed over when the new year should begin. Their argument, recounted in the Talmud, goes back to a more basic dispute about when the world itself was created. Was it in the Jewish month of Nisan, the one in which Passover falls? Or was it in Tishrei, which comes in the fall? The debate was eventually settled that, in effect, both parties were right, and some different "new years" in the Jewish calendar. The first day of Nisan is used as a year marker for the length of a king’s reign (although admittedly there are not many kings — let alone Jewish kings — in business nowadays.) It is also the new year for months. The month of Elul is used for counting the age of animals. The fifteenth of Shuvat is the new year for trees. But Tishrei marks the creation of the world and is the new year for years, so that is when the Jewish New Year’s Rosh Hashana falls.

This may sound unnecessarily confusing to those of us who are used to taking up a new calendar, popping a bottle of champagne, singing "Auld Lang Syne," and putting the wrong date on checks during January. But I rather like the idea that for Jews, the matter of exactly when the new year begins — like so much else in their tradition — was never definitely settled. Not only does the coming of the "new year of years" in September cohere well with the way many people live their lives, but the implication that there are different kinds of new years for the flora and fauna also makes sense. It reminds us (though this may not have been the original intent) that poodles and ostriches, scrub oaks and long needle pines, may live in cycles that are different from those of human being. Why should they all be squeezed into our human calendar? But I have learned something even more elemental from Rosh Hashana, something that is at the same time both unnerving and heartening. I have learned that it is a holiday about life and death.

The truth is, I have always found something acutely unsatisfying about the way most Christians and nonreligious gentiles and non-observant Jews commemorate the New Year. As a child I looked forward to being allowed to stay up until midnight on December 31. The next morning, while my parents slept late, I found the silly hats and noisemakers they had brought home from their merry-making the night before. In my later youth I looked forward to the dancing and singing and — to a limited extent — the drinking.

But all along I felt there was something missing. It seemed to me there should be another dimension to the coming of a new year, something that was being overlooked or even avoided. As I got older, I came to recognize that what was being left out was the apprehensiveness, even trepidation, that gnaws at each of us with the realization that our time is limited, another year has passed, and a new one is beginning. If only to ourselves, we inevitably ask some difficult questions. What does the new year really hold for us? Will it be just another 12 months or could it be my last year?

New Year’s Day is simply not on the Christian calendar, and as far as I know, only a few Methodists still celebrate the custom of a Watch Night service on New Year’s Eve. I think this is a loss for us all. Human beings need rituals as punctuation marks. They signal changes in our lives and allow us to become more fully aware of them. Some are relatively minor changes, marked by commas and periods. Others like new paragraphs, demarcate new but still relatively minor changes. New chapters, however, cue us that something more significant is beginning. Maybe that is why the medieval monks illuminated the first letter of each chapter in the manuscripts they copied with elaborate curlicues and gold dust. The coming of a new year is definitely a new chapter. This is why clinking glasses and cheering the descending ball in Times Square does not speak to the powerful mixed feelings New Year’s Eve evokes.

Early in the twentieth century a German philosopher named Rudolf Otto published an influential book, later translated into English as The Idea of the Holy. In it he suggest that the original impetus for all religions comes from what he called — in a phrase that has become commonplace to theologians — the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The holy, he says, awakens in us both a trembling shudder at its uncanniness, and a sense of fascination with its beauty and seductiveness. For thousands of years the different religious traditions have grappled with ways to do justice to both these dimensions, and they have devised a variety of patterns. In the bible, the anxious shudder is evoked by "the wrath of God." Those familiar with Buddhist iconography will recognize it in the so-called dreadful and grotesque deities that are especially evident in Tibetan iconography, although this dark side of that tradition is not often mentioned in the gentle version purveyed by the Dalai Lama. In Hinduism, the malicious face of the divine can be seen in the figure of Kali, with her belt of dismembered arms and her necklaces of skulls.

Of course, no religion leaves it at that. Each also has its way of projecting the merciful, benevolent — even approachable and loving side of the holy. But one reason that so many people see contemporary American versions of Judaism and Christianity as shallow is that the fascinans side has completely overwhelmed the trememdum side. A few years ago Cheryl Bridges Johns, an American theologian and religious educator, took a year off to visit churches throughout the United States in order to appraise the health of religion at the grass-roots level. What she found discouraged her. She discovered what seemed almost to be a conspiracy across denominational and even interfaith lines to remold God into the most pleasant and obliging deity imaginable.

The Yahweh who thundered from Mount Sinai, drowned the Egyptian army, and who the prophet Amos says will bring destruction upon "who oppress the helpless and grind down the poor" has disappeared from altar and pulpit. Both churches and synagogues have tried to devise a "user-friendly" God. Indeed, some of the most successful "mega churches" now plan their services, music, and preaching on the basis of market surveys.

But this presents a problem. When tremendum is short-circuited, the fascinan also seems to fade away. It is hard to imagine anyone shuddering in the presence of the God of American cultural religion today. But this oh-so-nice God does not seem to evoke much passionate affection either.

Still, the shudder persists, if somewhat muted. For example, Jewish religious leaders often speculate on why, even though weekly synagogue attendance is usually low in America, their buildings are full to overflowing on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Indeed it comes as a surprise to anyone with a Jewish spouse to discover that one has to get tickets in advance for the high holiday services or no seat will be available. Why the crowds? Some observers point out that Judaism actually has two calendars. The first is the annual one, which includes all the holidays. The second one is based on the individual’s own life cycle, which encompasses birth (and circumcision), coming of age (bar and bat mitzvah) marriage, and death. In an individualistic society like our own, life-cycle rituals loom much larger than the prescribed annual holidays. Then why such a crowd at Rosh Hashana? I think it is because, for many people, the start of a new year is not just a collective event, it is also a pivotal road mark in their own lives. But I think there is something else in the picture as well: the Rosh Hashana ritual itself. It strikes exactly the right note to resonate with the mixed feelings that well up in most of us when an old year ends and a new one begins.

"Judaismis a religion of life against death," Rabbi Irving Greenberg says in "The Jewish Way." Even the most uninformed Gentiles often recognize this. However dimly, they know that Jews have survived more threats to their individual and corporate existence, and for more centuries, than any other people. Someone once referred to Jews as "the always dying out race." Their disappearance has been confidently predicted time after time, most often by their enemies, but sometimes even by Jews themselves. Yet, after thousands of years filled with perils and pogroms, and even after the Nazi’s attempt to murder them all, Jews are alive and well. It could even be argued that at the end of the century that treated them most harshly, most Jews are thriving today more vigorously than at any time since the halcyon days of David and Solomon. They still bury their would-be pallbearers and still stubbornly offer toasts to life, "l’chaim." As even the most casual observer has to admit with some degree of puzzlement, they must be doing something right.

An outsider participating in Jewish religious life soon learns that the way Jews affirm life is not by denying death but by facing it down. The Rosh Hashana ritual takes the form of dramatic confrontation with death and mortality. This happens in part through a carefully staged courtroom drama in which God is the judge, and everyone who comes before his presence is being tried for his or her life. In fact, to my astonishment, according to one Jewish prayer book, even the "hosts of heaven" are called to account at this time. Nobody, human or angel, escapes this sweeping indictment. In the end, life and mercy win out over death and judgment, but the Rosh Hashana liturgy is designed to elicit the same cold dread anyone would feel in a human courtroom under such formidable circumstances.

The trial actually goes on for days and ends only on Yom Kippur, a week and a half after Rosh Hashana, when the verdict is finally announced. But getting to that final acquittal is not easy. Between the two come what are called yamim noraim, the Days of Awe. During these 10 days the defendants must undergo the most intensive sort of self-scrutiny, reviewing a year’s deeds and misdeeds, both major and minor. They must ask forgiveness from anyone they have wronged and — when possible — make restitution. God, the tradition says, forgives only the sins we commit against him, not those committed against other people. The objective is to move the soul to teshuvah, "repentance." The symbolism states that throughout the trial, God is pondering whether to inscribe our names in the Book of Life or in the Book of Death. The hope is that, having undergone such a rigorous moral inventory, the new year can begin with a
clean slate.

The concept of taking a personal moral inventory has become familiar to millions of people who are not Jewish and may never have heard of Rosh Hashana. It is one of the first and most basic steps one is required to take in a "12-step program," like Alcoholics Anonymous or Alanon. Scholars estimate that one out of every four adult Americans is involved in a "support group," many of which use the moral inventory approach. Christians who were raised with some exposure to the traditions of pietism and revivalism will sense something familiar about the Days of Awe. None of it should be particularly surprising, since the Christian tradition of setting aside certain days and seasons for self-examination and penitence are adaptations of earlier Jewish traditions, and the 12-step programs evolved from the Oxford Group Movement, an evangelical Christian enterprise. The Days of Awe have shaped modern culture much more than most Jews realize.

As Rosh Hashana ebbs, everyone anticipates the unearthly blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn that is sounded several times during the Days of Awe. It emits a strange sound, like nothing one hears anywhere else in modern life. It seems to cut through the buzz and static to what must be a primitive part of the brain. But why does it pierce so deeply? The answer given by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, one of the last of the great Hasidic teachers (he died in 1905), makes sense to me.

"The shofar blasts," he said, "are sounds without speech. Speech represents the division of sound into varied and separate movements of the mouth. But sound itself is one, united, cleaving to its source. On Rosh Hashana the life force cleaves to its source, as it was before differentiation or division. And we, too, seek to attach ourselves to that inner flow of life." Commenting on this interpretation, Rabbi Arthur Green says, "The sound of the shofar takes us to that moment of outcry from deep within, to a place prior to the division of our heart’s cry into the many words of prayer."

But for me there is another reason that the shofar slices the air and stabs the soul. It signals, as nothing else does, the chasm between the past and the future. It splits time in two. As the old year fades and the new one begins, we realize that the old one is gone forever and that, try as we will, we can never know what lies ahead. The shofar, since it is wordless, can both scream in terror and shout for joy with the same breath. Nothing else is worthy of the beginning of a whole new year in the only life we will ever have.

A Father’s Loss

Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Journey through Loss" by Leonard Fein (Jewish Lights Publishing, $19.95)

In January 1996, Leonard Fein’s daughter Naomi, called Nomi, collapsed and died of cardiac arrest. A pacemaker had resolved a previously diagnosed heart problem, but no one had any clue that Nomi harbored another fatal condition. All involved, her physicians, her husband, her father, two sisters, mother and wide circle of friends were shocked and unprepared for her death. Her own daughter, Liat, was just 16 months old. Liat was with Nomi when she was stricken.

Fein walks us though numbness, shock, grief and acceptance. Pointedly, we are never told precisely the medical cause of Nomi’s death. Scientific names here do not interest Fein, a veteran journalist (and a Journal contributing writer), editor, social activist and crusader. (Two Los Angeles Jewish social action institutions, MAZON and Koreh L.A., flow from Fein’s public engagement.) Covering five years, Fein distills the disjointed, painful sorrow of a bereaved parent.

Along the way, one discerns a certain ruefulness. "When the buses in Israel were bombed a month after Nomi died, I experienced something that felt strangely close to envy…. I wanted … the death, if death there had to be, to be part of a larger story." Fein’s impulse is not strange at all. Ariel Glaser’s death prompted Elizabeth and Paul Glaser to establish the Pediatric AIDS Foundation; Grace Ann Monaco’s loss was a factor that led to the Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation, a help-and-advocacy group for pediatric cancer patients. Some, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded by Candy Lightner after her daughter’s death, have radically changed our views.

But Nomi’s death was not, to Fein’s passing chagrin, "socially meaningful." It simply happened, and he grows older and Liat grows up. Fein had stopped wrestling with God long before, although as a passionate Jew raised inside Jewish tradition, he held on to rituals, songs and even the blessings. Nomi and her husband David’s more intense religious commitment seemed to bemuse him. Nonetheless, he took comfort in the waves of community that surrounded Nomi’s family, during the funeral and across the years.

Threaded against his grief is his memory. Liat, too young when her mother died, would not have memories of the child that Fein had raised with his ex-wife to accomplished adulthood. But he hopes that she will, through interaction with Nomi’s friends and family, get some idea of what her mother was, some sense of "Nominess." He hopes that Nomi’s younger sister, Jesse, will, if not impart "Nominess" to Liat, at least teach her "Jesseness," for Jesse, as did Liat, never had a moment without Nomi until her death.

How to answer the most difficult question a bereaved parent faces: How many children do you have? "I hesitate: I cannot say ‘two’; that would be a betrayal. Yet if I say ‘three,’ the next question is typically, ‘And where are they?’ So I preempt the question, volunteer that one has died." So Fein writes in the first year of his grief. Fein doesn’t revisit the matter during his five years of journal and journey. It is the question that does not disappear. Later, perhaps, he became adept at deflecting it, keeping distant, keeping quiet, keeping ahead of the inevitable, trivial exchanges.

At Jesse’s wedding, 18 months after Nomi’s death, Liat, the flower girl, "stopped and looked around, confused" for a moment after starting up the aisle. Her Aunt Rachel took Liat’s hand and led her, and the rest of the family and friends, to "push open the doors of joy."

Fein learned to laugh and smile again. His reminders do not evaporate, however, nor would he have them do so. He claims his daughter’s passions and hopes that her daughter will claim them also. He hopes too that Liat will know what Nomi’s family was, her immigrant great-grandparents, her grandparents committed to social justice. In the end, Fein cannot give his granddaughter her mother, only his sense of her. He can give her a book, a letter, vanished hopes and the poignant memories.