Gried and the Space Between Us

The Space Between Us by Rabbi Janet Madden


[Ed. Note: Grief Awareness Day falls on August 30, 2017. — JB]

I recently officiated at the funeral of a man who founded a bank and a medical journal. He trained generations of physicians, funded and spearheaded disaster relief efforts and led medical missions to countries across the world in his lifelong efforts to increase medical knowledge and alleviate suffering. His family and many friends and colleagues gathered to honor his life. They derived comfort from knowing that he was able to pursue the work that he loved until the last months of his life, that his memory is a blessing to those who knew him, and that thousands of people were helped through his work. Grief at his death was balanced with the knowledge that he lived a life of passion and purpose.

Death can bring a new level of intimacy, new kinds of knowledge. When I sat with his family to plan his funeral, they told wonderful stories. I’d known that he was a child violin prodigy and I’d known about his life-long love of classical music, but I was surprised to learn that the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” was his favorite song.

Three days after the funeral, when I made a follow-up phone call to his widow, I found the family in crisis. The previous night, while the recently-buried man’s seven year old great-granddaughter slept in the next room, her mother, his only granddaughter, had hanged herself. Her body had been discovered only a couple of hours before.

Distraught family members asked if I had detected anything unusual about this young woman’s grief. I had not. None of them had perceived anything that suggested that the young woman was not grieving her grandfather’s death as what death professionals assess as “appropriate.” During the following days and the excruciating experiences of police and coroner and preparing for her funeral, the family asked the same questions over and over: how could they not have known that she was in such profound distress? What could they have done differently?

As a spiritual director, a grief counselor and a rabbi, I am well prepared to encounter death. But this is a different kind of death, and the grief that has leveled this family is, I think, unique to those whose loved ones suicide. This is complicated grief—grief knotted up with self-recrimination, confusion, shame, fear, and anger.

I guided the family through this second, tragic funeral as gently and compassionately as I know how to do. I’ve been in constant touch with them. I’ve made referrals to therapists who specialize in working with the families of those who have died by suicide. For her heartbroken parents, honor and comfort and the blessings of memory are distant concepts. I cannot fathom what her seven year old daughter, who woke up expecting to get ready for a day at summer camp and found her mother’s body, is experiencing, and what she will continue to endure throughout her life.

In the days since the young woman’s funeral, I’ve reread the lyrics of her grandfather’s favorite song. What at the time of his death seemed an expression of longing seems, in retrospect, a chilling premonition:

“We were talking about the space between us all

And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion

Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late, when they pass away…And life flows on within you and without you…”

I am praying for this family. I am praying for all who wall themselves off, concealing their suffering and despair. I am praying for less space between us.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

 [Ed. Note: Rabbi Janet Madden has agreed to submit a series of entries for Expired And Inspired – watch for them to appear fairly regularly, on a more or less monthly basis. — JB]

___________

GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

____________________

Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

____________________

Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

_____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

 

Losing to Gain: The Central Paradox of Death Rituals – The Break that Binds by Isaac Pollak


[Ed. Note: This is a reprise from 2014. — JB]

Central to religious practice, rituals may often seem intentionally obtuse, to the point of irrationality. This, in fact may be their very purpose. By devising rituals that at times seem to make little or no sense to the uninitiated, those who learn to perform the rituals – if not understand them, become part of a distinct community. The fact that rituals often don’t make practical or rational sense is exactly what makes them useful for social identification. The cognitive psychologist Christine LeGare has done a number of studies showing that rituals declare that you are a member of a particular social group. Lewis Mumford, the social philosopher, historian, and greatest urbanist of the 20th century, makes a clear case that what sets humans apart from other animals is not the use of tools, but rather our use of language and ritual, and those are what makes us “Community”. Sharing information and ideas among participants was the foundation of all societies, and “community is the most precious collective invention.”

Although there are rituals designed for every aspect of the human life cycle, the rituals surrounding “DEATH” are often the least understood, yet the most often performed. Even the irreligious may insist upon death rituals for themselves or their loved ones. Matthew Frank in his book Preparing the Ghost speaks about “our need to mythologize, ritualize, and spin tales about that which we “fear.”

The greater the lack of comprehension, the increased the amount of the rituals with DEATH, by far the most ritualized of any aspect of a society’s life cycle in every culture. The more rituals there are, the stronger the bonds of community and social identification. The life cycle events the least understood emerge in ritual earlier and are more deeply rooted.

Witness the recent tragic murder of three young Israeli teenagers which bought every dimension of Judaism – and beyond – into a unified community – from the Ultra-Hassidic to Messianics. Everyone adopted and prayed for these young men in accord with the adage ”kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l\L’zeh”, all of us are responsible for one another. Death brought us a sense of unified community as nothing else ever could.

A life broken, an individual link lost, paradoxically strengthens the group unity and identity. Rituals give us a sense of control over an area where we have none. Mundane actions are suffused with arbitrary conventions, and that makes it important to us and gives us a sense of “being in charge”. Rituals engage members of a community in the collective enterprise of building and sustaining a “PEOPLE.”

Jewish death rituals have a foundation that travels back in time 3000 years and has made us a community like none other. In fact, a new developing Jewish community has an obligation to set aside ground for a cemetery before setting aside land for a synagogue. How wise were our Rabbis.

Let us preciously value these so vitally irrational traditions and hoary rituals that bring us together to pray, to improve ourselves, and to elevate ourselves in response to mysteries we don’t comprehend.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing the German poet Rainer M. Rilke in his letters to a young Poet:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

 

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak is President and CEO of an international marketing business for almost 4 decades at this point. He holds graduate degrees in Marketing, Industrial Psychology, Art History, and Jewish Material Culture from City College, LIU, JTS, and Columbia University. He has been a student in the Gamliel Institute, and serves as a consultant to the institution. He has been the rosh/head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, for over 3 decades, and is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, having several hundred in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Born and raised in NYC, married, with 3 children and 3 grandchildren.

___________

GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

____________________

Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

____________________

Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

_____________________

DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

___________

MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

____________________

SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

_____________________

11 observations on life and living


1. We just want someone to listen to us.

My mother broke her hip, she’s in rehab, she wants to get out but, imprisoned, she needs someone to listen to her story. I’m providing that service.

That’s what we all want. Someone we don’t have to be our best self with. Someone we can reveal our inadequacies and frustrations to. Someone who will patiently listen and won’t give us unwanted advice. We usually don’t want any advice, we just want to be heard. A great listener possesses the key to friendship. Someone who listens will have more friends than any world-beater. People are complicated and flawed. Don’t berate them for opening up, embrace them.

2. Don’t do all the talking.

That doesn’t mean in one or another conversation you can’t dominate, but if you can’t ask how the other person is doing, if you can’t interact in a way that evidences you’re listening, you may think you’re winning, but you’re not. Life is about giving. If you’re always taking, it’s going to get very lonely.

3. Business books are b.s.

Because even if the advice is good, it’s not particularized to you. I’m not saying you can’t gain insight, but the people you’re reading about don’t resemble you, and too often the writers are doing it to make money and burnish their careers as opposed to genuinely trying to help you. Sure, it’s great to identify with what a writer says, but don’t overinvest; you’ve got to find your own path.

4. You can’t tell people what to do.

They’ve got to find out for themselves. When you’re listening to them, it’s about being heard, as stated above; it’s not about you dropping pearls of wisdom that they can follow. Furthermore, if you do manage to help them out once, they’re still gonna be flummoxed soon. Life is about experience. It’s a long ride we’ve all got to take. You’ve got to find your own way. It’s great if you can find a mentor, but I’ve never encountered one. But the main point is people don’t really want advice, no matter how much they say they do. Tell them the truth and you’ll be in trouble — they’ll start explaining why you’re wrong. It’s human nature.

5. Don’t evidence weakness.

I know this sounds contradictory, but my main point is don’t always be the person who got the raw deal, who the world is against. Life is tough for everybody. Sure, complain. But be joyful sometimes, too. Otherwise, everybody’s gonna run from you.

6. Life is not always up. 

If you haven’t experienced downs, you haven’t taken any risk or you’re so rich you’ve never engaged. Life is about losses even more than victories. Lick your wounds, but then lift yourself back up, however slowly, and get back in the game. Learn from what happened, but do your best not to be burdened by it.

7. Everybody’s got an interior life.

When they reveal it to you, you bond. Most people don’t feel safe enough to tell you their truth. But when they do, it’s a magic moment for both of you, the teller feels exhilarated and alive, finally able to relax in his skin, and the listener starts to tingle, stunned that the teller trusts him that much.

8. It’s not what you own, but who you are.

But you don’t realize this until you’re close to 60. The young kids have little wisdom and all the strength and synapses. The old people have all the wisdom, but failing bodies. So you’ve got young people doing stupid things, not realizing how long life truly is, and you’ve got old people driving around in the sports cars they can finally afford. It would be better if the young people had wisdom and Ferraris, that they could truly enjoy, when they’re truly meaningful, and the oldsters could drive Priuses and Fusions yet have no aches and pains.

9. No one remembers history. 

They’re doomed to repeat it. It’s the way of the world, the same way people repeat the same relationship until they finally wake up and realize their choices are bad, what they think they want is actually no good for them.

10. Trustworthiness is more important than excitement.

11. We want people we can count on. 

Who will take us to the hospital. Who will go out of their way to help us just because they’re our friend. We all know these special people, who live to serve, despite being neither rich nor famous, they’re our society’s secret savers. If you don’t have one of these people in your life, someone not related to you, start looking, now. And once again, you get them by giving more than taking.


Bob Lefsetz is the author of the e-mail newsletter The Lefsetz Letter, where this column originally appeared.

High Holy Days: Who will live, who will die?


You don’t have to be a Jewish scholar to note a glaring difference between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Jan. 1, the secular New Year.

The former is solemn while the latter is boisterous. And one reason for Rosh Hashanah’s solemnity is the central question that it confronts: “Who will live and who will die [in the coming year]?”

The High Holy Days liturgy is meant to force us to confront our mortality. And that is not a particularly jovial subject.

Is this a good thing? 

I think it is. As Samuel Johnson put it a long time ago, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”

The fact is that knowing we will die is one of the most beneficial realizations we can have.

First, death forces us to value time. If we never died, why would we do anything we didn’t absolutely have to do?

Why read a book today when you know that you can just as easily put off reading it for a year, or for that matter, a hundred years? 

Knowing that our time is limited forces us use it more productively. Years ago, a Swiss lawyer, after being told that he had incurable cancer, wrote a book during his last year of life. Among the first things he decided to do was to stop watching television.

Well before I read about that book, at a young age, I remember thinking that, in terms of using time wisely, it would be a good thing to live as if one had a terminal illness.


For the fact is that we all do have a terminal condition — life itself.

Rosh Hashanah asks us — no, it demands of us — that we lead our lives knowing we can die any day. Because nearly every one of us would lead our lives differently if we were told we had a year to live. 

Second, death confers wisdom.

Knowing that we will die gives us wisdom: Death puts things into perspective.

Knowing that we will die clarifies what is important and what is trivial. It is one reason that human beings have always associated age with wisdom. 

The usual explanation for associating age with wisdom is the longer one lives, the more wisdom one accumulates through increased life experiences. But I believe something else is at least as much at work here. And that is that the older one gets, the closer to death one gets. If people could expect to live, let us say, 500 years, I am not sure that 80-year-olds would have as much wisdom as they do today.

As people get old, they are more likely to believe in God. This is often dismissed as a function of their fear of death. But I submit it is not fear of death nearly as much as it is the reality of death that makes older people more likely to believe in God.

When you stare death in the face, you get a lot a more clarity about life. And one of those clarity realizations is that if there is no God, this whole thing called life has been no more than a charade: We make believe things matter, but they really don’t. 

The same holds true with belief in an afterlife. When people are young and think they will live forever, the idea of an afterlife can seem both irrational and unimportant. But when you confront death, it becomes far more difficult — not just emotionally, but intellectually — to say, “This life is all there is.”

Another proof of how much death clarifies what is important is the funeral.

It is well worth paying attention to eulogies. If you do, you will notice that much of what we deem to be of major significance is virtually never even mentioned in any of the eulogies for the deceased.

For example, many parents (Jewish ones most certainly) deem what college their children get into to be the most important goal of their child’s life. Virtually everything is dedicated to that goal — getting into the best preschool, the best elementary school, the best junior high and high school, getting the best grades, and spending whatever it takes.

But have you ever heard any eulogy mention — even in passing — what college the deceased attended? Has any rabbi, priest, minister, spouse, child or friend of the deceased ever said anything like, “We will miss Sam, who, you will recall, attended Harvard”?

Eulogies — the ultimate confrontation with death — force us to talk about what is truly important: “We will miss Sam. Sam was a wonderful husband, a devoted father, a loyal and giving friend. He loved life. He had a happy disposition. He was an honest man, etc., etc.”

Finally, death increases our love of just about everything in life.

Death forces us to value the quotidian. Those diagnosed with a terminal illness value sunsets and flowers and rain showers and people more than they did before their diagnosis.

So, for all these reasons Rosh Hashanah focuses on our mortality. That is why, ironically, while the theme resonates far more with the old, it is the young who most need it. Because the sooner people appreciate their mortality, the sooner they will value what is truly important: goodness, sunsets, people — and, yes, God and religion.

Who will die this coming year? Maybe you and maybe me. 

What is certain is that confronting the question will make for a better year.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 970 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarprCollins, 2012).

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sep. 15-21, 2012


SAT SEPT 15

“With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story”
The feature-length documentary explores the life of the 89-year-old, comic-book legend, co-creator of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. Directed by Terry Douglas, Nikki Frakes and William Lawrence Hess, “With Great Power” highlights Lee’s Depression-era upbringing, his early years at Timely Comics, his military service during World War II, the dawn of Marvel Comics and more. Narrated by Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber), the doc features interviews with Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes. A Q-and-A with the filmmakers follows the screening. Sat. 7-9 p.m. $10. Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St., downtown. (213) 617-1033. downtownindependent.com.


SUN SEPT 16

High Holiday Food Drive 2012
SOVA needs your help. This Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles program, which provides free groceries and an array of support services to more than 12,000 individuals each month, is collecting canned beans, meat, tuna, dry milk, pasta, noodles, rice, dry soup, peanut butter, toiletries and other items. Drop-off locations include the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as well as participating synagogues and day schools. Sun. Through Sept. 26. The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (818) 988-7682, Ext. 116, to find drop-off locations in your area. jewishla.org, jfsla.org/sova.


TUE SEPT 18

Matisyahu
The Grammy nominee appears live in support of his latest record, “Spark Seeker.” Like its predecessors, the new album — Matisyahu’s fourth — features a blend of reggae, hip-hop, beat boxing and spiritual lyrics, but also showcases traditional ancient sounds and electro beats. Expect to hear lead single “Sunshine” as well as other new tracks, and older material off of albums “Light” and “Youth,” during tonight’s performance. Opening bands include reggae-rock ensembles Dirty Heads and Pacific Dub. Tue. 6:30 p.m. $27.50. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (800) 745-3000. livenation.com.


WED SEPT 19

“Sarin Zakan & Eshel Ben-Jacob: Bacteria Art and Eco-Fashion”
Israeli fashion designer Sarin Zakan, who creates eco-couture clothing that blends science and art, makes her U.S. debut at the Pacific Design Center. Zakan’s work — including collars and dresses — features patterns formed by bacteria. Her pieces will be displayed alongside the work of her mentor, Tel Aviv University physics professor Eshel Ben-Jacob, who is called the godfather of bacterial art patterns. Wed. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Through Nov. 9, Mon.-Fri. Pacific Design Center, 8867 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 657-0800. pacificdesigncenter.com.


THU SEPT 20

Mitch Albom 
The best-selling author of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” sits down with Rabbi David Wolpe to discuss his new book, “The Time Keeper.” Albom’s novel follows the inventor of the world’s first clock, Father Time, who, after being punished for trying to measure God’s greatest gift, is given a chance to redeem himself by teaching two people — a teenage girl about to give up on life and a wealthy old businessman who wants to live forever — the true meaning of time. Admission includes a copy of the book. Thu. 8 p.m. $20 (Sinai members), $25 (general). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3243. sinaitemple.org


FRI SEPT 21

Martin Amis and Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner, the marvel behind “Mad Men,” appears in conversation with Martin Amis, a master of ironic prose (“Money: A Suicide Note”). A postwar British writer of fiction, nonfiction, short stories, essays and reviews, his new novel, “Lionel Asbo: State of England,” follows the problematic relationship between a thuggish and lottery-winning English uncle and his nephew. Though experts in different mediums, Weiner and Amis share a fascination with the lives of the privileged in their respective works. Fri. 7:30 p.m. $20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 855-0005. writersblocpresents.com.

“Abraham”
French singer-songwriter and actor Michel Jonasz embodies Abraham, his cantor grandfather, in this one-man show. Set before his death, the play follows Abraham as he recalls his deepest memories — his childhood, escaping from Poland, meeting his wife, his deportation to concentration camps, and the joys and sorrows of existence. In French with projected English translations. Fri. 7:45 p.m. Through Sept. 22. $50 (general seating), $75 (premium). Theatre Raymond Kabbaz, 10361 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 286-0553. theatreraymond-kabbaz.com.

The Next (Jewish) Miss America?


Loren Galler Rabinowitz is not an overachiever. Not to say that she hasn’t achieved more during her 24 years than most accomplish in a lifetime; however, none of it came without expectations. Galler Rabinowitz has felt the pressure to succeed her whole life and has borne it well. You’d be hard pressed to find a more driven or dedicated individual, but no amount of drive can easily explain how a fiercely intellectual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard ended up on stage in spangles with a tiara on her head and the title of Miss Massachusetts.

Galler Rabinowitz was born in Brookline, Mass., into a family of physicians. As a child, she accompanied her mother on trips to her clinic in Barbados, where she worked with underprivileged children. “I’ve been involved with medical research my whole life,” said Galler Rabinowitz, who, by the age of 14, was helping write grant requests and caring for people at the clinic. 

Galler Rabinowitz has a particularly strong relationship with her mother, a major role model in her life. It was through her mother’s influence that Galler Rabinowitz would find her first passion. “My mom was a ballerina, and when I was small, she took me ice skating. It became something we did together.” It was on one of her childhood trips to the rink that Galler Rabinowitz was discovered by an Olympic skating coach and put on the track toward stardom.

Paired with skater David Mitchell, Galler Rabinowitz soon rose through the ranks of U.S ice dancers. She and Mitchell won the bronze medal at the 2004 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “I so desperately loved skating. It was my singular focus for 10 years,” Galler Rabinowitz said in a recent phone interview. However, her Olympic dreams were star-crossed: A shoulder injury to Mitchell sidelined the pair for the 2005 season, and they never recovered their previous chemistry. To make matters worse, Galler Rabinowitz was about to lose someone who had been her inspiration for years.

When she was just a child, Eva Vogel had been rounded up in a Nazi sweep with her family and put on a train to the Belzec concentration camp. Vogel’s father, wanting to spare her the horrible fate that awaited her, pushed Eva out the small window of the train so that she would have a chance at freedom. Eva managed to find a sympathetic Christian family to take her in. With her blond hair and green eyes, Vogel spent the rest of World War II as Katrina, an assumed identity. After the war was over, she married Henry Galler and eventually made her way to America, where she, Henry, and their daughter, Janina, settled in New Orleans.  Years later, Janina Galler would marry Burton Rabinowitz, and among their children would be a talented young ice dancer named Loren.

Loren’s grandmother Eva was her idol. She’d dedicated her post-Holocaust life to traveling around to schools with her husband and preaching against racism and bigotry. Galler Rabinowitz is effusive in her praise of her grandmother. “One of my most cherished memories is spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother. Every time I make her famous matzah ball soup, I feel closer to her, like I’m bringing part of her with me.”

In August 2005, like some cruel joke from above, Hurricane Katrina, bearing the same name that had once saved Eva Galler’s life, crashed into the city of New Orleans. Their home damaged, Eva and Henry were forced to move to Texas, but Eva couldn’t stand the strain. A few short months later, she was dead.

With her skating career over and her beloved grandmother gone, Galler Rabinowitz was forced to consider a new direction in life. She took a trip to Israel to help care for a sick relative. It was her first experience in the Holy Land. “I’d never been there before and wanted to see it. It was really important for me to connect with where I came from and to get a sense of where I needed to go,” Galler Rabinowitz said wistfully. “I had the best time ever.  Having the ability to eat falafel four times a day after years of being on a skater’s diet was definitely something I took advantage of.”

When Africa Comes to Israel


There is a new threat to Israel, although the people raising it are entirely innocent. The threat is represented by a growing population of African refugees, mainly escapees from the hellish dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, who are pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel and settling in some of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in Tel Aviv. They’re now coming at the rate of more than 1,000 each month, according to recent government statements.

In summer 2006, when the presence of these new immigrants first gained public notice, the State Attorney’s office numbered them at fewer than 200. Then, they were strictly a humanitarian concern. And this continues to be so: The people from Darfur and Southern Sudan have fled annihilation; those from Eritrea fled war, lifetime military conscription and persecution. A substantial proportion of refugees from both places were tortured along the way, many of the women have been gang raped by their Sinai Bedouin guides, and all the refugees dodged brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of Egyptian border guards.

The African migration through Sinai to Israel began in 2005 with tiny numbers of Sudanese leaving Cairo, where they had been hounded by police, denied the right to work and treated with ruthless contempt by racist Egyptians. After a police massacre at the end of that year of at least 30 and as many as 200 Sudanese refugees outside the United Nations’ compound in Cairo, the routes through Sinai to the Israeli border began heating up.  

The first arrivals were held in an Israeli prison for a year, or more. But Supreme Court challenges and pressure from the U.N. and the media got them out in 2006. They began moving to Eilat, to sympathetic kibbutzim, and to South Tel Aviv. The cell-phone grapevine between Israel and Cairo told of a relatively great life here.

Soon, the Eritreans started coming, too, and the numbers of African refugees entering Israel each month grew from dozens to hundreds. 

Three years ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from American Jewry because of the worldwide concern over Darfur, granted temporary residency — which means the right to work and to receive Israeli social benefits — to the roughly 500 Darfurians in Israel at the time. Since then, about 2,000 more Darfur refugees have arrived, and they have not been given temporary residency. And, now, even Darfurians from among those original 500 say the Interior Ministry is refusing to renew their temporary residency, according to attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who represents many of them.

Israel’s leading activist on the refugees’ behalf, Sigal Rozen, former director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that 19,000 refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, 8,000 from Sudan and another 4,000 or so from various other, mainly African, countries. As these numbers continue to increase, they also signal a danger, potentially an existential one to this country, whose entire population is 7.5 million and whose size is roughly that of New Jersey.

“The flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa [is] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a July cabinet meeting.

Officially, the Africans are called “infiltrators,” a misleading term because not only do they not hide from Israeli troops after crossing the border, they give themselves up eagerly. They are taken to Saharonim holding facility in the Negev, then released, usually within days, with a bus ticket to Beer Sheva. Afterward they usually head for Tel Aviv and settle wherever they find work.

A refugee family from Eritrea with their Israeli neighbors — Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan.

None of them has been linked to terrorism or any kind of security offense, according to Deputy State Attorney Yochi Gnessin and William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most are young men who live together in rented apartments, several to a room, and they take on whatever work is available, “doing the rough, dirty work that no normal person would do, for whatever money they can get,” said Dror Krispi, who runs an all-night snack bar in Hatikva Quarter, where many refugees have settled. Most commonly, they work as garbage collectors, gardeners, packers in outdoor fruit-and-vegetable markets, house cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in the Tel Aviv area and as menial staff in the hotels of Eilat.

Yet in those poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and other cities where they’ve settled by the thousands, they have set off a wave of xenophobia. The backlash, once confined to nonviolent expressions, now appears to be heating up. In early December, a gang of teenagers in South Tel Aviv reportedly attacked some refugees, and an apartment building in Ashdod, where several refugees live, was torched, although it has not been determined who committed the arson or why.

Meanwhile, the asylum-seekers continue to come over the Egyptian border into Israel. To use Ehud Barak’s phrase from the bad old days of the Intifada, Israel proper (not counting the occupied territories) is a “villa in the jungle” — a democratic, relatively tolerant, prosperous country in the middle of the impoverished, repressive, sprawling Third World. To quote Netanyahu from late November, it is also “the only developed country that you can reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”

Also since November, Israeli bulldozers have been building a security fence along the 150-mile border with Egypt. It is expected to take two and a half years to complete, said Udi Shani, director-general of the Defense Ministry, at a recent Knesset hearing. Construction of a detention camp is planned in the Negev desert, near the Egyptian border, to house up to 10,000 refugees. Netanyahu has given assurances that they will receive “humane” treatment; the Prime Minister’s Office’s official English-language term for the camp is “open housing center.” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, however, has noted that a camp meant to keep people in cannot at the same time be “open.” The refugees are to be prohibited from working.

The government’s hope is to find foreign countries to take the refugees in, reportedly with financial inducements. But U.N. representative Tall calls this plan “a non-starter.”

“Other countries are already dealing with much larger numbers of refugees, they don’t want to take in Israel’s, too,” Tall said. In early December, he said, some 150 Southern Sudanese refugees were flown back home, with their consent, via an unnamed third country, joining a similar number who repatriated last year to Southern Sudan, which is in the process of gaining independence.

But even though 300 refugees are gone, at least that many new ones are coming across the border from Egypt every week.

Jewish community stresses feelings at its peril


We shouldn’t be the least bit surprised that American Jewry is in trouble. We have been overemphasizing what feels good at the expense of what does good for the Jewish people for quite some time.

Allow me to explain.

Many Jewish organizations have taken to pursuing political agendas that at best are distantly, and usually not at all, connected to Jewish concerns. For example, B’nai B’rith International has taken positions on immigration reform and Latin American free trade. The National Council of Jewish Women has spoken out on the earned income tax credit and the line item veto. The ADL has taken stances on same-sex marriage, immigration and reproductive rights. And the Reform movement’s URJ biennial advocated for “righteous, healthy eating,” health care reform and statehood for Washington, D.C.

While I certainly understand the desire to repair the world, spending time and energy on these issues doesn’t help us to create more committed Jews. If a group of law school students devoted years to charitable endeavors, their efforts, while highly laudable, would in no way advance their study of jurisprudence. To be effective attorneys, they must still concentrate on law. To be effective Jews and effective Jewish organizations, we have to concentrate on specifically Jewish matters.

Some might argue that we can both advocate for political positions and inspire Jews to be more committed. That’s just not happening. A multitude of studies demonstrates how non-Orthodox Jews are becoming less and less involved in Jewish life. Very simply, too many Jews are becoming citizens of the world at the expense of being committed citizens of their Jewish community.

We also hurt ourselves in the pursuit of equality in the Jewish community. How could equality be a bad thing? When it gets in the way of placing the brightest, most talented individuals on our boards and in our organizations. It should not matter whether an organization or a board is populated by a majority of female, male, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, gay or straight Jews. Our organizations deserve to be filled with the very best individuals we can find. The Jewish world shorts itself every time it places equality ahead of quality.

Most of us don’t make business decisions in this way, so why do we think such an approach makes sense in our Jewish work? It might feel good to seek balance, but the greater Jewish good suffers as a result.

It is painful to note that an increasing number of American Jews favor Palestinian causes over support of the Jewish state. Here is yet another example of feelings winning out over common sense. Many of us understandably but sometimes wrongly tend to sympathize with the weaker of two opposing parties. After all, why would the stronger group appear to need our support? Presumably it is able to easily protect itself.

Yet strength and weakness have no relationship to right and wrong. How we instinctively feel about two parties tells us nothing about their moral quality. A weaker group that intentionally targets civilians is morally inferior to a far more powerful nation that institutionally attempts to target terrorists.

Of course there are faults to be found with Israel’s conduct. But Israel’s enemies are nowhere near Israel morally with regard to freedom of speech and religious practice, treatment of women and of gays, or waging war with moral constraints.

As it relates to the programs we create, our support for the State of Israel, those we choose to guide our organizations and myriad other matters, our Jewish communities must start acting more on the basis of what does good rather than what feels good. We must get more into the Jew-building business and not spend as much time in the feel-good business.

The irony is that as we do, at least as it relates to the vitality of our Jewish communities, we ultimately will have more to feel good about.

(Joel Alperson is a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities—now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He lives in Omaha, Neb. His views do not necessarily represent those of the organization.)

The Eulogizer: Bible scholar, businessman-FBI informant, online journalism pioneer


The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories, and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”eulogizer@jta.org” title=”eulogizer@jta.org”}. Read previous columns here.

Noted Israeli Bible scholar

Professor Shemaryahu Talmon, a Holocaust survivor who became a noted Israeli Bible scholar with a worldwide reputation, died Dec. 15 at 90.

Talmon, a native of Germany, was the sole member of his family to survive the Shoah. Following World War II, he became head of the education system in the Jewish refugee camps in Cyprus before coming to Israel.

Talmon’s achievements included the prestigious Israel Prize in Bible study. His research combined text criticism and the place of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Jewish canon. His work revealed a deep sensitivity for the Bible’s literary character and the social reality reflected in it.

He said people today must deal with the Bible in our own time, that Israeli society was an integral part of an extensive cultural network in the Near East, and that Jewish beliefs were influenced by its neighbors.

Talmon was the Judah L. Magnes emeritus professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he taught and held positions elsewhere in Israel, Europe and the United States. He published scores of academic papers. Talmon also participated in Christian-Jewish dialogue among biblical scholars and was a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to which he donated a collection of 10,000 volumes in the areas of Bible studies.

The Eulogizer was surprised to find no obituaries of Talmon in any major media, Hebrew or English.

California businessman who helped in FBI sting

Marvin Levin, a real estate developer who wore a wire in his cowboy boots during a major FBI anti-corruption sting of California’s state government in the 1980s, died Nov. 19 at 76.

In the wake of the FBI investigation, several lawmakers, state leaders, legislative staffers and a lobbyist were charged, and the hard feelings have yet to subside. Some of the reader comments (later removed) on a newspaper article recounting Levin’s life and death were scorching.

Levin was an invaluable informant in the sting, which ended in 1988 when investigators raided offices in the state Capitol. Levin’s boot-borne tape recorder had taped dozens of meetings with politicians and legislative staffers. The sheriff and undersheriff of Yolo County, California, also were convicted after they attempted to extort money from Levin for a re-election campaign.

Levin told The Los Angeles Times in 1988 that he was motivated to end Sacramento corruption because he had experienced it firsthand and “somebody had to.” All he received for his efforts were $1,800 to cover expenses, including a paint job for his 1978 Buick and the cowboy boots purchased at the behest of the FBI because they didn’t think he was “flashy enough.” But the activity cost him dearly; his wife said he had three heart attacks.

Levin was one of three children of Jewish refugees from Russia. His father was a storekeeper. He moved to Florida nine years ago.

Online journalism pioneer, website builder

Mary Jane “M.J.” Bear, a journalist and Internet pioneer who built websites around the world, died Dec. 17 at 48.

Bear, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, worked for TV and radio stations. At National Public Radio she became a vice president. She also worked for Online, Radio Free Europe in Prague and Microsoft, in Vienna, Austria. She launched websites for Microsoft in Greece, Poland, Israel and Turkey, as well as TV programming in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.

During her illness from leukemia, Bear created a website on Caring Bridge, which provides free and private websites “that connect people experiencing a significant health challenge to family and friends.” The site is now filled with touching tributes from friends and family.

Bear took an active role in Jewish communities in every city in which she lived, and was a founding board member of the Online News Association, which is establishing an endowment fund in her name for young journalists.

The city of lights at its darkest hour


Adolf Hitler may have been bloody in tooth and claw, but he was enough of an aesthete to understand that Paris was the center of gravity for European culture. On the only visit he made to the city during World War II, he went sightseeing like any other tourist, then or now. Still, the open-mindedness that made Paris so appealing to artists, writers and intellectuals from around the world inspired only contempt in the führer.

“Does the spiritual health of the French people matter to you?” he remarked to architect Albert Speer. “Let’s let them degenerate. All the better for us.”

The story is told by Alan Riding, author of the best-selling “Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans” and former cultural correspondent for The New York Times, in “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” (Knopf, $28.95), a remarkable cultural history of the City of Lights at its darkest hour. He paints a vivid portrait of the famous figures who found themselves in Paris when the army of Nazi Germany marched under the Arc de Triomphe, and he asks tough questions about what they did and did not do.

“How, I wondered, had artists and intellectuals addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century?” Riding muses. “Did working under the occupation automatically mean collaboration? Should any writer be sanctioned for the ‘crime’ of an opinion? Do gifted painters, musicians or actors have a duty to provide ethical leadership?”

So Riding puts a whole generation of public intellectuals in the dock and holds them accountable for their words and deeds. “During the occupation, we had two choices: collaborate or resist,” Jean-Paul Sartre said many years after the war, but Riding points out that Sartre was engaging in a self-serving oversimplification. “In truth,” Riding writes, “the options — and dilemmas — faced by individual artists were far more varied, as Sartre himself demonstrated.”

Some artists and intellectuals managed to escape from Nazi-occupied France. Marc Chagall, for example, was one of the beneficiaries of a remarkable American named Vivian Fry, who courageously pried him out of police custody by warning that the collaborationist government of France “would be gravely embarrassed” by the arrest of “one of the world’s greatest painters.” Others tried to but failed — Walter Benjamin famously ended his own life with an overdose of morphine after he was refused entry into Spain. Samuel Beckett actually returned to Paris, “reportedly saying he preferred ‘France at war to Ireland at peace,’ ” and P.G. Wodehouse, interned as an enemy alien, later agreed to participate in propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Remarkably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, both Jewish, chose to stay in Paris and managed to survive the occupation, perhaps because Stein wrote a preface for a collection of speeches by the collaborationist French leader Pétain in which she compared him to George Washington.

Riding points out how treacherous it could be for artists who remained behind, whether by choice or by necessity. Maurice Chevalier, for example, agreed to sing for French prisoners of war in a camp near Berlin but declined an invitation to do the same in a German theater. The Nazi press ran photographs of his performance without identifying his audience, and, as a result, “he learned he had been sentenced to death by a special tribunal of de Gaulle’s provisional French government in Algiers.” Fearing both the Gestapo and the French resistance, he went into hiding for the rest of the war.

By contrast, we learn that “the dashing young conductor Herbert von Karajan,” whom Riding describes as “a member of the Nazi Party since 1933,” became an “instant celebrity” in Paris when he presented a program of Wagner operas at the Paris Opera during “a trip sponsored by Hitler himself.” One performance was reserved for Wehrmacht officers, but the other one was open to the public — and it sold out, too. “Madame, what you have done for Isolde,” French writer Jean Cocteau wrote in a revealing fan letter, “was such a marvel that I lack the courage to remain silent.”

Indeed, there are precious few examples of heroic conduct by intellectuals in Riding’s account. Andrè Malraux, for example, “had come to personify the intellectual engagé in the ’30s, but declined to join the resistance until 1944 and “spent much of the war in a quiet corner of the Côte d’Azur.” Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir remained “Left Bank celebrities” whose photos appeared in the Nazi-controlled newspapers, and the occupation did not prevent them (as well as Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus, among others) from attending all-night parties where the only risk was a curfew violation.

Riding does not overlook the less-famous intellectuals who engaged more courageously in the struggle against Nazi Germany. “Many writers chose to sting with words, some did so with armed resistance, a few gave their lives for their beliefs,” he acknowledges. “When the liberation came, the world of letters had its heroes and martyrs, too.” But he concedes that “cultural resistance had a limited reach,” and he quotes the remark of one French writer who dismissed the efforts of the more timid resisters: “Poets who wrote a quatrain about Hitler for a confidential sheet — called clandestine — under a pseudonym believe sincerely that they have saved France.”

“And the Show Went On” is a challenging book in more than one sense.  It’s a work of intellectual history in its purest form, and Riding is as much concerned with ideas and values as with events, deeds and personalities. He refuses to idealize or demonize any of the artists and writers whom he ponders in its pages; rather, he allows us to see a certain fog of war that affects civilians as well as soldiers and casts them in an uncertain light.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

Could Hungarian anti-Semitism get out of control?


The rise of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party has ratcheted up debate about anti-Semitism in this country and focused attention on the seeming paradoxes of Jewish life here.

On the one hand, a recent article in Germany’s Der Spiegel described Budapest as “Europe’s capital of anti-Semitism,” where Jews are “being openly intimidated” and making plans to leave the country.

On the other, Hungary is home to a flourishing and multifaceted Jewish life that finds vigorous public expression in religious, cultural and even culinary ways, and also enjoys high-profile government recognition.

I saw this myself at Chanukah when I munched on latkes at a Friday night oneg Shabbat, sampled doughnuts at a sit-down dinner for Holocaust survivors, joined 20-somethings at a riotous klezmer/hip-hop gig, and just missed witnessing the foreign minister, Budapest’s mayor and other VIPs help light a big menorah set up in the center of town.

While anti-Semitism remains a serious concern in this central European country, Budapest-based Jewish writer Adam LeBor wrote in the Economist, the Der Spiegel article was a one-sided screed that portrayed the Jewish experience in Hungary “solely through the warped prism of anti-Semitism rather than its much more complex, and healthy, reality.”

A timely and important new book puts contemporary Hungarian anti-Semitism into perspective. Based on studies carried out since the early 1990s, “The Stranger at Hand: Antisemitic Prejudices in Post-Communist Hungary” is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the scope and impact of the phenomenon. It’s just too bad that its $131 price tag will put it out of reach of many potential readers.

Written by Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at Budapest’s Central European University who has devoted decades to tracking both the development of anti-Semitism and the development of Jewish life and identity here, the book presents a highly complex and sometimes contradictory picture.

A large part of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is convinced that anti-Semitism has increased in Hungary since the fall of communism, Kovacs writes.

“What is said on the street, written in newspapers, and heard on the radio can and does give rise to concern,” he writes. “Are the fears legitimate?”

The answer, he told JTA in an interview, is a mix of yes, no and maybe.

Jobbik, with its anti-Semitic rhetoric and virulently anti-Roma, or Gypsy, political platform, won nearly 17 percent of the vote in April elections and entered Parliament as Hungary’s third-largest party. But recent evidence shows that it has been losing support amid divisive internal squabbles, and newly imposed legal measures have clamped down hard on its once-feared paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard.

Still, Jobbik did not emerge from thin air, and Kovacs’s book traces the evolution of several anti-Semitic trends against a shifting background of political and social change.

He identifies three main types of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The first is “classic” anti-Jewish prejudice, based on social and religious stereotypes that date back centuries and were kept alive, if suppressed, under communism. The second occurs when anti-Semitism becomes a sort of “language and culture” that fosters a general anti-Semitic worldview. The third is political anti-Semitism, “where political activists discover that they can mobilize certain social groups by using anti-Semitic slogans to achieve their own goals.”

Kovacs’ research shows the recent growth in anti-Semitism to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Surveys show that 10 to 15 percent of Hungarians are hard-core anti-Semites, while another 25 percent nurtures anti-Jewish prejudices to some degree.

Contrary to popular perception, Kovacs said, these figures “have increased to some extent but not dramatically over the past 17 years.”

What is different and much more alarming, according to Kovacs, is how the type and expression of anti-Semitism is changing within that proportion. For one thing, the percentage of political anti-Semites has grown. These political anti-Semites, he said, are “more urban, better educated and relatively younger” than they tended to be in the past.

Jobbik’s key leaders, for example, are youthful, clean cut, and media and Internet-savvy—factors that helped enhance their appeal ahead of the April vote.

Related to this is the way hate speech among the general public has been emboldened by the open use of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric by extreme right public figures. Kovacs calls this a “dangerous dynamic.”

He said young people in particular frequently seem to lose their inhibitions, and their use of slurs against Jews and Roma often goes unchecked by parents, teachers and other authority figures.

“We know that people are much more cautious in expressing their prejudices if they think that it is not legitimate,” Kovacs said. “But when they realize that so-called important people use this language openly, they feel they can use it as well. This is what we feel now in Budapest.”

What follows is unclear. So far, Jobbik’s anti-Jewish rhetoric seems aimed at creating a body of like-minded followers rather than serving as a rallying cry for concrete political action against Jews, according to Kovacs.

But could the extreme right eventually elevate political anti-Semitism into a force with significant mainstream influence?

Kovacs thinks it’s unlikely, but ultimately, he writes in his book, it will depend on how Hungary’s mainstream cultural and political leaders react to any attempts to “transform the prejudice that once affected the margins of Hungarian society into a language, culture and ideology.”

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)

Appeals court turns down wrongly accused spy’s lawsuit


A Jewish civilian employee of the U.S. Army wrongly accused of spying for Israel was turned down in his second attempt to sue the federal government.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Tuesday declined to overturn a lower court decision that dismissed David Tenenbaum’s lawsuit.

The judges agreed that Tenenbaum was subject to a high level of scrutiny and intrusion in his family’s life due to the investigation, and that Tenenbaum’s Orthodox lifestyle in part brought about the investigation, according to the Detroit Free Press. However, the judges said the issues already had been litigated.

A 2008 Department of Defense investigation concluded that David Tenenbaum, now 52, had his security clearance privileges revoked inappropriately more than a decade ago because of his Jewish faith and the perception of a dual loyalty to the United States and Israel.

During a 1997 polygraph test administered by the Army, Tenenbaum said anti-Jewish epithets were shouted at him. He said the next day his computer was gone and his name erased from the e-mail system at the Tank Automotive and Armaments Command, the military facility in Warren, Mich., where he worked.

After a yearlong FBI investigation, the U.S. Justice Department in 2008 determined that there was no basis to prosecute Tenenbaum.

The Eulogizer: Soldier who found Hitler’s will, Southern lawmaker, Israeli English broadcaster


The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”eulogizer@jta.org” title=”eulogizer@jta.org”}. Find previous editions of The Eulogizer here.

American soldier who found Hitler’s will
Arnold Weiss
, a German-born U.S. counterintelligence officer in World War II who found Hitler’s last will and testament, died Dec. 7 at 86.

In December 1945, Weiss and his counterintelligence team tracked down a Nazi military aide who was stationed at Hitler’s bunker during his final days but had left as a courier with an important envelope shortly before Hitler killed himself. The aide, Wilhelm Zander, took Weiss to a farm on the outskirts of Munich, where he had hidden the envelope at the bottom of a dry well. Inside the package was a document headed “Mein privates Testament,” signed by Hitler the day before he died, as well as the marriage certificate of Hitler and Eva Braun.

Toward the end of the war, even before finding Hitler’s will, Weiss said he and his team left Nazi prison guards at the gates of refugee settlements for “additional debriefing.” Weiss claimed never to know what happened to the German soldiers.

Weiss was placed into a Jewish orphanage as a child in Germany in the early days of Hitler’s reign. He was hoisted once to a lamppost and flogged by Hitler Youth members.

“You lived from day to day and tried to roll with the punches,” Weiss said.

“While generally being a pretty miserable place, the orphanage wasn’t all bad. You always had someone you could play with and talk to. You had companionship. The beatings were unpleasant, but you learned to cope.”

Weiss fled Germany after his bar mitzvah and made his way to the United States. He ended up in Milwaukee after a foster family failed to meet him in Chicago.

Weiss, a lawyer by training, lived and worked for decades in the Washington, D.C., area, as a senior official in U.S. financial agencies and then in a private investment firm that funded international development projects. He told his law school alumni association that his work in that field was fueled by the destruction he saw in Europe during World War II:

“I think it’s the war that changed me more than anything else. I decided I wanted to build rather than destroy. In Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Germany … there was so much destruction. I knew there was a better way of doing things.”

Pioneering female lawmaker in South Carolina
Harriet Keyserling
, a self-proclaimed “New York Jewish liberal” who became a political force in South Carolina for decades, died Dec. 10 at 88.

Keyserling was a “feisty Democrat” who went against the status quo “as a liberal Yankee in the world of good-old-boy conservative Southerners.” Among other accomplishments, her efforts led to a statewide recycling program, a state energy office and the shuttering of a landfill that accepted radioactive waste from across the United States.

Her son, Billy, who took over her seat in the Legislature and is now the mayor of Beaufort, S.C., said his mother defeated the Legislature’s practice of all-night filibusters by keeping a journal that recorded just how legislators wasted time.

“I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of great leaders in my public and private life, but not one have I respected more than Harriet Keyserling,” said former Soth Carolina Gov. Dick Riley.

Keyserling, a graduate of all-female Barnard College in New York City, moved to tiny Beaufort from New York after marrying Herbert Keyserling, a Jewish, Southern, small-town doctor. The women of the small Jewish community there took her in, taught Sunday school together and put on synagogue suppers.

“I believe we had a more direct and energetic approach, probably considered aggressive at the time, to the projects we undertook,” she wrote in her 1998 autobiography, “Against the Tide: One Woman’s Political Struggle,” in which she also describes her life and her husband’s as Jews in the South in an era of anti-Jewish prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan.

Her hometown paper said Keyserling attempted to re-create the intellectual stimulation of New York in her adopted hometown by co-founding a concert series, and by hosting Saturday-evening dinners with “sophisticated conversation by Harriet and her guests.”

Bud Ferillo, a Columbia, S.C., public relations executive and longtime Democratic political worker, referred to Keyserling as his “Jewish mother.”

Israel Radio English broadcaster
Anita Davis Avital
, one of Israel Radio’s original English language broadcasters and a mentor to several generations of women, died in October at 86.

A native of London, Davis was working in Yugoslavia in 1947 for the United Nations when she met a convoy of Jewish orphans on their way to Israel. Upon her return to Britain, she became involved with aliyah groups and made her way to the newly declared State of Israel shortly afterward.

After a stint working at the Iranian embassy, Davis Avital became one of the first employees of Israel’s nascent English-language shortwave radio service, originally called Kol Zion Lagola, the Voice of Zion to the Diaspora. The station later joined the government broadcasting authority with domestic programming, as well.

Sara Manobla, herself a veteran of English-language broadcasting in Israel, described Davis Avital in a lovely tribute as “a prominent and engaging figure in Anglo circles in Jerusalem of the 1950s and ’60s.”

Chevra kadisha revival noted
The New York Times notes the renewed interest in chevra kadisha groups and practices, with links to organizations and synagogues active in promoting traditional Jewish burial practices.

U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke

The passing of diplomat Richard Holbrooke is being covered extensively in the media. JTA’s coverage makes extensive references to Holbrooke’s Jewishness.

The Eulogizer: World War II pilot, basketball writer, Carmel fire victim


The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories, and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”eulogizer@jta.org” title=”eulogizer@jta.org”}.

Decorated Czech World War Two pilot who flew for RAF
Jan Wiener
, a decorated veteran of a Czech bombing unit attached to the RAF during World War II, died in Prague on November 24 at 90.

Wiener, a native of Hamburg, fled Hitler’s Germany for Prague, but had to escape again after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. He made it to Britain after racing through Yugoslavia and Italy, and joined the Royal Air Force’s No. 311 Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron.

A Prague newspaper offered the most detailed account of Wiener’s early life and flight, including a dramatic retelling of how Wiener’s parents committed suicide rather than risk capture: “The father swept the pawns from the (chess)board and told his son: ‘Tonight I am going to kill myself. … Tomorrow they will be here. They will shave our heads. We will stand naked in front of them. They will humiliate us and in the end they will kill us. So I want to use my only freedom—to choose the way I die.’ That evening, Jan was summoned to the master bedroom, where Julius and Margaret Wiener lay dressed in their Sunday best. ‘We have already taken the pills,’ father told son. ‘Let’s hold hands.’”

Wiener’s life was celebrated in two films, including “Fighter,” an award-winning documentary by Amir Bar-Lev that featured the intense emotions released as Wiener and a companion retraced his journey across Europe.

Sportswriter who covered the Philadelphia 76ers
Phil Jasner
, a longtime newspaperman who covered the Philadelphia 76ers for the “Philadelphia Daily News” since 1981, died December 3 at age 68.

Friend and collaegue Rich Hoffmann described Jasner as “an old-fashioned reporter who grew to be the most important basketball voice in a basketball city, known for both his fairness and his decency.” Hoffmann said Jasner not only had phone numbers for the famous, such as Wilt Chamberlain, he also had “the phone number of the guy who would get you to the guy you needed. He kept all of them in a stack of index cards held together by a rubber band.”

The team Jasner covered remembered him fondly: “He loved to talk about basketball, off the record, just talk hoops. How many guys who had Stage 4 cancer would continue on like he did? He just loved it. He loved basketball. It was his outlet. We argued sometimes, had great debates. But he was fair and he was a character. Philadelphia basketball people are interesting people, and he was one of them,” said Sixers General Manager Ed Stefanski.

Jasner is in five halls of fame: the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (http://www.phillyjewishsports.com/inductions/463.html), Overbrook High School Hall of Fame, Temple University School of Communications and Theater’s Hall of Fame, and Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

Rabbi who taught in Winnipeg, Denver in Israeli forest fire
Another of the many victims of the Carmel forest fire was Rabbi Uriel Malka, an Israeli Prison Service trainee chaplain, who had worked at Orthodox day schools in Winnipeg and Denver.

Columnist Rabbi Levi Brackman described Malka as “a Torah scholar and the epitome of a guy who would not sweat the small stuff. He somehow always saw the positive in every situation.”

Here’s a short video of Malka blowing shofar this past Rosh Hashana.

Malka, who died on the doomed bus of Prison Service cadets, said in a final SMS message: “I am on my way to rescue Jews. We’ll be in touch.” A memorial website for Malka, a native of Yavneh, Israel, already filled with tributes, photographs, videos, and more, can be found here (http://uriel-malka.com/en/).

Op-Ed: Fire’s devastation can lead to positive change


It is hard to explain just how devastated Israelis are by the Carmel fire. But it is easier to explain how that devastation can become a positive force for positive change, right now, in Israel.

The fire consumed at least 42 lives, thousands of forested acres and millions of shekels in property. With the assistance of a dozen foreign nations, the beleaguered firefighters finally got the resources they needed to battle a blaze that consumed more than its obvious victims. What may have perished in the fire is Israel’s sense of self-reliance, and the confidence of ordinary people that they can rely on their government and society to meet their needs.

Just as the Second Lebanon War provoked questions about Israel’s readiness to withstand a bombing campaign, the Carmel fire illuminates issues that have been too readily subsumed in the endless attention to the conflict. We at the New Israel Fund are painfully aware that Israel is often seen two-dimensionally, even by its own government. It is of course a priority for Israel to pursue peace and security, but an exclusive focus on these issues skews attention and resources away from an equally critical task.

We, the organization that founded and funded Israel’s civil society and that works every day on intractable social issues, know what that task is. It is building a society founded on equity and social justice, where every person has the opportunity to live a decent life, and building the infrastructure and the institutions that provide this opportunity to all. It is security, yes, but in a sense that extends far beyond fighter planes and a separation fence. What Israel discovered last week is that while it prides itself on its strength, it is in some ways far, far too weak.

There wasn’t the proper equipment for fighting fires, and the supply of fire-retardant chemicals was exhausted even before the Carmel ignited. Just a few weeks ago, when the 40-story Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv was burning, it turned out that the Tel Aviv Fire Department does not have a hook-and-ladder truck that extends beyond 10 stories. Israel sits on an earthquake fault and has done little to plan for that eventuality, while in a drought-stricken region water and development policies are enmeshed in money interests and politics, not in sustainable growth.

For too long, under successive governments, Israeli society has polarized between the center and the periphery, the Jews and the Arabs, the religious and the secular, the haves and the have-nots. The current government, paying attention to the demands of its political coalition, is channeling even more money into stipends for non-working yeshiva students and radical settler incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. But every government has been held hostage to the demands of specific constituencies, the inequalities persist, and now poverty in Israel is more widespread than in any of the 30 European Union nations. Income inequality in Israel is second only to the United States among developed nations, and Israeli schools, public lands and infrastructure are deteriorating quickly.

This situation can and must change. The Carmel fire may have been Israel’s Katrina, but we and many people like us will insist on a faster recovery than New Orleans experienced. We know the real strength of Israel is not only in its military but in its people—the thousands of ordinary people we work with every day.

The day the fire started, grass-roots organizations of the North began mobilizing. A day after it ended, our Haifa office was already gearing up with our grantees and partners for the huge tasks of long-term recovery. We will work to ensure that there is compensation for the victims and the homeless, and that it is distributed fairly. Environmental groups are too infrequently consulted in Israel; we will make sure they are at the table when the future of the Carmel Forest is considered.

The fire re-ignited anti-Arab invective in some segments of society; our longstanding leadership of Arab and Jewish groups in the North will substantiate efforts to eradicate racism and build a truly shared society.

Israel’s beautiful Carmel Forest is burnt and black. Its people’s faith in their government is shaken. But Israel does have a civil society, which means that there is a force that enables ordinary people to change their circumstances, even if they are not wealthy or politically connected. Civil society empowers and ennobles and, yes, sometimes enrages the powers-that-be.

Now is the time for ordinary Israelis to insist on leadership that is accountable and fair, and on a society that plans for peace and prosperity, not just for defense and war. It is time for all of us, Israeli and American, to see Israel in all its dimensions, in all its needs and in all its possibilities.

Chanukah Events


Wed. Dec 1

First night

American Hasidic singer Lipa, Jewish rock band Pardes and Lenny Solomon perform at the Chabad of the Valley’s Chanukah celebration. Wed. 5-9 p.m. Free. Universal Studios City Walk, 100 Universal Hollywood Drive, San Fernando Valley. (818) 758-1818. chabadofthevalley.org.

Spend the first night of Chanukah on the Santa Monica Promenade for a candelighting with congregation Beth Shir Shalom. Wed. 4:30 p.m. Free. 3rd St. Promenade, Santa Monica (meet in front of Banana Republic). (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.

Thu. Dec 2

Second night

The Los Angeles Jewish Chamber of Commerce and the Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles co-host a Chanukah Mixer, featuring Wolfgang Puck cuisine and live musical entertainment. Thu. 5:30 p.m. $10 (members, advance), $20 (general, advance), $25 (general, door). Club Nokia VIP Room, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown. lajewishchamber.com.

Fri. Dec. 3

Third night

Celebrate Chanukah and Shabbat at Beth Shir Shlaom. Bring your own dinner and chanukiah. Fri. 5:30 p.m.-dinner ($10 donation per family, call for reservations). 6 p.m.-family Shabbat, 7:30 p.m.-Chanukah Shabbat Celebration. Beth Shir Shalom 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.

Sat. Dec. 4

Fourth night

Young professionals (ages 21-39) “Hannukah Hop” at three different houses in Santa Monica for an evening of food and drink. 7 p.m. $12 (members), $18 (guests). For more information, visit atidla.com.

Sababa in the Valley: Crazy Chanukah Party features DJs spinning top 40, house beats and Israeli music. People who bring a toy for children of Chai-Lifeline receive a $5 discount at the door. Sat. 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m. $15 (before 11 p.m.), $20 (after 11 p.m.). Club Aura, 12215 Ventura Blvd. (second floor), Studio City. sababaparties.com.

Sun. Dec. 5

Fifth night

A Chanukah concert for kids features The Hollow Trees, The Living Sisters, The SIJCC Shabbat Band, The Silver Lake Chorus and Lucky Diaz. Other activities include food-creating contests Iron Chef Latke and Brisket Making. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. $10-$15 (adults free). Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 663-2255. sijcc.net.

Musicians Peter Himmelman and The Witcher Brothers perform at Down Home Hanukkah Celebration. The family-friendly event also includes woodworking and quilting demos and circus acts. Sun. 11 a.m. $10 (general), $7 (seniors and full-time students), free (members and children under 12). Skirball Cultural Center 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon speaks on behalf of the Israeli government, following a Chanukah celebration with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. Sun. 5:30-7:30 p.m. $10. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 390-7172. a4j.myevent.com/3/rsvp.htm.

Make eco-friendly menorahs using recycled materials during a Humanistic Judaism celebration. Sun. 10 a.m.-noon. Free. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (818) 518-7867. humanisticjudaismla.org.

A Chanukah-inspired scholarship benefit concert features performers Netanel Hershtik, Nati Bar Am and Herschel Fox. Sun. 7 p.m. $25 (friend), $36 (patron), $54 (donor), $108 (benefactor). Beth Jacob Congregation, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-1911. bethjacob.org.

Comedian Robert Cait performs at the Chabad of West Orange County’s annual Chanukah Latkes and Laughter party, which includes sushi and salad bar. Sun. 6:30 p.m. $14 (adults, advance), $6 (child, advance). $18 (adult, door), $8 (child, door). Chabad of West Orange County, 5052 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach. (714) 846-2285. chabadhb.com.

Tue. Dec. 7

Sixth night

Dance, eat and sing the afternoon away a Board of Rabbis of Southern California/the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ second annual Chanukah celebration. Tue. noon-1 p.m. Free. City Hall Rotunda, 200 N. Spring St., Los Angeles. RSVP no later than Friday, Dec. 3 to {encode=”barri.worth@lacity.org” title=”barri.worth@lacity.org”}. (323) 761-8600.

Wed. Dec. 8

Seventh night

Celebrate the last night of Chanukah with Temple Etz Chaim. Kindergarten through second grade students perform. Wed. 6:30 p.m. Free. Janss Marketplace, 275 North Moorpark Road, 
Thousand Oaks (meet by the fire pit located near the Mann Movie Theatres). (805) 497-689. templeetzchaim.org.

If you would like to add your Chanukah event to our listings, please email {encode=”ryant@jewishjournal.com” title=”ryant@jewishjournal.com”}.

Glitterati no match for ‘This Lovely Life’


May I make a suggestion for a great Chanukah or Christmas gift? Or recommend a selection for your book club? Or offer a proposal for making time disappear during your next long and painful airline experience?

“This Lovely Life,” by Vicki Forman.

I read two-thirds of it during a fancy and fabulous dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel two weeks ago, came home and finished it that night, read it again the next day, and now it’s on the nightstand next to my bed, where I keep reading passages from it.

I was at the annual Literary Awards Festival for PEN Center USA. It was a beautiful affair produced by Jamie Wolf and packed with famous people and designer gowns and party favor bags that weighed a ton. I was sitting between a very charming television writer named Dawn Prestwich and a very thin event organizer named (this can only happen in L.A.) Cat. By the time the speeches began, I had already secured a promise from Ms. Prestwich to come talk to my students at USC, answered Cat’s questions about how I was related to all the other Nahais in Los Angeles and skimmed the souvenir book a couple of times. When the obligatory welcome speech began, I started to dig through the party bag in search of a distraction.

There were books. And more books. And pamphlets about books — which is all very good and exciting for someone like me, but I didn’t want to look like the crazy lady at the ball who sits alone and reads while everyone else is having a glorious time, so I put the books back in the bag and tried to listen to the speech. The speaker may have been nominated for an Academy Award or two, but he’s not what one might call a Great Communicator. So I sneaked another look at the books, glanced at the synopsis on the back of “This Lovely Life” and decided I didn’t have the stomach for it. I looked through the souvenir book a third time and discovered that “This Lovely Life” was the evening’s winner of the Creative Nonfiction award. That could mean it’s a great book, I thought, or it could mean (no offense to the judges, but they do have to read a great many books) it’s short and easy to get through. I tried to laugh at the speaker’s jokes. I read the first line of “This Lovely Life.”

“I learned about grief during this time,” Vicki Forman writes in the opening sentence of this startling memoir about raising a child with catastrophic disabilities.

Who needs this? you ask. But read that line again and you’ll find there’s something intensely seductive about those words, the strength with which they’re uttered, the hair-raising honesty of the voice that speaks them. Eight years ago, Vicki Forman was a young mother with a loving husband and a healthy 3-year-old. She was pregnant with twins — a boy and a girl. They were born too soon, each weighing barely more than a pound. The parents assumed the babies would be born dead or die soon after birth. They didn’t.

“This Lovely Life” is as much a page turner as any Dan Brown novel, and a whole lot smarter as well; as much a tear-jerker as any “Kite Runner,” but a thousand times more sophisticated; as much a study of the American psyche, the American family, American society, as “The Corrections” or “Freedom” or any other of Jonathan Franzen’s door stoppers. What it isn’t —really, truly, isn’t — is depressing. There are more twists and turns here than in any mystery or thriller, more cliffhangers than in any Hollywood production, but there’s none of the canned “inspiration” of the kinds of stories you read in People, none of the “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger / make lemonade out of lemons / it’s not a disability, it’s a challenge” bravado that we seem to admire so much in this country. There’s just the constant, unwavering beat of a mother’s brave but broken heart, the astonishing candor of a parent who doesn’t fear the judgment of others because she knows what she has done and why. There’s the terrible but indispensable realization that the only way to overcome life’s cruelty is to accept it, that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to embrace him as much because of, as in spite of, his shortcomings.

I can’t tell you much about what happened during the rest of the PEN event that night. I remember David Kipen was as charming as ever when he spoke about his new bookstore — Libros Schmibros — in Boyle Heights, that M.G. Lord does a superb “Lucille Ball, Science Writer” cameo, that Vicki Forman looks like a pixie with a kind heart and a fierce resolve. And I can tell you that reading “This Lovely Life” will be a transformative experience for anyone smart enough to pick it up, even if she does end up looking like the crazy lady at the ball.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Settle down


When it comes to dating, even Tobey Maguire is interested in the concept of settling.

Now, I have no idea about Spidey’s love life — last I heard he was with Lois Lane, wait, no, that’s Superman, not Spider-Man, and this just in — the real Maguire is married and expecting his second child.

But I don’t want to talk about his personal life, I want to talk about his professional one.

Maguire has just signed on to develop a feature film from essayist and occasional Jewish Journal columnist Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”

In a 5,500-word piece published in March in the Atlantic Monthly, Gottlieb, a 40-year-old single mother who chose to have a baby on her own asked a poignant question: “Is it better to be alone, or to settle?”

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Gottlieb quickly answers her own question:

“My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year.”

Gottlieb’s stance caused quite a brouhaha on the blogosphere (read: rantosphere), where people called her everything from “immature” to “desperate” to “tragic” to “crazy,” labeling her a narcissist, anti-feminist, crackpot journalist. She has also been told “she needs a shrink, pronto.”

Gottlieb tells me she was a bit taken aback by the harsh reaction, but said that in addition to the 700 letters of support she also received, a number of rabbis have used her piece in their sermons. (She even spoke last month at Sinai Temple.)

I’m not surprised by the rabbis’ support. Gottlieb’s message is something I’ve heard many, many times before. Since the beginning of my illustrious dating career at age 19 (for marriage purposes!), rabbis, educators, teachers and other religious married people have been telling me the same thing: Find someone with shared values, someone you respect, someone you can build a life with. A good husband, a good father, a good partner.

Nothing new here.

In traditional Jewish communities, the notion of “Hollywood Love,” of “Love at First Sight,” of a “Love of Everlasting Passion,” has long been viewed as a myth. The problem in those communities is not whether or not to believe Hollywood love myth, it’s whether to believe love and attraction should play any part at all in the choice of a mate.

That was the message I got, anyway.

When I was in my early 20s, I went to dozens of weddings (to this day, the words “bridal shower” make me break out in hives). The ceremonies were solemn and the parties leibadik (festive), and the “salmon-chicken-or-prime rib” menus were delectable, if indiscernible, but to me it seemed like something essential was lacking: love. Back then, in my world, it seemed people settled too easily. They married — young — to have a partner, to not be alone, to fit into the community, to have kids, to be part of what Gottlieb calls “a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring nonprofit business.”

If one could chart my own “why isn’t she married?” trajectory (and believe me, there are many who do) it might be the result of this kind of advice: I’ve seen too many loveless marriages hastily entered into for anything but love.

Now, of course, Gottlieb isn’t advocating marrying a man who repulses you or puts you to sleep every time he answers the question, “How was your day, dear?”

But it would seem that once you enter the slippery slope of settling, it would be hard to know when to stop. What exactly is the right thing to compromise on? If he is a nice guy, but he goes on and on at dinner parties until you hope someone will drop a plate of hot soup on his lap, is that settling?

See, the other side of the “too picky” see-saw is the “not selective enough” category. Most (married) people who watch their friends/children/congregants date are not familiar with this second category until it’s too late. For example, if a single person regales a married person about her date, saying, “he made me pick up the tab and then just hopped in a cab home!” the married friend will reply, “Well, maybe he’s just low on cash this week and got an emergency call, and you should really give him another chance.”

No, the message to Jewish singles is and always has been Gottlieb’s message: Why can’t you all just settle down?

Now that I’m in my 30s, I wonder if there is something in between musical chairs (grabbing the last man standing) and “The Notebook” (holding out for perfection).

And I suppose that is the beauty of a different kind of Judaism, one that mingles with the mainstream world — even Hollywood, believe it or not. Yes, there should be sparks and chemistry and love and happiness and laughter — together with shared values, common goals and mutual interests.

Because if I’ve learned anything from 15 years (!!!) of dating, it’s that whether you run into a marriage with someone you don’t love, or you hold out for a hero who never comes, either way, you’ll end up all alone.

It’s not about a plan


“Remember a time that you felt everything was right. The world just worked. You were in the moment. You felt calm, alive, complete. There was no other place you wanted to be but right there. Everything about that moment worked,” Rabbi Sherre Hirsch writes in her new self-help book, “We Plan, God Laughs: 10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted” (Doubleday).

What Hirsch most wants is for people to find their “sparkle,” as she writes in Step 7, “Finding Your Divine Spark.”

That’s why she left her job as rabbi at Sinai Temple a year and a half ago. Although she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was 19, after serving at the Conservative synagogue in Westwood under Rabbi David Wolpe for eight years, she decided to move on.

“It was an incredible position for me, and I loved my congregants, I loved teaching and counseling,” she said. But “there were other things I wanted to do,” including spending time with her husband and three kids, and, it turns out, broadcasting her messages of spirituality and hope to a much broader audience.

On a recent day that meant a morning interview with Sam Rubin at KTLA and an afternoon at CBS, with The Jewish Journal sandwiched between—and there have been appearances on “The Today Show,” “Tyra,” Naomi Judd’s “Good Morning” and PBS’s “Thirty Minutes.”

Which may be because Hirsch does sparkle. In a black satin shell and immaculate ivory pants, the 39-year-old’s blue eyes, framed by purple mascara, shimmer as she talks about her message.

“I want people to take a risk, to believe that life may not have turned out like you planned,” she said, leaning forward eagerly on her hands. “I wanted people to have hope more than anything, in an age where people lose hope and get stuck.”

Hirsch knows from plans and getting stuck. Her mother was a small-town Midwesterner who met her knight in shining armor when she was 15. She got married at 19 and had two kids by the time she was 24. But her husband lost his job, became depressed and verbally abusive. After Sherre and her brother left for college, her mother, in her early 40s, finally left her husband. Eventually she rebuilt her life and remarried.

“When I officiated at [my mother and stepfather’s] wedding, my mother wore my wedding dress. What I said then under the chuppah was that, at her first wedding, she was waiting for someone to rescue her. But at this wedding she had rescued herself,” Hirsch wrote in her book. “She had taught us all that to live the life you want, you have to be willing to leap. You have to be willing to realize that your life is not scripted. The happy ending starts with you.”

In recent years many self-help gurus—and rabbis—have taken on the subject of happiness in books and lectures. So what makes this one any different?

“I think that when people say something in a new way, people hear it in a new way,” said Hirsch, who lists Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) and Rabbi Ed Feinstein (of Valley Beth Shalom) as inspirations. She also admires Oprah and Katie Couric as “communicators,” which is how she sees herself.

“Do I think I’ve written Aristotle’s new treatise?” she asks. “No.”

She focuses on tried-and-true concepts, such as “finding meaning” and “celebrating the divine in you.” But Hirsch said she didn’t want to write a “rabbi’s” book—i.e., a Jewish scholarly book.

“I wanted them to feel like they were talking to their friend, not being preached at by a rabbi. ‘What would I say to my best friend, and what would they say back to me?’ I wanted a different level of intimacy.”

Every chapter is infused with personal stories—of herself, her family, her congregants and Judaism. She chattily intersperses stories about God’s 13 attributes to teach about our own 13 positive attributes. She uses the Jewish new moon to show how we express our faith in the future, and shows how Moses’ doubting God means that only with doubt can one gain true faith.

What may appeal to a national TV audience—and on the Web site momlogic.com—is that Hirsch, in her own words “is a Midwestern girl.” (She was born in Ohio, although she grew up in Palos Verdes.)

That and the fact that she’s a female rabbi.

“Many of the audiences are women. I’m relatable, a mother with kids, I dated a ton—I struggle with the regular challenges that everyone struggles with, and I’m not afraid to be vulnerable or real,” she said. “I hope that people feel my authenticity.”

“I think everyone makes plans and things don’t go the way we plan,” she said.

People need to stop being so focused on the plan and just take action and see where it unfolds: “We’re not in charge—we can control our actions, but we can’t control our results.”

For her, spirituality is part of the equation, something that should be more than a yearly event on holidays.

“People can incorporate faith into their daily lives,” she said.

“I’m interested in helping people come closer to their faith,” she said. “If you find your faith, you find a way back home.”

Calendar Girls picks and clicks for May 3-9


SAT | MAY 3

(HOME + GARDEN)

Venice Beach is showcasing 30 of its unique homes and gardens for the public’s viewing pleasure. Benefiting the Neighborhood Youth Association’s Las Doradas ” target=”_blank”>http://www.venicegardentour.org.

(DANCE)

The last time we tried to include one of Heidi Duckler’s stunning site-specific dance performances, we had to yank it because the show sold out, then put it back in when another performance time was added, and take it out once again because that also sold out before we went to press. This time, the Collage Dance Theatre show, “A Guide to an Exhibitionist,” has wisely scheduled not two, but six show times. Set in an art gallery, the innovative work takes each audience member through a guided audio tour of framed live performers, completely reinventing the experience of viewing art. Hurry and get your tickets now, because the 7 p.m. show is sold out already! Sat. 6:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 8 p.m., 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. $25 (includes wine and cheese reception). Museum of Design, Art and Architecture, 8609 Washington Blvd., Culver City. (818) 784-8669. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.bigsunday.org.

SUN | MAY 4

(YOM HASHOAH)

” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’ alt=”Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi”>largest Holocaust Remembrance Day event, featuring guest speaker Rabbi David Wolpe. Garamendi, who has worked tirelessly to grant insurance reparations for Holocaust victims, survivors and their family members, will stand with others in remembrance at an event co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation, Jewish World Watch, the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Second Generation. Sun. 1:45 p.m. Free. Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, Pan Pacific Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 280-5010.

(BENEFIT)

Oh, what a night it will be supporting Jewish education during a benefit concert featuring none other than the musical group that helped define American pop and rock in the ’60s — Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Join Faith and Jonathan Cookler, founding donors of New Community Jewish High School, during this gala event that features a kosher buffet and rockin’ concert. Dress in your finest attire and dance the night away to sizzling hits such as “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “Walk Like a Man.” Sun. 5 p.m. (dinner), 6:30 p.m. (program and concert). $100-$300. Orpheum Theatre, 842 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P, (818) 449-8900.

(DANCE)

Academic institutions are turning to the expressive power of Israeli dance to promote cross-cultural understanding when politics prove befuddling. Three of Israel’s most prolific contemporary choreographers — Idan Cohen, Niv Sheinfeld and Ronit Ziv — will highlight their modern interpretations of a traditional dance form as the culmination of a two-week residency at UCLA, the second phase of a performing arts cultural exchange program orchestrated by The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles twinning program. “Bridge Choreographic Dialogues: Live from Israel” features a symposium with the artists, a live dance concert and a folk-dancing frolic hosted by popular dance teacher David Dassa. Sun. noon-1:30 p.m. (symposium) 2-4 p.m. (concert) $12-$20 (includes concert and party). UCLA, Kaufman Hall, 120 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.debiderryberry.com.

(LECTURE)

Wilshire Boulevard Temple and State of Israel Bonds invites the community to listen and learn from Stephen M. Berk, a widely respected history professor at Union College in New York and a frequent guest in the media for his Middle East expertise. With an international reputation for his teachings, writings and research, Berk will deliver an engaging presentation addressing the challenges Israel faces on its 60th year of existence, “Israel at the Crossroads: Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the Jewish State.” Sun. 5:30 p.m. Free. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus, Marcia Israel Chapel-Auditorium, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. requested, (213) 388-2401.

Books: Max Apple is a bard of the background


Max Apple’s people are the folks you might see having lunch at a local diner.

There’s Sidney Goodman, the carwash king of Las Vegas, and Jerome Feldman, the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Independent Pharmacists, along with others who sell scrap metal, industrial tools and trinkets. Apple has somehow eavesdropped over the leatherette booths, followed them out and into their lives, dreams and hearts.

One of the best American short story writers, Apple has just published “The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories” (Johns Hopkins Press), his first collection of stories in 20 years. He writes with the same playful imagination and comic intelligence as in his earlier stories, layered with irony and an infallible sense of detail.

Now, his people are older; there are several stories that deal with aging mothers with Alzheimer’s, which his own mother suffers from, and he includes “Talker,” his first story about a child with a disability, like his own daughter. Even as Apple takes on some serious subjects, he shows life as it is, full of odd moments and others rich in complexity and possibility.

In “Talker,” the divorced father deals with his daughter Ginny, his ex-wife, a caregiver who has issues with the truth and with her hair and has already been fired once, a fellow teacher who’s interested in him, and an oral motor therapy specialist who’s helping Ginny to make sounds. He writes, “Ginny never complained, never said that it was time to give up. She worked so hard at speech because she wanted the most human thing, words, and I never doubted how much she had to say.”

The story is highly fictional, he explains, but there’s truth in the struggles to learn language and in the way father and daughter are approached by all sorts of unfortunates in their wanderings, “as though they recognize us as part of them. For good reason, I try to keep them away. That’s straight from life.”

The title story features Jerome Baumgarten, an 85-year-old man in Marshall, Texas who doesn’t want to die surrounded by gentiles, so a Chabad family flies in from Brooklyn to be with this stranger. By day, the family’s only son takes on a job at Home Depot, and at night he fights his evil inclination, watching a beautiful young woman at the fraternity house across the street with her boyfriend. The story and the book end with an unforgettable sentence.

Apple, whose first two highly praised story collections are “The Oranging of America” and “Free Agents,” says that short stories are his favorite genre.

“I’m naturally drawn to them. I find that most novels are not good all the way through,” he says, noting, “A story can be good all the way through, every sentence. I don’t always get it, but that’s what I’m looking for.”

In the last two decades, Apple has published a novel and two memoirs, including the best-selling “Roommates,” later made into a film starring Peter Falk, and has written several screenplays. He taught at Rice University in Houston for almost 30 years, including several years of commuting from San Francisco. Now, he lives outside of Philadelphia and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where his wife Talya Fishman is a professor of Jewish intellectual and cultural history.

“All this takes up time,” says Apple, who is admittedly not prolific. “I’m not driven. I love writing. My imagination is always working. I write when I have time, and life allows me the time.” He adds, “Nor do I think the world suffers if I don’t produce more. I work very hard at each story, at every sentence.”

For Apple, screenwriting is another skill, akin to carpentry — it hasn’t changed the way he approaches a story. He advises students that for stories to work, they have to have a great interest in what happens to people.

“Things happen to all of us. The writer’s job is to get you interested. There’s complexity in stories — you can juggle several things, you can divert the reader with plot. The real stuff is what’s going on in the background — the background noise, like in life.”

The two oldest of Apple’s four children — often the subjects in “Free Agents” — are writers. Both grew up watching their father at work — that is, when he wasn’t teaching, he’d often be at home, lying on the couch, daydreaming, concocting tales. Sam Apple, who lives in Brooklyn, is the author of “Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd” and Jessica Apple is a journalist in Jerusalem.

“How can you figure anyone would be a writer?” he says of his kids’ career choices. About his influence, he says, “I think it all comes from storytelling at bedtime. I never read them stories, I made them up.” He adds, “I should have figured that Sam would be a writer. He’d give me directions about what he’d want to happen.”

Among American Jewish writers who are often asked about their dualities, Apple seems the most comfortable. In an autobiographical essay, “The Jew as Writer/ The Writer as Jew: Reflections on Literature and Identity,” Apple notes that “identity is someone else’s problem,” that he’s always been at home being both Max and Mottele, American and Jew, educated professor and son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.

He writes that with his formal education behind him, “Max began to write stories, which wanted to sound like the stories he had read in the anthologies. He hoped for British characters who would experience epiphanies, those obscure but luminous moments that reveal the human condition. But all of his people turned out to be Americans, and none of them even knew what an epiphany was. They were good-natured folks, clowns in every shop and office.”

Now, after more than 50 years of co-existence, Max and Mottele are still very much a pair and “understand how much they need one another. Without Mottele, Max knows that he would be a pale imitator, a John Updike without Protestants. And Mottele alone would be exactly that — Mottele alone. Born into Yiddish at the exact moment that murderers were extinguishing it, he would have the language without the people. He needs Americans to populate his shtetl.”

‘Yippee’ — Paul Mazursky documents Chasids gone wild


In all his 76 years, filmmaker Paul Mazursky had never seen anything like the 25,000 Chasidim singing, swaying, blowing shofars and dancing around a lake.

“It’s like the old days at the Apollo in Harlem, with the crowd going wild,” the irreverent Mazursky said. “Can you dig it?”

The scene is from his documentary, “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” which had its Southland premier this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film is quite a change of pace for the creator of such quirky social comedies and dramas as “Bob”&”Carol”&”Ted”&”Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story.”

Despite his artistic reputation and string of Oscar nominations, Mazursky has found it increasingly difficult to find backing for his iconoclastic movies, which are infused with his wry take on the human condition.

During the past decade, after a quadruple heart bypass operation, Mazursky has gone back to his roots as an actor and comedian, including parts in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sopranos,” while looking for the right combination of film and financing.

But last year, he and his two camera crews found themselves in Uman, a Ukrainian town of 80,000, whose population swells every Rosh Hashanah during an invasion of ecstatic Chasidim dressed in white kitels (robes), black suits or streimels (fur hats).

They come to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chasidic master, disputatious tzadik (learned scholar) and great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Nachman was buried in Uman in 1811 at the age of 38.

What had brought the insistently secular Mazursky to Uman were the urgings of three disparate Angelenos: David Miretsky, his optometrist; Shmuel Levy, a devout Moroccan-born rock musician; and Rabbi Ezriel Tauber.

All three regularly participated in the pilgrimage to Uman, and they promised Mazursky that he would witness an event unlike any he had ever experienced.

Putting up $50,000 of his own money, and with his broken arm in a sling, Mazursky embarked on the adventure with his friends and a six-man crew, including his son-in-law.

During a brief layover in Munich, he warmed up by filming the beer-swilling Oktoberfest, before stopping in Kiev, where his grandfather is buried, and then reaching Uman after a three-hour drive.

In the run-up to the climax of the three-day celebration, Mazursky meets and talks with Chasidim, policemen, scholars and peasants, combining the roles of an innocent abroad, travel guide and self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn.”

Typical is his encounter with two local peasant women selling fruit from a sidewalk cart. They, like all the other Uman natives, know about Rosh Hashanah, which enriches the town by $2 million each year.

Despite the windfall, one woman is not entirely happy.

“Jews are not cultured people,” she complains. The other woman disagrees.

“They are cultured,” she insists, “they are just different.”

Mazursky’s camera lingers on other happenings. There is a rustic folk festival with pretty dancing girls in costumes and later, Vodka Appreciation Day, during which the filmmaker digs into his bottomless reservoir of jokes, many unprintable.

His favorite joke, told at least three times in the film, goes something like this: Cohen meets Schwartz in New York’s old garment district and Cohen says, “I heard about the fire.” Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, “Shhhh, tomorrow.” (The joke dates back to at least the Great Depression, when some storeowners facing bankruptcy would set fire to their shops to collect insurance money.)

The film climaxes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, when the 25,000 Chasidim throw their sins into the lake and pray, dance and sing through the candle-lit night.

“Madonna and Woody Allen should be here,” Mazursky murmurs.

Before leaving, Mazursky organizes a bull session with Tauber and Dr. Julian Unger, a British neurologist, to explore the meaning of what he has seen.

“We come to Uman because on the day of judgment, Rabbi Nachman will be our lawyer, pleading our case before God,” Tauber explains.

Unger has a darker observation. “You know, 37 years before Rabbi Nachman came to Uman, there was a great pogrom here and thousands of Jews were drowned in the lake.

“When the Nazis came, they again murdered Uman’s Jews,” Unger continued. “It is a great irony that in 2005, we should be dancing in the streets of Uman. We are dancing on the graves of our martyrs.”

Mazursky, the wise guy from Brooklyn, drew his own lessons. “I could never think like a Chasid,” he ruminated during a two-hour interview in his crowded Beverly Hills office.

“I think of life as a cosmic joke, which keeps getting bigger all the time. But I’ve learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things,” he said.

The title of the film comes from another Mazursky observation. “It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say ‘Yippee.'”

“Yippee” is available on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and will be included in a retrospective of Mazursky’s works at New York’s Lincoln Center, May 4-10.Paul Mazursky

At Party Time: Candy is dandy — charity is sweeter


I was struggling to secure a tiny satin kippah with a granny-sized bobby pin when it hit me like a ton of Pampers: One day (assuming we both survive the main event at the bris), this 8-day-old baby will be standing on the bar mitzvah bimah wearing a really big satin kippah!
Determined not to let this postpartum hormonal surge detract from my newborn’s Judaic debut, I tacked on the teeny beanie with some double-sided tape and reassured myself that 13 was still a jillion years away.

Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I received a letter from my synagogue assigning him a bar mitzvah date. Surely they jest, I cajoled myself. They didn’t. In fact, by the time I’d made my way back from the mailbox the phone was ringing off the hook.

“We got our date, did you get yours?” panted a breathless voice I scarcely recognized as a friend of mine. “The party planner is booking three years out, so you have to call her right away.”

And just like that, a jillion years came to a screeching halt as I was thrown headfirst into the maelstrom of bar mitzvah planning.

As my son’s bar mitzvah day inched closer, I began to see the world in a whole different light — a disco ball light, to be exact — for as my child grew, so did his friends, officially putting us both on the b’nai mitzvah circuit.

And what an elaborately themed circuit it was. From were casino getups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to dance floors flanked with Harley Davidson motorcycles.

How did this happen? My fellow bar mitzvah circuiteers and I would wonder. How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in an age-old Jewish tradition end up playing blackjack and Texas hold ’em? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a custom-designed ice sculpture of Shawn Green?

The answer is not difficult. We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our child’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a secular theme that somehow took on a life of its own. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life.”

But my daughter really has been looking forward to having a candy-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life, you may be thinking. We have it all planned out — “Samantha’s Candy Shoppe.” Every centerpiece will be inspired by a different type of candy; we’ll have an 8-foot chocolate fountain in the middle of the room, and the favors will be Hershey bars with all her vital bat mitzvah stats etched on the label in hot pink.

The trouble is that — despite honest parental intentions — following up a meaningful, religious milestone with a glitzy party focusing exclusively on Kit Kats and Jelly Bellies can undermine the entire point of our child having a bar or bat mitzvah in the first place.

That said, I’m not suggesting we bail on our kids’ secular dream themes altogether. I mean while it’s clearly not what the talmudic rabbis had in mind, I think it’s kind of sweet that the bar/bat mitzvah party has evolved into a celebration of the whole child. The trick is in keeping a fluid connection between the morning service and the evening celebration; between Jewish values and kid-defined rules of party cool.

One way to build this crucial bridge is to integrate tzedakah into our party theme.

We added depth to my son’s fun — but admittedly uninspiring — Super Bowl bar mitzvah theme by incorporating an overnight camp for children with life-threatening diseases that was desperately in need of sporting equipment. All the centerpieces were constructed from donatable sports gear, and there was a collection station set up at the entrance to the party room (Brandon had written his guests in advance explaining his cause and providing them a copy of the camp’s athletic supply wish list). The requisite football theme didn’t suffer a smidgen, and the charity received a U-Haul full of brand new sporting goods as a goody bag.

To help you infuse Jewish soul into your child’s dream party, here are some popular secular bar/bat mitzvah themes and sample tzedakah spin-offs:

Theme: Sports

Tzedakah: Jewish National Fund Project Baseball (‘ target=’_blank’>www.specialolympics.org)

Theme: Books (e.g., Harry Potter, Nancy Drew)

Tzedakah: KOREH L.A. (‘ target=’_blank’>www.njcl.net); Jewish Braille Institute of America ‘ target=’_blank’>www.jfsla.org); Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Los Angeles (‘ target=’_blank’>www.hazon.org); Tour de Cure for Diabetes (‘ target=’_blank’>www.livestrong.org).

Theme: Safari

Tzedakah: COEJL: Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (‘ target=’_blank’>www.treepeople.org); Los Angeles Zoo (‘ target=’_blank’>www.ecostation.org); Wildlife Conservation Society (‘ target=’_blank’>jfsla.org); MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (‘ target=’_blank’>www.projectchickensoup.org).

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” (Broadway Books) will be published in 2007.

Barri Evins: A Book Can Change the World


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don’t. They are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal’s second annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

This year we’ve added a new category, as well: Honorary Mensch — A non-Jew whose work exemplifies this very Jewish notion. Thank you, Marilyn Harran.

And thank you to all our mensches. Maybe next year, we’ll all be candidates for the list….

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Each Christmas, Barri Evins and a group of volunteers give away thousands of books at Head Start magnet centers throughout the Los Angeles area. At each center, volunteers greet each child individually, ask them their age and then present them with a brand new book especially selected for them.

“We want them to feel important and cherished” said Evins, who 15 years ago created From the Heart, a nonprofit designed to promote literacy and foster a love of reading in children living below the poverty line.

The daughter of two psychologists, Barri Evins was born in Florida and raised by a mother whom she describes as “an extraordinary woman … a philanthropist, and a hands-on volunteer.”

Evins emphasized “hands-on,” because that is at the core of the philosophy of From the Heart.

“We want them to have something new of their own,” she said. “To create that moment is a transformational experience for both the people who are giving and those who are getting.”

For many children, this gift is the first book ever to go into their home.

Evins is dedicated to the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world). She firmly believes that “when you give a child a book, you give them the world” and, by promoting literacy, you can empower them to do virtually anything.

Her organization works most of the year collecting, counting and sorting books and preparing for the Big Book Giveaway, where volunteers, often together with their families, meet at Head Start centers to put the books into the hands of some 5,000 children who range in age from 3 to 18. To date, From the Heart has given away nearly 70,000 books.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Barri heads her own film production company, “be movies.” She is currently working on a project about Stetson Kennedy who, she says, was considered to have been the single-most important factor in curbing the Ku Klux Klan.

While From the Heart was started with a group of young women in the film industry, it has grown greatly, and today, Evins said, its biggest challenge is “finding other people from all walks of life who would like to get their hands dirty, shlepping, sorting and giving books to make sure that each child gets a book that excites them.”

On a personal level, Evins confided that she would “like to find a nice Jewish boy who’d like to help me give out books.”

From the Heart works with One Voice, a grass-roots, nonprofit agency that creates meaningful, innovative and effective ways for people to help others in need. It has no overhead and all contributions are used to carry out its mission.

To contribute or volunteer, contact Barri Evins at FromTheHeart345@aol.com.

Alex Baum: Wheels of a Dream


‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Alex Baum, who will be celebrating his 84th birthday on Dec. 30, fought in the French Resistance, survived two and a half years in the concentration camps, and has since dedicated his life to performing good deeds, most notably in his advocacy of amateur athletics.

Yet, when asked if he is a mensch, he says, “You never know.”

Baum is of French Jewish ancestry, but he speaks with a German accent, befitting one who was born in a small town in Lorraine, which along with the province of Alsace was frequently the subject of territorial disputes between the French and the Germans. Concerning the war, he says without embellishment, “We fought the Germans in any possible way we could.”

Although he was caught by the Nazis, he convinced them that he was a resistance fighter, not a Jew. Due to his Algerian passport (his mother was from the North African country), he was treated as a political prisoner in the camps. The Nazis did not question why he was circumcised, because Algerians, being desert dwellers, practiced circumcision for hygienic reasons.

After surviving the Holocaust, Baum vowed that he would be a good role model, like his grandparents and uncles: “I felt a need to do that.”

He moved to the United States shortly after the war and settled in Chicago, where he played semipro soccer for the Chicago Kickers. A center-forward on the team, he scored his share of goals, but his greatest goal has been developing cycling programs and recreational facilities for inner-city kids in Los Angeles.

When not working as a caterer, his living for 30 years, he has been an adviser to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the previous three Los Angeles mayors, but Baum is not simply a cycling enthusiast and fitness fanatic — he has also shown the vision of an urban planner and the determination of a mensch in implementing the now-ubiquitous bike paths throughout the city of Los Angeles, pioneering the Tour of California bike race and building velodromes in Dominguez Hills and Encino.

Of all his projects, he remains most passionate about the creation of bike paths and facilities along the L.A. River. In the next 10 years, he expects to see a 50-mile path bordering the river from the Valley to Long Beach. Speaking with unmistakable enthusiasm, he envisions the following: “You can stop anywhere through the city, enjoy the Sunday or the weekend without using the car; [you can] even ride at night. We have lights and rest stops, parks and a restaurant.”

Although the complete river restoration has not come to fruition yet, Baum says that, due to all the bike paths in recent years, 2.5 percent of people now go to work by bike, as opposed to 0.5 percent in the past.

Despite constant talk of ethanol and hybrid cars, this goodwill ambassador to the city of Los Angeles, who served on the 1984 Olympic host committee, might have the simplest and greenest solution of all for Los Angeles’ gridlock as well as global warming — riding a bike.

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times


If it says in the Torah that embarrassing someone is worse than death, then why does “Mortified” seem so Jewish?

The show features adults revisiting their own teen angst onstage by sharing their original childhood artifacts — journals, letters, poems, lyrics, illustrations, song and dance numbers — with perfect strangers in the audience. Very few of the performers are actors, which often makes their readings seem even more revealing and unfiltered as they read from their childhood keepsakes and offer comments on them. Many of these, which currently are being performed in versions of the show in five cities across the country, have been compiled into a book titled, “Mortified: Real Words, Real People, Real Pathetic” (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2006), offering both the original text and a view from the adult perspective. And it is this duality of real exposure and the distance of time that makes this so poignant — and mortifying.

The material often reveals the writer’s innermost fears. Here is Sharone Jelden writing when she was 17:

“Dear Diary ….When you’re Jewish and cheap you’re doomed. At school, I have to act extra-giving because I’m a Jew. Like if I’m in the food line to buy my Lorna Doones and tea in the morning and some popular girl like Cindy Mcklansky is in line in front of me, short of change or something, I have to give her money. I don’t have a choice; it’s a requirement.”

The topic of religious identity — Jewish and Christian — is heavily featured, such as in pieces like “Cheap Jew,” “The Unholy Land” “Gotta Have a (Boy) Friend Named Jesus,” “Courting Catholic Guilt,” but it’s far from the only subject excavated in “Mortified.”

“Religious identity and kids fitting in, that’s one of the top three things kids write about,” says David Nadelberg, creator, producer and self-titled “angstologist.” “We’re just reflecting what kids go through: romance, religion, peer groups, depression, parental relationships, divorce and remarriage and even eating disorders.”

Nadelberg first came across the unlikely combination of shame and humor when he was in his 20s, before the advent of reality television.

“I found some really wretched ancient love letters that I’d never sent to a poor, unfortunate girl, and I started really laughing at it,” he said. “I knew my friends would laugh at it, too.”

In 2002, he mounted his first production of “Mortified” to a sold-out audience in Los Angeles, and people began to ask when the next show would be. It now runs monthly in Los Angeles, with the next shows scheduled for Jan, 24 and Feb. 21. “Mortified” also now plays regularly in New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.

The show does not aim for the kind of exhibitionism of reality shows, Nadelberg says. “It’s not ‘look at me, look at me,’ that’s not our focus. Our comedy philosophy is we want the audience to ‘laugh at, cheer for.'”

He says the point is not to mock what stupid kids we were, but to show warmth and humor in the pain.
In fact, as part of the Mortified “brand” — the five-city shows, the book, as well as animated YouTube videos — “Mortified” has begun to bring its performances back to a different kind of audience: Kids. Last month, for example, there was a special show for a Wilshire Boulevard Temple youth group. Afterward, kids came up to the performers and thanked them. Nadelberg says they showed the kids that “we’re all living these lives, and then we survived.”

It’s hard to believe they will survive, though, when listening to the overwrought angst and suffering in the pieces, which include stories of everything from shoplifting, cutting school, boy trouble, parental problems to coming out to issues of popularity and coming out as a homosexual and homesickness.

For example, from the 1976 summer camp letters of Adam Gropman:

“Dear Mom and Dad, I can’t stand it anymore!!! All the kids in my cabin hate me! They steal and wreck my things! I can’t escape it! I want … to go … KILL MYSELF!!!!”

His parents reply calmly:

“Dear Adam, “Think about something … you feel really good about. And then before you know it, you won’t feel like a Gloomy Gus anymore!”

This is right before Adam’s parents finally pull him from camp — none too soon, because a day after he left, a bunkmate burned down two cabins.

And therein lies the divide between people as adults — possessing life perspective and the ability to deal with crisis — and children, who experience intense fears, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, love and passion. Adults sometimes forget that it was all too real.

“There’s a difference between this and natural embarrassment,” says Neil Katcher, co-producer of “Mortified LA.” “A lot of what the show is about is aggressive embarrassment.

“People go on stage, knowing that what they wrote was embarrassing when they were younger. Allowing yourself to be embarrassed is the most cathartic thing about the show,” he says — for both performers and audience members. The cathartic thing “is very Jewish in my mind.”

“A lot of Jewish kids kept diaries. We’re brought up to be more expressive about our emotions. A lot of us had particularly strong mothers,” Katcher says. Even in Hebrew school you learn how to debate and discuss, he says. “That translates to people who think a lot more and who have a lot of inner debate and inner struggle, and it creates very expressive [people]. With really good inner debates.”

Nadelberg agrees. “It feeds off a Jewish stereotype … we’re just neurotic. We need a place to channel that neurosis. When we grow up and have money and we become Woody Allen, but until that time, we have our journals and letters and pages of horrific poetry. And that’s where we capture that.”

“Mortified LA” will be performed on Jan. 24 and Feb. 21 at 8 p.m. at King King, 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

For tickets call (877) 238-5596 or visit www.getmortified.com


David Nadelberg, Angstologist

Jewish and Muslim students at USC share dorm and friendships


The fact that the Taj Mahal was built by a Muslim Mughal is news to one Jewish student, who asked not to be named. The student and Asad Hasnat, a sophomore from Pakistan, have been talking about architecture in India during one of the weekly Monday Munchies socials put together for the Shalom-Muslim floor in USC's Parkside Apartments, where both live.

Theirs is a fairly typical exchange between students on a campus as large and diverse as USC's. But at a time when Jews and Muslims in other parts of the world aren't having much luck learning from one another, the conversation and the setting for it are both quietly revolutionary. Here Jewish and Muslim students live together in harmony.

Levran and Hasnat are parked on the sofa in Alnatour's apartment. Nobody's watching the television, which flickers and hums in the background, and some of the guys are clumped around a counter loaded with ice cream and cookies like a pack of young lions taking their time with a fresh kill.

“Back then the Mughals ruled everything,” Hasnat said. “They were civilization in India.”

Levran nods, taking in the new information.

Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of Religious Life at USC, says the name “Shalom Housing” came to her about a decade ago, when she was head of USC Hillel. Several students had sought her advice about finding a way to keep kosher while living on campus.

“None of the dining halls served kosher food,” Laemmle said, “and finding dorms with individual kitchens seemed like a good way to help observant students who still wanted to be part of campus life.”

Soon after Laemmle moved from her role at Hillel to become dean, a group of Muslim students enlisted her help with a similar project. Laemmle worked with Ken Taylor in USC's Office of Residential and Greek Life to find space to create a Muslim floor. As it happened, a wing of the residential hall where Shalom Housing had been established was available.

“The original concept was not a Jewish-Muslim floor,” Taylor said. “That was the creature of the [Resident Advisors] and the students themselves.”

Alana Bubis and Sahar Alnatour, the floor's RAs, are the unassuming but earnest current stewards of this legacy. Bubis, a junior majoring in business and film studies, is a California native, like most of the residents on the Jewish wing of the floor.

“The Muslim wing is more international,” she said, “and it has more guys. There are more girls on the Jewish wing.”

There are 50 students on the coed floor. Two men or two women share each room. A handful of students who are neither Jewish nor Muslim also choose to live on the floor.

“A lot of people keep coming back,” said Bubis, who's marking her second year as a resident.

It's year three for Alnatour, whose family moved to the United States from Kuwait after the end of the first Gulf War.

“As a freshman, you have something in common with the people who live around you,” Alnatour said, explaining why she was attracted to the floor. Although she laughs when she recalls her surprise at learning she would have Jewish neighbors, too.

“It's not very clear in the housing brochure that the Muslim and Jewish wings are together,” Bubis said.

The fact that USC's Shalom-Muslim floor has evolved both organically and unofficially means that, like Alnatour, many of the students who arrive on move-in day are surprised when they meet some of their neighbors.

Traditions like Monday Munchies and the floor's open-door policy — if your door's open, company's welcome — are designed to help newcomers quickly adapt to the novel environment.

And both the temperament of the current generation of students and the culture of the floor tend to discourage the kind of fiery debates over politics that would disrupt the mellow culture of the floor.

“Politics never comes up,” said Amir Yassai, a junior from Orange County. “I think it has to do with the fact that people my age are more open-minded.”

When he returned to school soon after last summer's conflict between Israel and Hezbollah had subsided, Yassai's Iranian-born parents asked him whether there was any tension on the floor.

“It was hard for them to believe it just isn't an issue,” Yassai said.

Still, some residents perceive an underlying tension on the floor — not between Jews and Muslims, but between the ardor that attracts students to the community and the tacit détente that helps to sustain it.

“It's true that people stay away from political conversation,” said Hasan Qazi, a biology major whose parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. “But that doesn't mean that people don't hold deep political convictions. Everyone chooses to live here because they're passionate about their identity as Muslims or Jews.”

Laemmle describes this situation as “the elephant on the Shalom-Muslim floor.”

“Eventually I think students will find a way to engage each other at that level,” she said. “If you build a tradition of trust, political discussion can be safer.”

Bubis and Alnatour have already laid the foundation for what could become the next stage in the growth of USC's Shalom-Muslim Floor. Together they've successfully lobbied for a greater selection of kosher and halal food at a nearby dining hall. The precedent of that small collaboration could help other residents of this quietly revolutionary community find common ground in a passionate, ice cream fueled conversation on some future Monday.

If Laemmle's elephant analogy is apt, it's likely just a matter of time.

Alter Kayakers make waves in Newport Bay


Every Thursday morning, 11 supremely fit old men come thundering into Newport Bay, rounding up all the good rental kayaks on the Balboa Peninsula and singing at the top of their lungs.

Most are major fundraisers for Heritage Pointe, Orange County’s Home for the Jewish Aging, and they call themselves the Alter Kayakers.

The name was a natural, said Stan Sackler, 70, of Newport Beach, a retired fuel dealer, who was already a member of a Jewish cycling group in Fullerton called Shlemiels on Wheels.

Sackler and Steve Fienberg, 67, of Irvine assembled the group four years ago, and let Howard Weinstein, 72, of Corona del Mar coin the name. They’ve never had a slow moment since.

“I look forward to this all week,” Weinstein said. “I can’t wait for Thursday.”
Not that Weinstein, or any of the other Alter Kayakers, lives in the slow lane the rest of the week.

Weinstein hiked and rode horseback through Patagonia for 18 days last fall. He plays tennis four times a week, works out with a personal trainer twice a week and he’ll have to miss the Alter Kayakers’ February cruise to Mexico because he’ll be in Botswana.

“I figure that if I stay active when I’m 72, I’ll still have a life when I’m 92,” Weinstein said.

The Alter Kayakers stand out for their awesome endurance and robust bearing, and they cram their days with endless bicycling, hiking, tennis, martial arts and river rafting. But no one has to quit when his abilities falter.

Seymour Lobel, 77, a retired auto financier from Corona del Mar, for example, has lost much of his vision. Other members of the Alter Kayakers drive him to Newport Bay each week, and in the water, someone always keeps an eye on his kayak.

Members love to reminisce about their Kern River rafting trip last September, when the raft overturned and all the members were dumped into the churning river’s Class 4 rapids. Stronger members helped stragglers get back onto the raft, and the team spirit that prevailed made even these tough men of steel mist up for a moment.

Two seconds of sober reminiscence passed, and then Weinstein said, “Stan Sackler, wearing a hearing aid, came damn close to getting electrocuted.”

Ephie Beard, 75, a Newport Beach resident of 13 years who owned car auction businesses in Anaheim and Fontana, introduced the Alter Kayakers to whitewater rafting.

“I’d been doing it for 21 years,” he said. But the day the raft flipped, he said, “it was pretty scary for some of those guys.”

But all this running around without performing a few mitzvot is against Alter Kayaker rules.

“We all try to do something for the Jewish community,” said David Stoll, who owns a boat engine business in Newport Beach. “Most of us are Diamond Donors to Heritage Pointe in Mission Viejo. My personal feeling is that you have to pay your Jewish dues. If you don’t pay the community back, it really gets on our nerves.”

Two of the Alter Kayakers aren’t Jewish, but they’re treated like Members of the Tribe. Stan Angermeir, 67, a nursing home operator who lives on Lido Isle, belongs to Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana with his Jewish wife. Wayne Harmon, 69, of Corona del Mar, the other non-Jew in the group, has a serious relationship with a Jewish woman.

“Believe it or not,” joked Stoll, 68, “we made Wayne our treasurer.”

“But we don’t have anything in the treasury,” added Stackler, a former director of the Orange County Jewish Federation.

Every year, the Alter Kayakers hold an awards ceremony.

“Everyone wins first place in something,” Stoll said. “Wayne Harmon won first prize for looking the least Jewish.”

Most of the Alter Kayakers are retired or semiretired professionals or businessmen.

Arthur Friedman, 71, of Balboa was a dermatologist. Sid Field, 77, who lives in Newport Coast, was a dentist. Robert Baker, 64, of Newport Beach and Fienberg were lawyers.

Weinstein was a pharmacist who became a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Harmon was an executive with J.C. Penney. The rest were entrepreneurs.

When they gather, they are sure to sing “Kayakers’ Spirit,” their own anthem, sung to the tune of the “Illini Fight Song.” Field, a University of Illinois alum, wrote the words. The anthem concludes their weekly Thursday ritual, which starts with a 4-mile, one-hour kayak expedition into Newport Bay and progresses to lunch at Newport Landing Restaurant.
“Same seats or we forget the name of the guy next to us,” Sackler explained.

Same menu, too, it turns out: A half portion of Caesar, Cobb or chicken avocado salad. Ironmen feasting on salad fragments?

“Some members are on diets or too cheap to buy a whole salad,” Weinstein said. “One member who shall remain nameless orders a sandwich off the menu, and he is penalized by getting a separate check.”

The Alter Kayakers say they don’t accept new members.

“Our membership is now closed because the group has such good chemistry, and we don’t want to tamper with it,” Fienberg said. “Also, the place we rent kayaks from only has about 11 good kayaks, and more than 11 for lunch is a bit much.”

They also discourage lunch guests.

“You must be mishpachah,” Weinstein said. “You can be a ninth cousin, but you have to be in the family.”

All but one of the Alter Kayakers are married, nearly all to their first wives — Stoll for 42 years, Baker for 41.

“My wife loves it,” Weinstein said. “It gives me an opportunity to socialize with the boys and to go out and exercise.”

There are no greens fees or memberships to eat away at the family budget; it costs $10 to rent a kayak.

So far none of the Alter Kayakers’ wives has taken to renting a kayak of her own.
“My wife came out with me in a tandem in Newport once,” Sackler said, “and loved it as long as I did the paddling.”

An open letter to the rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary


I want to share with you an email I wrote to Chancellor Elect Eisen as well as Rabbi Joel Roth on the JTS board to support allowing gays to marry and become rabbis:

Dear Mr. Eisen,

I am a 46-year-old woman born and raised in Los Angeles. I am writing to ask that the Conservative movement support gay marriage. As a child, my family was members of the Conservative Temple Beth Am with Rabbi Jacob Pressman at the helm. I am a private person but I wanted to share a bit of my story with you as I know mine is the story of many.

In elementary school I realized I was different. I had no vocabulary for it, but all the books, movies and relationships I saw led me to believe that my feelings were not normal and needed to be suppressed.

I began hiding what was to me a dark and terrible secret that I could not admit even to myself until my 20s. I did not want to be different. In fact, I went to sleep every night for years and years praying that I would wake up and be straight. Of course, that never happened. The thought of coming out and hurting my beloved parents or having them feel ashamed of me was more than I could bear and I thought my only options were either to commit suicide, which gay teens do three times more than their straight counterparts, or move to another city and hide my true self from my family forever.

I stayed in the closet until I was 28-years-old, dating men and sacrificing my youth and happiness trying in vain to fit in. I started having terrible panic attacks and actually thought I was going crazy. I realized one day that it was suddenly more painful to hide who I was than to admit the truth. I tried to prepare myself to lose my family. There were hints all my life that I was gay that my parents either ignored or denied hoping, like myself it wasn’t true or it would simply go away, or perhaps I would grow out of it. Their reactions let me know this would break their hearts.

Mr. Eisen, how different my life would have been had in my early years my temple and temple community openly welcomed gay people or if there were openly gay rabbis to demonstrate that everyone has value.

As Jews we especially understand the pain of being an outsider and of doors being closed to us simply because we were born Jewish. How terrible to think that we ourselves would ever make a fellow Jew an outsider.

By locking gay people out of the rabbinate or of the sacrament of marriage is to send a very strong message that gay people are flawed and not entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as those who happen to be straight.

The reality is that 10 percent of society is gay. With an estimated 14 million Jews worldwide, that’s 1.4 million Jews that happen to be gay. With our numbers dwindling, we cannot afford to lose even one person or make any Jew feel not welcome. I have always felt great pride in being Jewish.

This year I became a bat mitzvah after two years of study. I love Jews and Israel as much as anybody. I do not think it is fair that I am excluded from being a full member of the community I love so much because of the way I was born. It’s like saying people with blue eyes can never marry.

Mr. Eisen, whether we have blue or brown eyes, straight or gay most of us grow up dreaming of the day we will stand beneath a chuppah with our family and friends surrounding us with a rabbi to bless our union.

It is my deep hope that the Conservative movement will make a strong and courageous decision to embrace all of our members so that someday no Jew will ever again feel like an outsider in our own community.

Sincerely,
Pamela Witt

Pamela Witt is a business owner in Los Angeles. She can be reached at pamwittla@aol.com.

Films: The trials and tribulations of fathers and sons


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That comparison tickles Burman immensely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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