Hebrew word of the week: abba, imma


In many languages, the words for father and mother — being the first words a baby utters — are quite similar, and they include the labial consonants b, p, m; or dental d, t, n; as papa, dad, (Czech) tata, mam(m)a, mommy, nanny; similar words are used in Chinese, French, Italian, Persian, Turkish (in which anne means “mother”), Yiddish and more.* 

The Hebrew words abba and imma end with an Aramaic suffix, to indicate a vocative form (used when calling someone, as in English, Mom! Dad!) The Hebrew cognates are av for “father,” and em for “mother.”

*So are the word “baby” and other “baby words”: bubba, puppet, mama (“breast, baby food” in other languages; including  mammal, which is a “breast-feeding animal”).


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Alicia Silverstone opens vegan breast milk sharing service


It seems Mayim Bialik isn’t the only vegan Jewish actress/author in Hollywood who happens to also be an outspoken breastfeeding advocate.

While Bialik has provided advice to fellow moms, Alicia Silverstone is now providing them with actual breast milk. According to Us Weekly, Silverstone, mom to Bear Blu, 2, and author of The Kind Diet, has just launched Kind Mama Milk Share, a service for vegan mothers unable to produce enough milk on their own.

In a recent blog post Silverstone wrote of a woman in her community who had trouble nursing due to a breast reduction surgery and didn’t feel comfortable accepting donor milk because “it was almost impossible to figure out what kind of lifestyle choices the donors had made.”

Using someone else’s breast milk—and insisting that person be a “clean eater”– might seem extreme, but Silverstone is no stranger to extreme baby-feeding methods. Last year she uploaded a video of herself practicing premastication, i.e., transferring prechewed food from her mouth to Bear Blu’s.

“I can understand that [pre-chewing] would make some people feel uncomfortable possibly, because it’s new to them,” Silverstone told ET. “But I do want to let you know that this has been going on for thousands of years. [It's] still going on all over the place. And it’s natural.”

We’re just hoping there are no plans for a Kind Mama Prechewed Food Share on the horizon.

Getting ready for baby


Rabbi Julia Weisz found herself in a bit of a conundrum when she became an expectant mother.

On the one hand, the rabbi and director of education at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas was cautious about holding a baby shower. In the earlier stages of her pregnancy — she is due to have her first child in July — she said, “It seemed uncomfortable for me to celebrate something that wasn’t here.”

However, her Reform congregation wanted to honor her pregnancy. Ultimately, she agreed to have one in May. 

“A baby shower is a good way to bring the community together around something positive,” Weisz said. “I wanted to give them the opportunity to do something to help.”

When it comes to Jewish laws and customs, there are many different opinions on every lifecycle event — from birth to marriage to death. Baby showers are no exception.

While some Jews and clergy have no problem with throwing baby showers, others won’t even select a name for a baby prior to birth. There are no textual laws banning celebrations before the baby is born, but in some circles, it’s customary not to hold them. 

“It’s a little bit arrogant to assume the baby is going to be born,” said Rabbi Chaim Bryski of Chabad of Thousand Oaks. “Traditionally, we don’t tell anybody about the pregnancy, not even until the third or fourth month. To make a party to honor the baby would be uncomfortable from a traditional perspective, but there is no law that says you can’t.”

Some believe that if a baby’s name is uttered or his or her life is celebrated before birth, the evil eye, or ayin harah, might harm it, according to Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a Conservative shul in Encino. 

“In our tradition, there is the theological and religious idea that a new life is very tenuous,” he said. “One of the superstitions is that the evil eye knows who to run after because they know the name of the person. If someone gets really sick, they can change their Hebrew name to escape the angel of death. We don’t do a lot to celebrate the baby in order to protect it from the possibility of its own demise.”

After a baby is born, more traditional Jewish families will celebrate by sponsoring Kiddush meals at their synagogues or hosting a shalom zachar, or a drop-in party for a baby boy, on the Friday night after he is born. 

Bryski suggests registering for gifts, and once the baby is born, they can be delivered. He said that if something happens to a baby, it adds to the pain the parents experience to be surrounded by presents.

Still, Rabbi Jonathan Hanish has no hesitation about having a baby shower, particularly because of modern medical advances.

“In today’s world, where you know a baby is healthy and you have such a high rate of successful pregnancies, a baby shower is totally acceptable,” said the rabbi at Temple Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills.

One of Hanish’s congregants, Sarah Knopf, a mother of three, had a baby shower for her first son. Although she grew up with a superstitious grandmother, she wasn’t convinced that there was anything negative about it. 

“I needed to have everything done and organized before he came,” she said. “I’m a planner, so that made me feel better. I would have gone crazy.”

Farkas said that at VBS, which has 5,000 members, traditions vary. 

“Most of the congregation does do baby showers of different types. In our community, it’s not homogeneous by any means,” he said. “Some in the community will give babies names, and then there are some who [won’t do anything before a baby is born]. Some are in between. That reflects the larger Jewish community.”

Like Knopf, VBS member Nikki Eigler chose to hold a shower because she wanted to plan before the baby arrived. She said, “I’m a person who needs to be prepared. I did not want to come home from the hospital without having anything in the house.”

Allison Lotterstein, a congregant at Kol Tikvah, had no concerns either. She, like many expectant mothers, just wanted a way to commemorate a new life coming into the world. 

“Every pregnancy should be celebrated,” she said. “In my mind and in the minds of the people who threw me a shower, my baby was a blessing.

A mitzvah called shmooze


In a crummy economy, people are always looking for good investments — a promising stock, a real estate opportunity, a star mutual fund. It’s really not that different in the “mitzvah economy”— donors and do-gooders are also looking to squeeze the maximum amount of goodness out of every charity investment.

On that note, I’d like to share with you a mitzvah that has a ridiculously low investment and an incredibly high return.

It’s a mitzvah called shmooze.

I think of this mitzvah every time I’m stuck in freeway traffic and I call my mother in Montreal. Nine times out of 10, especially during the long winter months, the first words out of her mouth will be (in French): “Ah, mon fils, je pensait justement à toi!” (Oh, my son, I was just thinking of you!). 

You see, my mother has this quirk when it comes to phones: When she hears a ring, she always picks up. She’s not big on screening calls. She doesn’t make those quick calculations of whether such and such person is worth talking to. I’ve never asked her this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she shmoozes with telemarketers who pitch her great deals on ink toners.

Ever since my father passed away 10 years ago, the ring of the phone in my mother’s home has come to symbolize the promise of human contact. Whereas for me it might mean an unwanted interruption, for my mother it is a welcomed trumpet that announces the interruption of loneliness. 

I try to interrupt that loneliness as often as I can. It helps that our conversations are light and breezy and require little concentration on my part. It’s as if we have this unwritten agreement that if she’ll go easy on me with the questions, I’ll stay on as long as she likes (or until I get to my “meeting”).

Sometimes I’ll be in a silly mood and make her crack up. I might tell her something funny one of my kids said. Occasionally, we might talk about a serious family matter, and she’ll weigh in with her suggestions (read: orders).

But typically, we’ll just shmooze about family stuff: How are the kids doing? (Baruch Hashem.) Is Noah getting taller? (I think so.) Who’s cooking for Shabbat? (I don’t know yet — probably Mia.) Did you tell the housekeeper you won’t need her next Wednesday? (I will, I promise.) Do you speak to your sister? (All the time.) And how about your brother? (Yes, on e-mail.)

From my end, I will lob back questions about her health (“How’s your knee?”) or I’ll ask about Shabbat plans (“Will you be with Judy, Sandra or Samy?”). Our favorite subject, of course, is travel, and it consists mostly of two questions: “When are you coming to Montreal?” and “When can you come to Los Angeles?” 

After about 15 minutes or so, we’re usually ready to wrap up. We throw in a few words of caution (Me: “Please watch the steps!” Her: “Please be careful!”), some tender sentiments (“Kiss everyone” and “I love you”), and, voilà, it’s, “Goodbye Meme, I’ll speak to you very soon.”

But as I run off to another meeting, Meme hangs up and goes back to an empty house.

The difference, though, is that now, in that empty house, the words of our conversation will echo pleasantly in her consciousness. She’ll be thinking about all the good stuff we talked about. That’s because words that interrupt loneliness have a time-release quality. They keep ringing gently in one’s ears long after the phone has stopped ringing.

I invest 15 minutes in sweet shmoozing, and, in return, I get hours of motherly joy. Wouldn’t you call that a good investment? 

The truth is, you don’t have to be related to someone to offer good conversation — in fact, it could be an advantage not to be related. So, I wonder: How many elderly Jews are there in our sprawling community who spend their days alone and could use a good shmooze?

Why not twin those elderly Jews with younger Jews who could put a spark in their day with some lively conversation? 

It’s a mitzvah that works both ways: The elderly have great wisdom and stories to share, which could enrich anyone’s day.

Los Angeles seems like the perfect city to try this idea out — there are plenty of elderly at home alone, and there’s certainly no shortage of cell phone-addicted shmoozers stuck in traffic.

The beauty is that it’s simple. No event planning, no shlepping — just a phone call. Multiply that by a few thousand calls and that’s a lot of loneliness interruption.

Every community can start their own schmooze project. You need a good organizer, of course, to recruit people and coordinate all the vetting. But the basic idea is not complicated: volunteer “shmoozers” get a short list of willing elderly “friends” to call on a regular basis.

In the meantime, don’t wait for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to call your parents or grandparents, or anyone else you know who can use a good shmooze. Especially for people fighting loneliness, one little call can brighten up a whole day.

Like my mother would say, now that's a bargain.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Parenting: The Torah of motherhood


My road from twice-a-year Jew to Torah-study groupie took 40 years. With the heady days of the High Holy Days, Sukkot and Simchat Torah still fresh in my mind, it’s worth examining how I got here. 

During my youth, my family and I attended synagogue only during the High Holy Days. Even then, like most adolescents, no matter the Jewish preschool, Jewish summer camp, bat mitzvah or confirmation, the rabbi’s sermon was my cue to flee the sanctuary with my sister to find the other kids in the parking lot tearing into a purloined challah snatched from the synagogue kitchen.  

As I got older, I began to appreciate the meditative, communal experience. After every High Holy Days season, the spiritual renewal that filled me had me vowing I’d be back the very next Shabbat. But, inevitably, by the next week the excuses came readily — “I’m too tired,” “We’re out of town” or “I’ll go next week” — until the weeks piled up and the High Holy Days were back again.

So what happened to make me a Torah- study groupie? Eleven and a half years ago I became a parent, which means I am now the mother of a middle-schooler, and I need as much help as I can get. As kids get older, the problems get thornier. I pine for inspiration and guidance, for clues to being a better parent than I often feel equipped to be. When a friend gushed about Torah study, calling it her weekly “vitamin,” I decided I had nothing to lose. And while I have dog-eared my share of parenting books, ranging from sleep training to sibling rivalry, I have found that the biggest questions are answered in The Great Big Parenting Book — Torah. 

It’s a best-seller, but it’s not an easy read. It doesn’t give away its wisdom to those hoping for a quick skim. For example, during the High Holy Days, we read one of the Torah’s grimmest parenting stories — the Binding of Isaac. Those are pretty words for a nightmarish chapter — a father leading his son up a mountain, tying him to a rock and preparing to sacrifice him with a blade through the sternum. What parenting advice could I hope to get from that catastrophe?

At my synagogue, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, Rabbi Amy Bernstein, who is also a mother, gleaned something positive out of this horror story. “God stopped Abraham,” she said, “before he hurt Isaac. Sometimes we need a voice from God to stop us from hurting our kids.” 

To the sanctuary full of well-meaning parents, she wasn’t talking about physical hurt. My mind catalogued those moments when I wished I could take back certain words I’d uttered. Greeting my sixth-grader after school with, “How much homework do you have?” instead of “Hi, kiddo, it’s great to see you.” Nagging my second-grader to finish his homework instead of paying attention to the imaginary world he is creating with Legos. Sharing with my friends stories I considered “cute” but that would embarrass my kids. Telling my children in any given moment what they are doing wrong instead of what they are doing right. These are the times I need an inner voice counseling restraint, an angel on my shoulder advising, “Don’t criticize. Don’t pile on the stress. Bite your tongue.” I know my sons would appreciate it if I were to bite my tongue during baseball games, instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from the bleachers. (Restraint is so hard!) I resolved to try harder.

With the new school year well under way, there’s another kind of hurt I am even more troubled by — the pain inflicted by their peers, the slights, ribbing and put-downs that can penetrate guileless thin skin, or even thicker skin. My son’s friends engage in banter that tiptoes along the line of insults, jokes that cut, a contest of one-upmanship, which my son frequently reports in dejected tones. One boy gets made fun of for the color Gatorade he drinks or for wearing glasses. Another is ridiculed for liking the Clippers or for the color of his shorts. They toss the word gay around as pejorative. Did I mention that these are their friends? I struggle with how to handle this not-quite-bullying-but-hurts-just-the-same comments. I need ancient wisdom to tell me how to be a loving guide through pre-adolescence and beyond, to salve the injury of having your feelings hurt by those you know best. 

I think back to the story of Isaac’s near-catastrophe and find two more clues. First, God didn’t intervene until the harm was imminent and irreparable. By the time God stepped in, things looked pretty bleak for Isaac. Barring Isaac pulling some sort of superhero moves, bursting through his restraints like the Hulk, kicking Abraham’s weapon down the mountain and shouting, “What the hell was that, Dad?” God had to intervene. But only at the last possible moment.

Great. I need to wait until there’s a metaphorical knife at my kid’s chest before stepping in? That seems too much. But since my Jewish mother’s instinct is to jump in at the slightest hint of a problem, it’s good to set a high bar. Usually I’m ready to call in the cavalry when he’s over it. It’s not easy to see that kid struggling on the rock, but if my kid can get out of the mess on his own, I have to let him. 

Second, I think about what to do with hurt feelings that linger. I imagine what a modern therapist might tell Isaac to make sense of what happened: “What Abraham did had nothing to do with how he feels about you. He loves you! He had his own issues.” I can tell my son the same truth, that when people say mean things, it usually means they are suffering. It has nothing to do with him. I can show him his power, praise his good heart and instill in him the self-reliance to tell his friends to knock it off, to stand up for himself or to walk away. And the choice is his. 

A of couple months into the school year, the reports of meanness are getting farther apart. I’m quite sure that, as usual, his bruises hurt me longer and deeper than they bother him. I need to remember that he is more resilient than I am. Like Isaac getting up off that rock, brushing himself off and walking down the mountain, he is moving on with the rest of his story. 

I may not have appreciated what Judaism had to offer when I was a child and all I wanted was for the services to be over, but I am grateful to have kept the connection to my family’s faith all these years. It’s there for me now when I need it. Every week, I’ll be back in Torah study with the group of intelligent, curious souls, mining more of our ancient stories for modern parenting gold.


Laura Diamond is the editor of the anthology “Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood” and is working on her first novel. She is a member of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Time warp again? Take a step toward tradition


When I think back to my bat mitzvah 30-plus years ago, here’s what I remember most: following the photographer’s prompts as I posed against the tree in the synagogue courtyard, standing nervously on the bimah chanting my Torah portion, and giving a speech in which I excoriated President Nixon. I don’t recall how I tied that in with the parsha, but I relished having the congregation laugh at my political barbs. I loved dancing with my friends and hoped that the boy I had secretly admired for months would finally realize what a prize I was and begin to like me in return.

My bat mitzvah was exciting and fun. It even gave me a vague notion of the meaning of Jewish adulthood. My grandfather, who trained me for my bat mitzvah, claimed that back in the 1940s he pioneered bat mitzvahs (at least here in Los Angeles) when he trained my aunt for this rite of passage. My grandfather came to the United States from Europe with visions of a more modern religious life. He was proud to have blazed the trail for bat mitzvahs in the Conservative movement.

So what would he think of his great-granddaughter pushing the clock back and having a bat mitzvah, shared mostly with girlfriends, sans Torah reading? Well, styles in fashion and religion come and go, and over time my husband and I became more committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle.

Just as the peasant look that I wore in the ’70s has returned, so has the Orthodoxy that that my grandfather left behind in Bialystock.

I’m the first to admit that I once would have scoffed at the idea that any daughter of mine (I had been a dues-paying member of NOW, after all) would not read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah. It was too regressive to deserve comment. It took several years until I was willing to entertain the Torah’s views about spirituality. It rankled to learn that some of the ideas were totally, unrepentantly politically incorrect, including notions about men’s and women’s differing roles in public ritual life. But the insights they revealed about human psychology rang true.

It’s very clear to most people unburdened with a master’s in sociology that men and women need different types of nurturing for emotional, spiritual and intellectual health. Yet many academics still kick and scream when you state the obvious (just ask former Harvard President Larry Summers). Men’s obligations to attend minyan, lead services and read from the Torah are all part of this care-and-feeding program for men.

Psychologically, it’s brilliant: men, who tend to lack meaningful male bonding, can get regular doses at their neighborhood minyan every day. Women will bond with other women, minyan or no minyan. Just watch us.

That’s why I didn’t lose sleep that my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be a less public affair than her brothers’ bar mitzvahs. Girls are considered to become bat mitzvah at 12, again revealing the Torah’s insight that girls are usually a year ahead of boys in terms of maturity at that age.

Like her brothers, Yael was excited and a little awed at the prospect of becoming responsible for her own actions, for mitzvahs as well as misdeeds, responsible to fast, to pray, to continue to grow spiritually and to contribute her special talents and energy to the community.

We also wanted her bat mitzvah to be more than just an expensive birthday party. Of course we had great food, music, dancing and an art project that the girls made and donated to Chai Lifeline for their Purim baskets. But Yael also prepared by studying a text for several months with a teacher (in her case, me). Together we chose to study the Eishet Chayil, a portion of Proverbs that is traditionally sung in honor of the Jewish woman at the Shabbat table each Friday night.

We plumbed the text and its elucidation, written by a phenomenal rebbetzin in Jerusalem. It was the first time that I had gone beyond a superficial reading of the Eishet Chayil, despite having sung it hundreds of times. Together, Yael and I tried to understand the deeper insights these proverbs reveal about life, about the spiritual potential of the Jewish woman, and about faith. Many of the concepts were beyond the grasp of even the most mature 12-year-old. Still, we soldiered on, and by the end we each shared a sense of accomplishment.

On her big day, Yael spoke with maturity and depth about the concepts of oz and hadar, strength and splendor, for which the Jewish woman is praised in Eishet Chayil. She explained that this is the kind of strength that springs from faith in God and from the courage of one’s convictions.

Listening to her speak with confidence and poise, I was willing to bet that her great-grandfather would have been beaming with pride. True, she may not have stepped up to the bimah with a tallit draped over her shoulder the way her mother had, but she was clearly and purposefully stepping up to Jewish adulthood with joy, pride and faith. And ultimately, that’s what any bat or bar mitzvah should really be about, isn’t it?


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column @ judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

What’s your Jewish I.Q.?


1. When was Judaism founded?
(a) 1000 C.E.
(b) 5000 B.C.E.
(c) 2000 B.C.E.
(d) 1000 B.C.E.

2. Who was the mother of Moses?

3. Who was born a Moabite, became a Jew and was the great-grandmother of King David?
(a) Rebekkah
(b) Deborah
(c) Lillith
(d) Ruth

4. Complete this line from Exodus 23:9: "You shall not oppress the _______ for you were _________ in the land of Egypt."

5. The Jews received the Torah at _____________ __________. God said there: "You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a ________ __________." (Exodus 19:6)

6. The phrase "Chosen People" refers to:
(a) God chose the Jews to be persecuted.
(b) God entered into a covenant with the Jews.
(c) Only Jews are made in the image of God.

7. The First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. by which power?
(a) Macedonia
(b) Rome
(c) Assyria
(d) Babylonia

8. The tragic last stand of the Jews in their revolt against Rome took place at:
(a) Qumran
(b) Jerusalem
(c) Masada
(d) Hebron

9. The Spanish Jews who chose conversion between 1391-1492 and continued to practice Judaism in secret were called:
(a) Kabbalists
(b) Marranos
(c) Pietists
(d) Sephardim

10. The first Jewish community in North America was established in this settlement by 23 Dutch Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil:
(a) New Amsterdam
(b) Newport
(c) Charleston
(d) Savannah

11. In 1807, __________ freed the Jews from their ghettos, granting them citizenship.

12. The main wave of 2 million Jewish immigrants entered the United States in which period?
(a) 1914-1933
(b) 1860-1870
(c) 1880-1914
(d) 1933-1945

13. What Jewish person won nine Olympic gold medals in swimming and is considered the greatest swimmer in the history of the sport?

14. TRUE OR FALSE? Historians cite three factors that distinguish the Holocaust from other genocides: its cruelty, its scale and its efficiency.

15. During the Holocaust, what three countries resisted the deportation of their Jewish population?

16. "Hear O Israel the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One" is the first line of?:
(a) The Israeli National Anthem
(b) The Shemoneh Esrei
(c) The "Shema"

17. A mitzvah is:
(a) A prayer
(b) A commandment
(c) A sin

18. Where is it written:
(a)"We support the non-Jewish poor together with the Jewish poor, and we visit the non-Jewish sick alongside the Jewish sick, and we bury non-Jewish dead alongside Jewish dead, all for the sake of the ways of peace."
(b)"You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. I am the Lord."

19. Fill in: "On three things does the world stand: Torah, service to God, and acts of ____________" (Pirke Avot).

20. TRUE OR FALSE? The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel offers "Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel" the "full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions."

Click here for the answers.

Test contributors include the American Jewish Committee, Jewish Outreach Institute, www.expertrating.com and The Journal editors.

Circuit


A for Achievement

Supporters of the Friends of Sheba Medical Center filled the ballroom at the Four Seasons last week to honor three remarkable women — Rita and Sue Brucker and Dr. Elizabeth Morgan with their prestigious Women of Achievement Award.Morgan gained national attention in 1987 when she went to jail rather than allow her daughter to attend court-ordered visits with her ex-husband who, Morgan believed was abusing her daughter. As a result, Congress passed two acts to safeguard children.

Affectionately known as “Bubbe the Clown,” Rita Brucker has decorated the faces of countless children with cancer and was recognized as “Mother of the Year” and “Volunteer of the Year” by Bezalel Hadassah Chapter, among her other honors. Brucker praised the work Sheba Medical Center is doing to ensure the health of newborns, urging everyone to continue supporting their efforts.Daughter-in-law Sue, wife of Beverly Hills Councilman Barry Brucker, credited her parents with living a life of charity and service, setting an example she has embraced and passed on to her children.

“If my children, Lauren and Richard, and their peers are indicative of the next generation, I know we have nothing to worry about,” she told the attendees. Among her other honors and achievements, Sue Brucker has been feted by Hadassah of Southern California and is currently president of Temple Emanuel.Event Chair Ruth Steinberger and co-chairs Aviva Harari and Lynn Ziman called on writer/humorist extraordinaire and “Save Me a Seat” author Rhea Kohan to hostess the event. Kohan entertained the group with a humorous take on daughters, sons and living life in the middle-aged lane.

A boutique featuring a wide variety of items drew buyers before and after the luncheon — all designed to raise money for newborn screening at Sheba Medical Center. Seen wandering about checking out the boutiques were Beverly Hills School Board President Myra Lurie and her mother, Bess; Allison Levyn and her mother-in-law, Toni; Denise Avchen; Helene Harris; Marilyn Weiss; Lonnie Delshad, wife of Beverly Hills Vice Mayor Jimmy Delshad; Susie Wallach, Stacia and Larry Kopeikin; Amy and Noah Furie, and Nancy Krasne.

Aviva Brightens Bel Air

A misty day couldn’t dampen the spirits of Aviva Family and Children’s Services supporters last week when they gathered at the home of uber-philanthropist Robin Broidy for an elegant and successful benefit luncheon.

Broidy tented the yard in her Bel Air home for the delicious event, which was catered by Wolfgang Puck and featured a tempting Fendi boutique that contributed 15 percent of its sales to the charity — as well as the fabulous Fendi goodie bags.

The luncheon planned and executed by Broidy and underwritten by Susan Casden, raised more than $75,000 to support the worthwhile projects of Aviva. President Andrew Diamond updated the group and invited guests to tour the facility. The guest list was brimming with many of Los Angeles’ most charitable and giving women including: Linda May, Barbara Miller, Pamela Dennis, Lilly Tartikoff, Lola Levey, Diane Glazer, Jami Gertz and Annette Plotkin.

Founded in 1915, Aviva Family and Children’s Services provides care and treatment to abandoned, neglected, abused and at-risk youth in the greater Los Angeles community.

On the Avenue

Saks Fifth Avenue-Beverly Hills held its “I Want It” event last week to raise funds for the Tower Cancer Research Foundation. Attendees, including Judy Henning, Bonnie Webb and Lillian Raffels, sipped martinis and nibbled morsels while wandering through the store trying to decide what to purchase with their $50 gift cards. The Henri Mancini Trio provided live music as fabulous frocks and jewels by designers such as Tony Duquette kept everyone mesmerized. The night was a complete success for cancer research and a fun shopping experience for guests.

Liberty for All

The first Torah scroll written exclusively to honor and memorialize members of the U.S. military was inaugurated in a ceremony Sept. 10 at the Chabad of Oxnard Jewish Center.

Known as the first letters of the Liberty Torah, it was inscribed by a Jewish scribe, or sofer, at the ceremony timed to coincide with the eve of the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 and marked by prayers for our military and peace in the world.

The Liberty Torah was initiated by Oxnard residents Dr. David and Edi Boxstein and their family to honor their son, Jonathan, who is currently serving in Iraq in the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.

“The Liberty Torah gives everyone, regardless of their political or religious affiliation, the opportunity to honor all our soldiers who have served our great country throughout our history, and to pray for an end to all hostilities,” said Chabad of Oxnard director Rabbi Dov Muchnik.

The Torah was sent to Israel to be completed, and then will be returned to the Chabad of Oxnard Jewish Center for use in its holiday and Shabbat services.The event also featured live music, refreshments and a hands-on Torah writing workshop for children.

For more information, visit www.libertytorah.com, or call (805) 382-4770.

Happenings I

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels was honored with a Peace Award from the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council and the Interreligious Council of Southern California at the Islamic Center of Southern California. Comess-Daniels thanked the Beth Shir Sholom community for enabling him to “pray with his legs” in ways that result in this kind of recognition and he gratefully shared the award with Beth Shir Sholom.

Happenings II

Screenwriter author Nora Ephron (“Heartburn, “Silkwood” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally”) spoke to an overflowing crowd last Thursday night at the Writer’s Guild Writer’s Bloc event. Hosting Ephron and serving as moderator was megaproducer mogul Linda Obst, who offered insights into her longtime friendship with Ephron. Ephron entertained the audience with stories about her years in Washington, her experiences as a journalist and the agony of aging as chronicled in her new book ” I Feel Bad About my Neck.”

For more information about upcoming events, call (310) 335-0917.

Reflecting on a Great Cause


The UCLA Marching Band escorts Jewish Home Lifetime Award recipient Sylvia and Sherman Grancell into the gala Celebration of Life: Reflections 2006 event held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

The beat of the UCLA Marching Band announced the opening of festivities last week when almost 600 people attended the Celebration of Life: Reflections 2006 dinner at the Beverly Hilton to benefit the Jewish Home for the Aging. A live auction hosted by Monty Hall raised $31,000 of the more than $500,000 total by offering blimp rides, a Wells Fargo box at Dodger Stadium, private screening with catering and Fox football studio viewing.

Five Gold Bangles and World of Difference


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

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

“Open it,” she urged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drive Sends Love, ‘Gratitude’ to Troops


As Carolyn Blashek knows only too well, good things come in small packages. The founder and motivating force behind Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that sends care packages to American troops overseas, Blashek serves as an inspiring testimony to one woman’s dedication to provide faith and hope to lonely soldiers.

Blashek is a Jewish mother in Encino who, like most Americans, was horrified by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. However, her reaction was slightly different than that of the average Jewish mother — she tried to enlist in the military. She soon discovered that, at 46, she exceeded the age limit of 35, and “as a civilian there were very few opportunities to show your support to the military.” She began volunteering at a dilapidated military lounge at LAX, until one day in March 2003 (the outset of the war with Iraq), a heart-wrenching talk with a despondent soldier inspired her to create a system to show soldiers that she cared.

“I’m going back to a war zone,” she recalls him saying. “I just buried my mother, my wife left me and my child died as an infant. I have no one in my life. For the first time I don’t think I’ll make it back, but it really wouldn’t matter because no one would even care.”

Blashek was devastated as she realized that many of the soldiers are fighting in foreign countries without support systems.

“What gives someone the strength to survive when bullets are flying?” she wondered. “The belief that someone cares about you.”

She decided to express her compassion by sending food, entertainment, and personal letters in packages.

“The Jewish mother in me had this need to communicate concern and love and appreciation,” she said with a little laugh. “It’s that sense of nurturing… the Jewish mother element.”

Primarily through word of mouth, the project snowballed. What began three years ago as a humble living room project financed and organized by her alone exploded into an organization that coordinates donation drives for packages across the country.

“Now I’ve sent over 111,000 packages in three years,” she said.

After Operation Gratitude’s third annual Patriotic Drive, which is to take place at the end of this month, she hopes to reach 150,000.

Blashek vividly recalls an emotional encounter she had with Kayitz Finley — the son of her local rabbi, Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah — to whom she sent packages while he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both a soldier serving in a distant land and a member of her local community, he became her inspiration. “The first most emotional experience I had through all this was when he came home and he and I got to meet in person for the first time,” she said. “It was at a Saturday morning service. We saw each other, threw our arms around each other and couldn’t stop hugging. Neither of us could get any words out. We both just kept saying ‘thank you’ to each other. It was very powerful.”

Operation Gratitude’s Third Annual Patriotic Drive continues at the California Army National Guard Armory, 17330 Victory Blvd, Van Nuys on June 17-18. Items requested for donation can be found on the website

A Woman’s Touch


The stereotypical Jewish woman is strong, supportive, receptive and respected. Growing up, she is showered with love,

pampered by objects and experiences of beauty and quality. She keeps a welcoming home. She attends to detail, wants what she wants and is unapologetically “high maintenance.” She is wise, and capable of keen manipulation. She is emotional — following her heart more than her mind. She is nurturing, loyal, generous and willing to sacrifice. She finds total fulfillment only when she has balanced her work with marriage (preferably to a doctor or lawyer) and children. Most significantly, she loves receiving beautiful clothing, fine perfume and dazzling jewelry.

She might (stereotypically) become annoyed reading such generalizations, and seek out those attributes that do not apply to her. Her annoyance may also rise around the seeming male dominance of her religion: the subordinate roles of women, the deficiency of female voice and presence in Torah. She might question where the goddess part of the One Divinity is in Judaism; why parshot such as this week’s Vayakhel-Pekudey speak only of male priests and male builders creating a space within which to worship a male god.

That’s what I have wanted to know, anyway — Jewish American Princess/rabbi that I am. As wonderful as Judaism is, the apparent disregard for the feminine side of things really bugged me. More than that, I didn’t understand how Judaism had survived with this kind of imbalance. Be it a battery or a plant: Both the male and female aspect to its makeup must engage in equal and opposite reactions in order to maintain homeostasis. If the positive charge is stronger than the negative, if there’s too much water and not enough sun, too many carbs and not enough protein, more yang than yin, more tonic than gin…. OK, I’ll stop.

Disproportion in something’s receptive and aggressive qualities quickly destroys it. In accord with these irrefutable physical laws, it seemed impossible that Judaism could have subsisted with such dominant chauvinism.

I sought out the ancient hidden femininity within Judaism, knowing that the goddess had to be there somewhere — deep, concealed and receptive: as her feminine nature would dictate. The Divine aspect representing the stereotypical Jewish woman must have existed as consort to the father/ruler/protector/provider in equal but opposite strength. But where? As it turns out: everywhere!

As with the laws of homeostasis, kabbalah also acknowledged that both masculine and feminine elements exist equally within the emanations of the one God. They diagramed this: with the Ain Sof — the infinite, active, masculine, source of all — flowing down into existence until he is finally received by his woman: the Shechinah. This goddess aspect of the One is Its in-dwelling, the part that accepts, conceives and makes manifest what flows toward her. She is Mother Earth. The bearer of all that is: trees, buildings, humans; the finite that is married to the infinite in sacred communion. She is around us, within us, and certainly in Torah. Vayakhel-Pekudey, I have come to realize, is a description of goddess worship as much as adoration of god.

For in building the tabernacle and dressing the priests, homage is paid to the ultimate Jewish woman. In helping her to properly accommodate the presence of her man, her wood is measured in uncompromising detail to assure strength and support. Her people respect strict rules for manipulating the materials in their building. They follow their hearts rather than intellects in offering her objects of beauty. With loyal adoration they bring her perfumed oils and incense; flowery carvings, precious metals to be shaped into womb — like rings.

From the rings hang curtains and veils — such as those worn by the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek Penelope. Their cloth is from threads of fine linen, thread being the symbol of fate, woven by Aphrodite and the Cretan goddess Ariadne. So, too, the priests’ “robes of woven work” reflect ancient rites of women’s magic — weaving and knotting have been since time immemorial methods by which to control fates (example: marriage is “tying the knot”). They gather gemstones once connected to acts of female divination for the breastplate, such as sapphire — the stone of destiny, invoking the triple goddess of fate. And upon the hem of the priest’s robe, bells are intertwined with pomegranates — apples of many seeds (in Hebrew rimon, from rim: to bear a child) with their universal symbolism as the fertile womb.

With every material and every action, the congregation of Israel celebrates the goddess in her endless manifestations. And while her husband may not be a doctor, his capacity to co-exist with her as the ultimate equal and opposite partner explains how Judaism has maintained its glorious presence throughout history. The stereotypical Jewish woman is connected with, and ever empowered by, the sweet-smelling, jewel-wearing, high-maintenance Mother Earth goddess Shechinah. And she reflects a universal femininity that is powerfully, albeit subtly existent throughout the Bible. Through her partnership with the masculine, she calls to us to love what is along with what could be, and to celebrate the faces of woman in balance with the gender that is our equal, opposite partner in the Divine gift of recreation.

Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

Bonding Over Torah


On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.

“Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed,” educator Marcie Meier tells the group.

These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.

Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for “pathways.” And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.

“The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful,” said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.

Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.

Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.

“We learn from Shmuel’s mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn’t know that,” says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.

Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.

During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.

“Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength,” Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.

In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.

And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model — usually a teacher, mother or another relative — and present the findings to the class.

“You’re supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that’s happening,” says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.

These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d’var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women’s monthly prayer group at B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

“While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that’s become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it,” says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.

Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot’s Seminar, are beginning to appear.

At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.

The girls in Netivot’s Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d’var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.

Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b’not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.

But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.

“This was not around in my time,” Marcie Meier says. “The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today.”

And it’s not only the mothers who appreciate it.

“It’s really cool learning with my mom,” says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. “Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more.”

For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.

 

What, Meryl Worry?


In the new movie “Prime,” Meryl Streep is wearing a lavender button-down shirt, a red shawl draped comfortably around her broad shoulders and a brown hairdo that manages to have bangs, wings and flips all going at the same time. But somehow it’s the double strand of big red beads dangling around her neck like a loose noose that manages to convey the high state of suffering — boy does she suffa — of a guilt-ridden, guilt-giving Jewish mother.

That’s right, 56-year-old actor extraordinaire Streep of “Out of Africa,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Postcards From the Edge,” “Angels in America,”etc. and 13 Academy Award nominations fame has taken on the comi-tragic role of a Jewish mother.

And oy! what a Jewish mother she is. Streep plays Lisa Metzger, M.S., C.S.W., an Upper West Side therapist who loves too much: She loves patients like Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman); her eldest son, David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg); and her religion (Judaism). When Lisa discovers that her 37-year-old patient has been dating her 23-year-old son, she is beset by a professional concern that is the classic stuff of comedic conflict: Should she continue to treat this patient and how? But her character also is more deeply plagued by a concern that is tragedy for her: Her son is dating a woman who is not Jewish.

To be sure, interfaith dating is not the only theme or conflict in the film. “Prime” is a New York-based romantic riff on love and what happens when obstacles are placed in the way — obstacles like age, family, religion or the fact that your therapist is the mother of the man you’re in love with (a situation that’s probably less likely to happen in real life than in the movies).

But at its core “Prime,” which opens this Friday in theaters, is also a movie about the not very cinematic subject of religion — and the threat of intermarriage.

“I thought it was really unusual to have a script that had as one of its central dilemmas the question of faith,” Streep said. “That’s just amazing. That’s not edgy at all, but it’s something people contend with.”

It is a subject that writer/director Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”) contends with personally: He was raised Modern Orthodox in Brooklyn and Staten Island. While the 33-year-old New Yorker is no longer part of that community he still feels emotionally connected to it.

“I think it’s important for all people to be open,” Younger said. “It’s that exclusionary nature of religion that I do have a problem with.”

If it’s true that artists make a statement in their work — consider Jewish artists like Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Woody Allen — then perhaps “Prime” is Younger’s way of sending a message in a bottle to the Jewish community.

Consider this heart-to-heart conversation between the characters David and his mother Lisa (Streep, at this point, is wearing a khaki-ish floral shirt and a thick rope of olive bead strands secured by red stones).

Lisa: “So you’re still planning on marrying someone Jewish.”

David: “Ye-e-s. Sure. OK?”

Lisa: “But then I don’t understand why you need to go down this road. You may end up getting hurt for nothing, or worse — hurting her. Don’t you value your culture and your history?”

David: “Mom, it’s not one or the other, Mom.”

Like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the struggles in “Prime” are probably applicable to any insular ethnic or religious group in America. But with intermarriage, the stakes are especially high for Jews.

“Once a Jew intermarries, he or she as an individual remains Jewish, of course, but the likelihood of that person having any Jewish descendants is close to nil,” concludes a self-published study on intermarriage called “Will Your Grandchildren Be Jewish?”

Once Jews understand the cost of intermarriage ramifications, said Antony Gordon, a co-author of the study, “most decide that they do not want to be the person who breaks the link in the chain that spans about 110 generations back to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.”

The National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-1 indicates that intermarriage held steady overall at 47 percent from 1995 to 2000, and has increased 4 percent from 1990. Of all Jews currently wed, the 2000 NJPS study found, one-third are intermarried.

Experts note some statistical flaws in the more recent data, but it has nonetheless sparked debate over intermarriage: Everyone agrees that it’s a problem, but how big a problem — or priority for Jewish funding and programming — is it? And more importantly, what is the best way to deal with intermarriage?

Rabbi Kalman Packouz at Aish Hatorah in Florida, takes a direct approach to the problem. Packouz is the author of “How to Stop an Intermarriage: A Guide to Preventing a Broken Heart” (Feldheim, 1984) a book for “Jewish parents who want their child to marry a Jew but don’t know how to articulate it,” Packouz said. His book provides a 10-part questionnaire for interfaith couples considering marriage, covering topics such as personal, financial and religious compatibility as well as “Latent Anti-Semitism” and “Conversion” and “What is the Likelihood of Divorce?” The extensive 159-question survey asks sensible queries such as “Do you think that your potential spouse might be painting an unrealistic picture of him or herself and that you might be marrying an illusion?” There also are blatantly loaded questions: “Do you or your potential spouse think it is wrong to aid in the destruction of an endangered species? How do you feel about aiding in the destruction of the Jewish people?” In that light, even a question about data can become tilted toward a viewpoint: “Are you aware of the higher rate of divorce amongst intermarried couples?”

The point, Packouz said, is that, statistically, intermarriages have a higher rate of failure. And that is just the type of tactic that Streep’s fictional character takes talking to her son. Lisa tells her son: “If you’re smart enough to know that it makes sense to marry someone from the same background — and it does, any of the studies will show you that in as far as the divorce rates go, then you should be smart enough to know not to start something where nothing can come of it. You’re only going to make a mess.”

David, like many kids who were raised with some Jewish tradition in a primarily American culture, is outraged at his mother’s sudden springing of her “Fiddler on the Roof” issues at him.

Packouz offers a line of argument for parents who are accused of suddenly bringing up their Jewish values. He said that a parent should tell a child who is considering intermarrying: “Right now I understand what I really believe. I thought about golf and stock, and how you did in college, but I never really thought about how important it is to be Jewish. I go twice or once a year to services, but now I realize that it really matters to me. It’s who I am in life.”

In the film, David does not come from an extremely assimilated family — in fact, he is trying to break out of their bourgeoisie mores, such as trying be in an artist rather than the standard professional — and he calls his mother out on the double-standard of her Jewish vs. American values.

David: “You’re a therapist, you would never tell that to a patient.”

Lisa: “Not true, not true, I encourage patients to have relationships within their respective faiths. It’s easier. I encourage them to go to mosque or church or whatever. I think religion is paramount in a person’s life.”

David: “OK, yes. But encouraging them is not discouraging them. And I know that you draw the line there. Would you tell your patient not to date someone that they don’t think they’re going to marry?”

Lisa: “Oh quit asking me what I tell my patients. They’re not my children.”

Therein lies the dilemma. Parents teach their children to love everyone equally, to not discriminate, to help the poor, heal the sick, defend the weak — but only date within the faith?

“We can have all sorts of rules in the world, but when it’s our own children the rules go out the window,” Streep said. “You know, what’s objectively best is different from what’s subjectively understood to be the best for your own kids.”

In real life, of course, Streep is not Jewish, and she does not believe in marrying within the faith: “I believe in diversity. And mixing up the DNA — I think it’s very good. I believe in making a mess in life. And as for my daughter’s husband I have one demand: He better be nice!”

Even so, Streep did not find it difficult to play Lisa.

“I wanted her to be kind of momish, roundish,” Streep said. “We picked clothes that were a little bit too tight so that everything looks lumpish. She’s nicely groomed and everything but she doesn’t care about the style label and I’m sure she goes to Loehman’s and tries to get a bargain. She spends a lot of money on her jewelry basically [because] they don’t make clothes for women her age, her size, her style — that’s not what fashion is about anymore, so you sort of compensate with interesting necklaces.”

Streep said her character has a universality beyond Judaism: “At base we all feel the same things: You want to protect your kid. You want them to move out, but you want them to come around all the time — I mean you’re very conflicted as a parent and it goes forever.”

But Streep also understands her character’s concern about intermarriage: “When you marry outside of your religion, you set up a whole different bunch of difficulties and challenges.”

Within Judaism itself, the perspective on intermarriage varies depending on the denomination.

In the old days, parents sat shiva for a child who intermarried. Not much has changed, in spirit, in the Orthodox world.

“[Intermarriage] is absolutely discouraged,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the West Coast Orthodox Union’s director of Community and Synagogue Services.

At the other end of the spectrum, while Reform rabbis don’t encourage intermarriage, they do perform the wedding ceremonies and invite non-Jewish partners into their religious communities.

In the middle, as usual, the Conservative movement forbids its rabbis from performing an intermarriage, but more Conservative congregations are taking steps to be inclusive to non-Jewish spouses.

But here’s the funny thing about fighting intermarriage with facts and figures, the threat of excommunication or community approbation: It doesn’t necessarily work.

“The general evidence seems to be that nothing that any movement does or nothing that any part of the [Reform] movement does affects the mixed marriage rate,” said Rabbi Richard Levy, the director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “What I think is happening is that Jews are so integrated in the population … much of the sense of difference between Jews and non-Jews has been polished away.”

It’s the flip side of Jews’ comfort in America; there is no isolating ghetto or shtetl — and Jews are mixing with and marrying their non-Jewish neighbors.

“People are doing it. And in huge numbers. And have resisted all of our efforts to beat them down with demographics,” said Rabbi Dan Shevitz, of the Conservative Mishkon Tephilo synagogue in Venice. “Very few people date or make choices for marriage on what’s best for the Jewish people. If they find someone they think is their soul mate, very few people are willing to give that up for the sake of Jewish demographics. Some are, and I think that’s great.”

Shevitz believes in the Conservative position that Jews should marry Jews, but the facts on the ground dictate flexibility toward outsiders.

“It’s important for us not to tell people that non-Jews are dangerous and ‘other’ or alien, and that we need to stay away from them,” he said. “The notion of making our children afraid of non-Jews is counter-productive and is not working and is false.”

At this stage, he added, Jews need to be promoting the concept of Jewish families.

“It’s neither racist or sinful or illiberal [to be] in favor of continuing our community. But that shouldn’t translate into a fear and hatred of the other. And traditionally it has…. We have a good product — if we can articulate it clearly and proudly.”

Perhaps that is the message — or one message — that filmmaker Younger is trying to get across in “Prime.” Although only a movie, and only one 33-year-old’s religious and artistic take, perhaps such pop-culture works are a better indicator of the cultural zeitgeist than proclamations from on high.

Like Conservative Rabbi Shevitz, Younger believes that the Jewish community — the religious community — needs to be more open to the “other” in the world, when it comes to the arts and when it comes to dating as well.

“If Judaism is so wonderful — and it is — then why close yourself off?” said the tall New York hipster. “Anyone who knows me knows it’s so ingrained, I am Jewish through and throughout, and it’s how I am, so why not share that with someone else?”

Younger could have been quoting the David character when he said, “If it’s as good as we say it is, why is it threatening to speak to someone who isn’t Jewish?”

It is a great religion; it is a great way of life. It touches on your daily life in a way that I haven’t seen any other religion — so why this fear?” Younger said. “Why immediately close off someone from your world? Maybe they’ll love it, too.”

“Prime” (www.primemovie.net) opens in theaters Friday, Oct. 28.

 

A Mother’s Wish for Her Daughter’s Day


Aaaah, to be a Jewish parent 1,000 years ago. Sure you had to worry about anti-Semites trying to exterminate your people, dying from the flu and wild animals eating your children for lunch, but what a breeze to plan your child’s bar mitzvah. No invitations to send, no DJs to hire, no out-of-towners to house. And, best of all, no agonizing over The Speech.

I’m not talking about your child’s discussion of her Torah portion. After all, your Uncle Harry and Aunt Rose from Florida do not expect a 13-year-old to shed new light on a religious text that has been analyzed by theologians for 2,000 years. I’m talking about your speech to your child — where you have 60 seconds to sum up your feelings about a moment that was 13 years in the making. What makes that speech — The Speech — particularly difficult is that the subject is adulthood, but your 21st-century child is light years from becoming an adult.

Things were different 1,000 years ago. People could legitimately be characterized as “children” or “adults” and age 13 was a logical dividing point: marriages would follow a bar mitzvah by a year or two and life expectancy was relatively short. Today, despite our tradition that sets the 13th year as the start of adulthood, 13 is not the end of childhood or the beginning of adulthood. Instead, it is the start of a new stage — teenager. Neither an adult nor child, a teenager is like Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me, Pull-You: Sometimes he seems to be pushing toward adulthood, and at other times he is pulling back toward childhood.

Because parents are speaking to a new teenager about an adulthood that is still far away, The Speech is difficult to write. A parent in 1005 C.E. had it easy: “Son, mazal tov on your bar mitzvah. May you marry one of your cousins next year, have a dozen children and take good care of our goatherd. Amen.” What we should say in 2005 is not as clear.

I have given The Speech a lot of thought lately. Not because I am faced with writing one in the short term (my daughter’s bat mitzvah is in October 2007), but because several friends are choreographing bar mitzvahs this year. When they are not agonizing over invitations and caterers, they are stressing out over The Speech.

One friend called to lament that her rabbi suggested that she write a speech that spoke to her “hopes and dreams” for her child.

“What should I say?” she implored.

I suggested some sappy boilerplate that would satisfy her rabbi, the congregants and her child. But after I hung up the telephone, I realized that the clichés I suggested, the ones that we routinely recite to our teenagers at their bar and bat mitzvahs, really don’t represent the anxiety over the teenage years that rests deep inside our parenting souls.

Of course, I won’t embarrass my daughter at her bat mitzvah by sharing the stress that I will surely feel as I watch the sun set on her childhood. I will undoubtedly tell her that my hope for her is that she retain the special spark she demonstrated from the moment of her birth through her 13th year. But, just between you and me, here is The Speech I would like to give to my daughter on Oct. 13, 2007.

The Speech

“When a ‘friend’ offers you your first hit of marijuana, I hope you say: ‘No, thank you. I am not mature enough to try a drug. I plan on trying it just once during my senior year in college after it has been screened by a reputable lab not to contain any dangerous substances.’ But if either curiosity or peer pressure overtakes you and you are inclined to say ‘yes,’ I hope that you are at your friend’s house, and her incredibly responsible parents are upstairs watching TV (very quietly), and you start coughing so hard that the parent’s race downstairs to make sure you are OK. (And you are so mortified at being caught that you never experiment with drugs again.)

“I hope that you don’t attend parties in homes where the person responsible for making the mortgage payments and paying the water bill is in Hawaii.

“I hope you learn early on that the angst endemic to the teenager years is temporary and that your life is full of possibility.

“I hope that you never go through that phase where you are embarrassed to be seen with your parents.

“I hope that you always want me to tuck you in.

“I hope that you never get in a car with someone who has been drinking, doing drugs or has had their driver’s license for less than 10 years.

“I hope that you continue to think tongue piercings are gross, smoking is stupid and Britney Spears doesn’t know how to dress.

“I hope that your middle school girlfriends unanimously decide that back-stabbing each other is cruel, and treat each other like actual friends.

“I hope that you don’t have a boyfriend until you are at least 16, and that he doesn’t have anytime to fool around with you because he is too busy studying (because he wants to get into Harvard), practicing the piano and running in marathons to raise money for worthwhile charities. And when you break up after the prom — because you listened to my advice that you should go to college emotionally free to date other people — I hope that it is you who did the breaking up because I don’t want you to suffer the excruciating pain caused when someone you love dumps you.

“I hope that you are always healthy, are the only teenage girl on the planet to love every inch of her body, and count spinach and oranges among your favorite foods.”

“I hope that everyone who meets you throughout your life loves and respects you as much as I do.

“Amen.”

Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer. She can be reached at wjaffewrite@aol.com

Mama Said…


Taking relationship advice from your Jewish mother is like heeding a shiksa friend’s advice about curly hair gel. It’s not their area.

Besides, your mom has an agenda: to get you married. Sure, she wants you to be happy. But in her mind, the two may or may not coincide. Consider the following well-meaning but misguided maternal advice:

You Can’t Love Somebody Else Until You Love Yourself. Of course you can! Granted, you may not love the person in a healthy, much less reciprocal way. But you’ll think you’re in love, and the power of a delusional mind and desperate heart are a formidable combination. Besides, love and hate are far enough apart on the scale of emotions that they come full circle and become the same thing. Your self-loathing turns into other-loving, so that the more you hate yourself, the more you love the other person. Don’t wait for self-esteem to kick in before pursuing romance. That could take years of therapy and remember, you’re not getting any younger.

If You Marry for Money, You’ll Pay the Price. Not really. Money’s good and, the fact is, no matter whom you’re with, you’re bound to be disappointed eventually. Wouldn’t you rather be disappointed and rich than disappointed and broke? Think of it this way: You can be disappointed on an estate in Malibu or disappointed in a crappy, roach-infested studio apartment in Reseda. Besides, what better way to drown your disappointment than in a shopping addiction?

You Won’t Meet Anyone by Sitting Home Alone in Front of Your Computer. Actually, I’ve never met more people more quickly than by sitting home alone in front of my computer. It’s like being at a fabulous party, but looking my best (courtesy of a JDate photo taken three years ago) and not having to deal with freeway traffic or second-hand smoke. In fact, my fondest dating encounters recently have taken place from the comfort of my Aeron chair.

Just Be Yourself. Do our mothers really expect us to get to a second date by being ourselves? Will any guy show interest in a judgmental intellectual snob who visibly rolls her eyes when her date says he doesn’t know who Thomas Friedman is? On the other hand, most guys will go ga-ga over a woman who says, “No way! Me, too!” when her date declares that “Tommy Boy” is his all-time favorite movie. So if your date thinks David Spade is an underrated genius and you think David Spade is a moron, feel free to borrow your date’s opinions. If he gushes about Aqualung, gush back for the sake of simpatico. (“Aqualung? Yeah, I love Aqualung!” — even if you’ve never heard of Aqualung.) If he says his favorite movies are “A Clockwork Orange” and “Raging Bull,” there’s no need to mention that yours are “Amelie” and “Lost in Translation.” If he says he’s a vegan who doesn’t eat junk food, stop yourself from talking about your love of Big Macs and Cold Stone chocolate sundaes. (The implication being: We both like healthy food, therefore we like each other.) It’s advisable to take on alternate personalities as we try to guess what type of person might appeal to the object of our affection. Be yourself, on the other hand, and you’ll be by yourself.

If He Can Have the Milk for Free, He Won’t Buy the Cow. Our moms clearly forgot about the sexual revolution. Nowadays, no guy will marry you just for the nooky. So if you’re going to be manipulative, choose something else to withhold. Like the truth about who you really are. Because if you give him that, he’ll probably want to trade you in for a less dysfunctional cow.

Put on Some Lipstick, Mascara and a Cute Outfit When You Go Out for Your Morning Coffee — You Never Know Who You Might Run Into. Nobody wears makeup and a matching Juicy Couture get-up when they roll out of bed on Sunday mornings unless they’re Britney Spears or the Hilton sisters. If I’m all dolled up in the Peet’s line, it doesn’t matter who I run into — guys will be running away from me.

Honest Communication Is Key. Both honesty and communication can wreck an otherwise peaceful courtship. Nothing ends a relationship faster than getting the truthful answer to “What are you thinking about, sweetie?” and having him reply, “I was thinking about what the 19-year-old college student who works at Kinko’s looks like naked.”

Act Uninterested — It’s a Turn-on. A turn-on to whom? We’ve all had our objects of infatuation act uninterested, and it didn’t make us like them more — it just made us like ourselves less.

No disrespect to our mothers, but courtship rituals have changed since they were dating. So forget all their antiquated rules. Except the one about never criticizing your boyfriend’s mother, no matter what. If he secretly hates his mother, he’ll end up hating you instead for merely broaching the subject. In fact, he’ll probably accuse you of hating his mother, and say that he can’t love anyone who hates his mother, even though in truth he loves you and hates his mother. Or else he loves his mother so much that he hates you for demanding a portion of that love. Either way, you lose.

So shut up about his mother. Because this is one area Mom knows something about.

Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is the author of “Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self.” Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

 

On Jewish Mothers


I was raised on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx by a woman who could have taken Olympic gold in Jewish mothering. Sonia, Abie-the-tailor’s

wife, never stopped fearing for my life. She made me wear galoshes on sunny days (“It might rain, you never know!”), and warned that if I left the house with wet hair Iwould die one hour later of pneumonia.The worst thing is when my mother does her worrying in front of other people — like boys! When I’m 13, I have my first solo piano recital. I’m wearing a sleeveless, scooped-neck dress that Abie copied from Seventeen. The whole building is there, including Stanley Eichenholtz from 5B. I think Stanley likes me. Whenever we pass on the staircase, he always punches my arm.

I finish the last piece, and I stand up to do the curtsy that Mrs. Blitzer taught me. This is my favorite part. Suddenly, in the middle of my moment of glory, my lunatic mother runs up on the stage, throws a schmattadickeh old cardigan over my bare shoulders, and screams in a heavy Yiddish accent, “Cover up! You’re perspiring! You’re gonna catch a bug!”

The humiliation is not over, because the next time Stanley passes me on the staircase, he says, “Cover up! You’re gonna catch a bug, ha, ha!” And then he punches me on the arm. I am so ashamed. Why must my parents be such immigrants?

I have to acknowledge that, in her better moments, my mother also paid for piano lessons, took me to movie musicals and saved nickels and dimes for years so that I could go to Europe after college. Also, my mother never left the house without a pocket full of crumbs for the sparrows and a pocket full of change “for the poor people” — totally innocent of the fact that she was the poor people. And as little as she had, she would share it.

Mama rented a room to a recent immigrant from Poland. The man had been a professor, but now was scraping by as a janitor. My mother felt very sorry for him, but she knew he’d be too proud to take charity. So when he came home at night she would make up a story: “Oy, Mr. Rabinovitz, I made this all this food and now my daughter’s not coming over for dinner. Do me a favor, have some or I’ll have to throw it out.”

So Mr. Rabinovitz would “do her a favor” and have some.

Ashamed? I should have been proud. But she was still a constant source of embarrassment to me, and after the Stanley Eichenholtz incident I swore that when I grew up and had a child of my own, I would never be an overprotective, interfering, super-doting Jewish mother.

Then I became a parent and — you guessed it — history repeated itself. My son treated hip, worldly, sophisticated me with the same scornful superiority I dished out to my simple, old-country mother.

Back in his college years, he announces he’s going to Vegas for the weekend with some friends. I ask how he’s getting there, and he rolls his eyes and heaves one of those “parents-are-such-a-pain” sighs. He patiently informs me that they’re going in Dave’s car.

I look at Dave’s car, and I see Death. Dave’s car is an open jeep: no roof and no sides. We are a family that drives Volvos. I point out that if they take that car through the desert, not only will they be burned to a crisp, but they won’t have any protection in a collision. I suggest that they rent a nice four-door sedan. More eye-rolling, more sighing and then the killer accusation: “Would you please stop being such a Jewish mother!”

Why fight it? I decide to plead guilty: “Listen, I am a Jewish Mother! And maybe one day you’ll thank me for it! Here’s some money. Rent a real car!”

The boys are driving back from Vegas. There’s a van in front of them with a heavy glass door strapped to the roof. Suddenly this glass door comes loose, flies through the air, and crashes right onto the top of the rented car. But the heavy steel roof protects the kids and nobody gets hurt! So I do the best I can to protect my child. Just like my poor mother did the best she could.

Then I read “The Joy Luck Club,” and I think, “Those Chinese mothers are very familiar.”

And I see this movie, “My Left Foot,” and I think, “That Irish mother is very familiar.”

Then a black girlfriend calls about her teenage son. She’s concerned because he can’t find a summer job, so she asks me to find him a little computer work.

“I will pay his salary,” she says. “Just don’t tell him where the money’s coming from.”

This sounds very familiar.

Then I get my nails done and the Vietnamese manicurist, Kim, tells me she has six children and they all live in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a very bad neighborhood.

“All children full scholarship: Berkeley, UCLA, M.I.T., Harvard, Amherst, Yale,” she says. “You want to cut cuticles?”

Well, I may have turned into my mother, but I am not alone. Everyone has turned into my mother!

Annie Korzen (“Seinfeld’s” Doris Klompus) tours and lectures worldwide with her solo show, “Yenta Unplugged.” Her humorous essays have aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and will appear in freshyarn.com and theknish.com. Her web site is

Mom Was There


As I was ordering invitations for my eldest son’s bar mitzvah in May 2001, we discovered that my mom had end-stage cancer.

With severe and unrelenting pain, Mom became alarmingly feeble, her pain unremitting. Her doctor told us, "Take her home and make her comfortable. It’s a good time to get out the photo albums and gather the grandchildren around." His prognosis? A few weeks to a few months at best.

My sister and I felt as if we had been hit with an emotional stun gun. Cancer had already claimed our father, aunt and grandmother. Our only brother had been killed in a car accident more than 30 years before. We could not fathom losing our mother, who had always been so strong both physically and psychologically, and with whom we each enjoyed a close relationship.

My bond with Mom had become increasingly intimate over the years, enhanced in large part by our spending more time together, frequently over Shabbat. Nearly every week, Mom would come over and sit on the same spot on the living room couch as the kids piled around her to show her their school projects, tell her about their week or have her read them a story. And she greatly enjoyed meeting other guests at our table. As a docent at the Skirball Cultural Center, Mom’s knowledge of Jewish history often enlivened our conversations.

I began my campaign to get Mom to come over as often as possible two years earlier, when my mother-in-law, whom we have since lost, was critically ill.

"We only have your dad and my mom left," I told my husband then. "The rest of the week is too hectic for visits. We’ve got to get them over here for Shabbat."

I could never imagine how much more precious this time would become, having had no inkling that it would be so limited.

After Mom’s devastating diagnosis, my sister and I were thrust in a whirlwind of preparing for hospice care in Mom’s home. Given her prognosis, we also had to rush and get her business affairs in order. We tried each day to absorb the shock of it all, our expectations of a long future for Mom shattered. I felt I was living a surreal dream, as on any given day I could be calling the hospice nurse to inquire about morphine dosages, while also waiting for the bar mitzvah caterer or photographer to call back.

The day I picked up the invitations I headed out with heavy heart to visit Mom. Thinking of all those crisp, lovely invitations filling several boxes in the car, I began to cry. For much of the drive over the 405, I wondered how I could show them to Mom without breaking down completely. I even considered briefly not showing them to her at all. Yet how could I not show them? Could Mom, despite what the doctor said, survive to see the first of her grandsons step up as a bar mitzvah and read from the Torah? Or might I actually be sitting shiva during the week of this simcha?

During that drive, I decided not only to show Mom the invitations, but also to continue to share with her my plans as they progressed. My mom, always a realist, knew that she might not live to be at the event, but it gave her pleasure to know how the plans were coming along. I steeled myself during my daily drives to remain strong in her presence, and allowed myself to cry alone in the car on the way home. Most of the time, I was able to stick to this plan.

But Mom’s deterioration was rapid and inescapable. It seemed nearly impossible for her to make the bar mitzvah. While she didn’t tell me directly, she confided in her hospice nurse that she wished I could move the bar mitzvah up.

When the nurse told me how deeply Mom worried about this, I was crushed. Mom understood that there was no way to move it up. But something had to be done. My husband and I came up with another idea: If Mom couldn’t come to the bar mitzvah, we would bring a trial run of the event to her.

We invited the entire family to Mom’s house for the following Sunday for brunch and to hear our son, Avi, rehearse his chanting of his parsha. Our rabbi, Moshe Cohen of Aish HaTorah Los Angeles, also came, and wrapped Avi’s brand-new tefillin on his arm and head for the first time, explaining the significance not only of the tefillin, but also part of the meaning behind Avi’s parsha, V’etchanan. In this parsha, Moshe recounts his disappointment that despite his fervent pleas, God would not allow him to live to enter the land of Israel. Once again, the 3,000-year-old Torah resonated with our lives today in a way that was too deep for words.

It’s a good thing we rushed to put together this trial run. If we had waited even one more week, Mom would have been too weak to appreciate what was happening. We took our last photos with her and the family that day, but it is painful to look at them. I much prefer earlier photos that reflected her life spirit and beautiful glow.

Mom died two weeks before Avi’s bar mitzvah. My week of shiva coincided with the first nine days of Av, historically a time of tragedy for the Jewish people. When I got up from shiva, I rushed to finish the details of the bar mitzvah that there had been no time for: menu planning, seating arrangements, getting suits tailored.

Fittingly, Avi’s bar mitzvah fell on Shabbat Nachamu, the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, when the Haftarah reading from Isaiah promises comfort to the Jewish people for all the tragedies that have befallen us: "Comfort, comfort My people, says your God," Avi read. As he read, I felt the promise of comfort for my own loss, and for the ongoing heartaches of our people.

Many friends offered their solace to me before and after Mom died, assuring me that she would be at the bar mitzvah, no matter what. I know they were right. The day could not have been anything but bittersweet for us, but our pain was somehow balanced by the joy in our son’s rite of passage into Jewish manhood, and by the very distinct sensation of Mom’s spirit filling the room, emanating from her well-deserved seat in the world to come.


Judy Gruen is the award-winning author of
two humor books and a columnist for Religion News Service. Read more of her
columns on www.judygruen.com.

Vanity Body Plates


A few weeks ago, I was shopping at the Beverly Center when a girl who was maybe 12 years old held up a garment and yelled across the store, “Hey, Mom, what about this?”

“This” was a skimpy red T-shirt with the words “porn star” emblazoned across the chest. I was shocked by the shirt, but even more shocked when her mother breezily brought it up to the register. That’s when I noticed that this mom was wearing her own micro-mini T-shirt with the word “bouncy” written in big, bold letters across her chest.

Walking around Los Angeles, I realized I was practically the only woman who didn’t have a slogan on her boobs. There were suggestive ones like “Tasty” and disturbing ones like “Fight Hunger: Anorexia Chic.” Then I started seeing them on women’s sweatpants — across their behinds, to be exact — things like: “Princess,” “Slut,” “Whore,” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “Eat Me,” “Lick Me,” “Bite Me,” “Boy-Beater” and “Airhead.” While my breasts had no signage and my butt sported the low-key “Levi’s,” everyone from preteens to the premenopausal set seemed to personalize their body parts with tag lines like “Juicy,” “Curvy” and “Slippery When Wet.” It used to be that women worried about panty lines — now they worry about what line to post on the back of their pants.

I didn’t get the point. Were these sexual invitations? Were they crib sheets for illiterate gawkers? My friend, Kevin, said they’re more like “vanity body plates.”

Maybe, but where’s the vanity?

I asked a young woman in a T-shirt that read, “Psycho Bitch” why she’d want to wear that.

“It’s empowering!” she replied, in a tone that left the “I mean, like, duh” hanging in the air.

I guess the others I’ve seen recently are also “empowering” — things like “Easy” “Pop My Cherry,” “Schwing,” “Hormonal” and “Buy Me a Diamond Ring.” Recently, Time magazine reported on Jewish pride T-shirts and panties with pithy power-grams like “Jew Lo,” “Jewcy,” “JAP,” “Meshuggenah,” “Yenta,” and “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”

In a show of sisterhood, I tried to give these slogans the benefit of the doubt — to find some sort of, I don’t know, “ironic hipsterness” to them like, “My Other Butt Is a Porsche” or “If You Can Read This, You’re Too Gross.”

A friend suggested that this phenomenon might be a Richard Pryor-esque political statement — you know, taking back the words of the oppressor. Another mentioned the fact that I’d posted a naked picture of myself on the Web for a magazine assignment, and that, while I ultimately found the whole thing silly, I did experience a sense of, well, empowerment. So why was I so outraged that other generally sensible young women would plaster these messages on their own bodies and feel proud? Why did I care that I couldn’t go five blocks without seeing a woman who advertised herself as promiscuous, spoiled, abusive, ditzy, gossipy, or emotionally unstable — all in the name of “empowerment”?

Maybe because it hit too close to home. These were women like me: mothers and daughters who rail against degrading ads, then plaster them instead on their own bodies. I knew I hit rock bottom when a friend wore a glittery “anal” logo over her butt and for a split-second I thought it was funny, a clever reference to her uptight personality. Would a man ever stoop so low? Not a chance. They know how to advertise their gender: “Buff,” “Brawny,” “Six-Million-Dollar Man.” But can anyone imagine a guy walking around town with the word “anal” plastered across his behind?

Recently, while I was jogging in my plain, baggy sweats, I saw a teenager up ahead whose behind boasted, “Messed Up!” Another girl jogged toward me in a T-shirt with bright purple lettering: “Confused!”

Finally, I thought, truth in advertising.


Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is author of the
memoir “Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self” (Simon and Schuster, 2000) and
“Inside the Cult of Kibu: And Other Tales of the Millennial Gold Rush” (Perseus
Books, 2002). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.

Jewish Mom for the Straight Guy


When my father informed me he had scheduled a business trip to Los Angeles and was taking my mother with him about a month after I moved out here, his timing seemed less than coincidental. Both of my parents had been anxiously phoning me on a daily basis since I left New York. The real reason they were coming was to make sure I wasn’t living in a crack house, or at the very least had the decency to choose a Jewish crack house.

Truth be told, I needed them. After all the work that went into finding a suitable apartment and automobile in Los Angeles, I was growing increasingly listless about settling in much further. Even when the weather got colder and I struggled to sleep without a quilt, freezing each night felt preferable to braving the crowds at Bed Bath & Beyond.

Still, I had to be careful what I wished for. From the first minute my parents arrived at my new apartment, my mother began scrutinizing every square inch. As she wandered about steadying crooked picture frames, frowning at price tags and toeing carpet stains, I felt as if she and I were co-starring in the rejected pilot episode of "Jewish Mom for the Straight Guy."

But their visit was not entirely without generosity. When my father told me he was bringing a housewarming gift, my mind immediately raced with a few tantalizing possibilities: That waterbed I’ve been fruitlessly asking for since I was a kid? Not likely. A new car? In my dreams. A welcome mat emblazoned with the family name? Hope there’s a lot of willing Wallensteins on eBay.

So when he handed me a gift-wrapped package about the size of a cigar, I was completely confounded. Removing the wrapping, I unsheathed a mezuzah, the slender religious object Jews affix to their doorposts containing a scroll with excerpts from the Torah.

"It will watch over you," my father suggested.

The mezuzah was about more than providing a surrogate guardian, I realized. My decision to move out of New York City had only accelerated their long-compounding anxiety over my fading religious identity; despite Los Angeles’ heavy Jewish population, I imagine they pictured the city filled entirely with blonde heathens named Heather intent on eternally altering their bloodline. If my parents could fit Mount Sinai itself on a handtruck, they would have had it wheeled into my apartment. A mezuzah was a more practical choice to serve as a constant reminder of my Jewishness.

Had I wanted to distract my parents into forgetting about posting the mezuzah, I probably could have gotten away with it. But like every Jew, strands of guilt are coiled into my DNA’s double helix as tightly as a Chasid’s peyos.

On my parents’ last day in Los Angeles, they stood by as I fastened the mezuzah into place outside the front door of my apartment. Much as I would like to say the spirit of Moses himself swelled within my soul, the hammer, nails and wood actually brought to mind the crucifixion of Jesus.

"Can I ask what you’re doing?" a voice called out from down the hall. My parents and I wheeled around to glimpse the neighbor I had never met who lived three doors away. As if Central Casting had dispatched Hot, Young Los Angeles Neighbor to the never-ending sitcom that is my life, a striking blonde stuck her head out of the apartment, presumably prompted by the banging outside. My parents and I exchanged a helpless look. How were we going to explain a mezuzah?

She ventured out of her apartment for a closer look, which afforded me the opportunity to get a closer look at her blue eyes and tan legs. Fairly certain my parents would not spontaneously combust at that moment no matter how much I might will it, I instantaneously decided they would help me charm her. I turned to my father and asked him to explain the mezuzah, which he did with surprising gusto. I was then reminded of a fact I often forget: my father is also a man, and no man is immune to a friendly, attractive woman.

"Would you like us to install one for you next?" I asked. "Free of charge."

She laughed and even came into my apartment for a quick tour. My parents nervously milled about, watching their worst nightmare unfold in front of their eyes as I flirted with a neighbor who was way too blonde to be Jewish. When she scribbled her phone number on a Post-it before leaving, they simply ignored what transpired in sullen silence.

Not another word has been spoken about the mezuzah since that fateful day; I’d imagine in their mind I might as well have nailed mistletoe to the door. My mezuzah had indeed blessed me, but not in the way they had intended.

My Mommy Dearest


As an unintended consequence of writing this column, I am in my mother’s dog house. I have reported in these pages on my own failings, my father’s shortcomings, my sister’s eccentricities, the foibles of two cousins and the generally bad behavior of several friends. To date, however, my only reference to my own mother has been that she thinks ski clothes make you look fat.

"That woman," as we lovingly refer to her, has thus far escaped my journalistic opprobrium, and she is deeply disappointed. She hates to think that there is a party going on somewhere and her invitation got lost in the mail. She is hurting for ink. I want to do right by her. She is, after all, my mother, and I’ve known her practically all my life.

I could paint a caricature of her as a Jewish mother stepping out of a Woody Allen movie or a Philip Roth novel, complaining and controlling in equal doses, but that’s too easy. Many jokes have been made about these people, but I don’t think they are funny. Not one bit. I am going to delete all those e-mails, and so should you.

My mother does not disapprove of things. She is much, much better than that. She doesn’t have to say a word. Instead, she gives "The Face," which consists of several muscle groups working together — lips purse, nostrils flare, eyebrows arch, eyes widen and brow furrows. All of these happen instantaneously and simultaneously when something is "not right," often accompanied by a telling nod of the head, the kind one might use at Sotheby’s. My sister swears she once saw mom raise her right eyebrow completely over the back of her head. Anything is possible with that woman.

The Face brooks no disagreement. The Face is not open to appeal. Save your breath, Perry Mason. Tell it to the hand, because The Face ain’t listening.

I’d love to get her in a poker game.

I am not necessarily seeking my mother’s approval but, much as I hate to admit it, The Face turns out to be right a disproportionate percentage of the time. Like 97 percent. The problem is that she seems to be getting right more often as I get older — and I know she ain’t getting any hipper. The only good news is that everyone I’ve talked to about this says their mother (or wife) has a Face. If misery loves company, I take solace in knowing I am not alone.

She’s getting better, sort of. My sister was house hunting recently and mom went along. They saw a dozen places, one of which was a possibility. Julie asked her opinion. "I don’t want to be judgmental," she began.

"You? Now? For 40 consecutive years you were remarkably free with your opinion. I didn’t necessarily want to hear it — in fact I never wanted to hear it — but now that I’m asking for your opinion in a life-altering situation, you suddenly don’t want to be judgmental?"

You will believe me when I tell you she’s a bit of a nut job, but a loveable one (think of Gracie Allen). Mom let Keith Richards try on one of her diamond earrings at a dinner. Today, my mother gave me a can of chicken broth and a mango. She practically threw them at me as I beat a hasty retreat to my car and yelled, "We have chicken broth in the 323 area code, mother!"

I recently met a friend who had just come from seeing the ballet. I told him, "I don’t get the ballet. It’s not like a basketball game; no one is trying to stop them. There’s no opposition; there’s no enemy." My friend took a moment and explained that, "the enemy is ugliness. The opposition is gracelessness. Look around you."

Ballanchine famously said, "Ballet is women," but I think he specifically meant my mother. My mother is the ballet. She is graciousness personified. Her political platform is beauty. Her religion is kindness. You don’t want to challenge that woman to a gracious face-off. She writes thank-you notes to people who send her thank-you notes. She has been known to give presents to people on her birthday.

She is the first to arrive when someone is in the hospital, armed with flowers and a smile. If someone passes away, she shows up like Mary Poppins, with a platter from Nate ‘n’ Al’s. She is an army of one, a friend in need and in deed.

A friend of hers has Alzheimer’s disease. It is, of course, a terrible thing to see this person deteriorate. Mom turned to me and said, "if it comes to that, please shoot me."

"Okay," I said, nonchalantly. "I’m free around 3 o’clock."

Off to School


At his aufruf, Shana Kramer’s oldest son stood up in front of all his rebbes at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore and said, "It would be impossible for me to thank everyone that I have to thank for bringing me to this point, but there is someone I have to thank publicly because she stood there and cried every time I left the house to go back to yeshiva." He was talking about his mother, and the experience of sending her son away for high school, was, as Kramer, 52, put it, "Like taking my heart out of me and stomping on it."

Hyperbole aside, Kramer’s experiences as a mother who sent her children away to high school are echoed by many parents in Los Angeles’ religious community. According to Rabbi Yaakov Krause, the principal of Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath Emeth Academy, the largest ultra-Orthodox elementary school in Los Angeles, every year at least 15 percent of Torath Emeth parents will send their boys to out-of-town yeshivot for high school. A few years back, it was as many as 40 percent, and even though today more parents are opting to keep their children in Los Angeles for high school, there is still a significant number of students who leave the community to seek Torah learning in other places.

Members of the Orthodox community are quick to point out that the phenomenon of sending children away is an old Jewish tradition. "In the Bible, Isaac and Rebecca sent young Jacob away to learn for many years," said Rabbi Dr. David Fox, a clinical psychologist. "In the Diaspora, for hundreds of years in Ashkenazic and Sephardic countries, where many towns did not have schools and institutions, the parents had to send their children away." Fox, who is on the graduate faculty of USC and is involved in rabbinic education and service, has parents consult him on the issue of sending their children away nearly 30 times a year.

The reasons for sending children away are varied. Many parents want their children to attend their own alma maters. "We chose Ner Israel because my husband is an alumnus, and we knew many of the staff members," Kramer said.

Moreover, in the ultra-Orthodox world, there is a certain cachet attached to large rabbinic academies outside of Los Angeles — places like the Ner Israel Rabbinical College of Baltimore — and both parents and students want the prestige and the learning that is associated with those yeshivot. "Most of the time the desire to travel far is fostered by the student himself, who has his eye on a particular type of study," Fox said. "In the secular world, a child is motivated to get into Harvard, Yale or MIT. In the religious world, you will have a child who is attracted to a particular style of yeshiva or seminary."

While attending the Harvard of yeshivot is a draw, many parents also feel that the schools in Los Angeles — places like Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles or the Calabasas Yeshiva — will not provide their boys with the yeshiva education experience that they need. Parents want their boys to have the experience of total immersion in Torah study, away from the luxuries and pampering of Los Angeles. "There is a degree of camaraderie and academic intensity that dormitory life in an out-of-town yeshiva or seminary can afford the young man which the home setting or local school does not always provide," Fox said.

"I think that people really want their boys to have the experience of living away from home in a yeshiva where there are no distractions," Kramer said. "For example, there might be a television in the home that the parents are carefully monitoring, but they want their boys to have a purely spiritual time, and to get away from the daily newspaper. If they really want them to have a total immersion, then a local yeshiva will not fit the bill."

Others think that although the yeshivas in Los Angeles are fine institutions, they do not have what it takes to keep the students in town. "What we need is a rosh yeshiva who has a proven track record with a national reputation that will be able to retain and to draw boys to a beit midrash [house of study]. That is what our goal is," said Benny Westreich.

Westreich, 49, is a lawyer, and although he and his wife chose not to send their boys away to yeshiva, he has been working for several years to try and attract what he calls a world-class rosh yeshiva to Los Angeles. "We do have a really terrible balance of trade, because we export really successful boys to high schools [out of town]," he said. "We have zero coming in, and we have a heck of a lot going out."

Rabbi Eliezer Gross, the principal of Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, believes that there is no real reason to send boys out of town to yeshiva. "I don’t think there is a difference in the quality of education that the boys receive," Gross told The Journal.

For the boys themselves, being sent out of town can be a maturing, stimulating, but often difficult experience, more so when they are sent away at a younger age. They often become homesick, and have trouble adjusting to life in the dormitories. For this reason Fox recommends that if parents have any doubt about the child’s maturity, they should keep him home as long as possible.

"I certainly do get consultative phone calls with regard to some Los Angeles students who are living in dormitories out of town," he said. "I get called by the principal or the dean saying that they are concerned about the way a youngster is developing. But in the past few years, many of the yeshivas have taken onto the staff a mental health consultant to oversee the curriculum and to help homesick or anxious youngsters adjust to the atmosphere. And, it is not as if we are talking about a Charles Dickens situation."

Elliot Mandelbaum, 18, is someone who believed that the Torah pastures were greener elsewhere. He left Yeshiva University High School Los Angeles (YULA) in 11th grade against his parents’ better wishes to study in Yeshiva Toras Moshe in Jerusalem. He was already in the highest shiur (class) at YULA, and he was ready for more intense studies.

"I felt that of the yeshivas that I was looking at for the way I wanted to go, this was the best one. In Israel, I am away from everything, with less distractions, and it is easier to learn," he said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.

Mandelbaum has a rigorous schedule in the yeshiva. The school requires him to learn 10 hours day, but in practice, he studies for 12 1/2 hours a day, often not leaving until after midnight.

But he suffers none of the anxieties that might plague other young yeshiva students, and he has no regrets about the choice he made to leave Los Angeles. "I am very happy with the decision I made to attend this yeshiva," he said. "I think it was the best decision."

Childhood’s Sweet Sharp Imprint


It is summer, a long time ago, and I am lying on a terrace overlooking an ancient garden full of rosebushes and fruit trees. The days have been so hot, the asphalt on the sidewalk melts under my feet if I dare step out of the house. At night, the temperature drops. My sisters and I take the hose to the yard and stand there as the day’s heat rises out of the brick floor in a cloud of white steam. My mother spreads our bed on the terrace, and we crawl into it, hours before we can actually fall asleep. We thrash about in the cool sheets that smell of dust, summer and lavender bleach; listen to the music that drifts up from our grandmother’s radio downstairs; eat fresh mulberries we have picked from the tree in our own yard.

Our mother, 16 years old when she had her first child, has already lived a lifetime by 20. She is so young that she can play with us all day without losing her patience, so old she knows a thousand tales from a thousand lives already spent.

"Tell us a story," I ask, and she does.

"There is a girl," she says, "so fair, boys follow her home from school just to get a glimpse of her on the way, so kind, she cries at the sight of poor children begging on the streets of Tehran. Her mother has to buy her shoes every week because she keeps giving them away to kids who come to school barefoot. Once, she gives her uniform to a girl who doesn’t have one and walks home herself in her undershirt.

"Who is this girl?" I ask.

"My sister," she says.

"What happened to her?"

"She died of typhoid fever. Her spirit became a white butterfly and came back to visit our house every year."

The summers in Tehran are long and slow and smeared with boredom. I play cowboys and Indians in the yard with my sisters. My mother teaches me to cook rice, to embroider white handkerchiefs. My teachers have given me homework for all three months of vacation: "Copy the text and the drawings of entire books, word for word, including title and copyright pages. It’s good for your penmanship," they say. "It’s even better for your parents’ peace of mind. "

Sometimes my parents take us to the seashore in the North. We get up in the dark, four in the morning, so we can be there by sunrise. My sisters and I haven’t slept all night from excitement. We drive out of the city and into the mountains beyond. We cross passes so narrow, one false move would land the car at the bottom of a valley. We go through emerald jungles, past crystal waterfalls, across golden rice fields. On the other side, we can smell the sea.

"Tell us a story," we ask my mother in the car.

"There is a woman," she says, "so alone, she lives in a single room in the basement of a house in a town no one visits. She’s not old, but she’s beaten, not mute, but she won’t talk. She sits in her room all day and embroiders white handkerchiefs, signing her name and a blue butterfly in the corner. She has embroidered so many handkerchiefs, her room is overrun by them, stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall. In her youth she had been so beautiful, her father used to hide her for fear of avid suitors, so cherished, her mother braided her hair into a dozen strands, then tied each braid with a golden coin. But she fell in love with a man who wasn’t a Jew, and she ran away with him, and when he became old and died, she could not go home to her own people anymore.

"What are the handkerchiefs for?" I ask.

"To dry her tears," she says, "over her sorrow for leaving her home."

In the fall, my mother sends us to school wrapped in coats and shawls and too many sweaters.

"Eat your lunch and keep your sweater on," she says every morning. "Pay attention in class and study hard. You have to go to college, get a job, have a career. A woman is nothing if she doesn’t have a job. Most of all, though, remember not to take your sweater off."

Years later, in America, my son will call her "the sweater police."

"Why does Giti always make me wear sweaters?" he asks, and I find that the answer is on the tip of my tongue, embedded in my consciousness, ready to pour out.

All winter, we walk through snow piled knee-high on the streets to get to school. At home, we do homework till the late hours of the night, watch "Days of Our Lives" on television once a week, eat salami sandwiches on white bread with pickles. My father’s relatives visit every week, sometimes every day. A few of them live with us year-long; a few stay for months at a time. An uncle leaves for Canada with $700 in his pockets and will become one of the richest men in the world. Another uncle sits by a brazier day and night and smokes something I am told is tobacco. My older sister listens to Barry White albums and declares she is going to live in Europe, or America, or anywhere people make that kind of music. My younger sister plays with Barbie dolls and speaks French like a native. I linger around the house, watching my mother and the people she interacts with, listening to their conversations, recording their emotions.

"I am going to send you to Europe to study," my mother declares. "You’d better get good grades and go to a good college. A woman needs higher education, independence, freedom."

I am 13 years old. I must have gotten good grades because I’m about to leave for Europe. My mother buys me a suitcase full of new clothes. She gives me a bracelet made of gold, my name carved on the plate. The day before I am to leave, her own grandmother, the famous Peacock, comes to say goodbye. She’s 80 years old by her own account, 110 by others’. She walks around the streets of Tehran dressed in layers of pink and red and yellow chiffon, her head covered with a scarf, her hair dyed with henna and tied in braids. She gives advice whether you asked for it or not. She tells my mother that birth control is a sin — especially if you are preventing the birth of a boy. She says antibiotics kill people. She says divorce is madness: "A husband," she says, "is like a crown of jewels. With it, a woman is a queen. Without it, she’s nothing but a woman."

She should know, I think. She divorced her own husband a thousand years ago, refused to go back, made a life for herself selling jewels to women with husbands.

In our dining room that day, she puts her hands in her pockets and scoops out fistfuls of color.

"Look here," she says, letting a string of jewels — diamonds and rubies and sapphires the color of the night — roll off her hands and onto the table. "You can pick what you like."

Through the years of school in Europe and later in the United States, I carry these stories, the voices of the people who spoke them, the mystery that surrounded them, as if they were an arm’s-reach away. In America, I hear different versions of the same truths. I discover facts that my mother had censored in her long-ago tales, I come to conclusions that she will neither deny nor confirm. I find humor, tragedy, drama. I even learn what the great-uncle really smoked in that pipe.

When my stories are published, my mother goes to every one of my readings and brings along her entire family. She reads all the reviews, checks the best-seller lists every week, buys copies of the book at every store in town. She gives the books to her friends, her hairdresser, her kosher butcher, the Israeli Minister of Defense. She brings them to me to autograph before she gives them away. "Write something good," she says. "Make it personal."

I am signing books by the dozen, wondering how to get personal with the butcher, what the Israeli Defense Minister will think of my tales of women who cry into tear-jars and men who balance gold coins at the tips of their male organs.

"Who’s buying all these books?" a reporter asks me when the sales figures show up.

"My mother and my sisters," I say, and the woman laughs, thinking it must be a joke.

But then the dust settles, and the excitement wears off, and my mother actually begins to read this book she has a thousand copies of. She calls me daily to tell me what I got wrong, what I have neglected to mention, what I should have left out. She asks other people what they thought of the book. Everyone has an opinion, especially those who have not read it and do not intend to. They, in fact, are most convinced of what I should and should not have put in these stories, and my mother records their thoughts and repeats them to me loyally.

As if to help her along, my friends confront me and say they never knew what kinds of thoughts circled in my mind. Strangers come up to me at parties and complain that they cried reading a passage, that they were pregnant when they read the book, that crying is bad for pregnant women. American audiences come to my readings and ask me specific questions about individual Iranian neighbors and business partners — as if being Iranian has given me a window into the mind of each and every one of my countrymen, as if we are all the same — predictable and uniform as they have imagined us to be.

I should be writing by consensus, I think. I should take a poll before I start my next book.

This is what I want to say to my readers, what I have tried to conferee in the books: that we are all one and the same — Iranians and Americans and everyone in between; that with a bit of luck, perhaps a bit of skill, I can tell a tale, however personal, which will resonate with readers as foreign to me and my culture as they want to be. That it will resonate with them and remind them of their own lives and bring us, neighbors and strangers alike, together.

It’s spring, just before Mother’s Day, and my mother has called.

"Sign one more book for the rabbi at my temple," she says. "Write something good. Make it personal. I’m coming over to pick it up."

I hang up the phone and watch my children, dressed down to their T-shirts, scramble around the house, looking for their sweaters.

Happy Mother’s Day


Dear Mom,

I write to you again this Mother’s Day. But this time, a little wiser and more grateful for you; more grateful because now I have two children of my own. Watching each of our babies emerge, seeing how they passed through Betsy to the waiting world in a sheer, painful, exquisite act of will – knowing how badly they were wanted, how miraculous their journey, has taught me about you and your love for me. Some days I think of Betsy and me as heroes for trying to raise two kids – then I remember that you and dad raised five. I took out my calculator and did a little figuring:

At six per day, for 2 1/2 years per child, you changed 27,375 diapers. You made over 150 trips to the pediatrician, not to mention the dermatologists, allergists and orthodontists. At three per year, per child for 18 years you bought over 300 pairs of shoes, not to mention skates, cleats and flippers.

At even just two meals a day, six days a week per family member for each of the years any of us kids lived at home, you served 183,960 plates of food, not including all the school lunches you packed or the years that our relatives who were fleeing the communist takeover in Chile lived with us – making it 11 for dinner every night.

I hear a lot of jokes about Jewish women, how spoiled and selfish they are. None of them make sense when I think of you. Having my own children I now look back at your life as a young parent and I know that the money wasn’t always there – that dad couldn’t be home much, that you drank five cups of coffee a day just to keep going. I know that you often suffered terrible, blinding headaches; that your parents were of no help to you; and that you put a lot of your own wants aside to keep a husband, five kids, relatives, several dogs, birds, fish, frogs and salamanders so well fed, so well cared for – so well loved.

By the way, I realize that tough as it was, the cooking, cleaning and schlepping was the easy part. The hard part was trying to raise your children to be – for lack of a better word – mensches. I’m not sure how you did it, mom, but watching Betsy with our two children has given me a clue – I think it comes down to sheer and constant love.

Do you remember the time I played airplane pilot on your sewing machine and accidentally turned it into a mass of broken parts and tangled thread? Or when, as an awkward 16-year-old, I mistook the accelerator for the brake and accidentally drove your car through the garage and into the kitchen?

“He thought it was a drive-in restaurant,” you joked with family and friends. You made me feel so much better, so much less foolish. You always forgave my awkwardness. You were my refuge from the pressures and agonies of a world founded upon performance. Even now, I can come to you with my failures, my bruised ego, my skinned and scrapped self-image, and know I’m still your little boy, still worthy, still safe. You know what else I loved about you when I was growing up, mom? You always believed me, even when I was lying. Through getting arrested for shoplifting, getting kicked out of camp for smoking, rock ‘n’ roll bands in the basement, failing algebra, fracturing Tommy Murphy’s collar bone, having my heart broken at 22 by a woman I loved and three months later dating a woman poet 15 years older than I and a year later dating a female weight lifter, followed by my surprise engagement to Betsy on our second date, you believed in my goodness. You always believed I would somehow turn out right. Your faith in me demanded my own self-respect. Your trust made me want to do the right thing even when I wasn’t. How does a son thank his mother for believing in him?

The older I become, the more I watch my own children, the more I realize what a difference your faith in me, what a difference your love has made in my life.

It’s hard for a rabbi to have any pretty illusions about life. Which is all the more reason why I am writing you this letter. In this week’s portion the Torah forbids us to separate a baby animal from its mother too soon. To that I say, how much more so for human beings. I have seen so many lose their mothers this year, and there’s a sadness in them that I know will never leave; so many for whom the “Kaddish” is no longer a mere collection of words. None of us gets to hold on to our mothers forever. How well I know it.That bit of Torah and this Sunday are reminders; reminders to thank God for a mother’s love, for your love, for mothers everywhere. Because it seems to me that the truly lost and lonely in this nervous, unkind world of ours – the shattered and the hopeless among us – got that way because they never had what you managed to give every one of your children; the certainty, the warmth, the breath of unfailing love.Happy Mother’s Day, mom. I love you.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” published by Behrman House.

Seasons


The warm-up room at the “Y” where I exercise is right next door to the children’s playroom. While I perform a sun salutation, I hear a little girl calling out in a tiny excited voice.

“Can I have one? I want one!”

For a second, I recognize her voice, and so, though I haven’t a clue what “one” is, I can picture what’s going on. She’s referring to a red or blue fat plastic donut. Or a thick salted pretzel. Or a four-inch cardboard box of juice with a tiny clear straw. The little girl, who sounds no older than 18 months, (but am I certain that 18 months yammers while 24 months speaks clearly? Have I lost my instinctive baby calendar by which parents tell time?) wants one. Certainly this Sarah or Rachel or Sadie is somewhere dangerously near the Terrible Twos, having reached the stage of knowing that desire is all. Without our wants, we don’t grow. Who wouldn’t want “one?”

I left my own little girl in that room, not so long ago. As I do my stretches, flowing up and down in a satisfying rhythm, all time has merged. The past and the future pour into the now. I have moved from “The Wheels on the Bus” to “Bach Motets” in 60 seconds.

I’m so happy now I didn’t miss out. We did the “Mommy and Me,” and the “Kindergym” and the library story hour. I have nothing to regret, but plenty to miss.

It’s the feeling of missing that is so strange. It comes on warm as bath water, not with saccharine sentimentality, but more like a sweet amnesia. I mislaid my daughter some place, the daughter of her youth. Sometimes I feel certain that I made a mistake. I am sure that it’s my daughter I’m hearing through the wall, demanding her juice. She’s wearing a blue-check dress and carrying her doll with the blonde yarn hair, not her jeans and college-bound backpack. I left her there, minutes rather than years ago.

The “Y” dressing room adjoins the pool. As I shower and dress, I hungrily observe the beautiful young mothers and their babies, stretching themselves into bathing suits, ready for a swim. I stare so hard, at the baby thighs with extra flesh, and the hands that artlessly grab and pull. Perhaps, the moms think that I’m a woman in sorrow, pining for missed chances. Not at all. I’m visiting what I had. Their ultra-modern strollers are huge, like SUVs, front-loaded with a whole gym full of toys and rings, and take up the entire aisle between the lockers. I am jealous for one.

I took my own little girl here, to swim in this very pool. At 6 months old, Samantha was already doing laps in Baby Swim class. Together we smelled of chlorine and applesauce and love. I pulled a brush through her wet hair. We had a little tippy-cup, with a lid, when she was learning how to sip without spilling. Did I leave it here, I wonder? Did she somehow crawl away? Is she still in the pool, paddling without me?

Merle Feld’s poem, “jewish mother,” part of her lovely new book, “A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey,” (SUNY Press) begins like this:

“please don’t let me feed you/let it be me/that pleases/not the food.”

Feld has it right. A Jewish mother, no doubt like all mothers, lives in a crazy incongruity with her desires. I want to love to be acknowledged, seen, known. But I am destined to be defined largely by whether there is milk in the fridge.

But it’s funny how the leaves of our lives change color, how we in our families adapt to each other’s climate, over time. When my daughter was young, she bought her lunch at school with pre-paid tickets; better than my sandwiches, she said. Now, I send her off with paper bags filled with Tupperware, leftovers and apples, touchstones of home. As she leaves I whisper, “Let it be me that pleases, not the food.”

With this week, we begin a new season; the last semester of high school has begun.

“How’s it going?” I ask my friend Debra, the mother of another senior.

“It’s going too fast!”

So maybe that’s why I see my daughter everywhere these days. The Bygone Girl, is how I think of her. I see my daughter in the mall, as she looked at 12 or 10 or 15. And I’ll wonder, did I leave that girl behind? Did I drop her off only yesterday, at the library, at the middle-school, at the volleyball court? No, she’s just moved on, while part of me has stayed put.

The heart of the parent is a living museum, where ancient memories still grow and dwell.

Anticipating the next season of autonomy, I’m looking for a car. In a panic, I realize that I have no need for something big. Once the car had to be a four-door, with room for a child-seat in the back. And a huge trunk, to fit a bike with training wheels. Today, I can be like my friend Joe, whose daughter will graduate next year. He bought a Porsche, a two-seater.

But I can’t rush anything. I’m pushing fast enough. The seasons pile up on me like commuter traffic. I want to go slow.


Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of “A Woman’s Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life.”

Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com

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Her book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through Amazon.com.

Having Fun Is No Picnic


It is Saturday night, and I’m determined to have a good time.

Realizing that I never have fun and thinking that it would probably be a good idea, I decide to go out to a bar with some friends. One shows up at my house, and since she’s “out of gas,” I offer to drive. On the way, she needs to be taken to the Burger King drive-thru and the ATM. All of a sudden, I’m a soccer mom and it’s car-pool night.

When we get to The Frolic Room, a funky old bar in Hollywood, I think: “Now I’m going to have fun. If you can’t enjoy yourself in a place with ‘frolic’ in it’s name, you’ve got problems.”

Getting my drink was an experience I can only compare to being in a bread line in Communist Russia. Finally, I get my overpriced martini and end up crammed in a corner, where I clutch my purse and yell over the unconscionably loud music. Everywhere I look, people seem to be enjoying themselves. My inner monologue is all of a sudden in the voice of my Aunt Ida: “This is fun? Better I should have stayed home.”

There are some things that come easily to me — parallel parking, for example. But as long as I can remember, I’ve never been much good at having fun.

I remember my mom’s last words every time I, as a teen-ager, went out to a party: “Have a good time,” she’d yell down the stairs, almost pleadingly, the way some mothers would yell, “Be home by midnight.” Looking back, I realize that she verbalized what for most people would have been a given, because “having a good time” isn’t something that comes naturally to either of us. It’s something we have to try at.

Like my mother, I worry and stew more than I let go. Getting swept up in some sort of euphoric good time is something that rarely happens. Sure, from time to time, factors collude to provide me a momentary feeling of abandon, but it’s not something I’ve ever been able to plan, which is why amusement parks and birthdays are among my least favorite things. Fun for me always comes as a surprise eruption, an unexpectedly great talk over breakfast and six cups of coffee at a diner, the perfect song on the radio while I’m driving the last stretch of a long road trip, a giggle fit with a friend over something silly.

According to the old Funk & Wagnalls, fun is a “pleasant diversion or amusement; lighthearted playfulness.” This definition is followed by the phrase, “Picnics are fun.”

If only it were that simple. My definition of fun looks more like the equation for photosynthesis. For fun to occur, all my emotional ducks have to be in a row. There has to be a clean mental slate, meaning no calls to return, no problems looming, no personal relationships in distress, no column due on Monday morning, the planets in perfect alignment. So, theoretically, a picnic could be fun, but only about one day a year.

This may be a gender difference. I think men, in general, are better at the kind of abandon that requires repressing or ignoring mental background noise. My dad, for example, could have fun just hiking with his dog and spotting a rabbit, or biting into a particularly shiny, red apple. That man could have fun at an IRS audit. I’ve actually seen him enjoy himself at a funeral.

It’s also possible that some people, male or female, might just have a keener ability to enjoy a “pleasant diversion,” the way some people have good hand-eye coordination or double-jointed thumbs.

Anyway, I think there are things more fun than “fun.” There’s involvement in a difficult task, fulfillment, striving, achieving a sense of peace, self-expression. I seem to be OK at some of those things, so maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad that I can’t cut loose in a crowded bar. And don’t even get me started on picnics.


Teresa Strasser is a twenty something contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.

The Editor’s Corner


My mother is87. Or is it 90? As long as I can remember, I thought that she hadbeen born in 1910, was named Miriam Euffa, and brought here from Kievas a 5-year-old by parents who were educated, and who had been partof what must have been a turn-of-the-century minority: theRussian-Ukrainian Jewish professional class. Now Medicare tells methat her Social Security card lists her year of birth as 1907.

At this point, I ask myself, what difference canit make? My mother has Alzheimer’s. The disease has ushered her intoa realm where days, weeks, years hardly seem to matter. Until just afew days ago, she resided in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where shewas recovering from pneumonia (which she apparently contracted aftershe broke her hip and underwent surgery at Midway Hospital inJanuary, followed by three weeks of physical therapy at the BeverlyHills Rehabilitation Center in February).

Thanks to her two-month period of extended stay inthese three separate medical facilities, I have become knowledgeable(and dismayed) about hospital life for the elderly. I have watched mymother move rapidly from living as a woman who was mobile,semi-independent and trapped in the early stages of Alzheimer’s tosomeone who is now a patient, stripped bare, functioning in a stateof helplessness, or what a doctor described as delusionalpsychosis.

Is this a natural decline, one in which the bodymalfunctions and the Alzheimer’s mind quickly follows suit? Or is it,in some large measure, a fallout from our cutting-edge,multimillion-dollar corporate hospital system? I have come to believethat this health-care system, with the best intentions in the world,failed me and the aging parent I turned over to their highlyspecialized care.

I know, this could just be my way of release, anexpression of despair, depression and, yes, an underlying ragebursting through after months of frustration. My mother enteredCedars because she had been overmedicated and had become highlyagitated. Once she was admitted, Cedars’ proficient medical expertisecame into play: Tests were given; X-rays taken; new medicationprescribed. It became evident that several weeks earlier, either atMidway or at the Beverly Hills Rehab Center, water had settled in herlungs. She had contracted pneumonia, but it had not shown up before,or else no one had noticed.

Treatment for pneumonia moved into high gear, but,in the process, her mind became more disoriented. Medication for herdementia became a hit-and-miss affair as doctors struggled valiantlyto find a combination of drugs and a proper dosage that would serveher (and the nurses) well. And I rediscovered what had begun to dawnon me earlier– namely, that the operating procedures at all threemedical facilities ran counter to my mother’s particular needs. Toput it bluntly, while the pneumonia was checked, her mental stateslipped radically. She needed individual care, and that apparentlywas outside the hospitals’, and the rehabilitation center’s, range ofcaregiving — in part for budgetary (read financial) concerns, inpart for organizational reasons. Had I known then the limitations andconsequences of her hospital care, I would have limited her stay ineach medical institution to a bare minimum.

The catalog of breakdowns over the two months hasbeen extensive, but I will cite only a few. At Cedars, for example,someone had been inattentive and let my mother struggle out of bedalone. She has no short-term memory and, so, is unaware that shecannot yet walk. The result: She fell on her head. A quick trip toX-ray revealed that this 90-pound 90-year-old sustained only a bump,soreness and some swelling. No concussion, no broken neck or hip, nosevere damage. And no immediate or direct communication withme.

In part, because of this fear for her safety, thenursing staff began tying her down in a quite effective way: arestraining band across her chest and, at times, her feet strapped tothe ends of the bed frame. I walked in once at Cedars to find herscreaming frantically for help, unclear where she was (she thoughtprison) or why these people had tied her down and locked the door.She was agitated and terrified. And convinced that the nurses wereplotting against her. Why else would they treat her this way?

The nurses were clearsighted about the answers.First, she was “restrained” to protect her from falling and breakingher hip again. Second, the door was closed because she made too muchnoise, calling for assistance or simply asking for attention. Inshort, she was a nuisance, and there was neither time nor staff tofill these needs of hers. She was being protected for her own good,to be sure, but there was a strong likelihood, as her doctorsverified to me, that she also was being driven mad.

“The reality is,” explained one of the nurses, “weare not equipped to give patients one-on-one care. Someone like yourmother needs an available nurse around the clock. We don’t providethat.” Hire private nurses, one of her doctors advised me. Eitherthat or send the family to care for her.

The difficulty appears to be that the system inplace is designed for maintaining order and organizationalefficiency, for diagnosing and treating illness, for deliveringbabies and removing someone’s appendix, for heart surgery andrespiratory ailments, but not necessarily for the individual care ofthose elderly who require personal attention. “Get your mother out ofhere as soon as possible,” a staff member at the rehab centerconfided to me when I complained that my mother’s needs were oftenignored and that her bed often reeked of urine. “This place hasexcellent facilities and people for physical therapy,” I was told,”but is totally unprepared to deal with Alzheimer patients.”

The problem largely has to do with money. Theresimply are not enough funds available to cover one-on-one nursingcare. Or at least it is not given high enough priority. Hospitals arestruggling to raise dollars in order to provide decent medical care.Medicare payments barely scratch the surface of costs andexpenses.

Fault also lies with the nursing system that hasbeen put in place. Nurses rotate on 12-hour shifts and are assignedeight or nine different rooms and patients each shift. What they arenot given is a set of individual men and women whom they follow fromadmission to release. The process works against the possibility thatnurses will become familiar with the rhythm of a patient’s life, orthat they will empathize or bond with anyone in their care. It makesfor impersonality when precisely the opposite is often desperatelyneeded for many seniors.

It also leads to a reporting system that isparticularistic but rarely complete. Nurses can only report todoctors what they have observed during their shift: percentage offood eaten, medication taken, a rasping cough, agitation. But thereis little intimate linking of these facts to the rise and fall of apatient’s mood, spirits or progress. When I made these observationsto a doctor, he exclaimed, wearily, that he had been fighting thatbattle (in vain, he implied) for more than 10 years.

One evening, when I slept in my mother’s room, Iheard a woman crying for help. She was half awake, half asleep nextdoor. I looked to see if a nurse was available. Yes. Someone was atthe nursing station, another nurse in the corridor. I went back tobed. But the cries — a constant moan now from a wan, elderly,delirious woman — continued. It had become half plea, half chant. Islipped into her room, touched her forehead and held her hand. Shequieted. What she seemed to want was assurance that she was notalone, abandoned in some strange, twilight world.

In fairness, I should add that not all the nursesare inured to the plight of patients or exhibitthis form ofdistance. Two, in particular, who pulled a shift with my mother –Marlene Williams and Daisy da Silva — responded to her in verycaring ways. But then I discovered they were LVNs (licensedvocational nurses), subordinate to the RNs. They had not had time, Ithought, to be subsumed by the system.

Then there are the physicians. They are the Lordsof the Manor, but, alas, mostly visiting Lords. The doctors I came toknow at Cedars, those responsible for my mother’s well-being — JayJordan, a cardiologist and her main physician; Ronald J. Davidson, apsychiatrist and her geriatric doctor; and Martin Gordon, a pulmonaryspecialist (along with Isaac Schmidt, her surgeon from MidwayHospital) — were all splendid, top-of-the-line, well-trained, caringand straightforward. No sentimentalizing, no euphemisms. Concernedfor their patient and concerned for me.

The gap between them and the daily life of thehospital — where, for the most part, they diagnose and prescribe forpatients and seem to function somewhat like specialized consultants– is enormous. They speak to the relevant nurses, who implement thecare, but who manage patients according to rotational shifts.

What gets passed along then are literal messages,often by telephone: Do this; stop that; change the medication. Allwritten down and passed along from one nurse to another. The rest,the details, the context, the exceptions, the parenthetical asides,the possibility that something may be amiss outside the illness thatis being treated, these all fall between the cracks. There are fewlengthy exchanges — little in the way of discussion.

It will probably come as no surprise to you thatabove and beyond the hospital bills, which Medicare and my mother’ssecondary insurance mainly covered, I hired two private caregiverswho agreed to look after my mother in the hospital, each taking a12-hour shift six days a week. They were not registered nurses,though they had considerable experience caring for seniors,particularly those with Alzheimer’s. The doctors listened attentively(and with gratitude) to their comments on my mother’s health andstate of being, for these caregivers became the best and mostconsistent guide to her moods, her behavior and her health — eventhough they were outside the hospital’s regimen and were notofficially accountable or responsible for her medicaltreatment.

I realize after the fact that what I had set upwas a process of caring for the sick and dying outside the legalentity we call a hospital. Actually, it is a practice I firstobserved more than 30 years ago, when I was a young journalist inWest Africa. There, I witnessed a handful of overworked well-traineddoctors ministering to more people than seemed humanly manageable.Alongside them, an overwhelmed cadre of nurses, not trained well byour standards, tried their best to render patient care underconditions that would never pass muster in the United States.

But every family shared the burden of caring fortheir sisters, brothers, parents, nieces and nephews by moving intothe hospital room. They remained there until it was possible to bringtheir relative home — or until death silenced everyone. It is ironicto me that in the midst of high-powered multimillion-dollar medicalinstitutions, great and wonderful and humane complexes, complete withsuperbly trained doctors, that is where I now find myself.

Early last week, I spoke to my mother’s doctors.Was there any point in keeping her in the hospital? I asked. Couldshe not just as easily be ill at home? Perhaps with more dignity? Andperhaps with more personal attention, since the two women who tendedher in the hospital will take turns living and caring for her. And ifshe is dying, is it not more humane to let her live her last monthsin her apartment, surrounded by familiar objects and personal voices,than in a hospital room? A place where we can all eat and laughtogether, touching her and letting her eavesdrop on us as we play outthe cycle of our lives?

Their answers were rational, direct, filled withcommon sense. Last Saturday, I removed my mother from the hospital.We carted home an oxygen connector and a backup tank. — GeneLichtenstein, Editor

For a story with a happier ending, see WendyMadnik’s description of The Jewish Home for the Aging.


Of Goddesses and Saints


In the aftermath of thedeaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, every woman I know hasparticipated in some version of “The Goddess or the Saint.” We’vetaken sides, debated our husbands and boyfriends, our mothers, ourfriends. At Torah study last Saturday, we weighed the two women interms of a moral dilemma: The princess or the nun, the glamour or thegrit. Our choice of icons defines our lives.

But beyond psychodrama, my response to the deathsof Princess Diana and Mother Teresa is not about either/or. I’m notlooking to them for meaning or relevance to my days. Instead, Irespond to these two women primarily as a mother of a teen-age girl.And my bottom line is, as a role model, I’d choose neither: Iwouldn’t wish on my daughter the life of either one of them.

I don’t want Samantha to be as famous, asbeautiful, as sought after, as besieged, as critiqued, as confused asour departed Cinderella. The cost of glamour is too high. Nor do Iwant her to be as selfless, as holy, as driven or, yes, as pious asthe 87-year-old saint from India. Devotion has its perils too.

From the prism of parenthood, I’m asking: Arethese two icons fitting role models for a sensitive young woman?Could I really place my daughter in front of their lives and say,”There, go follow?” No, no way.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Jewish mother that I’vecome to dread life at the edge. Judaism has no saints, no nuns, nomonks, no superstars; it exalts no one. A normal life without Jobianpersecution is blessing enough for us. A normal life, I was taught,means working hard, but not too hard; pursuing justice, but notdriving ourselves into poverty. A life grounded in the here andnow.

But normal life was not what these women wereabout. Ultimately, Diana belonged to no one. She had no immediatefamily, no religious community (the Anglican Church apparently readher out of its prayers after the divorce), no homeland. Rumor had itthat she was moving to New York, or wherever. Her new love, DodiFayed, though nominally of Moslem descent, belonged to no country orculture; he spent a lifetime jumping from resort to resort, hotelroom to hotel room, woman to woman. Diana and Dodi were spiritualvagabonds, having nothing in common but love. She had money, gownsand even a new sense of self, but by the time her car crashed in thetunnel, she was cast adrift from her moorings.

Mother Teresa, from the opposite end of thespiritual spectrum, was also essentially alone. She had a spiritualfaith, a community, identity and purpose. All things that I hope mydaughter will cherish. But I would not wish on her the weight of sucha burden.

The need for balance, the danger of life at theextremes, is the hardest lesson a parent can teach. Certainly, I wasa difficult student myself. In my teens, only slightly older thanSamantha is now, I craved a life of excitement, romance, intrigue,professional advancement and intellectual idiosyncrasy. I eschewedmarriage, family and sought novelty. I thought I’d travel widely andnever stop.

At the same time, almost in the same breath, Iwanted work that would be a “passion,” a career that wouldn’t let mesleep, that haunted me with its creative demands. I didn’t care if Imade a living, so long as I helped change the world.

And I got what I wanted! I worked on nationalholidays; sometimes, mine was the only car in the office garage. Iturned down invitations to family gatherings to finish articles onlaw reform that no one ever read. My ambition was one part PrincessDi — I’d have great clothes, and terrific men would be attracted tomy youth and passion — and one part Mother Teresa, selfless as theday is long.

My mother spent those years holding her breath,waiting for me to come down to earth. While I swung from theextremes, her hope was that I would know the stability of the middle.Life on the edge gives no peace, she would say.

It is my turn now to fret over the Goddess and theSaint. Samantha, at 15, is every bit the dreamer her mom was. One dayshe wants to be Madonna or Celine Dion, a big-name singer,transported by stretch limo from one SRO crowd to another. The nextday, she cries for the poor and homeless on the street and says she’dlike to live among them, if only for a week, so that she’ll know howthey feel.

She is caught between Princess Di and MotherTeresa. I pray that she veers from the edges and finds the middleground. And lets herself be.


Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of TheJewish Journal. Join her Oct. 5 for the next in her “Conversations”series at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her guest will be Dr. JanetHadda on “Passionate Women, Passive Men.”