Films: The trials and tribulations of fathers and sons


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That comparison tickles Burman immensely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish bond doesn’t draw all to Holiday observances


They include a law professor, a newspaper editor, a computer scientist, an architect and a retired Army colonel.
 
However diverse, they have one thing in common: They generally do not attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
 
Yet they are neither self-denying Jews nor rare exceptions. Some are intensely dedicated Jews, and all feel bound to the Jewish people. Statistically, 39 percent of all American Jews, and 44 percent of all Jewish college students, do not attend religious services, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
 
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor of computer science and a leading international authority on artificial intelligence. He is also president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to carry on the work and world view of his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
 
With his wife, Ruth, Judea Pearl is co-editor of the award-winning collection of essays, “I Am Jewish,” the title reflecting his son’s last words before his execution.
 
Yehuda Pearl grew up in Bnai Brak, one of the most ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Israel, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Chaim Pearl, a Chassid from Poland. It was not exactly the place to declare oneself a nonbeliever, but Yehuda did just that at the age of 11.
 
“I had thought a great deal about it and decided that it was impossible that the deity worshipped by my parents and grandparents existed,” he said. “Everybody thought it was just a youthful phase, but I never got over it. I cannot believe that there is a God who listens to my prayers.”
 
Yet, the Pearls light candles every Friday night and make Kiddush.
 
“My parents and grandparents did this, and I do so in their memory,” he said.
 
“Or perhaps, to show my daughters something about their tradition.”
 
With a laugh, Pearl recalled a recent dialogue with a Muslim academician, after which he, some Jewish friends and about 30 Muslims adjoined to a restaurant for dinner.
 
It was a Friday night, so Pearl asked the waiter for glasses, a bottle of wine (juice for the Muslims) and recited the Kiddush prayer. Both his Jewish and Muslim friends were flabbergasted.
 
“But you said you were secular,” they said, shaking their heads.
 
Bret Israel, editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section, usually takes a long walk on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur near his home in the Hollywood Hills.
 
“I am not a deeply meditative person, but I find that a walk on that day helps to cleanse the spirit,” he said.
 
Some years, he will take the holiday walk along Santa Monica Boulevard or another city street. “For me, it’s a way of being of this world and not being of this world,” Israel said.
 
Israel was raised in a Reform family on Long Island, N.Y., had a bar mitzvah but stopped going to synagogue during his college years.
 
His immigrant grandfather from Germany was adamantly secular and refused to step into a synagogue as a matter of principle.
 
“I am not like that. I’ll go occasionally with a friend, usually to Temple Israel of Hollywood,” he said. “But in general, by temperament and philosophy, I don’t feel comfortable in organized worship.”
 
However, in the past two years, Israel has taken to fasting on Yom Kippur, explaining, “Somehow, it’s a cleansing experience.”
 
Jonathan Zasloff loves Shabbat services, takes and teaches classes on Judaism, fasts on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av and generally walks out of the High Holidays services before they conclude. A UCLA law professor, specializing in environmental and urban planning, Zasloff, 41, was raised in a Conservative home and tends to attend Conservative synagogues.
 
However, “I find much of the liturgy and services outdated, inaccessible, highly stylized and not very spiritual,” he objected. “And too many of the services are formalistic and stilted.
 
“I don’t like other people praying for me,” he continued. “Though I find parts of the services meaningful, we must find some ways to make them more participatory and interactive. That’s why I like to go to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”
 
Architect Allen Rubenstein, project manager for capital construction for Beverly Hills, grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s. His American-born parents observed no particular ritual on Friday nights, “but we always had chicken soup,” he recalled. “And on Sunday mornings, we had herring and boiled potatoes.”
 
When he reached 13, his mother wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, and Rubenstein shudders at the recollection.
 
“They sent me to an old rabbi, who spoke hardly any English and rapped me on the knuckles,” he said. “I read without understanding anything.”
 
The experience did not induce a love for religious study. “I saw no reason to go back,” he said.
 
Rubenstein moved to the San Fernando Valley and married. When his two daughters grew up, “they sort of wanted to have a bat mitzvah because their girlfriends had them. I was neither for it, nor against it,” he said.
 
Occasionally, he went to a synagogue for the High Holidays, “more to listen to the sermon than for the service.” But last year, when his daughter invited him to her temple for Rosh Hashanah, he declined.
 
So what makes Rubinstein, a thoughtful and sensitive man, a Jew at all?
 
“Culturally, I feel very comfortable in a Jewish environment. It’s in the food we eat, the family feeling, what we talk about,” he replied. “I feel connected to Israel, and I support Jewish charities. But when it comes to the formal parts of religion, I feel alienated.”
 
Rubenstein’s daughter, Karen Willis, is on the board of directors at Temple B’nai Hayim, a Conservative congregation in Sherman Oaks, and sends her children to a Jewish day school.

Thrown For A Loop


“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low


Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

“We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

“We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

“I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

“The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

“I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.

 

Proposal Advocates Shoah Forgiveness


Sam Oliner wants to help an estimated 200,000 Jewish survivors worldwide free themselves of their psychological bondage. The time, he believes, has come.

In the 1970s, several years into teaching Holocaust-related studies at Humboldt State University, Oliner, now 75, experienced his own dark night of the soul. A German student tearfully told him that she was dropping his course because she could no longer stand her guilt at what her ancestors had done.

Unwittingly, she helped move Oliner toward his own epiphany.

Had he, he wondered, unfairly pushed onto this woman his rage from when the Nazis murdered his family in Poland? Had he forgotten how Balwina Piecuch, a Catholic peasant, had taken him in, saving his life?

Through these memories, Oliner turned a personal corner to come up with an admittedly controversial proposal. It is time, he says, for Jews to collectively forgive the new generation of Germans for their parents’ atrocities.

No, Oliner is not advocating forgetting Nazi atrocities, which would be contrary to the spirit of the Holocaust Memorial. Rather, he wants to find ways to forgive the younger generation of Germans, who have acknowledged their nation’s collective responsibility and made bona fide reparations. This, he contends, would allow survivors to finally let go of a bitterness eating at their own souls.

Oliner’s personal turnabout resulted in studies, which still continue, at his Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt. From there, Oliner and his wife, Pearl, have interviewed more than 500 rescuers who risked everything to save others, while seeking no personal reward.

What, he wondered, makes these altruists, spanning from the Holocaust to Sept. 11, different from the rest of us? Are they happier, more at peace with themselves? And what can we learn from them?

Oliner was surprised that neither high self-esteem nor degree of religious observance correlated with altruistic behavior. Rather, rescuers tend to be exceptionally empathic, including fascists driven by visceral outrage at witnessed inhumanity, their private empathy overpowering their public ideology.

Rescuers also tend to have been raised in integrated neighborhoods and tend to identify less with their own ethnic group and more with humanity at large. Their families also usually stress reason over physical punishment in discipline, allowing for development of a more nuanced sense of right and wrong and lesser fear of authority.

They share strong social skills, allowing them to work well in networks. One Polish rescuer estimated that saving a single individual required an underground network of at least 10 others to feed, transport and house their charge.

Rescuers also share a strong moral sense, which enables them to lie, as needed, to authorities to safeguard their charges. Yet, they also valued family and truth. Rescuers, then, could see the grays and maintain a balance between when to tell the truth and when to shade it. And yes, rescuers also like themselves better and tend to be more successful at business.

After publishing his initial findings in “The Altruistic Personality” (Free Press, 1988), Oliner co-sponsored dozens of inter-group reconciliations, developing his model calling for victimizers to publicly acknowledge their wrongs and make restitution. The final part of his model calls for victims to grant collective forgiveness.

He recently helped lead an intergroup reconciliation in Humboldt County, where whites in 1860 slaughtered more than 100 Native Americans on Indian Island, off Eureka, in a land grab. At the reconciliation meeting, white civic leaders expressed remorse and, with money they had raised, deeded part of the island back to Indian descendants who, in turn, granted this new generation forgiveness. It wasn’t perfect. But it represented considerable progress.

Not everyone buys into Oliner’s model. His former mentor, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, calls it “ill timed and ill conceived. Only the brutalized people have the right to forgive. It’s wrong for others, even their children, to do so in their name.”

Instead of one people forgiving another, he said, each people should promote its own rescuers from within its own ranks, thereby modeling healthy behavior.

David Harris, executive director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee, which co-sponsored Oliner’s studies, endorses the model in principle. Still, he acknowledged, “It is impossible for some survivors to let go of their anger. And so, it is up to their children to look at a changed world with new eyes.”

Harris, whose father fled Berlin in 1933, reopened the committee’s Berlin offices eight years ago with his father’s blessing.

“I was convinced that Germany has made a good faith effort to face its past directly, and to indemnify those hurt,” he said.

Like Oliner, Harris sees the five-acre Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which opened last May just a stone’s throw from Hitler’s bunker, as another step in putting the past behind. Having turned their personal corners, each now sleeps better. This is the gift they would bestow upon their own people.

Joseph Hanania is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently writing, “The Baghdad Blues,” a memoir of growing up as a Jewish Iraqi American.

 

Court Nominee Alito Through Jewish Lens


The long paper trail of hard-hitting conservative opinions that Judge Samuel Alito has left in his wake is perfect fodder for the kind of left vs. right, black-and-white confirmation battle that this town relishes.

For Jewish groups, however, the clarity of Alito’s record fades to gray.

President Bush’s new nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld religious freedoms that the entire Jewish community cherishes, on one occasion strongly defending the right of a Jewish employee to Sabbath observance. Yet his views on the establishment of religion as well as abortion hew to a tough conservative line that much of the community repudiates.

“He wrote a very important opinion in expanding what little is left of the free-exercise clause,” Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), said, referring to the constitutional guarantee of free religious practice.

On the other hand, in several cases dealing with the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of a state religion, Alito indicated a leaning in favor of religious speakers “to the exclusion of those who might not want to listen,” tern said.

Stern emphasized that the AJCongress had yet to make a decision on where it stands regarding Alito.

Bush announced the nomination of Alito, 55, on Monday, just days after Harriet Miers, his White House counsel, withdrew her name. Miers’ lack of a paper trail failed to satisfy Republican conservatives, who for years have clamored for a nominee who could be trusted to unambiguously issue rulings in supports of a conservative agenda, especially on the issue of abortion.

A corporate lawyer, Miers also drew fire because of her lack of judicial or constitutional experience.

By contrast, Alito’s 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, establishes a strong constitutional and conservative record. Social conservatives who vigorously opposed Miers’ nomination immediately hailed the decision.

“President Bush has hit a home run with this nomination,” Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, said in a statement.

Just as predictably, liberal groups mounted an immediate call to arms.

“The judicial philosophy of Samuel Alito is far to the right,” People for the American Way wrote at the start of a 24-page evisceration of Alito’s record, posted on the group’s Web site within minutes of his nomination. “He has demonstrated hostility toward the principles undergirding a woman’s constitutionally protected right to govern her own reproductive choices.”

Liberals already were making much of a nickname Alito earned among some lawyers, “Scalito” – meaning “little Scalia,” a reference to Antonin Scalia, widely regarded as the most conservative judge on the Supreme Court.

National Jewish groups at times have been pivotal in joining liberals in opposing judicial candidates; President Reagan’s failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 stands out as an example. The White House was eager on Monday to get out the message that Alito was safe for the Jews.

“Judge Alito has been a strong defender of religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Jeffrey Berkowitz, White House liaison to the Jewish community, wrote in an e-mail within minutes of the announcement.

Legal scholars say Alito substantially expanded First Amendment rights in 1999, when he ruled that the Newark, N.J., police department violated the rights of Muslim officers by banning them from wearing beards, though it allowed an exception for health reasons.

Another Alito opinion had a more immediate impact on Jewish observance. In Abramson v. William Patterson College in 2001, the court considered the case of Gertrude Abramson, who sued the New Jersey institution in 1995, claiming that it violated an earlier agreement to allow her to take off Jewish holidays. Abramson also alleged a pattern of harassment, including meetings scheduled on the Jewish Sabbath.

The court ruled in Abramson’s favor, but Alito’s separate concurrence was even stronger, citing favorably an amicus brief filed by the Orthodox Union.

Title VII, the applicable civil rights law, “does not permit an employer to manipulate job requirements for the purpose of putting an employee to the ‘cruel choice’ between religion and employment,” Alito wrote.

Such insights are typical of Alito, his former law clerk, Jeffrey Wasserstein, told JTA.

“He is a Catholic, but his sensitivity to non-majority religions was quite interesting to watch, not what one would expect from someone being tarred by the press as extraordinarily conservative,” said Wasserstein, an observant Jew who served with Alito from 1997-98 and now is a health care attorney.

Despite his tough opinions, Alito has a reputation as a modest, accommodating figure, even among his most strident opponents. People for the American Way noted that — unlike Scalia, whose sarcasm is notorious — Alito’s “tone during oral arguments is probing but always polite.”

Wasserstein agreed: “He is very modest and self-effacing.”

Alito expressed interest in Wasserstein’s own Sabbath observance, and was quite probing when it came to religious cases, he said.

“During the Muslim police case, we spoke about Islam and its precepts,” Wasserstein recalled.

Wasserstein insisted that Alito did not come to cases with preconceptions, but liberal groups and their allies in the Jewish community already were fretting at a body of work that suggests otherwise. Of special concern are two cases in which Alito upheld the right of New Jersey towns to display Christmas-season cr?ches.

In the opinion in the cr?che cases, “he was on the opposite side of much of the Jewish community,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

Alito’s assent in a 1992 abortion-rights decision is perhaps his most controversial. The court upheld a Pennsylvania law that imposed a 24-hour waiting period for women who wanted abortions, required minors to inform their parents and required abortion clinics to publish reports about their operations.

Defeating that case became a rallying cry for pro-choice advocates, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in a landmark decision the same year.

Significantly, however, the appeals court had struck down a portion of the law that required women seeking abortions to inform their husbands. Alito was the lone dissenter from that part of the decision, saying such notification was not an undue burden for women. His willingness to go a step beyond marked him as an “extremist” in liberal circles.

The National Council of Jewish Women, which usually takes the lead in abortion-related announcements, has yet to weigh in, but sources said the group is working on a strategy.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Democrats’ leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, already has linked Alito to “the radical conservative right.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), the Jewish chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must consider Alito’s appointment, was more circumspect, but notably held back the enthusiastic endorsement of other Republican senators.

“We are in the process of assembling his opinions,” said Specter, a Republican moderate who is pro-choice. “It is estimated that he has been involved in about 3,500 cases and has some 300 opinions which he has written.”

That record suggests a clear battle, Pelavin said.

“We’re going to have the kind of debate over judicial philosophy in the Senate that has long been brewing,” he said.

The Jewish lines already were being drawn.

The Orthodox Union does not endorse judicial candidates, and Alito is not an exception, said Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director.

However, Diament said, Alito is “clearly someone who is sensitive to religious minorities.”

Should the left mount a multibarrelled assault on Alito’s church-state record, Diament said, “our role will be making his record clear, trying to prevent it from being distorted.”

Pelavin suggested the Reform Movement also would have a role to play — probably not one particularly sympathetic to Alito.

“It’s not just about competence, it’s about the court shifting on fundamental issues, including reproductive rights and religious liberty,” he said.

 

Kosher Stylin’


If we are what we eat, then at this moment I’m a big fat Gordo’s burrito with extra cheese. But I’m a veggie burrito because for the past several years, I’ve been cultivating my own brand of kosher. I like to call myself “kosher style.”

It’s a phrase that’s apt to confuse, so let me explain. No pork. No shellfish. No conscious mixing of meat and dairy. I’ll eat meat out, and though I pass on cheeseburgers at Barney’s, I wouldn’t ask Alice Waters to hold the butter in preparing my filet of beef ? la ficelle (assuming ficelle isn’t bacon). My theory: Unless I see dairy, it’s kosher enough.

I have plenty of friends who keep more strictly kosher than I do, but even some of them make exceptions — like bouillabaisse in France or lobster in Maine. I deviate when I’m the guest in someone’s home, and the options are slim — my rationale being that it’s better to not shame a host than to stick to my half-baked rules.

There are those who may cringe at my interpretation of Jewish dietary laws, but it’s not like I eat this way because the Bible tells me to. Nor do I see it as a mitzvah commanded by the God I’m not always sure I believe in. And it certainly isn’t because I grew up this way.

It began with a request from a Holocaust survivor who once advised, “Order kosher meals on airplanes, because the day you stop ordering them is the day they’ll stop making them.”

Forgoing regular airplane food was a sacrifice I could make.

I remember the first time a flight attendant called out, “Ravitz, kosher meal?” Heads of passengers whipped around to look at “the Jew,” and there I sat, donning my jeans, fleece and baseball cap, looking like any other 20-something American.

I didn’t want the attention, but when it came, I kind of liked it. That nasty little packet of excessively wrapped, overcooked — and yet simultaneously frozen — meat sparked conversation. People would ask me about my kosher meals: “I’ve always wondered what this is all about.”

I even got confessions: “You know, I recently found out my grandfather was Jewish.”

I felt like an ambassador for my people, called forth to enlighten flight passengers over stale rolls.

Soon I was changing the way I ate on the ground, pork products being the first to go. Then I struggled to relinquish shrimp, New England clam chowder, steamed mussels. California rolls were missed, until I found salvation in “imitation crab.” Then came the meat-and-dairy conundrum, which wasn’t that bad, barring the loss of chicken Caesar salads and my mom’s grilled bleu cheese steak. The mere thought of it still makes me drool.

At a crawfish boil I attended in Alabama this summer, people around me snapped off heads, slurping the prawns’ insides, while taking turns asking me questions.

“What, you don’t like this stuff?” “You allergic?” “What’s wrong with you?”

I stammered, embarrassed by the repeated calls of attention. “Well, you see, I sort of keep kosher.”

“What’s that?”

I blathered about split hooves and chewed cuds before someone interrupted, “But why do you keep kosher?”

I gave the best answer I could come up with: “Because it reminds me of who I am.”

In September, Sophia Café, a new kosher restaurant, opened on Solano Avenue in Albany, walking distance from my home. When I first spotted it, I was floored. How could a glatt kosher restaurant survive in a place like this? It’s not like the Bay Area is a bastion of religious observance.

I walked inside and got my answer.

There was the visitor from Los Angeles who said her son passed up going to Cal because kosher food was so hard to come by. There was the woman planning for observant houseguests from the East who will need places to eat. There was the father in an Orthodox family who kept thanking the owner for his restaurant’s presence.

The mashgiach, who oversees kosher practices in the kitchen, said it’s the only glatt kosher restaurant in the East Bay. He also said it wouldn’t survive on kosher eaters alone.

I have a feeling that a certain Holocaust survivor would have something to say about that. Lucky for me, the restaurant’s meat was served hot and without wrapping.

Jessica Ravitz completed her masters in journalism at UC Berkeley and currently is a staff writer at The Salt Lake Tribune. She can be reached at jessica_ravitz@yahoo.com.

Ask Wendy


An Unreasonable
Invite?

Dear Wendy,

My wife and I recently had a falling out with very close
friends whom we’ve known for over 40 years. When their daughter became engaged,
they told us early on that, for budgetary reasons, our children would not be
invited to the wedding. We said, at that time, that unless our youngest was
invited, we would not be able to attend. That child, age 10, was born after we
lost our 17-year-old daughter in a car accident. He is therefore very special
to us and everyone in our family knows as much. We have also never left him
with a babysitter. Our son was not invited to the wedding. My wife believes
that if our friends valued our friendship they would have granted our request.
Our friends explained that they were not comfortable inviting our son given
that no other children were being included. They called three times the month
before the wedding, and have called several times since, to say that they did
not want the friendship to suffer. Who is in the wrong?

Friend in Need

Dear Friend,

I don’t know how anyone survives the loss of a child. But
people do. And somehow you have. By your own admission, your youngest child is
dearer to you for having been born after a tragic loss, but the rest of the
world cannot be expected to grant your son similar special status. I would add
that your son would probably be bored senseless at an event where he is the
only child. You have jeopardized a valuable and longstanding relationship
because your friends failed to play by your rules at a time when the only
people who really mattered were the bride and groom. Friendships are not
predicated on unwavering submission; disagreements, no matter how serious or
hurtful, are not grounds for termination. Your feelings were hurt; your friends
have acknowledged this by calling numerous times. Call them back today. If you
feel the need to rehash the issue one more time then do so and put it behind
you. Your friendship survived the loss of your daughter. Don’t let it fall
apart over a simcha.

To Kosher or Not to
Kosher?

Dear Wendy,

I am getting married and would like to accommodate my
fiancé’s family. They are insisting on a strictly kosher wedding reception. If
we serve a dairy meal, several of my relatives with dietary restrictions who
are not Jewish or observant will have little to eat; if we serve both meat and
dairy, many of his relatives will be very upset. I am desperate to find a
compromise.

Blushing Bride

Dear Blushing,

Strict adherence to the laws of kashrut does not allow for
compromise. This is just one of the many things you will learn if you marry
into a religious family — and it is one of the easier lessons. When it comes to
the do’s and don’ts of Sabbath observance, your learning curve will be much
steeper. As long as you and your fiancé are on the same page, and his family is
patient and tolerant, you will find your way. The good news is that a gifted
Jewish caterer can deliver a delicious meal that speaks to all of your
concerns: would you believe velvety chocolate cake with nondairy whipped cream?
Your in-laws will be able to attend; your guests will never know. As for the
main course, why not a rare filet with (nondairy) hollandaise sauce? For those
vegetarians among your guests, I have yet to meet a caterer who does not offer
an alternative meal for those with dietary restrictions.

Where Do We Go From
Here?

Dear Wendy,

I have been dating the same man for two years. Three months
into our relationship he started talking about getting married. We decided then
that we were moving too quickly. Now, I find that we are “stuck” in the dating
phase and that my boyfriend refuses to discuss marriage. My best friend tells
me to be patient. Should I move on?

Lady in Waiting

Dear Lady,

I’d say that your aim is closer to the mark. Two years is a
respectable amount of time for any two people to decide if they are meant for
each other. Especially if you had discussed marriage in the early days of the
relationship, it is all the more bizarre that your boyfriend can’t stomach the
issue now. Time to tell your boyfriend that you need to know if the
relationship is heading in the direction of the altar. Do give him a chance to
defend himself before you flatten him on your way out the door.

Cape Town Clash


A controversial conversion has reignited a dispute over Orthodox Jewish standards between South Africa’s Orthodox establishment and one of the largest Orthodox congregations in the Southern Hemisphere.

Attempts to paper over the cracks between the beit din, or the Jewish law court, the Union of Orthodox Synagogues and Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation had been made in August. At that time, Sea Point members, who had been considering pulling out of the union to set up their own rabbinical court, decided instead to give the parties six months to work things out.

However, the issue has erupted again as the result of an article in the latest issue of Noseweek, a South African publication known for investigative journalism. The article focuses on the validity of the conversion that Karin Berman underwent before her marriage to construction magnate Saul Berman, a prominent Sea Point member.

Karin Berman was married to the late Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967.

Members of the beit din reportedly told Karin Berman that they do not recognize her conversion or marriage and said the child she is expecting will not be recognized as Jewish. The credentials of the Paris rabbi who converted Berman were withdrawn 20 years ago, when he was discredited for having certified conversions for a fee, Noseweek reported.

However, Sea Point’s U.S.-born rabbi, Elihu Jacob Steinhorn, insisted that the conversion was valid. Noseweek reported further that the rabbi who married the Bermans in Rome said that he had accepted everything as kosher, based on an introduction from Steinhorn. Steinhorn denied the rabbi’s statement.

The conversion squabble, however, masks deeper issues that have been dividing the South African Orthodox world for some time. Steinhorn told Noseweek that the conversion was "the least of the issues" involved in the dispute.

The heart of the dispute centers on whether Sea Point must observe the standards of halacha demanded by the country’s chief rabbinate in Johannesburg, or whether it can adopt looser standards.

"The fact of the matter is that in the Orthodox world today outside of South Africa, which is very provincial, very closed and very British, there’s a whole world called modern Orthodoxy," Steinhorn said.

"We in Sea Point are its only representative in South Africa," he continued. Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris "can say what he likes, but he does not represent modern Orthodoxy."

Steinhorn disputed claims that the fervently Orthodox community was growing stronger in South Africa, dismissing them as "public relations." The fervently Orthodox, he said, are "disenfranchising most of Judaism."

The Noseweek article mentioned that Harris objected to an invitation that Sea Point extended to Tzili Reisenberger, an Israeli-born theologian at the University of Cape Town, to address the congregation.

"We see nothing wrong with inviting a professor who teaches Bible at the university to come and give a shiur [lesson]. That’s part of modern Orthodoxy," Steinhorn said.

A statement attributed to Harris in Noseweek, charging that Reisenberger officiated at same-sex marriages, was "baldly untrue," said Clive Rabinowitz, Sea Point vice president. Harris later apologized to Reisenberger and retracted the accusation, admitting that his statement had been incorrect and defamatory.

But Harris described as "patent nonsense" the notion that the beit din was being "unnecessarily harsh" and using the controversial conversion to "coerce" Sea Point into stricter observance. At issue, he said, is the fact that "there’s a lot of cheating going on here," with Sea Point congregants defining for themselves what modern and centrist Orthodoxy are.

"Modern or centrist Orthodoxy is observant," Harris said. "The only differences between it and ultra-Orthodoxy lie in attitudes to non-Jewish people and attitudes to general scholarship. They are not differences about the observance of Torah, and this is where both Steinhorn" and a prominent congregant, Judge Dennis Davis, "have got it wrong."

In that sense, Harris continued, Sea Point "is cheating by putting their own definition on modern Orthodoxy."

Harris described as nonsense the article’s assertion that Sea Point was "the last outpost of ‘liberal Orthodoxy,’" resisting "the flood of ‘fundamentalist pietude’ washing south from Johannesburg."

"They are defining Orthodoxy in their own way, and no one else in the Orthodox world will accept it," Harris said.

Rabinowitz, who proposed the resolution to disaffiliate from the union in August, said the public spat was "extremely unfortunate."

Negotiations between Sea Point and the union are "limping along," said Rabinowitz, who predicted that the talks "may yet lead to a resolution of the problems."

Steinhorn said he was not optimistic that things would be resolved between the beit din, the union and Sea Point. "We want unity," Steinhorn stressed, "but I don’t think they can live with modern Orthodoxy," he said.