I can’t be the badly dressed mom at pickup time


Today, I stopped home to change my outfit before picking up my kid from day care.

What, because you never know who might snap a photo as I lure my child into his car seat with the whispered promise of a Grover juice box? No one cares. Except now that I’m a parent, I care deeply about lots of things that are totally meaningless. For example, what I wear when I fetch my kid.

It’s not that I want to impress the other moms, or the woman who runs the place, or her assistant. It’s that on some level, I need to impress them.

Or at least that describes the urgency with which I want to stroll in wearing skinny jeans tucked into high-heeled brown suede boots with a casual but clearly expensive T-shirt.

It was one thing for me to show up places with a guacamole stain on my sleeve when I was only representing myself. Maybe it was even cute, not Zoey Deschanel in a romantic comedy cute, but I like to think it was close. Now that I’m a mom, for some reason it seems important to look important, or at least like I don’t eat in my car and buy accessories at Claire’s.

Yep, get ready, because this is one of those mom moments triggered by one of those daughter moments. Get cozy, it’s blame mom time!

It may not surprise you that keeping up appearances wasn’t exactly a thing to my mom, and bless her heart for being all free-spirited, but her free-spiritedness cost me big time.

My mom wore what she wanted, regardless of the setting. Graduation from Confirmation class at Temple Sherith-Israel, the other moms wore knit separates and wrap dresses, my mom wore something with a batik feel, something Mrs. Roper might have sold at a yard sale after placing it in her “too loud” pile. My mom never shaved her armpits, but always wore sleeveless. Granted, it was San Francisco and the hippie thing was arguably fashionable, but not at Hebrew school.

Part of me wished she would see that, and bend to the obvious notion that all kids want to fit in, and by extension, they would like their parents to blend.

Blending is an important skill I had to teach myself, the way I taught myself table manners and cursive, because counterculture childhoods kind of skip those stops on the growing-up train.

Looks matter. And by that I mean the sideways looks you get when your mom is sporting an exotic beetle-sized amethyst brooch to the dentist’s office.

What never fails to surprise me is the pressure I put on myself not to make a single mistake my mom made.

No epiphany about perfectionism or how shallow wardrobe is as an assessment of a person’s character is going to stop me from being aware of my wardrobe choices from now until I’m dropping my son off at his college dorm room (or visiting him in prison; I don’t want to jinx anything). I can’t hide how deeply I want to do better than my own mother, because I’ll be wearing it.

Ironically, I’ll be wearing wrinkle-free and appropriate clothing as I make a bevy of other untold errors in judgment that my son will go out of his way to avoid when it’s his turn. That’s how it is. We over-correct. In doing so, we make all sorts of other gaffes. There’s a closet full of ways to under-achieve, so grab whatever is on the rack. There’s something to fit everyone.


Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.


Seth Menachem is on paternity leave and will return at the end of April.

Why Should Teachers, Parents and Tutors Be Frenemies?


During her first week as a seventh-grade English teacher, Anna Taggert discovers her colleague, Randi Abrahams, at Starbucks writing a paper for one of her students, while the kid sips his peppermint mocha and texts his friends. The most popular English teacher in the school, Abrahams dresses like a fashionista on the $250 an hour she earns moonlighting as a tutor.

When Taggert objects, she is told to keep quiet if she wants to keep her job. Her students are too sleepy from weekends of bar mitzvah hopping to concentrate in class. When her creative assignments inspire her students to work hard, their parents petition her to stop overloading them. A month later, Taggert sells out, learns the ropes and becomes one of the hottest tutors in New York.

Former Dalton School English teacher/tutor Anisha Lakhani explores the corrupt New York prep school scene in her satirical novel, “Schooled” (Hyperion, 2008), which targets parents who pay big bucks for tutors to do their kids’ homework. Despite the caricatures, stereotypes and exaggerations, the book tells some hard and unpleasant truths.

In Andrew Trees’ “Academy X” (Bloomsbury, 2007), another “tell-all” novel by a New York teacher, honest students rarely get into great colleges, while honest teachers rarely tell the truth. “It’s the whole culture,” a bright student explains to the protagonist, an English teacher who almost gets himself fired for accusing a board member’s daughter of plagiarism. “Everyone games the system. You have to admit that it is hard to resist with the Internet putting it all at your fingertips. And don’t think it’s just papers written at home. Students use their cell phones to instant message notes to each other during tests.”

The inevitable consequences of a dysfunctional system — whether it’s an economic system or an educational system — are the same: corruption, infighting and scapegoating. The most disturbing truth exposed by these books is the combative relationship that develops in school communities between parents, teachers and students — frenemies who on the first day of school kiss each other on the cheek only to later stab each other in the back. Moral compromises result in embattled worlds dominated by a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. The frustrated school populations of “Schooled” and “Academy X” point their fingers at one another, not knowing who else to blame. Unable to recognize their common enemy, they perceive each other as the enemy. And it is most often the parents, particularly “pushy Jewish parents,” who get cast as the villains in faculty lounges, just as they do in the pages of exposés by disillusioned teachers. Conversely, it is most often those “lousy teachers” who are scapegoated in homes, tutoring centers or wherever parents congregate to share their troubles.

Parents, teachers, tutors and, yes, even administrators have the same goal: to educate kids. We should be allies, not antagonists; advocates, not adversaries.

Our oppressors are bigger, stronger and tougher than totalitarian dictators. Like all tyrants, they wage war on great books and free minds — for such minds will always resist domination and enslavement. Marketing strategists are clever and skilled at dissuading students from reading great books, distracting them with mind-numbing alternatives, from video games to plot summaries. How many gadgets, products and services can be purchased and consumed in the hours, days, weeks it takes to read, digest, not to mention write a thoughtful essay about a Shakespeare play or a Dickens novel?

Iran’s mullahs were not strong enough to prevent a group of college girls from meeting in secret at their teacher’s house in Tehran to discuss the masterpieces of Western culture. Neither the threat of beating nor beheading could keep Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” (Random House, 2003), from opening the minds of her students to “Pride and Prejudice,” “Madame Bovary,” “Daisy Miller” and “The Dean’s December.” These students got no college credit for reading and the teacher no paycheck for teaching. They had no fancy classrooms, PowerPoint technology, lesson plans or study aids. Yet the rewards were priceless: “When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes,” Azar Nafisi explains in her memoir. “Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self.”

The amorphous enemy of American parents, educators and students alike is best described by William Greider in his book, “One World, Ready or Not” (Simon & Schuster, 1998), as our “wondrous new machine, strong and supple, a machine that reaps as it destroys,” with no “skillful hands on board,” and “no one … at the wheel … sustained by its own motion, guided mainly by its own appetites.” The goals of consumerism are incompatible with the goals of liberal arts, a term which, in classical antiquity “denoted the education of a free man (Latin, liber for free) unlike the vocational education proper to a slave.” The goal of liberal arts — to form free minds — is incompatible with the goal of mass culture — to form shopaholics. The liberal arts value individuals; market culture values consumers. Liberal arts value tradition; market culture values novelty. Liberal arts inspire thinking; market culture inspires buying. Liberal arts champion originality; market culture inspires conformity. Western humanism celebrates humans; modern consumerism celebrates gadgets. Parents and teachers want to educate children; market culture wants to package products. 

The mother who sent her seventh-grader for tutoring at Starbucks with Randi Abrahams in “Schooled” is familiar. She is not as rich as Anna Taggert thinks she is; both she and her husband are killing themselves to pay those school and tutoring bills. And despite it all, their seventh-grader is not as educated as his teacher imagines him to be when she asks him to write a summary of the first act of “Romeo and Juliet.” There is no way Benjamin can figure out how to condense those pages or put the Elizabethan English into his own words — not words ripped off SparkNotes or MonkeyNotes. Smart as he is, he just doesn’t have the writing skills — not to mention the vocabulary and attention span — to get through the first act of a Shakespeare play on his own. But his school, which markets itself as “top college prep,” must pretend its 12-year-olds can do just that. It wouldn’t be surprising if by next year they’ll claim he can read 700-page Victorian novels, and the year after “The Norton Anthology of English Literature.”

Benjamin’s mother sees her son as overwhelmed. She, too, is overwhelmed with everything a parent has to do to package kids for the college market. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that nothing is more important to her and her husband than Benjamin’s education. She learned that from her mother, who learned it from her mother. “We should, I say, put ourselves to great pains for our children, for on this the world is built….” wrote one of those pushy mothers, Glückel of Hamelin, a German Jewish superwoman of the late 17th and early 18th century, who managed to raise 12 children, run a business and write her memoirs for future generations.

The stories, values and messages Glückel transmits to her children are meant to provide them with a shelter in the storm, an armor that will shield them against the destructive forces of their times. Many parents today choose to provide their children with a religious education for the same reason. Glückel’s dominant culture, anti-Semitic as it was, revered her role as parent. It empowered her to see herself as a transmitter of civilized values, rather than as a provider of goods and services. Some Jewish parents today don’t realize that Judaism and the humanities go hand in hand; our children need both in order to humanize an increasingly dehumanizing culture. 

The role of Judaic studies teachers is clearly perceived as enriching students’ lives, rather than getting them into college. And the market has not yet come up with SparkNotes for Tanakh.

Parents and educators who resist the pressures of the market champion the same values that have always been upheld by the world’s great writers, thinkers and theologians. They choose substance over surface, mind over matter, quality over quantity. The most meaningful choices always require the most time. And the most valuable commodity mass culture steals away from us is time. The greatest gift parents and educators can give themselves, their students and each other is the gift of time. Reading and writing skills grow over time. It takes time to assimilate an idea; time to formulate a thought; time to express it clearly; time to teach a book thoroughly; time to grade a paper carefully. It takes time to form a cultured mind, an educated mind, a thoughtful mind — the kind of mind that will resist tyranny and keep freedom and democracy alive in the 21st century.

Irina Bragin is an L.A. tutor and writer who teaches English and public speaking at Touro College Los Angeles. She can be contacted at irina.bragin@touro.edu.

When Birthday Party Blowouts Blowup


The wedding invitation convinced me that modern moms and dads have officially lost their gumballs regarding children’s birthday parties. “Master Jacob Estroff” read the ivory parchment envelope; it took a moment to register that the addressee was in fact Jakey, my 5-year-old. The bride-to-be (Miss Sophia Rosenthal) was Sophie, his toothless classmate.

The party lived up to its invitation. There were bridesmaids, groomsmen and, of course, a mini groom and a mini chuppah. There was even a wedding cake taller than the birthday bride herself.

In all fairness, Jewish parents come by it honestly. We’ve barely cleared labor and delivery before we’re expected to be on the phone with the caterer ordering bagels and lox for 200 for the bris or baby naming.

It seems a natural progression to plan a three-ring circus in the cul-de-sac when that bundle of joy turns 6. It’s just that somewhere between the petting zoo, the pony rides and the moonwalk we end up with an empty wallet, a giant headache and a kid who is so overwhelmed by the hoopla, he can barely enjoy his big day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we bail on our kids’ birthday parties altogether. On the contrary, these annual rites of passage are much-anticipated events in our children’s lives. But going to the opposite extreme isn’t the answer either.

Fortunately, it’s perfectly possible to plan a kid-friendly birthday bash without compromising our values, sanity and pocketbook. All it takes is a little panning for gold.

You know when you take a big clump of mud and swoosh it around in a pan until a few glistening specks of gold are all that remain. Well, we’re going to do the same thing here. Only instead of mud, we’re going to swoosh a big, mushy mess of modern birthday party madness.

Are you swooshing yet? Do you see those overpriced invitations and goody bags spilling over the sides into a bucket by your feet? Great, keep swooshing. But don’t go peeking at those golden nuggets yet. Not until we’ve spent some time looking at the slush in the bucket, and have a clear grasp on what exactly our child’s birthday party does not need to be (regardless of what parenting magazines, party planners or other parents might think):

  • It does not need to be a reflection of our parental prowess. We accomplish lots of amazing feats as parents. Getting our children out the door and into school every morning; keeping them safe, healthy and happy. Our child’s birthday party is but one little parenting accomplishment in a year of millions; it’s hardly a manifestation of our maternal savvy.
  • It does not need to be a Martha Stewart masterpiece. Have you ever bought a magazine based on the teaser “foolproof birthday party ideas” only to realize a page and a half in that you are a fool for buying the magazine in the first place? Not only is making tulip-shaped cupcakes not foolproof, but it takes a degree from the World Culinary Institute. Besides, our kids couldn’t care less if their cupcakes are shaped like tulips or toilets, as long as they’re yummy, icing-soaked and flanked with the right amount of candles.
  • It does not have to be an unprecedented concept. Do you know that sinking feeling we get when we learn another kid is having a birthday gala at the same secret site we’ve booked for our own child’s party — only a week earlier. “The nerve!” we think to ourselves. “I’ve had that inflatable jumpy place booked for a year and that parent stole the idea right out from under me.” But the reality is our kids love playing on inflatable jumpy stuff. They would do it day in and day out if we’d let them. I must ask you this: Would you turn up your nose at an opportunity to go to a spa just because you did the same thing last weekend? I think not.
  • It does not need to go off without a hitch. For my niece’s sixth birthday, my sister-in-law booked a highly acclaimed magician, months — if not years — in advance. You could taste the excitement as the guests counted down the seconds until he arrived. And then they counted some more. And some more. Until it became painfully evident that the magician had taken his vanishing act to the next level.

That’s when they started building Oreo towers. Those kids went through package after package of double stuffs until they’d constructed a bona fide chocolate cookie Camelot. And then it was time to go home. “Thanks, that was fun,” the children told my catatonic sister-in-law as they exited.

Lesson learned? Despite a catastrophic birthday party disaster, my niece turned 6, the guests were happy and we had a family memory that would last years beyond the applause after a perfectly executed magic show.

OK then. I think we’re finally ready to peek at the golden nuggets. At those few precious, glimmering things our child’s birthday party should be. They look something like this:

  • A fun, memorable day spent with family and friends.
  • A means of making them feel happy, proud and loved.

  • A celebration of their development, uniqueness and existence.

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

Modern Orthodoxy’s Marriage Crisis


Hard-to-marry-off children have been worrying parents since Genesis, when Leah, her eyes tender from the sadness of being unwanted, took part in a hoax to trick Jacob — her younger, prettier sister’s suitor — into marrying her. There’s no indication of how old Leah was at betrothal, but the tone of the text prompts a mortifying thought: Had she lived in our time, the future matriarch of the Jewish people would likely be another tough case for the matchmakers.

Or so I surmised a few months ago after a crowded panel in Manhattan on what has come to be known as the “shidduch crisis” in Modern Orthodoxy. Over the past decade, rabbis, activists and parents have been wringing their hands over the “ever-burgeoning number of religious singles and rising percentage of failed marriages” in the community. This event was only the most recent of many discussions devoted to the topic.

Having once been both single and Modern Orthodox, I recognized many of the audience members — not exact faces, of course, but types: The knitted-browed parents, bantering anxiously among themselves; the fresh-faced Stern and Yeshiva University students who seemed too young to take the bus themselves, let alone join in holy matrimony; a handful of older singles brave enough to show their faces at such a gathering.

The evening’s discussion traversed a lot of ground, but it was clear that among its primary goals was the prevention of those too-often-seen tragic situations — “marriages that end, God forbid, in divorce” and “people who are in their late 20s, even 30, and not married.”

The timing could not have been better — or worse: Three days earlier, I had signed divorce papers; six days later, I turned 30.

Of course, the world is filled with singles wishing to be part of doubles. Since the fate of every society turns on the success or failure of its particular set of mating rituals, each one develops its own specialized system of coupling. But what happens when those rituals erode?

This is the bind in which Modern Orthodoxy has lately found itself. Over the past decade, the movement has drifted to the right — adopting, along the way, the belief that greater stringency in Jewish law and ritual equals greater religiosity. Distinctions that might seem infinitesimal to an outsider — “she’s a Bais Yaakov girl,” “he wears a kippah sruga” — have become fundamental differences, and competitions have sprouted up over who follows which obligations more strictly.

Along with new perspectives on the legality of singing in the shower and smoking cigarettes on Passover, there also has emerged a more exacting code of modesty and celibacy for singles. In response, ever younger people have begun racing to the chuppah, with many of us discussing potential mates as early as high school.

This is the system used successfully by the ultra-Orthodox, who place more emphasis on God, family and community than on individual choices: Each person has confidence in her mate not only because he is right for her, but because he is right for everyone and everything in her life. On the other end of the spectrum, the secular world offers a method based on individualism: Release yourself from everyone else’s expectations, and date as many people as it takes to find the one.

The problem is that both of these opposing philosophies are now circulating in the Modern Orthodox community, and their coexistence is causing static — mixed signals, false expectations, miscommunications. The confusion might be surmountable, but muddling through it requires two things that Orthodox Jews who’d like to remain marriageable don’t have: experience and time.

The first inkling that I did not have nearly enough time to find a mate was in my junior year of yeshiva high school. We were learning about Amuka, an area in northern Israel where the prayers of people looking for their besherts (destined partners) allegedly are answered, when I was seized with confusion.

“Can each person only have one beshert?” I asked.

“I think so,” said the rabbi.

“But what about a woman who remarries after her husband dies? Which one was her beshert?”

“Only God knows,” came the reply.

“What if my beshert lives in, like, Pakistan?”

“You have to just believe, Alana.”

I can’t, I thought suddenly. I don’t know enough about the world.

And with that, Amuka became my Archimedean point, the place where I stood when I inadvertently lifted my entire religious world off its axis. After that, the questions came quickly — even leading, briefly, to a period of greater observance.

By the time I started my second year at Barnard, I was taking classes on other religions, had an Episcopalian best friend and regularly attended non-Jewish campus events on Friday night, as long as I could walk to them.

But as my curiosity about the larger world expanded, the atmosphere of Modern Orthodoxy contracted. I wanted to engage with the secular world — to learn about it as well as to experience it — but the same adventures that might have once been par for the Modern Orthodox course now threatened to make me an outcast.

I was too attached to religious life and thought to abandon it entirely. Instead, I made the kind of unspoken compromises with my parents (and, by extension, the community) that some people make with God: I will not go to services often, but when I do, I’ll attend Orthodox synagogues; I will eat nonkosher in restaurants but at home will abide by rules strict enough that the rebbe could snack in my kitchen; I will avoid premarital sex, but won’t follow the laws of negiah.

This last item was, in fact, the only one for which I had an intellectual defense. I was shy and insecure about sex and knew enough to fear its power as an obfuscating force in relationships. The more I knew, I thought, the better my chances that I wouldn’t mistake lust for love.

Fooling around before marriage has, historically, not been an uncommon practice among Modern Orthodox Jews. After all, they gave the world the “tefillin date,” so named for the men who brought along their phylacteries in hopes they wouldn’t be home in time for morning prayers.

By my early 20s, the community had moved significantly to the right. People found themselves caught between rules of the old world and the kind of curiosity about sex and dating fostered in the new one.

“It is bad enough to be alone, but to be not sexual is almost as bad, and the two together is terrible,” writes an anonymous Orthodox blogger. “I have had fantasies of killing myself. I have considered hiring a male prostitute and getting it over with. No, I have not tried either of those last two things, chas vishalom…. To all the married people out there telling older singles that they should deny themselves, I wish I could respond, ‘Let he who is 34 and never been kissed cast the first stone.'”

I was 25 when I married — a bit old compared to my yeshiva classmates but still within respectable limits. To a casual observer, Daniel might have seemed like a rebellious choice: He did not grow up Orthodox; his father is not Jewish; his last name is Scotch-Irish. But he was almost as connected to the community as I was, having just gotten out of a relationship with another Orthodox woman.

He had started learning Hebrew, loved Shabbat and had relatives in Israel. And, unlike me, he had yichus, a distinguished lineage: His grandfather was a famed civil rights lawyer and Zionist activist. He was different enough, and yet similar.

After a year of dating, we wanted to move in together, but I knew this was unheard of in our circles. So I made another silent compromise: I’d marry the person of my choosing, but at an age and in a way that would be acceptable within the community.

Daniel and I married before we should have, a step that put undue pressure on a young relationship and two people still struggling to define themselves. When the marriage ruptured, so did the thin thread holding me to Orthodoxy. I became angry at the community for depriving me of my adolescence or, rather, for being too rigid to encourage it.

As psychologist Naomi Mark said at the panel on the shidduch crisis that I attended, the community expects young adults to have marriage, education and careers settled, or at least on track, by their early 20s, leaving no time to make the kind of mistakes that teach us who we are. My effort to avoid these mistakes — to experience the world but not so much that I’d be forced from the community’s safe corral — threatened to split the baby. And the baby was me.

In the end, I chose self-definition over religion. As Plato promised, the examined life is indeed fulfilling — firsthand experience of oneself trumps guesswork any day — but it’s not nearly as pretty as the brochure implies. For me, the ugliness lies not in the fact that by opening the door to all experience I’ve ushered in pain as well as joy, or because in the course of learning about myself, I’ve unearthed a few things I’d rather never have known — though both have certainly happened.

What most disquiets me is the limbo. Unlike my Orthodox peers, who can be sure of the basic contours of their lives, I writhe with uncertainty: Where will I be living 10 years from now? What school will my kids attend? How kosher will my kitchen be?

Sometimes, the fog gets so intimidating that I start to wonder if there’s still time to go back, to abandon all this liberty and just get comfortable again. Alas, I fear all this experience has ruined me; I’ve lost too many virginities — intellectual, emotional, psychological and, well, otherwise — to mesh again with that life. Plus, as the panel proved, the community hardly needs another 30-year-old woman in need of marrying off, especially one without a younger, prettier sister to use as bait.

Alana Newhouse is the arts and letters editor at The Forward.

Reprinted from

Jewish Studies Bug Bites Parents, Too


Eighteen months ago, when Lenard Cohen’s 4-year-old daughter was enrolled in the family’s congregational preschool, the Philadelphia-area father of three decided to go back to school himself.

He signed up for the Florence Melton Parent Education Program, a Jewish adult education course for parents of preschoolers.

Raised as a Reform Jew, Cohen said he was on the “lower end” of the observance scale when he signed up for the course, which meets once a week, 30 weeks a year, two hours at a stretch, for two full years.

His goal, he says, was to “increase my knowledge of Jewish practice, Jewish history and Jewish ethics, and to be able to pass it on to my children better.”

The course has done that and more, he says, bringing together a group of parents with disparate backgrounds and experiences.

“We’re all there because we’re parents of preschoolers and we want to learn,” he says.

With a number of recent studies showing that preschools have a profound effect on the Jewish life of the entire family, and that greater linkage is needed between preschools and the rest of the Jewish educational and communal network, educators and philanthropists are engaging in new initiatives to bring parents of Jewish preschoolers into the process.

Some of those initiatives are formal, such as the Melton program, which operates in 15 cities, and some are more informal, involving interaction and greater outreach between parents and their children’s school.

“There’s a sense of fragmentation,” says Lyndall Miller, coordinator of the Jewish early childhood education certificate program at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa. “Parents don’t have models of how to parent. People don’t talk to each other about how they can build relationships with their children. Schools must become communities, and they don’t know how.”

Simply making the effort to reach out is a crucial beginning, educators say.

Ina Regosin, founding director of the Early Childhood Institute and dean of students at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., says that when she was director of a Jewish preschool 30 years ago, she’d routinely invite parents into the building when they dropped off their children, “to educate them, of course.”

The school sent home weekly newsletters for the parents to read, and held evening programs on Jewish holidays and other topics.

The best Jewish preschools today all engage in that kind of active outreach to parents, and try to make it part of the natural rhythm of family life.

“Whatever we do for the children we do for the adults,” says Helen Cohen, who 12 years ago founded a preschool at Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in Boston. Teachers send home weekly newsletters on the Torah portion, with the Hebrew words translated and transliterated. They hold family Havdalah services, and send parents home with clear instructions on how to do the ritual themselves.

Taking part in a Jewish learning experience at their child’s preschool is a nonthreatening way for many parents with little or no Jewish education to increase their own knowledge and feel more at home with Jewish observance.

Sometimes preschools run separate, adults-only classes for parents to study Torah or learn Jewish parenting skills.

“Our families are so assimilated, a lot of them are not comfortable with the rituals,” says Shelley Smith, preschool director at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Portland, Ore. “We create a safe zone for them to learn from the ground up, together with their children.

Sending kids home on Friday with “Shabbat boxes,” which typically include candles, transliterations of the blessings and challah baked by the child that day in class, is popular at many preschools.

“Who won’t hang the mezuzah your child made on the bedroom door?” Smith says. “Who on Friday night won’t stick candles in the Shabbat candlesticks your child made out of Play-Doh?”

At the Osher Marin JCC preschool in San Rafael, director Janet Harris stands in her front lobby every morning to greet the children and their parents. She shakes their hands and personally invites them to the school’s family programs.

The Osher Marin preschool is one of 12 schools involved in a pilot project by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, which was launched in 2004 to develop models of preschools that bring the entire family into the project of Jewish learning.

Mark Horowitz, the initiative’s executive director, says that each school receives funding and coaching to deepen the Jewish and developmental content in the classrooms, and to build strong relationships with the parents.

Next year, the program will add 10 to 20 new preschools to the project.

“If we can create communities of Jewish families around these preschools, then they will want to continue their connection with Jewish education and institutions,” he says. “We will have created a craving for Jewish life. It might mean congregational affiliation, or membership in Jewish Community Centers, or Jewish day school — some meaningful way to continue the communities in which they have been flourishing.”

The Melton Parent Education Program is one of two formal initiatives to emerge in recent years. The program, based at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and run out of its North American office in Northbrook, Ill., is modeled after the successful Florence Melton Adult Mini-School curriculum.

“We promote pluralism, text-based study and interactive learning,” says Mitch Parker, director of the program for preschool parents.

“We encourage the parents to realize that what they learn in class is relevant to Jewish family life, and to take the lesson home. We don’t teach the how-tos, but the whys of Judaism and the importance of it.”

This spring, 450 parents are enrolled nationwide. And it’s having an impact.

More of those parents are enrolling their children in day school — the stated goal of the Avi Chai Foundation, which subsidizes tuition for the program. The program is also, in some cases, open to parents of children in the younger grades of day school.

And, Parker says, “We definitely see behavioral changes” among the parent-students. “They admit that after two years, they are doing more Jewish things.”

Deborah Bradley of Walled Lake, Mich., outside Detroit, is in her second year of the program. Her three children all went to a Conservative congregational preschool. The two oldest are now in day school, and the youngest will start next year. The decision to put her kids in day school “evolved,” she says, as she and her husband saw how much they were learning in preschool.

She decided to take the Melton program “not only because of my love of studying, but to be able to delve into topics my children were getting introduced to in Jewish day school.”

Her 10-year-old had been asking difficult questions about Jewish beliefs regarding afterlife, cremation and where she stood on abortion.

“I came in with good knowledge, but getting Tanach references was helpful,” she says, referring to the Bible. “It helps me communicate better with the kids.”

Another formal education program operates in the Boston area and western Massachusetts. Ikkarim, an adult learning program for parents of 1- to 5-year-olds, is run by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. The Ikkarim program operates at several local synagogues. Focusing on Jewish text study, it targets parents of preschool-age children in its exploration of how Jewish values apply to contemporary family relationships.

Regosin of Hebrew College says that it’s critical to offer this kind of outreach to young Jewish parents, because they’re at the point in their lives when they’re making decisions that will affect the Jewish nature of their home for years to come.

“You’ve got families that are so open at this point, especially when it’s their first child,” she says. If the preschool experience is good, they’re more likely to continue that child’s Jewish education, and to send their younger children to preschool as well.

“When a young family makes that choice and walks through the door, it’s a tremendous opportunity,” she says. “If you have teachers and directors committed to strong Jewish education, they can have tremendous impact.”

 

First Person – A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story


Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.

I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).

Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I’m gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.

I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, “I’m gay.”

To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, “Is that all?”

I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.

It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister — who responded, “I still love you, and of course I won’t tell anyone.” To this I said that I wasn’t telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.

The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents’ home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.

After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage — more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life — and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: “I have something that’s really hard to say … I’m gay.”

Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father’s first words were: I’m shocked but I’m not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me — I wouldn’t have a happy life, I would be alone — I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn’t thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I’m gay was so overwhelming that I hadn’t thought past anything but their initial reactions.

My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings – relief, anxiety, disappointment – and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.

On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn’t experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn’t quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, “Is that all?”

But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.

Due — in no small part — to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.

Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.

Few Females Filling Mohel Role in U.S.


When Dr. Debra Weiss-Ishai watched her son’s brit milah two years ago, she thought to herself, I could do this better. Not just technically, although as a pediatrician she had done numerous medical circumcisions. She felt she could bring a warmth and spiritual beauty to the ritual in ways her old-school mohel, who she said “rushed through” the ceremony, did not.

Last April, Weiss-Ishai completed the Reform movement’s Berit Mila program, an intensive 35-hour certification course for physicians and nurse-midwives at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She now has performed seven or eight Jewish ritual circumcisions in the San Francisco Bay area.

Weiss-Ishai spends hours preparing for each brit milah, working with the family to make sure the ceremony fits their needs, determining the level of Hebrew they want, incorporating friends and relatives and personalizing it with readings and poetry. Doing this work is her way of helping to ensure Jewish continuity, she said.

Weiss-Ishai is one of just a few female mohels in the United States. There are about 35 Reform female mohels and just four trained by the U.S. Conservative movement, as well as a handful who learned outside the United States.

It’s not surprising that throughout Jewish history mohels have been men. Circumcision is, after all, a guy thing. Beyond the obvious anatomical requirements, it’s something the Torah commands a father, not a mother, to do for his son on the eighth day of life.

What is surprising, however, is that while half of all new non-Orthodox rabbis and cantors in this country are women, few women are choosing to become mohels.

Yet unlike rabbis and cantors, there is no halachic prohibition against female mohels. Every Orthodox authority consulted for this story agreed on that point, although most asked not to be quoted. Jewish law states only that if a Jewish male is present, it’s preferable that he do the brit milah.

“It’s a custom, a strong custom, but there’s no law except that the mohel be Jewish,” said Rabbi Donni Aaron, director of the Reform Berit Mila program. “People assume it’s not according to halacha, but they just haven’t encountered it. Some people think it’s a man’s job, that it just feels weird” for a woman to do a brit milah.

Unlike physicians, mohels in the United States are not regulated, and technically, anyone can act as mohel if the parents trust him or her to perform the operation on their infant son. Traditionally, it’s been a profession passed on from father to son; even today, Orthodox and many Conservative mohels learn by apprenticing with a senior mohel, usually in Israel.

The Reform and Conservative movements set up their training programs because there were so few traditionally trained mohels available to serve the non-Orthodox community. The non-Orthodox movements, especially the Reform movement, needed their own mohels because Orthodox mohels generally are reluctant to circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother.

The Reform program, which has trained about 300 mohels since it began in 1984, and the Conservative Brit Kodesh program, which has trained about 75, both accept only physicians or nurse-midwives who already are experts in medical circumcision. The programs teach them the relevant halacha, rituals and textual background to perform a Jewish brit milah.

The training is similar, though Conservative mohels generally won’t circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother unless the parents intend to convert the child.

Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), said there was no problem admitting women to the Conservative program, which is run jointly by JTS and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“We considered it, we deliberated it and then we said, frankly it’s easier to train women for this role than to count them in the minyan,” Roth recalled. “We know it hasn’t been done historically, but there’s no earthly reason why we shouldn’t.”

The mohelot interviewed for this article said most clients choose them because of their reputation, not because they’re female.

“It works both ways,” said Ilene Gelbaum, a certified nurse-midwife in Anaheim, who became a mohel in 1986 and has since circumcised both her grandsons.

“Some people are pretty up front when they call,” she said. “They say they chose me because I’m female. And sometimes, you do what you think is a beautiful service and the grandfather comes up to you afterward and says you shouldn’t be doing it because you’re a woman.”

Dr. Lillian Schapiro said she “braced for a backlash” when the Atlanta Jewish Times ran a front-page story on her four years ago. It never came.

“There was one op-ed against me, but I didn’t feel personally attacked,” she said.

Gelbaum wasn’t as lucky. Beginning with a lecture she delivered in 1990 at the American College of Midwives conference in Atlanta, she’s been steadily targeted by the anti-circumcision movement. Protesters showed up at that first lecture bearing placards calling her a baby mutilator, she’s been vilified online and in print, and worst of all, she said, “They called my house, they talked to my children. They said, ‘Do you know what your mother does?'”

Gelbaum said she was targeted because she was so public. Although she’s now stopped lecturing about circumcision, she said it’s still not easy to talk about the campaign against her.

“I knew these people personally,” she said quietly. “And how much of it is anti-Semitism? Not only am I the vocal midwife, I’m the Jewish midwife.”

Female mohels said that as physicians, they feel comfortable doing circumcisions, and want to bring a Jewish aspect to what they already are doing.

Dr. April Rubin, an OB-GYN in Washington, had been doing circumcisions for more than 20 years when she became more observant. Two years ago, she completed the Conservative Brit Kodesh program, and has since done about 70 britei milah.

Some traditionally trained mohels look askance at these physician-mohels.

“They really don’t have a very solid background in the halacha,” said Rabbi Paul Silton, a Conservative rabbi in Albany, N.Y., who apprenticed with an Orthodox mohel in Jerusalem. “They’re physicians who want a sideline in brit milah, and I feel that’s unfortunate.”

The Conservative program requires applicants to be practicing members of Conservative congregations and ritually observant. The Reform program requires applicants to belong to any congregation, Reform or not, but makes no stipulations about ritual observance.

Some people choose a female mohel because of her gender, like Bay Area resident Nicole Sorger, who asked Weiss-Ishai to circumcise her son last November.

“The idea of having an old, bearded man was disconcerting, not being very religious,” Sorger said. Having Weiss-Ishai do the ceremony “broke up the idea of it being a male event, a patriarchal celebration. It made the ceremony so much more accessible to me.”

Dr. Laurie Radovsky, a Conservative mohel in St. Paul, Minn., circumcised her son 11 years ago in rural Wisconsin because no mohels lived nearby. Nine years later, she became a mohel herself.

Her male rabbi told her that women bring “a gentleness, a sensitivity” to the ceremony, but she said there are other advantages.

“With men, when you talk about circumcision, there’s an instinctive protecting of the genitals,” she said. “And as a mother, I can empathize with that mother’s feelings and tenderness toward that child. I can reassure her, perhaps more than a male mohel can.”

At the end of every brit milah, “sometimes surreptitiously,” Radovsky said she kisses the baby’s head to welcome him into the Jewish community.

“I really feel I can make a difference in the world,” she said.

 

Hey Kids!


It’s Your World

Welcome to your page in The Jewish Journal. The last Friday of every month belongs to the kids of Jewish Los Angeles. In honor of the New Year and new look of this page, we want you to come up with a new name for it. Please send your ideas to kids@jewishjournal.com with the subject line New Name. We’ll pick the best one and make it the new name for the kids page (and you’ll get all the credit).

Kein v’ Lo

The Kein Side:

Many children use the evening to collect tzedakah for different charities instead of asking for candy — or they donate the candy to a food bank. For most people, the holiday has nothing to do with religion or real witches or saints. It’s more of a chance to go out with friends, have fun and decorate. Besides, it’s a great way to meet your neighbors.

The Lo Side:

It is a pagan holiday (a night when people believed the spirits of the dead would contact the living) and a Catholic holiday (candles are lit Nov. 1 on All Saints’ Day to honor the dead), but Jews are not supposed to celebrate non-Jewish holidays. Asking strangers for candy is rude; and tricks are mean. Jewish children have Purim as a day to dress up.

What do you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com with the subject line

Kein V’Lo: Halloween. We’ll publish your opinions next month.

Stump Your Parents

Enjoy these facts about autumn — test your parents, grandparents and older siblings and see who gets the right answers first.

1) Which Hebrew month do we welcome in November?

2) How many weeks of autumn are there?

3) What is the full moon that follows the beginning of autumn?

4) What were the first jack-o-lanterns made from?

5) Who first suggested using Daylight Saving Time?

6) Why do the leaves change color?

7) In the Torah Portion Noach (which we read Nov. 5), God put up what object to show that everything was OK after the flood?

Answers: 1) Cheshvan; 2) Thirteen; 3) Harvest Moon; 4) Turnips; 5) Ben Franklin; 6) As the leaves lose chlorophyll (which makes them green) their other pigments
are exposed.; 7) A Rainbow

Wine, Women, Song


As the daylight hours dwindle down to a precious few, and hurricanes, fires and floods give the distinct feeling that the world is indeed coming to an end, let’s turn our thoughts to two of the things that make so many Jews so happy: wine and Hawaii.

That’s where Judd and Holly Finkelstein come in. The Journal sat with the young couple over coffee at downtown’s Angelique Café, and tried to keep track of their interests and projects.

Judd’s parents, Art and Bunnie, have been making wine in Napa Valley for 25 years, first creating the Whitehall Lane label, then Judd’s Hill. After training as a journalist, that same Judd recognized maybe there’s a reason people dream of retiring to the place he grew up, and he moved back to join the family business.

The family has numerous ties to Los Angeles, and Judd met Holly, a former program officer for the Steven Spielberg Righteous Persons Foundation, on a 2003 visit here.

Now the two form the center of a Jewish-winemaking-experimental-entrepreneurial-Hawaiian music-making community in Napa.

Along with expanding and marketing the critically acclaimed Judd Hill line, the two are marketing Napa Valley Custom MicroCrush. Customers pay to make their own wines, selecting grapes and overseeing the process from picking to labeling.

“Crushing grapes is nasty, grungy work,” Judd said. “It’s barely pleasant.”

MicroCrush customers can have others do this part, but otherwise, for about $20 per bottle, make their oenophiliac dreams come true. The idea sounds prime for a nonprofit group to use as a fundraiser — anyone for a case of ’06 Jewish Family Service Pinot Noir?

When not promoting wine, Holly and Judd perform in a Hawaiian lounge band they created, The Maikai Gents, featuring the Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa. Holly, a trained hula dancer (a.k.a. Miss Mauna Loa), and Judd, an expert on the ukelele, perform at clubs, parties and the rare bar mitzvah in the wine country.

Their new CD, “Wiki Wiki Grog Shop,” will take you back — to somewhere between Kapalua and Trader Vics.

These days, that’s a good place to be.

For more information, visit www.juddshill.com.

 

Bust Bad Behavior on the Circuit


Ah, the thrill and abandon of early adolescence. Laughing with friends; smacking gum and blowing bubbles; sending your best buddy messages in sign language across a crowded room. And, if you’re lucky, the rabbi won’t shoot you a dirty look when your behavior interferes with the bar mitzvah boy’s Torah portion.

Our sages taught that a parent is responsible for a child until that child reaches the age of 13 years and one day, at which time he’s ready to assume full responsibility for observing the commandments and for all his deeds. Perhaps our sages should have specified that all deeds include stuffing up toilets with rolls of toilet paper, downing the remains of alcoholic beverages, running wild in hotel parking lots, having elevator races and destroying someone else’s furniture.

Currently, having a son on the bar/bat mitzvah circuit myself, I’ve been privy to many horrific tales of the disrespectful and downright out-of-control behavior that can take place at these meaningful celebrations. While some of the more extreme stories may simply be suburban legend, there’s no doubt that disorderly conduct at bar and bat mitzvahs is a recurring problem.

This unruly behavior is hurtful, if not heartbreaking, to the bar/bat mitzvah families who’ve invested many months — not to mention dollars — anticipating and preparing for this all-important day. It negatively impacts visitors to the synagogue and regular congregants, as well as rabbis forced to add policing to their list of Shabbat morning duties. Still, an unsettling ripple effect stemming from these young guests’ thoughtless actions may travel beyond the scope of our personal celebrations. Consider the non-Jewish friends who witness Jewish children audaciously misbehaving at such supposedly sacred events. And those that jostle hotel management and party planners into shying away from the bar/bat mitzvah “industry” for fear of property damage and risk of reputation.

Finally, there are jaded kids who have come to believe that their own traditions and prayer are unworthy of their reverence and respect. The overwhelming nature of the task of busting bad bar/bat mitzvah behavior feels somehow analogous to that of disinfecting the mountain of muddy laundry my son brought home from overnight camp.

“Start with the underwear and move out from there,” insisted a friend of mine. When confronted with a mess of such magnitude as a heap of filthy camp frocks — or an epidemic of poor bar mitzvah behavior — the underwear, the bare basics, no matter how skimpy and thong-like, is the place to begin.

Myrna Rubel, a middle school principal at an Atlanta Jewish school, heeds to this truth, working to foster a formidable foundation of bar/bat mitzvah etiquette in her 12- and 13-year-old charges. They talk about proper synagogue behavior, including keeping your siddur open during services whether or not you believe you know its content as well as your locker combination.

Unfortunately, Rubel also knows another truth — clean underwear doesn’t necessarily guarantee presentable clothing. And that while in the days of the sages, 13 and one day may have been old enough to take on full responsibility for observing all the commandments, in the days of Snoop Dogg and Puffy, 13-and-one-dayers tend to fall short in the personal responsibility department. Consequently, Rubel offers the following recommendations to parents:

At your own child’s bar/bat-mitzvah:

\n

• Arrange for ushers to be present at services and prepared to manage any behavioral problems.

\n

• Don’t be afraid to have a pre-party powwow with your young guests regarding your expectations and the consequences of misconduct.

\n

• Feel comfortable calling parents of children who misbehave. (Wouldn’t you want to know?)

\n

• Hire a party planner to keep an eye out for questionable activity.

\n

• Plan a separate children’s party; kids will be less likely to act out due to boredom or be tempted by alcohol.

At the bar/bat mitzvah of others:

\n

• Don’t assume that your child’s behavior is the responsibility of day school principals, religious school directors, rabbis or other parents. It’s yours.

\n

• Accompany your child to services and model appropriate behavior.

\n

• Don’t allow kids to dress improperly or promiscuously.

\n

• Consistently, if not relentlessly, review the basics of bar mitzvah behavior with your children.

\n

• If you know your kid tends to bore easily and subsequently seek out other means of having “fun,” pick him or her up early from the party.

\n

• Organize a meeting with parents of other children in the same grade. Brainstorm ideas and join forces.

An invitation to a bar or bat mitzvah isn’t a glitter-clad proclamation that your kid will be out of your hair for the majority of Saturday. On the contrary, it is a summons to us to do our jobs as parents, role models and true Jewish adults.

Letters


Two Families’ Dreams

I thought I was reading an excerpt from an Al Jazeera broadcast when I read “Two Families’ Dreams Were Not Demolished” (June 24).

The chattering liberals in Brentwood, donating funds for Nasrallah’s new home, have long ago made common cause with the Israel haters on the left. I expect little from them and more from The Jewish Journal.

Rachel Corrie’s accidental death is a tragedy, but so are the deaths of the Jewish teenagers intentionally murdered by Arabs last month. She chose to be in harm’s way. Not so the thousands of innocent Israelis murdered and maimed by intentional acts of violence by Arabs during the last four years.

When will the Brentwood Jewish bleeding hearts bleed for their own people?

Herb Glaser
E-mail

What’s missing from your article is a discussion on what the Palestinian Authority has done for the Nasrallah family or why the Corrie family feels that the plight of the innocent Palestinian is worth more than the innocent Israeli.

Once again, the author and his subjects find plenty to complain about, but offer no real solutions about what Israel should do to protect its people and help the Palestinians, when the Palestinians (who are also funded by the U.S. taxpayer) won’t help themselves.

Ari Stark
Los Angeles

Thanks so much to The Journal for having the courage to publish “Two Families’ Dreams Were Not Demolished” by Howard Blume.

I have an idea of what kind of toll a backlash can take. My grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who survived Bergen Belsen and publicly spoke out in support of Jews and Palestinians living together as equals in peace. He became the target of the wrath of zealots who shunned him in synagogue, resulting in a painful isolation that led him to leave Holland and move to the U.S.

The Los Angeles Jewish community is not a monolith. We are much better served with a paper that reflects and embraces our diversity.

It was an honor to meet the parents of Rachel Corrie and the Nasrallah family, who exhibit incredible poise and commitment as they are warmly welcomed on their 20-city U.S. tour, carrying Rachel’s message of peace and justice.

Karen Pomer
Los Angeles

Thank you for having the journalistic independence to print the article, “Two Families’ Dreams Were Not Demolished” in The Jewish Journal. Regardless of how one feels about this issue, it is important that a free press has the courage to present all views.

Middie and Richard Giesberg
Los Angeles

I am writing in support of The Jewish Journal and its balanced, comprehensive coverage of the Middle East. Your paper gives me focus and detail that the mainstream media misses, and I appreciate it.

I have been a loyal reader for many years.

Keep up the good work and give a brave face to the extremists on both sides who would suppress the whole story.

Dr. Sandy Weimer
Los Angeles

Ten Commandments

I find it curious why anyone would want the Ten Commandments inside a courthouse (“Ten Commandments’ Future Unclear,” July 1). Without any commentary, the commandments alone are very cold and unforgiving.

They say “Do not kill,” but leave no room for self-defense. They say, “Honor thy parents,” not offering any olive branch for people who have had very abusive parents. They say, “Do not covet,” which is not technically a crime.

Furthermore, the first commandment is Adonai is your God and the second is, “You shall have no other gods besides Me,” which seems an unfair statement in a space that is supposed to be unbiased toward race and religion.

I believe that whatever hangs on the wall of a courthouse should be directed to the judges who serve there day in and day out, rather than to the people who come and go. It is the judges that need a constant reminder of why they are there, so as not to be jaded or forget their sacred purpose.

Therefore, if a courthouse desires to put biblical verses on their walls, instead of the Ten Commandments, let me suggest the following three verses from Deuteronomy:

“You shall appoint magistrates and officials … and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue…. (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

Rabbi Zoe Klein
Temple Isaiah
Los Angeles

Gush Katif

This letter is in response to the letter to the editor by Jeff Warner of La Habra Heights on June 24, regarding the Israeli government’s intention to abandon Gaza and the northern West Bank (“The Battle Over Gaza in America,” June 17).

SaveGushKatif.org does not use the “G-d argument,” because if one doesn’t believe that G-d gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people for eternity, then the argument is meaningless. Our entire campaign simply presents the security risks involved in giving away Jewish Gaza (Gush Katif) and the four communities in the northern West Bank that are still in Israeli hands.

I am sure that Mr. Warner loves Israel every bit as much as I do. I beg him to simply read the reports from security experts from Israel and the United States and then to draw his conclusions.

Mr. Warner can find the reports on our Web site at www.SaveGushKatif.org

Jon Hambourger
Save Gush Katif
Beverly Hills

Dystonia

Your article about dystonia (“Rare Ailment Occurs More in Ashkenazis,” June 10) was a moving and necessary reminder that not enough attention is given this disease in the research community.

Contributions to organizations, including the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (www.dystonia-foundation.org) and We Move (www.wemove.org) are critical to help raise awareness and education, and to help thousands of children like David Rudolph, the amazing 10-year-old boy featured in your article.

Thank you for helping shed light on this important topic.

Benjamin Krepack
Los Angeles

Summer Safety

Thank you for your valuable article (“Don’t Get Lazy on Kids Summer Safety,” June 24). Jewish Family Service/Aleinu Family Resource Center continues to work with Susan DiLeo and the Mothers Advocating Prevention program to develop school-based programs educating children and parents about child safety in a manner that is sensitive to the Orthodox community.

We also promote child safety at summer camps. For the second year, JFS/Aleinu is sponsoring a comprehensive training program on child safety for directors and head counselors of Jewish camps in the Los Angeles area.

We have developed guidelines for staff and counselors to help ensure that there is no inappropriate, illegal or confusing conduct taking place between staff and campers or among campers.

We offer a certificate to all camps whose directors complete our training program and whose staff agree to use these guidelines.

A list of camps that have participated in the training and earned this certificate is available online at www.jfsla.org/index.php?/programs/details/5/53.

We encourage all parents to require the JFS/Aleinu Keeping Our Kids Safe certificate from camps before registering their children.

Debbie Fox,
JFS/Aleinu Family Resource Center

Dreams Not Demolished

I have read Howard Blume’s article about the Gaza disengagement, the Nasrallah famil and Rachel Corrie’s death, and find it a good piece of journalism (“Two Families Dreams Were Not Demolished,” June 24). Far from being polemical or blatantly pro-Palestinian, it presents both sides very fairly. Blume should be congratulated, first of all for telling Corrie’s story, which too many American newspapers have ignored, and second for presenting a potentially emotional and divisive story in a calm, objective way.

Mary Johnson
Mount Kisco, N.Y.

With the exception of those parents who encourage their children to become suicide bombers, no other parent, such as Craig and Cynthia Corrie, wants to see one of their children, like Rachel Corrie, killed. It was indeed a tragedy.

I would like to respectfully ask them, and the Nasrallahs, and the Stanley Sheinbaums who, among others, offer them a venue at which they can condemn Israeli actions, Caterpiller, Inc., the settlements and Ariel Sharon, about whether they include in their screeds a condemnation of the bombings at Haifa University, or at the Sbarro pizza parlor or numerous busses? And more recently, have they condemned Wafa Samir Ibraim Bas, the girl who was carrying 10 kilos of explosives strapped to her underwear attempting to blow herself up at the very hospital that had treated her in the past, and who was quoted as saying that she wanted to kill as many children as possible? Have they condemned Fatah’s Al-Aqsa’s Brigade? You know, Abbas’ Fatah?

So the visitors were here to “…promote peace and raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians.” But what about the plight of innocent Israelis wantonly killed by Palestinians who subscribe to the Cult of Death? We all know by now the plight of the Palestinians, but fail to comprehend how that “plight” justifies the murder on June 24 of two teenage Yeshiva students by Palestinian terrorists from Hebron.

Has Sheinbaum endowed a chair at the Yeshiva to honor these two innocent students? Or at Haifa University to honor those innocent students and counselors who were murdered by a suicide bomber? Why not? Has he created a trust fund for the families whose members have been murdered or maimed by Palestinian suicide bombers? If not, why not? Or a memorial to Tali Hatual, eight months pregnant, who was murdered along with her four children in May 2004? Or is it the plight of the Israeli to be subordinated always to the plight of the other?

Why does Blume omit that though “The Gaza Strip was set aside as Palestinian in 1947,” the Arabs rejected the plan? When you reject a plan does that mean you’re still tied to it as though you had accepted it? Why does he also state that various “…Israeli governments tacitly or explicitly encouraged Israelis to move into the disputed “occupied territories,” without mentioning that Israeli did not do so until the Arabs met at Khartoum and rejected Israel’s plea for a quid pro quo, territories for peace, with their famous three Nos: no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no peace with Israel? Wasn’t that relevant to him? Partial facts can be as much a lie as a falsehood.

And finally, Mrs. Corrie should be disabused of the statement that “The U.S. government has funded the occupation.”

No, Mrs. Corrie, Arab intransigence has.

Jack Salem
Los Angeles

I didn’t realize that the Jewish Journal was now an outlet for Palestinian Disinformation.

The article starts by comparing the Jewish residents of Gaza with people who endorsed and shielded terrorists waging war against Israel’s civilians … and it gets worse.

It characterizes Rachel Corrie as an activist who died to protect Palestinian homes’ but it describes the ISM as “a pro Palestinian activist group that uses non-violent means to oppose Israel’s policies in the territories.” The article of course omits the deliberate shielding of terrorists by the ISM, or the on the record endorsement of violent “resistance,” against Israel’s civilians by the groups’ founders, Adam Shapiro and his Arab wife Hawaida Arraf on numerous occasions. Of course, a cute picture of “activist” Corrie is included – not the AP shot of a hate filled harridan in a Palestinian headscarf burning an American flag in front of a group of Palestinian children, screaming at the top of her lungs.

The article also repeats as fact allegations that the IDF bulldozed homes without notice and without regard for human life, as well as alleging that the IDF deliberately shot pregnant women and children.

Just because two parents with a long history of anti-Israel activism feel like propagandizing against Israel with a Palestinian in tow and are able to get the likes of Stanley Shienbaum to front for them is no reason for this kind of falsehood.

Robert Miller
La Crescenta

We have read the article by Howard Blume in the June 24 issue of your paper and wish to commend you and Blume for presenting a balanced view of two families made homeless by policies of the Israeli government. We believe that Israel will be secure and that peace and justice will prevail in the Middle East only when the truth on all sides is aired. We thank you for the step you have taken in this direction.

Kathryn J. Johnson
Executive Director
Methodist Federation for Social Action
Washington, D.C.

Thank you for the enlightening and moving article about the Corries and Nasrallahs, two unlikely families who forged a friendship through a mutual tragedy and have chosen to work together for justice.

Howard Blume should be congratulated for his detailed account of this sad story that never should have happened, and for giving the historical background which is usually missing in articles in our media about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I am grateful to Tthe Jewish Journal for bringing us the story of these two fine, proud families.

Carole La Flamme
Studio City

Vegetarians

Modern agricultural methods of factory farming are far more cruel and inhumane than most people could ever imagine (“A Holocaust Inspired Vegetarian,” June 24). [Noam] Mohr’s essay accurately described examples of how food animals are raised and slaughtered. I recommend the book, “Eternal Treblinka, Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust,” by Charles Patterson. I sincerely believe that if slaughterhouses had windows, everyone would be a vegetarian! — or at least, anyone with a conscience and any sensitivity.

Arlene Cohen
Los Angeles

The Evil Stepmother

Teresa Strasser’s article lifts the art of whining to new heights. In what has become the anthem of her generation — “I Am Victim, Hear Me Whine” — Strasser complains and annoys, never once contemplating the notion that possibly, she could have been even partly responsible for her own fate (“The Evil Stepmother Dies,” July 1).

It’s so much easier to blame everyone else. But then, that’s what Strasser and her ilk are all about. What a loser.

Rob Frankel,
Encino

Halachic Decisions

While I appreciate — and agree with — Jacob Neusner’s idea that every Jew has a contribution to make to the worldwide Jewish community, I must take issue with two of the premises in his article (“Why Reform, Chabad Are Necessary,” June 17).

The first is that “humanity and common sense” should be the “principal criteria in halachic decision-making.” By definition, “halachic decision-making” means that the principal criteria should be just that — halacha.

The second is that, somehow, Orthodoxy — i.e., halacha — has somehow managed to be applied with concern and compassion for several millenia, and continues to be so applied today. There is no need to reject it in order to apply it in a responsible manner, as true halachists — by definition — do.

Dafna Breines
Beitar Eilit, Israel

Shattered

Your editorial “Shattered” on July 1, indicates that you are no longer able to abide by journalist Thomas Freidman’s sitting on the fence position regarding Iraq, but that you are also still unsure of what to do.

History may help you, and others, who ask “when will be bring the troops home?” to place that question in perspective.

Nazi Germany touted a totalitarian policy of world domination, wherein the Aryans were the best and only race/culture worthy of survival. All others were to be ruthlessly wiped out (murdered!) and/or subjugated.

In 1943, would you have asked, “When will we bring the troops home?”

Had we brought home the troops in 1943, America’s national language, today, would likely be German, and there would be no Jewish newspapers in the United States — for there would be zero Jews on Earth! Nor would we have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, etc.

Today’s Islamists offer a totalitarian policy of world domination, wherein their philosophy is the best and only religion/culture worthy of survival. All others (the “infidels” of the world) are to be ruthlessly wiped out (murdered, beheaded etc) and/or subjugated.

We can either choose to fight to maintain the western culture and freedoms we cherish or simply stand passively and idly by, while our culture and freedoms are erased.

“Bring home the troops now” will do much to help the latter outcome.

Fred Korr
Los Angeles

 

Money for Nothing


With newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa making school reform one of his key agenda items, and with education dominating the budget struggle in Sacramento, it’s worth examining why the education debate usually centers on an emotional struggle over cash rather than actual reform.

In his speech to the National Education Association (NEA) a few days ago, Villaraigosa said, “Don’t think that this effort to make our schools the best that they can be will come cheap. That’s ludicrous, that’s snake-oil salesmanship.”

He’s espousing a view long held by unions, including the NEA and the California Teachers Association. But the truth is that dramatically increasing classroom funding in the United States has proved surprisingly irrelevant.

California is at the middle in per-pupil funding in the United States. The state spends roughly $7,500, plus more than $2,000 pours in from federal and other sources. There’s no funding “disaster” facing California schools, despite claims by state Schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell.

By comparison, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a handful of states spend more than $11,000 per pupil (plus the federal cash). Yet there isn’t a shred of evidence that the vast expenditures in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have raised student achievement.

Student achievement in California is improving, year after year, while states whose schools are comparatively awash in cash often show no improvement at all.

One of the worst school districts is Washington, D.C., which spends more than $12,000 per child (plus federal money). Children in the Los Angeles Unified School District are demonstrably gaining against children in Washington, D.C. This is fascinating because, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly 50 percent of L.A. children are learning English as a second language, while only about 11 percent of Washington, D.C., children are learning English as a second language. Yet L.A. students do better on their English tests than D.C. students, despite the lavish sums spent in D.C.

Similarly, huge expenditures per child did not help Kansas City after a judge became convinced that money could turn schools around. He made Kansas City schools among the best-funded in the nation. Student achievement went nowhere.

Despite stereotypes about rich kids, there’s no evidence that private schools, which produce better-educated students, spend more money than public schools. Even in Los Angeles, many private elementary schools charge annual tuitions of less than $6,000. (Jewish day schools typically cost more, about $12,000 a year for elementary school.) Moreover, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, private schools pay their teachers significantly lower salaries than public schools.

California’s public school teachers are the highest paid teachers in the nation, according to NEA. Yet Hoover Institution researchers say that extra cash doesn’t buy much: California teachers have surprisingly little background in basic schoolroom subjects like math and history.

Nobody is certain how much money private schools spend per pupil. The data is not public. However, some Harvard researchers believe that private schools actually spend less per pupil than public schools, because they pay their teachers less and employ minuscule bureaucracies, compared to bureaucracies.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California poll showed that Californians support more funding for schools, agreeing with the Villaraigosa view that funding is the key to fixing schools. However, it’s worth noting that when parents actually “vote with their feet,” levels of school funding are not paramount in their minds.

Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who has also been an active public school parent, noted that in a 1997 survey of the Los Angeles Jewish population, parents were highly aware of which L.A. public schools were good and which were not. The deciding factor was student achievement and high test scores. As Phillips noted, because public schools are so bad, among Jewish students in the 1997 study, “Only half of urban kids (i.e., not Valley or South Bay) in LAUSD zip codes actually attend LAUSD.”

By contrast, in the San Fernando Valley, where public schools get the same amount of cash per child as urban Los Angeles schools, yet tend to produce far better test scores, two-thirds of Jewish children were enrolled publicly. “That’s a big difference compared to urban L.A.,” Phillips noted.

Parents seem to understand that once a basic level of funding had been reached, the real issue is whether a school uses its money to boost student achievement or spends the money poorly.

A debate rages over why private schools — which frequently have less money to spend per student than public schools — produce better-educated children. Some argue that private school parents care more about learning, and that private schools don’t allow misbehaving students to manipulate the system.

Those and other arguments are probably right. But despite what Villaraigosa professes, and what teachers unions have long insisted, years of mounting evidence continue to suggest that these troubles cannot be resolved — or even very much improved — by pouring in more money.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Spectator – ‘Time’: a Truthful Family Portrait


For Los Angeles artist Shelley Adler, the epiphany came after her second diagnosis of breast cancer and near-death from diverticulitis in 2001. Following her lumpectomy and two weeks in the hospital, she returned home and glimpsed cartons of family photographs she had collected since her parents and other relatives had died.

“The black-and-white snapshots revealed little worlds and scenes I wanted to bring alive in color,” said Adler, whose “Shades of Time: The Extended Family of Shelley Adler” runs through July 1 at the Workmen’s Circle. “I wanted to paint them the way the 16th-century Dutch genre painters had done — small portraits of ordinary people in their homes, offering glimpses into their lives.” Yet, she had put off the project until that day in 2001: “I suddenly recognized I might die, and if I was to do the series, it had to be now,” the artist said.

Adler, 69, had not painted in oils for decades; she had grown up Jewish in what she describes as a repressive small town, Minot, N.D., which she escaped to attend art school. But by 1960 she had married, had children and become a librarian in an effort to “conform, to be ‘normal.'” Fifteen years later she was so miserable that she divorced, returned to art school and became a professional illustrator.

After her 2001 epiphany, she left her job as The Jewish Journal’s art director and, between radiation and chemotherapy treatments, spent hours intensely staring at the snapshots.

“Eventually, the body language of the individuals told me things I wanted to communicate,” said Adler, who left The Journal in 2002.

Her realistic paintings include a 1944 winter portrait of her stoic, taciturn uncle Ben, who stands very still in front of his Minot jewelry store, his eyes veiled behind shadowed spectacles. In a painting of Adler’s domineering father and grandmother, his hand clutches her shoulder as if he is controlling her every move. A summer 1930s portrait of Adler’s scowling mother and aunt reveals “two women who are in conflict, yet they’re in a family,” she said.

Sherry Frumkin of the Santa Monica Art Studios, which previously displayed some of the paintings, described them as “intimate little gems, which make you feel transported to another era.”

If the portraits aren’t always positive, Adler said, “I’m a truth teller. I don’t color things with niceties…. [Rather], I hope viewers will feel they’re looking through a window, as if these people will step right out of the frame.”

For information, call (310) 552-2007.

 

Will She Marry Him?


In my last Singles column, “Change of Heart,” I left off with one important question for my girlfriend, Carrie: “Will you marry me?”

Did she say yes?

Well, let me back up a bit.

A few days before the column came out, I drove over to Carrie’s parents to ask for their blessing. Carol and Roy were watching “24” when I got there, so I waited until the commercial break — odd priorities, but I suppose it’s more riveting watching Kiefer Sutherland trying to stop the explosion of a nuclear warhead than watching me trying to stop the nervous trembling in my right leg.

Roy stood. Carol took a seat. I dove right in.

“You guys know I love Carrie very much, and I’m going to ask her to marry me. I’d like to get your blessing.”

They both seemed to gasp slightly, but then Carol gave me a hug and began repeating the phrase, “Oh my God!” Roy stiffened his body and seemed to freeze slightly. He didn’t give me a hug. Luckily, I did see some blinking. Carol teared up a little, and I answered all her rapid-fire questions about the ring, and how I was going to propose.

And then suddenly, she admonished me for coming in the middle of her favorite TV show: “You better save it on your TIVO for me.”

Roy relaxed a little, “It’s too bad you couldn’t come on a Friday, when there’s nothing on TV.”

I laughed, although I’m not sure he was joking. Carol hugged me again, and they quickly ran back to catch the last 10 minutes of their show.

The next day, Roy called me to meet him for lunch. I got a little nervous as I drove over to meet him. I get along well with Roy, but wondered what kind of warnings would he have for me before I married his daughter. Although he’s a peaceful man, I imagined him chasing me through the house, swinging his belt if ever I hurt his baby girl.

It turned out he just wanted me to know that he was happy for us. “I don’t show a lot of emotion,” he confessed. “Do you believe how Carol was acting?” he asked me, referring to her “overemotional” display of teary eyes and a hug. I nodded knowingly. I mean, this is my future father-in law. As we left, I thanked him for lunch. Then, just before getting into my car, I grabbed the guy and gave him a big, fat hug.

The morning that the column came out, I drove over to The Jewish Journal office to get a fresh copy of the newspaper. Jumping back into my car, with a new parking ticket flapping on my windshield (so maybe I don’t always read the signs), I drove over to the Farmers Market to pick up some food.

I really wanted to take Carrie on a picnic, but it was still drizzling outside. I stayed optimistic and went to Loteria, our favorite Mexican place to get two of their finest burritos (considering the cost of the ring, I contemplated buying one burrito and splitting it in half).

I picked up Carrie from work and, amazingly, as she walked out the door, the rain suddenly stopped. I quietly thanked God. We drove to a nearby park and spread out the picnic.

“Oh, before you eat, guess what?” I said nonchalantly as we sat down. “I wrote another column in The Jewish Journal,” and gave it to her. Of course, given my last columns, she didn’t know what was coming — especially with this one titled, “Change of Heart.”

She took one look at the title and said, “Uh oh.” I hovered nervously behind her, waiting to pop out the ring. As she read, she occasionally looked up to laugh or nod her approval. And then I saw her body stiffen as she got to the last line. She froze, just like her dad.

“Oh my God,” she gasped, just like her mother.

I grabbed the ring, got on one knee and asked, “Will you marry me?” She cried and answered, “Yes.”

We kissed. Two pot smokers nearby clapped. I waved back to them.

Then Carrie went through a rainbow of emotions, the likes of which I have never seen. She laughed, she argued, she protested, she cried, she smiled, she didn’t know what to do with herself.

Suddenly she stammered, “Ar … re you sure about this? We’ve been arguing lately.”

We had been arguing, but mostly because I was sneaking around trying to deal with the engagement preparations. We’ve never really had secrets before, and the months I was planning all of this were hard for me. It’s strange to not be able to discuss one of the biggest decisions of your life with the woman you love. But Carrie had always wanted to be surprised.

Carrie started to cry. “I love you so much. Of course I want to marry you,” she said.

“Then why are you crying?”

“I guess I don’t really like surprises,” she said. Speaking of which — she hadn’t even looked at the ring on her finger.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Is this real or is this cubic zirconia?”

Was she kidding me? “Cubic zirconia? I sure wish I had the option….”

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer who lives in Los Angeles.

Drugs? NIMBY


 

Two drug-related incidents occurred in the American yeshiva community in Israel last week, which may give all parents pause.

A 19-year-old American boy from Encino who was studying at a yeshiva in Israel died from a heroin overdose (see story, page 15). Also, four American yeshiva students in Israel were arrested on suspicion of selling drugs to other American yeshiva students.

Most people who have been to yeshiva for a year in Israel in the last decade or so were not surprised by the news. A lot of people were suprised this hasn’t happened sooner. When 18-year-olds raised in somewhat strict environments are on their own in Israel for the first time, many of them will use this opportunity to party — at least at first. The hope is that after a few raucous weeks the students will settle down to their learning and experiencing of Israel, and will return home model students and upstanding members of their communities. Tragically, at least one student will not.

Upon learning the names of the yeshivas in Israel that the five boys attended, many people will say, “Well, of course, it happened there. X Yeshiva is known for troubled students.” True, true. Even I — who attended Machon Gold 15 years ago but have been out of touch with year-in-Israel programs for a while — know the reputation of some of these schools. But this Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) attitude is what has let the problems go on for so long in the first place.

On Internet postings following the boy’s death, some writers castigated these last-resort schools for accepting the so-called high-risk Orthodox youth and blamed the schools themselves. But others wrote in to defend these schools and credited them with saving their lives.

“I am currently 22 years old and I am a recent college graduate. I myself … was once considered one of these ‘high-risk’ students,” Dave Serano wrote on the Jerusalem Post Web Site. “I wonder in amazement at the look of surprise on our Jewish communities’ faces as they read and talk about what awful yeshivot these are, and how these boys should not have gone to Israel to solve their drug problems. How wrong and sadly misled these people are.”

He wrote that the yeshivas and its rabbis have saved “hundreds, if not thousands” of lives, like his own, in a way that a drug counselor could not.

No question that these “high-risk” schools do more good than harm, and that the kids who end up there are probably better off there than in some college in the middle of America — without parental or rabbinical supervision.

But to name the schools is beside the point. The real point is: there’s a problem and it has to be dealt with. Now.

Parents send their children to 12 years of day school, Sunday school or temple classes, hoping to inculcate values and ethical behavior somewhere along the way. But the truth is, no matter where you send your child to school, they are not immune to the problems of the outside world: Drugs, drinking, sex and worse.

Some parents hope Israel will do the trick; that a year in the Holy Land will magically cure their children. They depend on that year in university or yeshiva in Israel to “straighten the kids out.” And while there are certainly many qualified educators in Israel, and many great programs, problem kids weren’t just dropped from outer space at 18.

The truth is that kids in public school use drugs, kids in private schools use drugs and, yes, kids in Jewish schools use drugs. NIMBY? Maybe, as a parent, you think it’s not your kid, not his school, not her friends, but that’s probably what the parents of the boys arrested selling drugs thought.

Pretending something isn’t a problem doesn’t make it go away. Sending your kids off somewhere doesn’t make it go away. What will make it go away? A healthy attitude from all educators and parents to admit that there might be a problem, and they might have to deal with it. It may mean calling in therapists or drug counselors or adopting a 12-step program. But as the Jewish tradition teaches about parenting and educating, when the left hand pushes a child away by rebuking him, the right hand should draw him close — meaning, we should not excommunicate our problems, but help fix them in a loving manner.

There are a number of programs and people here in Los Angeles, in New York and in Israel who deal quietly with the problem children. Who try to help them when no other resources are available. The Orthodox Union is even putting together a drug task force to deal with the problem in high schools around the country.

Drugs? They are in our backyard. But they don’t have to be.

 

Meet the Fockers


 

If the religion of Ben Stiller’s character, Gaylord “Greg” Focker (pronounced Faw-ker), was hinted at in the movie, “Meet the Parents,” there’s no escaping it in its sequel, “Meet the Fockers,” in theaters this week.

The first time around, audiences rooted for Greg, as he tried to find common ground with his WASPY soon-to-be in-laws, Dina and Jack Byrnes, played by Blythe Danner and Robert DeNiro. Now all that’s left is for the in-laws to meet each other.

This time, we’re on Focker turf, at the tiki-style abode of Greg’s parents, Roz (Barbra Streisand) and Bernie (Dustin Hoffman), in Coconut Grove, Fla.

The loud, affectionate, occasionally crude, left-wing bohemian Fockers are essentially the polar opposites of the Byrneses. And so the fun begins, as Greg tries to convince his future father-in-law that his family won’t be a “chink in the chain” of his lineage.

“If you really boil it down, it’s sort of the difference between cats and dogs,” producer Jane Rosenthal said, “The Byrneses have Jinx the cat, who’s back, and the Fockers have Moses, their dog. So it’s cat people vs. dog people, really.”

Moses the dog is just one of many Jewish nods in the film. There are Yiddishisms like bubbeleh, meshuggeneh and Rozaleh.

There is Bernie’s greeting to his son when he first arrives: “You look like a young, Jewish Marlon Brando.”

There is Roz’s classic greeting as she hugs Greg: “Honey, you feel thin. Have you been eating?”

And then there’s the incident with the foreskin….

Of course, in the tradition of “Meet the Parents,” chaos ensues when these two families get together.

Even if the plot does feel forced at times, for those who subscribe to the belief that other people’s pain is funny, “Fockers” has a good chance of amusing.

“Meet the Fockers” opens Dec. 22.

 

Where Will a Teen’s Schooling Continue?


 

When Amy Cohen graduated from Adat Ari El’s day school in 2003, her family faced a decision: Where would she continue her education?

While eighth-graders at Orthodox day schools generally continue on to Jewish high schools, graduates of Conservative, Reform or community day schools matriculate to any number of school settings, including Jewish, public, magnet and private secular.

At this time of the year, parents and students face the task of setting priorities and examining realities that will determine where a Jewish teen’s education will continue.

As the Cohens discussed options, “It became clear that she didn’t want to continue in a religious setting,” recalled Amy’s father, Dennis Cohen. “She wanted to sample the wider world.”

The Studio City family briefly considered public school for Amy, but decided that she would be better served in a private school that could offer small classes and individualized attention. Amy was accepted into Pacific Hills, a private school in West Hollywood. Cohen says his daughter enjoyed the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the student body and quickly adjusted to her new setting.

Similarly, Cohen’s son, Geoffrey, now 18, left Adat Ari El after fifth grade to attend the gifted program at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood. There, Cohen said, his son enjoyed “getting lost in the crowd and having a bigger social circle.”

Although Cohen said he would have been happy to send his children to a Jewish high school, he did not object to their preferences.

“You try to lay the foundation for their Jewish observances at home … and you hope it takes root,” he said. “Eventually, they’re going to go into the secular world.”

Although neither of his children is continuing with formal Jewish education, Cohen said that their synagogue remains a central part of the family’s life.

It’s difficult to determine the exact number of families like the Cohens who are choosing to leave the Jewish day school world after the elementary years. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, said that one might conclude that fewer students are making the transition from Jewish elementary schools to Jewish high schools, given that last fall there were 685 eighth-graders in day school, and only 621 entering high school students this fall. That number also includes some who enter Jewish high school after attending a secular middle school.

At the same time, Jewish high school enrollment is substantially higher today than five years ago. According to Graff, there were 502 ninth-graders enrolled in Jewish high schools in 1999, compared to the 621 today.

With annual private high school tuition averaging from $18,000 to the mid-20s, the option is beyond the means of many families.

Debbie Gliksman sent her three children to Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. But when it came time for her eldest child, Lianna, to start high school, “our options were limited,” she said. Gliksman would have liked to send her daughter to Milken Community High School, but “it’s a very, very expensive proposition to send three kids there,” she said.

Instead, her daughter enrolled this fall in the humanities magnet program at Hamilton High, her local school.

“There’s a big difference [between private and public],” Gliksman said.

She and other parents recommend that families who may want to send their children to a magnet school begin accruing points as early as possible. (For more information about points, visit www.lausd.k12.ca.us/welcome.html and click on “FAQs” under the “Discover LAUSD” tab.)

For other families, only a Jewish high school will do. In June, Maureen Goldberg’s son, Joshua, will graduate from Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge. Goldberg said her family had been “struggling for the last couple of years” over the issue of where he should go next.

Several weeks ago, she said the family “came to an epiphany” while attending an open house for a secular private school they were considering. The school had put out an extensive buffet, and as Goldberg approached the tables and saw the ham and cheese.

“My heart sank,” she said.

She turned to her son and said, “I don’t think I can go back.” And he responded, “I don’t think I can, either, mom.”

“It crystallized for us that we weren’t ready to give up the Judaic experience,” said Goldberg, who added that she considered it even more important for adolescents than younger children to learn Jewish values. “He might get that at a secular school, but I know he’ll get it at Milken.”

Goldberg also said she was disappointed that although 75 percent of her son’s class went on to private schools, only three chose to go to a Jewish one.

Like many other parents sending their children to private school, Goldberg said the family had to sacrifice to afford the steep tuition.

“I’d rather live in the smallest house in the worst neighborhood and send my kid to a private Jewish day school, than live in the largest house and go to public school,” she said. “The sacrifice is worth it. I have a really menschy, kind kid, and he got a lot of that from Heschel.”

 

A Jewish Visit to Guthrie’s Land


 

Arlo Guthrie draws a direct line between his beloved bubbe and his Dec. 6 concert, “Holy Ground: The Jewish and Spiritual Songs of Woody Guthrie.”

Arlo, the son of the legendary folk singer and composer, says that his father’s mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, inspired Woody’s largely unknown lyrics for Chanukah, Holocaust and Jewish children’s songs.

These songs will be performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall by Arlo; his son, Abe; guitarist Gordon Titcomb, and the six-piece Klezmatics, who set the lyrics to music.

Guthrie, 57, whose own career exploded in 1967 with the release of “Alice’s Restaurant,” recalled growing up as a “Jewish kid” in Brooklyn, with his famous dad and mother — Woody’s second wife — Marjorie Mazia, a professional dancer.

In preparation for Guthrie’s “Hootenanny Bar Mitzvah,” his parents hired a “sweet young rabbi” as a tutor, Guthrie told The Journal during a phone interview. The rabbi’s name was Meir Kahane, who went on to become the extremist founder of the Jewish Defense League and the Kach political party.

“Rabbi Kahane was a really nice, patient teacher, but shortly after he gave me my lessons, he started going haywire. Maybe I was responsible,” Guthrie said with a laugh.

When Mazia abandoned her Jewish husband to marry Woody, “this little guy from Oklahoma,” her parents took the news in different ways.

Her father, Isidore Greenblatt, stopped talking to his daughter until the first of her three children with Woody was born.

But Bubbe Aliza took to the new son-in-law right away.

“She was a poet and songwriter in her own right, and she immediately recognized Woody’s talent,” Guthrie said.

Woody Guthrie himself was aware of the tension between Isidore and Aliza Greenblatt over his marriage and started studying Judaism.

“He wanted to know what he had gotten himself into and, with his typical thoroughness, started reading every book he could find and took courses on Judaism at Brooklyn Community College,” Guthrie said of his father.

The grandmother’s impact on young Arlo went even deeper.

“We would go to her home on Friday night for Shabbat dinner and she was a great cook. Nobody ever came close to her blintzes,” Guthrie reminisced. “She was also a very creative person, a great storyteller, and I loved her stories about growing up in Russia.”

Best of all, “She liked me as I was,” Guthrie said. “She always thought I was funny and she took great pride in me. She was interested in everything I was interested in. You always hope that someone in your family feels that way about you.

“The first time I performed in Carnegie Hall,” he continued, “She sat there in the middle of the front row and just kvelled.”

Once bubbe visited the Guthries when they were living on a small farm in Massachusetts, where they kept some goats.

When she arrived, she started crying, and Guthrie asked, “Why are you crying, Bubbe?”

“Because I haven’t seen a goat in 75 years,” she answered between sobs.

Like Woody, bubbe was an early anti-fascist, who fought for social justice and organized labor, and was an ardent Zionist, as well.

In the early 1950s, the Greenblatts moved to Israel, but when Woody was struck with a severe degenerative disease a few years later they moved back to help take care of the grandchildren.

Woody Guthrie, who wrote some 3,500 songs in 20 years, in addition to books and pamphlets, never heard the Jewish songs performed in his lifetime. It was only after his death that his daughter, Nora, discovered the lyrics and had them set to music. Among Arlo Guthrie’s favorites are “Happy, Joyous Chanukah,” and, in another mood, a chilling ballad about the sadistic Ilse Koch, “The Bitch of Buchenwald,” in the voice of a concentration camp inmate.

“The Holy Ground” concert starts at 8 p.m., Monday, Dec. 6. Tickets ($25-$75) are available at the Walt Disney Concert Hall box office, online at www.LAPhil.com, or by calling (323) 850-2000.

 

Another Braff Tale of Jewish Ennui


“The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green” by Joshua Braff (Algonquin Books, $22.95).

While fidgeting at Shabbat dinner, Jacob Green decides to play a game he calls “The Unthinkable” — imagining blasphemies that would infuriate his super-strict father. Like hurling the challah football-style at the fridge. Or making it drop from his tush. Or putting it in his mouth and thrashing his head like a doberman.

“Or if I molded it into a big breaded schlong and bumped it repeatedly against [my brother’s] forehead,” he says to himself.

If Green sounds like every teenager who’s hated mandatory Shabbat dinners, he’s also the protagonist of Joshua Braff’s viciously witty and poignant new novel, “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.” It’s a thorny coming-of-age story set in New Jersey suburbs, a trend recently proffered by Jewish artists such as filmmaker Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”) and writer-director Zach Braff (“Garden State”).

Zach, also the star of NBC’s “Scrubs,” is Joshua’s younger brother, so it’s perhaps not surprising the siblings’ debut efforts share emotionally repressed youths and ambivalent attitudes toward Judaism. In “State,” Zach Braff’s character ridicules the moveable walls shuls erect to accommodate High Holiday Jews and professes, “I’m Jewish, but I’m not really Jewish.”

“Unthinkable” is Joshua Braff’s edgier answer to a childhood in which ritual wasn’t a choice, but an obligation.

“Although Abram Green wasn’t my father, luckily, there were certain rules,” the 36-year-old novelist said. Churlish rabbis supervised tzitzit inspection at his Orthodox elementary school yeshiva; bar mitzvah thank-yous had to be written and proofed; the teenage Braff had Conservative Hebrew school three times a week and an older brother who scribbled sardonic drawings behind the rabbis’ backs.

“His bitterness toward it all was kind of attractive,” the mild-mannered Braff said. “I was kind of the middle, sensitive child, so I looked up to my brother and was proud of his ability to rebel.”

Although Braff repressed his own rebellious thoughts as a boy, he lets loose in “Unthinkable,” which he describes as “perhaps a bit of a primal scream, albeit highly fictionalized.” His protagonist imagines bar mitzvah thank-yous detailing his lust for the nanny.

“I had no idea that they made bookends out of Jerusalem stone,” another imaginary note says. “We were able to hoist them up on my bookshelf yesterday. They looked really great up there before my shelving collapsed into a cloud of snapped particleboard.”

Green’s older brother, meanwhile, gets busted for the “disturbingly accurate pencil drawing of Rabbi Belahsan … found pinned-up in the yeshiva library. In it, the rabbi was in a consensual threesome with a lobster and an erect pig.”

How have readers responded to the lobster and the pig?

“I’ve gotten a lot of reaction to that — so far, all good,” Braff said.

Yet, he concedes others may not be amused when he participates in an upcoming Jewish Book Council tour.

“I wrote the novel, especially the religious stuff, with a certain amount of reckless abandon,” he said. “If I offend anyone, I’ll certainly apologize, but I don’t think the book is self-hating. It’s just kind of rebellious, kind of a shout out — like that Woody Allen scene where the rabbi is on a game show and his wife force feeds him bacon. It’s twisted, and out of context, ridiculous, but at the same time kind of shocking and funny.”

The darkly comic novel began, innocuously enough, with musings about Braff’s yeshiva lunchbox several years ago. Having written myriad short stories also featuring “unheard, precocious children,” he hoped to create a book “that was not a memoir but that drew on real emotion and memory,” he said.

Stream-of-consciousness writing exercises helped, notably a drill in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” that suggested jotting items remembered from one’s grade school lunchbox.

Braff’s thoughts drifted back to his yeshiva’s cafeteria and to his kosher lunch ensconced in a “Waltons” box. Of why he preferred that treacley drama to “The Incredible Hulk,” he says in an essay, “Sensitive and troubled middle child of early 1970s New Jersey vintage stares longingly at the sleepy ease of this unconditionally ‘normal’ 1940s family.”

“I certainly had warmth and affection in my home,” he told The Journal, “but I would have loved to have had the freedom of being on Walton’s Mountain at times instead of being in a place in which there was quite that much ritual. At yeshiva, I always felt like I was fumbling those rituals, and that there was always a rabbi who was not interested in explaining anything but who just kind of barked at me.”

Braff dropped Judaism when he left home to attend New York University; he began his return during a college trip to Israel in which the culture “for the first time was on my terms,” he said. “I remember being at the Wailing Wall and absorbing in a different way than I had before.”

Now he has a Jewish wife and children: “We have fun with the holidays,” he said. “It’s been reinvented, in a way.”

Since Braff revisits touchier years in “Unthinkable,” he was understandably nervous about showing a draft to his parents before publication. Turns out he need not have worried: “They’re supportive, so they were encouraging.” he said. “My dad did say, ‘The father figure is terrible,’ and he wanted to know if it was him. I told him, ‘Certainly not.'”

Yet that character and others are so vividly drawn, Kirkus Reviews noted that “Unthinkable” is “compulsively readable, in a horrifying sort of way. What will Braff do next now that he’s gotten that off his chest?”

The author’s answer isn’t unexpected.

“I think I’m probably going to write about a family, and I think they’re going to be Jewish,” he said.

Braff’s “Unthinkable” launch party is Sept. 18, 7 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3110. He’ll also appear Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m., at Fais Do-Do, 5253 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles as part of First Fiction 2004, a reading by five debut novelists. For information, call (310) 659-3684.


When I get to my classroom, my stomach begins to clench. I put my books and lunch box by my desk and move slowly into the [tzitzit] inspection line behind Ari Feiger. Ari has a glandular issue that gives him breasts and makes him smell like wet skin. He also has striped pajama bottoms that creep out the back of his pants and a dirty blond afro that can actually hold pencils. When I ask him if he has an extra tzitzit he says, "Yes, but not for you," and walks away from me.

"Ari," I say, following him, "I’ll pay you for it."

"I put on a clean one after lunch," he says. "It’s not for sale."

"But I forgot mine," I whisper.

When he hears this he turns to the other six boys in my class and starts singing the word tzitzit to the tune of "The Flintstones." "Tzitzit, meet the tzitzit, have a yabba-dabba tzitzit, a yabba tzitzit, you’re gonna be so screwed. Ya’akov’s got no tzitzit!" he yells and points at me.

"Shhhh! Shut up, Ari. The rabbi will hear you."….[Now] Rabbi Mizrahe moves toward the lineup and touches each of Gary Kaplan’s tassels. Gary sings along to "Torah Torah" but stops completely when the rabbi steps past him. I feel a sour and tingly stomach-burning climb up my throat. I try to swallow but I have no spit. Michael Bornstein is next. His yarmulke needs centering but his tzitzit has never hung better. And then I see him. I see my brother, [Asher]. He’s hopping in the hallway, trying to find me. I shake my head. "Too late," I say without sound. Too late.

As the rabbi moves closer, our eyes meet. I sing with him, "…tziva lanu Moshe." I watch his fingers touch Ari’s tassels. I watch him finish and step up to me.

"Excuse me, Rabbi Mizrahe," says Asher.

The rabbi stops his song and turns to the door. Asher keeps his eyes from me and takes a step closer.

"I need to tell my brother something. May I see him for a second, please?"

Rabbi Mizrahe faces me and nods his head. Asher steps up and grabs me by the elbow. He leads me back toward the door.

"Do not leave this classroom," the rabbi says. "Torah, Torah, Torah…"

Asher holds my shoulders and turns my back to my classmates. He reaches in his pocket for his balled-up tzitzit and crams it down the front of my pants."

"No time to put it on," he whispers. "Untuck your shirt and let the fringes just hang over your belt." — From "The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green" © 2004 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.

Playwright’s Alter Ego Returns Home


For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, “Brooklyn Boy” represents both a return and a departure.

Like several of his early plays, the drama explores obsessions culled from his Brooklyn boyhood: “The legacies parents instill in their children, the continuity of wounding that occurs from generation to generation, the relationship between fathers and sons in particular,” the 49-year-old author said.

“But while my previous Brooklyn plays have involved the coming of age of various Marguliesian figures, I’ve never really let myself be a man in Brooklyn,” he continued. “This is the first time I’ve placed a middle-aged alter ego on that turf.”

“Boy” revolves around 40ish novelist Eric Weiss, who returns home — actually to the hospital where he was born — to visit his dying father, Manny, a shoe salesman. It’s his first trip back in a while, and he’s ambivalent: “I saw what Brooklyn did to my parents, and I knew I had to get the hell out of here,” he tells a friend. “I saw … the fear, the xenophobia, the suffocating double grip the Holocaust and the Depression had around their throats.”

Yet Eric has just had his first literary success with a semiautobiographical novel.

“So he’s at a juncture where he’s realizing that Brooklyn isn’t just a place he has to keep himself in exile from,” actor Adam Arkin (Eric) said. “He’s coming to see that whatever he has to offer as an artist is going to have to embrace who and what he was there. And what he had regarded as a kind of purgatory now can be a kind of key to his being whole.”

It appears that Margulies made a parallel journey. Before a recent rehearsal at South Coast Repertory, he described growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors who “instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history.” His American-born father, meanwhile, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, “physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences,” who lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.

These twin shadows of the Holocaust and the Depression “instilled certain fears in me, legacies I had to shake,” Margulies said.

The playwright did so, in part, through his work. “The Model Apartment” (1984) is a kind of “Frankenstein” story in which Holocaust survivors have created a monster in their schizophrenic daughter; “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” (1985) features an artsy kid named Artie who spars with his father; “The Loman Family Picnic” (1988) tells of a downtrodden salesman whose son is writing a musical comedy version of “Death of a Salesman.”Margulies’ intensely personal (but not strictly autobiographical) work places him in a unique niche.

“[He] does not have the master work plan of an August Wilson … or the political urgencies of a Paula Vogel or Tony Kushner to shape and drive his work from play to play,” said Jerry Patch, dramaturg of South Coast Repertory. “Instead, his theatrical output, now more than a dozen plays, six of which have enjoyed prominent lives on American stages, has come from assessing his own changing vision of himself and the world in which he lives.”

So it makes sense that Margulies eventually left Brooklyn — and tales of restless, artist sons — to explore midlife concerns. “Sight Unseen” (1991) describes a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The Pulitzer-winning “Dinner With Friends”(1999) was inspired by Margulies’ observations of “a succession of domestic catastrophes” in his circle

“Brooklyn Boy” began with another observation several years ago.

“My wife and so many of our contemporaries were dealing with failing and dying parents,” he said. Since Margulies’ own parents had died by the time he was 32, inventing the fictional Manny was “an opportunity to create a fantasy of what an aged version of my father might have been like.”

The character also “embodies so many of the generation who are now failing and dying; very often first-generation American Jews who were battered by the war and the Depression; who married and did all the traditional things and are now at the end of their lives with their generally overpsychoanalyzed children.”

It was the late playwright Herb Gardner (“Conversations With My Father”) who persuaded Margulies to set the piece back home: “I’d steadfastly steered clear of Brooklyn for a time in my work, because I feared I’d tread familiar ground,” he said. “But Herb convinced me it was an exciting prospect to revisit Brooklyn at this stage of my life, not as a boy but as a man.”

Perhaps the play is Margulies’ way of acknowledging Brooklyn as a source of creativity, as well as shadows.”‘Brooklyn Boy’ feels to me like the work of a more mature writer, so I’m glad I made the trip,” he said.

The play runs Sept. 10-Oct. 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (previews are Sept. 3-9); for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org. Margulies will speak Sept. 9 as part of Chapman University’s Visiting Writers Series at Kennedy Hall. For more information, call (714) 997-6750.

Death Doesn’t End ‘Morrie’ Phenomenon

“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” So says Morrie Schwartz in the signature line from Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” the best-seller about how workaholic Albom learned life lessons from his dying former Brandeis University professor.

Death apparently has not ended the Morrie phenomenon, either. Since the Jewish Schwartz succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1995, Albom’s book has spent seven years on the New York Times best-seller list and has been reborn as a TV movie and a play, to have its West Coast premiere at The Laguna Playhouse Sept. 11.Like the 192-page book, the play is based on Albom’s weekly visits to the colorful Schwartz during the final months of his life in late 1995. The Jewish sportswriter had reconnected with his favorite sociology professor after seeing Schwartz impart aphorisms on “Nightline.”

For 14 Tuesdays, teacher and student met for what both called “a final thesis,” which Albom ultimately wrote up as a book to help pay Schwartz’s medical bills.

Although he was more reluctant to turn “Morrie” into a stage production, he “grew intrigued by the theatrical legacy a play might create,” according to the New York Daily News. The challenge was to transform the book into a two-character piece with dramatic conflict — including the journalist’s change from Type A dynamo to a more smell-the-roses kind of guy.

While the play (co-written with Jeffrey Hatcher) opened to some mixed reviews off-Broadway in 2002, critics also noted viewers’ intense emotional response to Schwartz and his homiles (sample: when he tells Albom, in Yiddish, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.”

So it’s likely that Morrie’s light will continue to shine, when the play has its first preview in Orange County this month — appropriately, on a Tuesday.

Previews are Sept. 7-10; the play runs Sept. 11-Oct. 10. For tickets and information, call (949) 497-2787, ext. 1. –NP

Mother of the Bat


A friend of mine called in a lather the other day, all het up about her daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah.

"I can’t believe it," she said, her voice a good octave higher than usual, "there’s so much to think about. You have to find a place, decide on a menu, pick out flowers and favors and dishware and tablecloths and even tables — you’ve got to pick out tables! You have to know the diameter of the tables you’re going to have in order to choose tablecloths. It’s crazy. It’s too much for me."

"Calm down," I told her. "Everything will fall into place."

And then I thought back to my own experience as the mother of the bat mitzvah, which was followed soon thereafter by my experience as mother of the bar mitzvah, by which time I was seasoned, wiser and only slightly less frantic. There’s something about inviting a sizable number of people to an event, some of whom will be arriving from distant locales, and that "something" is that you want them to be happy they came. To this end, that first time around, there was a sign up in my office that read: "It’s the Bat Mitzvah, Stupid," lest I forget for even one waking moment that I had a two-pronged event to plan: a morning service followed by Kiddush and then a party in the evening.

My husband and I spent our courtship on the protest fields of Washington, D.C. Yet here we were, in the thick of planning what I am sure we once believed to be the most bourgeois enterprise imaginable: a "catered affair," entertainment that would cost thousands and be over in a matter of hours. How had we gotten ourselves into this?

"The meaning of the bar and bat mitzvah," our rabbi intoned at a special service geared toward anxious parents, "is that your child becomes a Jew in his or her own right. You have sent your child to Hebrew school for four years, he or she has attended with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and now, on this day, you give over the responsibility. You release your child to be an independent Jew, the son [bar] or daughter [bat] in charge of the mitzvot."

The truth is, our daughter’s level of enthusiasm for her Hebrew studies rarely wavered. Indeed, she had, from the beginning, chosen to go to Hebrew school, maintained an interest in learning the language, and downright bubbled over the questions of philosophy and social reality that came up in class as a result of the excellent teachers with whom she had the good fortune to study. She had been a bat mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments, from the get-go. And this made her coming-of-age a fitting commemoration of the work she’d put in, and the dedication she had so spiritedly demonstrated.

Of course when, at 8 years old and entering the fourth grade, she’d said that she would like to go to Hebrew school, a big party at the end of her tenure as student was the last thing on her mind. But now that the ritual of the celebration had made itself known to her, well, what self-respecting about-to-be-a-teenager wouldn’t want a party with lots of friends and rock ‘n’ roll?

"OK, so why not just turn up the music and make her a party?" many might wonder, ourselves included. We’d thought about ordering a couple of pizzas and letting the kids have their fun. Why worry about caterers and DJs and rented party rooms, tables and menus and centerpieces? Why spend all this money that a lot of people could really use?

"The ceremony of the bar and bat mitzvah is not an ancient rite," the rabbi told us at that same gathering of parents. "It can’t be found in any of the books of the Torah; in fact, it’s only about 500 years old." (Only a rabbi can make 500 years sound like a drop in the bucket.) "But sometime between the 14th and the 16th centuries, the concept of the bar mitzvah and the celebration that accompanies it took hold. Beginning in Germany and Poland, and readily accepted by Jews around the world, the age of 13 was adapted as the time when the child is not only obliged but allowed to participate as a member in full standing of the Jewish community."

And that’s why the pizza party wouldn’t do. Because, as the rabbi said, the celebration is central to the tradition. And it is a celebration, as I understood it, meant to be of, by and enjoyed with the community. Sure, our daughter could have a party with her friends, but that wasn’t the point. In fact, it would betray the point because that what is being celebrated in the context of the bat mitzvah is the arrival of a new member into the Jewish community. Not a community of teenagers, but a community of mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. A community that does reach back to ancient times, even as representatives of its many generations gather at this time to welcome its newest trained, educated and committed member.

Let the kids dance? Sure. But let all of us, of many ages, rejoice as well at the triumph that the bat mitzvah party symbolizes — our continuity.

I’m of the generation that created the atmosphere in which Jewish daughters feel it is their right to share in this mere 500-year-old practice. The generation that fought for civil rights, rebelled against everything our parents taught us and then returned to a good deal of it. Still questioning, probing and, yes, justifying. I ask myself how many more mouths could be fed, and how much hope made a little bit more possible were I to chuck the catered affair and send the money to those in need. But then I came back to my daughter, and the profound weight of her decision to study. It’s a mere drop in the bucket that created enough of a splash to ripple indefinitely into the past that is her heritage, and the future her decision will help create.

So, yes, we made a splash, too. And I continued to question the political correctness of it, worry over the details of it, and break into an intense fit of angst when I realized I still hadn’t decided on the menu. For, as my grandmother taught me well: If you invite people to join you in celebration, "You’ve got to give them what to eat.


Elyce Wakerman teaches composition at CSUN and is the author of “Father Loss: Daughters Discuss the Man That Got Away” (Henry Holt, 1987). She is currently working on a book about the year her daughter left for college.

Confessions of a Bar Mitzvah Teacher


Since, as the Torah says, "Confession is good for the soul," let’s begin with a confession. I am a bar mitzvah teacher. My avocation — my hobby — is the navigation of Jewish girls and boys through the tangled web of the bar mitzvah ceremony.

It is a job that demands a great deal of patience with parents as well as kids. Everything depends on: a) the cranial size of the student, and b) the size of the bribes offered by the parents to the kid.

In most families, a cash gift of a green, oblong paper with a picture of Benjamin Franklin works fine. But parents who are really lousy negotiators sometimes get stuck with a clause in the BAP (Bar Mitzvah Agreement Protocol) that results in a separate phone line for Mark or Miriam; or a trust fund containing a red BMW when the child reaches driving age.

Parent 1: "OK, we’ve signed the contract with Mark. Can you get over here by 7:15? He’s in a great mood — we just gave him some money."

Parent 2: "Come over now. He’s had 50 milligrams of Ritalin. Let’s get started."

Well, Teach stumbles over. Sitting around the kitchen table, I explain to student and family the formidable intellectual challenge posed by the bar mitzvah requirements. The theme is always the same. "It ain’t easy and sooner or later you’re gonna hate me."

Yeah, yeah, they understand — "Let’s Go!" they shout.

Teaching 12-year-olds to chant haftarah is like teaching dolphins to sing "Ah! Che La Morte Ognora" from "Il Trovatore." Sooner or later kids and dolphins swim away. It is not a slick ride on a playground slide.

Take my current student (as Henry Youngman would say; "Yeah, please take him — far away"). Let’s call him Ben. When he talks, his parents open their checkbooks and listen with wide-eyed attention. His mother reveres him and his father addresses him in low, respectful tones. Here, extracted from Ben’s file is the verbatim record of my first conversation with his family.

Me: "Well, it’s time for Ben to begin his bar mitzvah training." (To myself: From what I can tell of Ben’s mental equipment, we shoulda started when he was 6.)

Mother: "Oh, nice of you to call, but I’m not sure Ben wants to be a bar mitzvah." (To herself: My son may not have time for this bar mitzvah stuff. He’s probably the Messiah himself and he’s gonna be busy fixing the world.)

Me: "Well, it’s kinda hard for an 11-year-old to make decisions like this. Why don’t you pitch in and make it for him? Just say yes." (To myself: Lucky he couldn’t express himself at birth — he’d have nixed his own bris. So messy.)

Finally, Mother agreed that since Ben was busy — determining his supper menu preferences every night, deciding on his daily TV agenda, choosing his wardrobe — that yes, she’d relieve him of this bar mitzvah decision.

A bar or bas mitzvah is a real challenge for a 13-year-old: the singing of the haftarah and blessings before and after. Plus the Torah reading and associated blessings. Then, finally, the speech. The Torah reading, especially, is a challenge. It’s not easy. There are no vowels, you see, under those squirmy Hebrew letters and the trop — the tune — is different from the haftarah.

The speech is variable. It can be a simple reading of the words typed up by his teacher; a fail-safe stratagem when the child hasn’t mastered the haftarah until 9:15 the morning of the event. Or, the student can spend weeks researching the prophets and the associated rabbinical commentary. A really scholarly bar mitzvah exegesis can equal a doctoral thesis.

But to deal with kids you need leverage. Something with which to reward, something to punish. But we teachers — unless backed up by parents — have an empty pack. All we can do is conjure up visions of all that loot — those glittering gifts; a Jewish version of Christmas Day. But if the kid already owns the world, what’s to bribe with?

Ah, the times they are a’changing. When I was a bar mitzvah boy, my teacher carried a ruler like a sword. And if you blew the trop he called you a dummy. Imagine! Not a slow learner, not someone with ADD, but a dummy! And believe it or not, he rapped your knuckles with his weapon.

Today he’d be in court. The bar mitzvahee, the ACLU and the parents with Alan Dershowitz at their side, would sue his tzitzit off.

The ideal bar mitzvah is not a bar mitzvah at all, but a bat mitzvah. Girls are easier. Give me a plain 12-year-old female with braces who has no talent for band, chess, basketball or chorus. Undistracted by an admiring world, she’ll shine on the bimah and you’ll get tons of compliments on your pedagogic talents. The synagogue audience will bow as they let you go first through the Kiddush line while the bagels are still fresh. Ah, the perks of a bar mitzvah teacher.

Ted Roberts is a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work appears in several Jewish papers, Disney Magazine, Hadassah, the Wall Street Journal and others. He lives in Huntsville, Ala.

‘Heart’ Celebrates a Nation’s Dream


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pullman Stars on the Drive Home


When Jason Pullman worked at a country radio station in St. Louis, he used a different name and kept his Judaism on the down low.

"Not that I wasn’t proud of it, but I just let it go," said the 31-year-old disc jockey. "People in country music are different, a little more anti-Semitic than they are in other formats. From time to time they would say a Jewish joke, and I was just little afraid of a backlash."

Now working as the co-host with Lisa Foxx on the drive time "Afternoon Shift" on top-rated radio station Star 98.7 in Los Angeles, Pullman can — and does — talk about his Jewishness as much as he wants. Whether it is telling listeners that he won’t be celebrating Christmas because he has Chanukah to worry about, or kibitzing with Jewish rockers like Adam Levine of Maroon5 about a shared heritage of overanxious parents, Pullman’s Jewish background has a good chance of being thrown into any on air conversation.

"I am very proud of my Jewish heritage," he said, talking to The Journal from the Clear Channel offices (Star’s parent company). "I used to use stage names, but then as of four or five years ago [I decided] I am myself, and that is only person that I want to be."

Pullman is a relatively new voice on the Los Angeles radio, but he stepped into some big — or at least very trendy — shoes. In December 2003, when Ryan Seacrest left the station for a new position as the morning DJ at KIIS-FM and — in addition to his hosting duties with "On Air with Ryan Seacrest" and "American Idol" — the Star’s producers needed another fresh young voice to take his place behind the microphone. They received about 3,000 audition tapes from DJ hopefuls, but Pullman got the job. He had worked at the station before, doing weekends and occasionally filling in for Seacrest and Foxx, but he had never worked with Foxx. The producers didn’t think that mattered. They were so sure of his talent that they threw him into the booth with Foxx without a test run, and the partnership worked.

Although he is anxious to differentiate himself from Seacrest, it is easy to find similarities between the two. Both are from Atlanta. Both have boyishly cute faces and spiky hairdos, but Pullman doesn’t have highlights in his. Both wear ultramodish T-shirts. Both have slick and easy tongues and similar voices, but Pullman’s on-air personality is nicer — it doesn’t have what some might consider a cheeky, malicious edge sometimes found in Seacrest’s talk. Pullman also steers clear of the more raunchy conversations — he’s a nice Jewish boy.

"I wouldn’t want to ask something that my mom would not be proud of me asking," Pullman said. "Especially now with the FCC and fines — I don’t want to embarrass myself like that. It’s not the kind of radio that I want to do."

"Pullman gets a lot of grief for sounding like Ryan Seacrest, but he is quite a bit different from Ryan," said Lindsay Lawler, a producer for the afternoon shift. "Ryan is more of a metrosexual, and Jason’s more of guy’s guy. He’s also a little more vocal on his views."

"People are comparing me to Ryan, but [sounding like him] is not intentional at all," Pullman said. "I just think that I am down-to-earth guy who listeners can relate to. I’m just a Jewish guy who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta who loves this business and wants to achieve more."

Pullman grew up in a Reform family in Atlanta that celebrated all the holidays and had a strong Jewish identity. His father was a general sales manager at a radio station. From the time he was 5, Pullman knew that he wanted to be on the air. He would tag along to work with his father and spend his free time emulating on-air personalities. In high school he interned at Power 99, a popular Atlanta station. He told them that when he was older he would come back and be on the air. They didn’t believe him, but after he went to the University of Florida and majored in communications and broadcast journalism, he came back to Atlanta and got the midnight-6 a.m. shift at the station. Since then, he has worked on-air in radio stations all over the country.

"Radio was the only thing I ever wanted to do," Pullman said. "I have a passion for music and very eclectic tastes. But I love what goes on between the songs, and I love the interaction with people on and off the air."

Now Pullman is trying to parlay his voice into other opportunities. He is the host voice of the Sci-Fi Channel’s house of horror reality series, "Mad Mad House," and TLC’s "Faking It." But his on-air Jewishness is brings him opportunities of a different kind. He received a Passover dinner invitation from someone on the sales staff in his office who never knew he was Jewish until he brought it up on air, and other people call the station offering to set him up with Jewish girls they know.

"My mom and dad would love for me to wind up with someone who is Jewish, and I would want that too," he said.

Jason Pullman can be heard on 98.7 FM on weekdays from 3-7 p.m.

C’mon, a Bat Mitzvah Is, Like, So Uncool


Everything was going wrong. First, her best friend moved. Not just to another town, she moved to another state.

Also, she was starting a new school this year. Middle school was scary to think about, though she would never admit it out loud. She was too cool for that.

And now her parents were talking about moving to another town, with a better school district. She, of course, saw nothing wrong with this one. And what was worse, they would probably move after she had become used to the new middle school.

OK, now add to all of this: her bat mitzvah.

"I don’t want a bat mitzvah," she told her parents. "It’s just for you and your relatives. You don’t even need me there. So why don’t you just throw your own party?"

"Don’t be silly," they answered. "This is for you, it’s about you."

So how come no one would listen to her?

Lessons with the cantor were OK, but then the cantor is a cool guy. He never lies, never says you did a good job when you know you stank.

But what goes over well in the cantor’s study isn’t likely to go over well in front of a whole mess of people.

"I’ll be a bat mitzvah automatically at 12 anyway," she said. "Why do we need the fancy ceremony?"

"We’ll keep it simple."

"Why can’t we just go to Israel for my bat mitzvah?" she asked.

"Would you like that? We could have the ceremony on Masada."

"Oh," she responded. "I thought we would just go and, y’know, kinda sightsee."

"That’s not what this is about," they answered.

"Then what is it about?" she replied.

"If you don’t know that, you’ve wasted all your years in Hebrew school."

Well, no duh! She had slept through most of it.

She asked the cantor, "So what is it all about?"

"L’dor v’dor," he said.

From generation to generation?

"Tov me’od," he said. Very good.

From generation to generation. From your parents generation to yours. From your grandparents to your parents. From your great-grandparents to your grandparents. All the way back, and all the way forward.

Throughout history, as long as there are Jews on earth, we will all be connected through things like the bar or bat mitzvah, Shabbat, brit milah, lighting candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, eating matzah and retelling the Passover story.

Sharing the stories of our ancestors with our children, as you will do someday, God willing, with yours. That’s what it’s all about.

That’s why she liked the cantor. He answered her in words she could understand.

So she entered middle school, and did just fine. She studied her parshah and learned the prayers.

She thought about what the cantor had said, and pictured herself listening to her own son practice. She imagined her grandfather, now in his 70s, as he must have looked up on the bimah.

And then it was time.

She sat on the bimah, a demure young lady with ankles crossed and tissues in hand. She read her parshah, sang the blessings, led the service and gave a dvar Torah.

As she stood behind the pulpit, she looked into some of the faces in the sanctuary. And when she led the congregation in the prayer, "L’dor v’dor," she sang it with feeling.

She imagined the family members she had never met, going back generations. She thought about those who could not have a bar or bat mitzvah before they were sent to the concentration camps. She thought about those who would have one after her.

Then she looked at her younger brother sitting in the first row, with her parents.

"I wonder if he’ll feel the same way I did," she thought.

"Well, at least he’ll have me to help him."

If It’s Saturday, It’s Another Bar Mitzvah


Summer 2002

It starts as a trickle.

My oldest child, Becca, 12, is going into seventh grade. An invitation arrives from a boy at her new school. He doesn’t know Becca, nor she him, but in a kind gesture he has invited her — and everyone else in their class — to his bar mitzvah.

In the next 14 months, Becca, my wife, Ellie, and I will be invited to 55 more.

The Los Angeles bar mitzvah is a sitting duck. Wild tales of gross excess put fear, disgust and embarrassment into the heart of every Jewish parent I know.

Yet, among my crowd, there are three main concerns: 1 — That the religious significance be kept central and approached with dignity and respect; 2 — That the party is appropriate and affordable (“After all,” people say, “it’s not a wedding!”); 3 — That none of their children have any part of this generation’s supposed gift of choice (ask anyone with a child this age, they’ve heard the rumor. Trust me.).

Fall 2002

Becca settles into her new school. Now she actually knows the kids whose bar and bat mitzvahs she’s going to. Invitations come from her old friends, too.

Ellie and I — and also our younger kids — keep getting invited, too. It’s lovely to be included. We carefully find nice gifts, trying to figure out what each child would like.

The last time I’d been on the circuit was 1971-72 in suburban Boston. Even then — and even there — the main concern was “more mitzvah and less bar.” Back then, the gift of choice was a clock radio. We hit many temples.

Everyone seems to demand a lot of their b’nai mitzvah. The kids have been to religious school for at least two years. They lead a great deal of the service.

Their Torah readings are long. They give thoughtful and intelligent speeches. They’ve taken on mitzvah projects.

Each rabbi seems to know the child. And every parent gives a speech in which they express their pride and love.

A friend sadly reports that her son went to “one of those bar mitzvahs.” Everyone nods knowingly.

“Those” is code for ostentatious, tacky, over the top. Indeed, even in Los Angeles, conspicuous consumption is looked down upon as a sign of insecurity and sacrilege.

Sure, everything’s relative (professional lighting is fine; grand entrances on quadrapeds disdained), but “those” are like pornography — difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.

Notes on montages: A child’s smile never changes.

The circuit is a great way for kids to adjust to middle school: a weekly party where they get to see old friends and bond with new ones, all under parental supervision.

Must be strange for the non-Jewish kids, though. What do they make of this? (Note to self: Remind kids that Los Angeles is weird; everyone only seems to be Jewish.)

The girls are, on average, a head taller than the boys.

Winter 2003

Picking up steam.

A DJ gets everyone doing the hora, and before it’s done, “Hava Nagila” segues into Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Everyone — kids, parents, grandparents — moves to the left, moves to the right, wiggles their hips, waves their arms.

Some are naturals. Many others, like me, kick up their feet when they’re supposed to stick out their thumb or move left when they’re supposed to step back.

Candlelightings.

The bar mitzvah child reads a rhyming couplet honoring someone, and as the person rises to light one of 13 candles, the DJ plays appropriate music: “I’ll Be There for You” (friends), “New York, New York” (cousins from the tri-state area) and, of course, “Unforgettable” (guess).

Notes on montages: A man can lose an entire head of hair in 13 years.

Becca’s bat mitzvah.

Incredible. Laughter, tears, love, pride, l’dor v’dor, etc.

The next week, another bar mitzvah. An old friend. Then a close friend. A friend from camp. At temples, hotels, soundstages, boats.

As a kid, I was warned that Jews can never get too comfortable. After all, the Nazis killed anyone with any Jewish blood.

Well, the joke is on the Nazis, because in 21st century Los Angeles, it seems anyone with any Jewish blood has a bar mitzvah. Good, I guess, for the Jews. But it means that at many bar mitzvahs, there is that table full of, say, Methodist cousins from Kansas who look like they just landed on Mars.

Early Spring 2003

They’re coming thick and fast.

Caterers, photographers, DJs make repeat appearances. More people can do the “Think” dance; I feel like I’m in a movie about a team that can’t do anything right but pulls it out for the big game. This is the scene where everyone gets it right except me.

The fish bowls we used for Becca’s centerpieces (we filled them with flowers and rubber ducks) make their second appearance, this time filled with candy. No one notices, and if anyone does, no one cares.

We can’t remember who we’ve given presents to. We have no time to shop for each kid separately.

I can’t remember multiples of 18. I’m in a hurry, and I’m irritated at the salesgirl at The Wherehouse who peppers me with questions about why I’m buying gift cards (10 of them) in a weird amount like $36.

Hello? Like, welcome to Los Angeles (and I may have to take out a second mortgage to pay for all these things).

Notes on montages: Has every Jewish family in Los Angeles been to Hawaii?

My younger kids beg us to not have to go to another bar mitzvah.

Coming up: A bar mitzvah and a bat mitzvah — different kids, different temples, same school, same day. One mom makes a preemptive strike by sending out invitations months in advance.

Late Spring 2003

One a weekend, sometimes two or three. Another personalized yarmulke in my breast pocket and I’ll need a bra.

The “Think” dance. I feel like I’m in a long-running musical.

The fishbowls make their third centerpiece appearance, this time in Agoura. No one notices, so the hostess points it out. (This is “beating the system” in 2003, far more impressive than conspicuous consumption.)

A double-header. L.A. in the morning, Calabasas at night. Speeding up the 101, I notice food encrusted on my suit.

Have lost track of which invitations we’ve responded to. Most people on the circuit understand this problem.

The mom who made the preemptive strike calls: “Is Becca coming? You only have one week to respond.” (Not one week before the bat mitzvah — one week before the response card is due.)

More candlelightings. Endless. The crowd — except for the Kansans who seem charmed — gets antsy around candle five.

Another Saturday, another bar mitzvah, another kid hoisted onto a chair. Everyone applauds. One dad — a circuit regular — moans, “I can’t take it anymore.”

And then, up pops the boy who spontaneously announces he’s proud to be a Jew; the mom who tearfully tells her daughter how hard it was for her to get pregnant with her and how blessed she feels; the dad who tells his daughter why he’d hated his own father (now deceased) and how he has tried to be a better father to his own kids; the girl with learning disabilities who aces her Torah portion; the Hispanic nanny who tells the crowd that no one ever told her they loved her until she came to work for this family; and the boy who thanks his parents for adopting him 13 years ago.

Love and spirituality are alive and well in Los Angeles.

The preemptive mom calls again. She is testy. “You only have 48 hours left to respond!” We call in 72 hours (tee-hee).

Summer 2003

The slow season. Two or three bar mitzvahs. Yet I wonder: Is it a Jewish law that everyone has to serve a salad with gorgonzola, pears and candied pecans?

Fall 2003

Eighth grade. The last few.

The turnout is good. I can do the “Think” dance. The boys are now as big as the girls. Some are my size. And they’re getting antsy. At one of the last services, one mom is fighting a losing battle trying to shut them up. (What’s her problem? At least those rumors about “that special gift” have proven untrue.)

By Thanksgiving, it’s over. It’s like a dream or the chicken pox. You know it happened, but there’s little evidence.

Yet we’re different. And while these 14-year-olds aren’t adults, they’re not kids anymore, either. They’re teenagers.

And we aren’t new, young parents. We’re real, live, middle-aged adults, with a generation coming up who can hardly imagine us young.

In the end, the circuit of 2002-03 wasn’t so different from the one of 1971-72, which is very reassuring. After all, every culture has its excesses, whether it’s the Hispanic quincenera or a lifetime of elaborate Christmases.

For American Jews, the bar mitzvah service is our religion and the parties our culture. It’s great to be a part of a community and wonderful to continue a tradition.

True, it’s not a wedding. But that’s the joy. As a parent, at a wedding you are handing your child off. Yet at a bar mitzvah, this rite that ushers a child into Jewish adulthood, you are celebrating your family while you still have them.

It is a joy to be able to get up in front of all your friends and family in a spiritual setting and say: “This is my child. And I love her.”

And at the dozens of bar or bat mitzvahs I went to, every parent got up and said just that. And that, after all, is something to celebrate.

Oh, Not to Be 13 Again


My 13-year-old self came back to haunt me recently. I was in New York at the bat mitzvah of my cousin’s daughter. As an extended relative, I had the advantage of being removed enough to be able to take in all the action and critique at will. Over the course of the day, fleeting thoughts included wondering if rabbis don’t get sick of needing to have opinions on everything, and noticing the fondness East Coast women seem to have for skirt suits. Mostly, though, I just kept thinking: Thank God I’m not 13 anymore.

The service was uneventful (including the requisite rabbi’s sermon on "The Passion"). The party was great — classy in a way affairs that expensive rarely succeed in being. But as the day progressed, a subtle feeling I barely remembered kept sneaking up on me. The insecurity of 13.

I flashed back periodically to the days when bar and bat mitzvahs were a weekend staple, and I was at my most awkward. Watching my young cousin navigate herself gracefully through the day, I was struck by how different she was from myself at that age. Looking older than she was in a gold formal princess dress probably intended for the prom, the bat mitzvah girl had perfect hair, perfect makeup and a nice figure. She was popular, too. About 100 of her closest friends were in attendance.

October 1989 — my bat mitzvah day. Close-up of me: A big metallic smile covers my face. Frosted pink lipstick accentuates my braces. Matching pinkish eye shadow. True to the late ’80s, my dress is as inflated as people’s stocks: roses line the top, three layers of fabric flare out along the bottom. I basically resemble a fuchsia-and-black wedding cake. Never mind the lingering baby fat, no one suggests that the off-the-shoulder poofy sleeves might make me look like a linebacker.

Flashback a year earlier to my first day of junior high. The bus pulls up to take me to George K. Porter Junior High School, a public school not in my region of the district, but with a gifted magnet my parents decided I would attend. I don’t know it yet, but I’m in for the biggest culture shock of my young life. Porter’s a universe away from the Jewish day school I’ve attended until now. I take confidence in the fact that my hair scrunchie and socks match my outfit, and climb the steps of the bus and take a seat.

Gym class one week later — it’s the only period of the day when the magnet kids and regular school kids interact. We’re seated alphabetically for roll call and a Chola is giving my new friend, Ilona, attitude. Though I wish in my heart she wouldn’t, Ilona gives back. It has the makings of a fight until Mrs. Deehaven, our gym teacher, steps in. After that, I make it a point to befriend Yolanda, the smelly mean girl who sits in front of me. She’s pushing 200 pounds, and while no one likes her, no one messes with her either.

Every day, the bus takes me from white, largely Jewish Woodland Hills, to multiethnic lower-middle-class Granada Hills. The magnet program is insulating, but not entirely, and I learn survival skills (read: Yolanda) to compensate. Weekends are spent in one of three party dresses my parents bought for me, worn in rotation, for the various lavish bar and bat mitzvahs I attend. There are helium balloon arches and open bars, where my friends and I O.D. on Shirley Temples and Roy Rogers with extra cherries. I’m only slightly more comfortable here, among the kids I know. One of them is the boy I have a crush on. I secretly hope he’ll ask me to dance a slow dance one of these days.

I wondered as I watched my cousin with her many friends on the dance floor if there was one boy in particular she hoped to dance with. It was hard to tell, there were so many of them. But I didn’t see her dance with any of them in particular. The truth was, I saw her only a few times a year with her family, and had no idea what her life was like outside of this day.

It was actually incongruous that her bat mitzvah was what made my adolescent anxiety come flooding back. In comparison to my cousin, I was a geeky mess at 13, but the more I thought about it, my bat mitzvah was actually one of the rare days when I was free of self-consciousness. I thought I looked great, and I felt happy. I loved my dress. I didn’t care that I didn’t dance with my crush that night. The boys stood on the sidelines when slow songs came on, and we girls danced, dipping each other and acting like fools.

The concept of a bat mitzvah as an initiation into adulthood seems ludicrous to me, and always has. I think I started feeling like a grownup about a year ago, and I still can’t do my taxes without my dad’s help. But seeing my cousin’s brave front (I refuse to believe she is anything but angst-ridden, despite the lovely veneer), and remembering my own, one thing is clear to me. Surviving 13 at all is worth celebrating.

Support Pledged on Marking Historic Ruling


May 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed separate educational facilities as inherently unequal.

Less well-known is Orange County’s role in establishing that historic precedent. In 1947, a group of parents led by Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez of Westminster fought to end California’s segregation of its Latino school children. Their suit came to the attention of the state’s governor at the time, Earl Warren, who went on to hear the Brown case as chief justice of the nation’s highest court.

"This is an opportunity for us to join with the fastest-growing community in Orange County," said Marc Dworkin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter. "We are natural allies over civil liberties," said Dworkin, who recently met with Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). He pledged the Jewish community’s support for a pending congressional resolution to give national recognition to the Mendez family’s role in history.

Dworkin had company. He enlisted support from Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Chelle Friedman, staff to the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, to champion Jewish issues in a collaborative approach. "This way we can have a more coordinated effort," Dworkin said. "It strengthens everyone to go in together."

Cultivating Latino-Jewish relations is a priority for Dworkin. Last month, he helped convene a two-day regional summit between Latino and Jewish leaders in Arizona and San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties. He has also asked the O.C. Human Relations Commission to help start an ongoing Latino-Jewish dialogue this spring among leaders, similar to the diverse "living room" discussions started after Sept. 11.

Circle of Friends


Every Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., Alysson Beckman and Julie Pinchak go to Victoria Maddis’ house to hang out and play. What makes this situation unique is that Alysson and Julie are both 16-year-old high school students, while Victoria is a 7-year-old girl with a neurological disorder. They have been brought together by The Friendship Circle of the Conejo Valley, a new outreach effort designed to enrich the lives of Jewish children with special needs and their families.

The Friendship Circle and its Friends at Home program pairs local teenagers with families of special-needs kids in order to provide a social outlet for disabled children and support for their often over-extended parents. The Agoura-based Conejo Friendship Circle is modeled after the flagship program in Detroit, which was founded in 1994 by Rabbi Levi and Bassi Shemtov of the Lubavitch Foundation, a branch of Chabad-Lubavitch. The Conejo Friendship Circle was launched by its director, Rabbi Yisroel Levine, and assistant directors Chanie Malamud and Devorah L. Rodal in April 2002. The program is administered by Chabad of the Conejo, and currently boasts 100 teen volunteers and 50 families with special- needs children, ages 4 to 13.

The teenagers who volunteer their time learn the value of giving through the experience of making a difference in a child’s life.

Michelle Levy, a 17-year-old student at Oak Park High School, learned about the organization from a friend at Los Angeles Hebrew High. Levy, who works with a 6-year-old autistic child, said that “although at times it can be difficult, it’s about having fun and being open,” and said that the reward she reaps from being involved always “masks” the difficulty for her.

“I’ve told others to get involved,” she said. “It’s a help for the family to have a little bit of time, and it is so good for us because it’s really special to connect with someone you wouldn’t otherwise know. It’s amazing.”

What makes The Friendship Circle unique is that the one-on-one contact between the child and the teen volunteers takes place in the environment the children are most comfortable in: their own home. Families interested in enrolling in the program are interviewed and evaluated by the directors and a speech pathologist.

The Friendship Circle addresses many types of special needs, ranging from autism and blindness to ADHD and bipolar disorder. Rodal stressed that this program is “truly open to anyone who feels that they need a friend.”

Teen volunteers are carefully screened, selected and trained to work with the children, and are then paired with a second volunteer and a special needs child in the program. The volunteers visit with the child once a week for an hour. Their role is to play and interact with the child, while giving the parents a much-needed respite. They can bake cookies, play games, read books or do almost anything the child wants.

“This program is wonderful,” said Robin Felton, a Calabasas mom whose 6-and-a-half-year-old son Jonah is autistic. “This is the only time that’s really just for fun. Jonah’s life is so therapeutic, and everyone has an agenda related to an IEP [school] goal. His therapy is all adult driven. These girls [from the Friendship Circle] come every Sunday afternoon, and they are completely focused on Jonah and what he wants. It’s not babysitting, it’s not respite, it’s just a gift.”

Felton said that the rest of the family also benefits from this program. Hilary Srole and Sami Wellerstien make an extra effort to share their attention with Jonah’s two brothers, ages 9 and 4.

Erica and Matthew Kane’s family has been with Conejo’s Friendship Circle since its inception. Like many of the children in the program, Kane’s daughter Abby, 6, is autistic; Abby has a 20-month-old brother and an 8-year-old sister.

“Kids thrive on the continuity” Erica Kane said. “We are paired up with two wonderful high school seniors. They come every Sunday, and the kids really look forward to it. The girls are very devoted, and the kids are all very bonded to them. They jump rope, play in the yard, play with Play-Doh … it’s very healthy for them.”

Rodal explained that teen volunteers must provide references as well as copies of past report cards and an explanation of why they are interested in volunteering in The Friendship Circle. All teens attend an hour and a half training session run by the directors, a speech pathologist, a family liaison and a parent of a special-needs child. There may also be additional training provided for a particularly difficult situation, as in the case of a child currently in the program who is blind, autistic and developmentally delayed. In the future, Jewish Family Service will provide this training, and is currently working to make the sessions more interactive.

Rodal and Malamud always accompany the teens on their first visit to their assigned family, and follow up regularly with both the families and the teens. In addition, each teen is responsible to report back to Rodal and Malamud via e-mail (or standard mail) postcard after each visit.

Becoming a member of the Friendship Circle’s Volunteer Club is yet another benefit for the teens. It is a place for the teenagers to come together, discuss their experiences, and just have a good time.

“They help others, but they also have a lot of fun,” Rodal said.

“I want these children to feel like they have someone to lean on when I come to visit them,” said Andrea Kramer, another 15-year-old Friendship Circle volunteer who attends Milken Community High School. “Seeing a child feeling good will boost up their life as well as mine. I want to know that a child is feeling even a tiny bit better because of me.”

To learn more about the Friendship Circle, visit the
program’s Web site at

Missing Family


My weekly phone call with my parents brought some sad news recently. "We’re going to have to move G.M. to a different nursing home," my mother said to me of my grandmother. "They just don’t have the facilities to take care of someone with her level of dementia."

I knew my grandmother had not been doing well lately, but this seemed like a serious escalation in her condition.

The wonders of modern technology let me hear the sadness in my mother’s voice halfway across the globe, but I can feel the distance between us. My grandmother is fading away, and the only thing I can do is sit on my cell phone and listen as the Jerusalem bus makes its way past the walls of the Old City.

No matter how much I speak with my family on the phone, or how much I pray for my grandmother’s well-being, I’m just not physically there to help in this time of need.

This family crisis is making me realize now more than ever the full impact of my choice to make aliyah.

In choosing Israel, I have excluded America. Of course I can go back to visit, but the opportunities to make quick impromptu visits are gone due to the expense, time and drain of overseas travel.

I feel as though I’ve partially severed the connection between my family and me.

I’m so caught up in my dreams of being the first in my family to replant our roots back in Israel that I almost forgot that I’m making this journey alone, without any family at all.

I understood the implications this move would have on my family before I left, but since we only saw each other about once a year anyway — even when I was living in New York — it didn’t seem like such an issue.

But now my decision feels almost selfish — it’s all about my dreams, my need to live on Jewish soil, my need to live out my ideals.

Thankfully, this feeling of selfishness is not coming from my parents.

They have done nothing but support my move, be it through words, greeting cards or e-mails, reiterating their pride in my decision to be in Israel.

Despite their support — or maybe because of it — for the first time I’m tasting the bitter drawbacks of my decision. I’m seeing how valuable the people are that I’ve left behind.

There have been other moments recently when I’ve started to feel this sting.

A few months back my Aunt Hedy was telling me all about a cousin’s bar mitzvah that I had missed. She told me about how the family all sat together that evening, schmoozing about the old days: the small variety store that my grandmother and grandfather used to run; summer trips they took to the beach in South Haven, Mich.; her grandmother, who came over from Russia, who was blind and always bitter.

As she spoke, I felt at a loss — not so much for the bar mitzvah itself, but for the missed chance to grab onto those slivers of family history I know so little about.

Meanwhile, I’m here in Jerusalem writing my own history.

This chapter in my book would seem to tell the story of passionate yet stubborn character, one who is satisfied with ideals, repercussions notwithstanding.

Of course, leaving the United States was never my intention — it was to come closer to Israel. But that seems to be the irony of the story: In my deep desire to reconnect to my roots, somehow I have disconnected from some of them.

I’ve also felt the loss of connection with my close friends in the United States. So many of the relationships that I put so much energy into have just fallen by the wayside, and I see that making the dream of Israel a reality has unwittingly cut important people out of my life. Of course, when I visit there will be a warm reception, and we will eat sushi and laugh and catch up. My friends have been very supportive, even those who are not Jewish and have no understanding of what Israel means.

But once a year isn’t enough to maintain a real relationship.

The other day, my friend Valerie wrote me a short e-mail: "I got my results back from Sloan-Kettering and I don’t need to come for twice-yearly checkups anymore!"

Even since Valerie’s cancer went into remission, I remember how she used to get so panicky when the time for her checkups would come around. So we always would speak on the phone several times leading up to her appointment, and usually we would sit in some New York restaurant the week of the examination, eating something with chopsticks, while she voiced her fears. It was a small duty, but one that I was happy to take on.

Now, when I write her back a big "Congratulations" — even when it’s all in capital letters and followed by a series of exclamation points — my words lack the personal touch our meetings had.

I can’t help feeling like I’m not there like I used to be.

I go on writing e-mails and sending letters and calling, hoping to strengthen the connection between my family and friends as much as possible.

But there always is that void. I hope that someday having my own family will help fill that space.

For now, however, I realize that every dream has its price, and this distance from family and friends may be the biggest drawback of making aliyah.

I guess that’s the nature of dreams — that when they the come out of the clouds and become reality there always are challenges that come with them.

I’ve chosen with my heart to be in Jerusalem. On one hand, my heart is filled with hope for my present and future here, as well as for all the generations that will hopefully be after me in Israel. But on the other hand, my heart also is broken, because I’m so far from the people that love me the most.