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Jewish Studies Program, California State University, Northridge
Write of Passage
My first crush was the Pikesville library in Baltimore, Md. Every Saturday after synagogue, my parents would usher me into the small, ancient red brick building quietly ensconced along one of the less-developed business roads in Pikesville. I would spend what seemed like hours quietly roaming the young-adult stacks and painstakingly choosing the “friends” I would bring home with me for the week.
One week, I would ambitiously attempt to devour the entire “Box Car Children” series; another I would host a Judy Blume marathon and vigilantly try to sneak the purportedly trashy “Deenie” home in between my “Sheila the Great” and “Blubber.”
After racing through all of the books with still a few days lingering between my weekly trysts, I would start reciting the books aloud, memorizing passages and acting out the various characters. Sometimes, I gawkily went so far as to continue the books in my innumerable journals. I’d imagine my own ending to the “Narnia” books and give the “Bobbsey Twins” new mysteries to solve.
My first audience was my far-too-willing parents and my far-too-unwilling younger brother. At dinner, after my parents asked us how school was and my brother, David, retorted with the perfunctorily pithy “fine,” I immediately glimpsed my window of opportunity and launched into a new playlet. Everyone assumed I would outgrow this “little phase” of needing attention.
The day of my bat mitzvah proved otherwise.
November 1986. It was raining outside Beth Am, one of the only pre-century temples that stood proudly in a yet-to-be-gentrified, fairly unsafe neighborhood. My hair was curled like Farrah Fawcett’s and my bat mitzvah book — yes, book — whose cover I had designed and whose 11 pages I had meticulously written, was ready.
A burnt orange cover, my thematic Thanksgiving color of choice, enveloped the little novella, which proudly stood in nine piles of 11, waiting for people — my people, my audience — to read during the ceremony. As I stood up on the bimah, I took people through my book of poems, stories and Jewish anecdotes.
It was then that I realized an audience of 99 sure beats an audience of three. My dream was to both act and write.
For a while, I put writing on hold, because acting was a lot more glamorous. Yet glamour easily tarnishes and after coming out to Hollywood, the Mecca of the film industry, I acted in a lot of plays, yet somehow felt unsatisfied.
I felt limited by the words the dead male playwrights were giving me. I was Jewish — where was my voice?
It wasn’t until I met Mark Troy, a Jewish playwright who later became my fiancé, that I realized the power of the voice within me. He inspired me to write my first play. He simply put the mirror in front of me and echoed the timeless adage: Write about what you know.
Admittedly, I knew my women inside and out. They were fiercely impassioned, obnoxiously intelligent, a little zaftig and a lot Jewish.
They were me.
My plays are a reflection of my life. My first play, “First to the Egg,” was the classic boy-meets-girl; however, the boy was a nerdy schlemiel sperm and the girl was the self-important conservative egg, whom he was trying to woo. Life reflected art and art reflected life. My genesis as a playwright had fertilized and conceived.
Growing up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore has given me lots of fodder for my work. Dad’s a specialist on Middle East policy and Mom’s a teacher, so our dinner-table conversations were fraught with arguments, lessons and thought-provoking anecdotes. Of the five plays I have running around the country, all of them employ pseudo-intellectual/quasi-political and far-too-educated characters based on my own Jewish upbringing.
Currently, at the Elephant Theatre, my play, “Ellipses…,” is about two people who can’t finish their sentences; yet they manage to communicate better than most people.
My family rarely finished their sentences because everyone had so much to say, articulate, declare, pronounce, state, verbalize. Dad was always spewing on and on about Arab-Israeli politics, Mom would argue the benefits of communal dressing rooms at Loehmann’s, and I would champion my vegetarian ideals by disputing whether or not an egg should replace the shank bone on the seder plate.
Like the Freedman’s, the couple in “Ellipses…,” including the Jewish saleswoman who tries to help them pick out a wedding dress, are plagued with ellipses. These characters have so much to say, that they can’t finish their sentences because their minds are working too quickly.
I attempt to explore, investigate and play with my voice in various plays. Currently playing in Northern California is “Looking for Atticus Finch,” a play I wrote with Mark Troy, investigates a Jewish girl’s coming of age at Haverford College (my alma mater) and her ultimate search for a real hero. In Pennsylvania, one of my favorite plays is running: “Serial Killer Barbie,” which explores a young Jewish girl’s evolution from kindergarten to high school as she confronts anti-Semitism head on with her wit, anger and strychnine.
Who knew once upon a bimah that my coming of age was truly reflective of my adult coming of age as a writer?
Being a writer is a process. Being a Jewish writer simply furnishes a lot more schtick with which to bless my characters.
Colette Freedman’s “Ellipses…” runs through June 15 in Circus Theatricals One Act festival at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit
Still’s ‘Waters’ Run Deep
By chance, Bet Tzedek Legal Services sponsored a program on the American Patriot Act just about the
same time readers were beginning to get their copies of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”
It was a perfect combination. The Patriot Act, hurriedly passed by Congress and signed by President Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, gives the federal government new power to find out about our private, business and academic lives. Roth’s book projects what happens when government runs wild with such power.
Both the book and some of the implications of the Patriot Act touch the insecurity that hides deep in the hearts of many Jews — that our nation’s constitutional protections could vanish, and with them the safety and opportunity that brought Jews to America.
Nicholas Lemann, Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, made the connection between Bush and Roth quite nicely when, in writing about the book, he described the perpetual wariness of the Jewish soul: “Emotionally, it could happen here. It could happen anywhere, any time. It has happened practically everywhere. It’s also the case that President Bush activates in many Jews the same emotions that Roth activates in ‘The Plot Against America.’ He may have activated them in Roth himself.”
Perhaps that explains the interest of a substantial audience at Sinai Temple on Oct. 4 for the symposium “Pursuing Justice and the War on Terrorism.” For the past 30 years, the event’s sponsor, Bet Tzedek has enlisted the constitutional guarantees of a fair justice system on behalf of Los Angeles’ poor.
The Patriot Act erodes these guarantees by greatly increasing the power of federal law enforcement agencies to wiretap, monitor Internet use and e-mail communications, obtain records of library borrowing and bookstore purchases and gather information on customers from financial institutions and other businesses. The government has new power to investigate foreigners, meaning immigrants can come under heavy scrutiny. In the past, the constitutional guarantees weakened by the Patriot Act have often — but not always — protected political, religious and ethnic minorities from the tyranny of state oppression that has periodically taken hold of federal, state and local governments in the United States.
Roth’s “The Plot Against America” takes place in 1940. The new president is Charles Lindbergh, Hitler admirer and anti-Semite, who begins exporting Jews from Jewish neighborhoods in the Northeast to areas where they would be a minority — the beginning of an American Holocaust.
Most Jews undoubtedly consider such fears far-fetched. I do. But a lot of Muslims don’t, particularly immigrants and children of immigrants who came here from the Middle East. They have rational and justified fears about the government’s growing ability to snoop and to arrest. Even the most assimilated Jew might, consider that, historically, Jews have been in the same boat as Muslims — and could be there again.
Such catastrophic thoughts were not expressed by the panelists, Jamie S. Gorelick, a member of the 9/11 Commission; Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards; and Viet D. Dinh, the main author of the Patriot Act.
Dinh, who was an assistant attorney general when he wrote the Patriot Act and now is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, is an upbeat, articulate man who, while fleeing as a boat child from Vietnam, survived harrowing experiences and poverty. To Patriot Act supporters, his life story counters charges that the law is a threat to immigrants.
His personal story is inspiring, but the implications of his words at the symposium were troubling. The Sept. 11 attacks, he said, were an assault on “the essential order” of a nation. And the cops who preserve such order are not the enemy.
“The single greatest threat is from Al Qaeda, not law enforcement,” he said. At another point, he said, Americans might have to give up some liberties in the face of danger.
Is that necessary? No, said Gorelick. She, like Dinh, served in the Justice Department where she was deputy attorney general before her appointment to the 9/11 Commission. Speaking from those two perspectives, she said there were “laws and procedures in place” that could have caught the Sept. 11 terrorists.
And Dorff said, “If we protect ourselves at the expense of our national character, what have we protected?”
A few days after the seminar, I bought Roth’s book. His 1940 Newark was foreign to me.
I never had to fight my way through anti-Semitic gangs on my way to school or be deprived of a good assignment by an anti-Semitic boss.
But as a reporter, I have covered cops, courts, the civil rights movement, urban riots and student rebellions. I have seen the fragility of constitutional guarantees of due process when society feels threatened by protestors, rioters, by crime and, now, by terrorists.
They can bend and break, as Roth, writing from the depths of Jewish paranoia, envisioned. Gorelick and Dorff hinted at the same thing in their much more reasoned manner. The words were different but the message was the same.
Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After 10 Years, a Separate Peace
At a time when Jews have unprecedented access to money and political power, it’s a fair question to ask: What do we bring to the table as Jews?
Better yet, what should being Jewish have to do with being rich or influential or powerful — or all of the above?
This is a good problem to have, mind you. It’s better to ponder how to dispense power than how to defend powerlessness. But the challenge remains, and this week the Case of the Gay Governor brought it once again to the fore.
By the time you read this, you’ll know even more of the sordid details behind New Jersey Gov. James McGreevy’s alleged affair with the Israeli man he then appointed as his homeland security director, Golan Cipel.
Cipel, 35, served as an Israel Defense Forces naval officer in such a low command that, as one New Jersey Republican state senator told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "He wasn’t going to be able to pass the simplest of four-way background checks to be a state trooper," much less a homeland security adviser.
At an Aug. 12 press conference, McGreevy, 47, acknowledged he is a homosexual and said he was resigning, but no one believed for a second his sexual predilection was the sole cause for his resignation.
What we have here is chicanery disguised as soul-searching. There is the governor, who kept his alleged Israeli lover on taxpayer’s money. There is Cipel, the lover, who now claims he is not homosexual but was the victim of serial harassment and inexplicable professional advancement.
There is the Cipel’s Jewish lawyer, Alan Lowy, who presented a pre-press conference settlement offer of $50 million. There is the Cipel’s sponsor, McGreevy’s friend and campaign donor Charles Kushner, a prominent New Jersey Jewish leader who is now the target of a federal investigation involving an alleged scheme to blackmail his brother-in-law using the services of a hooker.
Well, I thought as I followed this story, at least the hooker’s not Jewish.
Of course there is the shonda factor here — the shame of reading so many Jewish names connected to such sordid business. My New Jersey friends tell me the cringing will only increase as more revelations come to light concerning Kushner — a major donor to Jewish schools and institutions.
"Even if you discount the usual conspiracy theorists," New Jersey Jewish News editor Andrew Silow-Carroll editorialized, "the scandal retroactively casts a shadow over Jewish communal politics in the state. By appointing an Israeli of dubious experience as head of an office as sensitive as homeland security, the governor raised questions at the time over whether he was being overly solicitous of the Jewish power brokers who were so helpful to his successful run for governor."
The temptation to curry favor, to rub elbows, to advance even our noble causes through ignoble means or people increases as we accrue power and influence. Before we know it, we find ourselves handing out awards to the wrong people for the right reasons, seduced — figuratively speaking — into loving governors and others when, deep down, we know better.
It’s not that we are better than anyone else, or that we should be held to a higher standard, but that we can and should aim higher. Our tradition makes this very clear, like when the prophet Nathan upbraids King David for sleeping with another man’s wife, or when Isaiah chastises the powerful elders and princes.
"This is the material, the stories, the biblical record that cultivates conscience," Rabbi Harold Schulweis once said. "The prophet is not a fortune teller; not a prognosticator, and the prophet speaks forth against the grain of power. He will not pretend muteness or deafness."
The problem is not unique to New Jersey. Last Feb. 3, I attended an American Jewish Committee (AJC) banquet honoring Doug Dowie, the Los Angeles general manager for the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard. The AJC does fine work, as does Fleishman-Hillard, as has Dowie in a long and distinguished career. But not long after that banquet, the Los Angeles office of Fleishman-Hillard came under investigation for, among other things, over-billing the Department of Water and Power and soliciting illegal campaign contributions.
Dowie, who oversaw public sector contracts, has been placed on indefinite paid leave. It is fair to say, as one local activist told me, the who’s who of Los Angeles’ Jewish and non-Jewish power elite who sang the company’s praises and posed for photos in the hotel ballroom that evening would stay far away from such an event today.
In an ideal world, we would never be embarrassed by the names on our institutions or the pictures in our tribute books. But it happens. Our charge is not to stay away, but to resist getting too close. As we strive to be Davids, we must remember the voice of Nathan. We need to look those we honor straight in the eye, speak truth to power and demand to know if they are, indeed, honorable.
Communities Find Light in Darkness
It was Thursday afternoon, three days before 1,800 Jewish kids were to arrive for the final week of the JCC Maccabi games, and 40 delegation leaders were ironing out the logistics at a New Jersey hotel.
That’s when the lights and the air conditioning went dead, and the room quickly became hot and sticky.
But the organizers kept planning, hardly skipping a beat.
"I gotta tell you," said Lenny Silberman, North American continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games, "doing this for the games for 20 years and working with those communities, the potential for a big balagan [brouhaha] was definitely there."
But "it was amazing," he said Monday from his cell phone at the site of the games, the Jewish Community Center on the Palisades.
Thanks to the organizers’ calm, the blackout didn’t create even "an ounce" of anxiety — and all the athletes, hosted by local families, arrived in time for Sunday’s opening ceremonies.
"We knew there was no power, but we also knew that we had 1,800 kids that are depending on us on Sunday, so we had to do what we had to do," Silberman said.
A mix of determination and calm was found in Jewish communities across the Northeast that were impacted Aug. 14 by the massive blackout, the largest in the nation’s history.
Jewish communities also mirrored the mood of the population at large, which was relieved to learn that the outage was the result of a system overload, not terrorism.
Yet the incident highlighted Jewish organizations’ lack of preparedness for an emergency situation.
David Gad-Harf, executive director of Detroit’s Jewish Community Council, praised the spirit of communal cooperation — people took to the streets for block parties, cooking steaks that had defrosted in their freezers — but called the power failure a "wake-up call not only for the Jewish community, but for America as a whole."
Without an "old-fashioned" non-electric phone on hand, Gad-Harf said, the agency was unable to contact local federation leaders or other Jewish agencies.
"We realized that we were really not prepared for a crisis of this kind," he said.
Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization for local federation community-relations councils, agreed.
"We learned how completely dependent on electricity we are," she said, noting that even the organization’s national contingency plan is dispatched through computers.
The alternative plan is to use telephones — which, if they were typical office phones, depend on electricity and didn’t work in the blackout — followed by cell phones, whose networks quickly were overloaded.
"None of those three plans worked for us," she said.
A new backup system has been in the works, Rosenthal said, explaining that a computer motherboard located in the Midwest could release information remotely.
But even that wouldn’t have helped last week, as parts of the Midwest went as black as Manhattan. As a result, every Jewish agency had to fend for itself in the blackout — without the national mobilizations or alerts that are customary in emergencies.
"[There was] not the time or the communications capacity to mobilize," said John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York. "Our first responsibility was to deal with the safety and security of our people.
"Every agency with whom I’ve spoken was better prepared and had a better system in place than we did on Sept. 11, and yet there are times when you still need to call audibles," he said, using a term for football plays that are improvised in response to unexpected circumstances.
While commending the efforts of his federation’s social service agencies, Ruskay noted that Jewish agencies realized they must establish more effective backup modes of communication.
Despite the enormity of the power failure, Jewish communities across the country took it in stride and were only minimally hindered.
The Jewish contingent of an interfaith mission from Akron, Ohio, to Washington was about to fly home when they heard about the blackout.
"I checked the Internet from my cell phone, and as soon as I found out what the situation was, I just knew that we were not going to be able to fly into Cleveland," said Michael Wise, chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Board of Akron, which sponsored the trip.
His instincts proved right: As one of six major airports that bore the brunt of the power outage, Cleveland’s airport was without power for the next 15 hours.
The group — which included state representatives, judges, media professionals, clergy and school and business leaders — arrived in Akron at 1 a.m., only five hours later than planned.
"Everyone from our group was incredibly cooperative and understanding," Wise said. "They all said this was a trip they will definitely never forget."
Others found a type of reprieve in the electric jolt.
"In a way it was magic," said Naomi Rose, executive director of the Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto, which closed early on Thursday.
"We got to see the stars," which usually are obliterated by the city lights, she said.
"People sort of felt reasonably positive about it," viewing it as a "pause in their hurried lives," she said.
The wedding of Eli and Debbie Savage, a young Orthodox couple in Toronto, was due to begin Thursday evening soon after the lights went out. It went ahead as scheduled. Some 350 wedding guests ate a festive meal warmed on gas stoves, and danced to music played on a grand piano that had been wheeled into the banquet hall. A hotel generator supplied a bit of backup lighting and air conditioning, as well as temporary power for a video camera. Some guests arrived as much as two hours late because of gridlocked traffic in the streets. But most stayed late, realizing it made more sense to enjoy the celebration rather than struggle to get home.
"When they were there, they really couldn’t go anywhere," Savage said. "So people were thinking that they might as well just stay and enjoy. I’ve never seen so much spirit and electricity in the room."
After a night of dancing, the newlyweds were obliged to climb 10 flights of stairs to their honeymoon suite with candles in hand.
A candlelit photo of the Savages appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail’s Saturday edition under the headlines "With Glowing Hearts" and "How the wedding sparks flew against a backdrop of darkness."
Guests commented that it had been one of the best weddings they had ever attended.
JTA correspondent Bill Gladstone in Toronto contributed to this story. Material also came from the Akron Jewish News and the Detroit Jewish News.
Suicide Bombings Threaten Cease-Fire
Lieberman Candidacy Spotlights Fear Factor
Sen. Joseph Lieberman was in town the other day, raising money and support for his presidential quest. Since his stint as vice-presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in the oh-so-close contest of 2000, Lieberman has become a national fixture in the political world.
Throwing his hat into the presidential ring was a natural outgrowth of the 2000 experience and has been met with welcoming applause in all but the Jewish community. While many Jews have expressed support for the Connecticut senator, still many are troubled by either his level of religious observance, his political stands and/or the perception that his candidacy, dare I say presidency, might act as a conductor of anti-Semitism.
I made a number of calls on the senator’s behalf for a fundraiser here and was surprised by the number of Jews who told me that they didn’t feel comfortable with Lieberman’s candidacy. One person said that they were concerned that Lieberman might be unnecessarily hard on Israel, while attempting to silence his skeptics that his being Jewish would lead him to be easy on Israel.
Another said to me that while they had voted for the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000, they were extremely glad Bush was president post-Sept. 11. The person reasoned that a Jew couldn’t be as hard on Iraq and Osama bin Laden as Bush had for fear that it would be seen as currying favor to Israel.
At first, I was amused at this discomfort people were expressing, until I heard from a Lieberman staffer that concerns about Lieberman’s being Jewish have been seen consistently nationwide — expressed only by Jews. Non-Jews have expressed no such reservations about Lieberman the presidential candidate, who happens to be Jewish. Indeed, at this point, Lieberman has jumped into an early lead in the polls.
This was bound to happen. The glass ceiling that has for so long hovered over the heads of the Jewish community now has Jews questioning whether completing this ascension to the full array of rights afforded all peoples in the Constitution is really worth the risk — the risk of arousing the anti-Semites.
It is instructive to look at two prominent Jewish columnists for The New York Times, William Safire and Tom Friedman, to realize that one can be Jewish and of two different minds. Here are two very Jewishly committed men with two very different views of the world and of the Middle East. Neither one represents a monolith that some of the "Lieberman-scared" Jews fear exists.
This all tells me that there is no one unique Jewish way of thinking or looking at the world, and this is good. This should tell us that Lieberman will only be Lieberman, and if elected, he will govern as he sees fit. Certainly his being Jewish will inform and mold his behavior, but it won’t be Jewish, because there is no such thing.
A President Lieberman may pressure Israel to dismantle settlements or he may even encourage such Israeli behavior, but he will ultimately do what is consistent with his campaign platform and what is true to his political philosophy.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, founder of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who is currently serving as president of the Jewish Life Network, is troubled by this Jewish ambivalence to power. Greenberg said, "It expresses a fear that at a time of heightened anti-Semitism, Jews should not be too visible."
Greenberg’s point challenges the notion that if we are fearful, then we should be quiet. Greenberg continued, "For me, the Lieberman candidacy is proof that Jews have come of age, that we are capable of taking our fate into our own hands."
Alan Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University, contends that there is one element of the Jewish community that seems to be looking at the presidential candidates on the sole basis of where they stand on the issues. Abramowitz stated that "the fact that Jews do not automatically support a candidate because he happens to be Jewish is a reflection of the political maturity and self-confidence of American Jews."
How about that? Political maturity. What a great concept. It suggests that we American Jews have arrived at the place within American society where we feel equal to all Americans on all counts. We can now compete as individuals economically, socially and politically.
While Abramowitz is correct in pointing out this political maturity, there is still a segment of the Jewish community that appears to be afraid of this inalienable right. Greenberg claims "those Jews who are running scared in time will only hand a victory to anti-Semitism. One cannot hide or evade responsibility at this point of history. On the other hand, if we act — like everyone else — like we are entitled to compete for power and to be visible, then we will truly overcome the last residues of anti-Semitism."
If one doesn’t like Joe Lieberman’s stand on any of the issues and feels that there is another candidate who better reflects their views, then that would be a very mature way to look at the candidates. However, to reject Lieberman’s presidential bid because he is Jewish and that makes you feel uncomfortable as a Jew, that would be, well, immature.
Steve Berman serves on the board of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce. He is a columnist for the Atlanta Jewish Times.
Israel Faces Challenges on Anniversary
Center Board Wants Member to Resign
Pini Herman, an activist and outspoken critic of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), has been asked to resign from the advisory board of the Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) by the group’s president.
Herman, in a stinging missive to Westside JCC President Michael Kaminsky, said he refused to step down. “The whim, outrage, thrashings and arbitrariness that you and your JCCGLA support network are displaying is what has driven away many capable, talented, responsible and community-minded people from having anything to do [with] the WJCC and JCCGLA,” he wrote.
Kaminsky, in an earlier e-mail, characterized Herman as “belligerent” and “antagonistic,” saying the time had come for him to resign or be ousted.
The main cause sparking the latest brouhaha was Herman’s request to have a union member represent him and take notes at an upcoming WJCC board-JCCGLA meeting that he cannot attend.
Until recently, JCCGLA and unionized center workers were engaged in tough negotiations that called for salary and health benefit cuts. Kaminsky, in addition to his Westside duties, sits on JCCGLA’s board.
Herman, who attended a WJCC advisory board meeting May 5, said no one raised the issue of his dismissal. “I think Kaminsky was making up the process as he was going on and overreacted to my request,” Herman said.
In an interview, Kaminsky said he was frustrated and disappointed that Herman had leaked private e-mails to the press and that Herman had screamed at him recently on the phone. He added that no further action against Herman is planned. — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer
Tenth Yahrzeit for ‘The Rav’ Planned
Young Israel of Century City will host a community forum Sunday, May 18, in commemoration of the 10th yahrzeit of “The Rav” — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the preeminent Talmud scholar of the 20th century, whose philosophy shaped modern Orthodoxy.
“Hearing The Rav lecture was the most exciting intellectual and spiritual experience you could have,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, rabbi of Young Israel of Century City. “You thought you were hearing Torah straight from Sinai. He was so clear and profound, able to transform the most difficult concepts into simple language.”
The Rav’s great nephew, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik will speak about how his uncle emerged from a Lithuanian rabbinic dynasty to become a revolutionary leader in an Orthodox community confronting modernity. Soloveichik will also deliver a Shabbat lecture on The Rav’s influence on interfaith dialogue.
Rabbi Asher Brander of the Westwood Kehilla, Rabbi Nachum Sauer of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob will teach classes on different aspects of Soloveitchik’s thinking.
“A Man for All Seasons: Reflections on The Rav” will beheld Sunday, May 18, from 9 a.m.-12:15 p.m. at Young Israel of Century City,9317 W. Pico Blvd. There is no charge. For more information call (310) 273-6954or go to www.yicc.org . — Staff Report
First Training in Adult EducationOpens
Most rabbis, cantors, educators and communal professionals have had no professional training for meeting the needs of adults seeking Jewish education — until now. This spring, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles established the Institute for Teaching Jewish Adults (ITJA). The continuing education program, which is the first of its kind in the United States, will train Jewish professionals and advanced lay leaders on how to reach out to the growing number of adults seeking Jewish literacy.
“Concerns over Jewish literacy and the need to develop an informed leadership are becoming commonplace in our community, affecting every family and synagogue,” said Dr. Diane Tickton Schuster, director of ITJA.
“It is increasingly important that Jewish professionals who work with adults understand the learning needs of this highly diverse constituency and the best strategies for teaching them,” she said.
Currently, the new program has a pioneer class of six students, all rabbis.
“This is training they never had as part of their preparation for [their] positions,” Schuster explained. Participants will learn how to cater to “well-educated Jewish adults, who feel under-educated Jewishly” and help them study and embrace Jewish history, Jewish text, Hebrew and find meaning within their Jewishness. — Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Education Writer
El Al Offers New Class of Service
El Al recently replaced its business class with a new Platinum Business Class, offering increased personal service and comfort to passengers on its 777 and 747-400 aircraft. Each jetliner has been reconfigured, resulting in a 25 percent reduction in the number of seats and increased leg room for Platinum Business Class passengers. In addition, each seat has a laptop power outlet, personal lighting and a personal TV monitor.
Additional improvements include an increased number of flight attendants, more meal choices and courses and an extensive wine menu. At specific El Al Platinum Business Class counters, check-in is expedited and travelers are allowed three pieces of luggage, compared to two in coach. Platinum Business Class passengers are also allowed the use of specific airport departure lounges, such as Los Angeles International Airport’s King David Lounge in the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
For those traveling to Israel on a full-fare Platinum Business Class ticket, El Al offers a $250 round-trip companion Platinum Business Class ticket.
For more information, visit www.elal.co.il . — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer
Bombers and the Martyr Syndrome
Palestinian suicide bombers killed a total of 28 bus passengers and young people in a four-day orgy of blood and vengeance that stretched from Haifa and Hadera in the North to Jerusalem in the South.
The weekend’s four human bombs brought to 30 the number of Palestinians who have blown themselves up since the intifada broke out 14 months ago. Hamas claimed responsibility for 22 of them, the smaller Islamic Jihad eight. Altogether, 243 Israelis have been killed by them and about 2,000 wounded.
Leaders of these extremist Islamic movements boast that young Palestinians are lining up by the hundreds in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to volunteer for suicide missions. Eyad Sarraj, the director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Project, detects a widespread eagerness and zeal. "If they are turned down," he said, "they become depressed. They feel they have been deprived of the ultimate award of dying for God."
Palestinian opinion polls show a sharp rise in support for suicidal attacks on Israelis. Before the intifada, it ranged from 20 to 25 percent. It is now soaring between 70 and 80 percent. And this cuts across party lines. Support for Hamas as a political movement runs at barely 20 percent (double what it was before September 2000, but still a minority) and support for Islamic Jihad is at about 5 percent.
Sarraj, who believes they are making a deadly mistake, has spent two decades researching the "martyr syndrome," trying to fathom why so many young Palestinian Muslims are competing to die with smiles on their faces. Religion, he concluded, was only part — albeit a crucial part — of the answer. The other components, he maintained, were a need to identify with a symbol of power and a thirst for revenge.
"The bottom line," Sarraj explained, "is absolute despair. It’s not economic despair, not poverty, but political despair. These people identify with the defeated, humiliated Arab Islamic nation. They feel desperate because they can’t defeat the Israelis on the battlefield. They can’t rely on outside help. So in the end, they turn themselves into bombs."
Many Palestinian children, the London-trained psychiatrist added, had witnessed the humiliation of their fathers by Israeli soldiers. They no longer admired a father who couldn’t protect them and couldn’t even protect himself. So, they looked for an alternative. In the 1980s, after the first intifada, when children played "Arabs and Jews," the local variation of "Cowboys and Indians," many chose to be the Jews because the Jews were stronger.
But, that produced a trauma of its own. How, they brooded, could they identify with the enemy? So, Sarraj and his research team discovered, many of these young Palestinians turned to violence against others in their own community. Once the second intifada broke out, however, they found a more appealing model in the Palestinian fighter who kills for his nation.
That led in turn to hero-worship of the suicide bomber. "The martyr," Sarraj argued, "is the highest model because Muslim culture glorifies the martyr. He is the most courageous fighter because he meets the ultimate test of faith. The martyrs think they are exercising their will over life and death, the ultimate form of power."
Faith is the key to the puzzle. The Koran says that if you die for God, you don’t die. The bombers believe it in the most literal sense. "If they believed that their death was really their end," Sarraj insisted, "they’d never do it. They believe they will go to a better and more victorious life."
The question challenging Palestinian and Israeli political leaders, not to mention President Bush’s mediator, General Anthony Zinni, is whether the cult of the martyr is now so entrenched that it would be impossible for Yasser Arafat to rein in the bombers, even if he wanted to.
Ghassan Khatib, a West Bank political analyst, is convinced that the Palestinian leader could enforce a cease-fire, if the Israelis would help him. "Arafat is still in control of his security organizations," he said, "and he is still perceived as the leader. His word will be obeyed if it makes sense to the Palestinian in the street."
Everything turned, he contended, on whether the Israelis continued killing Palestinians, be they children on their way to school or Hamas commanders rocketed in their cars. "The reason for Arafat’s failure so far is that he is required to deliver a unilateral cease-fire," Khatib said. "He was made weak last week when Israel killed 15 Palestinians in 48 hours. But, if a cease-fire is applied to both sides, he still has the authority to deliver."
After the latest suicide bombings, Ariel Sharon and Bush may yet force him to the test.
The Divorce Force
By J.J. Goldberg
Gangs of masked, Yiddish-speaking thugs inBrooklyn have been abducting Orthodox Jewish men and beating themsavagely to force them into granting their wives a religious divorce,or get, according to several men who say they were victims of such assaults.The beatings allegedly were ordered by an Orthodox rabbinicalcourt.
The story surfaced just before Purim, but it’s nojoke. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office is investigating twocases and may submit evidence to a grand jury within weeks, the DA’sspokesman says. Newsday, a local daily, reports that it has uneartheda dozen such get-related assaults.
One of the alleged victims, Abraham Rubin, filed a$100 million civil racketeering lawsuit in state court in Januaryagainst the people he claims attacked him. The suit names severalprominent rabbis charged with authorizing the assault.
Also named is America’s second-largest Orthodoxrabbinic association, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the UnitedStates and Canada, which the lawsuit says acted “in conspiracy” withsome of the accused rabbis. The union’s executive vice president,Rabbi Hersh Ginsberg, says that his group had “nothing to do” withany beatings, adding: “We have 500 members, so whatever a member mayor may not do has nothing to do with us.”
The union last won headlines on the eve of Purim1997 by decreeing that Reform and Conservative Judaism were notJudaism. Founded in 1900, it is the oldest Orthodox rabbinic group inAmerica. Often derided by critics as marginal, the union’s membershipincludes some of the leading Talmudic authorities in traditionalOrthodoxy.
The allegations are the latest twist in acontinuing Orthodox debate over the fate of agunot, or “chainedwomen”—women who cannot remarry, because their husbands won’t givethem a get. In rabbinic law, the divorce document can only beinitiated by the husband. An ex-wife without a get is still a wifeand may not remarry, though a husband without a get may sometimestake a second wife.
Women’s rights advocates say that husbands oftenuse the get to extort better financial or child-custody terms than acivil court might grant. Many agunot, activists say, are womenfleeing abuse. Their number is unknown, but some activists put it inthe thousands.
Rumors of get-related beatings have beencirculating for years, but “there’s never been any hard evidence,“said Susan Aranoff, who is with the women’s rights group Agunah Inc.“We think it’s barbaric.”
A beating is rumored to cost about $5,000,including rabbinical court fees.
Rubin and his attorney, Thomas Stickel, held apress conference last week with five other Orthodox men who claimedto be victims of get attacks, including one beaten in 1992 bybat-wielding, Yiddish-speaking thugs in ski masks. Stickel believesthe same group of rabbis ordered most of the assaults.
Rubin’s lawsuit paints a sad picture of a 1986marriage that ended in 1990, when his wife, Chaya, fled to Canadawith the children. She agreed to settle their dispute in rabbinicalcourt, the suit says, but, instead, she obtained a civil divorce inMontreal in 1992. Then she asked for a get.
Beginning in 1995, the suit says, a series ofrabbinical panels ordered Rubin to appear for divorce. In 1996, aseven-member “star-chamber-like tribunal” allegedly issued a writ,“ordering plaintiff’s abduction and torture.” On Oct. 23, 1996, Rubinsays, he was snatched off a Borough Park street by three men whodragged him into a van, handcuffed, blindfolded and beat him, andrepeatedly shocked him with a stun gun, demanding in Yiddish that heissue a get. He says that he passed out and was later dumped near acemetery. Stickel says that Rubin was told the get had been concludedwhile he was unconscious.
In the broader Jewish community, the case hasaroused, well, not much of a reaction. Only two secular tabloids,Newsday and the New York Post, even reported the story. Orthodoxleaders who are asked for comment typically offer responses rangingfrom “nothing’s been proven” to “it’s not news; we’ve known aboutthis for years”—sometimes both from the same person.
The community’s ringing silence is not hard toexplain. It’s tough to know whom to dislike more in this, a sordidtale without good guys. But the silence also betrays a largerpathology: a tendency in the Jewish community, particularly theOrthodox community, to circle the wagons and resist outsidescrutiny.
It’s an old instinct, based on real fears ofvulnerability and a determination to shut out the outside world. Butit won’t work anymore. The outside world keeps creeping in.
Agunot were rare until recent times. That waspartly because divorce was infrequent, and partly because rabbis oncehad the power to flog a husband until he agreed to divorce. Israelirabbis can still jail a husband, but rabbis elsewhere have no suchpower. Not legally.
The problem is most acute in the United States.Because of church-state separation, no central authority governsrabbinic courts here, so husbands may bring a divorce to any tribunalthey choose. Some right-wing panels are known for favoringhusbands.
What’s emerged is basically a home-grown Americanproblem, something the Talmud never foresaw: growing numbers of wivesopting out, growing numbers of husbands refusing to free them. TheOrthodox community faces a crisis that it is just beginning toacknowledge. Society’s ills are taking a toll on a community thatlikes to think itself immune.
Actually, pummeling husbands isn’t the onlyhalachic way to help agunot. One tribunal in New York, headed byRabbi Moshe Morgenstern, began arranging divorces last year withoutthe husband’s participation. The panel uses an old procedure, akin toannulment, in which a get can be written without hubby’s consent ifthe rabbis rule the original marriage contract invalid.
But Morgenstern’s panel has evoked gales ofprotest from a spectrum of Orthodox rabbis who say the speedy getsare invalid. In January, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis convened aspecial “emergency meeting” to condemn the tribunal’s work as”deceitful.”
The reported get beatings, if proven true—andfew who know the community doubt there’s something there—are asign of what happens when change strikes a community that doesn’t believe in change. An irresistible force meets an immovable object.The result is violent chaos.
“This is what’s going on,” says Morgenstern. “It’sperfectly legitimate to beat the husbands up, but it’s treif to annul the marriages. There’s something wrong with that. Whether or not itwas once acceptable to use corporal punishment, it’s now against thelaw.”
J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power:Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.
How Do We Do It?
I was late getting home from mymeeting the other night. Too late to help my daughter prepare for herSpanish quiz. Too late to massage her shoulders after softballpractice. “Do Not Disturb,” read the sign on her door. Hernight-stand light was on, but Samantha was already asleep.
Disregarding her warning sign, I entered, andpulled the covers over her. “Sweet dreams,” I whispered, and I kissedher forehead. I knew from our car-phone talk that she had had a goodday. Still, until I saw Samantha myself, her hair neatly pulled backwith a barrette, I could not rest. At nearly 16, my daughter isaccustomed to making her own meals, putting herself to bed. Thebalance of power has shifted: I need the good-night kiss more thanshe does.
I’ve been a single parent a long time now. I knowa lot about it. When Jewish organizations need a speaker on singleparenting, they often ask me — and I’ll be at the Westside JewishCommunity Center this Sunday for the daylong conference, “CreatingFamily Life as a Single Parent,” sponsored by Jewish Family Service’snew Jewish Single Parent Network (818-762-8800.)
Fifteen percent of all Jewish households withchildren under 16 are single-parent, according to the soon-to-bereleased Los Angeles Jewish community population survey. That’s aboutone in six. We may have fewer teen pregnancies than the surroundingmainstream community, but lots of divorce, lots of widowhood, lots ofsingle parents by choice.
And the questions I’m asked most often are: “Howdo you do it?” “How do you make choices about the child’s welfarewithout someone to bat the ideas around with?” “How do you play goodcop/bad cop by yourself?” “How do you get any time for yourself aftera long day’s work?” “How do you retain a social life that doesn’tleave the child feeling excluded?”
The single answer to all of these issues changeswith time. Raising a child alone is so overwhelming “There’s noschool for parenting,” my mother used to tell me, and single parentsare even more in the dark. Whipped about in the heady winds of achild’s emotions, I’ve had no one else to provide an anchor. Yet,somehow, homework gets done, new Adidas get bought. We get throughthe school semester. We get over our tantrums. We get our hugs. I getby, with a little help from my friends.
I’m not kidding. Some nights I can’t bear theweight of the worry. And some days I have to kvell out loud. Ineither case, I talk: to the pillow, or to Marika, Jane or Willie. Orto God. I hold back nothing. My advice to single parents is: Pickyour friends wisely. Forget the meaning of shame. And learn themeaning of pride.
It’s about pride that I want to make a specialpoint. A single parent’s life is generally deemed to be one of pity,sadness, handicap. The prevailing attitude of our synagogues andorganizations, and of married couples who belong to them, is that wesingle parents are “broken,” while they, of course, are “intact.” Ina series of focus groups sponsored by Jewish Family Service in LosAngeles, single parents reported that they felt “unwelcome” in Jewishlife. There’s a bias toward the nuclear family; anyone who doesn’tconform is a challenge and a threat to community norms.
Perhaps it goes back to the biblical commandmentof caring for the widow and orphan, but single parents carry, inaddition to extraordinary financial and emotional obligations, aweighty psychological burden to prove their wholeness. The Jewishsingle parent is regarded as a war veteran, like the one-legged guywho stands on the highway with a tin cup. Battle-scarred, needinghelp.
Wrong! The aura of handicap that hangs over singlefamilies not only hurts parents, who ache with a sense of their owninadequacy, but it destroys the burgeoning confidence of Jewishchildren.
There are plenty of stumbling blocks in a parent’slife; let’s get rid of the crazy ones. We have to see single parentsfor who they are: strong, tireless, persevering and role models ofselfless love.
The community, rather, could honor us not withpity but with support, including low-cost synagogue membership andb’nai mitzvah fees, and scholarships for summer camp. But the biggestboon to single parents would come when the Jewish world begins toredefine “family” according to the realities of today. After all, theLos Angeles community survey demonstrates that only 23 percent of allJewish households are in the traditional “Leave it to Beaver” mode:Mom, Dad, kids.
Well, my house is part of the new majority. Ididn’t exactly plan to raise my child alone, but, even so, it is arewarding life. I was lucky to do her bat mitzvah alone, without aspouse to argue with over “how Jewish” it would be. I have vacationswith my daughter each year that are the envy of many two-parentfamilies. We have closeness and intimacy and friendship. I love her,and she’s still talking to me, so I can’t be doing too bad ajob.
I’m a single parent, sure. Glad of it.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. She hosts the Jewish community chat Thursday eveningsat 8 p.m. on American Online. Her e-mail address email@example.com.
All rights reserved by author.
January 30, 1998 —One by One byOne
January 30, 1998 —TheDaughter
January 23, 1998 —Babysitters NoMore
January 16, 1998 —FalseAlarms
November 28, 1997 —As AmericanAs…
November 21, 1997 —The ThirteenWants
November 14, 1997 —Music to MyEars
November 7, 1997 —Four Takes on50
October 31, 1997 —ChallengingHernandez
October 24, 1997 —CommonGround
October 17, 1997 —Taking Off theMask
October 10, 1997 —Life’s a MixedBag
October 3, 1997 —And Now ForSomething Completely Different
September 26, 1997— An OpenHeart
September 19, 1997— My BronxTale
Power, Politics And People