Married . . . at last!


I got married for the first time at 50. The groom was 51. Yes, we are both Jewish. We met online.

I am tall, thin, blonde, green-eyed, and have a little turned-up nose. My
father-in-law’s first comment, across the Thanksgiving table, was, “Doesn’t she look like a shiksa?”

My husband is an inch shorter than I am and round. He is also handsome, smart, funny and very logical. But I married him because he is a good person and I love him very much.

I decided when I was about 46 that I really wanted to get married. The question became where to meet men who really wanted to get married, too. I decided to try online dating. I had already done everything else.

It was not love at first sight. It was interest. It was let’s see what will happen. We both had dated enough to know the difference between passion and real caring.

It took three years, but we did it. The short version:

We met in November of 2000. The cats and I moved in with him in 2001, and I gave him an ultimatum. We got engaged in June of 2002 and were planning to marry in December 2002, although I had yet to see a ring.

Thirteen weeks before the wedding, he fell and shattered his shoulder. We postponed the wedding. I told him he had until my birthday, in August, to do the ring, or it was over. This was it.

It took him eight months, but he did it. Three days before my birthday, he took me to dinner, and proposed a second time, this time with ring in hand.

This was August 2003, and we were going to get married August 2004. We would have a year to arrange the wedding. That was the plan. The next month, my then-91-year-old mother fell and wound up in the hospital, so the wedding was moved up to December.

I had three months to plan the wedding. I was crazed, to say the least. It turned out that my little, humble then-83-year-old aunt knew the owner of a hotel, which shall remain nameless, kayn ayin hora, poo poo. It was a fabulous hotel, famous for its weddings. We had a place. Then we had a date, invitations, a dress, a menu, a klezmer band and a dance band, and a lot of tuxedos.

In addition to planning a wedding in three months, a full-time job, I was also working and taking a class. How I did it, I don’t know. But I was almost there. We divided the wedding planning, sort of. My husband chose all the food and liquor. I handled the cake and flowers, the logistics of the day, the arrangements for out-of-towners, the rehearsal dinner, the auf ruf and half of the visitor packets. (My husband did the maps and the sites of interest.)

The day finally arrived. Hair and make-up call, 6 a.m. Both my husband and I have backgrounds in the entertainment industry, but this was the biggest production either of us had to pull off. He had produced and directed theater, and I had produced and directed reality TV. But this was something else.

I was drugged out of my mind the morning of the wedding. Not serious drugs, but Advil combined with terror can have a mind-numbing effect.

I had only my maid of honor, my cousin Patty, in the suite with me as I got ready. The ketubah signing was done privately with the rabbi in a separate room with only my two attendants and the two male witnesses present. It was beautiful.

It was getting scarier and scarier. Patty and I retired to the bridal suite to await the final call. The hotel’s coordinator lined everyone up, then called up to the room. They were ready for me.

Patty and I took the elevator down. We stepped out. I looked back at the mirrored elevator doors as they were closing on 50 years of being single. I looked at myself and affirmed, “I’m doing this.”

I just wanted to get through the chuppah. I got into line, at the end, next to my then 84-year-old father. This was a dream. This was unreal.

The music started and the bridal procession began. The coordinator was counting the beats. The aisle was 80 feet long. My father and I had rehearsed this, but there was no need. He was a natural. The music changed. I heard, “Now,” and I said to my Dad, “Right foot.”

Talk about a deer in headlights. I saw my cousin Jenny smiling. She stood up first, and everyone followed suit. All these people were standing up for me! I was the bride!

The ceremony was great, I thought. I loved the rabbi’s words of wisdom, although I had to watch the video about four times to remember what he said.

It was an awesome wedding, filled with Jewish rituals — the hora, the chair dance, the brachot over wine and bread. Then, after the first course, the mezinka, the dance honoring the mother upon the marriage of the last child. I am an only child, my husband, the last of four. His mother was deceased. We danced around our three parents, unbelieving that their “old” children were finally married.

In case you are wondering, married life is great. It is not a sitcom, it is not a romantic comedy — it is real life. Whatever you were before, you bring to marriage. Marriage is not a date — you see each other in the morning, someone takes out the trash, and you pay the bills.

But you do it together. At last.

Mierel Verbit is a writer and teacher who lives with her husband and cat in Santa Monica. She can be reached at mierelverbit@yahoo.com.

Mama Said…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ease Your Kids Into Holiday Services


I was tired, I was bored and I hated wearing pantyhose. I stood up and sat down at the right times, and even hummed along to the some of the prayers. But in my head I was replaying scenes from my favorite movies and wishing I was home playing video games.

Ah, the High Holidays. The mere words conjure up memories of long services, uncomfortable clothing, endless Hebrew passages, Mom and Dad dozing off, semi-fasting against my will, and, most of all, not quite taking in what the holidays were all about. What can I say? I was a kid.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more accessible to your kids. Find out if your synagogue offers special children’s or family services. I remember my childhood synagogue had separate services for kids. Our rabbi would illustrate important holiday concepts by telling entertaining stories about a character he called "Charlie Brownstein." We saw the shofar up close, sang fun songs and sat with our friends. Every Rosh Hashanah, I still wonder whether Charlie Brownstein has been inscribed in the Book of Life.

If your synagogue does not offer such alternatives, keep your child’s limits in mind. If the services are rather lengthy, you might consider taking short breaks with your children, so they aren’t overwhelmed or bored. (I met my closest Hebrew school friends in the bathroom and lobby areas during the High Holidays!) Besides giving your children a breather, these breaks can be an opportunity for them to meet other kids in the Jewish community.

If you feel your children are too young for services, some synagogues offer other kinds of children’s programs. A few years ago, I volunteered to help with one such program. I read holiday-related picture books to a group of rambunctious 6-year-olds. Afterward, all of the volunteers put on a Rosh Hashanah puppet show for the kids, using characters from Disney movies. Who knew that Snow White and Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" were Jewish?

Hebrew-heavy services can be alienating to young kids if they don’t speak the language or know some of the prayers. If you know the prayers, you might try saying or singing them to your kids ahead of time, so they recognize them during the service. As a kid, I can recall singing along to the Shema for the first time and feeling a sense of belonging.

If "dressing up" is an issue, nip it in the bud early. I remember the endless fights my mom had with my little brother, who insisted on wearing jeans and a T-shirt, rather than the adorable suit my mother picked out weeks before. Take your children shopping, and let them have a say in choosing their holiday outfits. Remember, if a garment is itchy or uncomfortable in the store, expect it to be 10 times worse on the big day.

Make the holidays more personal by explaining them to your children. Tell stories from your own childhood memories of synagogue. For Rosh Hashanah, talk about your hopes for the New Year. For Yom Kippur, talk about the things for which you’d like forgiveness. Clearly, you may not want to share all your reflections, but encouraging your children to express some of theirs will help them understand what both holidays are all about.

Create your own holiday rituals. When I was in second grade, a religious-school teacher served my class apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. She even sang a song about it, which I remember to this day. For Yom Kippur, try breaking the fast with foods your children like, to create a positive association with the holiday.

When it comes to fasting, you probably know what’s best for your children. If they are mature enough to handle the fast, be sure to explain why we fast on Yom Kippur. It’s probably best not to force them to fast, if they are resistant. I was told that I had to fast. The result? I hid in the closet and chowed down a bag of Doritos. I avoided fasting for several years after that because of my resentment. The old "because I said so" doesn’t carry a lot of weight, and kids may rebel, as I did.

Finally, remember that your kids are going to take cues from you. If you zone out or sleep during services, your kids will get the message that the High Holidays are unimportant. Find a way for your children to take an interest in at least one aspect of the holidays, be it the shofar, the food, a song, a charismatic rabbi or talking to God. If you can establish a connection, the High Holidays will become a meaningful and permanent part of your children’s lives.

This is a reprint of a Jewish Journal article published Sept. 14, 2001.

Lights Were Last to Go


My family never went to church but celebrated Christian
holidays by putting up a Christmas tree in December and hunting for Easter eggs in the spring. I had lots of fun as a child
and counted myself lucky that I didn’t have to spend long, boring hours at
church like the other kids.

I played in my backyard on hot summer days while the other
kids in the neighborhood went off to vacation Bible school.

My mom was a fallen Catholic and my dad was religiously
unaffiliated. I have a picture of my mom and the five kids lined up in front of
a big pink Lincoln in the mid-1950s on the one Easter Sunday we went to church.
I don’t know why we went that one time, I never asked.

When I grew up I kept on in my unaffiliated way — until I
fell in love with a Jewish man and we got married. We began our intermarried
life together celebrating both holidays.

I hung the colorful Christmas lights on the front of the
house and decorated the tree with ornaments I had since childhood. My new
husband lit the candles on the menorah and placed it in the window.

I soon began to realize there was a big difference in our
approach to our respective holidays. Because my Christian observances were
limited to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I never stopped to think of the
meaning behind the rituals. My husband understood the meaning of the candles he
lit each night during Chanukah and why he fried the latkes in hot oil. He knew
the history of his people and understood his traditions.

As my husband lit the Chanukah candles and sang the
blessing, I knew those eight candles meant more to him than my myriad strings
of red, green and white lights. I felt drawn to his religion and wanted to know
more.

After 17 weeks of conversion class, successful examination
by the beit din (Jewish court of law) and submersion in the mikvah, I became a
Jew. I gratefully embraced the faith and traditions of my adopted tribe. I sold
my beloved Christmas dishes to a lovely Christian woman who promised to give
them a good home. The strings of lights were given to Goodwill, along with the
ornaments, except for the one I made out of sawdust and glue in first grade.

The rabbis taught me that becoming a Jew is a process. I
found it to be true; as I celebrated the rituals in my home with my husband,
they became imbued with meaning.

Christmas, however, with its food, songs, trees, lights,
gifts and sentimentality, is hard for a new convert to ignore.

I missed the pine scent from the tree and placed my menorah
in the window with the tiny candles shining brightly, while I looked at the
Santa sleigh coming in for a landing on my neighbor’s roof, with huge
spotlights that lit it up like an airport runway.

Over the years, the smell of latkes sizzling in the oil on a
dark winter night replaced the aroma of evergreen and gingerbread. The red and
green wrapping paper was replaced with blue and silver wrapping paper. The
miracle of the oil burning in the newly dedicated Temple was an image that
brought comfort during the dark season of the year.

I still enjoy Christmas — from afar. I sing along with
Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow’s Christmas CDs in my car. I still bake some
special cookies that I made with my mother and grandmother. I still struggle to
get my latke’s crisp on the outside and hot and steamy (not raw and greasy) on
the inside.

In December, the two major American religions celebrate a
miracle and symbolize with it with light. I place my menorah in the window and
think about the thousands of Jews who have lit them before me and will continue
to light them after I am gone. I smile as I look at the big Christmas displays
and heartily respond, “Merry Christmas” to my Christian friends, knowing in the
deepest part of my soul that I am a Jew. Â


Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia.

Finding Community


Synagogue is never mentioned in the Torah. — Leo Rosten

Like many unaffiliated Angelenos between 30 and marriage, I face a problem every Rosh: How to benefit from this diverse Jewish community while remaining a sort of post-sect/noninstitutionalized member of the family. Intending to find and feel the most righteous things I can, I plan on attending four or five houses of worship over the 10 days of atunement (a word I heard from a New Yorker suggesting letting 3,000 shofars boom at Ground Zero as a wake-up cry).

Where can a single, grazing Jew-without-portfolio go to seek some awe and a cheap place to pray? The first of Tishrei will find me among redwoods in a sloping garden behind the Zen Center of Los Angeles on Normandie Avenue. A shul grows in Koreatown!

The rabbi there is given to delightfully long, serene silences. He lets the smell of the damp trees and a paper handout with a Bal Shem Tov story awaken something within us. What is it about the “Avinu Malkeinu” that taps into our collective unconscious so sacredly? Family memories overwhelm me as the rabbi talks about 2,600 years ago, when Jeremiah saw a friend crying after the destruction by the Babylonians and exhorted to him: “You have your life!”

I wonder what the neighborhood thinks when they hear the blast of the shofar, but I don’t get paranoid about it. As a breeze blows through the Normandie garden, women pull shawls over the heads of their babies, making them look like tiny Muslims. I’ll take that as a good sign.

On Tashlich I like to take part in an annual tradition on the Santa Monica-Venice border. Everyone on the Westside goes down to the sea to cast off bread I believe they buy at Trader Joe’s. They chant for the great ocean (“Oseh ha yam hagadol!”) and watch the gulls try to grab the hunks before the waves send thick, gooey globs — “my sins?” — back to shore. One can see chaverim from different Santa Monica houses of worship gathered on the beach north to Malibu. Imagine 100 years ago celebrating here like this. What a shtetl! Do the rituals make a community? In Jewish tradition, the community is responsible as long as even one sinner is left on earth.

Watching families dancing, singing and picnicking on the sand, I will desire the living drama of a Brechtian Jewish wife. I’ll covet one, even. Kids maybe, too.

The 3rd of Tishri is called the Fast of Gedaliah, but I don’t know what that means so will no doubt not observe. On the 9th, I’ll be at the Directors’ Guild Association on Sunset Boulevard for Kol Nidre. Theater One is usually full, so in Theater Two they beam in the rabbi on a 50-foot screen.

The Directors’ Guild influence gives the whole presentation a more dramatic flair. Just the right amount of over-the-top Hollywood progressive prayer to tickle your Yiddishkayt, or set your tuchus on edge, if you know what I mean. Announcements for seminars at Esalen (“Course books are available in the lobby”) can be way too-L.A. for all but the most nonpraying customer.

For Neilah I like to attend the Laugh Factory, just a breezy walk down Sunset Boulevard. A true “only in Los Angeles” — comedy club converted into synagogue.

Hot and packed with the poor and the humorous, the miskayt and the unaffiliated, it looks like Prague in the 1400s and smells like old sugary club hooch stuck to your shoe. The macher of the place stands in the back like my uncles Louie and Willie Kimmell used to stand at the back of their moviehouse in Royal Oak outside Detroit. There may be one joke circulating about “Bush Hashanah,” but most remains appropriately solemn and spirited and actually quite rejoicing. A folksy, guitar-accompanied “Aleinu” usually gets everyone going.

High Holiday prayer is a mix of faith and memory, openness and solace.

There will be stirring Holocaust readings, and at least one rabbi will lay into us pretty good. One may say the message of Yom Kippur is: “We are our own best destiny!” Another says Jews attend services every New Year “with so many questions.” I disagree. I think I go because this is where I know I’ll find answers. This year I can add to the Book of Life instead of just showing up on page 5764. Otherwise, why bother showing up at all? That would be so 5763, wouldn’t it?


Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller on public radio’s “All Things Considered” and “The Savvy Traveler.”

Turn the Tide


One of the best things about being the editor of a Jewish paper is I get to meet a lot of Jews.

Looking back over the past year, I see it’s a fascinating perk of the job.

Just in the past two weeks, for instance, I danced (poorly) at the Chabad Telethon when the tote board hit $3.4 million, met with two powerful state legislators, hobnobbed with celebrities and entertainment industry machers, lunched with Israeli diplomats and Jewish professionals and educators, cocktailed with Israeli diplomats and Persian businessmen — you get the idea.

Old, young, secular, black hat, poor, rich, gay, straight, engaged, apathetic, famous and, in one case, infamous: When I say I meet a lot of Jews, I mean a lot of different kinds of Jews. It is a pleasure too few of us enjoy. As Jewish life in Los Angeles has grown and diversified, it has also become increasingly particularized.

Part of this phenomenon is reflected in the recently released National Jewish Population Survey, which shows that a majority of Jewish institutions serve a minority of Jews: synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and federations draw about 40 percent of the Jewish population, and the number of truly active participants is probably far less. That means there is a minority of Jews engaged in what we call, with increasing optimism and inaccuracy, "the Jewish community." Yet most Jews remain outside.

Even among Jews who do, as the jargon goes, "affiliate," the distance among them is great. Of this there is no measurement in the NJPS, but I can tell you anecdotally it is a common phenomenon, and a sad one.

There are 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles, and most of us get to know only one kind among them. Because we are not just Jews, but human, our knee-jerk reaction to these other Jews is to regard them as the Other. The natural result of joining one group is to look askance at all the ones you opted out of. When I told some people I spent last Sunday evening with Chabad, they regarded me as either a dupe or a traitor. I’ve told others about the preschool at Kol Ami, a gay and lesbian synagogue, where children (many adopted from the four corners of the world) discover Judaism as a faith of warmth and inclusiveness — and you’d think I was speaking of the Amalekites. The Jewish communities of greater Los Angeles rarely touch, and even more rarely interact. Many of us don’t approve of the Other, as if we are viciously competitive teams in a regional league, and our common sport is Jewish.

So there are two problems here. On the one hand, we have divided ourselves into Jews on the inside of Jewish life and Jews on the outside, the affiliated and the unaffiliated. On the other hand, within the affiliated groups, we have divided ourselves from one another.

"Do not separate yourself from the community," said the sage Hillel, "and do not be sure of yourself until you are dead." Every day I see any number of examples of us doing just the opposite.

What we don’t seem to understand is that while Judaism may offer immutable rituals and beliefs (itself a notion open to challenge), humans by nature approach faith and ritual as part of their journey through life. The extent to which we become partners in shaping and encouraging someone’s journey to be a Jewish one depends on how open we are to understanding and participating in the Other’s journey. If you want to pull your friend out of the mud, said a great rabbi, first you have to step into the mud yourself.

The nature of religious experience in our postmodern world is personal, mutable and somewhat mysterious. As our choices and freedoms expand, our varieties of Jewish experience will become even more varied. We will have to fight against our instinct to disparage the new and different. Few among us adhere to a form of Judaism that some other Jews, at some point in history, didn’t regard as treif.

Without stretching beyond our immediate Jewish community — whether that community is a mega-shul, a mini-shtiebel, a social action group or a choir — we are unwittingly participating in the diminishment of Jewish life. "If you stop dialogue and debate, you start talking to yourself," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, "and that is the first sign of insanity." It is also a ticket to self-righteousness and extremism, something we’ve seen enough of in 5763.

Meeting Jews is easy — this town is full of them. Meeting and getting to know and appreciate different kinds of Jews is a challenge, but a crucial one.

Try it once this year.

Shanah Tovah.

It’s Passover Time Down Under, Mate


Because Australia is situated below the equator, its seasons
rebel against the Jewish calendar. Our winter is their summer; our spring their
fall. Although Passover’s rituals and symbols resonate spring, the holiday is
celebrated in autumn Down Under.

“Passover begins just as the temperature drops, days grow
shorter, and grapevines lose their leaves,” said Jenni Neumann, a New Yorker
who grew up in Sydney. “It’s rather odd, if you’re not used to it, I guess.”

Yet, most of Neumann’s childhood memories of Passover would
be familiar to many American Jews: the apple and walnut charoset, matzah balls
floating in golden broth and jars of Manishewitz gefilte fish. Like many of her
American counterparts, Neumann, 38, grew up in an Ashkenazi world. While
Australian Jews call themselves Aussies, throw chicken on the barbie — or
barbecue — and speak English with the accent of Crocodile Dundee, their
Passover cuisine is straight from Molly Goldberg.

How did that happen, since Australia not only began as an
English colony, but still owes its allegiance and cultural heritage to Great
Britain?

While British Jews were present at the colony’s inception,
the demographics of Australia’s Jewish population has somersaulted several
times, as immigrants from various continents landed on its shores. After the
American Revolution, England needed another penal colony and selected Australia
as a dumping ground for undesirables.

In 1788, eight of the 751 convicts expelled on the first
fleet from London were Jews. If that’s not surprising enough, some of these
Jews were women. In subsequent decades, Jews continued to be sprinkled in
convict shipments, and others, down on their luck, left London voluntarily,
hoping for a better life in this hardscrabble country.

Defying the odds, many Jewish prisoners attained freedom
within several years. By 1817, Jews in Sydney had established a minyan and
burial society.

“When thinking of Jewish life back home, I picture Sydney’s
Great Synagogue,” said Neumann, describing this architectural jewel with its
four-story pointed towers and spectacular stained glass.

Built in 1879, the Great Synagogue is a quintessential
example of Victorian architecture, one of the most magnificent synagogues in
the world. During Australia’s first 150 years, English descendants dominated
the Jewish community and were fiercely loyal to the “mother country.” But the
19th century saw the arrival of German, Russian and Polish Jews.

A small Sephardi community bloomed and withered. As diverse
as these influences were, they were not strong enough to compete with the
established Jews who quickly Anglicized and absorbed newcomers. But this
situation changed radically during the 1930s when Jews from Central and Eastern
Europe headed in large numbers to Australia to escape the anti-Semitism fueled
by Hitler.

Anglo Jews could not contain this flood of Yiddish-speaking
immigrants who descended en masse and eventually overran them. Once World War
II ended, another band of European Jews took root, people freed from displaced
persons camps. Today, approximately half the Jews in Australia arrived in the
Holocaust’s wake, or are their descendants. For example, Neumann’s family
originated in Moravia (the southern part of the Czech Republic) and moved at
some stage to Vienna, where they became jewelers. Her grandparents and
great-grandparents fled the Nazis in 1938. Finding asylum in Australia, they
brought their Passover recipes and traditions with them.

“The thing I remember most about childhood seders are the
red eggs my mother used to make,” said Neumann, explaining that this was one of
the recipes her grandparents carried from Vienna. She describes how white
eggshells absorb brilliant pigment from steeping for hours with skins from
brown, or better yet, red Spanish onions.

Their red-brown color symbolizes the roasted egg on seder
plates. The pigment penetrates so deeply that egg whites turn a pale peachy
shade. Neumann’s mother, Barbara, starts stockpiling onion skins two months
before Passover.

“I save skins every time I use an onion in cooking and also
collect them from the green grocer’s onion display,” she said, explaining that
she prepares about five dozen eggs, enough to send home with Seder guests and
to last through the holiday’s eight days.

While charoset is a delightful treat, Neumann feels her
family recipe is the best. A generous amount of cinnamon and a splash of sherry
hint at palatschinken, the famed Viennese dessert crepe often filled with
walnuts.

Neumann has fond memories of spending Passovers with her
Uncle John and Aunt Shirley, whose father grew horseradish in his garden.
Contrary to bottled horseradish in America, where the infusion of red beet
juice indicates milder flavor than its white counterpart, in Australia mixing
beet juice with this bitter herb connotes that only the hottest horseradish was
used.

“As far as I’m concerned, the hotter the better,” said
Neumann, chuckling as she remembers challenging her Uncle John to see who could
take the strongest horseradish.

Shirley introduced a trendy honey mustard chicken and a
layered matzah cake, with decadent amounts of cocoa, whipped cream and dark
chocolate. She learned to make this outrageous dessert from an Israeli friend
in the catering business, and it immediately became everyone’s favorite.

“Shirley had to make two of these cakes to keep us happy,”
Neumann said.

With an eclectic array of recipes, Shirley credits Sephardi
friends with expanding her culinary horizons. Australia’s long-dormant Sephardi
community was revitalized in 1956, following the Suez Crisis. After some
political maneuvering, Egyptian Jews were allowed to enter its borders. By 1969
when Iraqi Jews were targeted for persecution, Australia opened its doors to
them.

Twenty years later, a stream of South African Jews arrived,
reinforced by refugees seeking opportunities after the former Soviet Union
disbanded. There’s a contingent of Israelis, too. Today more than 100,000 Jews
call Australia home; 80 percent of them live in Melbourne and Sydney. With more
than half of Jewish students attending Jewish schools, Australia boasts the
highest enrollment rate of any country except Israel. The Orthodox movement is
strong Down Under, but Reform — or what Aussies call Progressive — Jews make up
about 25 percent of the population.

Neumann waxes poetic about a leather bound haggadah she
received as a bat mitzvah gift. A copper plaque depicting ruins of the Second
Temple graces its front. “It’s beautiful and for years I proudly brought it to
Seders,” she said, explaining that the copper comes from mines in Israel dating
back to King Solomon. She inherited her appreciation of the past from her
parents who are antique dealers.

While shopping for their business, the Neumanns collect
Passover artifacts for their seder table, remnants of Australia’s rich Judaic
history, a legacy they have passed to their children.

Sherry Charoset

1 pound red apples (2-3) with skin on and seeds and core
removed

5 ounces walnuts, chopped

2 teaspoon cinnamon

1¼4 cup sweet sherry

1¼3 cup matzah meal

Liquid artificial sweetener to taste

1. Cut apples into chunks run through a food processor using
the coarse grating disk.

2. Place in a mixing bowl. Add walnuts and cinnamon. Combine
ingredients by hand.

3. Mix in sherry. Add meal to stiffen mixture. Add
sweetener, if needed. Charoset should be soft yet easy to serve

with a spoon. If necessary, adjust sherry and meal for
consistency and flavor. If making in larger quantities, retain the

apple-walnut-cinnamon ratio.

Yield: 8 servings

Red Eggs

Large pot that you don’t mind staining

Supermarket sized bag full of onion skins

2 dozen medium sized raw eggs

1¼2 pound fatty brisket

1. Place a thick layer of onion skins at bottom of pot,
followed by a layer of eggs. Continue layering, finishing with a layer of onion
skins.

2. Top with brisket.

3. Add enough cold water to cover the contents of pot (about
2 inches from the top).

4. Cover pot and place over medium heat to bring to a boil
slowly, which helps eggs from cracking. Keep eggs boiling steadily for 5-6
hours, adjusting heat between medium and low.

5. Check on eggs every 20 minutes, adding more water if
necessary. Gently move eggs around, using a wooden or plastic spoon. Make sure
eggs are covered all the time.

6. Turn off flame and cool down to warm. Wearing plastic
gloves to protect hands from staining, carefully remove eggs to a strainer to
dry. Store in original egg containers in refrigerator. They will keep right
through the holiday. To serve, break shells and sprinkle with a little salt or
salt water.

Chicken in Honey-Mustard Marinade

2 tablespoon margarine

1¼2 cup honey

1¼4 cup artificial kosher-for-Passover Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon salt

8 chicken drumsticks

No-stick spray

1. In a saucepan, stir first five ingredients over a low
flame until thoroughly blended, about 5 minutes. Cool.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a shallow, oven-proof baking
pan with spray. Arrange drumsticks in a single layer. Pour marinade over drumsticks.

3. Place pan in center of oven, turning drumsticks every 10
minutes. Lower temperature if sauce thickens quickly as it may burn. Roast 40
minutes, or until drumsticks brown and juices run clear when pierced with a
fork.

Cocoa Cream Layer Cake

1¼2 pt. of nondairy whip topping (or heavy cream, for dairy
version)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1¼2 teaspoon baking cocoa

3 matzahs

6 teaspoons sweet sherry (or a bit more, if needed)

1. In a large bowl, whip nondairy whip topping, sugar and
cocoa until stiff peaks form. (If using cream, do not overbeat or you’ll get
chocolate butter.)

2. Spread matzahs on 3 plates. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons sherry
over each matzah. Make sure entire surface is moistened, but don’t wet
completely or they’ll become mushy.

3. On a serving plate, place one matzah and completely cover
with half of whipped cream mixture. Don’t leave any area bare or it will dry
out. Place a second matzah on top and repeat.

4. Place third matzah on top and cover with chocolate
topping (recipe below).

Chocolate Topping

3 one-ounce squares of semisweet chocolate

2 pareve margarine (or sweet butter, for dairy version)

1 tablespoon milk nondairy creamer (or milk, for dairy
version)

In a double boiler, melt and blend topping ingredients.
Spread on top of third matzah. Place toothpicks into softened spots near the
top matzah’s four corners. Cover completely with aluminum foil. Refrigerate for
two days before serving.

Yield: 9 servings  

Inspiration Burns in Flames of Menorah


Every Chanukah, I am struck by the beauty of my chanukiyah as the flames glow steadily against the darkness around them. It helps that the chanukiyah uses wicks dipped in olive oil, which nourishes them for hours, instead of candles that burn down in half an hour. I usually admire their light until midnight.

For many of us, the chanukiyah has been a vessel of history, concretizing the Chanukah blessing, "She-asah nisim l’avoteinu, ba-yamim ha-hem, ba-z’man ha-zeh," praising God for doing miracles in those days, in this time. Emphasis on "in those days."

Since Sept. 11 and the matzav (situation) in Israel, that emphasis has changed. Ba-z’man ha-zeh. Now we ask for miracles in our time.

"Judaism is a religion of optimism. It’s about increasing the light," said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author and spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta. "It’s important for parents to teach their children that there is a new and additional light each night. The light gets stronger and serves as a weapon against the darkness."

Chanukah, a season of light and miracles, can be especially comforting as we face the "brokenness" of the world today.

"Just when things seem darkest and most chaotic, we can manufacture light," said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn. "And as we begin to increase the light artificially day by day, miraculously, so does nature and the world around us; the moon returns by holiday’s end, followed by the gradual increase of daylight following the solstice.

The values of unity and diversity that the events of Sept. 11 awakened in Americans is the essence of Chanukah, too, said Rabbi Sandy Sasso, author and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-el Zedeck in Indianapolis.

"What is Chanukah but a celebration of hope and freedom and respect for difference." Sasso said. "That is also the core of American democracy. The Maccabees fought for the right to be different, to express their own Jewish tradition and not become Hellenists. In America, anyone can practice their own religion without fear."

"In contrast," Sasso continued, "the terrorists are seeking only one way of believing. As we celebrate Chanukah, we can celebrate the spirit of America and the spirit of Judaism."

Chanukah’s timeliness is rooted in the classic triumph of goodness over the powers of destruction, said Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. "Chanukah reminds us that fighting evil is a mandate of goodness in the world," Wolpe said. "You can’t be indifferent to it and ignore it."

Wolpe said the critical difference between the time of the Maccabees and our time is that the most powerful country in the world is not the ally but the enemy of those doing evil. "Maybe it’s a difference we should be celebrating."

Wolpe stressed that the Maccabees were not just battling an external enemy. They represented one side of an internal schism in the Jewish community, defying Hellenism — assimilation — while others supported it.

We, too, need to be careful of splitting our community, Weiss warned. "Even though Jews in America are overwhelmed by the challenges here, we should never forget that Israel faces this every day," he said.

The Maccabees’ decision to fight for their beliefs has made them role models, whether or not we agree with their religious zeal. "Judaism is not pacifist," noted Hammerman. "There are times when we have to break all the rules in order to save lives."

How can families create new and meaningful rituals as part of their own Chanukah celebrations? Parents can transform gift-giving into a healing act by coupling it with tzedakah, rabbis and educators suggested.

Every Jewish family could dedicate one night as a "giftless night" for themselves, Salkin said, giving the gift instead to agencies who help families in need.

Reading Into the Holidays


A few years ago, Aish HaTorah Rabbi Yaacov Deyo (of SpeedDating fame) presented me with a book before Rosh Hashana. With this simple, gracious gesture he changed forever the way I relate to what can be the most daunting time on the Jewish calendar.

Passover seders, Purim carnivals and the lighting of the Chanukah menorah all have a festive air. The High Holidays are a sober contrast, observed primarily in temple. People who may never set foot in synagogue the other 360 days of the year attend lengthy, solemn services throughout Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Even in our jaded culture, these days are approached with a sense of reverence. Yet this reverence, that binds us so strongly as a community, can also block us from connecting to the holidays on a personal level.

Fortunately, there are a number of books and articles which can help make the start of the Jewish year a time to be embraced rather than endured.

A good place to begin might be "Tastes of Jewish Tradition — Recipes, Activities and Stories for the Entire Family" by Jody Hirsh, et al (Wimmer Cookbooks, $26.95). Produced by the JCC of Milwaukee, this book is extremely accessible. There is a chapter devoted to every festival on the Jewish calendar, including Shabbat. A historical/biblical overview of what the holiday is about is accompanied by lesser-known information (such as a description of a North African Rosh Hashana seder). Then there are recipes — some classic, some innovative. Finally, as the title promises, there are activities to appeal to the whole family. Crafts are geared toward younger kids, while projects such as creating a "Book of Life Scrapbook" offer a chance for people of different ages to reflect together on the past year.

Another book that is both reflective and interactive is Shimon Apisdorf’s "Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit" (Leviathan Press, $14.95). Apisdorf writes with a soft-spoken intimacy, as though he were sitting across the table with a cup of hot tea. Discussing the short teruah notes of the shofar, he encourages, "Before you rush in headlong to the New Year energized by your rekindled convictions, pause for a moment. Let the sense of inspiration settle in. Let it fill your soul."

Throughout the text, he manages to bring to life the poetic, meditative essence of Jewish worship. A more cerebral take can be found in "Entering the High Holy Days — a Guide to the Origins, Themes and Prayers" by Reuven Hammer (The Jewish Publication Society, $29.95). This book examines the rituals and themes of the holidays with the aim of showing "how they are woven together to form a magnificent tapestry that encompasses the many facets of life."&’9;&’9;

This incredibly thorough volume is replete with details. There is a step-by-step outline of a Rosh Hashana ceremonial meal. Translations of entire prayers appear with commentary. What is most impressive about this work is that it is consistently didactic without being pedantic.

There are also a number of Web sites where people can tap into the meaning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One that stands out in particular is the World Zionist Organization’s site www.wzo.org.il. Holiday articles can be accessed by typing "Rosh Hashana" into the "Search" box on the upper right corner of the page. These articles offer thoughts that blend the traditional with the personal. They are informative and witty, and they offer fresh insights in a decidedly casual tone. For instance, in "TENtative Thoughts — the Ten Commandments and the Ten Days From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur," Robin Treistman addresses Web surfers directly: "Here’s my idea: I will present a guide for each day parallel to each of the 10 categories. The only rule is there are no rules."

To their credit, Treistman and the other contributors successfully maintain a degree of levity without crossing into disrespect. It is a tribute to these writers and a testament to the real-world orientation inherent to Jewish spirituality.

The books and articles available on the High Holidays are as varied in style as the Jewish community itself. What’s important to remember is that there really is something for everyone, an open door for anyone who’ll knock. Happy reading.

Local Rabbi’s Suggestions for High Holiday Reading

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, educational coordinator, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jewish Studies Institute: "’Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe)’ by Agnon. Nobody tells it better."

Rabbi Harvey Fields, Wilshire Boulevard Temple: "’Finding God’ by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. Selected reading on this topic does exactly what the title indicates."

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, faculty, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles; Sidney M. Irmas chair in Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School: "The single book that I recommend the most is ‘On Repentance’ by Rav Soloveitchik. It is deep, beautiful, and inspiring."

Rabbi Morley Feinstein, University Synagogue: "Milton Steinberg’s novel ‘As a Driven Leaf’ brings up Jewish identity in a complex modern world. How a Jew deals with these things is especially important at this time of year."

Rabbi Samuel Lieberman, Congregation Beth Israel: "I would say to read ‘Shaarei Teshuva [Gates of Repentance]’ by Rabbeinu Yona, and anything on Jewish law, to know how to conduct oneself during these days and throughout the year."

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, currently teaching for Isralight: "There’s such a wealth, such an ocean of material on the Internet — and articles are much more digestible than books. So it’s a wonderful, practical way to go."

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, Makom Ohr Shalom: "’Simple Words: Thinking About What Really Matters’ by Adin Steinsaltz. This book lives up to its title. A master of Jewish thought shares meditations on words, good, evil, envy, death, family, love, God and even Hollywood."

Eli Stern, outreach director, Westwood Kehilla: "I would suggest reading through the ‘Artscroll Machzor.’ It gives commentary and explanation throughout all the services, so it’s a good preparation."

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr Hatorah: "For the moral dimension, I always study ‘Cheshbon Hanefesh’ by Menachem Mendel of Satanov. I tend to focus on Chasidic texts."

Aaron Benson, rabbinic intern, Congregation Beth Meier: "Just look through the Machzor itself. Look at it as literature and poetry, rather than just an instruction manual." — Denise Berger, Contributing Writer