‘Nick and Norah’ star Kat Dennings is infinitely Jewish, in her own way


Who would use tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, as a lead-in to a movie love scene?

Norah Silverberg, the lead character in the hit teen comedy, “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” that’s who. The film tracks an offbeat love story between high school students Nick (Michael Cera) and Norah (Kat Dennings) as they traverse through New York City in search of a mysterious band (“Where’s Fluffy”) and Norah’s lost, drunken girlfriend.

Along the way they meet an interesting cast of characters, including Norah’s ex-boyfriend, the sleazy Tal (Jay Baruchel), who is using her in hopes her famous dad will produce his Jew-power album. Oh yeah — and Norah tells Nick about tikkun olam — right before she makes her move on him.

But actress Kat Dennings, who is Jewish, like the character she plays, didn’t know the concept before the film. “I had to ask people around the set about the Hebrew words,” she said in a phone interview with The Jewish Journal. “I couldn’t pronounce it.”

Dennings, who is 22 and lives in Los Angeles, is different from Norah, an 18-year-old who lives in Englewood, N.J. For one thing, she’s not a “JAP” — as Nick calls Norah in the film.

“I don’t even know what JAP really means,” Dennings said. “That’s just something kids say to each other.”

She said she is very different from Norah, except “for both being brunettes and Jewish,” and “I tend to worry a lot and take care of my friends — I take a mothering role,” she said.

The trailer

Still, she was attracted to the film, based on a 2006 novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (Knopf Young Adults) that had far more Jewish references. (In the book, Norah talks often about Judaism.) The film’s Judaism has been “moviefied,” Dennings said.

“I liked that Norah was a strong and unique female lead, not the type of girl I was used to seeing in films like this,” Dennings said. “I liked that she was Jewish — it’s different from what I’ve seen in the past.”

Although she says she’s “a billion percent Jewish” (“I don’t think I have any relatives who aren’t Jewish”), she considers herself more ethnically and culturally affiliated than religiously so, as do many of her generation.

For example, on her blog — which she’s had for an astonishing seven years — she has posted a video titled “Happy Purim!” about her and a faux pregnant friend clowning around. “It had nothing to do with Purim, but we filmed it on Purim,” she said.

After an article about her appeared in Vanity Fair, she blogged, “push Aunt Nancy aside and throw open the screen door, because ‘Hollywood’s Next Wave’ just got a lot Jewisher.”

The youngest of five children raised in Philadelphia, “I went to my little friends’ bat mitzvahs, but I’m not that into religion,” she said.

Which is funny, since the pale-skinned, pouty-lipped actress’ first standout role was in “Sex and the City,” playing Jenny Brier, a teen who hires Samantha to do publicity for her bat mitzvah.

She says she’s not worried about being stereotyped; she’s also starred in “40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Charlie Bartlett,” and guest starred in TV’s “CSI: Miami” and “Without a Trace.” She is also set to film “Sendor,” with Woody Harrelson.

Judaism, she said, “is an important part of my history, but, as a whole, religion is not a part of my life.”

“It’s a background thing, but I’m proud to be Jewish.”

Tranforming the Synagogue — A Scorecard


Synagogue transformation programs exude good intentions, but do they actually work?

The record is mixed. They are no panacea, but they sometimes benefit participating congregations — at least temporarily — by attracting newcomers, energizing existing members and perhaps forcing the synagogues to re-examine themselves.

For example, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, a spokesman for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said participating congregations in his movement have enjoyed “modest success” in luring unaffiliated Jews, although getting them to participate in synagogue activities has not always been easy. On the other hand, he added, some existing members have become more deeply involved in congregational life thanks to transformation initiatives.

Those initiatives include Synaplex, whose core mission is to strengthen Jewish identity and create a sense of community largely by making Shabbat meaningful.

Turnout at synagogues that have participated in the program for at least two years generally doubles, triples, or even quadruples on Synaplex weekends, according to Rabbi Hayim Herring, a spokesman for Synaplex’s parent organization, STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. What’s more, Herring added, membership has either stabilized or increased at 17 pilot congregations evaluated by his organization, even those that had been losing members.

But a boost in headcount does not necessarily translate into meaningful change, according to representatives of both transformation projects and participating synagogues.

“The goal of a synagogue is not simply to get people to use it, although that may be the initial goal,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The ultimate goal is to effect change in the person and the congregation. I’d look at the situation two years from now and see how many people have had continuous involvement, or became involved only because this is something new.”

The success rate of these experiments varies dramatically, according to Epstein. Without offering percentages, he said he has observed “large numbers” of congregations that seek a “quick fix,” and therefore have achieved only limited success — and “large numbers” that have been able to reinvent themselves and become more vibrant institutions.

Benchmarks of congregational transformation come in many forms — some of them concrete and easy to quantify, but many more of them abstract and difficult to attach numbers to. They may be manifested by congregants who now take Jewish learning seriously. Or who have inculcated Jewish values into their lives. Or feel prayer in their bones for the first time. Or it may be reflected in a once-impersonal synagogue that now has a warm, friendly atmosphere and makes newcomers feel at home.

Whether these innovations actually take root is the product of many factors, according to Epstein and others, including the quality of leadership at individual congregations, and that can vary widely. The consensus: The best leaders are visionaries who cultivate congregations that creatively and boldly pursue long-lasting change rather than simply add new programs. Ideally, such an approach is so firmly implanted in the congregational culture that it will survive changes in synagogue personnel.

“You have to be ready to look at yourself objectively and critically and really be honest about what your strengths and weaknesses are,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “You need to create rising expectations and break your sense of complacency. It’s very difficult.” Freelander said only about one-half of the congregations he has monitored have been able to create a climate that is conducive to profound change. “But when it happens,” he added, “you can see the light bulbs going off and the congregation is better for it.”

The point at which change becomes “meaningful” or even “profound” is subject to interpretation, of course. Herring of Synaplex, for one, said an important threshold has been crossed when a congregation “moves from using Synaplex as a program to using Synaplex as a way of doing business in the synagogue.”

However it is defined, fashioning a truly transformative approach to congregational thinking and decision-making “is incredibly hard to do and we still have a lot to learn about how to do it,” said Lawrence Hoffman, the co-founder of Synagogue 2000, an initiative that was launched in 1995 and recently evolved into a leadership-training program known as Synagogue 3000. The goal of Synagogue 2000, in part, was to help congregations become more spiritual, adult-centered and welcoming.

Hoffman estimates that about one-third of the 100 congregations served by Synagogue 2000 had poor leadership, and therefore achieved lackluster results. Of the remaining synagogues, he said, about one-third of them were modestly successful at transforming themselves and one-third were very successful.
Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said that about half of the Synaplex synagogues she surveyed could legitimately be called success stories.

A third major shul-overhaul program is the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) , which focuses on Torah study as an important entry point into Jewish life. “On one level, transformation seems daunting,” said ECE director Rob Weinberg. “But on another level, we’re just asking congregations to do the best of what they already do, but on a regular basis.”

Stressing that he considers success to be a “continuum, rather than a yes-no proposition,” Weinberg estimates that roughly one-half to three-quarters of the synagogues that have participated in his program for several years have in fact transformed themselves.

Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., is one of them. Under the ECE aegis, the 1,000-family Reform congregation spent five years coming up with five core Jewish values — lifelong learning, enriching spirituality, creating community, social action, and Jewish continuity.

Ideally, every new synagogue event or program exemplifies one of those values. For example, when three of the temple’s aging Torah mantles disintegrated, more than 330 members, from nursery school children to grandparents, needlepointed decorative covers for the new mantles, illustrating the values of kedusha (holiness) and kehillah (community).

Meanwhile, the congregation has become active in its local federation and the national Reform movement and has sent two large groups to Israel this past year.
“That’s what it means to us to be a learning congregation,” said Temple Shalom education director Julie Vanek. “Not just creating programs, but helping people reflect on who they are and what they want to be.” l

Magen David Adom and the Case for Diplomacy


GENEVA — After 75 years, humanitarianism prevailed over rejectionism. Last Thursday, in the early morning hours, delegates to the 29th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, assembled in Geneva from 192 states and 183 relief societies, voted by overwhelming majority to recognize the Magen David emblem and admit Israel’s relief society. In marking an end to one of the most notorious international restrictions against the Jewish state — reminiscent of the United Nation’s 1991 repeal of its “Zionism is Racism” indictment — the historic achievement refutes a fatalistic approach toward Israel’s isolation and underscores the potential of determined diplomacy to eliminate the demonization of Israel within key institutions of international law.

Success last week was hardly assured. The two-day conference was marred by acrimony as Muslim delegations from more than 50 countries attempted, first, to force the conference to adjourn, asserting that it was “procedurally illegal.” When that failed, the Islamic bloc, rejecting compromise, demanded last-minute amendments to the conference’s carefully negotiated resolution, seeking to wrest unrelated political concessions from Israel. When those, too, failed — thanks to the resolve and determination of Dr. Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and conference chairman Dr. Mohammed Al-Hadid (a Jordanian) — the Muslim group filibustered with one point of order after another, forcing the delegates to stay until 3 a.m. before the final vote and conclusion of the conference.

There were sharp words. The Syrian delegate accused Kellenberger of “lacking neutrality and objectivity.” The Palestinian ambassador said the conference was “an Israeli ploy,” and that Israel is the world’s “most flagrant violator of international law.” The Saudi representative said Israel’s relief society violates international humanitarian law “every day.” Iran’s delegate said the Magen David Adom (MDA) “insists on racial discrimination” and that its admission would be a “threat for the unity of the movement.”

It was precisely this sort of vehement opposition — part of a decades-long campaign to cast Israel as a pariah within the international arena — that hitherto prevented the Israeli society from joining the movement.

Few causes in recent years have galvanized supporters of international equality for Israel as much as the exclusion of the MDA. Mobilizing the principal actors — the U.S. government, the American Red Cross, the ICRC and the Swiss government — were not only Israeli démarches, but also the appeals of thousands around the world together with sustained diplomatic campaigns by several groups.

The MDA victory is two-fold. First, Israel’s humanitarian society will now be able to count on the support of the international movement as it fulfills its mission to serve those in need, and to fully cooperate with all societies, including the Palestinian Red Crescent that was admitted simultaneously.

Equally as important, there is a monumental achievement on the level of symbol. The Star of David is the emblem of Israel’s relief society, but it is much more. It is the flag of the State of Israel and the historic symbol of the Jewish people. Until last week — at a major world body that literally defines itself by symbols — the Star of David was rejected. Thanks to the activism of so many around the world, today it is accepted.

With the alarming rise of anti-Israel boycotts and selective divestment, some would surrender to the notion that Israel is fated to dwell alone, relying on the rabbinic dictum of “Esau hates Jacob” as a rule of nature. Hope is not a strategy, but neither is defeatism. The fact is that by working with allies and sympathizers the world over, determined diplomacy repealed an invidious U.N. resolution in 1991, won Israel’s admission to one of the United Nations’ five regional groups (albeit in New York only) in 2000, and, in 2006, has gained international recognition of the Magen David.

Will the U.N. General Assembly ever eliminate its annual ritual of condemning Israel in 19 one-sided resolutions? Will the world body’s human rights apparatus ever abandon special agenda items for the singling-out of Israel? We do not have to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Hillel Neuer is executive director of UN Watch and editor of its news and comment Web site,

An Ode to Parents and Other Strangers


When Paul Reiser co-created and starred in the 1990s hit sitcom, “Mad About You,” — about a secular Jew married to a Christian — he helped spur a new trend in TV comedy: the cute but neurotic Jewish leading man. Along with Jerry Seinfeld and Richard Lewis (“Anything But Love”), he elevated male Jewish characters from whiny sidekicks to leads that remained appealing, despite their anxieties and preoccupation with exasperating parents.

Reiser’s new film, “The Thing About My Folks,” also revolves around a secular Jew, Ben Kleinman (Reiser), who is preoccupied with exasperating parents. In the comedy-drama, Ben bonds with his father, Sam (Peter Falk) on an impromptu road trip after mom (Olympia Dukakis) unceremoniously leaves dad. During assorted misadventures, Ben learns more about his father — indeed his parents — than he ever knew before.

The Jewish Reiser began writing the script around the time he starred in the 1980s coming-of-age film, “Diner,” in part because he was curious about his own parents.

“[I’d] look at pictures and go, OK, you were a young, handsome, beautiful couple,” the 48-year-old said. “How do you go from 24-year-olds who kiss for the first time in a car to 70-year-olds falling asleep watching Mike Wallace?”

The film explores their journey in fictional form; it’s also an ode to Reiser’s late father, a crusty, scrappy businessman who apparently did not reveal much about himself. Then, one day in 1983, the actor heard his father laugh hard while watching Falk — who excels at playing crusty, scrappy characters — in Neil Simon’s “The Cheap Detective.” It was a rare, much treasured glimpse into the inner life of the elder Reiser, who seldom belly-laughed, the actor said recently at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“I said, ‘Huh, Peter Falk is the only guy that always makes my dad laugh,'” Reiser recalled. “The next morning, I woke up and thought, OK, I’ve got to make up a movie … with Peter Falk as my father.”

Perhaps because of his father’s affection for Falk, Reiser, too was a big fan: “I fell in love with him … from the first time I saw him in ‘Robin and the Seven Hoods.'” he said. He later noticed similarities between the two older men, who both seemed unpretentious and down to earth.

Yet over the years, Reiser did not complete his Falk project, in part because he was intimidated by the personal nature of the material, he told the Bradenton Herald. It was only after Sept. 11 reminded him that life was short that he sat down and wrote the script in just two weeks He promptly sent it to Falk, the son of Eastern European Jews, who accepted the role the next day. Apparently the fictional Sam fits into his long acting portfolio of cops, G.I.’s, husbands and other men who “don’t have a pretentious bone in their bodies,” Falk (“Columbo”) told The Journal. “This man can be wrong, but he’s never fake.”

Unlike Reiser, the older actor became a television star in an era when it was seldom acceptable for a show to revolve around a Jewish character. Hence his famed 1970s TV detective was the Italian Catholic Columbo, although he just as easily could have been named Goldberg. Conversely, the fictional Sam exhibits distinctly Jewish values.

“He works hard and he believes in this: You provide for your family. You provide for your children. You provide for your wife and you don’t cheat,” Falk said.

Reiser, for his part, is more Jewishly active than the fictional Ben, participating in Jewish charities and at his synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, The Forward said in 2003. Yet he does not regard the feature as a Jewish movie. It’s a universal film about parents and children.

“We have been taking ‘Folks’ from city to city, and finding out this is so resonating with people in every market, in every demographic,” he said.

The film opens Friday in Los Angeles.

 

Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion


Controversial syndicated radio-show host and public advocate of Orthodox Judaism Laura Schlessinger — "Dr. Laura," as she is known to her 12 million daily listeners — confessed on air this month that she will no longer practice Judaism.

Although Schlessinger — who very publicly converted to Judaism five years ago — said she still "considers" herself Jewish, "My identifying with this entity and my fulfilling the rituals, etc., of the entity — that has ended," she said on "The Dr. Laura Schlessinger Program" on Aug. 5.

Syndicated nationally since 1994, Schlessinger has won over listeners with her hard-edged advice and razor-sharp tongue. Yet her brash style, not to mention her espousal of a strict "moral health" code — including controversial condemnations of homosexuality as "a biological error" — put her at odds with wide swaths of the Jewish community. Many found her moralist, black-and-white, you’re-with-me-or-against-me stance to be more representative of evangelical Christians than of Jews, who were often among her most outspoken critics.

Schlessinger’s office said she was unavailable for comment.

In her 25 years on radio, Schlessinger said she was moved "time and time again" by listeners who wrote and described that they had "’joined a church, felt loved by God’ and that was my anchor."

Schlessinger even hinted at a possible turn to Christianity — a move that, radio insiders say, would elevate her career far beyond the 300 stations that currently syndicate her show.

"I have envied all my Christian friends who really, universally, deeply feel loved by God," she said. "They use the name Jesus when they refer to God … that was a mystery, being connected to God."

Of her conversion to Judaism, Schlessinger said, "I felt that I was putting out a tremendous amount toward that mission, that end, and not feeling return, not feeling connected, not feeling that inspired. Trust me, I’ve talked to rabbis, I’ve read, I’ve prayed, I’ve agonized and I came to this place anyway — which is not exactly back to the beginning, but more in that direction than not."

Born to a Jewish father and an Italian Catholic mother, Schlessinger was raised in Brooklyn in a home that was without religion. Approximately 10 years ago, prompted by a question from her son during a viewing of a Holocaust documentary, Schlessinger, 56, began exploring her Jewish roots.

She underwent a Conservative conversion in 1997, and later decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion instead.

"I still see myself as a Jew," Schlessinger said on the air. "But the spiritual journey and that direction, as hard core as I was at it, just didn’t fulfill something in me that I needed."

Even Schlessinger’s detractors were shocked by the news. "I can’t tell you how significant this is," said fellow Jewish media star and "Kosher Sex" author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who has sparred with Schlessinger over her comments on homosexuality.

"Dr. Laura always equated her morals and ethics with Jewish morals and ethics," he said. "That placed the American Jewish community in a real fix; on the one hand, she made Judaism very popular, on the other, she made it vilified and hated by many people."

"It seems incredible that an ethicist and moralist of her standing would invoke such shallow arguments," added Boteach, who was en route to an appearance on the syndicated television show "Blind Date." "I never got great applause for my work from the Jewish community — but my people are my people, whether they love or hate me."

Meyer: Hero or Anti-Hero?


“A Jewish friend of mine loves ‘The Sopranos,'” Italian American actor Joe Bologna said with a groan. “I told him, ‘How’d you like to see a show called “The Goldsteins” about white-collar criminals and the biggest shyster is Izzy Goldstein?”

Bologna isn’t about to play Izzy, but he is the co-author and star of a monologue he said breaks ethnic and gangster stereotypes. In “Meyer,” he portrays Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky — previously depicted in films such as “Bugsy” (1991) — as both a ruthless thug and a pathetic alter-kacker. At the beginning of the play, the character sips Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda and kvetches about Israel denying him citizenship under the Law of Return.

While Bologna usually eschews mobster roles, he was receptive when Richard Krevolin asked him to co-author “Meyer” in the 1990s. The 38-year-old Jewish author (“King Levine”) told Bologna he’d interviewed Las Vegas hoteliers who’d described Lansky as “ice-cold” and others who remember him passing out candy while walking his Shih Tzu. He said his fascination with the gangster began when a con-man bilked his Connecticut neighbors by posing as Lansky’s nephew around 1980. “This guy played into the Jewish reverence for the tough Jew,” Krevolin said. “So I began wondering, was Lansky an American Jewish hero or was he an anti-hero?”

Audience members were so divided on the issue that they screamed at each other after “Meyer’s” debut in San Diego several years ago. But Bologna — best known for writing and performing comic plays with his wife, actress Renee Taylor — sees the mobster as poignant. Lansky’s persona reminds the actor of his gruff father, who also grew up in a cold-water tenement but chose the family shoeshine business over the mob. “Lansky decided not to ‘carry a lunch pail’ and ultimately paid the price,” said Bologna, 67. “And that’s tragic. It’s Shakespearean.”

Sephardic Survival


“Survivor” as inspiration for Jewish programming?

It seems strange that the divisive show where deceit, backstabbing and empty promises are de rigueur would serve as the inspiration for a Shabbaton that stresses the importance of religious and cultural continuity. Yet Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR) has seized on this pop culture phenomenon and infused it with a positive spin.

STARvivor 2, STAR’s follow-up to its popular STARvivor Shabbaton, is set for Dec. 7-9 at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu. The first STARvivor, held last April in Malibu, separated 20 teens into three tribes — Issachar, Levi and Judah — complete with their own tribal banners. After Shabbat, the tribes squared off in timed, Jewish-themed competitions: in one, the tribes squeezed juice from grapes into a cup and then recited the “Kiddush,” while another had them build a makeshift home in order to affix a mezuzah.

“You’re basically competing with MTV,” said STAR Media Director Abraham Raphael, 29, who developed the Shabbaton idea. “You want to make sure that whatever you do is going to be sophisticated and exciting.”

Locally, there have been few, if any, events geared toward Sephardic youth outside of synagogues. As a result, many Sephardic teens end up choosing between assimilation or participation in an established system of programs steeped in Ashkenazic traditions.

While there has never been a formal Sephardic population study in Los Angeles, rough estimates by Sephardic organizations place the number somewhere between 75,000 and 150,000, and most agree that the population is dwindling.

“You see a desperation among parents who want to get their kids involved,” Raphael said.

It’s this growing assimilation and loss of Sephardic culture that prompted philanthropist Hyman Jebb Levy to found STAR in 1998. The organization reaches out to students, from elementary to senior high school, with year-round social and recreational programming that emphasizes Sephardic community involvement, the preservation of traditions, and a pride and love for Israel.

“We try to incorporate something in the ritualistic aspect of Judaism, always in the Sephardic minhag [custom],” said Rabbi Brad Schachter, 31, STAR’s executive director. “Whatever it may be, this is how the Sephardim do it.”

Taking another cue from “Survivor,” campers were also videotaped during competitions and at tribal council, where each tribe selected one person to give an impromptu speech about Jewish survival. The resulting footage fueled parents’ demand for a second STARvivor.

“When people saw what we did, they said ‘I want my kids on that. I didn’t realize it was going to be that good.’ Now it’s on to round two,” Raphael said.

During next week’s STARvivor 2, the campers will be separated into four tribes — Simon, Levi, Judah and Issachar — and face all new competitions.

Thankfully, the similarities between the Shabbaton and the television series end when it comes to food. STARvivor 2 will serve authentic kosher Sephardic cuisine, whereas “Survivor” contestants have had to consume such Third World delicacies as grubs, rats and cow’s blood.

STARvivor also differs from other Shabbatons in that it has set a cap at 40 students.

“If you have too many kids it becomes impersonal,” Schachter said.

Danit Namvar, 14, said STAR won over both her and her friends during the Shabbaton by giving the campers a voice.

“At other camps they lecture you, but with STARvivor we get to do fun activities and talk about issues. The people who didn’t go heard how much fun it was, and now they want to go,” Namvar said.

Schachter, who is Ashkenazi, said he welcomes the opportunity to reach out to kids and is more than comfortable working with Sephardim. During a seven-year stint in Israel, Schachter spent four years living in the Old City, where he often sought out Sephardic minyanim.

“Even though I’m not a Sephardi, I feel very connected to their heritage, their history and their passion for Judaism,” said Schachter.

“As far as the customs, I’m learning more and more every day,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get across, teaching [Sephardi] their own customs that unfortunately have been lost over the generations.”

Despite STAR’s plethora of entertaining activities, it isn’t always fun and games. In March 2000, Levy’s daughter passed away following a battle with cancer. STAR took 30 Talmud Torah students from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood to visit with Levy as he sat shiva. The sight of the students brought tears to Levy’s eyes.

“We brought them in, and they saw the Sephardic traditions of mourning,” Schachter said. “This was an opportunity to teach them.”

For more information about STARvivor 2, call (818)
782-7359, or visit www.lastar.org .

Bulgarian Rhapsody


The exterior of the 1909 Central Synagogue inSofia. Below, Robert Djerassi, a Bulgarian official of the “JewishJoint” agency on a stairway of the Jewish Community Center with astar of David as part of the rail design

Photos by Larry Gordon

When I was asked to teach at a Bulgarianuniversity, my only clear images of the Balkan nation included itsinfamous Communist-era spy system, its great Olympic weight lifters,and its national women’s choir, whose haunting harmonies were popularin the West.

Quickly, however, I learned something else as Iresearched whether to accept the Fulbright grant to lecture injournalism at the American University in Bulgaria. “You know,” therefrain came to me suddenly from various sources, “that Bulgariasaved its Jews.”

No, I didn’t know. And, of course, as with allthings in history, the reality of Bulgarian Jewry turned out to muchmore complicated than that simple declaration. But this wasindisputable: The number of Bulgarian Jews actually increased duringthe Holocaust, even though the country was an ally of Hitler. Andafter the war, the new socialist government allowed 45,000 — thevast majority of Bulgarian Jews — to emigrate en masse toIsrael.

I was intrigued by the idea of an Eastern Europeancountry even marginally friendly to Jews during and just after WorldWar II. Partly as a result of that (and, I admit, a midlife desirefor an adventure), I moved with my wife and our then-5-year-olddaughter from our Los Angeles home to spend six interesting andchallenging months in a mountainside city close to the Greek border.When I wasn’t teaching, we often traveled two hours north to Sofia,Bulgaria’s capital, cultural center and focus of Jewish life. Thatwas two years ago. I recently returned by myself to Bulgaria for afew weeks to do more research about, among other topics, its Jewishcommunity and the entire country’s troubled efforts to create amarket economy from its post-communist shambles. Clearly, my initialinterest has turned into a deep emotional attachment to thisadmittedly obscure and small country (population 8.5 million) on theBlack Sea, just south of Romania. I like the yogurt and red winethere too.

During our first visit to Sofia, we attended RoshHashanah services at the Central Synagogue, an imposing Moorish-stylebuilding located a few blocks from the Sheraton Hotel and Sofia’smain department store. At the time, the crumbling main sanctuary wasin early stages of a restoration that continues today, its archwaysand domes being replastered and painted in vibrant colors, and itslovely chandeliers being repaired.

Services were held in a small side chapel, withTurkish-style rugs lining the walls and two rows of wooden seatssurrounding the bimah on three sides. I had never attended aSephardic service before and was fascinated at the differentmelodies. My daughter, accustomed to American Reform style, had neversat separate from me in a synagogue and was not happy aboutit.

At the synagogue, we were able to communicate withsome Bulgarians through a mixture of my Russian, which is closeenough to Bulgarian, and my wife’s Spanish, which is close enough tothe traditional Ladino that Bulgarian Jewish senior citizens stillspeak. The Ladino is a reminder of how far Jews settled after their15th-century expulsion from Iberia. In fact, Sofia’s rabbi, anIsraeli who arrived in 1994 and the first rabbi in Bulgaria in 30years, also can converse in Spanish. And young Bulgariansincreasingly study English. We also met young American social workersfrom the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who laterinvited us to holiday meals and helped us a lot.

After services, a lively crowd gathered in thecobblestoned courtyard for the kiddush. That open-air plaza behind ahigh metal gate was most evocative to me. It was here that many ofSofia’s Jews had gathered in May 1943 to plan protests against whatalmost became their deportation to German death camps. And it washere that many learned the deportations were canceled. If stonescould speak.

Unlike most of its neighbors, Bulgaria had littletradition of anti-Semitism. That remained so during centuries ofOttoman rule and after Bulgaria won its independence in 1878. Forexample, Bulgaria’s King Ferdinand even attended the dedication ofthe Central Synagogue in 1909, something unthinkable for the rulersof nearby nations at the time. Ferdinand’s son and successor, Boris,had Jewish friends but became an ally of Hitler in hopes of regainingterritory lost in previous Balkan wars. That bargain with the devilhad its price, to be paid in part with a policy against the Jews.Starting in late 1940, Bulgarian Jews were expelled from majorcities, put on work crews, and stripped of professional status andproperty as an appeasement to Hitler. Bulgarian occupying troopshanded over 11,000 Greek and Macedonian Jews to the Germans. TheNazis kept pressing for the deportation of Bulgaria’s own Jews.However, many aristocrats, intellectuals and, perhaps most important,leaders of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church publicly protested. The Jewsthemselves lobbied like mad. King Boris’ role in all this remains amatter of historians’ debate. Some think that he was crucial incanceling the deportations and should be considered among theRighteous Gentiles. Others maintain that the king decided to stallHitler only because the war had turned against the Germans and Borisdidn’t want Bulgaria to face even greater censure from the Allies.(The most complete source for this is Frederick B. Chary’s “TheBulgarian Jews and the Final Solution” [University of PittsburghPress].) Whatever the motives, the outcome was Jewishsurvival.

For the Bulgarian Jews who did not emigrate toIsrael by 1951, the next 40 years of Marxism brought religioussuppression and a high rate of intermarriage.

Between 5,000 and 8,000 remain, and they now arebenefiting from the new freedoms brought by the fall of communism.The old synagogue and the 1930s-era Jewish community center abouthalf a mile away are coming back to life. In fact, an entire newfloor is being added to the center for youth classrooms. Youngpeople, who come from highly assimilated families, gather to studyHebrew and Jewish customs that many of their parents never learned.The “Siddur” has been transliterated for the first time intoBulgarian. Pesach seders are big public affairs. And a new public dayschool, with government support, teaches Hebrew as part of itsrecognized curriculum, attracting many Jewish children.

Robert Djerassi, a 49-year-old Bulgarian who has beenworking for the Joint for several years, took me on a tour of thecommunity center. He showed me the new construction, the library, thewrought-iron Stars of David and the menorahs that have remained fornearly 70 years on stairway banisters.

Djerassi recalled the thrill of Jewish revivalstarting in 1989. Some of that emotion cooled as everyday life undercapitalism took hold, said the former engineer. “Still, Jewish lifeis very active, sometimes hyperactive,” he said. “Sometimes I jokethat we have almost too much in activities for the number of peoplehere. Sometimes I joke that we have to import Jews.”

All that is encouraging to an outsider from LosAngeles. But one can also see a very different side of BulgarianJewry in the community center. In the office of the Jewish Agency, anincreasing number of people have been applying for aliyah to Israel,often to escape the brutal economic troubles that have roiledBulgaria in the past few years. A corrupt government ruinedBulgaria’s banking system last year and caused hyper-inflation.Without outside Jewish aid for heating bills and food, some Bu
lgarianJewish elderly might not have made it through the winter. Finally,last spring, a reformist pro-Western government was elected, and theeconomic situation is improving.

Beyond economics, many of the young people whoseJewish consciousness is newly raised are torn between moving toIsrael and trying to keep things going in Sofia. With assimilationand emigration, some people wonder if there will be any Jewish lifeleft in Bulgaria in a generation.

“There is a tension. We develop young leaders,help make them become more and more interested, and they often makealiyah,” said Simone Shaltiel of Chicago, a 24-year-old Joint workerin Sofia. She spoke as she was getting ready to take a group ofJewish teens on a weekend retreat.

Joseph Levi, the 71-year-old president of theJewish community, has a philosophical view. I interviewed him in thedusty office of the synagogue, often interrupted as senior citizenspeppered him with all kinds of requests for help. I asked him: “Willthere be a Bulgarian Jewish community in 20 years?”

Levi chuckled a bit. “Look, 50 years ago, we werethinking this community would disappear in five or 10 years. And weare still here,” he said. “We hope in 50 years to still be here.”

Larry Gordon also writes for the Los AngelesTimes.

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