What Israel means to me


Pinpointing what makes people so passionate about Israel is no easy thing, perhaps because there are so many options. 

It is the Jewish state, the only political entity in the world where Jews are a majority. It is the historical home of the Jewish people, the land of King David and the Temple Mount. It is the religious center of the Jewish universe as well as a holy land to billions of Christians and Muslims. And it is a refuge for Jews from across the globe dating back to before the Holocaust. 

It is a rich, complicated place — qualities that are simultaneously the source of its greatness and its greatest challenges. Actor Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame outlined myriad, yet deeply personal ways of finding meaning in Israel during his opening remarks at December’s Friends of the Israel Defense Forces gala in Century City.

 

 

“Because I love Israel, I do advocate for Palestinians proudly and passionately,” he said. “But there can never be any doubt that I am also an advocate for Israel, a country that is perhaps one of the most maligned, underappreciated and hardest challenged nations on the planet.

“I believe in the right of Israel to exist and to exist in the land where it resides. I believe she is a great country populated by a great and important people. I believe she is a proud and strong democracy in a part in the world where the notion of democracy, of people’s innate right to determine their own fate, finds little company or support.”

These are just a few ways that people can connect to the Holy Land. We asked 18 members of the Jewish and Israeli communities in the Los Angeles area what Israel means to them and — surprise — we got 18 distinct responses. So what does Israel mean to us? Maybe the best way to put it is: Everything.


Susan

Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘A family of people’

“When I was in junior high school, I went to live on a kibbutz in Israel outside of Tel Aviv. … It was all about being with a family of people — that cultural environment and the welcoming warmth, and storytelling over dinner, and sitting around in the afternoon having tea and coffee, and the stories that I got to hear that were just about people’s lives. It’s about a lifestyle.” 

Susan Feniger, 59, Kenter Canyon
Chef/co-owner, Border Grill and Susan Feniger’s STREET


Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘Planting so many trees’

“I remember getting certificates and people planting trees in my honor for my birthday and bar mitzvah, and we all knew how important that was. I think that was my earliest realization that Israel was a difficult environment and that by doing all the amazing things that were done — planting so many trees — they were able to survive in what was otherwise a pretty barren country. … I think it has probably affected my sense of the environment growing up and actively fighting to preserve our environment in this country and the world.”

Paul Koretz, 58, Beverly Center
L.A. city councilmember, District 5


Photo by Joel Lipton

‘It really changed my life’

“Both my parents are Israeli. I consider myself Israeli-American. … I always just had this strong sense of family and stories and knowing where I came from. And then when I went to Israel, it really changed my life. I felt so connected to the land. I just felt like I belonged there. I also just felt a deeper connection with Judaism on my trip. After my trip — a one-year kibbutz ulpan program — I just decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life being involved in the Jewish community and being connected to Israel.”

— Orly Barad, 26, Woodland Hills
Program manager, Israeli American Council


Photo by Joel Lipton

‘Symbol of resilience and positivity’

“Israel has always been a second home for me while I was living in [my native] Iran, because my grandmother lived there. We spent all our summertimes in Holon and in summer camps in Israel. … Unfortunately, because I cannot go back to Iran, Israel remains my place of my childhood memories and my childhood experiences.

“I lived in Israel for about nine months after the [Iranian] Revolution. It was the biggest gift I could have had when I was a teenager. … I believe that Israel is the most democratic country, that it faces huge challenges, and I feel that Israel as a country has grown in such amazing and beautiful ways. What it means to me is a symbol of resilience and positivity.” 

Shulamit “Shula” Nazarian, 50, Venice and Holmby Hills
Owner/director, Shulamit Gallery

Books: Max Apple is a bard of the background


Max Apple’s people are the folks you might see having lunch at a local diner.

There’s Sidney Goodman, the carwash king of Las Vegas, and Jerome Feldman, the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Independent Pharmacists, along with others who sell scrap metal, industrial tools and trinkets. Apple has somehow eavesdropped over the leatherette booths, followed them out and into their lives, dreams and hearts.

One of the best American short story writers, Apple has just published “The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories” (Johns Hopkins Press), his first collection of stories in 20 years. He writes with the same playful imagination and comic intelligence as in his earlier stories, layered with irony and an infallible sense of detail.

Now, his people are older; there are several stories that deal with aging mothers with Alzheimer’s, which his own mother suffers from, and he includes “Talker,” his first story about a child with a disability, like his own daughter. Even as Apple takes on some serious subjects, he shows life as it is, full of odd moments and others rich in complexity and possibility.

In “Talker,” the divorced father deals with his daughter Ginny, his ex-wife, a caregiver who has issues with the truth and with her hair and has already been fired once, a fellow teacher who’s interested in him, and an oral motor therapy specialist who’s helping Ginny to make sounds. He writes, “Ginny never complained, never said that it was time to give up. She worked so hard at speech because she wanted the most human thing, words, and I never doubted how much she had to say.”

The story is highly fictional, he explains, but there’s truth in the struggles to learn language and in the way father and daughter are approached by all sorts of unfortunates in their wanderings, “as though they recognize us as part of them. For good reason, I try to keep them away. That’s straight from life.”

The title story features Jerome Baumgarten, an 85-year-old man in Marshall, Texas who doesn’t want to die surrounded by gentiles, so a Chabad family flies in from Brooklyn to be with this stranger. By day, the family’s only son takes on a job at Home Depot, and at night he fights his evil inclination, watching a beautiful young woman at the fraternity house across the street with her boyfriend. The story and the book end with an unforgettable sentence.

Apple, whose first two highly praised story collections are “The Oranging of America” and “Free Agents,” says that short stories are his favorite genre.

“I’m naturally drawn to them. I find that most novels are not good all the way through,” he says, noting, “A story can be good all the way through, every sentence. I don’t always get it, but that’s what I’m looking for.”

In the last two decades, Apple has published a novel and two memoirs, including the best-selling “Roommates,” later made into a film starring Peter Falk, and has written several screenplays. He taught at Rice University in Houston for almost 30 years, including several years of commuting from San Francisco. Now, he lives outside of Philadelphia and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where his wife Talya Fishman is a professor of Jewish intellectual and cultural history.

“All this takes up time,” says Apple, who is admittedly not prolific. “I’m not driven. I love writing. My imagination is always working. I write when I have time, and life allows me the time.” He adds, “Nor do I think the world suffers if I don’t produce more. I work very hard at each story, at every sentence.”

For Apple, screenwriting is another skill, akin to carpentry — it hasn’t changed the way he approaches a story. He advises students that for stories to work, they have to have a great interest in what happens to people.

“Things happen to all of us. The writer’s job is to get you interested. There’s complexity in stories — you can juggle several things, you can divert the reader with plot. The real stuff is what’s going on in the background — the background noise, like in life.”

The two oldest of Apple’s four children — often the subjects in “Free Agents” — are writers. Both grew up watching their father at work — that is, when he wasn’t teaching, he’d often be at home, lying on the couch, daydreaming, concocting tales. Sam Apple, who lives in Brooklyn, is the author of “Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past With Its Last Wandering Shepherd” and Jessica Apple is a journalist in Jerusalem.

“How can you figure anyone would be a writer?” he says of his kids’ career choices. About his influence, he says, “I think it all comes from storytelling at bedtime. I never read them stories, I made them up.” He adds, “I should have figured that Sam would be a writer. He’d give me directions about what he’d want to happen.”

Among American Jewish writers who are often asked about their dualities, Apple seems the most comfortable. In an autobiographical essay, “The Jew as Writer/ The Writer as Jew: Reflections on Literature and Identity,” Apple notes that “identity is someone else’s problem,” that he’s always been at home being both Max and Mottele, American and Jew, educated professor and son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.

He writes that with his formal education behind him, “Max began to write stories, which wanted to sound like the stories he had read in the anthologies. He hoped for British characters who would experience epiphanies, those obscure but luminous moments that reveal the human condition. But all of his people turned out to be Americans, and none of them even knew what an epiphany was. They were good-natured folks, clowns in every shop and office.”

Now, after more than 50 years of co-existence, Max and Mottele are still very much a pair and “understand how much they need one another. Without Mottele, Max knows that he would be a pale imitator, a John Updike without Protestants. And Mottele alone would be exactly that — Mottele alone. Born into Yiddish at the exact moment that murderers were extinguishing it, he would have the language without the people. He needs Americans to populate his shtetl.”

Noah Bleich: A Man of Many Hats


‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Noah Bleich is standing at the entrance of an elementary school with a blue-and-white menorah on his head. Once again, he has dragged himself out of bed to read stories to children.

“I’m not a morning person,” he says, “but it’s easy for me to get up if I have a reason.”

Every other week, for about three years, Bleich has been visiting neighborhood schools to read to kids. Each time, he arrives in a different hat. This morning, he has tossed aside his zebra-print cowboy hat, giant sombrero and Mad Hatter top hat in favor of a white faux-fur and blue velvet piece topped with felt candles. The kids love it.

Bleich, 31, is used to wearing many hats. As the newly elected president of the South Robertson Neighborhood Council, Bleich not only runs the council’s monthly meetings, but he spends much of his time — as many as 30 hours a week, he says — planning projects to benefit the community.

“He’s like the Superman of the Neighborhood Council,” said Steven Coker, a council board member. “Most people think of themselves first, and if there’s time or money left over, then they think of everybody else. With Noah, it’s reversed. He thinks of the community first and himself second.”

An observant Jew, Bleich provides a Jewish rationale for his commitment. While Judaism teaches that each individual is unique and special, it also emphasizes community, he says.

He tries to put this teaching into practice: “Judaism should be about living it.”

Bleich, a self-employed computer consultant, has started building a computer lab at the local community center. He has also written a grant application, asking for funds to renovate the center and build a garden outside.

He recently helped a group get funding for a three-week program for at-risk youth. Kids will now be able to go to the community center to take life-skills classes during their winter break from school. Bleich has volunteered to coach the children on how to build computers and how to cook.

One of Bleich’s greatest passions is protecting the environment. As the leader of the council’s Green Team committee, Bleich runs monthly neighborhood cleanups to pick up garbage, paint over graffiti and plant trees and flowers (he initiated a project to plant hundreds of trees in honor of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11 and the Los Angeles firefighters who have died in the line of duty).

Bleich pays careful attention to how his own actions impact the environment. To save gas, he walks, bikes or takes the bus whenever he can. He is a vegetarian who uses canvas shopping bags and energy-efficient lightbulbs. Bleich will pay extra for goods made in countries with high environmental and social standards.

He tries hard to do the right thing, he says, not because he believes he will change the world, but because he sees no satisfactory alternative.

“I don’t do the environmental work because I think I’m going to make a difference,” he says. “I don’t think I can, given the scope of what needs to be done.

“I do it,” he says, “because I don’t believe I’m excused from trying.”

To get involved in the South Robertson community, e-mail noah@soronc.org.

Barri Evins: A Book Can Change the World


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don’t. They are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal’s second annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

This year we’ve added a new category, as well: Honorary Mensch — A non-Jew whose work exemplifies this very Jewish notion. Thank you, Marilyn Harran.

And thank you to all our mensches. Maybe next year, we’ll all be candidates for the list….

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Each Christmas, Barri Evins and a group of volunteers give away thousands of books at Head Start magnet centers throughout the Los Angeles area. At each center, volunteers greet each child individually, ask them their age and then present them with a brand new book especially selected for them.

“We want them to feel important and cherished” said Evins, who 15 years ago created From the Heart, a nonprofit designed to promote literacy and foster a love of reading in children living below the poverty line.

The daughter of two psychologists, Barri Evins was born in Florida and raised by a mother whom she describes as “an extraordinary woman … a philanthropist, and a hands-on volunteer.”

Evins emphasized “hands-on,” because that is at the core of the philosophy of From the Heart.

“We want them to have something new of their own,” she said. “To create that moment is a transformational experience for both the people who are giving and those who are getting.”

For many children, this gift is the first book ever to go into their home.

Evins is dedicated to the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world). She firmly believes that “when you give a child a book, you give them the world” and, by promoting literacy, you can empower them to do virtually anything.

Her organization works most of the year collecting, counting and sorting books and preparing for the Big Book Giveaway, where volunteers, often together with their families, meet at Head Start centers to put the books into the hands of some 5,000 children who range in age from 3 to 18. To date, From the Heart has given away nearly 70,000 books.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Barri heads her own film production company, “be movies.” She is currently working on a project about Stetson Kennedy who, she says, was considered to have been the single-most important factor in curbing the Ku Klux Klan.

While From the Heart was started with a group of young women in the film industry, it has grown greatly, and today, Evins said, its biggest challenge is “finding other people from all walks of life who would like to get their hands dirty, shlepping, sorting and giving books to make sure that each child gets a book that excites them.”

On a personal level, Evins confided that she would “like to find a nice Jewish boy who’d like to help me give out books.”

From the Heart works with One Voice, a grass-roots, nonprofit agency that creates meaningful, innovative and effective ways for people to help others in need. It has no overhead and all contributions are used to carry out its mission.

To contribute or volunteer, contact Barri Evins at FromTheHeart345@aol.com.

No Rat King, no fairies — just one ‘MeshugaNutcracker’


Not long ago, Scott and Shannon Guggenheim’s 4-year-old daughter, Lily, looked up at them and asked when Santa would be bringing her Christmas presents.

“To say that we, as creators of a Chanukah musical, were shocked is an understatement,” recalls Shannon Guggenheim. “[Lily] is already feeling the pull so many Jewish kids feel. She probably went drifting off to sleep dreaming of sugar plum fairies.”

That Chanukah musical, “The MeshugaNutcracker!” is the Guggenheims’ tuneful contribution for children like Lily, who need an antidote to the ubiquitous Christmas blitz that occurs every year.

The Bay Area-based couple co-wrote, produced, choreographed and directed the holiday staple. Drawing on music from Tchaikovsky’s famous “Nutcracker” ballet, “The MeshugaNutcracker!” has been a hit with Jewish families since its 2003 debut in the Bay Area.

Now, says Shannon, the show is expanding its reach, playing cities like Seattle and Scottsdale, Ariz., for the first time this Chanukah. That’s in addition to runs in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

This year, six of eight cast members are new, the music has been re-orchestrated to give it a more Broadway feel, and a newly constructed proscenium arch will be in place for opening night.

“It’s an homage to Chagall,” Shannon says of the goat-and-fiddler decorated arch. “We still have the dreidel as the centerpiece. And now we have a dream cast of amazing musicians. In the past we had actors who sing. This year we have singer-actor-dancers.”

“The MeshugaNutcracker!” tells the tale of eight citizens of Chelm, the mythical shtetl of fools, who gather every year to perform at their Chanukah festival. Through the course of the two-act musical, each tells a story of Chanukah heroes from the time of the Maccabees through today.

Shannon wrote the lyrics and Scott directs, while both wrote the musical’s book based on stories adapted by Eric A. Kimmel (author of “The Jar of Fools”) and Peninnah Schram and Steven M. Rosman, (authors of “Eight Stories for Eight Nights”). Stephen Guggenheim, Scott’s brother, provides musical direction.

The musical is just one mainstay of the theatrical couple. Their company, Guggenheim Entertainment, provides entertainment, marketing and support services for corporate and private clients (think “holiday show for the mall”), and their National Jewish Theater Festival develops Jewish-themed stage productions for every audience.

But “MeshugaNutcracker!” holds a special place in their hearts, largely because their own daughter fits the target-audience profile.

“It’s no joke,” adds Shannon. “We say it in the show: ‘Santa has the last laugh/His holiday lasts a month and half.’ I’m not saying what we’re doing is brain surgery, but it occurred to us that it’s a Jewish parent’s cultural responsibility to take their kids to this show. It’s not Tiny Tim or the Mouse King.”

Shannon, a Jew-by-choice, stresses that she and her husband are not engaging in Christmas bashing.

“Santa is a good guy,” she says. “But Jews have something else right here in their backyard. They can say ‘I own that and I am proud of that.'”

Though with each passing year the Guggenheims have taken their show on a longer and longer road, they are reluctant to license the musical to other theater companies. Call it creative control, call it a labor of love, but the two plan on keeping “MeshugaNutcracker!” to themselves for those eight crazy nights and beyond.

However, eternal as the lights of Chanukah may be, the holiday comes around but once on the calendar, which can be a drawback to a theater company.

“Sometimes,” Shannon says with a laugh, “we kick ourselves for having a show that’s only six weeks a year.”

Performances of “The MeshugaNutcracker!” take place at the University of Judaism on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. $35-$50. 15600 Mulholland Drive, just off the 405 Freeway. For more information, call (818) 986-7332 or visit www.kcdancers.org.

Theater: All in the ‘Herbicide’ family


The Emmy-winning writer Jay Kogen (“The Simpsons,” “The Class” and other shows) is helping Herb Astrow go over the opening lines of his first solo stage performance.

“Remember, it’s an intimate evening with,” Kogen tells him. “It’s your party. So rather than just going into a story, you want to be welcoming.”

“Welcome to the height of self-indulgence!” Astrow announces, cracking everybody up at rehearsal.

Astrow, a 72-year-old Los Angeles restaurateur (Yankee Doodles on the Santa Monica Promenade), is, after 50 years, returning to his first love: the theater. In a benefit at the Santa Monica Playhouse, he’ll star in “Herbicide” Dec. 9 and 10.

Astrow’s most recent role was playing Stanley the waiter in a production of “Death of a Salesman.”

“At Brooklyn College,” he laughs. “In 1958. As a kid I wanted to be an actor, but my own kids came along….”

“He’s been great at being brutally honest,” says Kogen, Astrow’s director, who helped him reduce 16 wild tales to the four most resonant. Or redolent, like the one where Astrow smells so bad from working at Nathan Strauss Twentieth Century Fish Market in Flatbush, that he rubs cologne into his jeans before bicycling off to meet his buddies, “Itchy” (Joel Stanislaw), “Rooster” (Stu Lazarus), “Ziggy” (Marvin Zelenitz), and “Pot Cheese” (Jerry Potolsky). Astrow was “Hercules.”

It was 1944, “that perfect time when the Jews, the Irish, the Italians all lived together,” says Astrow ‘s sister, Jo Anne Astrow. “It was a golden time for education in New York.”

Jo Anne Astrow named their production company Chestnut Avenue Productions, after the “last documented dirt road in Brooklyn,” where they lived above their Sicilian landlord, Mr. Sharaldi.

Sharaldi “owned the last horse in Brooklyn,” Herb says. “He called his horse ‘Horse.’ During the winter, when his ass got frozen to the wagon seat, he changed Horse’s name to ‘You F—– Horse.'”

Astrow went to work at the age of 9, making $4 a week delivering fish, which helped pay the rent.

His father, Barney, was his hero: “He sat in a chair reading the dictionary and the encyclopedia and philosophized on life.” He taught Herb to “always compliment women on their appearance and especially say nice things about their home furnishings.”

But multiple sclerosis forced Barney to quit his florist business. The family went on welfare, and when Barney had to move to another home, the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital for Chronic Diseases, Astrow’s mother became his hero.

“By the sheer force of her will to survive,” he recalls. “God bless that crazy woman!”
Elsie Astrow underwent shock treatments for depression and used to beat her son with his father’s cane “over some nonsense thing I did, like eating too many creamsicles” he says.
She was suicidal, but saved his life with the taste of her lamb stew with sugared apple dumplings and the slap of a catcher’s mitt when Herb was choking to death one night at dinner.

The title of the show itself comes from “the life and death struggles” he says he had once with a houseplant.

“Struggles with a life,” adds sister Jo Anne Astrow, leading to Herb Astrow’s story of the vodka-and-Tab habit he picked up after breaking off with his textile business partners, the poisonous dieffenbachia plant and a Thanksgiving dinner in Queens where the two opposing sides of his family — Russian Jews and German Jews — no longer agree to “respectfully loathe each other.”

“Herbicide” is a family project. His son-in-law came up with the title, and Jo Anne Astrow not only co-produced (with Sally Schaub), she figures funnily in the stories. (She’s also comedian Lewis Black’s manager.) And director Kogen’s family and the Astrows grew up and vacationed together for years on Fire Island.

“Even when I was little,” Kogen says of his actor, “we all knew he had an adventurous life. We were told, ‘Don’t go on the boat with Uncle Herbie!'”

Proceeds from “Herbicide” will go to the Save the Playhouse capital campaign to put a down payment on the building at Fourth Street near Wilshire Boulevard.

George Vennes, Santa Monica Playhouse technical director, tells The Journal, “Rent for the offices, two theaters and two rehearsal spaces is up to $10,000 a month.”

With Youth Theater, cultural outreach and a legendary history, the Playhouse, says Vennes, “caters from two to 92.”

It was one of the playhouse’s ongoing workshops, an acting class with the actor Jeffrey Tambor, that first got Astrow interested in telling his stories onstage. And it was his writing coach, Wendy Kaminoff, who dared Astrow to make it happen. (Well, her business card does say: “Creative Ass Kicker”)

“Herb is this wonderful combination of New York savvy, old school wisdom and outrageous life experiences,” Kaminoff says. “Imagine Garrison Keillor, only if he was a handsome Jewish guy from Brooklyn.”

“Herbicide,” Dec. 9 at 8 p.m., Dec. 10 at 7 p.m. $20. Price includes a post show reception at the playhouse. Santa Monica Playhouse 1211 4th St. For information call (310) 394-9779 Ext. 1

Hank Rosenfeld is writing a book with Irving Brecher, who wrote for Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.

Holy Doubt


This week’s Torah portion contains a story that most of us skipped in Hebrew school — the story of Dina.

Dina goes out to “see the daughters of the land.”

Shechem,
the eponymous local prince, sees her, sleeps with her and vaye’aneha — sexually forces or humiliates her.

His soul clings to her, he loves her, and he speaks tenderly to her.

This begins a protracted negotiation, in which Jacob remains silent and his sons, Dina’s brothers, maintain their outrage.

Shechem invites Jacob and the brothers to name any amount for a bride price.

The brothers answer with guile, seeming to accept Shechem’s proposal with the proviso that he and all his male subjects undergo circumcision to become “one people” with the Israelites.

Three days after all the males of Shechem are circumcised, while they are still in pain, Simon and Levi, two of Dina’s full brothers, enter the city, confident. They kill all the men and remove Dina from the house.

Jacob’s sons appropriate the property of the slain and take the women captive. Jacob objects: “You have stirred up trouble …[with my neighbors] while I am few in number, so if they band together against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.”

The sons answer: “Shall our sister be dealt with like a whore?”

The story raises many questions, particularly from Dina’s perspective.

Did she learn of her impending marriage? If so, from whom? What was it like for her in the three or four days after the rape and before the “rescue”?

How did she feel when her brothers stormed in, killing the men and taking the women who were to be her new family? Was this similar to the way she had been taken captive? What was she looking for when she “went out to see the daughters of the land”? Had she and the local women already forged the kind of friendship and alliance that the men were negotiating for?

Or could Dina have been a spy against the women? (“To see” and “to spy on” are the same verb in Hebrew.) Can we imagine her as a Mata Hari figure, conspiring with her brothers to conquer Shechem? Or did Dina’s soul cleave to Shechem’s as improbably and enduringly as his cleaved to hers?

The Torah focuses on the men’s motivations, yet these, too, are far from clear. Jacob’s political objection to his sons’ actions ignores the harm to Dina, the sons’ deception and violence, and the murder of innocents. Is Jacob cautiously protecting the clan after a traumatic loss, or has he ceded control and leadership? Is he indifferent to his daughter’s suffering, or so distraught that he becomes passive?

Are the brothers overzealous defenders of their sister’s honor (perhaps in response to Jacob’s passivity) and/or do they see an opportunity for a land grab?

On his deathbed, Jacob will condemn Simon and Levi’s excesses and bar the two tribes from owning land (Genesis 49:5-7). Is the crime that most troubles the brothers rape — or theft? The males of Dina’s family should have commanded a bride price for her in advance, and the brothers seem more interested in orchestrating revenge than in facilitating Dina’s release.

Is Shechem a rapist? It is certainly not typical of a rapist to love his victim, want to marry her, offer to pay any amount of money and undergo genital surgery to be with her. Shechem more than fulfills all the requirements later imposed on Israelites (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) who bed an unbetrothed girl without gaining permission first.

Perhaps Shechem, prince of the land, thought that Dina, visiting among the daughters of the land, was one of his subjects, and therefore legal and eligible to him.

Long before Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” the ancient rabbis wondered if Dina chose — before or after the fact — to be with Shechem.

One midrash suggests that Dina was enticed by his uncircumcised body, and had to be removed from his house because she would not leave voluntarily.

Other midrashim don’t attribute sexual volition to Dina, but posit instead her extraordinary spiritual power: she would have caused Esau to repent had she been paired with him; she was Job’s second wife and healed him. Dina was indeed raped, but she inspired a rapist to repent immediately and completely.

The verb vaye’aneha — usually translated as “he raped her” — comes from the root ayin-nun-hey, which has two meanings: to answer or respond; or to force, afflict or humiliate, especially sexually.

Translating according to the first definition, it is possible to read vaye’aneha as parallel to vayidaber al lev hane’ara, he spoke to the girl tenderly (Genesis 34:2-3). This supports the interpretation that Shechem seduced Dina, rather than raped her. Similarly, it is possible to reverse the usual translation in 34:13: the brothers didn’t just answer Shechem with guile, they afflicted him with it.

It surprises me how confident people sometimes are about exactly what the Bible intends. What is meant, literally and in context, by “frontlets between your eyes” or “a man lying with a man as with a woman” or even “your neighbor?”

The Bible is laconic, allusive, ambiguous, layered.

It is not always clear to me, after years of study, which stories are cautionary tales and which are examples to be emulated.

Torah urges us: read again, review again, and don’t be so sure.

Approach with holy doubt, and humility.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at makom.org.

Hitting the century mark doesn’t stop this translator


Most afternoons, you can find Eva Zeitlin Dobkin working. Undaunted by the 100-year marker she passed last month, she pulls her wheelchair up to the hospital bed in the room she shares at the Jewish Home for the Aging — her side is separated by a curtain — and spreads her work out over the lavender bedspread. While her roommate rests or watches television with the volume turned high, Dobkin spends a couple of hours editing “Burning Earth” (“Brenendike Erd” ), a historical novel she has translated from Yiddish to English.

She began working on the book in 1984, then had to put it aside to complete other translation projects.

Now, despite limits to her endurance, she is reviewing her final version for the fifth or sixth time, making corrections in longhand — she gave up the computer two years ago — and occasionally referring to a Yiddish-English dictionary to verify her word choice. The book, by Aaron Zeitlin, who may be a cousin, was written in 1934 and centers on a group of Zionists who spied for the British, prior to the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

This is the fourth or fifth book Dobkin has translated, in addition to innumerable articles, letters and personal memorabilia. Her best-known book is “Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life before World War II” by Hirsz Abramowicz, published in 1999.

Recently, Dobkin did take one afternoon off to celebrate her birthday — she was born on Nov. 20, 1906. Dressed in black slacks and a black sweater trimmed in white, her gray hair pulled neatly back, she sat in one of the home’s conference rooms at the head of a large table. Her son, Jack Forem, flanked her on one side, her youngest sister, Hannah Doberne, on the other. A cake, frosted in chocolate with brightly colored flowers, was set before her, as well as two balloon bouquets.

Friends joined her at the table. A second group, in chairs and wheelchairs, formed an outer circle. They clapped and occasionally sang along to “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” (“To Me You Are Beautiful”), “Di Grine Kuzine” (“The Greenhorn Cousin”) and other Yiddish songs played by a pianist and violist. Staff members, most in red uniform smocks, clapped along.

“I regret that when you’re 100, I probably won’t be able to come to your simcha,” Dobkin, told her guests, including about 25 fellow residents at the Eisenberg campus, where she’s lived two years and is known as Eva Forem.

It was her day to shine, though, with 19 residents currently ranging in age from 100 to 108, centenarians are surprisingly common at the Jewish Home. Dobkin, however, is among the lucky ones, in that she is well and alert enough to be able to keep working.

Dobkin doesn’t play bingo, and she doesn’t own a television. She occasionally attends a lecture or musical event, but generally, when she isn’t working, she is reading, usually The Forward in Yiddish or English or The Jewish Journal. She reads without glasses, except for very small print.

She also spends about 45 minutes each afternoon discussing her work by telephone with her son, 62, who is a writer and lives in Yucca Valley, and who has been collaborating with her on the book’s final stages. Dobkin is hoping to find a publisher for it.

She has been translating Yiddish since 1932, when she was hired by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at $15 a week to work as a Yiddish and English typist. By the end of the first week, however, she was writing stories in Yiddish and English off the cable transmissions, eventually working her way up to $35. However, she left after two or three years to study for her teaching credential.

In 1936, she married Leon Forem, and in 1946 her son was born. She separated from her husband five months afterward and moved to Los Angeles in 1957, supporting herself by teaching public school from 1957 to 1972, mostly at Pacoima’s Telfair Avenue Elementary School.

Born in Waterbury, Conn., to parents who had just emigrated from Russia’s Mohilev Province, now Belarus, she was the oldest of seven children, and her youngest sister, 85, is her only surviving sibling. She grew up bilingual in Yiddish and English, and at age 3 she was taught by her father to write her name in Yiddish.

“There were Jewish periodicals coming into the house, and I would look at them whether I understood them or not,” she said.

Dobkin attended public school in Waterbury and later, after moving at age 16, in the Bronx. She also received a Jewish secular education, taught primarily in Yiddish, and considers herself not religious but “very Jewish.”

She often had to care for her younger siblings while her parents worked but nevertheless managed to acquire an A.B. in German, with a minor in English and education from Hunter College, as well as a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. The family was poor.

“We had nothing. Sometimes we didn’t have a quarter to put in the gas meter,” she said.

She attributes her success, and that of her siblings, to her parents’ emphasis on education and the availability of free schooling. Her longevity, she believes, is due to genetics.

“Pick the right parents and grandparents,” she advised, wryly. She won’t commit to a future translating project but is considering writing a family history.

“Have a few more birthdays,” her son said as the party wound down.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Dobkin retorted, “if they’re not any worse than this one.”

For more information, call (310) 456-2178

Will kill for laughs


“Comics, that gifted, exclusive society of professional fools.” — Larry Gelbart in his book, “Laughing Matters”

 
Stand-up comic Mark Schiff is sitting in his tiny office on Pico, near the Museum of Tolerance, talking about the time he played the Knesset.

 
“I pointed to the Chagalls and did the old line: ‘What a dump.'”

 
He kids the Knesset. But Schiff knows from dumps. In 25 years of doing comedy, he’s performed in some real ones. Now he and standup guy/pal Ritch Shydner have collected stories from their fellow pro fools in a book called, “I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics.”

 
“I Killed” features headliners like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jonathan Winters and Shelley Berman for the first time telling tales away from the “comedy caravans” and “yuk-yuks” and even yuckier joints they endured while perfecting their craft.

 
“People don’t know much about this life,” says Schiff, wearing a long-sleeved shirt with pictures of Fat Albert and the Cosby kids all over it, as he stuffed books into mailing pouches with co-compiler Shydner. “A lot of my heroes were road guys like Kerouac and Woody Guthrie. These guys would go out for years and never look back. I always came back.”

 
In the book’s foreword, Seinfeld says there are just “four Great Jobs in the world: baseball player, race-car driver, professional surfer or standup comedian.”

 
What? Not rock musician?

 
“He doesn’t like jobs where you have to drag a lot of equipment,” explains Schiff, who tours with Seinfeld. “It’s not a big Jewish job. We don’t like to drag a lot of things. We carry a diamond, we carry a microphone….”

 
And some, like Schiff, after gigging for giggles throughout this great entertainment nation, make it onto “The Tonight Show,” the Promised Land for stand-ups (the book is dedicated to hosts Jack Paar, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson.) Other “road monkeys” never make it out of the bare-wall bars of Moline (“Death of a Joke Salesman,” anybody?), but from Ashville to Anchorage, comedic troubadours are truly brave.

 
“I Killed” reveals the road to laughs sure ain’t paved with pretty. Flop sweating in front of eight people, bunking in trashed out “comedy condos” because brutal club owners skim on accommodations — comedians learn on the job, dancing that fine line between failure (“I died”) and a laugh (“I killed”) all because of the way they emphasize a single syllable sometimes. The camaraderie and competition, self-loathing and loneliness, the disgusting incidents with jazzman Kenny G. It’s all in here. Paul Reiser, Bob Saget, Steven Wright, Lewis Black and Rick Overton, all also featured in the hilarious documentary, “The Aristocrats,” share outrageous adventures. Here is Rita Rudner standing outdoors on a crate doing her act in somebody’s car headlights. Mike Myers chased by wolves. Richard Belzer sucking the gas out of whipped cream bottles before going onstage. All this nonstop “bombing” and “killing.” And all for the greatest of involuntary causes: laughter.

 
Like many successful comedians (Jan Murray, et. al.) Schiff began in the Bronx. He knew he wanted to do comedy at the age of 12 when his parents took him to see Rodney Dangerfield. (“I Killed” is full of funny tales about Dangerfield; he was beloved by fellow performers.) When Schiff started there were only a dozen clubs, but by the mid-’80s, with franchises like The Funny Bone and The Punch Line, the scene exploded, spreading stand up from strip joints to strip malls.

 
“You never know quite what you’re gonna meet on the road,” Schiff says.

 
“Everything from a woman with an axe to a woman who will marry you.”

 
Get the book to read about D.L. Hughley’s hatchet job, but Schiff actually did meet his wife at a comedy club. In San Antonio. (“I Killed” has a Richard Jeni story of playing San Antonio, and a big cowboy comes up and says: “We never seen a New York Jew,” and Jeni says, “I’m not a Jew.” “Close enough,” says the cowboy.)

 
Schiff was in San Antonio for “a one-nighter.” His wife, Nancy? “She was in charge of raising money for the federation there. We exchanged phone numbers and we’re married now 17 years.”

 
The Schiffs have two kids and pray at Young Israel of Century City. Their children go to the Maimonides School. While away on the road, Schiff has searched for minyans in strange towns and said Kaddish for his parents, but says he hasn’t faced overt anti-Semitism.

 
“I’ve run into people that have never met a Jew,” he says. “And they’re interested. I met a woman in Georgia who actually asked me, ‘Is it true about the horns?'”

 
Schiff loves gigging for Jewish audiences. And when he plays an Orthodox venue — as he will in Montreal next month — he includes in the contract, three Shottenstein Talmuds. “The collection is 73 volumes. I’m on my second collection now.”

 
“That’s interesting,” says co-editor Shydner. “I always require that the clubs give me two Dr. Pepper bottle caps and an auto repair manual.”

 
“I Killed, True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics” compiled by Mark Schiff and Ritch Shydner was released this week. Jerry Seinfeld is scheduled to appear on “Late Show With David Letterman” with the book on Nov. 20.

 

Hank Rosenfeld is writing a book with Irving Brecher, who wrote for Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.

British theater group Stan’s Cafe uses piles of rice to bring statistics to life


It’s nearly impossible to comprehend very large numbers. Take the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. How does one go about understanding the magnitude of 6 million?

One way would be to visit the Skirball Cultural Center, where the British theater company, Stan’s Cafe (pronounced “kaff”), will perform its latest piece, “Of All the People in All the World,” from Sept. 26 to Oct. 1.

Upon entering the museum, visitors will receive a grain of rice, representing themselves. Then, they will walk into a room filled with 300 million grains of rice – one for every person in the United States. The rice will be divided into piles, each one illustrating a statistic, such as the number of people who have walked on the moon or the millions of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. One grain of rice will stand for one person.

And there it will be, among all the piles: a large mound with 6 million pieces, representing each individual Jewish life lost in the Holocaust.

The performance piece will take place during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time of reflection known as the Days of Awe.

“We specifically chose to do it in the Days of Awe,” said Jordan Peimer, director of programs at the Skirball. “What better way to understand your place in the world, your role in life, than to begin to understand the fabric of life on earth?”

The piece will open with 150 labeled piles of rice, illustrating serious statistics, such as the millions of people with HIV in Africa, as well as pop culture trivia, such as the number of people who watched the last episode of “Cheers.”

Over the course of the show, five actors, dressed as factory workers, will manipulate the piles to illustrate various truths, including the number of passengers on the Mayflower and the number of people per police officer in Los Angeles.

Visitors will be encouraged to interact with the actors, to share their own stories and discuss the demographics to which they belong. Occasionally, the performers will measure statistics suggested by visitors on the spot.

Peimer said he had been following the innovative Stan’s Cafe troupe for a while, waiting for the right time and the perfect piece to bring to the Skirball. When he saw the rice performance at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, last year, he knew he had to bring the show to Los Angeles.

The performance will be the second stop, after Portland, on the troupe’s first U.S. tour. Since premiering in Coventry, England, in 2003, the show has toured throughout the United Kingdom. It has also traveled to Ireland, Canada, Italy, Spain and Germany, whose daily newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, praised the show, saying “The knowledge gained is astonishing.”

The actors tailor each performance to the country, city and building in which they perform. They decided the Holocaust representation would be just right for the Skirball.

“To hear the statistic of the number of people who died in the Holocaust is one thing,” Peimer said. “To see all of those people represented and to have you [represented as a single grain of rice] in relation to them is a very potent thing.”

The troupe will also lead workshops for students from Brawerman Elementary School, Robert Frost Middle School, La Ballona School and Thomas Starr King Middle School. The children will research statistics and build mounds of rice to illustrate their findings.

James Yarker, artistic director of Stan’s Cafe, who co-founded the group 15 years ago, said he came up with the idea for the piece when he was on tour with another performance in 2002.

“Each time we touched down, we found another city full of people bustling about their business, for whom it would be no appreciable loss if the U.K. and its 59 million inhabitants, including Stan’s Cafe, didn’t exist,” Yarker wrote in an essay on the group’s Web site.

“This parochial small island boy was beginning to get a sense that the world was far, far bigger than he had ever imagined it to be,” Yarker continued, speaking about himself in the third person, “and he was starting to wonder if he would ever be able to understand how many people he shared the planet with.”

After considering sand, sugar, salt, pebbles, peppercorns, spices and more as a way to represent large numbers of people, Yarker settled on rice. “We needed grains that were small, cheap, robust and which wouldn’t roll around,” he said on the Web site. Rice “also has powerful resonance, being a staple food for much of the world and looking vaguely humanoid in close up.”

For piles with fewer than 200 grains, the group typically counts each grain. For larger piles, it weighs the rice. The Skirball will provide not only the scales for weighing the five and one-half tons of rice that will be used during the performance but also the rice, which it bought for less than $2,000 from local wholesalers. The grains will be recycled for animal feed when the exhibit concludes.

“We’ve never done anything like it,” said the Skirball’s Peimer. “I hope it makes people think about their place in the world, and I hope it makes people pause to remember the grain of rice that they are.”

The exhibit will be open during regular museum hours (12 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 12 to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday). Admission will be free on Thursday and Sunday. Other days, general admission will be $8, $6 for seniors and free for members, students and children under 12. For advance tickets call (866) 468-3399.

Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel


In recent weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our routine paled in comparison to many Israelis, who were dashing into bomb shelters, being forced from their homes, arranging funerals. Still, it was a change, part of our anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.

But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us who are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of the political spectrum have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.

The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.

One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity; with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-?-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life.

“Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.”
The book is not exclusively about Israel, but those were the sections that moved me. And they are what I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.

“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans — from “Yehuda” (1931) by Meyer Levin to “Exodus” (1958) by Leon Uris to “Light Years” (2005) by Tamar Stein (see sidebar). Perhaps it is this kind of reading that can begin to provoke understanding of the conflict a continent away. l

To push fiction as a complement to the newspaper, the television and the Internet in our quest for information and understanding about Israel, we asked readers to help us create a list of the best novels and short stories about Israel written by Diaspora authors:

  • “Yehuda” by Meyer Levin: Based on the author’s own experiences, this book is the first known novel depicting life set on a kibbutz in then-Palestine of 1931 (1931).
  • “Exodus” by Leon Uris: A detailed account of the transition from the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe to the founding of Israel sets up a fictional background for political arguments on issues of the 19th and 20th centuries (1958).
  • “A Weave of Women” by E.M. Broner: A group of very different women band together to save a shelter for wayward Jewish girls (and learn a lesson or two in politics, when they change its official name to “Home for Jewish Future Homemakers”). “Life’s contradictions live throughout this novel,” wrote one reviewer (1978).
  • “Preparing for Sabbath” by Nessa Rapoport: A young woman’s spiritual quest, set in Jerusalem (1981).
  • “The Hope” by Herman Wouk: An epic novel about Israel’s fight for statehood. The author delves into the personal lives of the dramatis personae, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat (1993).
  • “Operation Shylock: A Confession” by Philip Roth: An impostor, calling himself “Philip Roth,” causes a furor in Israel by advocating “Diasporism,” the polar opposite of Zionism, encouraging Israelis to return to Eastern Europe (1993).
  • “The Jewish War” by Tova Reich: A radically religious, polygamous man, Jerry Goldberg transforms from a mere social worker in the Bronx to a terrorist leader of a group of American Jews in Israel who secede a portion of the West Bank to form their own nation in this satire (1995).
  • “From a Sealed Room” by Rachel Kadish: The lives of a young woman from New York, a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli housewife intersect (1998).
  • “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone: A journalist in Jerusalem, reared both Jewish and Christian, feels devoid of a true sense of identity, despite the fact that he is surrounded by some of the most devoutly religious peoples in the world. “The characters in ‘Damascus Gate’ may be ‘God-struck,'” wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, “they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions” (1998).
  • “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander: “A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud,” noted Kirkus (1999).
  • “The Family Orchard” by Eve Nomi: Spanning six generations, this epic follows the lives of one family grounded in Jerusalem (2000).
  • “House of Guilt” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen goes on a hunt to find a tycoon’s wayward son, with his search leading him right into the heart of the West Bank (2000).
  • “Strange Fire” by Melvin Bukiet: A dark comedy about a speechwriter for the Israeli prime minister (2001).
  • “Crimes of the City” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen must track down the killer of two nuns in Jerusalem while contending with a host of religious and political tensions (2001).
  • “The Ascent of Eli Israel” by Jon Papernick: In seven modern-day stories, the scene is established in Israel, and the plots are mostly driven to underscore hypocrisy, touching on cultural tensions and war (2002).
  • “Quiet Street” by Zelda Popkin and Jeremy A. Popkin: A woman living in the suburbs of Jerusalem must come to terms with reality as she watches her 18-year-old daughter take on the role of soldier instead of farmer (2002).
  • “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King: Set in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. King has been described by writer Wendy Shalit as “a writer who writes about a devout lifestyle that she actually lives” (2003).
  • “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy” by Aryeh Lev Stollman: “An expert weaver, Stollman brings together themes of religion, science, and love into an emotional whole,” noted Kirkus (2003).
  • “Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller: A cohort of Jews from the United States ventures to the West Bank to build a new community, but their settlement becomes a primary target of violence (2003).
  • “The Butcher’s Theater” by Jonathan Kellerman: A chief inspector of police who is also a Yemenite Jew begins work on a case involving the death of an Arab woman. After a second killing occurs, the inspector bears witness as Jewish-Arab conflicts ensue (2003).
  • “Ten Thousand Lovers” by Edeet Ravel: A novel, set in the 1970s, about the relationship between a Canadian émigré and an army interrogator. “The tragedy here is both anticipated and inevitable,” said Booklist, “but the textured personal story rises above its political context like a melody soaring beyond the steady rhythm pulsing below it” (2003).
  • “An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant: This collection of 10 short stories covers a breadth of characters — from the secular to Orthodox, young to old — through whom Leegant poses questions about faith, love and change (2003).
  • “The Place Will Comfort You” by Naama Goldstein: In this collection of short stories, American Jews make aliyah and Israelis immigrate to America (2004).
  • “Faith for Beginners” by Aaron Hamburger: An American Jewish family teeters on the edge of collapse. In a last resort, they travel to Israel on a package tour with a mission to reinvigorate their spirituality (2005).
  • “The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy: According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Hasak-Lowy artfully reveals layers of personal and national identity,” including one story about an Israeli ex-journalist working in the cafe at Yad Vashem who clashes with an American businessman over a stale pastry (2005).
  • “The Covenant” by Naomi Ragen: Set in 2002, a pregnant Israeli woman, her husband and their child are abducted by Hamas (2004).
  • “Light Years” by Tammar Stein: A 20-year-old woman leaves Israel for college in the United States after her boyfriend is killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv restaurant (2005).

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

Social Action Groups Fight for Cleaning Ladies’ Rights


I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.

Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them.

Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.

He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You’d make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.

After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles.
“We’re of different races,” she says. “But I think we have a lot in common.”

When Jews hire people to do household jobs — anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents — we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.

“It wasn’t as if you were putting on airs,” a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. “Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable.”

Yet even the term “cleaning lady” indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don’t need to call the electrician the “electrical fix-it gentleman,” after all.

Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women’s movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners — stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer — those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.

Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning,
“It’s my schmutz, so I should take care of it,” said Kaplan, a “red-diaper baby” who grew up in “the Co-ops,” two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.

Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made “a good living” in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family’s wash. But Elizabeth didn’t last long, because Luba couldn’t stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.

Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith — not her real name — as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, “this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going — to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don’t know where my money is going.”

Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual — Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.

Smith shot back: “You know, Carla, we’re partners in this.”

“She was right,” Singer said. “In a sense, she doesn’t work for me.”

Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it’s time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help — almost always female — we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.

According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we’re enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.

A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults — recalling Philip Roth’s cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy’s mother and her treatment of the so-called “schvartze” in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.

Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow.”

Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a “progressive Jewish voice” into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.

“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the friend said. “They’re not like us.”

Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.

The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.

She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair — something she had been trained to do — the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her “Harry.”

And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he’d like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.

The daughter was furious. “Oh, no! They’re just the help!” she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. “Give it to your grandchildren!”

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.

Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination — all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.

Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: “We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we’re doing a terrible job.”

Prager knows this, because over the years she’d gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith’s schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.

Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager’s ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.

“It was time for a change,” Prager said. “She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion.”
Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. “She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship.”

When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks’ notice and $5,000, six weeks’ severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.

“I always held you up on a pedestal,” Smith told her employer. “But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you’re just like all the rest.”

“The rest,” of course, meant “the rest of the Jews.” Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith’s anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager’s mother died shortly after the firing.

Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.

It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and “of course,” said Prager, paid holidays.

Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul’s Web site, kept telling her they’d never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.

“These things upset me so much,” Prager told me. “They give us such a bad name.”
Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.

“I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit,” she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.

Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn’t listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.

“Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes,” she said. And often, she added, we are not. “Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought.”

Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”

She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”

Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a “Shalom Bayit” campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people’s homes, the “living room project.”

As part of the campaign, the group’s members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation’s social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers’ rights.

JFREJ’s membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, “to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews.” Because it is clear, she says, “how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community” in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.

“Doing right” means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does — and does not — entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.

The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there’s a “must give notice” clause.

But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual — and less fair, though less costly — model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.

“The evening ends and then it’s over,” Fornari said. “Nobody talked to me about it afterward.”

Other social-action subjects — stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example — get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it’s a different matter.

“It’s a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat,” Fornari told me. “People don’t want it in their face.” People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.

“I don’t think most people care about the rights of domestic workers,” Fornari said. “They don’t feel it’s a topic that’s relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”

It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they’ve grown close; Fornari’s behavior, like Prager’s, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.

Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers.

“There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, ‘But no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ ”

“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?'”

“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist.

Jews in the Military: High Holidays Under Fire


Who shall live and who shall die.
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.

Ralph Goodman recited those words in a hillside tent in southeastern Belgium. Warren Zundell’s “shul” was a patch of no-man’s-land somewhere in North Korea. For Robert Cirkus, it was a jungle clearing in the bug-infested Central Highlands of Viet Nam. And for Lee Mish, it was Saddam Hussein’s former palace.

The four men have never met, but they share an uncommon bond. They represent four generations of Jewish servicemen for whom the High Holidays — and their signature Unetanah Tokef prayer — took on new meaning.

For all Jews, the words of the emotionally charged Unetanah Tokef are a powerful reminder of mortality. All the more so for Jews serving their country in wartime — such as Goodman, Zundell, Cirkus and Mish — where every day is Judgment Day and where prayer, righteousness and repentance can’t always avert a decree of death.

Here are the stories of these American servicemen who observed the High Holidays not in conventional synagogues, but on far-flung battlefields. The worship services they participated in were often improvised and incomplete. But the jarring juxtaposition of war and prayer, faith and fear, continues to resonate with these men.

A Tent on the Side of a Hill
A Tent on the Side of a Hill
Fays, Belgium
September 1944

“Colonel, the Jewish community wants to observe Yom Kippur. What can you do to help us?”

Ralph Goodman, attached to the 1st U.S. Army’s Headquarters Commandant in Belgium, was unable to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because his unit was traveling.

But Yom Kippur was fast approaching, and the 24-year-old enlistee from Pittsfield, Mass., was determined that the Jewish servicemen, now encamped at a temporary base near Verviers, Belgium, be given a place to pray.

He had already approached the 1st Army’s chief chaplain, who offered nothing except a few prayer books. But Goodman’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Harry F. Goslee, was more accommodating. He ordered a large blackout hospital tent set up on a hillside, with chairs and a portable electric generator.

On Yom Kippur, Sept. 27, 1944, about 25 soldiers and airmen congregated in that tent. Two Orthodox laymen acted as cantor and rabbi.

Goodman sat by the tent flap opening, his gun on his lap. He was juggling several different prayer books, trying to find the correct pages for Unetanah Tokef. He finally located the prayer and recited the words. But what he really was saying that day was, “Please, God, bring my buddies and me home.”

Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see a chaplain he didn’t recognize, a fresh-faced, sandy-haired man about 30, who asked permission to address the troops.

“How lovely are your tents, Oh Jacob,” he began, intoning the words to a prayer Jews say each morning.

He talked about five minutes, thanking the men for allowing him to speak and commending them for assembling a service.

Goodman, who still lives in Pittsfield, thinks about that service often, proud that he and his buddies were able to make it happen. He wishes he could share another Yom Kippur with them.

But 62 years later, he still regrets that he never asked the name of that fresh-faced Christian chaplain who reached out to a group of Jews on the holiest day of their year.

“God bless that man,” he said.

Above the 38th Parallel, North KoreaAn All-Jewish Convoy
Above the 38th Parallel, North Korea
October 1951

Warren Zundell, an orthopedic surgeon with the 11th Evacuation Hospital in Wonju, South Korea, wasn’t eager to attend Rosh Hashanah services. It meant traveling 40 miles on an unpaved, mountainous road to 10th Army Corps headquarters, over the border into North Korea. Zundell, 27, had a baby daughter back in Fall River, Mass., whom he had never seen, and he didn’t want to risk encountering snipers or land mines.

But Zundell was the unit’s only Jewish officer, and the Catholic chaplain on his base was insistent that Zundell escort the convoy.

“There are about 30 Jewish boys around here who want to go,” said the priest, who planned to remain in Wonju at the hospital.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30, 1951, in the priest’s jeep with a white cross painted on the hood, Zundell led the way. A few truckloads of Jewish soldiers, all heavily armed, followed. Perhaps the only all-Jewish convoy ever to travel into North Korea, they arrived safely several hours later at the camp, a war-scarred patch of ground that sported some tents and housed perhaps a few hundred soldiers.

The next morning, a rabbi conducted services in a large tent, with about 300 soldiers, many who had traveled there from other units, sitting on the ground or on boxes. There was no ark, no Torah and no prayer books, except for the rabbi’s.

“I just sat there and listened,” Zundell recalled. “I didn’t think about where I was.”

After services, he traveled back to Wonju with the same soldiers.

Even less enthusiastic about observing Yom Kippur, Zundell was again induced to return to the prayer site. On Yom Kippur day, the convoy again traveled above the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. The scene was identical to what Zundell remembered from Rosh Hashanah, except, instead of 300 soldiers in the tent, there were now 150.

“Where are the other boys?” Zundell asked the servicemen sitting near him.
“Heavy casualties during the week,” one of them replied.

Zundell doesn’t remember his exact reaction; he imagines the service was pretty sad. Afterward they loaded up the trucks and headed home.

Since then, every Rosh Hashanah, the Coral Gables, Fla., resident sits in temple and remembers Korea.

“It never leaves my mind,” he said. “I think about those boys who didn’t make it back for Yom Kippur.”

Central Highlands, Vietnam

A Jungle Clearing
Central Highlands, Vietnam
September 1966

While stationed in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry, Army Spc. 4 Robert Cirkus often didn’t know what day it was. But somehow the 21-year-old draftee from Passaic, N.J., knew the High Holidays were coming. And he knew he wanted to attend services.

A rabbi was dispatched to the forward base camp in the Central Highlands where Cirkus was working as a weapons repairman. Around noon on Rosh Hashanah day, Sept. 15, 1966, Cirkus, three infantrymen and a medic, all strangers to one another, gathered together in a cleared-out jungle area.

The rabbi set up a small ark on a bench in the back of his open Jeep. Inside was a traveling Torah. Cirkus and the others sat on the ground in the hot sun, the air muggy and bug-infested. He wore a tallit over his uniform, holding his submachine gun and his prayer book on his lap.

Cirkus, who now lives in Clifton, N.J., remembers that the service was truncated and that he and the others were not really at ease. They were praying, but they were also alert to every sound, especially gunshots off in the jungle. He knows he wasn’t thinking about life and death. Or about Judgment Day. He didn’t want to think about what was really going on.

Afterward, the rabbi handed out cans of tuna fish, bread, wine and kosher C rations.

“We sat, we chitchatted and we went our separate ways,” he said. “But we knew we were all Jews.”

Until 10 years ago, Cirkus was too traumatized to discuss his Vietnam experience at all. Even now, he can’t talk about all of it. But he’s able to look back on that Rosh Hashanah in the Central Highlands, where, for a short time, five Jews who didn’t know each other sat around together with a rabbi praying.

“I don’t want to say it like it’s jerky, but you felt like you were being watched by God,” he said.

Saddam's Palace

Saddam’s Palace
Tikrit, Iraq
September 2004

September 2004 was a tense time in Tikrit, Iraq, where Special Agent Lee Mish was stationed. Roads were impassable, bridges were blown up and food and water were rationed. Plus, with flights grounded, the rabbi assigned to Tikrit couldn’t leave Baghdad.

Despite these obstacles, erev Rosh Hashanah services were held on Sept. 15. And Mish, 27, a Conservative Jew from Sharon, Mass., who enlisted in the Army nine years ago, walked to Saddam Hussein’s former palace, now under control of the U.S. military.

There, in a large room with marble floors and ceilings and a gold chandelier, a room once used by Saddam’s servants, Mish encountered three other Jews. They included a captain who served as the Jewish lay leader, a sergeant and a civilian contractor.

Wearing kippot, the uniformed men sat around a card table on folding chairs, their guns by their sides. For about 20 minutes, they read from prayer books sent by Hebrew school students in Wisconsin. Mish doesn’t remember the specifics, but he recalls saying prayers for all the soldiers and being aware of Rosh Hashanah’s message of mortality.

“When you’re in a situation where your friends are dying, where people all around you are dying, any time you pray, it hits home more,” he said.

Afterward they shared a bottle of wine and ate some “normal food,” including bagels with jelly. They also read Rosh Hashanah cards that the students had decorated with honey pots and apples and inscribed with messages such as “Be safe” and “Hope you come back soon.” Inside the holiday cards, the students had placed prepaid phone cards.

Despite its informality, that service resonated with Mish, now stationed in Wurzburg, Germany. Rosh Hashanah had always been important to him, a way of confirming his Jewishness. But being in Iraq had given him more time to reflect on death and destruction, and he was feeling more religious while stationed there. Also, he had recently learned from his Iraqi translator, who was born and raised in Mosul, Iraq, that during Saddam’s reign, the Jews in that area were barred from observing holidays in public and were forced to celebrate secretly in their homes. That day, however, Jewish soldiers were praying openly in Saddam’s palace.

“I felt honored,” Mish said.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.

To learn more about today’s Jews in uniform, visit Jews In Green, the”ultimate resource for Jewish service members.”

Saddam Hussein’s palaces have also been the site of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Pesach and other Jewish celebrations, as this Jewish Journal story from 2004 relates.

Rosenbergs’ Granddaughter Tackles Washington ‘Hill’


What do you do for an encore when your first work is a powerful, heart-wrenching documentary about the life of your notorious grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?

The Rosenbergs were executed for spying for the Soviet Union in June 1953. Their personal story was told 51 years later by their granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, in the powerful 2004 documentary, “Heir to an Execution.”

Ivy Meeropol
Now the 36-year-old filmmaker has followed her ground-breaking and very personal film with a six-part cinema verite-style political series, “The Hill,” which begins airing on the Sundance Channel on Aug. 23. It gives viewers an unprecedented look into what goes on in the office of Florida Jewish Congressman Robert Wexler and the way in which his young staff dictate his actions.

At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Spa in Pasadena, Meeropol talked easily about her new film, in which she takes a “fly-on-the-wall” approach capturing the behind-the-scenes intrigue and intimacies of the office of the Democrat Wexler, who is a strong supporter of Israel.

Meeropol lives on the East Coast with her husband, Thomas, a production designer in films and commercials, and their 15-month-old son, Julian. She is the first to admit that it was the emotionally stirring documentary about her grandparents that was instrumental in persuading the congressman to allow her and her all-seeing cameras into his inner sanctum.

Meeropol said she discovered her love of politics after working in Washington as a legislative aide and speech writer for Democratic Rep. Harry Johnston, Wexler’s predecessor.

“It makes sense that I would want to do ‘The Hill.’ I was feeling some nostalgia for my time in Washington,” she said. “I loved working there. And I was always amazed that people really don’t know what goes on. They don’t know that it’s all these very young people who are advising members of Congress — for better or for worse — on how to vote. It’s a compelling story.”

Wexler and his team gave her the green light after viewing “Heir to an Execution.”

“They all felt I had dealt with the subject very sensitively and I wasn’t someone who would exploit things,” Meeropol said. “And they quickly forgot that I was in the room with a camera. Since I had worked in the same capacity as some of the people you see in the film, I was able not just to gain access but tell the story in a way that others wouldn’t be able to do.”

The first episode, set in November 2004, focuses on Wexler’s support for the Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket. He and his staff go to a Boca Raton temple — along with actor Mandy Patinkin — to try to sell a “why I trust John Kerry on Israel” message to voters. Wexler discusses attending an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference and refusing to deliver a soft speech. But all of his staff are utterly devastated when Kerry loses.

Wexler, his foreign policy adviser, Halie Soifer, and his staff come across loud and clear on their strong support of Israel, their opposition to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and President Bush’s Iraq policy — although Wexler originally supported the war.

Meeropol, an open, friendly young woman talked enthusiastically about her new film series, as well as her pedigree. While she had come to Pasadena to talk about “The Hill,” the conversation inevitably turned to “Heir,” her critically acclaimed film that humanized but didn’t lionize the grandparents she never met.
That first documentary gave her career as a fledgling moviemaker a huge boost. It was the calling card the young filmmaker needed, but it came with some built-in insecurity.

“I was essentially elevated immediately to the status of successful filmmaker on my first one out of the gate, and I wondered if that had more to do with who I am — that kind of celebrity status that came with it — or was it a good film as I thought,” she said.

Though she didn’t start out life to be a documentary filmmaker, her future was almost dictated by her history.

“I had been grappling with the story of my family for years as a writer, trying to figure out what I would contribute that would really demonstrate what I would have to say about it,” she said.

The documentary idea evolved, she said, “in part because I realized there were people out there who knew my grandparents who weren’t going to be around much longer. I knew if I didn’t get these people’s stories, then they were going to be gone, and I’d never forgive myself. So that’s how it started.”

After her grandparents were arrested during the height of the Cold War, the ensuing scandal stunned and rocked Jews in America. Her father, Michael, was only 7 when his parents were arrested, and he and his 4-year-old brother, Robert, soon discovered that their relatives didn’t want to have anything to do with them. In 1957, the boys were legally adopted by Anne and Able Meeropol, who were not related to the family.

Growing up, Meeropol said, “We were quite cultural Jews, not religious, very secular. Passover was the only Jewish holiday we celebrated, because it was kind of cultural, historic. So we had seders. But I was never bat mitzvahed. Ironically, though, I’m very identified as a Jew because of the Rosenbergs. You can’t get rid of it. You’re Jewish royalty, even though my mother is a Lithuanian-Irish Catholic,” she said with a laugh.

The fly-on-the-wall approach to “The Hill,” she said was a direct result of the personal nature of her first film.

“I wanted to do something very different,” she said. “I wanted to do the political series as pure verite as possible.”

Meeropol now says she feels comfortable about revisiting other periods of her life.

“I worked as a nursing assistant at a nursing home because my other grandfather, Abel Meeropol [who died at 78 when she was a freshman at college], ended up in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s.

She visited him regularly and said she wanted to work in the home to make sure her grandfather was well cared for: “I had no idea what that really entailed. They were so desperate for nurses’ aides they hired me without any experience, and I was thrown right into that.”

Now Meeropol said she’s interested in making the nursing home experience the topic of her next film.

“I’d like to tell the story about life in a nursing home — focusing more on the people who work there,” she said. “It’s a very contemporary issue, and more and more people are going to have to deal with it. It’s a fascinating world — just like ‘The Hill.'” l

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday the 19th

Now extended through Sept. 30 is the Marvin Chernoff play, “Chaim’s Love Song.” In it, a 74-year-old Jewish man tells his life stories, tall tales and musings to a young blonde Iowan girl, whom he meets on a Brooklyn park bench.

Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 700-4878. ” TARGET=”_blank”>www.historychannel.com.

Monday the 21st

We can’t resist a clever promotion, nor free matzah balls for that matter. Head to Canter’s Deli today to partake in both. In honor of the DVD release of the Passover comedy, “When Do We Eat?” they’ll be setting the Guinness Book record for making the largest matzah ball ever. Moreover, those wishing to view the gargantuan ball may also partake of their own. There will be free matzah ball soup for all, between the hours of 10 a.m. and noon, and the band Chutzpah will also perform.

10 a.m.-noon. 419 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles.

Tuesday the 22nd

Enjoy live acoustic music by David Shepherd Grossman at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Muddy Moose Bar Tuesday nights. The guitarist plays Cat Stevens, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, as well as his own Grossman tunes. Then go for a stroll among the swans.

Tuesdays, 7-10 p.m. 12825 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 755-5000.

Wednesday the 23rd

Judging the album by its cover is encouraged at Tobey C. Moss Gallery. “We’ve Got You Covered” is their new exhibition (curated by RockPoP Gallery) of iconic album cover art. More than 40 works by prominent graphic artists and photographers in the music business are on view, including covers created for Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and Greenday.

Opening reception is Aug. 19. Through Sept. 7. 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523.netflixroadshow@bwr-la.com. 8 p.m. 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. “>www.soundNet.org.

Irreverent Stories You Haven’t Heard


“All your stories are the same,” a British girl in an MFA creative writing program tells the Jewish students in one of the short stories in Elisa Albert’s new collection, “How This Night Is Different” (Free Press, $18). “I just feel like I read the same stories over and over again from you guys. They’re great and all, but….”

The unspoken “but” is: Why are there so many young, hip Jews writing fiction that irreverently pokes fun at their heritage?

Albert, for example calls herself a “lobotomized Philip Roth writing chick lit” in the above MFA story, which, incidentally, is a fictional letter penned to Roth offering him the chance to impregnate her. But Albert, like other sardonic Jewish short story writers, is probably closer to the next millennium’s version of Roth and Woody Allen. Instead of portraying an overwrought Jewish mother and other now-familiar Jewish stereotypes, Albert uses Judaism as a setting for mostly secular characters to air their grievances with each other, or themselves.

Judaism here is a Yom Kippur meal, where one sibling has had an abortion and another has an eating disorder. It’s a bris, where the mother doesn’t want to give up her baby to the mohel (whom the uncle calls “Shaky McSnips”). It’s a themed bat mitzvah, where the aunt gets stoned in the bathroom with her niece’s friends while pondering the state of her own shaky marriage.

In short, these are stories about the next generation of Jews — Jews well-versed enough in their culture to throw around references to Camp Ramah and the search for chametz and Ba’al Teshuvas, but they are so comfortable with it that they have no problem tearing it apart.

“What the f– is your neshama?” Miri asks her best friend Rachel, watching her prepare to cut her hair off before her religious wedding.

The neshama — the one Rachel is saving in the story “So Long” — is the Jewish soul. And the soul of these 10 stories is that Jewish characters find, perhaps, a sense of identity in their Jewishness, but not necessarily any particular spiritual meaning.

“How This Night Is Different,” and other in-your-face expressions of Jewish culture like the popular Heeb magazine, is this generation’s attempt to connect to their heritage, and connect even while they mock.

If sometimes they go too far, if at times they offend, they still expect to be part of the cultural dialogue. As Debra, the convert looking for a shul in Lisbon in the story “When You Say You’re a Jew,” muses: “A Jew could do that, find a home anywhere in the world with other Jews. Wasn’t that the point of the entire freakin’ deal?”

Elisa Albert will be giving reading Sunday, July 23 at 2 p.m. at Dutton’s, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; Tuesday, July 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; and Wednesday, July 26, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books and Music, 6510 Canoga Ave., Canoga Park. On Friday, June 28, at 7 p.m., she will be in Santa Monica as part of the ATID/Sinai Temple’s Shabbat at Home program for young professionals. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 481-3244.

Performers Go It Alone and Like It That Way


Michael Raynor moves with the balletic grace and cocksure athleticism of a former pickup basketball player and street fighter. He simulates dribbling a ball between his legs with the adeptness of the highly recruited hoops star he once was, then he assumes his grandfather’s boxer’s crouch, takes on the gravelly voice of the onetime Louis Lepke associate and throws the jab. Effortlessly, Raynor switches time periods and voices, at one moment playing his sassy mother with her elbow against her rib, her wrist bent, and then his grandmother, with her stooped posture and her Old World idiosyncrasies.

In “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” playing at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake, Raynor goes on a Rashomon-like search for the essence of his father, who left the family when the actor was a little boy. Was his father a deadbeat dad? A mentally ill genius? A con man?

The rugged-looking actor’s only props are a chair and a black-and-white photograph of his father with his arm around him as Raynor, the little boy, plays a guitar. Raynor speaks with the sing-song patter of the New York City streets. He is a Jewish man who hails from an older tradition — the Jews of the first half of the last century: tough Jews, who dominated sports like boxing and basketball and served disproportionately in the first two World Wars and in the ranks of gangsters. But he also has a vulnerability mixed in with that toughness, like John Garfield, to whom he has been compared.

Despite courageous performances by actors like Raynor, solo-show performers have been lampooned often by the likes of Martin Short and mocked by many as self-absorbed narcissists, bent on exploring their own navels rather than advancing the art form of the theater. Nonetheless, one-person shows continue to proliferate and provide performers with a unique outlet for meta-theatrical expression.

Stacie Chaiken, who runs a solo workshop in Santa Monica, says the medium is “a way for actors to take control of their destiny,” but she also admits, these shows are “cheap to produce. It’s very easy for a one-person show to travel around.”

There are some big-name Jewish performers like Billy Crystal, who recently toured with his Tony-winning homage to his father, “700 Sundays,” and Eve Ensler, creator of the “Vagina Monologues.” But in recent months, many L.A. theaters have produced one-person shows featuring lesser-known Jewish talent, such as Judi Lee Brandwein, star of “Fornicationally Challenged,” which played at the Hudson Guild and is moving to New York; Linda Lichtman, whose one-person show, “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” is playing at the Actors Playpen; and Carla Zilbersmith, a singer and actress who revisits her days on the wedding circuit in “Wedding Singer Blues.”

While each show follows its own trajectory, Chaiken points out that many Jewish-themed plays explore the issue of legacy. These performers describe conflicted feelings about their parents and the aspirations held out for them. As clichéd as such scenarios may seem, they speak to the pain and humor of family, a commonality that usually resonates with audiences.

Zilbersmith, who has a music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and a theater degree from NYU, cites the lineage of the art form: “The ancient conversation we call theater has always contained some form of solo performance, and I would argue that the most successful solo pieces acknowledge these theatrical roots.”

Those roots surely include King David, who soothed Saul by singing and playing the harp or lyre, troubadours during the Middle Ages who wandered from town to town and entertained crowds, and, in the past century, Lord Buckley, the now-forgotten, Beat-era monologist who started out in vaudeville and later told tales in a bebop idiom that centered on historical and biblical characters like “the Nazz,” a jive take on Jesus. Buckley’s influence could be seen in the work of Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, the latter a modern-day Jewish troubadour, who cites Buckley in his recent “Chronicles, Vol. 1.”

Notable works in the field include, of course, Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight!” and Julie Harris’ Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” formal one-person shows about external subjects. In the past 15 years or so, as memoirs, particularly those of addiction and recovery, have staked out a dominant place on the bookshelf, solo shows too have become much more personal, including the work of performance artists and monologists.

Chaiken, who teaches acting and solo performance at USC and who studied with Spalding Gray at the Performance Group in New York, credits Gray with formulating “a me that was very close to the me that was him,” and ushering in a new sensibility for monologists.

Fred Johntz has partnered with Mark Travis for seven years in writing and directing numerous one-person shows, including “Fornicationally Challenged.” Johntz says that performance art by L.A. performance artists such as John Fleck (whose work was denied NEA grants due to its provocative subject matter) and Sandra Tsing Loh are “pretty much in the same vein” as the one-person shows he directs.

The trend in self-involved storytelling, which may have reached its apotheosis in the blog phenomenon, has also led to the dissemination of many factual errors and even hoaxes. Likewise, one-person shows and their variants often could benefit from editing. Many suffer from poor storytelling if not outright posing.

Not surprisingly, there have been parodies even in one-person shows. In “Wedding Singer Blues,” Zilbersmith at one point portrays a performance artist as a brain-dead, pot-headed character who spins naked on a rotating East Village stage.

Women have been among the pioneers in this avant-garde art form. Anna Deveare Smith used journalistic techniques for her solo gigs. In the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn and the 1992 Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles, she took to the streets with a tape recorder in hand and captured the colloquialisms that would later inform her award-winning performances in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” respectively.

Most one-woman shows, however, favor sexual politics over political or racial issues.

Lichtman regales us with stories of her liaisons with younger men in “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” — a brave performance, not least because she is in her 60s. She invokes Jewish icons like the Dodgers of the 1950s, intersperses her act with Yiddish expressions and speaks in characteristically Jewish syntax when she utters lines like, “Lucky, I didn’t set myself on fire.”

Are Jews particularly well-suited to one-person shows?

Zilbersmith, starring in “Wedding Singer Blues,” now playing at the Coronet Theater, says that while she has a variety of students at the College of Marin in the Bay Area, where she teaches solo performance, those who tend to focus on writing and storytelling are Jewish. But she also notes the strong oral traditions of African Americans and the Irish; she says that most of her friends who are solo performers are African American.

One of Chaiken’s students, Frankie Colmane, wrote and acted in “Body and Soul,” a one-person show about her experience as a French Algerian Jew living in America. With immigration a searing topic both in this country and in France, Colmane’s show, which moved on to the Edge of the World Theater Festival in downtown Los Angeles, transcends Jewishness and speaks to all audiences. Of course, it also speaks to her.

As Chaiken says, “We’re all very interested in ourselves.”

“The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” plays Mondays, 8 p.m., through July 31 at the Actors Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hollywood, (310) 560-6063 or (310) 582-0025.

“Cheerios in My Underwear” plays July 30, 3 p.m. and on selected Sundays, once a month, at the Empty Stage Theater, 2372 Veteran Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 308-0947.

“Wedding Singer Blues” plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through July 16, at the Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-7377.

“What’s the Story?” a series of new works-in-progress, plays July 10 and on selected Mondays, once a month, at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-1312.

“Who Is Floyd Stearn?” plays Thursdays, 8 p.m., at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, (323) 960-1052, (818) 558-5702.

“Zero Hour” opens July 7, plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Aug. 13, at the Egyptian Arena Theater, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (323) 860-6620. Special gala dinner and performance on Sunday, July 9, honoring West Coast Jewish Theater founder Naomi Jacobs.

The Circuit


Kudos for Kuh

Los Angeles culinary expert Patric Kuh was honored recently in New York by the James Beard Foundation for his humanitarian efforts during the the James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards.

Kuh won kudos in the Magazine Restaurant Review or Critique category for his work at Los Angeles Magazine.

A Clear Need

Bob Ralls and Linda Falcone accepted awards from Harold Davidson, chairman of the board for Junior Blind of America, at the nonprofit organization’s gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The event was held specifically to recognize the contributions of the couple to Junior Blind of America, where they have served as president and vice president of development for more than 20 years. For more than 50 years, Junior Blind of America has offered unique programs and services to help blind and visually impaired people become more independent.

Farewell to Anat Ben-Ishai

While many Jewish Angelenos gathered to do a mitzvah for Big Sunday or to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut at the Israel Festival, a group of almost 300 Wilshire Boulevard Temple staff and families gathered at the Irmas campus for a cause equally personal. The morning’s event was dubbed a “Farewell to Anat Ben-Ishai,” who retired this year after 15 years as director of the Edgar F. Magnin and Gloria and Peter S. Gold Religious Schools.

“You’ve been an inspiration to our children. We can’t pay any person enough for that,” Rabbi Emeritus Harvey J. Fields told Ben-Ishai via a video message. Fields prerecorded a special goodbye message to Ben-Ishai, knowing he would be out of the country for the event. He said what would be missed most in Ben-Ishai’s absence would be her “poetic soul,” her storytelling, and her “care about each of us.” He also noted the excellence of the synagogue’s religious schools today “is your crowning achievement.”

Indeed, in the time Ben-Ishai served as Hebrew school director, the school grew from less than 400 students attending Hebrew school once a week at one campus, to close to 1,000 students attending three days a week at two different campuses.

The haimishe event, as one attendee described it, included many students, several of whom came with their parents. The day began with the tribute and was followed by Israeli dancing, children’s art projects and lunch, as well as a video station to record personal messages to Ben-Ishai and another station to “Write an Anat-o-gram.”

Students also participated in special art projects in their classes, as well as a video project, in which they bid Ben-Ishai farewell and told her they would miss her friendliness and her stories.

Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), acknowledged Ben Ishai’s leadership contributions over the years, stating that out of the five outstanding teachers recognized by the BJE last year, two teachers were from Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“Anat,” he told her, “you are truly a teacher of teachers.”

Ben-Ishai told those assembled that her greatest pride came from seeing her student’s independent participation in acts of tikkun olam and tzedakah.

The Anat Ben-Ishai Religious School Scholarship Fund was established May 3 in Ben-Ishai’s honor.

Those wishing to contribute may call the school at (213) 388-2401. — Keren Engelberg, Contributing Writer

Much About Maller

Hot dogs and happy memories were the recipe for the weekend as Temple Akiba, the Reform congregation of Culver City, honored Rabbi Allen Maller for 39 years of dedication and inspiration. The weekend was filled with events to bring the congregation together to celebrate and reflect on the Maller’s years as their leader.

Friday night a special service was held and representatives of California Assemblywoman Karen Bass and L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke presented commendations. Former Culver City Mayor Albert Vera and Culver City Councilwoman Carol Gross praised Maller’s contributions to the community — the City Council even designated April as “Rabbi Maller Month.” There was a “Potpourri of International Tastes” dinner Saturday night and an original musical review written by Barbara Miller that featured five temple members — performing a “shtetl-flavored” tribute to Maller and Temple Akiba.

Maller will leave Temple Akiba at the end of June. Rabbi Zach Shapiro will become new spiritual leader of the congregation.

Magbit FUNDRAISER

Nearly 800 donors, community leaders and public officials gathered May 7 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the 17th annual Magbit Foundation gala to raise funds for interest-free loans for Israeli college students and to celebrate Israel’s 58th year of independence. Master of ceremonies and Magbit leader David Nahai, chair of the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, welcomed the guests and the contributions of the local Iranian Jewish community that started the Magbit Foundation.

Keynote speaker, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, acknowledged Magbit’s nearly $3 million in loans given to almost 7,000 new immigrant Israeli university students during the last 17 years.

“The fact that you have provided a means for the talented students in Israel to get the education that will help better the world is truly remarkable,” Villaraigosa said.

Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch spoke about the uniquely strong sense of Zionism of Iranian Jews living in Southern California.

“My friends I have known many Jewish communities around the world, but I have grown to admire the Iranian Jewish community for your sense of Israel and love of Israel which is heartfelt,” Danoch said.

Guests also enjoyed the Middle Eastern dancing of the Sunflower Dancers and the singing of acclaimed Israeli Noa Dori. Also in attendance were Israeli Justice Ministry official Shlomo Shachar, and Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Wiesel’s Words of Hope for ‘Uprooted’


When Elie Wiesel spoke last year at the 92nd Street Y, teaching about Jewish texts, his quiet voice had a trance-like quality, as he shifted between classic sources, Chasidic tales and his own views of world events. His fiction is similarly powerful. Sometimes the words have the poetic feel of liturgy, holy words.

“To write is to pray,” said the Nobel laureate, who will be the scholar-in-residence May 19-21 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“I want my stories to become prayers. I want my prayer to become stories,” he said, quoting Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, in an interview, when asked about the connection between fiction and prayer. “I love prayer. When words become prayer, something is added to the words. There’s purity in lashon kodesh [sacred language].”

“Wounds, too, can become prayers,” he added.

Wounds are plentiful in “The Time of the Uprooted,” an absorbing novel that moves back and forth in time, from 1940s Hungary to New York at the end of the 20th century, shifting points of view, with emotional intensity packed into memories and stories.

Ever gracious and eloquent, the author of more than 40 books spoke of his fiction and the all-too-true news of the world, with daily reports of newly uprooted souls: thousands who no longer have home addresses and are scattered far from the ground they know.

Not unlike Gamaliel Friedman, who plays the central role in “The Time of the Uprooted.” Gamaliel was born in Czechoslovakia and survived World War II in Budapest, left by his mother in the care of Ilonka, a non-Jewish cabaret singer. He escaped Budapest in 1956, leaving Ilonka behind, and moved to Vienna, Paris and then to New York, with stops in between. In New York, his closest circle is a group of exiles, each one with an intriguing story, spun with pain. Calling themselves, with irony, “Elders of Zion,” they help others who are either still in Europe or exiles like themselves.

“Once a refugee, always a refugee,” the narrator says of Gamaliel, and as Wiesel admits, could be describing the author, who feels close to fellow refugees. The narrator continues, “He escapes from one place of exile, only to find himself in another: Nowhere is he at home. He never forgets the place he came from; his life is always provisional. Happiness for him is a moment’s rest. Love never ending is the blink of an eye.”

The reader first meets Gamaliel as a child, still at home with his parents, when a vagabond storyteller visits; this begins his lifelong fascination with madmen. Later on, as a New Yorker, he is “no longer young,” walking hunched over. A ghostwriter, he makes his living by penning “love stories for shop girls, Kiplingesque adventures in exotic settings, financial conspiracies, gritty detective stories: scribbling, not writing.”

He thinks of himself as a banker, lending words to those who need them. At the same time, he is working on his own book, “The Book of Secrets,” which runs through the novel, unfinished. He is divorced, cut off from his daughters, dropped by the last woman he was involved with.

“No trees line the ways of our lives,” he notes.

His friends include Bolek, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto; Diego, who fought in the Spanish Civil War; Yasha, who survived Stalinism, and Gad, a former Mossad agent. They are agnostics and unbelievers, yet their conversation often comes around to God. Gamaliel is also close to Rabbi Zusya, a mystic who continues to believe. Suffering is what unites the group, although, together, they try to transcend it.

In this novel, perhaps more so than in Wiesel’s many previous books, women play key roles; several have had much influence over Gamaliel. His mother is never far from his mind. With love, tempered by guilt, despair and acceptance, he looks back at his time with Ilonka and at his ex-wife and other women who have been close to him.

Gamaliel learns of a hospitalized woman who may be in her last days, seemingly without an identity, who is said to speak a language that sounds like Hungarian. He wonders if she might be Ilonka, the woman to whom he owes his life, or perhaps someone else from his past. There’s nothing about her that he recognizes and it’s not clear that she hears him. But there’s some connection that draws him back to her, and also to a young woman doctor at the hospital, who wants to hear his story.

In this novel of ideas, Wiesel explores anew themes he returns to in his fiction and nonfiction: the link between memory and identity, dispossession, friendship, the mysteries of love, the constancy of suffering, the paths of writing and storytelling.

It’s also a novel of compassion. And when there’s compassion, there’s also hope and resilience. As the author does in conversation, Gamaliel uses the phrase “And yet” as though posing new possibilities, new beginnings. On many levels, this makes for timely reading.

He says that his sense of memory grows stronger as years pass. Now, he sees some things more clearly, more urgently: “I have to work hard. I have a feeling that I haven’t begun. With all the books, there’s still so much I want to say.”

Now 77, he keeps a steady schedule of travel and lectures, along with teaching at Boston University, where he has been Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities since 1976. Each year, he creates different courses — such as one course on banned books and another on Rabbi Nachman.

Usually, Wiesel spends his mornings writing fiction, sitting at his desk, and later in the day, turns to nonfiction and research in his library. He writes in French; the new novel is translated by David Hapgood.

The writer has no end of stories, pointing to an imagined pile under the table.

“I hear stories from people everywhere,” he said. “You can hear someone say good morning. It becomes a story by the way a person says it. There’s a story in every event.”

The master storyteller is often described as a messenger, telling of life before the war and of the Holocaust.

“I feel almost helpless,” he admitted. “I speak for many of us. It’s not easy to tell the tale, but we tried, and it didn’t change the world. The message was not really received.”

“To this day I have doubts,” he said. “Maybe if the survivors had all met and took a vow not to speak, the silence would have been so overpowering, it would have changed the world. I have a heavy heart. I don’t know where we are going. And yet, we have to overcome it. We have to create hope even when there is none.”

Sinai Temple will be hosting renowned author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel May 19- May 21. He will be speaking to young professionals at a special Friday Night Live on May 19. He will be addressing the whole congregation at Shabbat services on May 20. And, on Sunday morning, May 21, the weekend will culminate with a teen forum with seventh- to 12th-graders. For more information, call (310) 481-3343 or e-mail Centennial@sinaitemple.org.

 

Love, Journal Style?


Did you meet the love of your life through The Jewish Journal’s personals? Was it lasting devotion or did it crash and burn? We’re compiling the best stories of people who met through The Journal to run as part of our 20th anniversary edition. Send your stories — happy or horrid — to letters@jewishjournal.com with the subject line: JJ Love. Be sure to include your name, since we will not run anonymous submissions.

Deadline is May 31.

 

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


Aries (March 21-April 20)

Notable Jewish Aries: Howard Cosell

It’s OK to be in a rut, just sit down, crack open a beer and kick your feet up on the ottoman, but don’t get too comfortable there. When you notice yourself stagnating this week, remember this: as an Aries, you need variety. Your life is best when it looks like the all-you-can-eat salad bar at the Sizzler. Sure, you have your regular salad stuff, but you’ve also got some odd pseudo-Mexican snack foods, frozen yogurt, clam chowder and eight kinds of medically contraindicated salad dressings. Right now, you are eyeballing the salad bar of life without a clue what you want, all of which is making you edgy. This one is so easy. Just pick an activity and dig in. You can always go back for seconds. 

 

Taurus (April 21-May 20)

Notable Jewish Taurus:
Joey Ramone

 

Single Taurus: Get ready. Love is in the stars for you this week. I’m not talking about some blah dinner with a guy from JDate. I’m talking about that magical, dynamic, magnetic connection that only happens once in awhile (and often ends in disaster, but let’s take things one week at a time). For now, get waxed, clean your apartment, wash the car, have your hair blown-out and enjoy the romantic ride. The weekend will be especially potent in the “sensual” arena. On a family note, beware that the value of a possession may cause some strife. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in material things, after all, you’re going to be starring in your own romantic comedy and with any luck it won’t be as cloying and predictable as “Must Love Dogs.”

 

Gemini (May 21 — June 20)

Notable Jewish Gemini: Yasmine Bleeth

I could give you a lot of mumbo jumbo about your solar eighth house of finances being affected this week by planets visiting Capricorn, but Gemini bores easily so just take this in: if you have been needing a bank loan, home refinance or student loan, this is your week. I know, Smarty Pants Twins don’t fancy comparing boring loan rates and such, but why not use your quick mind for something other than shouting out the answers to “Jeopardy” questions? As for work, this is the week that crazy co-worker seems to go off her medication. Just ignore her, because once you react, the mishegoss can be traced right back to you.

 

Cancer (June 21-July 20)

Notable Jewish Cancer:
Neil Simon

When it comes to horoscopes and Cancers, there’s one major catch: you don’t like advice and you bristle at being told what to do. Fortunately, all I have to say this week is DO NOTHING. That’s right — avoid impetuous decisions, last minute trips and dicey business schemes. Don’t even go to the mall to return that tin of popcorn the size of Bill Maher’s head or digital travel clock you can’t figure out how to use. Stay home. Do laundry. Stick to a safe routine after running around socializing so much. Toward the end of the week, remember that if you control the cash in the family, you control the family, and very few people enjoy this if Oprah is to be believed. Trust and love is what Cancer has all around right now. So that’s your mantra. Say it: trust and love.

 

Leo (July 21 — August 21)

Notable Jewish Leo:
Debra Messing

Driving Leos, start your engines. Oh, what’s that? They won’t start. I don’t get it. You took your vehicle to the Jiffy Lube three years ago, what could be the problem? You know all that stuff they tell you to do — besides the oil change you asked for — that you ignored? Well, this is the week to take care of it. No more riding around with warning lights on, or pretending not to notice the fluid dripping under your tires. This is a time for preventive maintenance. As for your own health, if you want to drop a bad habit, this is the perfect time. Maybe you don’t need six packets of Splenda in your coffee or that fourth glass of wine or that sixth macaroon. Drop a bad habit like you used to drop those oil change reminders — right in the trash.

 

Virgo (August 22-September 22)

Notable Jewish Virgo:
Amy Irving

Some group environments are peaceful, say, yoga class. Others are stressful, say, a distant cousin’s bar mitzvah that’s in some horrible far away suburb and features stale rolls and even stiffer conversation. Here’s the thing, this week means any group activity is likely to bring you chaos. You may feel overly sensitive, or the unswerving need to throw a chair, Bobby Knight-style, into a crowd of people. Find your inner Phil Jackson and be diplomatic. What’s the pay-off for all that restraint? You may witness something extraordinary this week, something only an attentive Virgo would appreciate. Keep your eyes open, and your throwing hand closed.

 

Libra (September 23-October 22)

Notable Jewish Libra:
Barbara Walters

Occasionally, your family has so many feuds Richard Dawson would plotz. These are just minor skirmishes, a political discussion that went sour, a call unreturned, an invitation “lost in the mail.” For Libra, this is the week to reconcile with family members. Coincidentally, the stars also say it’s a perfect time to entertain in your home. So there you go, get out your Swiffer, pop some pre-made crab cakes in the oven, light a nice holiday candle someone gave you at the office and make the place comfortable. Once your home looks nice, it’s time to make nice and invite over any relatives you’ve alienated. On the work front, more responsibility may come your way this week. Don’t get all, “That’s not my job.” Just do what you do best, find a solution that suits everyone

 

Scorpio (October 23-November 22)

Notable Jewish Scorpio:
Winona Ryder

You want your partner or spouse to be happy, but does it have to reach perkiness proportions the likes of which are generally reserved for beauty pageants and morning news shows? This week, the enthusiasm level of someone close to you is downright exhausting, especially in your worn-down state. Here’s the thing, recalibrating someone else’s perk-o-meter is impossible and rude, so let it be. Speaking of rude, this is a time for Scorpio to embrace all forms of etiquette. I’m talking about thank-you notes, turning off your cell phone at the movies and speaking to everyone with respect. Friday the 13 happens to be a magical day for you. Dream big. Ask everyone you know their favorite travel destinations and stories and await inspiration.

 

Sagittarius (November 23-December 20)

Notable Jewish Sagittarius: Mandy Patinkin

There are times when your mind seems to function faster, like you’ve just upgraded your cerebral PC and the graphics are so sharp you can’t believe it. This week — there’s just no other way to say it — your thoughts are going to be intense, dude. You will have no trouble influencing people with your ideas and impressing them with your projects. Though your brain is both tenacious and focused right now, beware of one thing: Sagittarius is a great conversationalist, but don’t let it slip into gossip. Oh, and that domineering person in your life … could it be a mother figure? Anyway, you will have to stand up to her midweek. Luckily, your mind is so clear now, it will be no trouble “setting a boundary” rather than being a brat.

 

Capricorn (December 21-January 19)

Notable Jewish Capricorn: Howard Stern

You seem to embrace control more than Janet Jackson. Okay, that was a really old song lyric reference, but you know what I mean. On Tuesday, you will have to relinquish control with the service people in your life, be it the dry cleaner, maid, waitress or even doctor. Let people do their jobs and understand that chaos will creep it from time to time. Know that next week will run more smoothly. On a positive note, this week will bring a one-on-one interaction you won’t forget. Competition or cooperation will arise this week in a big way, but which one depends on you and the situation. After all, there’s a time to sing “Kumbaya” and a time to throw an elbow when the ref isn’t looking.

 

Aquarius (January 20-February 18)

Notable Jewish Aquarius:
Judy Blume

It’s usually annoying when folks throw around phrases like “Go big or go home,” but what can I say? You are going big this week. Big energy. Big changes. You know those times when you just want to stick to your routine, wear your favorite old jeans, watch your usual TV shows, drive the same routes and call the same friends? This isn’t one of those weeks. You are open to any and all new experiences. Oh, and single Aquarians should be happy with that new “something something” you’ve got going. Even if it’s just a mild flirtation, attraction and desire are strong this week. If an ex comes into the picture, crop him or her right out.

 

Pisces (February 19-March 20)

Notable Jewish Pisces:
Philip Roth

Don’t dole out warmth and affection like they give out slices of frozen pizza samples at Costco. I’m saying, don’t just create convenient bite-sized pieces of genuine humanity and place them on a platter for any passer-by to taste. This week, save your goodwill for the inner circle, the people in your daily life who have earned your trust. Speaking of those people, do you ever notice you interrupt a lot? Hear me out. Sure, it’s a cultural thing, talking, debating, leaping into furious discussion, but I encourage you to listen closely this week. You don’t even have to agree, just nod and smile. People love that.

Watch Out Ladies, Dad’s Dating Again


Guess who has a new girlfriend? Well, besides me. And thanks in advance for your warm wishes. It’s the old man, actually. That’s right. Look out golden girls. Dad’s dating again.

Well, he was — until he met “the one.” Can you believe that? Six months and he’s off the market already. Now you can’t even get the guy on the horn. And when you do, his chick’s always beeping in on call-waiting.

“Tell her you’ll call back,” I plead.

Seniors today — always yapping on the phone.

Dad, or as I now refer to him, “Hef,” turns 80 this year. That just goes to show you how badly men want women in their lives. You think the urge would flame out at age 72? Please. 76? Hardly. The big 8-0 and still scoping out babes like Potsie on “Happy Days.”

A bit out of practice, yes, but give the guy some credit. Sure, he left the dating scene for a brief 52 years, but he returned stronger than ever. Scoured the online personals. Hung out at senior singles nights. Met and dated a number of women. My sisters started setting him up with prospects they came across.

I had thought about asking my female friends about their moms, but worried if things worked out a certain way, I could theoretically wind up as my own grandfather.

You’ve heard of the book, “He’s Just Not Into You”? Well, he’s really into this woman. It’s always “my girlfriend this” and “my girlfriend that.” Just like a teenager: No job. Obsessing over women. A really bad driver. I’m expecting the acne to start at any moment.

And get this — he’s asking me for advice! Me. The guy who once broke up with the same girl five times in seven months. I’m more confused than anyone.

Sure, I’ve dated a fair amount, but the over-70 age range is one even I haven’t yet ventured into. Don’t have a clue as to what those gals have on their mind. But judging from the women I do know, I’m guessing cats and jewelry wouldn’t be too far off.

Also Harry Connick Jr.

And the stories I hear. Once, he told me he met a woman who said she was 68. And guess what? That’s right — she was actually 71. Nice to see some courtship traditions last a lifetime.

Another time, I got the “why should I call her, let her call me” argument. Or “She lives too far away.” And “We don’t have anything in common.”

Now I know where I get my sunny disposition.

I’m glad he finally met someone. A nice, Jewish woman at that! She’s terrific. Pretty. Well-mannered. Early 70s. Marriage-minded, but not looking to have more children, evidently.

They’re having a great time. Even went to Disneyland the other day. The two of them flying down the Matterhorn like screaming kids. I’d suggest bumper cars, but it only promotes more bad habits behind the wheel.

Note to ABC: “The Bachelor — Senior Edition.”

Anyway, he’s happier now. That’s the great thing about finding someone — at any age. Gives you more reasons to keep going. Not that stamp collecting and watering the lawn aren’t enough. And the best part? It keeps him out of my hair.

Now I do the badgering: “How’s your girlfriend? How come I never hear from you anymore? When are you getting married? No, of course, I would never submit a story about you to a local publication read by all of your close friends and family members.”

I envy them. Seems to be a lot less pressure when you’re dating at their age. Fewer expectations and demands. They’ve been together a year and not one major fight, as far as I can tell.

Can’t wait for the bachelor party. Question: Do I hire dancers? Or their grandmothers?

I hope it lasts forever. I really don’t want to run into dad during happy hour at Hooters. At least not again.

Freelance writer Howard Leff lives in Los Angeles with one dog and two guitars. You can reach him at highway61x@gmail.com.

Guilt Judo


Rosh Hashanah dinner. My friend — like me, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors — settles into the seat next to his grandfather. The two exchange pleasantries. Then my friend mentions that he’s recently taken his toddler on her first choo-choo ride.

“Trains,” says the grandfather. He splays his hands on the tablecloth, and sighs. “I remember when they put us on a train. This was during the transport from the ghetto to the first work camp.”

The story of the grandfather’s wartime suffering — tragic, inexorable, hypnotic in its familiarity — spins out as the Rosh Hashanah meal is brought to the table, served, and consumed.

“But that’s history,” the grandfather intones at last, as the plates are gathered. “Life is for the young.”

A college buddy of mine — Jewish, though not a descendant of survivors — once observed that his family dynamics follow the rules of a sport: Guilt Judo. The sport requires a range of moves: arm-twists, throws, the art of the pin. Grace and style matter, and it is, of course, imperative to master that most fundamental skill: learning to fall without injury.

“Oh. You’re home. No, it’s just that I thought you’d be home an hour ago. It’s OK, it’s just that the dinner got dry and ruined in the oven. And your uncle went home. He was upset not to see you, though he didn’t want to let on. So tell me, how was your drive?”

To play successfully, my friend maintained, you need to understand the rules. Family obligations pin the needs of single people. The needs of the elders pin the needs of the young (except when said young are infants). Safety pins punctuality.

Q: Why were you late?

A: I wanted to come earlier, but the roads were wet…. I just didn’t want to take the chance.

You get the idea.

The Holocaust pins everything.

Many Holocaust-survivor families — at least the ones I’ve encountered — have powerful vocabulary for everyday troubles. The missed phone call is terrible, as is the stained blouse. The over-seasoned soup? Disaster.

Disaster, in fact, lurks around the most innocent-looking corners. Mountains hang by a thread. I’ve known survivors who are impossibly controlling in day-to-day life — worried about the weather and the canned goods in the pantry; consumed with planning for traffic patterns; beside themselves because you haven’t made reservations, dressed for the cold, put a dust-ruffle on your child’s bed (“It’s hygienic!”). They seem nearly undone by humdrum disorder.

Yet in an emergency they shine. They turn into the heroes you always knew them to be. To varying degrees the same goes, I believe, for us children and grandchildren of survivors. Calm waters may disorient us, yes; small matters may evoke overblown responses. But when you’re raised to anticipate disaster, it’s no big deal when it comes. (The one time when, living in a group house in college, I actually had to say, “Mom, I have to get off the phone, the house is on fire,” my mother barely batted an eye.)

Here is what my mother says about her own mother: She would threaten to jump out the window when she was upset. She would open the door of a moving car and threaten to jump.

Though I didn’t have many years with my grandmother — she died when I was 5 — I adored her. She was a brilliant, artistic, beautiful, rebellious woman who’d lost her community and most of her family in the war. Her hard-won law degree (not a small achievement for a woman in 1930s Poland) was useless in post-war New York.

“She would say she was going to kill herself,” my mother says, “then lock herself in the bathroom for an hour.”

It was only in my 20s that I read Helen Epstein’s “Children of the Holocaust” — a book first published in 1979, with page after page detailing nearly identical behavior. Children standing anxiously outside bathroom doors. Parents enclosed in darkness.

My grandfather told me to have six children. (“They killed one-third of us. We need numbers.”) He said I wasn’t safe in the United States (“We thought we were safe in Poland.”) He counseled me endlessly to remember the stories of the Holocaust. If we grandchildren did not remember no one would. This truism was solemnly echoed in my Jewish school and summer camps. To remember, to remember actively, was to ensure that these things could not happen again. To forget was to let the survivors’ experiences wither away. To forget was to let Hitler’s victims die all over again.

There was never any danger, for children and grandchildren of survivors, of forgetting.

At every Holocaust-related lecture I have attended, there is one. She stands on line for the Q-&-A microphone — it’s usually a she. You can see her coming. Waiting behind distinguished professors, doctoral candidates and a few elderly Holocaust survivors who wearily, politely, offer small corrections of fact to a scattering of interested hums.

She waits on line. Pent up, straining forward, her hair white or perhaps heavily dyed. Something about her dress is often strange — the colors too bright or the blouse askew, the buttons of her sweater misaligned. When at last she reaches the microphone, she seizes upon something one of the speakers has said: the American graduate student’s stray assertion that most refugees traveled a certain route, or perhaps the French professor’s assessment that in the wake of Chirac’s historic speech and the creation of a commission to enact individual restitution, the French government’s rapprochement is, at long last, finished.

“No.” This woman’s hand chops the air. “My uncle traveled this route. My aunt was imprisoned. My cousin traveled a different route so this is not true what you say, that Jews traveled only the Vladivostok route. There was another.”

Often she holds documents, which she reads from in a quavering, accented voice: the aunt’s prison papers. Her voice strains with fury at the betrayal she has just heard.

“Here is the documentation. I brought the documentation. My family was in France. It is not finished.”

The sheaf of pages rattles. Her voice is thick with rage.

This is an academic setting. It is not a place for fury. Of course her specific case may be true, but this is irrelevant to larger historic questions. Speakers are lined up behind her, eyes averted, faces impassive; the session is running late; every extra minute is coming out of the lunch break. Someone rises — everyone has been waiting for someone to rise — and takes the microphone from her: “Thank you. Others are waiting. Your contribution is appreciated.”

I come to think of this woman — this survivor who refuses to be polite — as a Jewish prophet, a wrathful Job or omnipresent, ever-witnessing Elijah. Long after the last of the survivors has died, she will continue to appear at lectures: throwing a wrench into academic discussion, rattling her sheaf of papers, raging with the choking grievances of Lamentations.

I am wrong about this. She will not visit these gatherings eternally. In a few years she’ll be dead.

In college and after, I was periodically asked to speak at Holocaust-commemoration events — I’ve been entrusted with stories. I’ve researched and written fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust and its aftermath. I’ve felt, all my life, fiercely protective of survivors. And now, as I watch them enter old age, many with a prodigious, stunned contentment at having made it there at all, I understand it’s my job to keep the flame lit.

But does that mean suiting up for a lifetime match of guilt judo?

Perpetuating memory, passing on the stories of the survivors I love: I’ve been committed to these things as long as I can remember. The horrors that were done, and the pure human evil displayed by the doers, need to be known and pondered today and always. But I don’t think that gives me carte blanche to use the Holocaust in any way that happens to feel satisfying. And I don’t believe the point of never again is to render everyone reverent unto silence; to pin everyone else’s suffering to the mat until the end of time.

I refuse to be so intimidated by guilt that I don’t speak up against what I see as misuses of the victims’ memory. I’ve seen Holocaust-education programs that seemed so invested in emphasizing Jewish annihilation that they couldn’t tolerate acknowledging that some Eastern European Jews are still alive. (The March of the Living, an international program that brings teens to visit the Polish concentration camps, initially prohibited Polish Jewish teens from participating.) I’ve met students who can tell you all about Auschwitz but nothing about the pre-genocide lives of the Jews who were murdered there. I’ve been rebuked for my participation in German-Jewish dialogues (“I can’t believe you talk to them”) by a second-generation writer who told me he thinks a 5-year-old German is culpable; I’ve heard the same writer tell audiences, to applause, that Jews have no business living in Europe today. (Isn’t that what Hitler said?)

By birthright, I’m a natural-born black belt. I know the moves. But here is what I now wish I had asked my college friend: What happens to the people who win at guilt judo? If we pin all comers, what then? What is the game’s endpoint?

Like it or not, we’re in this together: descendants of victims, of bystanders, of perpetrators, locked in our holds, straining. Guilt judo isn’t going away any time soon, because the sport was invented for a reason. It’s a wearying but sometimes necessary way of making sure unredressable wrongs are at least acknowledged–making sure you get heard. We all know how to play it, whether recreationally or in self-defense, in our families or in politics.

Of course, this endless contest is not limited to those affected by the Holocaust. Look around and you’ll notice that most of the globe — at least wherever the philosophy of might makes right has evolved into blessed is the lamb–is engrossed in its own intergroup matches. Black vs. Jews (how dare they compare slavery to the Holocaust); Native Americans vs. African Americans (slaughter to slavery); Palestinians vs. Jews (their suffering to ours?).; Catholic vs. Protestant vs. Jew vs. Muslim vs. Hindu. The Hatfields have suffered — but the McCoys have suffered more. You say your population was decimated? Decimated is one-tenth of your population wiped out. Decimated would have been an improvement, compared to what happened to us.

But exactly what — in our homes, in our political conferences — is the point of the game? What is the point of determining who hurts more; whether my tears were more important than yours; whether the Holocaust was worse than slavery? Does it render the opponent’s suffering lesser, unmentionable? Does it guarantee sympathy? Love? Compensation? A better future? Does it work?

We all conduct ourselves as if we believe it does. And sometimes we’re right –sometimes guilt judo is an effective tool for important practical ends. But it’s also, if we’re not careful, poisonous: “You were only in Auschwitz for two weeks. I was there two years. What did you survive? You have no right to call yourself a survivor.”

The person who makes such a declaration is not malevolent; he or she has simply been destroyed in spirit.

May I say something, now, about guilt? I think it has a bad name. American culture presumes guilt is something manipulative, something to be washed away with a good jet of therapy. Guilt, though, is nothing more than a cue that we have a choice to make: Do something to repair the situation, or accept it and move on.

Guilt is a powerful, important road sign. The trick is to remember that it’s not the destination. In truth, it’s a fundamental error to believe that the word for the burden we all carry — we children and grandchildren and neighbors and acquaintances of survivors — is guilt.

I don’t feel guilty about the Holocaust. (I didn’t do it.) Nor do I feel guilty because my family survived. And now that I’m an adult, I no longer feel any guilt about the contrast between my own privileged life and the traumas my family endured. My grandparents wanted me to have a good, safe life; if tragedy should befall me, I know how fervently I’d wish my own children a joyous life. My family’s legacy neither devalues my own experiences, nor does it make me somehow holy. It just means I inherited a history, transmitted by people doing the best they could. So now I need to do the best I can.

What I feel is not guilt — it’s responsibility.

I don’t care who suffered the most. All I care is what we do about the Holocaust’s legacy now, for the generations behind and ahead of us. Getting mired in guilt (mine, yours, theirs) is a waste of all our time. There may be infinite ways to feel guilty about the Holocaust, but the “Your life is good and they died” varieties and the “How dare you compare other people’s suffering to ours” varieties are moral dead ends.

The only one worth sweating over is the one that asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

I have a responsibility to carry on my relatives’ stories; to speak out about anti-Semitism and racism when I encounter them; to do my small part to keep crosscultural dialogue going; to make sure victims’ individuality isn’t lost in thickets of tragedy; to respond actively when I see harm being done, and to avoid posturing and self-importance in the process. I have a responsibility, too, to make sure I enjoy life’s wonders to the fullest. I would be remiss if I neglected to laugh; to make the most of this country’s freedoms; to teach my toddler how to imitate a pterodactyl, talk to the moon and delight in a train ride.

Memory fades. Tomorrow’s children will never know survivors. The responsibilities I bear have no statute of limitations; I’ll always do my best to protect the survivors and their legacy. But that doesn’t change the fact that the history of the Holocaust will grow distant, even abstract. No amount of guilt judo can prevent this. And while strenuously broadcasting that the Holocaust was worse than any other human suffering may be justified, it can’t keep the survivors alive any more than it can undo what happened … and it is going to damage us.

If the memory of the Holocaust recedes, let it not be because I failed to do my part to keep it alive–I’m committed to that labor. But if the Holocaust comes, in some unknown number of generations, to occupy a smaller place on our cultural landscape, I don’t see this as cause for guilt. The point isn’t to pin everyone else ad infinitum, but to carry forward the important pieces of memory so that people see, and understand, and act differently in the world because this happened.

If we can accomplish that, then whenever it comes, the inevitable decrescendo of memory — which some will call abomination and others will call healing — will be, in truth, neither. It will simply be life. It won’t signal that we’ve failed — that we’ve let down the Holocaust’s survivors or, worse, its victims — but rather that we’ve simply, regretfully, tragically, hopefully, moved forward. And that has nothing to do with wrestling each other to the mat, and everything to do with standing up.

Excerpted from “Guilt Judo” by Rachel Kadish from “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson. (Dutton, $24). Copyright (c) 2005 by Rachel Kadish.

Rachel Kadish is the author of “From a Sealed Room,” as well as numerous short stories and essays. She has been a fiction fellow of the NEA and was the recipient of last year’s Koret Foundation Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award. Her new novel, “Love [sic],” will be published by Houghton Mifflin next year.

7 Days in the Arts


Saturday, June 4

Today, galerie yoramgil launches “introductions,” a three-month endeavor to present six new artists to the public. View the diverse works of painters Zeev Ben-Dor, Yuri Katz, Nona Orbach, Paul Abbott and Mary Leipziger, and the bronze sculptures of Immi Storrs in mini solo shows throughout the large gallery.

Through Sept. .5. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Tues.-Sat.). 462 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-2641.

Sunday, June 5

Storyteller and actress Vicki Juditz is used to infusing heart and humor into difficult subjects like infertility and anti-Semitism. Today she performs her highly praised monologue, “Teshuva, Return,” for Child Survivors of the Holocaust in a private Beverlywood residence.

2 p.m. $25. For more information, call (310) 836-0779.

Monday, June 6

It’s a hodgepodge of celebrities and wannabes at tonight’s annual Vista Del Mar and Family Services’ Sports Sweepstakes Dinner. Comedian Paul Rodriguez and Olympian Mitch Gaylord co-emcee the event that includes an appearance by the Playboy Bunnies but not Hef himself. Tommy Lasorda will be honored, cocktails will be drunk and thousands of dollars will be raised for troubled and at-risk youth. Drop a cool 1K to do your part.

5:30 p.m. $1,000. Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-1223, ext. 225.

Tuesday, June 7

Israeli group Mashina has had a long and, sometimes, rocky past. But the band is now back together, touring to promote their 12th album. For the first time in a long time, they’re back in Los Angeles for one night only. Catch them tonight at the Avalon while you can.

8 p.m. (310) 273-2824.

Thursday, June 9

Laughing for charity sounds like a pretty good deal. Tonight, StandWithUs and Pups for Peace co-sponsor “LaughWithUs,” a comedy night featuring funnymen Wayne Federman (“Legally Blonde,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lenny Schmidt (“Joe Dirt”) and plenty of others. Proceeds will help send comedians to Israel for comic relief and also benefit Israeli charities.

7:30 p.m. $75 (includes 2 drinks). Improv Theater, 8162 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-6140.

Jason Alexander becomes the latest star to try his hand at children’s book writing with his new release “Dad, Are You the Tooth Fairy?” (Which would perhaps be better titled, “Dad, Since When Are You a Writer?”) Still, we’ll grant you Alexander’s a pretty funny guy, and you can size up his literary talents for yourself tonight. He reads from his book and signs it at Barnes and Noble at the Grove.

7:30 p.m. 189 Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-2070

Friday, June 10

Author Maggie Anton does the book tour circuit in Los Angeles this week, promoting her new work of historical fiction, “Rashi’s Daughters.” The book explores the stories of Jewish scholar Rashi’s daughters, who, unlike his sons, were largely ignored. She appears at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on June 8, and as scholar-in-residence at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills this weekend.

Jewish Community Library: (323) 761-8644. Shomrei Torah: (818) 346-0811.

The Love Impaired


 

You remember the famous line from “Forrest Gump”? “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

The other day, it suddenly hit me. I’m the anti-Forrest Gump. I am a smart man (or at least I test well) but I don’t think I know what love is at all. There is nothing I find as confusing. Programming my VCR is child’s play by comparison.

Recently, I was thinking of a former girlfriend, so I called her up. We had a great conversation, and after I got off the phone, I was really wondering, “Now why did we break up again?” And then I remembered. “Ohhhhhhhhh — yeah, that was a good reason.”

But it really got me to thinking, what is love anyway?

I bet you thought I was going to answer that question, didn’t you? Well, I can’t. That’s the point. I don’t know. I’m 37 and single. I’m a relationship moron. I’m romantically impaired. I don’t know what I’m doing — at all.

And it’s not just me. No sirree Bob. We are an entire generation of the love impaired. It seems especially bad for folks in their 30s and 40s, and even worse if you’re Jewish. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I have seen polls on the subject. In this epidemic of unmarried singles, it seems Jews have caught the bug worse than other ethnic groups.

And it extends to the observant world, too. Sure, plenty of them are married at 22 and have 18 kids by the time they’re 30, but there are also others who are having the same problems their secular brethren are having. This epidemic goes across the entire religious spectrum. Believe me, it’s not just your mom, who’s noticed. The rabbis have, too.

I went to a singles event a few weeks ago at a synagogue that illustrated this problem really well. The rabbi was asking why young people (and not-so-young people) were having such a problem getting married. He was really mystified. It seemed pretty simple to him:

You meet a girl you like and you marry her. One guy stood up and gave such a perfect answer, it seared into my memory, perhaps permanently: “Well, I meet a girl and like her and she doesn’t like me. Or a girl likes me and I don’t like her. Or we go out and it doesn’t work.”

It’s almost poetry, isn’t it? Well maybe not, but it does seem to sum up the state of things pretty well.

I wonder if we could get this problem classified as a real disability. Maybe it’s like a learning disability. After all, learning to love someone besides yourself is something that people are supposed to learn in adulthood. You can check. It’s in developmental psychology. I took a course.

If not being able to sit still and concentrate is called Attention Deficit Disorder, and not being able to read is called dyslexia, what would you call not being able to love? LDD: Love Deficit Disorder? No, that sounds like a shortage. How about the same initials but different words: Love Development Disorder. That might be it, except it probably sounds too similar to learning disabled. I don’t know.

But, before we go looking for solutions to this problem, maybe it would be worthwhile to take a look at past generations. Why was it so easy for them anyway? Maybe it was because they had matchmakers and arranged marriages. It used to be that your parents would arrange a match for you and, unless you found your intended completely repulsive, you married them. Boom. Just like that.

This brings me to my grandparents. After fighting in World War I, my grandpa, Danny, stayed in Europe to try to get his family out of Russia. Not surprisingly, however, he couldn’t even get in the country, because the Russian Revolution was going on full steam. Here’s where it gets romantic: Poor Danny, stuck in Warsaw, met my grandma, Ina, and was struck by a thunderbolt. Times being the way they were, instead of having a tempestuous affair, they were quickly married and Danny brought her back to New York.

Now, this should be where they live happily ever after, right? Wrong. After a few months, Danny must have done something pretty bad, because according to family lore, Ina got ticked off, packed up and went back to Warsaw. So how is it that I’m telling this story? Because instead of welcoming her back home with open arms and soothing words, my great-grandmother wouldn’t let her in.

“Go back to your husband. Stop behaving like a child. You’re married now!” she yelled as she slammed the door in Ina’s face (or so the family legend goes).

What does this tell us about love? I don’t know. I’m the love moron, remember? But from both these stories, it seems the emphasis was much more on keeping the family together, than on being in love. That, and once you were married, that was it. At least, that’s how it sounds.

But how does this help me, The Love Idiot? Should I call my mother, ask her to find a girl for me and marry her if she doesn’t make me puke at the first meeting? You know, I’m actually starting to consider it.

 

Through God’s Eyes


 

We call it the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah starts in a very dark place.

It begins with two stories, each very serious. One

tells of a severely outnumbered band of Jews who fought a powerful enemy for religious freedom.

And there’s the other, even more painful tale of Jew vs. Jew, of the Macabees struggling with widespread Jewish assimilation into the culture and religion of that enemy.

In many ways, Chanukah represents the most painful aspects of Jewish history in one full account: the Jewish community facing threats both from outside and within.

The tales are so painful, in fact, that thinking about them can be depressing. And what’s worse, many aspects of Chanukah — bloody battles, inner fighting, treacherous choices between life and death — have been reenacted over and over again, throughout the centuries.

But despite the seriousness, despite the painful, dark history of Chanukah, we spend eight days in lightness. We play, we sing, we eat — we remember the tales of the Maccabees with latkes, gelt, songs and games. For us, Chanukah is a party — bright, sweet, joyous. It’s serious, but we’re playful.

The stories — dark and sobering — are recalled with light and celebration. How do the bloody battles of Chanukah translate into a ritual of fun?

The answer can found in the dreidel.

The Hebrew letters on each side of the toy — nun, gimmel, heh, and shin — famously serve as an acronym for neis gadol haya sham — “a great miracle happened there” — a reference to the miraculous eight-day staying power of the little bit of oil lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple when it was re-taken by the Maccabees.

Like Chanukah, the dreidel is a combination of intensity and lightheartedness. Historically, it was initially adopted by Jews not as a game or toy but as a front, a ruse used by persecuted Torah scholars who were forbidden by non-Jewish authorities from study. Pretending to play a game, rabbis would actually teach their students Torah, enabling the traditions to be passed to each new generation.

How fitting then to have those same toys in the hands of happy, free Jewish children today, spinning the dreidel as a simple game after learning Torah in security. The dreidel represents that same relationship between terror and confidence, between threats and joy, darkness and light.

The spinning top is actually even more than just a reminder of persecutions past and more than a simple game for happy children. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the four letters on the sides of the dreidel have a wholly different significance. The nun is for neshama (soul); the gimmel is for guf (body); the shin is actually a sin, for sechel (mind); and the heh is for ha-kol (everything).

The playful little toy is a miniature but complete person: body, mind and soul — everything wrapped up together. And like the dreidel, we are also a combination of the playful and the serious. On one hand, we are light and fun and lively. But on the other hand, we spin out of control. We live in chaos.

A human being is a dreidel: busy, moving. We reach near vertigo, tilting and spinning until at last we finally drop.

Like the Chanukah tales, our personal narratives are marked by difficult choices and numerous battles, both external and internal. A human being is a dreidel: spinning and falling, spinning and falling. Yet we come up, again and again. How can that be?

Because, as the dreidel tells us: neis gadol haya sham. Great miracles happen, not just in ancient times but now, constantly, for us every single day. We spin and fall, but thanks to God’s miracles, we stand up to try again — as a nation and as individuals. That’s serious stuff. But it’s also worth celebrating.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Dec. 14, 2001.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is instructor of Bible and liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and creator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for special-needs families.

 

A Jewish Visit to Guthrie’s Land


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wal-Mart Stops Selling Hate


Bowing to mounting pressure from Jewish groups, Wal-Mart has decided to stop selling “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” at its Web site.
The Sept. 21 announcement by the world’s largest retailers came just days after the Simon Wiesenthal Center began publicizing that Wal-Mart recently began selling the anti-Semitic tract that has fomented hatred toward Jews for more than a century.

In a Sept. 8 letter, Wiesenthal Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper said he found it difficult to believe that Wal-Mart would market such anti-Jewish propaganda in the post Sept. 11 world. Cooper asked Wal-Mart to immediately cease selling the forged document, penned by members of the Russian czar’s secret police claiming that Jews want to take over the world
Wal-Mart initially seemed defiant, releasing a Sept. 21 statement saying it responded to consumers’ preferences by providing a large selection of books at low prices. Wal-Mart’s Website also suggested the Protocols might be genuine.
If valid, “it might cause some of us to keep a wary eye on world affairs,” the site said. “We neither support nor deny its message, we simply make it available for those who wish a copy.”

Later that day, Wal-Mart reversed itself after receiving calls from Jewish organizations and Jewish journalists penning stories on the controversy.
“Based on significant feedback … we made a business decision to remove this book,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amy Colella said in a release.

Prior to Wal-Mart’s decision, several local nonprofit executives criticized the retailer’s judgment. Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney of the ACLU of Southern California, said he found it odd that Wal-Mart refused to carry Maxim, Stuff and other “racy” magazines but sold “Protocols.”

“Wal-Mart is basically saying that a disproved anti-Semitic tract is more consistent with the image it wants to convey to the public than magazines with scantily clad celebrities in bikinis,” he said.

Several booksellers carry “Protocols,” including online retailers amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, Borders.com and buy.com. The Barnes & Noble site carries a statement by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) debunking the tract. Amazon, which also features the ADL position, goes further, calling the book “one of the most infamous, and tragically influential examples of racist propaganda ever written.”

Another Braff Tale of Jewish Ennui


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How have readers responded to the lobster and the pig?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author’s answer isn’t unexpected.

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

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


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

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

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

"But I forgot mine," I whisper.

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

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

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

"Excuse me, Rabbi Mizrahe," says Asher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arts


The three A’s in “Natasha” are filled in by tiny stylized Matryoshka dolls, the traditional Russian stacking dolls,
on the book jacket of David Bezmozgis’ radiant debut (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $18).

In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother,
father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from
the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.

Like his narrator, Bezmozgis is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He left Riga in 1979 and arrived in Toronto
in 1980 at the age of 6. But the stories are “not very autobiographical – they are only superficially based on my family.
It’s a combination of incidents that happened, things I misremembered, stories that happened to other immigrants,” he said.

Bezmozgis writes with a beautiful economy of words, and with warmth, wit and loyalty toward a community he feels very much part of.
The first story opens soon after the family arrives in Toronto, and they live “one respectable block” from the center of the Russian
community with its “flapping clotheslines” and borscht-smelling hallways. Through the stories they struggle and progress to better
apartments and to a suburban house “at the edge of Toronto’s sprawl.”

Each story is a fully lived moment on the Berman family’s journey toward fitting in. In Latvia, Roman Berman was a massage therapist, a
trainer of Olympic athletes. Sometimes, when the father isn’t around, the young boy takes out and studies an old photo of his father in Riga,
his face carrying the “detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary.” For the boy, “it was comforting to think that
the man in the picture and my father were once the same person.”

In the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” the father passes difficult certification exams, sets up an office with his name on
the door and then waits for clients. A rabbi suggests advertising, and they pass out copies of a flyer full of newly acquired superlatives.
When a doctor calls and invites the family to Shabbat dinner, they accept, full of hope.

He writes, “Before Stalin, my great-grandmother lit the candles and made an apple cake every Friday night. In my grandfather’s recollection
of prewar Jewish Latvia, the candles and apple cakes feature prominently. When my mother was a girl, Stalin was already in charge, and although
there was still apple cake, there were no more candles. By the time I was born, there were neither candles nor apple cake, though in my mother’s
mind, apple cake still meant Jewish. With this in mind, she retrieved the apple cake recipe and went to the expensive supermarket for the
ingredients.”

They arrive at Dr. Kornblum’s home with “feigned confidence” and a warm apple cake. The doctor means well, but is patronizing, even insulting,
sending the family home with their cold apple cake. Fearing more bad luck and rejection, they dump the cake, expensive ingredients and all.

With poignancy, Bezmozgis shows how the yearnings of the immigrants and the good intentions of others don’t quite match. Other stories
reveal gaps of understanding between the family and friends they left behind, and between members of the larger family.

Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are a troika of young Russian Jewish émigré fiction writers of considerable talent. They
write of a sense of being between worlds, although each is quite different: Shteyngart is the satirist of the group. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar,
who has also published a collections of stories, are more similar in their spare, understated style, although most of Vapnyar’s stories are
set in the former Soviet Union, while Bezmozgis portrays one émigré family, and through them, the larger community.

The three follow in a long, respected line of Jewish writers who have creatively mined their immigrant pasts and ethnic neighborhoods
in fiction. Writers like Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud come to mind.

“It’s a dream to be part of that tradition,” Bezmozgis said, although he feels most akin, stylistically and thematically, with writers
like Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels.

For the author, being Jewish is very important. “I’m an atheist. I think that limits what kind of religious life I can have without
being a tourist or hypocrite. Being part of a community, at synagogue, gives me pleasure.” He added, “You put me in a synagogue with old
Eastern European Jews, and I’m likely to break down in tears. That is my idea of Jewish tradition and my identity.”

Growing up, he was the family’s translator and since he was 10, he would write letters for his father, a massage therapist like
Roman Berman. The author attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from
McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before
moving back to Toronto.

He admittedly has a poor memory, and finds that can be valuable. About Latvia, he remembers nothing. “It allows me not to be too
deeply connected to things. I can’t be faithful to something I can’t remember.” In writing he tries “to find the emotional truth,
not a documentary truth,” he said.

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