Purim: Beyond the playfulness, a time for examination


The central character of Purim is Esther, whose name means hidden. The story is full of things hidden, and waiting for the right time to be revealed. Vashti refuses to expose her sexuality to the drunken men of the King’s court, and chooses instead to be hidden. Esther hides her Jewishness until the time is right to reveal her identity. Haman hides his humanity. The foolish king’s discernment is hidden. Even God is hidden in the story. Only Mordecai is not hidden, making his presence known to save lives. Mordecai is the counterbalance to hiding.  

The characters in the Purim story are archetypes teaching us about ourselves. What do you hide? Are you like Haman who keeps part of himself hidden in response to an old wound, or because it’s too risky to be vulnerable? Are you hiding a part of yourself because you are convinced (incorrectly) that you are not worthy, that your light is not great enough? As Marianne Williamson writes: “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Or, are you hiding that special part of you because you, like Esther, are waiting, strategically, for the right time to serve God? In the first and second scenarios, perhaps it’s time to be revealed. In the third, perhaps it’s better to remain hiding. In the midst of our pain, we ask ourselves, where is God? As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk says, “God is where someone lets Him in.” So let Him in.

How can you let God in when you don’t feel so good about yourself? How can you turn what is hidden in you into something that is good and seen by others? The Baal Shem Tov says lift it up to the light. Lift up the things you’re not so proud of to the light, so that you can see that even that which you keep hidden is your desire for being connected to God. Do this in prayer, meditation, or in confidential conversation with a friend.

On Purim we are told to get so drunk that we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach says this means that in this state of drunkenness we don’t know the difference between arrogance and humility. Haman was arrogant and Mordecai was humble, and we assume that being humble is better. But Shlomo says you need both. “All the emotions are very holy because God made them. You only have to know the right time to use them. The truth is, in order to be a servant of God you need a lot of pride.” Pride is like arrogance that will drive you to do something courageous when no one else will do it.

You must also have humility; not humility that makes you think you’re unworthy, and not humility that makes you feel small in relation to other people. The humility you need is to know your relationship to your Creator, your compass of ethical behavior. The holy humility that we require is knowing that everything we have comes from God. Shlomo says that “If you know exactly where to use your humility then you know exactly where to use your pride.”

When it comes to parenting our children or being a partner in relationship, we need to balance pride with humility. When we find ourselves quick to criticize and ready to make our children or partners or our parents feel small, insignificant, or inadequate, we must realize that this is misplaced pride. We need humility to recognize that the people in our lives are souls in human bodies needing acknowledgement and to be treated as holy.

And here’s one of the hidden secrets in the Purim story. When you feel rage and you want to lash out – like Haman did – with judgment, criticism or worse… stop, walk out of the room, splash cold water on your face. Be like Esther. Fast for three days and ask your community for support. Do teshuvah and search for that which is hidden in you. Do the work of teshuvah, returning to the holy spark of the divine that is in you.

The Tikunei Zohar says that Purim is like Yom Kippur. The Sfat Emet explains this statement saying that teshuvah is the key to meeting God face to face. Like Esther who fasts and does teshuvah, we also fast and do teshuvah before Purim. Only after fasting and teshuvah does she enter the king’s domain, and the decree is removed. It’s the same on Yom Kippur. The process of Teshuvah is (in part) coming out from hiding and returning to your commitment to God.

Like the High Priest in the Temple, who fasted before going into the Holy of Holies, we fast, we do teshuvah, and only then do we enter the “King’s domain”. Then the decree is removed, and we start fresh. It is stated in the Talmud (Megillah 14a): “The removal of the king’s ring [that Haman used to seal his evil decree] was greater than the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. For all [of them] were unable to return the Jews to righteousness; whereas removal of the ring returned the Jews to righteousness.” The threat was so real and so severe that the Jews took the responsibility of teshuvah seriously. The Sfat Emet says this teaches the power of teshuvah is so great that it can reverse evil decrees. It can reverse our own decrees.

On this Purim, let us do teshuvah and live lives in which we are all seen rather than hidden. Let us return to living lives that honor the sacred in each other by treating each other ethically and with kindness and patience. Let us be so drunk that we have no fear of bringing God out of hiding and into the stories of our lives.


Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz can be reached at rabbielihu@gmail.com. You can read more at www.rabbielihu.com.

Army Archerd: January 13, 1922 – September 8, 2009


From Variety.com:

Army Archerd, whose 52-year run as a Daily Variety columnist made him unique among showbiz reporters, died Tuesday in Los Angeles of a rare form of mesothelioma, a lung cancer thought to be the result of his exposure to asbestos in the Navy during WWII. He was 87.

Read the full story at Variety.com (ArmyArcherd.com).

JJ Vault:  An Army of One: American Friends of Hebrew University honors Variety columnist Army Archerd with its Scopus Award.

51 Birch Street: House of Blocks . . . House of Cards?


We all know about “the generation gap.” The “mother-daughter bond.” Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” or any number of his plays for that matter. Our literature and our language are rife with expressions of the struggles inherent in that most primal bond Doug Block with his fatherbetween parents and children.

In his personal documentary, “51 Birch Street,” filmmaker Doug Block sets out to explore his relationship with his father. His mother has died, and Block wants to document the dismantling of the family home before it is sold. A “baby-boomer” who came of age in the “let it all hang out” ’60s, Block is taken aback when he learns that his parents’ 54-year marriage was not at all what it seemed. Wrestling with disturbing revelations, Block’s film questions how well any of us truly know the people we love, how well we might really want to know them, and perhaps most importantly, what right we have to know.

On the surface, the Block family is a typical, post-war, middle-class suburban Jewish family. Mike Block and Mina Vogel married shortly after World War II, had three children over the course of four years and moved from Brooklyn to a brand-new house in the suburbs to raise their family. They were among the founding families of a Reform congregation that became the center of their social lives. Their children — two girls and a boy — went to (or more accurately “suffered through,” as son Doug describes it) Hebrew school through confirmation. Mike worked long hours as a mechanical engineer while Mina stayed home to raise the children, working outside of the home only as the children grew up. Mike and Mina were “inseparable.”

Mina’s death was shocking not only in its swiftness, but for the maelstrom of unexpected revelations that followed. Three months after his wife’s death, Mike Block traveled to Florida, returning only to announce that he was moving there to live with Kitty, his secretary from 40 years earlier. They wed shortly thereafter. As if this wasn’t enough for the Block siblings to absorb, Mike and Kitty decided to sell the family home on Birch Street. It fell upon Doug and his sisters to help their father sort through the accumulated detritus of 50 years of family life.

Block, a documentary filmmaker by vocation (“Home Page” and “The Heck With Hollywood!”) and an inveterate home-movie-maker by avocation, always felt close to his mother; her death left him bereft. In contrast, he felt both very different than and distant from his father. He hoped to use his camera, as was his wont, to help him get to know his subject — in this case his father — better.

As we travel with Block through his arduous path of discovery, watching long-buried secrets of his parents’ unhappiness slowly come to light, we see his family struggle with their newfound knowledge. And we struggle alongside them, wrestling not only with our own fears about trust and intimacy, but with questions of privacy and disclosure.

These questions come to a head when Block uncovers volumes of personal diaries his mother had written over a three- year period. Pained as his father obviously is by seeing them, he nevertheless tells his son to “save them.” Block is both drawn to and fearful of reading them, and decides to consult an “expert” on the ethical issues involved.

He turns to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, a young rabbi with a warm smile and quick wit, who Block felt was “wise” beyond his years. Asking Blake if it’s “right” to read his mother’s diaries (the mention of which causes an amusing moment of eyebrow-raising by Blake on camera), Blake first answers in true Rabbinic fashion, with another question: “What does your heart tell you to do?” Yet after wrestling a bit with the dilemma, Blake tells Block that learning more about one’s parents can be valuable, if the knowledge is used for “a holy purpose.”

Thus encouraged, Block decided to forge ahead — at times ambivalent, at times stunned.

“From the outside, to us, we thought they were actually wonderfully compatible. They had similar interests, they traveled, they bickered a bit but never argued,” Block said in an interview.

But as his mother’s diaries revealed, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage.
Block searched for ways to reconcile his image of his parents’ “model marriage” with the emerging picture of discord, anger and infidelity.

Although the film contains no explicit explanation of how Block, a “cultural” but non-observant Jew, interpreted the rabbi’s words, Block said he believed the rabbi “meant if I’m using it to honor and celebrate my mother’s life … it’s a holy thing.”
Yet, during the process of making the film, it wasn’t always clear to Block that his work hewed to this “holy” purpose.

“There were many times I thought it was a holy mess! I thought, all I’m going to do is burn in hell,” he said. “My mother will come off looking horribly, and I’ll look even worse for doing this.” He said he spent “many sleepless nights feeling the weight of picking out the right phrases and words of all the volumes of writings, to honor her complexity, her intelligence, to show her as a rounded human being.”

“On one level,” Block said, his film “is a story of assimilation, of city Jews moving to the suburbs and trying to fit in,” the pressures of which were one source of his mother’s unhappiness. Block says it’s also “very Jewish” that his family “covers up a lot of stuff through sarcasm and humor.” And he believes that his film was a profound act of teshuvah, a concept he discussed with Los Angeles Rabbi Judith Halevy while filming. Creating a portrait of his parents’ lives, including their fallibility, was for Block an “act of coming to forgiveness, and somehow getting cleansed in the process.”

Yet “51 Birch Street” is also a universal tale. Ultimately the story is — like the complex lives it reveals to us — a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a truly sad story: of thwarted potential, of betrayal and of the defeat of good intentions. But it is also a story of redemption, of two men who manage to transcend the pain of their lives to forge new relationships: Mike Block with Kitty, and Doug Block with his father.

‘Restless’ Hunk Reveals Family Secret: He’s Jewish


Don Diamont is the resident hunk on “The Young and the Restless,” where his buff muscles and six-pack abs make female fans drool.

Don DiamontWhile his character, Brad Carlton, has done far more than strut about in cut-offs (he’s mourned the loss of an unborn son, among other weighty scenarios), devotees can’t quite forget his 1994 Playgirl centerfold, his status as one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and as one of the first actors to bare his tush on TV.

Now comes a plot twist in which Diamont, 43, will expose far more than his derriere. “I’m ‘outing’ myself as a Jew,” he says. “It’s the most meaningful story [line] of my career.”

In the Friday, July 28, episode, the fictional Carlton will reveal that his real name is George Kaplan and that his mother (Millie Perkins, who starred in the 1959 film, “The Diary of Anne Frank) is an Italian Jew who was forced to catalogue looted Nazi art in a concentration camp, Diamont says. After the war, she immigrated to the United States, started a new family and became a kind of art-oriented Simon Wiesenthal, tracking down stolen works and returning them to their rightful owners.

Those displeased with her efforts eventually bludgeoned most of her American family to death, save for herself and George, who were away from home at the time. Mother and son subsequently went into hiding, although the Bad Guys may be close at present.

Diamont — a 21-year “Restless” veteran — has been sworn to secrecy about future episodes. He says he only learned of his character’s true name upon reading a script a couple months ago. He was so startled that he telephoned head writer Lynn Latham, who confirmed that Kaplan was Jewish.

“‘I said, ‘This isn’t what we typically do here; we do baptisms and weddings in front of the cross.’ And she [replied], ‘We’re going to change that.'”

The change means that Diamont will play perhaps the only overtly Jewish lead on daytime TV, which is known for WASPy protagonists. He is likely the first soap actor to star in a story line about Nazi-looted art. It doesn’t hurt that pilfered art is currently a hot news topic; that the tall-dark-and-handsome Diamont would remain popular if his character turned out to be a Martian, or that “Restless” has been the top-rated soap for more than 17 years.

Latham says she had other reasons for turning Carlton into Kaplan.

“I have always preferred to write for an ethnically and racially mixed cast that represents most religions,” she told The Journal. “That’s the world … most of us live in.”

Diamont (né Feinberg) relates to his “new” character because he, too, has felt compelled to hide his Jewishness and has lost much of his family. Between scenes on a CBS sound stage, the actor comes off not so much as a sex symbol (despite his tight black Calvin Klein T-shirt) than as a thoughtful man whose real life story sounds as dramatic as any soap’s.

As a youth, he learned his mother’s cousin, who was Dutch, had been injected with gasoline during medical experiments at Auschwitz. In high school, several fellow jocks tormented him with anti-Semitic slurs (and slugs) for three years; the otherwise popular teenager kept the abuse secret, even from his parents, until he decided had had enough and repeatedly punched one bully. Since he had been victimized so long, his punishment was mild, just detention, but Diamont was left with mixed feelings about his heritage.

Because he had been raised in a secular home, “I didn’t know who I was, or why I should have pride in who I was,” he says. “Part of me was ashamed because I had been shamed…. I wanted to hide.”

Upon his agent’s advice, he agreed to use his mother’s maiden name as his stage name, instead of the more identifiably Jewish “Feinberg.”

The change began around 1987 as his father, then dying of kidney cancer, lamented raising his children without a sense of tradition and history. When Diamont’s brother, Jack, was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years later, the siblings decided to study together for a joint bar mitzvah. They had to stop when Jack deteriorated from a 210-pound athlete to an invalid. After Jack’s death, Diamont went on to become a bar mitzvah, alone, at Stephen S. Wise Temple, and to raise his six children Jewish. Temple rabbis conducted the funerals when his sister, Bette, succumbed to cardiac arrest nine years later and his mother died of emphysema just three weeks ago.

The actor, who is as tough and stoic as his character, came to work within hours of his mother’s death. That day he broke down only once — when he had to say the line, “I just spoke with my mother.” He recovered several minutes later and has not missed a shot since.

“It is ironic that as my mother passed, my TV mother has just been introduced on the show,” he says.

But he’s happy about the plot twist.

“You can’t tell the story of the Holocaust enough, especially since genocide continues today,” he says.

“Given the layer of insulation from the world I had wanted to not be immediately identified as a Jew, I’m ‘coming out’ in a most public way,” he adds.Of course, “Restless” is a daytime drama, so the plotline will undoubtedly involve steamy new love triangles for his character, Diamont says.

And, if we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll even get some more glimpses of those fabulous abs.

“The Young & the Restless” airs weekdays at 11:30 a.m. on CBS.

Iranian Colored Band Report Discredited


When the renowned exiled Iranian journalist Amir Taheri reported in a Canadian newspaper last week that Iran had just passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow bands on their clothing, the world reacted with shock. The story, which also outlined required colored bands for Christians and Zoroastrians, was immediately picked up by major newspapers in Israel, and the word spread quickly. The purpose of the law according to Taheri’s article, was to set a standard dress code for Muslims and also for Iranian Muslims “to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake and thus becoming najis [unclean]”.

The story seemed credible, given that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel proclamations for months. But, as it turned out, Taheri was wrong. No such law had been passed.

Nevertheless, Taheri’s report set in motion a media frenzy, with checks and balances of rumor control that illustrate how on edge — and careful — the Iranian exile community is these days. Local Iranian Jewish leaders were bombarded with requests for comments from the international media on the reported legislation, but they held back from responding until they had received solid confirmation from their sources in Iran.

“To the best of my knowledge the final version of the law does not demand any identifying marks by the religious minority groups,” Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation said in a press release. “I am not aware of what was said by whom, but it is possible that some ideas might have been thrown around.”

Kermanian also said that while Iran’s Islamic officials have in the past put out ideas in the media to gauge international reaction, there was no specific information about this instance.

The report stemmed from new legislation geared to making women in Iran dress more conservatively and avoid Western fashions, Iranian legislator Emad Afroogh Afroogh who sponsored the Islamic Dress Code bill told the Associated Press on Friday. Allegations that new rules affecting religious minorities were not part of the new regulations, he said.

“It’s a sheer lie. The rumors about this are worthless,” Afroogh said. “There is no mention of religious minorities and their clothing in the bill.”

Morris Motamed, the Jewish representative in the Iranian Parliament also denied the existence of any bills designed to segregate Jews in the country with special insignia on their clothes.

“Such a plan has never been proposed or discussed in the parliament,” Motamed said. “Such news, which appeared abroad, is an insult to religious minorities here.”

Rumors of anti-Semitic laws in Iran have disturbed local Iranian Jews who have been increasingly concerned for the safety of roughly 25,000 Jews still living in Iran since Ahmadinejad denied the existence of the Holocaust and called for Israel to “wiped off the map” late last year.

“The mere fact that such possibilities are considered to be plausible is a reflection of the sad state of affairs of the religious minority groups in Iran,” Kermanian said in his press release.

According to a 2004 report prepared by Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist who tracks anti-Semitism in Iran, the Jewish community lives in constant fear for its security amid threats from militant Islamic factions in the country. Since 1979, at least 14 Jews were murdered or assassinated by the regime’s agents, 11 Jews have disappeared after being arrested, at least two Jews died while in custody and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime. In 1999, Feizollah Mekhoubad, a 78-year-old cantor of the popular Yousefabad synagogue in Tehran, was the last Jew to be officially executed by the regime, stated the report.

In 2000, the local Iranian Jewish community was at the forefront of an international human rights campaign to save the lives of 13 Jews in Shiraz. They were facing imminent execution after being arrested on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. Ultimately, the Shiraz Jews were not executed but sentenced to prison terms and have since been released.

Both Jews and Muslims of Iranian origins living in Southern California have been closely collaborating to raise public awareness of Ahmadinejad’s comments. Nearly 2,000 Iranians of various faiths gathered at a pro-Israel rally in Westwood last November to condemn Ahmadinejad’s calls for Israel’s destruction.

“We wanted to show the world that we are against such comments made by Mr. Ahmadinejad and that his comments are not representative of the Iranian people,” said Assadollah Morovati, owner of KRSI “Radio Sedaye Iran,” a Persian language satellite radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts news around the world. “Iranians are not the type to want the destruction of another people. We respect the Jewish people and only wish success for the State of Israel.”

 

Shlub to Hero: Film Sketches Gehry Life


“He starts out with that,” says Barry Diller, alluding to a squiggle-like drawing in the new documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” and “he ends up with this,” pointing to a model of the InterActive Corp. (IAC) Building, currently under construction in Manhattan. Although made completely of glass, a material that likes to be flat, Gehry has molded the glass walls to resemble a row of sailboats billowing in the wind.

Even to the architect’s detractors — and there are many — buildings like the IAC offer something new and unexpected, even if a lot of looking is needed sometimes to wrap one’s mind around these edifices. In short, the IAC Building aspires to be a work of architecture that is simultaneously and unapologetically a work of art.

There’s an implicit question in the comments of Diller, the chairman of Expedia and Gehry’s client for the IAC Building: How did that blankety-blank squiggle turn into a really good building?

The film, a rare departure into documentary by Sidney Pollack, director of “Tootsie” and “Out of Africa,” assays the mystery of Gehry, an outwardly aw-shucks guy, who regularly produces some of the world’s most aggressive and attention-getting buildings.

While it is interesting to hear Gehry, 77, describe his formative influences — building blocks during childhood, the images of fish, the architecture of Finnish master Alvar Aalto — this kind of museum-docent talk does not bring us close to the core of Gehry’s creativity. Pollack’s film is strongest when filling in the human, rather than theoretical, background.

The real question here is: How did this lower-middle-class Jew from Toronto become the most celebrated architect in the world, and one of the rare people in the profession, outside of Frank Lloyd Wright, to become a household name? (What other architect is well-known enough to be spoofed on “The Simpsons”?)

Pollack, with his skill in developing character, locates the Freudian threads in Gehry’s life story. A Canadian in Southern California, the young Gehry, then known as Goldberg, struggled in architecture school, believing himself victimized by anti-Semitism in a largely all-WASP profession.

He has the outsider’s simultaneous rejection of, and reverence for, authority, here symbolized by the architectural profession, with its weighty baggage of uptight, exclusionary, backward-looking rules. The young Gehry wonders why architecture must be so authoritarian and rule-bound, as opposed to something akin to the delight he experienced as a child, building imaginary cities on the floor of his aunt’s apartment.

Gehry’s creative solution — his psychoanalytic victory — was to embrace the delight of free-form design, while making sure that his buildings met the needs of his clients. His freedom in designing what appear to be purely sculptural objects that subsequently win rapturous praise must make him the envy of all architects who secretly wish they could find such willing clients. Gehry seems to embody the myth of the artist-hero, a symbol of personal attainment and untrammeled freedom of expression.

Yet self-doubt remains. On the eve of his greatest popular triumph, the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, five years ago, the architect recalls walking around the spectacular complex, shortly to become the most photographed and discussed building of the past 50 years, asking himself, “What have I done?” It is the most touching moment in the film.

That kind of vulnerability and introspection makes “Sketches of Frank Gehry” at times resemble a Woody Allen movie. The plotline certainly sounds a lot like Allen: A sad sack, Jewish shlub who feels excluded from the country club set of architects, turns out to be the designer of amazing buildings that turn the world of architecture on its ear. Meanwhile, the hero, in all innocence, says things like, “Gee, did I really do that?”

Adding to the Allen-like texture of the film is a series of celebrity talking heads — Diller, ex-Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, actor Dennis Hopper, rock musician Bob Geldof, ex-talent agency director Michael Ovitz, artist Julian Schnabel, the late architect Philip Johnson — each expressing his admiration for cher maitre.

And in the archetypally Allen moment, we meet Gehry’s psychoanalyst of 35 years, who acknowledges with a coy smile that “Frank has made me famous,” while adding that he refuses services to other architects seeking to emulate Gehry’s inner transformation. (Question for Gideon Kanner: Is there a statute of limitations on physician confidentiality?)

This enjoyable, undemanding film from the hand of a master director holds no terrors for nonarchitects and others who feel flummoxed by the mystique and technical complexity of the profession. This very much reflects the attitude of Gehry, who seems intent on puncturing a certain kind of architectural snobbery.

What the film does not do is help us understand the process through which a scribbled drawing turns into a finished building. For all the accessibility of Gehry the man, Gehry the creative personality remains a mystery.

Life More Ordinary


I recently visited a congregant in the hospital and was surprised to find a doctor crying in the hallway. I told her I was a rabbi and asked if I could help. The doctor immediately apologized for her tears.

“It’s been a hard week,” she said, “I’ll be OK.”

She told me she had just presented a terminal cancer diagnosis to a woman in her early 40s. I felt for this doctor, and for her patient, but I also felt pleased at what I saw — a doctor who cries.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of the books “Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal” (Riverhead, 1996) and “My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging” (Riverhead, 2000) tells the story of how, as a young intern, she had been reprimanded by her chief resident for crying with a young couple whose baby had just died. Her supervisor told her she had let them down.

“They needed you to be strong,” he told her.

Now a teacher of physicians herself, Remen remains true to her initial impulse and teaches that crying with patients can be an appropriate response, saying, “You can burn out doing ‘meaningful’ work, if you lose the meaning.”

In this week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah (Leviticus 13, in particular), God instructs Moses and Aaron on the role of priests when people take ill. The priests play diagnostician. They do not try to cure the sick, but they do examine people stricken with strange skin eruptions. The text — with more than enough description of skin ailments — is a little too graphic for some people. It also often seems irrelevant, as it describes practices no longer done by a priesthood that has long since faded from Jewish life.

But this portion also focuses attention on people who are not well. In order for the priest to evaluate what ails the people who are ill, he must get near to them, probably even touch them. And the priests see those who are ill more than once; they return days later to determine whether the person has recovered.

The daily tasks of the priests described elsewhere in the Torah consist primarily of animal sacrifice and temple caretaking, suggesting that priests are usually apart from the rest of the Israelites. So it is remarkable, and instructive, to imagine the priests — a part of the community — attending to the ill, taking note of those in need. Imagine Aaron, the high priest, coming to see the weak in the midst of the Israelites. Imagine a priest taking the time to speak with the afflicted among the people. Imagine the priest being the one to escort an afflicted person back into the community, declaring them free from contagion and assisting them in offering a sacrifice to God upon their recovery. Simple gestures perhaps, but imagine how welcome they would be to someone who had suffered physical pain and the worry that they might bring illness to others. Imagine how they might have restored someone’s sense of self-worth or desire to remain alive.

This past week saw another Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah, the day of commemoration for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage. When the Israeli Knesset years ago chose the 27th of Nissan for this annual day of commemoration, they did so amid controversy. Some would have preferred the anniversary of the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, but that landed (by Nazi plan) on the first day of Passover. Still, the Warsaw Ghetto and its heroes surely figured in the minds of those who selected the week following Passover for this memorial day – the uprising itself lasted almost a month.

Irena Klepfisz, whose parents managed to get her out of the ghetto and whose father died a hero in the Warsaw Ghetto, said in 1988, on the 45th anniversary of the uprising: “What we grieve for is not the loss of a grand vision, but rather the loss of common things, events and gestures…. Ordinariness is the most precious thing we struggle for, what the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fought for. Not noble causes or abstract theories. But the right to go on living with a sense of purpose and a sense of self-worth — an ordinary life.”

How poignant to read her words this week as we read of the priests tending to the ill — not focused on the grander work of the Temple or the sacrifices that took place at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

As we read in Leviticus of the extraordinary lives of the priests, tenders of the sacred flame, preservers of the religion as it was then, I like to think also about the sense of purpose God gave them in commanding them to offer simple gestures of concern and care; I like to think about the meaningfulness they might have found in their ordinariness and in their tears.

Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

 

‘Voodoo’ Jew Finds Love, Truth in Haiti


“Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti” by Kathie Klarreich (Nation Books).

According to a Creole proverb, truth is like oil in water; it always comes to the surface. Kathie Klarreich’s first book, a memoir of her years in Haiti, is a tale of truths — personal, religious and political.

The title, “Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti,” comes from the nickname given to her by the kids in her Port-au-Prince neighborhood. In Haitian tradition, women take on the first names of their husbands; in her case she was named for the dreadlocks of her boyfriend (who later became her husband). She also refers to herself as a “Voodoo Jew.”

The book is timely reading as Haitians took part in long-postponed national elections on Feb. 7, aimed at restoring democracy, two years after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Klarreich’s impressionistic writing goes far in explaining the ongoing political turbulence that rocks the Caribbean nation — once known as the Pearl of the Antilles, it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

On the eve of the elections, Klarreich was in Haiti, reporting for Time magazine. In an e-mail she wrote, “It’s sort of bittersweet to be covering elections again, seeing how much people want change and how slow it’s been to come.”

From the time of the author’s first visit to Haiti in 1986, the place got under her skin in ways that go beyond words. Something about the warmth and graciousness of the people, the landscape, the vibrancy and color of the place and the music touched her in a profound way. A second visit in 1988, with the goal of spending three weeks researching handicrafts for her San Francisco shop, turned into a stay of more than 10 years.

The book opens in September 1988 with gunfire, when Klarreich found herself a front-row witness to a coup d’etat, the first of several she’d experience. Information was scarce, and she was not sure what had happened or where to find safety, but following her instincts she made her way to a friend’s home. She was then unsure whether to remain in Haiti, and it was her worried mother, who in a long-distance phone call advised either to “get involved or get out,” who convinced her to stay.

Another friend suggested that since she was in the midst of history being made, that she try reporting. She made contacts, wrote and rewrote, and got published in the San Francisco Chronicle and broadcast on Pacifica Radio. After a quick and determined study of what makes a good reporter, she took on more assignments and soon found that major newspapers, magazines and television networks were calling her. As years passed, she felt less the foreign journalist and more as though she were recounting the history of her own country.

Soon after the 1988 coup, she went with a friend to hear a traditional music group perform at the National Theater, and when she first saw the drummer, “it was as though someone sliced a vein from my heart into the center of his.” Several months later, she met Jean Raymond and, ever aware of their differences in culture, education and economics, fell deeply in love. Their first son was born on the same day as another coup d’etat, in 1991, while they were in San Francisco. Jean Raymond felt displaced in America, homesick for Haiti, so he returned and she joined him later on.

Klarreich writes with honesty and humility, aware of the privilege of her upper middle-class background and ability — not shared by her Haitian friends — to leave at any point if the dangers, frustrations, government corruption and violence were to become too difficult to bear. She writes of adjusting to weeks with only 10 random hours of electricity, being mistaken for a CIA agent, losing a dear friend to assassination and interviewing political leaders. The memoir is also the story of her self-discovery as she pushes herself “to pare down the clutter” of her life.

Her curiosity about all things Haitian led her to experience the voodoo tradition. She attended a five-day traditional ceremony and while dancing, was surprised at her writhing bodily reactions, as though spirits possessed her.

“I was not a nonbeliever, but at each foreign juncture with the spiritual, I had only my Jewish spiritual upbringing as a frame of reference. This didn’t fit in that box. It didn’t fit anywhere. No feelings any rabbi evoked though any sermon I’d ever heard came close to reaching this kind of religious experience,” she writes.

Her husband is a practitioner of voodoo and she is not, although she says that learning about voodoo has helped her to better understand the country and it history. In their home in Haiti, she would light Shabbat candles, with his ritual items nearby. She now lives mostly in Florida, where her 14-year-old son goes to school, and she travels frequently to their home in Haiti, where her husband is primarily based.

In a telephone interview from Key Biscayne as she was about to leave for Haiti, she explains that voodoo is very much misunderstood, promoted by Hollywood as having to do with sticking pins into dolls and some sort of black magic. She’s pleased that her openness “allowed me to just observe and take in what it was. In this post-9/11 world, we have to come to other people’s religions with open minds and not be judgmental.”

Klarreich, 50, grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland where her father served as a city councilman, and she says that one of the gifts her family gave her was travel, exposing her to many places from a young age. Her Jewish upbringing prepared her for her adventure in Haiti, and “for life in general. My parents set the stage for me to feel confident in making decisions and gave me space to do so.”

Now, when she looks at photos of her earlier self in Haiti, she sees how much her white skin makes her stand out, but she always felt accepted. Most Haitians, she says, don’t know much about Judaism, or Middle East politics.

“It’s a very isolated island, with its own language,” she said. “I’ve often thought this to be part of their larger political problem, that they’re so insular.”

Her mother suggested that she call the book “What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” The book took her about a decade to write, with several rewrites until she found a way to tell the story, which she does well. She begins each chapter with a Creole proverb — like “Love turns your head around” and “The lamp won’t light without a wick” — as Haitians invoke idiomatic sayings frequently.

“It’s part of Haitians’ charm; they see the world with humor, with joie de vivre,” she says. “We hear awful things about violence and poverty, but 8 million people get up and make do, often under great duress, and they do it with laughter and grace and creativity. I have tremendous respect for the way they have overcome so many difficulties.”

For Klarreich, Haiti remains a country “full of unpredictable flaws and wonders.” Each time she arrives, she’s enchanted anew.

“Haiti has taught me that there is not only one way to look at a situation, but infinite ways to create a solution, with humor and devotion, heart and determination as key ingredients.”

 

Humor in ‘Eat’ an Acquired Taste


When Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the nondenominational congregation Ohr HaTorah, saw the new Passover comedy “When Do We Eat?” — he loved it.

“I laughed and laughed and laughed,” he said. He saw the movie three more times, and each time he liked it better.

Hap Erstein, the film reviewer for Florida’s Palm Beach Post, had a different reaction.

Since seeing the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through a Passover seder, “a bad taste has been left in my mouth,” Erstein said.

Where Finley saw a story about the “redemptive power of a seder,” Erstein saw “mean-spirited and low-targeted humor.”

By now, the creators of the film, which has played in film festivals around the country and opens in theaters today, have come to expect such polarized reactions to their movie. Viewers either love it or hate it.

“When Do We Eat?” centers on the Stuckman family, which includes grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman); father Ira (Michael Lerner), who tries to lead “the world’s fastest seder”; his neglected wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren); and their children.

Daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a sex-surrogate. Son Ethan (Max Greenfield) recently became Chasidic, but has a hard time resisting the wiles of his sexy cousin, Vanessa (Mili Avital). Youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is an autistic obsessed with the number seven. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira’s daughter from a previous marriage, is a lesbian and brings her African American girlfriend, Grace (Cynda Williams), to the seder. Zeke (Ben Feldman), a teenage stoner, slips his father some ecstasy halfway through the meal.

Salvador Litvak, the film’s 40-year-old director and producer, co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Nina Davidovich, 38. The way they see it, “When Do We Eat?” fits into a current trend of “in-your-face, proud-to-be Jewish” cultural statements, from Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer whose latest album topped the charts last month; to “Go for Zuker,” the recent German Jewish comedy about a dysfunctional family; to the irreverent, New York-based Heeb magazine.

“Some people get it, some people don’t,” said Litvak, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit and wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to study Talmud. While “When Do We Eat?” opened the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, it did not make it into the Boston or New York Jewish film festivals.

“The people who get it,” he said, “are the people who can laugh at themselves.”

Erstein, in his review in The Palm Beach Post, labeled the movie “lowbrow sitcom” and charged Litvak with “trafficking in broad caricatures and ethnic stereotypes.” In an interview, Erstein said the movie reminded him of “Meet the Fockers” and “There’s Something About Mary,” comedies that use crude jokes to target the lowest-common-denominator viewer.

What bothered him about this movie, Erstein, 56, said, was the way it portrayed Judaism.

“It’s taking cheap shots at it,” he said.

Here lies the central contention, the age-old question: Is this movie, ultimately, good for the Jews?

“Some people seem to have a reaction that it isn’t good for the Jews,” said Davidovich, who co-wrote the film. “I think that’s a short-sighted reaction, because the cause of anti-Semitism through the years — well, a large part of it — has been people’s perception that we think we’re better than them. In this movie, we’re portraying Jews as no better than anybody else.”

But no worse than anyone else, either, Litvak added, explaining that the family was made to be outrageously dysfunctional for comedy’s sake.

Davidovich stressed that she went out of her way to contradict stereotypes.

“What drives me nuts,” she said, banging a fist on her skirt, “is in popular culture, Jewish women are always portrayed as unattractive, big-mouthed, annoying, bossy women” and “Jewish men are always portrayed as dorky, nerdy, nebishy, insecure, self-effacing.”

So, she chose an all-Jewish, good-looking cast.

Davidovich and Litvak insisted that in the end, their film comes down on the side of Judaism. The movie shows that the Jewish religion, and the Passover seder in particular, can provide a framework for personal redemption, Litvak said.

Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 38-year-old leader of Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, agreed: “This [movie] can really show people what the Passover seder can do, that it can be a really transformative experience.”

Blazer also sees the movie as part of a trend toward Jews’ opening up about Judaism in popular culture. For years, Jews who produced TV shows and movies shied away from discussing their Jewishness on screen, he said. But today, Jews are finally willing to explore the essence of their religion in their art.

Blazer attributed the opposing reactions to the movie to “a generational gap.” Younger Jews do not feel as anxious about seeing Jews portrayed in a negative light as those born closer to the time of the Holocaust, he said.

“Some see this movie, and they worry about the message that it sends,” he said. “They’re worried that it’s going to contribute to anti-Semitism.”

But “for us,” he added, “we don’t have that same level of discomfort.”

For more information on showtimes, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15595

 

Feminist Desktop Revolution


Don’t have time to shlep to a museum? Too tired to remember if the free museum day is the first or second Tuesday of the month? Want to conquer a large, overwhelming exhibit in small, 15-minute intervals? Then bring the museum to your desktop and browse at your own pace.

The Jewish Women’s Archive has launched “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution,” an inspirational and evocative online exhibit. It’s an innovative way to introduce today’s generation of Jewish women to the pacesetting leaders who paved the way before them.

“‘Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution’ brings the story of Jewish feminism into the story of American feminism for the first time, connecting their histories in a landmark project,” curator Judith Rosenbaum said.

The brightly colored site is easy to use and fun to surf. Complete with video clips, documents, posters, flyers, photographs, art, radio news reports and first-person statements, the exhibition explores Jewish women’s significant contributions to the American and Jewish feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. How did these times change the lives of Jewish women, and how did Jewish women create change during the times?

The site organizes material by themes, timeline, people and medium and covers topics like women’s health, female rabbis, sexuality, arts, education and spirituality.

The exhibition features artifacts from the private collections of 74 notable women, including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Gloria Steinem, pioneering activist and founder of Ms. Magazine; and feminist artist Judy Chicago.

Also featured are three Los Angeles women: Rachel Adler, feminist theologian and professor of modern Jewish thought and Judaism and gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; UCLA history professor Ellen DuBois, feminist author and scholar of 19th century women’s history; and Reform Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Pennsylvania Council of the UAJC and founding director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles.

The exhibition can be found at

Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!


Like any good Southerner, Brian Bain eats moon pies and punctuates his sentences with “y’all.” But Bain is also Jewish, which colors his experience as a third-generation Southerner in a unique way.

In his documentary film, “Shalom Y’all,” Bain set out to explore exactly what being both Jewish and Southern actually means. Bain travels through the buckle of the Bible Belt, stopping in small towns where once-thriving Jewish communities have now dwindled to single-digit populations, and he juxtaposes these with flourishing communities in places like Atlanta. He visits genteel mansions still occupied by aging Jewish Southern belles and explores the legacy and the part Jews played in historical Southern milestones, including the Civil War and the Civil Rights era.

“Truthfully, my grandfather really was the catalyst for the journey,” Bain said in a phone conversation from Dallas, where he relocated after his New Orleans home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. He was referring to Leonard Bain, a retired traveling hat salesman and silent film editor who was 99, in 2002, when the film was made. The elder Bain has since died at the age of 101.

“Growing up, I remember him telling us stories about his travels through the South and spending the Sabbath away from home with Jewish merchants, and how he had this interesting connection with other Jews from the South. I really wanted to get my grandfather on film and just talking to him reminded me of the bigger story of the Jewish South.”

“Shalom Y’all” explores issues of identity and submersion into a larger culture. It is, in many respects, a quirky documentary filled with characters and incidents that might be at home in a Christopher Guest film. In Natchez, Miss., there is Zelda Millstein, who still dresses in Antebellum hoop skirts, and Jay Lehman, a grocery store owner who sells pickled pigs feet and who, as a younger man, participated proudly in the Natchez Confederate Pageant — a homage to the pre-Civil War era. Then there is the older Natchez couple whom Bain interviews sitting in the pews of their synagogue, which once boasted 200 families. Now they get five people for Friday night services.

“Except when the student rabbi comes,” says the husband. “Then we get eight.”

Bain hopes to return to New Orleans as soon as his home is habitable, and he says he has high hopes for the future of the Southern Jewish community.

“Young people have left and found new opportunities, and my parents’ generation is pushing toward retirement, but I think it is going to be interesting period of rebuilding for the Jewish community” in the South, he said. “I am optimistic because the community is strong and tight knit, so I have no doubt that it will persevere.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring is screening “Shalom Y’all” on Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007, or visit

First Person – A Love Story


This is the story of my friend Valerie, whom I first met just last year. Valerie sent me an e-mail introducing herself as Shira, a Jew-by-Choice who worked as a flight attendant. She wondered if I was the same Rabbi Mark her fiancé Glenn knew from his synagogue’s high school youth group. Glenn and I had lost touch with one another when his family moved to California. Was I the same individual, Val asked, and, if so, would I officiate at their wedding?

Thanks to Valerie, two best friends were reunited after more than three decades apart. More importantly, Glenn and Val had found each other. Their love was intoxicating, with family and friends commenting how happy each was to have found his/her soul mate.

On a sunny October afternoon, I performed the ceremony as Glenn and Valerie married in a traditional Jewish wedding on a yacht in Marina del Rey. We joined with their children, parents, relatives and friends for a joyous ceremony on the deck replete with a wind-blown chuppah. Val’s artistic touches were evident in the wedding program she designed, the ketubah she selected and the extra touches that made the day special. Adding to the festivities were other yachts in the harbor whose captains blew their horns in celebration with shouts of mazal tov from their own passengers.

Two months after that glorious day, Glenn called to tell me that his beloved Valerie had suffered a brain aneurism and was in critical condition in an area hospital. I rushed to the ICU unit, only to find our beautiful, 47-year-old Valerie near death. I sat with Glenn, Val’s daughters, and other family members as a neurologist informed them that Valerie was brain dead and being kept “alive” by machines.

Amid the overwhelming shock and grief, the medical staff gently raised a sensitive but timely subject: Would the family consider donating Valerie’s organs to others? Their initial reply was no, since Valerie had thought that Jewish law prohibited organ donation. They too believed that donating organs was a sin. Fighting back tears, I counseled family members that organ donation is not contrary to Jewish law. In fact, rabbinical authorities from all Jewish movements agree that organ donation is a tremendous mitzvah and the highest form of pikuah nefesh (saving life).

An emotional discussion followed. What would Valerie want her loved ones to do had she known that organ donation is permissible according to Jewish law?

In the end, Valerie’s family consented to donating her organs. I sat with my friend Glenn as a nurse from OneLegacy (the Southern California transplant donor network) completed the paperwork to initiate this awesome mitzvah. I witnessed the OneLegacy team spend day and night painstakingly matching Valerie’s organs with compatible donors, as her family and I made plans for her funeral.

On a sunny December afternoon, we laid Valerie to rest in a local cemetery. We remembered her as a fun-loving, vivacious young woman. Val made friends easily and instantly, from passengers on her flights, to total strangers in stores and restaurants. She lived each moment to the fullest, and radiated warmth and joy to those around her.

In life, Valerie gave 100 percent to whomever she was with and whatever she was doing. In death, Valerie gave the ultimate gift. One of her kidneys is now in the body of a 76-year-old man who had been on dialysis for six years. He is married and the father of three children. His kidney function is now good and he is off of dialysis.

Valerie’s other kidney went to a 50-year-old man. He is single, active and used to ride his bicycle 40 to 50 miles a week. Prior to the transplant, he had been on dialysis. Valerie’s kidney was a “zero mismatch,” meaning that it was a perfect match for this recipient. He told the transplant team that he knows he “won the lotto” by receiving such a perfectly matched kidney. He is doing well and his prognosis is quite good.

These are just two of the fortunate recipients of Valerie’s donated organs. The quality of their lives has improved dramatically since their transplants. In some cases, they are alive because of their transplants.

I will never understand why my friend Valerie was taken from us in the very prime of her life. When I sit and cry with her family, I cannot know their pain and anguish nor can I comprehend their tragic loss. I do know that they find a small measure of comfort in the knowledge that Valerie gave the gift of life to others. Amid the darkness, they have found a ray of light and hope for the future.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

 

The Lost Words


“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei.” Three words into Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, Yoni stumbled on an unfamiliar vowel. Then, again and again, as he continued reciting the traditional prayer at his mother’s funeral in Jerusalem, he twisted and mangled the words. He frowned in concentration and tried very hard, but the words would not take their proper shape. The life of a secular young man, even in Israel, contains little preparation for the rituals of a Jewish funeral.

I had come to the funeral for Yoni’s sake. He and my son had been best friends when they were in grade school. For me, Yoni was still that tousled-haired kid in the photo squinting into the sun as he stands next to his bike.

It was Yoni who had come to visit his mother one weekend but instead had found only her body. I wanted somehow to comfort this boy turned young man, whose mother had died so young. Instead, I found myself cringing at his tortured recitation.

Why did it matter? After all, religion was not important in Yoni’s home. His mother, an immigrant from the United States, never mastered Hebrew. She certainly didn’t know Aramaic, the main component of Kaddish and Yoni’s stumbling block.

Yoni’s father, a secular sabra, had no use for ritual. Yoni never had a bar mitzvah; possibly never set foot in a synagogue. There was no way he could have been prepared for this moment. And, perhaps, for his family that did not matter.

So why did it matter to me? This prayer that combines Hebrew and Aramaic speaks not of the dead but rather about the God who has created the world “according to his will.” It continues as a thesaurus of hosannas: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.”

The language is light years from anything a secular young man in Israel might say or think. For a moment I thought that it might be time for a pop version, one that would roll easily off any Israeli tongue.

One thing I knew for certain: I want my own children to be able to recite the Kaddish without stumbling. That Friday at dinner I told them the story of the garbled prayer, hoping they would get the message without my having to come out and say, “Get it right!”

And it’s impossible to get it right without some practice.

They responded blithely, as if it was no concern of theirs.

“The dead person doesn’t care, anyway,” my youngest son scoffed.

Nevertheless, I sensed they’d gotten the message. But why was that so important? I have so little interest in praising, exalting and lauding any supreme being. And I know that the only afterlife is the memory we keep of the person who is gone. The body at the funeral is but an empty shell.

Perhaps what’s at issue is my own life: I’m a word person. For more than 20 years I’ve made my living by writing and editing. Getting the words right is what I labor to achieve, all day every day. It’s a struggle that often leaves me in despair.

But there’s more to it than that. In the face of the greatest anguish, words fail. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a compulsive sender of messages of sympathy to those far away who have lost someone dear, and I sense that those words give some comfort, if only the reminder that someone on the other side of the planet acknowledges the loss.

But what can one say to the mother of a toddler who has died of cancer; to the father of a youngster who has committed suicide; to the teenager whose father has been killed in a car accident? Words seem an intrusion, a violation of the mourner’s right to grieve undisturbed. Nor can even the most eloquent eulogy offer more than a moment’s balm.

It is here that the ancient formula stands in for mere words, since these can never encompass the loss. The repetition of the set phrases, whose literal meaning escapes most people, is a remedy where words fail. It is a recognition that no words, not even the most beautiful or the most caring, can undo what is done. It is a recognition that at times like these one should not have to seek the words. The mourner has a set role, and the participants have a supporting one, reciting one of the lines with the mourner and completing the prayer with a chorus of amen.

This is how it has been from generation to generation, through the chain of Jewish history. The Kaddish is a way of touching all the mourners who have been and all those who will be. It offers both a sense of community and a sense of continuity.

That’s why we have to get it right.

Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.

 

Why a Novel?


“The Other Shulman” by Alan Zweibel (Villard, $23.95).

I write. This is what I do. I’m a professional comedy writer. My job is to sit in a room with my vocabulary, select words and put them in an order that will not only hold your interest but also, hopefully, make you laugh. It’s treacherous work. Not that it requires heavy lifting or driving at breakneck speeds, but it is equally dangerous, as one misplaced word has the power to permanently affect the life of a character you’ve created. For example, the errant word in the following sentence, “Harvey is not dead so they will have a funeral and bury him” could conceivably alter the fate of Harvey who may very well have preferred to remain above ground until he was, indeed, dead.

Writing is said to be a lonely business, solitary in the task to fill up so many empty pages. And before I decided to try my hand at writing my autobiographical novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ll confess I had fears about such an undertaking. Through the years, I’d been fortunate. Television and movie writing are comparatively social situations involving groups of similarly minded people pooling their talents to produce a script. This was my life during my years at “Saturday Night Live” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: funny people sit around a table, joke, eat pizza till all hours, share tales about their own childhoods or weekends, and the synergy ultimately results in a product that reflects the collective sensibilities of everyone involved. And my collaboration with Billy Crystal on his play, “700 Sundays,” where I helped my good friend create a Broadway show about his family, was an exhilarating experience because the continual flow of dialogue between us made time fly by and the production that much richer.

But a novel? Why, pray tell? By definition it’s the loneliest of all writing ventures. No one to talk to. No diversions except for the ones that you yourself create — like going to the movies or offering to clean your neighbor’s garage — activities that have a tendency to impede the writing process. In television, the discipline is imposed. They’re letting the audience in at 11 and we go on the air at 11:30 so there had better be a script or else the cast will be on screen with absolutely nothing to say. Deadlines. While writers dread them, they are secretly grateful that they force us to actually sit down and write. But with a novel it’s different. More lax. Let’s face it, Margaret Mitchell, who reputedly took 10 years to write “Gone With the Wind,” was very fortunate that an audience wasn’t sitting in a studio waiting for her to complete her work, because my guess is that they would’ve grown a tad cranky after a while.

But that’s also the attraction of novel writing, for it allows the author time to wander within the pages he’s writing. To explore the world he’s creating and discover the hidden virtues it may offer. To probe deep into the lives and psyches of his newly formed characters and grant them the freedom to go places and say things that the writer may never have even considered before he got to know them better. Meandering. Writing a novel is very much about the side trips that television, movies and even stage plays cannot take because the constrictions of time and space in those other media do not allow for such tangents. But in a book, the author has the luxury of stepping away from his story and wandering for awhile — to a flashback, a personal philosophy, or even a two-page description of the shoes a character is wearing — before finding his way back to the story.

In my novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ve created a chubby, middle-aged character who takes inventory of his life as he runs through his old neighborhoods during the New York City Marathon. He is able to revisit long-forgotten memories, examine the choices he made, the people he knew, his relationship with God, and, in effect, take a look at what made him the person he is today and what he would have to do to get out of the rut his business and his marriage are in. It is a circuitous journey that I believed would be best served in the form of a novel.

The process was incredibly therapeutic, as the book is quite personal. It took me three years to write. And now I am promoting it at Jewish book fairs because I love talking to groups of book lovers. Also because it will, at long last, get me out of the house.

On Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Alan Zweibel will sign “The Other Shulman” at Temple Beth Israel as part of the Jewish Book Festival of the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal. 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona. For more information, call (626) 332-0700.

On Dec. 4 at 9:30 a.m. Zweibel will be speaking at Sinai Temple’s People of the Book Breakfast. $18-$25. 10400 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 481-3217.

An original Saturday Night Live writer, Alan Zweibel has won numerous Emmy and Writers Guild awards for his work in television, which also includes It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which he co-created), PBS’s Great Performances, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.? In addition to his novel, he recently released a children’s book entitled Our Tree Named Steve and collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony award-winning stage show 700 Sundays.

Rice Weaves Rich Tale of a Young Jesus


“Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt” by Anne Rice (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95).

Biblical fiction is a perilous business. Having committed not one but two such indiscretions in my time — a 1993 novel titled, “In the Shade of the Terebinth,” and a year later another called, “The Gospel of Joseph” — I know that many authors try to avoid the pitfalls of the genre by approaching the biblical tale from an odd or indirect angle. This is most often done through subsidiary characters, thereby shedding light on the story that everyone knows by telling a tale that no one does.

Anne Rice’s new novel, “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” the first, according to its author, in a projected three- or even four-novel “autobiography” of Jesus, will have none of that. She tackles her story head-on, framing it as a first-person narrative of the thoughts and fears of a 7-year-old Jesus en route from exile in Egypt to his family’s home in Nazareth.

From the first page, this is a Jesus bewildered by the unusual powers he discovers in himself. He can make it snow; he can raise the dead — all of which is material Rice has drawn from the so-called apocryphal gospels, third or fourth century collections of legends and sayings that are often focused on Jesus’ childhood. Most of all, he is haunted by a recurring sense that family members know something about his origins and identity that they’re not yet able to tell him.

“An angel had come,” Rice has her central character muse, “an angel to my mother; and no man had been my father; but what did such a thing mean?”

That, in a nutshell, is Rice’s story, the outlines of which are familiar to most readers, Christian and non-Christian alike. What is not so familiar is the rich tapestry of first century Jewish and family life into which she plunges her characters.

Often pictured in Christian iconography as solitary figures, lost in a unique and incommunicable holiness, Rice’s “holy family” of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, by contrast, is part of a large, boisterous, affectionate Jewish clan, living a full, observant Jewish life together, full of rituals and prayers and the rhythm of the holy day feasts.

“Finally, the Sabbath was upon us. It came so quick. But the women were ready, with all the food prepared ahead of time, and it was a feast of dried fish that had been plumped in wine and then roasted, together with dates, nuts I’d never tasted before, and fresh fruit from the farmland around us, as well as plenty of olives and other splendid things…. We said our prayers of thanksgiving for our safe homecoming and began our study, all together, singing and talking and happy that it was our first Sabbath in our home.”

This is the most persuasive aspect of the book: Jesus lives, sleeps, eats, argues, talks politics and prays with a gaggle of aunts, cousins and near relatives. I was instantly reminded of an Israeli friend in Jerusalem who, when I once asked him to lunch, responded laconically, “You can’t afford it. My family and I, we move in 30s.”

The degree of accuracy of Rice’s account of Jewish life in first century Palestine is less important than the considerable pains she takes to imagine Jesus in that vital cultural and religious context: praying in a synagogue, studying Torah, observing Shabbat, bathing in a mikvah, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

It’s a vitally important effort, and, perhaps, one of the most important services such fictional depictions of the life of Jesus perform for the reader. Such efforts situate Jesus in an authentically Jewish world and help us imagine him in it.

As such, they exemplify one of post-Holocaust Christianity’s most powerful, and salutary tendencies, the ongoing efforts to see Christianity as rooted in ancient Judaism, in common sources, in particular the Hebrew Scriptures and in a vital and living relationship with the Jewish people.

Contemporary Christians are only too aware that the imagination may be religiously misused to catastrophic effect. As the medieval Passion plays or the Oberammergau festival amply demonstrate, it is not a matter of indifference whether Jesus is pictured as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan, or as divorced from or hostile to his people and culture.

All this is quite a departure for Rice, who for decades has built her career on New Orleans gothic and an epic series of best-selling vampire chronicles. As one reviewer quipped, “What is this? ‘Interviews With the Messiah’?” a reference to Rice’s best-known book, “Interview With the Vampire.”

Rice, of course, is hardly alone in her literary attraction to the life of Jesus. It’s worth noting that the publication of Rice’s “Christ the Lord” coincides with the release of another piece of Christological fiction, “Jesus: The Novel” (Zondervan) by National Book Award-winner Walter Wangerin Jr. In fact, modern authors seem particularly drawn to the story of Jesus. Nikos Kazantzakis, Robert Graves, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, Anthony Burgess, the Yiddish writer Scholem Asch, Jose Saramago are a few of the major writers who’ve tried their hand at a Jesus novel or two.

Most of these novelists had axes to grind, however. Kazantzakis’ fiction, regardless of subject, is tormented by the dualism of flesh and spirit. Robert Graves’ “King Jesus” is less a study of the historical figure than a vehicle for the poet’s eccentric, though often entertaining, religious speculations.

Rice’s intentions are purer. As she puts it in her long author’s note at the end of the novel:

“The challenge was to write about the Jesus of the Gospels…. Anybody could write about a liberal Jesus, a married Jesus, a gay Jesus, a Jesus who was a rebel…. The true challenge was to take the Jesus of the Gospels … and try to get inside him and imagine what he felt.”

One of the pleasures of this book — indeed, of this whole genre — is placing the bare bones of biblical accounts into the imagined context of the times, of the sights, smells and rhythms of daily life in the ancient world.

Rice is very concerned to get the details right.

“At last we began dipping our bread,” Rice’s young Jesus relates. “It was so good — not just a sauce but a thick pottage of lentils and soft-cooked beans and peppers and spices. And there were plenty of dried figs to chew after the hot flavor of the pottage….”

She can be more than a little obvious in introducing every possible political actor in Second Temple period Palestine to the child Jesus, as he and his large extended family make their way to Galilee. (Roman soldiers, marauders, brigands, Zealots — Can the group not manage to avoid a single known peril?) Nevertheless, she places Jesus, accurately, in a first century milieu of political instability, rebellion, lawlessness and Roman brutality.

“I was so scared I couldn’t breathe. They [the Roman soldiers] had said ‘crucify,’ and I knew what crucifixion was. I’d seen crucifixion outside Alexandra, though only with quick looks, because we wanted never, never to stare at a crucified man. Nailed to a cross, stripped of all clothes and miserably naked as he died, a crucified man was a terrible shameful sight.”

Finally, it is Rice’s sincere and generally well-informed attempt to place Jesus not merely in plausible first century surroundings but in the rich and vibrant Jewish world we recognize from the ancient sources that make her exercise especially worthwhile.

In view of the long and tragic history of the evils to which a misinformed imagination can be put, Rice’s honest offering is no small thing.

Gabriel Meyer is an award-winning poet, journalist and novelist. He won Catholic Press Association awards for his coverage of the first Palestinian intifada in 1989 and went on to cover the Balkan war for the National Catholic Register in the early 1990s. Since 1998, he has written extensively on the civil war in Sudan and his book War and Faith in Sudan” (Eerdmans), has just been released.

‘Love With Noodles’ Rife With Canoodles


“Love With Noodles” by Harry I. Freund (Carroll & Graff, $25).

Consider the curious case of Dan Gelder: 60 years old, Jewish, paunchy, bad back. Yet it seems every bejeweled Park Avenue matron is after the investment counselor for love, for money or maybe for just a quick roll in the hay.

That’s the cute and quirky premise of “Love With Noodles,” the debut novel by 65-year-old Park Avenue investment counselor Harry I. Freund. The novel’s subtitle is, “An Amorous Widower’s Tale,” and just how true to life it is, we may never know. But whether or not art imitated life is irrelevant, especially when the ride is as much fun as “Love With Noodles.”

What Freund sorely lacks in literary style, he more than makes up with heart and humor.

Narrated in the first person, present tense (always risky), “Love With Noodles” follows Gelder’s canoodling with a string of women who enter his life just as he emerges from mourning his late beshert, Ellen. Gelder lives alone. His grown son, Eric, faces financial ruin. What’s worse, Eric is planning to marry a non-Jew.

Though all Jewish, Gelder’s women vary widely — from Charlotte, the wife of a friend off on a gay fling, to Maya, a Palestinian rights activist with a knack for lovemaking so vigorous it puts her partners in traction.

He nearly finds beshert No. 2 in Violet, a stinking-rich widow who loves adventure, diamonds and sticking it to those she detests. Gelder nearly steals her heart, and the two are off to Israel to visit Violet’s Orthodox daughter.

But soon, Gelder meets Tatiana, a 43-year-old Ukrainian widow with a 9-year-old piano prodigy son. She is gorgeous, lonely and seemingly angelic. Gelder falls for her hard. But does she love him for who he is or for his bank account?

The last third of the novel chronicles Gelder’s efforts to weed out all the meaningless sexual encounters and settle on choosing between the women that matter: Violet and Tatania. How about both?

Freund has trouble setting the tone of his story. Is it farce? Comedy of manners? Social satire? He isn’t sure, and that trips up his writing.

Moreover, though the book is filled with sex scenes, Gelder/Freund approaches them so gingerly, so squeamishly, they end up less than erotic. One almost feels embarrassed for the author, who doesn’t seem to want to shine a light into the bedroom.

As with many first-person narratives, the main character/narrator is often the most poorly drawn. That is the central problem with “Love With Noodles,” as Gelder ends up frustratingly two-dimensional. A novelist is required to reveal characters, not cover for them.

However, the women are delightful, especially Violet. She has all the color and brashness of a Tennessee Williams heroine. If they ever make a movie adaptation of this book, the Shirley McClaines and Meryl Streeps of the world will be fighting for the part.

There’s plenty of Jewish content here, from the pair of Orthodox Jewish weddings, to Gelder’s anguish over his son’s intermarriage, to the sojourn across Israel.

Like all good fiction, “Love With Noodles” expands its borders beyond the parochial. Anyone past the halfway point of life, hurtling forward with unease, will see something of himself in Gelder, paunch or no paunch.

Freund has a long way to go if he wants to join the ranks of great American novelists. But if there was a Pulitzer Prize for understanding the subtleties of life, Freund would have his on the mantel by now.

Burton’s ‘Corpse’ Has Jewish Bones


Once upon a time, a bridegroom jokingly recited his marriage vows over a skeletal finger protruding from the earth. After placing his ring on the bone, his mirth turned to horror when a grasping hand burst forth, followed by a corpse in a tattered shroud, her dead eyes staring as she proclaimed, “My husband!”

This chilling Jewish folk tale hails from a cycle of stories about the great 16th-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, in what is now northern Israel, said Howard Schwartz, a top Jewish folklorist and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

It also apparently inspired Tim Burton’s charmingly ghoulish animated film, “Corpse Bride.” Yes, the film features a bridegroom who accidentally weds a cadaver. But the feature eschews the folk tale’s grotesquerie for romanticized gloom and Halloweeny fun — a trademark of Burton fare such as “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Corpse Bride” is among more than a dozen fantasy films slated to open this year, including Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which some analysts attribute to the yen for escapist cinema during wartime.

“Bride” revolves around a shy, bumbling groom, Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp), who is practicing the wedding ceremony when he impulsively slides his ring on what he assumes is a stick. The corpse who emerges (voiced by Burton’s real-life fiancée Helena Bonham Carter) is not a hideously disintegrating cadaver, but a lovely, if unearthly heroine.

“When she gently takes off her veil and we see her for the first time, it becomes a glamour-girl shot,” cinematographer Pete Kozachik said.

The cadaver claims her husband, but does not emit bloodcurdling shrieks or insist upon the consummation of the marriage, like her folk-tale counterpart. Her mild flaws include a tendency toward petulance and an understandable proclivity for dropping a limb or having her eyeball pop out. On these occasions, a maggot pal pops out of her exposed eye socket. This damsel-past-distress whisks Victor off to the Land of the Dead, a lively place where skeletons party, forcing Victor to leave his living fiancée (voiced by Emily Watson) bereft.

So why did Burton — who is known to dress like a mortician — brighten the Jewish tale?

“We wanted to make a version that wasn’t so disturbing that you couldn’t put it in a family movie,” said co-screenwriter John August, who also wrote Burton’s “Big Fish” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“The parts that are ‘scary’ are really parodies of classic horror-film moments, such as when our bride’s detached hand crawls after Victor.” The characters are non-Jewish, he added, “because Tim gravitates toward universal, fairy-tale qualities in his films.”

Burton got the idea for the movie when his late executive producer, Joe Ranft, brought him excerpts from the 16th-century legend.

“It seemed right for this particular type of [stop-motion] animation,” Burton said in an interview with studio publicists. “It’s like casting — you want to marry the medium with the material.”

The director saw elements in the tale that he could transform to match his love of protagonists who seem bizarre but who are actually tragic and isolated. In interviews, Burton has traced this preoccupation to his lonely childhood as an eccentric, artistic boy growing up in Burbank. No wonder his characters have included the titular disfigured innocent in “Edward Scissorhands,” the reclusive Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and now the corpse bride.

“On the surface, she appears to be a monster but in fact she is kind and sweet and misunderstood,” screenwriter August said.

The Jewish folk obsession with the macabre — encompassing tales such as the corpse bride — comes from strikingly different cultural sensibilities than Burton’s obsessions, said Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Jewish thought at the University of Judaism.

“Over the centuries, the Jews were very helpless and very beset by outside forces,” Giller said. “Bad luck could always come about, and it was a real act of Providence that bore a couple to the wedding canopy.”

Schwartz, author of “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism” (Oxford University Press, 2004), retells the corpse tale in his 1987 book, “Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural” (Oxford University Press), in a story titled, “The Finger.” His source was the 17th-century volume, “Shivhei ha-Ari,” which collected earlier stories about the alleged feats of the real Rabbi Luria. The stories are hagiographic legends — tales about a master that show his great powers. In the corpse-bride narrative, Rabbi Luria confronts the cadaver, who accepts his authority. He is a member of the rabbinic court (the beit din) that eventually rules against the corpse, stating that she is not married because the dead have no claim upon the living, among other reasons.

The real Luria lived in the 16th century, but the origin of tales about nuptials with supernatural entities is far earlier. Schwartz traces them to a biblical commentary that suggests Adam had an insubordinate first wife, Lilith, who became a seductive demon. Later variations on this storyline include “the forced or accidental marriage of a man to a demon; an attempt to be free of unwanted vows and a decision reached by a rabbinical court,” Schwartz wrote in “Lilith’s Cave.” The unearthly characters “perhaps represent the fear of marriage to gentiles and hybrid offspring,” he said.Like the supernatural fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (also the subject of a new movie), the corpse bride of folk tradition also serves as a cautionary tale, warning about the consequences of bad behavior.

“It tells us, ‘Be careful, don’t ever take an oath in vain. Don’t take it lightly,'” said Peninnah Schram, a professional Jewish storyteller and associate professor of speech and drama at Stern College in New York.

In “The Finger,” the wayward bridegroom gets lucky. After the rabbis rule against the validity of the corpse’s marriage to the careless suitor, the would-be bride — after emitting one last shriek — collapses in a pile of bones and dies, this time for keeps.

The movie has a more Hollywood kind of ending, with that Tim Burton twist.

“Tim’s characters tend to wear darker colors and some, like the corpse bride, are no longer living, but they have a pluck and a spirit that makes you fall in love with them,” August said.

“Corpse Bride” opens Friday in theaters.

 

More Love and Lust From the Bible


“The Song of Hannah” by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (Plume, $14).

Biblical fiction is enjoying a renaissance. Some say it began in 1998, with Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” — a fictionalized account from Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, of daily life with her aunt Rachel and mother Leah. For the last few years, writers have started mining the Bible for similar stories — that they could rewrite into a Harlequin-type romance, replete with heaving bosoms and burning loins. The stories of Queen Esther and matriarchs Sarah and Rebecca, to name a few, have been rewritten in this manner.

The latest addition is “The Song of Hannah,” Eva Etzioni-Halevy’s debut novel about the mother of Samuel the prophet, the man who anointed both King Saul and King David. Hannah earned her own place in Jewish history through the power of her prayer. Bereft at not conceiving children, Hannah went to God’s tabernacle in Shiloh and prayed for a son, promising God that if He would grant her a son, she would give him up to serve God for all the days of his life.

The presence of Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, in the biblical text is brief — the account is written in 28 sentences in Chapter 1 of Samuel I, while her famous “song of joy” is 10 sentences in Chapter 2.

“The Song of Hannah” as imagined by Etzioni-Halevy, tells the story of two women — Hannah and Peninah, Elkanah’s other wife — and its chapters alternate between their two voices. It is essentially the tale of two young women who find themselves wedded to a faithless husband, in a community where women have few rights. Although both women are scribes, their status depends on Elkanah, who is portrayed as a cruel, polygamous beast and expects servile obedience, while he sleeps with and impregnates his many maids. The only reason he marries Peninah (in the novel) is because he has impregnated her out of wedlock. And at their wedding, he spies out Hannah and starts wooing her. Soon after he marries Peninah — once she is pregnant with their child — he tells her that there will soon be three in the family, and no, he is not referring to the fetus she carries. He means Hannah, who is Peninah’s childhood friend.

He marries Hannah, giving her a far more beautiful bedroom than Peninah, and his relationship with his wives, and their relationship with each other, is forever tinged with jealousy and some bitterness. Peninah satisfies Elkanah’s lust, but he loves Hannah. Yet his love for her doesn’t stop him from sleeping with the maids (whom he admits mean nothing to him) or from spending most nights of the week in Peninah’s room.

The book has some feminist points: As many characters point out — it’s unfair that ancient Israel was a polygamous society but not a polyandrous one. Of course, what the author does not say is that had that society been polyandrous, a person’s paternity could never have been established.

But Elkanah is not the only character who needs to repent. The book is full of sex — and purple prose. Perhaps the best pick-up line is by a priest to Hannah: “Come with me and I will show you how beneficial my priestly blessing, my triple priestly blessing, can be.”

Peninah takes a lover of her own, and Hannah helps her keep the secret from Elkanah. Meanwhile, Hannah’s son, the prophet Samuel, grows up and marries a woman whom he impregnated before their wedding, and then falls in love with Peninah. In this ancient Israel, all the men, it seems, lust after women who are not their wives, while the idol trade does good business among the sinning multitudes.

Etzioni-Halevy, a professor emeritus of political sociology at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, admits that there is no evidence in the Torah for Samuel’s attraction to Peninah (nor is there evidence of him getting his wife pregnant before he married her), and the description of Elkanah as an imperious, lustful cad is at odds with the Elkanah of Samuel I. Traditional commentators note that Hannah was Elkanah’s first wife, not his second, and it was only at Hannah’s urging — because she saw that she was barren, that Elkanah took a second wife. Elkanah was, according to tradition, kind to Hannah and a God-fearing man, who bought his children to God’s tabernacle in Shiloh because he wanted to instill in them fear of God.

“The Song of Hannah” might inspire readers to study the source, but as biblically inspired material, such books can come across as either religiously superficial or so filled with melodramatic guesswork that their value as something more than light entertainment is open to question. Taken seriously, it’s a fairly dispiriting look at the origins of Judaism — presenting our forefathers and mothers as adulterers and worse. Perhaps the next wave of biblical fiction will have something deeper and better to offer.

Eva Etzioni-Halevy will be appearing Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Library, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Free, but reservations required at (323) 761-8644 or resource@jclla.org.

 

L.A. Authors Break the Heroine Mold


 

California purists who like to shop local, travel local and eat local will have no problem reading local. Among the season’s offerings of new books are several impressive works by Los Angeles-based writers.

Although the many writers at work in this city choose different genres, four novelists — Maggie Anton, Merrill Joan Gerber, Lynn Isenberg and Rochelle Krich, all fine storytellers — will be particularly visible this fall, reading from and talking about their new books at venues around town (for listings, see facing page). Two of the novels are contemporary tales set in and around Los Angeles, another is a story that takes place in Florida in the 1950s and the fourth is a historical novel set in medieval France. Anton’s is a debut novel and the others are by veteran writers.

The novels are so different in tone, style and theme that it’s difficult to identify any common L.A. sensibility, but these women are writing within miles of one another, probably looking out over some of the same landscape.

As “Six Feet Under” ends its run, Isenberg’s “The Funeral Planner” (Red Dress Ink, $12.95) breaks new ground as a novel involving bereavement. It’s the story of building a business, with doses of romance, challenges of friendship and family, with old rivalries and new partnerships. The book is full of humor and has been the spark of a new business.

Since writing the novel, Isenberg, a media developer, took her idea of planning one’s own very personal funeral in advance — at the heart of the novel — and turned it into an actual business, Lights Out Enterprises. This is a case of fiction inspiring reality. She wrote the book soon after her own brother and father died a year apart to the day, causing her to have lots of grief to deal with — along with much experience with funerals.

The novel’s main character, Madison Banks is an L.A.-based overachiever, a risk taker determined to build a successful business before she dies. She comes up with the idea for a personalized funeral ceremony after sitting through a dreadful canned eulogy for a dear friend, given by a minister who never met the 31-year-old woman. Her business plan is to work with individuals and their families ahead of time to create funerals that are celebrations of life rather than a mourning of death: She doesn’t seek to eliminate the grieving process but, rather, hopes to influence the way people deal with grief.

Banks always wears a watch that has the internal mechanisms showing through the Lucite face: She likes to know how all things work. Not a practicing religious Jew, she does have an affinity for ritual, Jewish and self-invented ones — they give her a sense of stability. She realizes that most of the people working in the funeral business are the sons and daughters of others who’ve worked in this business; they think largely in traditional terms, while she is able to think, so to speak, out of the box. Her business is geared to baby boomers who “want to validate their lives by giving meaning to their deaths.” Although the business initially fails, she remains determined and is open to new interesting developments in her life. The novel, from a publisher specializing in chick lit, makes for entertaining reading, and might inspire some readers to look up Lights Out.

The author, a self-described avant-garde content creator, producer and narrative marketing strategist, is the author of two previous novels, including “My Life Uncovered.” Her television credits include “Youngblood” and “I Love You to Death,” and she is the founder of the Hollywood Literary Retreat.

No question, the young women in the vintage photograph — seen peeking out the windows through Venetian blinds — on the jacket of “Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties” by Gerber (Terrace Books, $24.95) are looking at guys. And they’re trying not to be seen, while hoping to be seen.

This is a novel of college life, set at a time when college girls wear leather-heeled loafers and rarely go out without girdles. These coeds set their hair in large foam rollers, live in a strict-curfew dormitory where “four feet on the floor” is the rule when men visit and follow the dictum: Marry before graduation or be lost forever. “Glimmering Girls” is a period piece and also a coming-of-age story, particularly for Francie, a transplanted New Yorker who is one of the few Jews at the University of Florida.

Francie is also unusual in that she’s not at all desperate — like many of her classmates — to become engaged before graduation. While her roommate reads Bride’s magazine, she writes a paper on D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” During her senior year, she accepts an invitation to move out of the strict-curfew dormitory with two more worldly girlfriends into a house off-campus, sharing it with the boyfriend of one and a pair of male twins.

She doesn’t want to be a teacher or nurse — the chosen professions of those young women not marrying immediately — but wants to be a writer, although she doesn’t know what that means. As she nears graduation, she muses, “All her life she has been in a long tunnel, and finally she is about to burst into clear air and open skies.”

Gerber writes of these women’s adventures, their longings and their self-discovery with sensitivity, quiet humor and an authority that a reader guesses is born of knowing that era intimately. The author of many novels, short-story collections and nonfiction works, she teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology.

Krich brings back her appealing Orthodox sleuth, Molly Blume, in her newest suspense novel, “Now You See Me…” (Ballantine, $13.95), to be published in October.

Recently married to a rabbi and author of a new true-crime book, Blume gets drawn into a case involving the daughter of a well-known rabbi who had been her teacher. The high school girl disappears, it seems, with someone she met in an Internet chatroom. The family refuses to turn to the police, in fear of the reputation of their daughter — and ultimately the entire family — in their close-knit Orthodox community in Los Angeles.

Blume visits the chatroom, struggles to get the girl’s classmates to speak openly with her, calls in favors from friends in the police department without revealing details of the missing girl and unravels some interlocking mysteries in trying to solve the case, which ultimately involved a murder. Krich’s distinctive style is to mix in details about Judaism, about the Orthodox lifestyle in particular, with the clues.

The chatroom where Hadassah meets the person who lures her to meet him is called Jspot — it’s a place where religious kids talk anonymously about sex, drugs and other subjects that are otherwise difficult to discuss in their lives. Her parents are shocked to learn that their daughter would frequent this site, and they also learn other facts of her life that are surprising. The intricacies of the plot can’t be described without giving away details key to the pleasures of discovery for readers.

The book’s epitaph is from the book of Genesis, when Dinah, the daughter of Leah, is taken by Shechem, prince of the land. “He loved the maiden and spoke her heart.”

Maggie Anton’s first novel (and the first in a projected trilogy) is inspired by her own adult study of the Talmud. Every talmudic student quickly learns of the work of the great medieval French scholar Rashi, whose commentary appears in every printed Talmud. Another column on the page includes the work of the tosaphists, the grandsons and disciples of Rashi. Anton’s book “Rashi’s Daughters — Book One: Joheved” (Banot Press, $15.95) tells the forgotten story of the generation of women sandwiched in between. She imagines what the personal and intellectual lives of the three daughters, Joheved, Miriam and Rachel, might have been like. Little has been written of them, although they played a crucial role in Jewish scholarship.

Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Solomon Yitzhak ben Isaac, who was born in Troyes, France, in 1040. The novel is published on the 900th anniversary of his death.

At a time when most women were illiterate, Rashi learned Talmud with his daughters. From the time of the birth of their new sister, the two elder daughters, Joheved and Miriam, began a bedtime secret ritual of studying Talmud, which readers can follow. When it is time for the family to begin thinking about a betrothal for Joheved, even though she is quite young, she makes it clear that she desires to marry a scholar. Indeed, she marries a young man who is a former student of her father. The book includes an absorbing, detailed account of the process of betrothal and marriage.

The novel is also the story of the French Jewish community in medieval times, and the daily lives of Jewish women, many of whom were vintners, merchants, midwives and mothers.

In researching the book, the author who works as a clinical chemist, visited Troyes, Rashi’s birthplace where he founded a school, consulted with scholars in medieval and Jewish studies and read books in English, French and Hebrew. l

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

Signings and Such


Signings and Such
Lynn Isenberg:
“The Funeral Planner”
Thurs., Sept. 29, 7 p.m.: Village Books
1049 Swarthmore Ave. , Pacific Palisades (310)454-4063.
Tues., Oct. 18, 7 p.m.: Dutton’s Bookstore, 447 N. Canon Drive,
Beverly Hills, (310) 281-0997.

Merrill Joan Gerber:
“Glimmering Girls:
A Novel of the Fifties”
Tues., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.
Reading and talk in conjunction with Jewish Book Month.
Borders at the Westfield Santa Anita Mall, 400 S. Baldwin Ave.
Arcadia, (626) 445-1320.

Rochelle Krich: “Now You See Me…”

Sun., Oct. 2, 12:30-1:30 p.m.: (panel)
10 a.m.-6 p.m. (fair), “Gals with Guns: How Female Authors Have Reshaped the Modern Mystery Novel.” Moderated by Linda Palmer. Panelists: Rochelle Krich, Naomi Hirahara, Taylor Smith and Carolyn Wheat. Signing to follow. Fourth annual West Hollywood Book Fair, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd.
Los Angeles, www.weho.org/bookfair.

Mon., Nov. 14, 7 p.m.: Duttons of Beverly Hills, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 281-0997.

Tues., Nov. 15, 5 p.m.: Book ‘Em, 1118 Mission, South Pasadena,
(626) 799-9600.

Wed., Nov. 16, 7 p.m.: Mysteries To Die For, 2940 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, (805) 374-0084.

Thurs., Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m.: Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 380-1636.

Sun., Nov. 20, 12:30-1:30 p.m.: Mystery panel moderated by Nathan Walpow. Panelists: Rochelle Krich with Jerrilyn Farmer and Robert Levinson.
Jewish Federation, Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, 258 West Badillo St., Covina, (626) 967-3656.

Mon., Nov. 21, 7 p.m.: Mysterious Galaxy,
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., San Diego, (858) 268-4747.

Maggie Anton:

“Rashi’s Daughters — Book One: Joheved”

Sat., Sept. 24, 2 p.m.: Donald Bruce Kaufman-Brentwood Branch L.A. Public Library, 11820 San Vicente Blvd. (at Montana Avenue), Los Angeles, (310) 575-8273.

Fri., Sept. 30, 8 p.m.: Shabbat services at Temple Or Ami, 26115 Mureau Road,
No. B, Calabasas,
(818) 880-4880.

Sun., Oct. 23, 10 a.m.: Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles,
(310) 277-2772.

Thurs., Oct. 27. 12:30 p.m.: Jewish Studies Department, CSUN Grand Salon in the University Student Union (just west of Parking Lot G4 off Zelzah Avenue), Northridge, (818) 677-3007.

Tues., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.: Long Beach JCC Jewish Book Fair (In conjunction with Cal State Long Beach’s Jewish studies department) Barbara and Ray Alpert JCC, 3801 E Willow St., Long Beach, (626) 426-7601.

Movie’s Journey Mirrors Director’s


In 1993, actor Liev Schreiber stood at his grandfather’s bedside in the blue-collar, Lower East Side apartment where he had spent many happy hours during an otherwise turbulent childhood.

In his prime, Schreiber’s grandfather, Alex Milgram, had been a tough but cultured proletarian who drove a meat delivery truck, briefly served as a bodyguard for the Communist Party, played the cello and painted in oils. But the 87-year-old Ukranian Jew had become frail and shrunken, and Schreiber, then 26, could only watch helplessly as his grandfather succumbed to complications from lung cancer.

“I didn’t know how to begin to mourn him,” said the actor, who is now 37. “He had been the pivotal figure in my life.”

Schreiber considers his film directorial debut, “Everything Is Illuminated,” a tribute to Grandfather Milgram. The film is based on the acclaimed literary novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s also about a search for a Ukrainian grandfather and for meaning.

The lushly photographed film, like the book, is a kind of tragicomic, surreal nightmare that works its way to a devastating but ultimately transcendent denouement. The movie focuses on a fictional young American who is searching for his grandfather’s shtetl, as well as for the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The character collects family artifacts in Ziploc bags during madcap travels with a malaprop-prone tour guide, Alex; Alex’s anti-Semitic grandfather, and a schizoid dog by the name of Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

“It’s really about a man who wants to learn about his family, which happened to be swept up in disastrous historical events,” Schreiber said. “He doesn’t deal with those events from a social or political perspective, but from an individual one. He represents a new generation’s processing of history in a distinctly personal way.”

Schreiber has traveled a similar road in coming to terms with his personal history, the loss of his grandfather and the mystery — the unspoken family history his grandfather embodied.

Milgram had been Schreiber’s primary male role model after his parents divorced when he was 4 and his father left during a bitter custody battle. The grandfather spent his life savings to ensure that Schreiber’s bohemian mother, Heather, received custody of young Liev.

Although poor, Milgram provided whatever financial assistance he could as the destitute mother and child moved into a series of squatters’ apartments on the Lower East Side, without electricity or running water. The boy was often left alone all day while she drove a cab; his grandfather helped by taking him to the circus and to baseball games, buying him clothes and introducing him to Judaism via seders at his home.

Yet Milgram wasn’t a talker; he declined to discuss his childhood in a Ukrainian shtetl or his teenage years in Lodz. Nor would he talk about why he immigrated to the United States in 1914 or about his relatives who died in the Holocaust.

After Milgram’s death, Schreiber felt tormented by unanswered questions.

“Because of the poverty and isolation of my childhood,” he said, “I had grown into a detached, neurotic adult, afraid of new relationships, and those feelings intensified after my grandfather died. But I knew I had felt deeply connected to him, and I intuited that exploring those feelings might be a good way to begin feeling connected to everyone else.”

He began by writing a screenplay about Milgram. He wasn’t satisfied with the result, however. That’s where things stood in 2001, when he chanced to read a pre-publication excerpt of Foer’s dizzyingly imaginative “Illuminated” in The New Yorker. Schreiber immediately felt a personal connection to the loosely autobiographical piece about a withdrawn young American seeking to understand his grandfather’s life.

“The protagonist felt like me: This odd, very introverted character who has become obsessed with his grandfather’s history,” Schreiber said.

The actor (“The Sum of All Fears,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) identified with the story so much that he invited then 24-year-old Foer for a drink to talk about movie rights.

“I really trusted [Liev] right away,” Foer said in an interview with studio publicists. “I had no idea of what he was going to do with the book, but I knew that he cared about it and whatever he did would be a reflection of that caring.”

After hours of schmoozing about their grandfathers and what it means to be Jewish, Foer gave Schreiber the go-ahead and handed him his agent’s number. Before long, the actor was adapting a book that went on to become one of 2002’s most hyped (and best-selling) novels. It was proclaimed the first 21st-century Jewish masterpiece by a reviewer for The Forward.

Although a first-time director, Schreiber wasn’t such an unusual choice for the perfectionistic, Princeton-educated Foer. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Schreiber is considered one of his generation’s finest Shakespearean actors, having performed acclaimed turns as Hamlet and Othello at New York’s Public Theater. During a recent interview from his home, not far from his grandfather’s old apartment, he mentioned that he was still wearing the sleazy mustache required for his role as a real estate shark in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for which he won a 2005 Tony Award.

Schreiber is an intense student of words as well as a speaker of them. During an interview, he peppered his speech with references to Russian literature and also to classical music, as he spoke quietly and seriously about his life and career.

His acting work also included conscious efforts to connect with his late grandfather, he said. He pursued the role of Marty Kantrowitz in 1999’s “A Walk on the Moon” because the character — a working-class Jew who sacrifices everything for his family — reminded him of Milgram.

The actor also portrayed a scrappy boxer in Peter Kassovitz’s Holocaust-themed “Jakob the Liar” because the movie was to be shot in Lodz, where Milgram had lived for a while.

“There for the first time I felt the presence of my grandfather’s relatives and realized what they had endured,” he said. The revelation was so traumatic that Schreiber suffered what he thinks may have been a psychosomatic breakdown: He developed bronchial pneumonia for the entire shoot, but recovered immediately upon returning to the United States.

He was more prepared to tackle scenes involving the Shoah with “Illuminated,” in part because he did not see the drama strictly as a Holocaust movie.

After all, Foer’s novel had begun as a family quest: His grandfather had died when he was a boy, but his relatives had refused to discuss his past in a shtetl called Trachimbrod. On a whim, around 2000, Foer again asked his mother for details. All she could provide was a photograph of his grandfather and the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The author immediately bought tickets to Eastern Europe, but where Trachimbrod once stood, he found only an empty field.

“I would not have written a book had I had an experience that was as profound as the kind that I tried to write,” he told the Evening Standard.

The result was his postmodernist “Illuminated,” told through the fictional Alex’s letters to Foer’s alter ego (also named Jonathan Safran Foer), Alex’s written account of Jonathan’s journey and Jonathan’s novel in progress, a fanciful history of Trachimbrod.

After purchasing the movie rights, Schreiber — who took much of the dialogue directly from the book — transformed the sprawling, complex book into a trim road-trip movie, excising the elaborate historical passages to focus more on the relationship between Jonathan and Alex, and dramatically changing the finale.

The film is among several book adaptations (including Gary David Goldberg’s “Must Love Dogs,” based on Claire Cooke’s novel) that veer from the summer trend of sequels and re-workings of television shows.

During pre-production, Schreiber cast 24-year-old Elijah Wood (“The Lord of the Rings”) as the fictional Jonathan because he felt the actor’s expressive blue eyes could convey the character’s rich inner life.

“I loved the idea of playing a person who is coming into who and what he is,” Wood, who is undergoing a similar transition, told The Journal. “And I loved what the story ultimately became: this beautiful illumination for each character as they reached some sort of epiphany.”

Schreiber, too, experienced illumination during the 42-day shoot in Eastern Europe, although he did not ultimately find his grandfather’s shtetl. He cited a scene in which one character tells another that World War II is over.

“The war for me had been a metaphor for so many things: my inner turmoil and the mourning of my grandfather, for example,” he said. “But that scene taught me that, yes, the ‘war’ can be over, because we can contain our stories and the little things in our lives, like the pieces of Jonathan’s collection that remind him of the constant companionship of his family in his memory.”

While filming the sequence in which the fictional grandfather is buried, Schreiber felt as if he were finally laying Milgram to rest.

“Because I was not ready at the time to deal with his death, I felt that, in a way, I needed to experience it again,” he said. “The movie allowed me to do so.

“My ‘illumination’ was that my grandfather is such an integral part of who I am that I don’t need to mourn the loss of him, because he hasn’t really gone anywhere. He is inside of me.”

The movie opens Sept. 16 in Los Angeles.

 

‘Jubana’ Memoir Rescues Its Author


“Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess” by Gigi Anders (Rayo/HarperCollins, $23.95).

Three years ago, Gigi Anders found herself down and out in Hackensack, N.J. Her fiancé couldn’t go through with their wedding, she had quit a job at a nearby newspaper and her friends lived elsewhere.

“I was alone and without a safety net,” she recalls. “Then there was my hair, my weight, etc. Writing was the only noninsecurity I had.”

Surviving on cases of TaB and cartons of cigarettes, Anders spent the ensuing years squeezing memoir material out of her childhood, adolescence and Byzantine relationship with her larger-than-life mother. Due out next week, “Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess” simultaneously reads like a classic coming-of-age tale, Jewish history lesson and stand-up comedy routine. Born in Havana, the now 47-year-old Anders left Cuba and an upper-middle-class life of wealth and privilege before her third birthday. After a brief period in Miami, her family settled in Washington, D.C., where her doctor father and social worker mother tried to rebuild their lives. Though Anders’ tribulations and the legacy of Fidel Castro’s regime certainly loom large in the story, the highly glamorous and opinionated “Mami Dearest” frequently steals the show.

“She’s my best material,” admits Anders about her mother. “If I had a boring mom, I’d having nothing to write about.”

For Rene Alegria, publisher of the HarperCollins’ Rayo imprint that focuses on books by and about Hispanics, Anders’ memoir “was unlike anything I ever read. I hadn’t really seen this type of Hispanic Jewish story before,” he said. “Then there’s the fact that Gigi is just incredibly funny and she really brought her story to life in a way that’s universal.”

On the telephone, Anders speaks exactly like the book she’s written. Candid, passionate and prone to interspersing the conversation with hysterical impersonations of her mother’s Cuban-accented English, Anders also emphasized that she “fiercely loves” her parents, now in their 70s.

“I wanted very badly for no one in my family to feel ambushed,” she says. “I didn’t write the book for axe-grinding and score-settling. I would call my mother every Sunday and we would talk about what I was writing. She never once said, ‘Don’t write that.'”

For Anders, the biggest challenge lay in depicting key tragic events while maintaining the wildly humorous tone.

“I didn’t know whether or not go there,” she says of the traumatic sexual awakening she experienced at 14. “I didn’t want to hurt my parents or have people feel sorry for me. But this was my life and that experience changed me forever.”

Anders claims that the term “Jubana,” meaning “Cuban Jewess,” “has been floating around for awhile” in her family. To be her family’s style of Cuban and Jewish, she says, means there’s no conflict between lighting Chanukah candles and enjoying roasted pork loin afterward.

“But the Jubana thing also means you’re a minority, minority, minority — that no matter what, you’re an outsider,” she said. “Sure I’m white, but not like how other people are white.”

Growing up in Washington, D.C., Anders attended elementary school where she identified with the African American kids.

“I would go to their birthday parties and try to get their parents to adopt me,” she recalls.

Later, when her parents moved to a different D.C.-area neighborhood and could afford private school, Anders attended Sidwell Friends, an elite prep academy. There, she “faced rich, white kids who weren’t Jewish and who seemed to be happy all the time. It seemed like they could just say, ‘I think I’ll go to Harvard’ and it would just happen, while I was at home killing myself,” she said.

At Beaver College, a private school in Pennsylvania now called Arcadia University, Anders had more contact with Jewish kids, but once again, could not relate.

“They were equally as rich as the Sidwell kids, but these girls wanted to get married immediately,” she says. “I had always associated the Jewish side of myself with education and achievement.”

Anders says her “Hispanic side” had more to do with “choosing the right red lipstick and having anxiety about becoming a writer. I got very nervous about being competent and relatives would tell me to dumb myself down or I wouldn’t get a man,” she said. “I had this conflict of beauty vs. brains, this long-term conditioning of if you’re a girl and you’re not married then it’s a double whammy for your Hispanic family.”

Upon graduating from college, Anders briefly worked as a waitress before responding to a job listing from the circulation department of the Washington Post. After a year on the job, she managed to get transferred to an editorial department and eventually became a special correspondent. She also began writing for a variety of other publications, including Glamour, Allure, Latina and The American Journalism Review.

Recently, Anders gave an in-house reading for her publishers and experienced “the best moment of my life. It was the first time that I didn’t feel like an outsider. People were listening to me read and they were laughing but I felt they understood,” she said. “It’s so strange. The things in life that made me feel terrible about myself led to this moment where I thought, ‘This is who I was meant to be.'”

 

Tell Me a Story


 

When I was growing up, my family’s Passover gatherings were a joyful blend of holiday traditions, over-eating, stand-up comedy and most important of all — storytelling by our “tribal elders.”

For example, I was always moved by one of my Grandma Lena’s stories from the Great Depression.

“So many people were hungry,” she said. “Occasionally, I would come home from work and find a strange, unshaven man dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table. Your great-grandmother Leba would be serving him an entire meal — from soup to dessert. It scared me that she let strangers into the house when she was alone; she was a tiny, frail woman. But when I asked her how she could this, she simply said, ‘How could I not do this? He was hungry.'”

I never knew Leba Klein, but when my grandmother shared such memories, I learned something real about my ancestors.

I only wish we had recorded those stories.

Passover is a time for families to gather, to enjoy each other’s company and to recall the story of our shared ancient history.

It is also the perfect time to preserve your family’s greatest treasure: the memories and stories of your own family elders.

That’s why this Passover (or Mother’s or Father’s Day), you should create a family project to interview your oldest relatives.

Recording these stories means that they will be available for future generations. Plus, you can avoid regret. I’m constantly hearing people say things like, “We kept meaning to interview my grandparents, but we just didn’t have time. Now it’s too late.”

Also, every person should have a chance to tell his or her life story. One shouldn’t have to have survived horrible experiences, or accomplished the extraordinary, or be a celebrity to have this opportunity.

When we take the time to ask a parent or grandparent to tell us about their past experiences, and truly listen to them, we are acknowledging them for who they are, and for the life they have lived. They deserve this.

And finally, involving children in this interview process creates a meaningful connection between them and their family elders, something that doesn’t often happen these days. They will learn about their roots from a real person.

Not sure where to start? Here are some tips:

1. Get an audio cassette recorder or video camera and tripod. Bring a lot of tapes and back-up batteries. Get an external microphone, so that the recording will be clear. (Get advice from Radio Shack or Fry’s for a microphone that will fit your specific machine and will capture the sound most effectively. Pay extra for a good one.) Be sure to test your equipment before you conduct the interview. Try out different locations for the placement of the microphone to capture all important voices.

2. Plan a family gathering, where the entire family can commit to a few hours together. That in itself is a challenge, I know. But it’s worth it.

3. Determine the best interview subjects. Usually, this would be the eldest relatives who can not only talk about their own lives and experiences, but who also know the details and stories about your ancestors. You also want to choose people whose memories are intact. (My mother’s dementia would sadly rule her out now as an appropriate interview subject.)

In many families there are Talkers and Listeners. Some of the Talkers are great storytellers; some of them are just dominating. Listeners rarely speak up family gatherings.

With Talkers, your job is to manage the conversation, so that the interview moves along. Having a list of interview questions will help.

With Listeners, your job is to make sure they know that you truly want to hear about their life and experiences. Make sure they have their moment in the spotlight by asking them a specific question, and kindly telling anyone who interrupts to please wait their turn.

4. Before your gathering, have everyone in the family write down a list of questions to ask. There isn’t room here to give you an entire list of such questions, but you want to cover every generation that these interview subjects can speak about — their ancestors, grandparents, parents and the subject him or herself.

Your questions should trigger memories and details about different aspects of a person’s life: For example: names of important people, their personalities, the home, the city or town, daily activities, work, education, their experiences of being Jewish, how the family interacted, what they did for fun, what were their challenges and the events and times.

Ask all of the children in the family to make up questions, too. Depending on their ages, children often want to know grandparents’ favorite toys, what school was like or how their grandparents met.

5. Someone may have to play “director” and make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk and that people aren’t talking all at once (the result on your tape will be gobbledygook.)

6. Remember, this is something that deserves your family’s time and energy. The payoff is a precious experience and a record of your heritage. Have fun!

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and owner of Living Legacies Family Histories. She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net.

 

Let My Old Passover Programming Go


 

Why is this night different from all other nights?

For one thing, it’s the food — or, rather, the food that’s featured on television. But there’s also plenty of food for thought in the form of Passover-related travel and Jewish news features.

Food for Filling Up

Get Passover cooking with some fresh ideas from the Food Network’s “Essence of Emeril,” “Wolfgang Puck” and “Sweet Dreams.”

On “Sweet Dreams: Passover Favorites,” host Gale Gend and chef Ina Pinkey showcase recipes that are heavy on matzah meal and potato starch to achieve a consistency more like regular desserts. They make apple tea cake muffins from matzah meal, a savory alternative to plain matzah for breakfast. Their practically solid chocolate cake looks rich, while the untraditional Passover cobbler makes for a lighter alternative. The Food Network, April 19, 9:30 a.m.

In “Wolfgang’s Passover Feast,” viewers get a backstage pass into the celebrity chef’s kitchen as he leads a seder at one of his restaurants. The show features commentary on the holiday from Rabbi Arnie Rachlis of the University Synagogue in Irvine. Puck’s contributions are not especially user friendly, though. He fails to give precise measurements for ingredients in his recipes, while also using cooking equipment not found in noncelebrity kitchens. Some of his concoctions are kosher and some not — he shows how to make a not kosher for Passover but tasty-looking matzah with herbs in the dough. Watch Puck for entertainment or concepts, but not specific recipes. The Food Network, April 20, 10 a.m.

Kick your seder up a notch with a Passover segment of Emeril Laggase’s “The Essence of Emeril.” He may be out of his element when pronouncing Jewish foods such as charoset as “ha-ro-SET” instead of “cha-ROH-set.” Or when he tries to explain the seder plate. But he’s the expert when it comes to cooking. In his charoset, he uses practically a whole bottle of Manischewitz, when his own recipe only calls for two tablespoons. I guess good chefs really don’t measure. His matzah farfel kugel looks delish — with plenty of his signature essence. He also does a flavorful recipe for brisket, stuffing garlic cloves in the meat, and coating it with chili sauce and onions. The Food Network, April 21, 2 p.m. All Food Network Passover recipes can be found at foodtv.com.

Food for Thought

While digesting all these new treats you’ve just cooked, continue the Passover theme with Jewish Television Network’s (www.jewishtvnetwork.com) one-hour specials: “Exodus to Freedom” and “A Passover Celebration.”

The thought-provoking tone of “Exodus to Freedom,” hosted by Dick Cavett, would appeal more to adults and older children. It examines the lives of eight extraordinary individuals who overcame oppression. These stories aren’t just about the Jewish experience, but about the universal experience of exodus. Liz Murray grew up homeless with two drug-addicted parents, but turned her life around, eventually attending Harvard (her story was told in a 2003 Lifetime movie, “Homeless to Harvard”). Azar Nafasi led an English literature-reading group in Iran during a time of extreme Islamic fundamentalism. Francis Bok, a Sudanese man, was captured and sold as a slave, before escaping and later immigrating to the United States. Hungarian Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos worked in a forced labor camp during World War II, and now is a Democratic congressman representing the San Mateo area. Airs April 26, 10 p.m. on KVCR 24 in the Inland Empire; Channel 55 in desert cities.

“A Passover Celebration,” hosted by Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) embodies a lighter tone. The St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble and New York Concert Singers sing Passover songs from “Chad Gadya” and “Dayenu” to Sephardic and Ashkenazic renditions of “Adir Hu.” Irwin Kula of “Simple Wisdom” narrates Passover tales, as well personal anecdotes of his family’s emigration from Poland to the United States. On the craftier side, TLC host and Jewish Journal singles columnist Teresa Strasser shows how to make various colorful Passover creations. These include a matzah box centerpiece, a clay encased Elijah cup and a reverse-decoupage seder plate to brighten up the Passover table. For the little ones, there’s an “Aleph, Bet Blastoff” segment featuring Dom DeLuise as a comic pharaoh, with a kid-friendly amount of menace. The final segment, a mouth-watering chocolate matzah creation by chef Jeff Nathan, looks simple enough even for the cooking averse. Airs April 24 on KLCS. Check klcs.org for scheduled times.

Kids Meal

The Rugrats get locked in the attic with Grandpa Boris, and he narrates the Passover story as seen through the eyes of 3-year-old Angelica (who takes on the role of a pharaoh who won’t “Let My Babies Go”). “The Rugrats Passover Special” airs April 24, 7:30 a.m. on Nickelodeon. For more information, visit www.nickelodeon.com.

Food to Go

Among other thrills, experience a hot-air balloon ride over the pyramids. (Consider them, in Cecil B. DeMille terms, a testament to the Jewish work ethic.) “Globe Trekker: Egypt,” hosted by Megan McCormick, airs April 21, 8 p.m. on KCET. For more information, visit www.kcet.org.

Yesterday we were slaves in Egypt; today we are free to choose our Passover programming.

 

The Grand Old Jews of York


 

In 1773, when Capt. Alexander Graydon visited York, Pa., it was a married Jewish hostess who captured his attention.

“[T]here was but a single house in which I found that sort of reception which invited me to repeat my visit; and this was the house of a Jew,” he wrote of Shinah [Shaynah] Etting in his memoirs.

“In this I could conceive myself at home, being always received with ease, with cheerfulness, and cordiality,” he continued. “Those who have known York, at the period I am speaking of, cannot fail to recollect the sprightly and engaging Mrs. E., the life of all the gaiety that could be mustered in the village; always in spirits, full of frolic and glee and possessing the talent of singing agreeable, she was an indispensable ingredient in the little parties of pleasure which sometime took place.”

Shaynah and her merchant husband, Elijah, considered the first Jewish residents of York, also were among the country’s Jews of record. And their story is among the handful of surprising Jewish connections in York, the country’s first legal capital, where the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of the Confederation on Nov. 15, 1777.

Visitors to this charming industrial center, which describes itself as the “Factory Tour Capital of the World,” can choose from an eclectic mix of attractions. York also hosts fascinating Colonial buildings such as the Golden Plough Tavern. In the adjacent home, complete with pots hanging over the hearth and an authentic spinning wheel, a bonneted tour guide introduced a reporter to the story of the Ettings.

I found out still more from “Never to Be Forgotten” by James McClure, historian and managing editor of the York Daily Record. The book is sold for about $14 at the York County Heritage Trust gift shop in the downtown visitors center.

The Ettings’ most prominent son, Solomon, who moved with Shaynah to Baltimore after her husband died, went on to lead the efforts to pass the “Jew Bill,” which allowed Jews to become elected officials in Maryland. After its enactment in 1826, Solomon Etting would become one of the first Jews in that state to hold office.

Another son, Reuben, was enlisted during the Revolutionary War despite the customary exclusion of Jews. Reuben, after a brilliant military career in which he reached the rank of captain, was then appointed by Thomas Jefferson to be the U.S. marshal for the District of Maryland.

A tour of nearby downtown streets reveals one of York’s most honored modern-day heroes, Rabbi Alexander Goode. His visage looks down upon York from a large outdoor mural, one of a popular downtown series, which depicts the blue beauty of dawn at sea.

The former spiritual leader of the Reform Temple Beth Israel was aboard the USS Dorchester during World War II when it was struck by a torpedo off the coast of Greenland. In the ensuing panic, Goode gave his gloves to a Coast Guard officer, enabling him to cling to a lifeboat for hours before rescue. Goode, who also forfeited his lifejacket and seat in a lifeboat, joined arms with three fellow chaplains and lifted his voice in prayer as the ship took them to their death.

The U.S. Senate awarded “The Four Chaplains” Medals of Heroism. An interfaith chapel dedicated to their memory stands at Valley Forge. And a York elementary school, which contains another mural, is named in Goode’s memory.

Just outside the city of York, the local Jewish Community Center (JCC) receives the support of a Jewish community estimated at 500 to 900 families, depending on the source. The JCC houses a striking Holocaust memorial wall sculpture.

In an unusual piece of Jewish trivia, one of the world’s leading motorcycle makers based here reportedly also has Jewish roots. The Davidson half of the legendary Harley-Davidson company, which began operating in York in 1903, is presumed to have been Jewish.

I stayed at The Yorktowne Hotel, a national historic landmark, which opened in 1925. The hotel, at 48 E. Market St., is located near many tourist sites. For reservations and more information contact (800) 233-9324 or visit www.yorktowne.com.

For more information on tours and exhibits throughout York County, call (888) 858-9675 or visit www.yorkpa.org. Printed walking tour guides are available for a nominal fee.

“The Four Chaplains” mural is located on Market Street near Pershing Avenue, east of the visitors’ center. The “Harley-Davidson Tradition,” the first mural of the series, is located nearby on West Market Street between Newberry Street and Pershing Avenue.

The York JCC is at 2000 Hollywood Drive, (717) 843-0918. Two local congregations are the Reform Temple Beth Israel, 2090 Hollywood Drive (next door to the JCC), (717) 843-2676 and the Conservative Ohev Sholom Congregation, 2251 Eastern Blvd., (717) 755-2714.

For information on Harley-Davidson tours in York as well as Wauwatosa, Wis., and Kansas City, Mo., call (877) 883-1450 or visit

Sunrise, Sundance, Swiftly Fly the Films


 

“When you’re a falafel king/you’re a falafel king all the way/from your first alef-bet/till your last dying day…” OK, maybe that’s not exactly how the musical spoof, “West Bank Story,” begins, but the short film indeed opens with a cadre of snapping dancers taking on the guys on the other side of the tracks. Yet, in this 22-minute film, instead of Maria and Tony, we have David and Fatima, and the war is not between the Jets and the Sharks, but between the Jewish Kosher King and the Palestinian Humus Hut next door. You can probably guess the rest, but hopefully, since the short was directed and co-written by L.A. native Ari Sendel, you’ll get a chance to see it here soon.

“West Bank Story” was one of a handful of Jewish-themed films screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which ended Sunday night in Park City, Utah. With the deafening chatter around this small town about which studio picked up which film for how many millions of dollars, it’s hard to sniff out, not the hottest films — but the most Jewish. While hordes of ecstatically friendly moviegoers snaked around the corner hoping to get into a screening of “Hustle and Flow,” the feature about a pimp-cum-rap star from Memphis (which Paramount got in a $16 million deal), I’m desperately trying to sell my extra ticket to a midnight showing of “Odessa Odessa” (I’d take $5-$10), a documentary that follows elderly Ukrainians in Odessa, Brighton Beach and Ashdod. A six-minute short from Israel, “Meet Michael Oppenheim,” which, through photographs and sweet narration, attempts to trace filmmaker Roni Aboulafia’s family history in Israel, preceded the 96-minute doc.

All roads seem to lead to Israel in the Jewish films at Sundance, even those not directly about the Holy Land. Take “Protocols of Zion,” documentarian Marc Levin’s personal journey to uncover the resurgence of this anti-Semitic screed since Sept. 11. He starts off at the site of the World Trade Center, talking to people who blame the Jews for the tragedy, and then goes to Middle America and the home of the White Supremacists and other Holocaust deniers. Levin veers away from the “Protocols” to Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” and then to the streets of Patterson, N.J., to speak to the Palestinian street kids, he ends up — where else? — at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, finding the “Protocols” at the root of all these problems (not without the help the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper and the Anti-Defamation League’s Rabbi Abraham Foxman). “Protocols” has been picked up so far by HBO, with an airdate as yet undetermined (they’re hoping to sell it to the big screen first).

Perhaps it’s a paranoia arising from “Protocols” that I begin to see Jews everywhere at Sundance (well, we are running all of Hollywood, aren’t we? When Levin tries to get someone on the phone to discuss Jews in Hollywood, he gets passed around from Norman Lear to Larry David to Rob Reiner and back to Lear again). When I randomly attend “Palermo Hollywood,” a feature from Argentina, I am surprised to discover that one of the main characters turns out to be Jewish (nicknamed by his friends “the Jew”), and is running away from his wealthy political family that maintains its standard of living despite the financial crisis.

But the most prominent Jewish film here at Sundance is “Wall,” a French/Israeli documentary about the security “fence” being built in Israel.

“I was surprised to find that there are many Jews that are pro-peace in Israel,” one foreign journalist told me when she exited the film. Indeed, director Simone Bitton presents a moderate look on both sides of the concrete and barbed wire structure, as she interviews “regular” Palestinians and Israelis, i.e. not the fanatics, the leaders and the spokespeople, but those who live adjacent to the $1 billion project that is meant to bring security to Israel. Bitton is half-Arab and half-Jewish, which is probably why — with her fluent Hebrew and Arabic — she is able to have frank conversations with both sides. The picture won a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary category, so I’m sure it will be available for viewing soon.

In searching out films with a Jewish or Middle East subject matter, I came across “Planet of the Arabs,” a six-minute compilation of clips portraying the Arabs in American film and television.

Dr. Emmett Brown: “Oh my God, they found me, I don’t know how, but they found me. Run for it, Marty.”

Marty McFly: “Who?”

Dr. Emmett Brown: “Who do you think? The Libyans!”

Filmmaker Jacqueline Salloum shows this clip from “Back to the Future” and more — from “Lawrence of Arabia,” to “The Muppet Show,” to (Gov.) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies” — to tell audiences to “turn off your televisions,” to avoid these negative stereotypes.

Perhaps the fictional and real characters in the “Planet of the Arabs,” “The Wall” and “Protocols of Zion” will one day be like Ahmed and Mahmoud, and David and Fatima from “West Bank Story,” who, after their stores burn down, realize how much they have in common, and make falafel sandwiches together.

 

WWI Huns Spark His Passion for Exercise


 

I learned about gymnastics from the German soldiers occupying Lithuania during World War I. I used to watch them swinging on the parallels and the rings. I would go home and try it myself. I took wood from one of our factories and made parallel bars in our backyard.

One day, when I was 10, my grandfather found me practicing on the parallels. He said, “What do you want to be, a ‘comediant?'”

They would call us “comediants,” because we would swing from bars and stand on our hands. The older generation didn’t approve. Jews weren’t used to physical education; they were used to studying.

I joined the Maccabi organization when I was 16. It was a sports club with a Zionist philosophy. The goal was to build a strong youth who would be able to fight for Eretz Yisrael.

In my town, Seraij, we had about 60 members: boys and girls from age 9 to their 20s. We rented a hall where we did gymnastics. We met every day, every evening.

We spoke Hebrew, and we took courses in Hebrew language. Lecturers came and spoke to us in Hebrew about the importance of sports and gymnastics. We had a slogan: Nefesh briah b’guf barih, a sound mind in a healthy body.

Every year, we had a festival. We would march through the streets with a band playing music. Some Maccabi members would ride horses. Then the townspeople would come to the big hall, and we would have an exhibition. We would do gymnastics and weightlifting and lecture on the importance of physical education.

Mostly, we competed against other Maccabi teams. But we also competed against other organizations and non-Jewish teams. We would perform for the townspeople, young and old, to raise money.

Sometimes, I would find a play in the library. If not, I would write a play myself. We would then perform a little drama and do exercises to music on stage. Afterward, everyone would dance until 4 o’clock in the morning.

I became the chairman of our Maccabi club soon after I joined…. I had done gymnastics at my high school, which was one of the first Hebrew-speaking schools. I also taught myself by reading literature in German, because there were no Hebrew books on physical education.

It was my job to go to towns and organize the youth into Maccabi clubs. I would explain to the people that physical education was important — just as important for the girls as for the boys.

The Maccabi Central Committee chose seven people to represent Lithuania in the Maccabiah games. I was the only one chosen to compete in the 100-meter dash. To prepare for the competition, I ran every day in an open field that the Maccabi had rented. I ran plenty, a few hours a day.

But I had to make a living, too. I would come home late from Maccabi meetings. In the morning, my grandfather would come looking for me, because customers would be lined up outside our flour mill, waiting for me to open the gates.

In 1932, I traveled with the Lithuanian team to Palestine. I took a train from Lithuania through Germany and France. Then, I sailed from Marseilles on a ship called the Patria. When we landed in Jaffa, Palestine, the harbor wasn’t deep enough for the ship. So everyone got onto small boats, which carried us to shore.

It was very exciting to step onto Palestine. The Maccabiah was the first Jewish event in Palestine for people from the Diaspora in 2000 years. There were tens of thousands of people there.

Some of the Jews who had known me in Lithuania and had moved to Palestine saw me marching in the opening ceremonies. They called my name and yelled, “You should come visit us!” The Americans and the Germans won all the awards. All I got was a certificate.

I spent about two weeks visiting relatives in Palestine after the games. One woman from our team decided to stay in Palestine, because she was a Zionist. I didn’t want to stay. I saw Arabs in Jerusalem riding horses and waving swords and yelling. And I had to go back to Lithuania to work.

When I came back, I lectured about the games. In 1935, I was invited to inspect Maccabi organizations all over Lithuania and to organize new groups in cities that didn’t have any Maccabi clubs. I did this until 1937, when I left for the United Sates.

The Maccabi made going-away parties for me, because I had organized new branches and invigorated others. I was celebrating, because I knew I would live.

My older brother, Meyer, who had been in the United States, came back to Lithuania to get me. We went to the American consul together to try to get a visa. I was sitting there while Meyer was speaking with the official behind a closed door. When Meyer opened the door and nodded his head yes, he got a visa for me, I said, “Ah, I’m alive.”

I left behind my mother; my brother, Aaron, and his wife and two sons; my sister, Paula, and her husband and two sons; my grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts, cousins — maybe 25 members of my family. I’m the only one left from the whole family.

In the United States, I didn’t play sports. It wasn’t so easy here. I had to work very hard. I worked at a meat factory until 10 p.m. every night. This was my exercise, my hard work.

The following story by Hillel Price, 99, was told to his granddaughter, Journal contributing writer Sarah Price Brown.

 

Yeladim


In Parshat Toldot, Jacob and Esau are born. Even though they are twins, they are opposites: Jacob is the quiet, studious type, while Esau is a hunter who loves to be out in the world. The world used to think of Jews as being just quiet and studious, but when Israel became a state the Jews there developed one of the strongest armies in the world.

Don’t let yourself be given a label – you can be an American, a Jew, an intellectual and a fighter, all at the same time.

There are many American Jews who became war heroes, too, don’t forget to honor them this Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

Write a story, song or poem about: My Happiest Jewish Memory. Send your entry by Dec. 31, to Jews for Judaism, 9911 Pico Blvd., No. 1240, Los Angeles, CA 90035. Go to www.jewsforjudaism.com for an entry form.

Mail your cartoons, drawings, puzzles, etc. to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010. E-mail your written answers to our contests, or your jokes, riddles, poems, etc., to kids@jewishjournal.com. Make sure you write your name and address in your e-mail. See you next time!

March Connects Students to Shoah


With 15 years of Jewish day school education under his belt, Marc Marrero had a plan for college.

“I was going to graduate from Milken, come to college and basically have my Jewish life back home, and I was going to completely forget about Judaism when I came to college,” said Marrero, a freshman at Tufts University in Boston.

That plan was “flipped upside down” after he attended March of the Living last April, spending a week in Poland and a week in Israel with thousands of teens from all over the world and forming a bond with a Holocaust survivor who became like a grandfather to him.

“The first thing I did when I came to Tufts was go to Hillel,” Marrero said. He also advocates for Israel, and made an effort to find Shabbat services that are meaningful to him.

It is reactions such as Marrero’s that has given March of the Living such widespread support both among those interested in perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust and those interested in building positive Jewish identity — two camps that often find themselves at odds.

With the anniversary of Kristallnacht this week, the ongoing debate around whether to put scarce community resources into Holocaust memorials or into Jewish education re-emerges. In this touchy context, March of the Living seems to have carved out a niche where memorializing tragedy and fostering positive Jewish identity come together in such a way as to deflect criticism and to attract broad support from educators and community leaders.

In cities around the United States, including Los Angeles, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) often acts as a local planner for the trip, and community money subsidizes its roughly $3,500 price tag. The BJE in Los Angeles this year is sending an adult group, and is also making the trip a yearly rather than biannual event, as it has been for the past decade.

“This is not a horror and sadness trip. It’s not just about concentration camps and death camps, not about Nazis,” said Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE’s associate director, who has attended with groups twice. “It’s really about having the opportunity to think about who we are in a very powerful conversation with our past.”

This year, the international March of the Living is boosting promotion efforts in an attempt to get 18,000 Jewish and non-Jewish teenagers and adults — nearly three times the yearly average — for the May 2005 trip, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camps.

At Milken Community High School, which sent 12 students last year, recruitment efforts are underway to get as many as possible of the 138 seniors to go this year, an idea Marrero thinks is a good one.

“I got a really good Jewish education, but I never really understood the immediacy of why I needed that education and the role it needed to play in my life. There was this disconnect, and the march really made Judaism a part of my life,” Marrero said. “It has given me a calling, or a task.”

About 100,000 teens worldwide have gone on March of the Living since the first trip in 1988. Every year, local delegations from around the world spend a week in Poland, touring erstwhile shtetls and concentrations camps. The week culminates on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, with 6,000 teens, chaperones and survivors in matching blue jackets marching with Israeli flags from Auschwitz to Burkina.

After Poland the groups head to Israel, where they celebrate Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day.

The combination of understanding the richness of what was once there, how it was lost, and then how Israel rose from the ashes to become what is today, in a milieu with peers from around the world, proves to be an intense experience for teens.

To aid the teens in processing the information, a social worker attends the trip, and work is done in small groups before, during and after the trip itself.

“Even though the experience was intense and very emotionally and mentally challenging to deal with, I think ultimately the intensity of the experience is what lit up the passion inside of us to go out and carry the message of what we learned,” said Miri Cypers, a Milken graduate who now attends Barnard College. “One of the most important messages of the trip was how to take history and take the tragedy of the past and still continue to find meaning and depth in everyday life.”

That message was brought home by the presence of Nandor “Marko” Markovic, a survivor who attended with last year’s Los Angeles group (see sidebar).

“Marko’s response and his way of dealing with things — and the way I’ve come to view the world — is that you have to respond to injustice with humanity,” Marrero said.

Markovic built intense bonds with the group, telling them his story of surviving through six concentration camps when he was younger than most of them.

“I never got to meet my grandfather, but Marko filled that void in my life,” said Marrero. “I’ve never learned such important lessons from anyone as I did from him. It was unbelievable to be able to meet someone you didn’t know before and two weeks later feel like you’ve learned the most important lessons of life on how to deal with yourself and how to confront humanity and how to deal with evil in the world.”

Both Marrero and Cypers tell of their experience in the small town of Tykocin in Poland, where they stood in desolation looking at the barely visible relics of a wooden Magen David on what was once the rabbi’s house in a thriving community. The group suddenly heard loud noises coming from the 500-year-old synagogue that had been salvaged as a museum. They entered, and found hundreds of March of the Living participants from around the world singing and dancing.

“I could see Marko just started to weep, because this was a tangible moment where we could see how we were bringing back life that [which] was decimated,” Cypers said.

It was Marko’s first time back to Auschwitz since he lost his parents and several siblings there, and he said it was the kids who carried him through the trip, and gave him the strength to continue on the 3-kilometer march.

“With my generation going, the whole story will go to academia,” Markovic said. “If we bond with these kids, they will remember it emotionally rather than academically.”

That was the thinking behind the creation of March of the Living. Israeli Knesset Member Avraham Hirchson saw that Israeli teens did not know anything about the Holocaust, and he wanted to be sure that Israelis and Jews worldwide could bear witness to the destruction. Along the way, the larger idea of building Jewish identity arose.

“I am convinced that March of the Living has such an impact on these youngsters, that without modesty I will predict that they will represent the future leadership of the Jewish people all over the world,” said Freddy Diamond, a survivor of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen who founded Los Angeles’s citywide Yom Hashoah program and attended the march five times over 10 years.

While in Auschwitz, Diamond showed the teens the block where his brother, a leader of the little-known resistance in Auschwitz, was tortured and then where he was hanged in front of 15,000 inmates.

Markovic showed them where he stood when he shooed his little sister to go stand with their mother and other siblings; they were among thousands killed that day.

But more than reliving the tragedy, the survivors provide inspiration. It is a difficult trip for the aging survivors, but one they see as key not only to remembering their lost families, but as central to the Jewish future.

“What is the impact of the trip to Poland and Israel?” Diamond asked. “I can say it in one sentence: For the first time in their lives, these youngsters know what a privilege it is to be Jewish.”

Applications are now available for March of the Living 2005. For more information, visit www.motl.org or www.bjela.org, or call (323) 761-8605.

On Jewish Mothers


I was raised on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx by a woman who could have taken Olympic gold in Jewish mothering. Sonia, Abie-the-tailor’s

wife, never stopped fearing for my life. She made me wear galoshes on sunny days (“It might rain, you never know!”), and warned that if I left the house with wet hair Iwould die one hour later of pneumonia.The worst thing is when my mother does her worrying in front of other people — like boys! When I’m 13, I have my first solo piano recital. I’m wearing a sleeveless, scooped-neck dress that Abie copied from Seventeen. The whole building is there, including Stanley Eichenholtz from 5B. I think Stanley likes me. Whenever we pass on the staircase, he always punches my arm.

I finish the last piece, and I stand up to do the curtsy that Mrs. Blitzer taught me. This is my favorite part. Suddenly, in the middle of my moment of glory, my lunatic mother runs up on the stage, throws a schmattadickeh old cardigan over my bare shoulders, and screams in a heavy Yiddish accent, “Cover up! You’re perspiring! You’re gonna catch a bug!”

The humiliation is not over, because the next time Stanley passes me on the staircase, he says, “Cover up! You’re gonna catch a bug, ha, ha!” And then he punches me on the arm. I am so ashamed. Why must my parents be such immigrants?

I have to acknowledge that, in her better moments, my mother also paid for piano lessons, took me to movie musicals and saved nickels and dimes for years so that I could go to Europe after college. Also, my mother never left the house without a pocket full of crumbs for the sparrows and a pocket full of change “for the poor people” — totally innocent of the fact that she was the poor people. And as little as she had, she would share it.

Mama rented a room to a recent immigrant from Poland. The man had been a professor, but now was scraping by as a janitor. My mother felt very sorry for him, but she knew he’d be too proud to take charity. So when he came home at night she would make up a story: “Oy, Mr. Rabinovitz, I made this all this food and now my daughter’s not coming over for dinner. Do me a favor, have some or I’ll have to throw it out.”

So Mr. Rabinovitz would “do her a favor” and have some.

Ashamed? I should have been proud. But she was still a constant source of embarrassment to me, and after the Stanley Eichenholtz incident I swore that when I grew up and had a child of my own, I would never be an overprotective, interfering, super-doting Jewish mother.

Then I became a parent and — you guessed it — history repeated itself. My son treated hip, worldly, sophisticated me with the same scornful superiority I dished out to my simple, old-country mother.

Back in his college years, he announces he’s going to Vegas for the weekend with some friends. I ask how he’s getting there, and he rolls his eyes and heaves one of those “parents-are-such-a-pain” sighs. He patiently informs me that they’re going in Dave’s car.

I look at Dave’s car, and I see Death. Dave’s car is an open jeep: no roof and no sides. We are a family that drives Volvos. I point out that if they take that car through the desert, not only will they be burned to a crisp, but they won’t have any protection in a collision. I suggest that they rent a nice four-door sedan. More eye-rolling, more sighing and then the killer accusation: “Would you please stop being such a Jewish mother!”

Why fight it? I decide to plead guilty: “Listen, I am a Jewish Mother! And maybe one day you’ll thank me for it! Here’s some money. Rent a real car!”

The boys are driving back from Vegas. There’s a van in front of them with a heavy glass door strapped to the roof. Suddenly this glass door comes loose, flies through the air, and crashes right onto the top of the rented car. But the heavy steel roof protects the kids and nobody gets hurt! So I do the best I can to protect my child. Just like my poor mother did the best she could.

Then I read “The Joy Luck Club,” and I think, “Those Chinese mothers are very familiar.”

And I see this movie, “My Left Foot,” and I think, “That Irish mother is very familiar.”

Then a black girlfriend calls about her teenage son. She’s concerned because he can’t find a summer job, so she asks me to find him a little computer work.

“I will pay his salary,” she says. “Just don’t tell him where the money’s coming from.”

This sounds very familiar.

Then I get my nails done and the Vietnamese manicurist, Kim, tells me she has six children and they all live in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a very bad neighborhood.

“All children full scholarship: Berkeley, UCLA, M.I.T., Harvard, Amherst, Yale,” she says. “You want to cut cuticles?”

Well, I may have turned into my mother, but I am not alone. Everyone has turned into my mother!

Annie Korzen (“Seinfeld’s” Doris Klompus) tours and lectures worldwide with her solo show, “Yenta Unplugged.” Her humorous essays have aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and will appear in freshyarn.com and theknish.com. Her web site is

“I Am Jewish.”


“I am Jewish,” were the words Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl spoke to his terrorist captors shortly before they murdered him. To honor Pearl’s life and work, his parents Ruth and Judea asked Jews from all walks of life to reflect on what these words mean in their own lives. Many of these pieces can serve as powerful sources of inspiration and reflection during these Days of Awe. Following are excerpts from “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl.”

The Force That Breaks Boundariesby Douglas Rushkoff

Jews are not a tribe but an amalgamation of tribes around a single premise: that human beings have a role. Judaism dared to make human beings responsible for this realm. Instead of depending upon the gods for food and protection, we decided to enact God, ourselves, and to depend on one another.

So out of the death cults of Mitzrayim came a repudiation of idolatry, and a way of living that celebrated life itself. To say “l’chaim” was new, revolutionary, even naughty. It overturned sacred truths in favor of sacred living.

We are not passive recipients of law and truth, but active creators of ethical systems and models for the Divine. We are not believers, or even doubters, but wrestlers. Israel, more than a nation-state, is this very confrontation with the Divine. The wrestling is our continuity.

It’s important to me that those who, throughout history, have attacked the Jews on the basis of blood not be allowed to redefine our indescribable process or our eternally evolving civilization. We are attacked for our refusal to accept the boundaries, yet sometimes we incorporate these very attacks into our thinking and beliefs.

It was Pharaoh who first used the term Am Yisrael in Torah, fearing a people who might replicate like bugs and not support him in a war. It was the Spanish of the Inquisition who invented the notion of Jewish blood, looking for a new reason to murder those who had converted to Catholicism. It was Hitler, via Jung, who spread the idea of a Jewish “genetic memory,” capable of instilling an uncooperative nature in even those with partial Jewish ancestry. And it was Danny Pearl’s killers who defined his Judaism as a sin of birth.

I refuse these definitions.

Yes, our parents pass our Judaism on to us, but not through their race, blood or genes — it is through their teaching, their love and their spirit. Judaism is not bestowed; it is enacted. Judaism is not a boundary; it is the force that breaks boundaries.

And Judaism is the refusal to let anyone tell us otherwise.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism,” is a professor of communications at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and a commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

The Idol Storeby Sarah Silverman

Remember the guy who smashed all the idols in the idol store? His mother had a heart attack when she saw the mess, but I’m sure she bragged about it later. That’s us. That’s me. I am Jewish.Sarah Silverman is a comic, actress, and writer. She is very pretty.

Ethical Principle, Not Convenienceby Zev Yaroslavsky

I am a Jew! At its core, being a Jew means seeing myself as though I were a slave in Egypt; as though I were a student of Maimonides; as though I lived in Chmelnitzky’s 17th-century Ukraine; as though I resided in my ancestors’ Lithuanian shtetl, with all of the hardship and scholarship that permeated the place; as though I were confronted with the moral meltdown of World War II; and as though I were a participant in the rebirth of the Jewish state. These and other seminal events in Jewish history inform who I am and the kind of decisions I make in my personal and professional public service life.

We are a people of laws, not whim. We are a people of ethical principle, not convenience. As a Jew, I am committed to justice — to doing the right thing, even, or especially, when doing so puts me at risk. Being a Jew means identifying and soldiering with those who are marginalized and persecuted. It means, in the words of Moses in Deuteronomy, being “strong and of good courage.”

Zev Yaroslavsky is a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and a former member of the Los Angeles City Council. Prior to his entry into politics in 1975, he was a well-known advocate for human rights and freedom of emigration for Jews in the former U.S.S.R.

A Jewish Motherby Wendy Wasserstein

I made my stage debut in second grade, in 1957, as Queen Esther at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York. As I recall, I wore one of my mother’s striped sheets tied around me as a toga, and a birthday crown. I have no idea who played my cousin Mordechai, or the evil Haman, but to this day I am convinced that I have a life in the theater because of Queen Esther.

In later years, I wrote a play called “The Sisters Rosensweig” about Jewish identity. My friend Martin Sherman, the Jewish author of the play “Bent,” said to me, “Wendy, the thing is, these are all voices you remember from your childhood in Brooklyn.” Those voices I remember were distinctly Jewish voices: funny, ironic, yearning, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes grandiose, but always with a great heart.

My grandfather Shimon was a Yiddish playwright. He came to this country in 1928. He was an actor in Yiddish plays in Pittsburgh, and ultimately, was the principal of a Hebrew school in Paterson, N.J. According to my mother, my grandfather knew Menasha Skulnik and Molly Picon, the great practitioners of Yiddish theater in America at that time. Also according to my mother, my grandfather walked past the synagogue deliberately on High Holidays. I have no idea whether that is true or not, but that story has always contextualized my religious practice.

When I was a student at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, my mother, Lola, served the children hamburgers with string beans and butter sauce, a deliberate kosher violation. She told the rabbi’s children, who appreciated the sweetness of the beans, that it was really lemon juice. In my childhood mind, I thought a burning bush or flying hand would come through our window in Flatbush at any moment.

And yet, in many ways, those dinners seemed to me at the heart of why I consider myself Jewish. My sense of identity comes directly from the creativity of my mother and her profound sense of family. My mother, who had to be convinced by me to celebrate Passover yearly, used to bang on televisions and tell who exactly was Jewish. I remember distinctly her explaining to me that she didn’t care what anybody said, but that Sen. Barry Goldwater was Jewish. I didn’t even know Jews lived in Arizona at that time.

I am often asked if I consider myself a woman writer or a Jewish writer. I am also often asked if I think my work is “too New York” to be appreciated in the rest of the country, or the world. My answer is: If I am not a Jewish or female writer, then I have no idea who I am. And as for being “too New York,” I know what that is a euphemism for. I now have a 4-year-old daughter. When I define myself, I am happily now not only a Jewish female writer but also the ultimate form of Judaism: a Jewish mother.

Wendy Wasserstein is a playwright. She is the author of “The Heidi Chronicles,” “The Sisters Rosensweig,” and “An American Daughter.”

Jews as the Scouts of Civilizationby Judea Pearl

To be Jewish is to identify myself with the past, present and future of a collective of individuals who call themselves “Jews.” As an act of choice, I select a certain thread of history and label it “mine,” that is, relevant to me. Similarly, I select the destiny of other members of the collective and label it “ours,” that is, relevant to our children.

The logic of being Jewish thus rests on a fortunate symbiosis between two forces: choice and history. The first lays claim to universalism, the second to tribalism.

We strive for a culture of universal, all-inclusive humanity, yet we recognize that the innate architecture of the human mind requires a tribal framework to codify, implement and sustain the principles of that culture. We thus nurture a tribal subculture, equipped with vivid ethos and personalized teachings, and use it to inspire humanistic standards of behavior, warmth of an extended family, and a sense of mission and continuity. Our record and endurance attest to the power of this symbiosis.

And religion? What about God, and covenant, and holiness, and the 613 mitzvot?

I am a secular Jew. I find it hard to believe that an entity up there takes record of my thoughts and deeds. Still, I chant the Friday night Kiddush with all the seriousness that my grandfather did. Why? Because my tradition, with all its theology, myths and rituals, offers me an effective language of symbols and metaphors with which to understand the teachings of my past, and in which to formulate my commitments for the future.

This is perhaps what Danny meant when he said: “Afterlife? I don’t have answers, mainly questions. But I sure hope Gabriel likes my music.” In other words, “I doubt the existence of the afterlife, but I conduct my life as though a Gabriel will be asking one day: ‘Anyone here care to bring some joy to the world?’ I want to be chosen.”

But why Jewish? Why don’t I offer my children the choice of some other subculture to anchor our identity and to exercise our humanity? The answer is twofold: it wouldn’t be easy, and it wouldn’t be wise.

I would probably make a clumsy, unconvincing father reciting the songs of the Hiawatha to my children. In contrast, I do a fairly decent job with the Kiddush, or Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) or the story of Chanukah. These reside deep in my brain, marked with a big “mine,” evoking hundreds of stories, smells and melodies that one expects from a father, grandfather or teacher. I cherish the thought that these sweet melodies were also evoked in Danny’s mind when he wrote to us in an e-mail in September of 1998: “I intend to give my children all the Jewish tradition I know, maybe more with your help.”

But who are we? I look down the history of ideas and I find our little subculture scoring an impressive list of accomplishments. I see Jews as the scouts of civilization — the ones who question conventional wisdom and constantly seek the exploration of new pathways. Abraham questioned the wisdom of idolatry, Moses questioned the wisdom of servitude and lawlessness, the prophets questioned institutional injustice, and so the chain goes on from the Maccabees, Jesus and Spinoza, to Marx, Herzl and Freud, down to Einstein, Gershwin and the civil rights activists of the 1960s.

As individuals, we do not consciously choose this lonely role as scouts, border-challengers, idol-smashers and boat-rockers. It has permeated our veins partly from the Bible and the Talmud in their persistent encouragement of curiosity, learning and debate, and partly transmitted through the free-spirited character and attitude of our parents, uncles and historical role models. But mostly, this role has been imposed on us by the travesties of history-conventional wisdoms were mighty unkind to us, and their guardians quite oppressive. Our sanity demanded that we challenge those conventions and, in due course, we have learned to challenge all conventions.

Ironically, this habit of questioning authorities has evoked much anti-Jewish antagonism. Few can appreciate those who are on the lookout for improvement, especially when experiments occasionally fail (e.g., Marxism). Still, many are grateful when experiments turn successful (e.g., relativity) and most understand that, failures notwithstanding, experiments propel the progress of civilization.

Thus, is my Jewishness a blessing or a burden? Do I prefer the trails of the scouts to the safety of the bandwagon? You bet I do. It is only from those trails that I can see where the voyage is heading, and it is only from there that I can discover greener pastures.

I am Jewish, and I doubt I would be in my element elsewhere.

Judea Pearl was born in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is a professor of computer science at the University of California Los Angeles, and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation. He is the author of three books on artificial intelligence: “Heuristics,” “Probabilistic Reasoning” and “Causality.”

To Become a Jewby Leon Wieseltier

I prefer to declare not that I am Jewish but that I am a Jew. There is nothing adjectival about this dimension of my being. It is not a quality of anything else, not a modification of another essence; it is itself a noun, itself an essence; it is itself. When I say that I am a Jew, I do not mean to say that I am only a Jew — existence is never single or whole, except when it is debased; but the Jew that I am is primary, irreducible, a raw and rich fact of my fate. And yet I do not appeal to its facticity for its justification. Quite the contrary. Such an appeal would be repulsively tribal; and it is the first lesson of Jewish history that the Jews are considerably more than a tribe. No, the facticity of my identity, the accidental truth that it is what I have inherited, rather embarrasses me. I wish that I could have chosen it. I pray that I would have chosen it. Accident is not an adequate foundation for a life. I envy converts, once the sons and the daughters of their parents and now the sons and the daughters of Abraham and Sarah. They are Jews as a consequence of their own reflection and their own freedom. They became Jews out of inner necessity. But I must transform outer necessity into inner necessity.

Kierkegaard once remarked that it is easier for a non-Christian to become a Christian than for a Christian to become a Christian. When I say that I am a Jew, I mean to say that a Jew is what I desire to become. The sense in which I am already one — the biological and the sociological — does not affect my soul or reveal what it can accomplish, though it certainly affects my historical allegiances and my political actions. I am proud to be the heir of my ancestors, but I am too proud to be just an heir. I wish to be also one of my ancestors, an artificer of this tradition and thereby an artificer of myself. So I am a Jew who is becoming a Jew, if I am a serious Jew at all. I make myself known as much by my chosen destination as by my unchosen origin. (One of the many unfortunate consequences of the concept of the Chosen People is that it has relieved many Jews of the responsibility of choice, or so they think.)

I am a Jew: This is another way of saying that I am busy at work. But the study of Judaism, and of the civilization that it bred, makes the toil easy: The exposure to the words and the ideas of Judaism has always been, for me, an experience of seduction to which I keenly capitulate. Here is an example, a text to raise up (as the rabbis believed) the soul of the deceased, a yahrtzeit text from the tradition of nineteenth-century Polish Hasidism, in sorrowful and respectful recollection of Daniel Pearl. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk reported an interpretation of a verse and a prayer in the name of his teacher, Jacob Isaac of Przysucha. In Numbers, after Aaron is instructed to light the lamps in the Tabernacle, it is recorded that “Aaron did so.” Rashi glosses these otherwise superfluous words with the midrashic comment: “This is said in praise of Aaron, to indicate that he made no changes [in his fulfillment of the command].” The Kotzker produces a deep hermeneutical pun in Rashi’s comment: The Hebrew words shelo shina, or “he made no changes,” the Kotzker reads as shelo na’asah yashan etzlo, or “it did not become old for him.” Or as he remarks in Yiddish, ess iz nisht alt gevorn, explaining that Aaron “would do his work every day as if for the first time, not out of habit, as if it had grown stale.”

This power of refreshment the Kotzker takes to be the implication of a peculiar blessing at the start of the morning prayers. “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who did not make me a gentile.” Shelo asani goy: This formulation is uttered every morning, the Chasidic philosopher suggests, “because one must feel in one’s soul every day as if one has gone from being a non-Jew to being a Jew.” It is a startlingly modern ideal of self-creation. It is about as spiritually realistic as the other modern fantasies of a completely new beginning, of emptying oneself entirely of what one has found so as to fill oneself entirely with what one has made-but it is a very useful exaggeration. It demands that every Jew acknowledge the contingent nature of his Jewishness, and then correct it. For if I cannot imagine not being a Jew, I cannot glory in being a Jew, or at least I have not earned the right to this glory.

And may it always be said about the memory of Daniel Pearl that ess iz nisht alt gevorn.

Leon Wieseltier is the author of “Kaddish” and the literary editor of The New Republic.

One of a Special Peopleby Gershom Sizomu

I am the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya (Jews) in Uganda, Africa. Our number is small, but we are a strong, spiritual and deeply religious Jewish community. There are more than 600 of us, although our numbers have dwindled from several thousand.

Born in 1969, I am 34 years old. My wife, Tzipporah, and I have brought our two young children with us on my 5-year journey through rabbinical school here in Los Angeles. We are far from our home.

In 1919, Shimei (Semei) Kakungulu, the founder of our community, was a military general. After reading the Bible, he abandoned his military service, broke away from the Imperial British East African Company, where he served as a local governor of the eastern region, and rejected ongoing missionary efforts still prevalent in our country.

Shimei circumcised himself, his children, and the males of our tribe. He started strict observance of Shabbat every Saturday. More than 3,000 of his followers — our previous generation — celebrated Jewish festivals, observed fasts and began complete adherence to kashrut, as written in the Five Books of Moses.

When I was only 2 years old, Iddi Amin Dada, legendary for his cruelty and corruption, grabbed political power and the presidency at gunpoint. Between 1971 and 1979, Amin ordered us to stop our religious observance and warned us against calling ourselves Jews. He gave us three alternatives: convert to Islam or Christianity, become unaffiliated, or face public execution.

While many of our people succumbed to the first alternative and converted, my family and several other families continued to observe Shabbat and the other mitzvot in secret. Most often, we held services in bedrooms, where we would worship in whispers to our God.

In 1989 at the age of 20, I was arrested with three fellow Jews. We were caught mobilizing our youth to learn about Judaism and the Hebrew language, and we were also rebuilding the foundation of our main synagogue, which had been destroyed during Amin’s regime. We suffered in the hands of local Christian and Muslim government administrators, who were not at all interested in the existence of a Jewish community.

To be Jewish in Uganda we must withstand many levels of intimidation, oppression and abuse. We face restricted access to social services owned or managed by Christians and Muslims. But Uganda is not our only challenge.

I do not look Jewish in the eyes of the international Jewish community and I am frequently asked, “How did you become Jewish?” and “Who converted you?”

A beit din (rabbinical court) of Conservative rabbis performed “mass conversions” for our community members to bring us officially into the Jewish world family in February 2002.

When I’m weak from my Yom Kippur fast, I realize I am a fragile being, but my God lives forever and ever. I look forward to every Shabbat, which brings meaning, joy, comfort and spiritual restoration into my life for 26 hours. Communal Pesach seders and celebrations of every holiday from Shavuot and Sukkot to bar and bat mitzvot connect me at once to the past, present and future of the Jewish people.

I will forever walk in the path of Torah and identify with the holy traditions of Judaism passed down from one generation to another. I will work hard to ensure that Judaism continues for the sake of maintaining an even stronger bond between me and my God, who is most high. He is the creator of space and all its mysteries, world architect, the source of life, and a permanent force behind nature and cosmic order.

Although I have faced life-threatening dangers during my 34 years as a Jew in Uganda, I am also one of a special people — the Jewish people — who have resisted many centuries of hatred and oppression and continue to say shalom to the world.

Gershom Sizomu, leader of the Abayudaya (Jews) of Uganda, received his bachelor’s degree at the Islamic University in Uganda and is currently studying at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism. n

Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl

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