Israeli couples say ‘I don’t’ to Orthodox Jewish weddings


For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married – God's way.

Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.

Some of Israel's most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.

The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licences in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them.

Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.

In September, Stav Sharon, a 30-year-old Pilates instructor, married her husband in an alternative ceremony performed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi.

“We wanted a Jewish wedding despite being secular. We feel connected to our Judaism, even if we are not religious. It is our people, our tradition,” Sharon said.

Weddings such as Sharon's fall into a legal no man's land. They are not against the law, but neither are they recognised as valid by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for registering marital status on the national identity card every Israeli is required to carry.

In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad – even in a non-religious ceremony – outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.

Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.

Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.

No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.

Muslims, Druze and Christians in Israel are also required to marry through their own state-recognised religious authorities, making interfaith weddings possible only overseas.

WHO IS A JEW?

Secular-religious tensions have simmered in Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state, since its establishment in 1948.

About 20 percent of Israeli Jews describe themselves as Orthodox while the majority of citizens are only occasional synagogue-goers. There are also non-Orthodox communities such as Reform and Conservative, but these are proportionately smaller than in Jewish populations abroad.

Ultra-Orthodox zealots have drawn anger in recent years for separating men and women on some public buses and harassing women and girls for what they see as immodest dress. Orthodox rabbis insist that brides take ritual baths to purify themselves before marriage, a practice to which some Israeli women object.

Immigrants to Israel, which since its inception has appealed to Jews around the world to live in the Jewish state, can find marriage through its Rabbinate a gruelling process.

Anyone wed by the Rabbinate is required to provide evidence of being Jewish, usually a simple and quick process.

But when it comes to new immigrants, the Rabbinate requires an affidavit, usually from an Orthodox rabbi in their home country, attesting they were born to a Jewish mother – the Orthodox criterion for determining if someone is a Jew.

And, Orthodox authorities in Israel can pile on more problems by digging even deeper into Jewish roots by requiring additional documentation proving that a bride or bridegroom's grandmother was Jewish.

“It took a year,” said a 34-year-old Argentinian immigrant to Israel, who asked not to be identified.

“They said the papers I had were not sufficient. They kept asking for more and more crazy documents. At one point they wanted me to provide a witness, from Argentina, who knew my grandparents and who had seen them, inside their home, celebrating a Jewish holiday,” he said.

His case was ultimately brought before the Chief Rabbi who ruled the man was Jewish and could marry his bride-to-be.

Israel's government is less strict in determining “who is a Jew” and therefore eligible to immigrate to Israel. Under its Law of Return, proof that someone has at least one Jewish grandparent is enough to receive automatic citizenship.

The Rabbinate says it is charged with preventing intermarriage and assimilation with non-Jewish communities which would endanger their people's survival.

Ziv Maor, the Rabbinate's spokesman, said strict adherence to Orthodox ritual law and practices had bonded Jews across the globe and set common rules for all.

“A Moroccan Jew knew he could marry a Jewish woman from Lithuania,” he said. “Rabbinical law guides us in a very clear way on who is Jewish and who is not … and we do not have permission from past or future generations to stray even a hair's breadth from those criteria,” Maor said.

According to the Rabbinate, only two percent of the men and women who apply to it for a marriage licence are turned down because they are found not to be Jewish.

GAY MARRIAGE

There are other groups to whom marriage is forbidden by rabbinical law.

Same-sex marriage, as in other religions, is out of the question as far as the Rabbinate is concerned. Israel's Interior Ministry recognises gay marriage – but only if it is conducted in a foreign country where it is legal.

Margot Madeson-Stern, a business consultant, was wed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi at a celebration attended by more than 300 guests. The ceremony had no legal foundation in Israel.

“The (Rabbinate) would not marry me. The person I fell in love with was a woman,” said Madeson-Stern, 30. “I'm Jewish. I wanted a Jewish wedding. It's my family, my tradition, it's how I grew up.”

She later travelled with her wife to New York for another wedding ceremony. New York recognises gay marriages, so Israel's Interior Ministry did the same, registering them as a couple.

At least two parties in the coalition government are promoting a bill to allow civil marriage in Israel, including for same-sex couples. One of them is Yesh Atid, which tapped into anti-religious sentiment in last January's national election and finished in second place.

“It cannot be that people who do not believe or whose lifestyle does not suit the Rabbinate will be forced to get married by people whose way is not their own,” Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid told Israel Radio this month.

But tradition could die hard in Israel. A poll published in November in the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, showed that while 41 percent of Jewish Israelis supported Yesh Atid's Civil Union bill, 47 percent objected.

Such bills have been floated at Israel's parliament before. But for the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox parties, which oppose civil marriage, are not in the government.

Yesh Atid believes it has enough votes from lawmakers across the board to pass the law in the next few months. The Rabbinate says it will oppose the measure strongly.

“Matters of marriage, divorce and conversion are our most important fortress. It must not be touched and we will defend it fiercely,” said Maor.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Stamp

Tweaking tradition: Online project modernizing Jewish texts with today’s lingo


Morgan Friedman loves the way people talk. He wants others to love it, too.

The 35-year-old social media entrepreneur, formerly of Brooklyn, N.Y., and now living in Buenos Aires, launches new digital projects like marshmallows from an air gun.

Pow! Here’s Overheardinnewyork.com, a site for offbeat conversations that his team of eavesdroppers hears on the streets.

Pffft! Here’s Yiddishisms.com, Yiddish expressions culled from half-remembered witticisms of his grandmother.

He’s got a million of ‘em—or a few dozen, at least.

Now Friedman is taking that same love of lingo and combining it with his high-tech know-how to launch Urban Sefer, an online project aimed at producing crowd-sourced, slang-filled translations of traditional Jewish liturgy.

You know, Jewish texts written the way people talk.

“When these documents were written, they were written in the common language, the way people spoke,” Friedman told JTA. “But today when I read these ancient documents, I need to sit and think in order to translate it into my language. It requires intellectual work.”

And that, as everyone knows, is not what young people like to do.

“Let’s take these traditions handed down for thousands of years and make the same points, but do it in the language that’s part of our everyday life,” Friedman says.

The folks at the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund seem to agree.

In March, the group awarded Friedman one of its initial nine grants for new digital media projects aimed at engaging young Jews in Jewish life, learning and community.

“These projects share an ability to harness new digital media tools and technologies that are a large part of young people’s lives today and use them to enhance efforts to engage young people in Jewish life,” said Rachel Levin, associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation, which joined the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in sponsoring the new fund.

The nine finalists were chosen from more than 300 applicants vying for a total of $500,000 to be disbursed over the next 12 months, the fund’s first year.

Urban Sefer is Friedman’s first Jewish project. He was raised Orthodox in Great Neck, N.Y., so he knows his Jewish ritual, he says, though he fell away from religion after his bar mitzvah.

In college Friedman was an English major, and he says his idea of a good time is spending one weekend a month reading a Shakespeare work he doesn’t know well.

“I’m the least cool guy ever,” he says. “I like reading old books and listening to people tell jokes.”

The first text Friedman is tackling is the Passover Haggadah. Two years ago, he and his Argentinean girlfriend dashed off a version in Spanish slang as a sort of lark. It proved so popular among Jews in Argentina that last year he decided to do the same thing using English slang. But instead of sitting down and writing it himself, Friedman wants to involve lots of people.

So he’s taking the project online and inviting anyone who’s interested to sign up and take part—crowd sourcing, in modern vernacular.

“What’s a modern way to do this? Crowd sourcing,” he says in typical I’ll-answer-my-own-questions-thank-you Friedman style. “The epic stories in the Bible used classic methods of telling stories, but today we tell stories in film, on TV, online. If Moses were alive today, he’d be making movies.”

Urban Sefer isn’t the only open-source Jewish text project out there. The granddaddy of the genre is Open Source Haggadah, an online project launched in 2002 that allowed users to construct their own personalized Haggadahs using a variety of sources, including user-generated content.

That project folded in 2004 when funding ran out—its operation was more or less taken over by Jew It Yourself—but it paved the way for other similar initiatives including the Open Siddur Project and Build a Prayer, which allow users to construct personalized prayer books, and the newly launched Haggadot.com, another recipient of a Jewish New Media Innovation Fund grant for 2011-12.

Friedman says he doesn’t know the people working on the other projects. He’s pretty much alone in Buenos Aires, and says he’s just putting up his project on the Internet hoping it will attract a community of like-minded younger Jews eager to harness their creative energies together.

After the Haggadah, Friedman says he’d like to take on a rewrite of the Bible, starting with Ecclesiastes, and then move on to the Shabbat prayer book.

“If there was ever a biblical work made for modern slang, it’s Ecclesiastes,” he says. “It’s about a guy who has everything but is looking for meaning, so he goes out, gets drunk all the time, has sex with a lot of women—nothing works.

“Finally he realizes that enjoying little moments with friends, that’s the real meaning. This is timeless wisdom! The power of modern English vernacular is made for it.”

Just because he’s focusing on street talk doesn’t mean Friedman is taking his subject lightly. This is serious work, he insists, meant to draw young Jews back to connect with their tradition. He’s working with a rabbi “to make sure it’s kosher” and is investing a lot of his own money.

And because these translations are being crowd sourced, the outline he has in his mind may or may not pan out.

“I don’t know what the final version will be like,” he says, “but the website will be live in a month or two. We’ll see then.”

Jewish Money


Give Bernard Madoff credit for one good deed: As much as his self-confessed Ponzi scheme revealed weaknesses in the Jewish world, it also laid bare many ofour strengths.

Trials and tribulations tend to do just that — bring to light the good, the bad, the ugly. When some people behave at their worst, others are forced to, or revealed to, behave at their humanly best.

That’s what any fair look at the Madoff scandal shows. The standard worry is that Madoff’s actions will give rise to a vicious anti-Semitic backlash. But I don’t see it, despite the fact that all the cretinous Jew-haters have come forward online, using this scandal as proof of Jewish financial perfidy.

Complete Madoff CoverageEarlier this week, when I entered the search terms “Madoff” and “Jewish” into Google, the top responses included JewishJournal.com and stormfront.org, a neo-Nazi Web site. That should alarm no one: The only people more obsessed than neo-Nazis with a famous person’s specific degree of Jewishness are Jewish journalists.

But anti-Semites never need a reason to hate Jews. They were penning their poison before Madoff, and they’ll be spreading it long after he’s gone. Madoff doesn’t make anti-Semites more rational, just more topical.

But will their spew gain more traction in the wider community? I doubt it.

It’s not just that Madoff’s victims were disproportionately Jewish. (That fact alone should give pause to the idea that we possess some super-Spidey sense of financial acumen.)

It’s that the list of victims reveals something truly remarkable about the Jewish world: its deep and far-reaching philanthropy.

What, for instance, does this partial list of Madoff-afflicted charities have in common: Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the Chais Family Foundation, the Wunderkinder Foundation, Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, The JEHT Foundation, Julian J. Levitt Foundation, Technion—The Israel Institute of Technology?

The answer is that they spend much, if not all, of their time and resources helping non-Jews.

Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation supports more than 75 diverse organizations and institutions, from the American Museum of Natural History to the Young Musicians Foundation. It gave generously to Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, two institutions founded by Los Angeles Jews that serve a largely non-Jewish population.

A much-loved anti-Semitic trope is that “tentacles” of Jewish power encircle Wall Street, the White House, the media. But the truth is that it is the tentacles of Jewish philanthropy that reach far beyond our small, numerically insignificant community.

Public radio? The Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation gave millions to WGBH in Boston. According to The Boston Globe, the Shapiro Foundation gave more than $80.3 million over the past decade to hundreds of schools, hospitals, arts groups and community-based nonprofits in the Boston area and beyond.

Human rights? The JEHT Foundation in Massachusetts gave millions to the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, among many other organizations.

The arts? The Arthur I. and Sydelle F. Meyer Charitable Foundation of West Palm Beach, Fla., wiped out by Madoff, supported the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, the Norton Museum of Art and a downtown Palm Beach amphitheater, among others. Tentacles indeed.

The list is much, much longer: The money that Madoff lost had done incalculable good, saving lives, advancing art and science, making the world a better place.

In his Sunday column, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote that liberal Americans are less generous than conservative Americans. “Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad,” Kristof wrote, “yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.”

I don’t know if Jews, among the most liberal of voters, fall into the cheapskate category, or whether Jewish giving pushes up the liberal average. There is no comprehensive study of Jewish philanthropy to compare Jewish giving, whether to synagogues or for other purposes, to general American giving, according to Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

But if you scroll through the list of Madoff’s philanthropic victims, you’ll find plenty of evidence that even Jews who have shed every vestige of their ancient practice short of circumcision still resonate to the prophetic call to heal the wider world.

In the second volume of his “Code of Jewish Ethics,” (Bell Tower, 2009), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin traces the textual roots for this precept back to the Talmud.

“The Talmud ruled that, ‘we provide financial support to the gentile poor as well as to the Jewish poor,'” recounts Telushkin. “This ruling was issued at a time when the non-Jews among whom the Jews lived were usually idolators with values antithetical and often hostile to Judaism.”

Telushkin concludes: “If we donate only to Jewish causes or to individual Jews in need, we may stop seeing everyone as being equally created in God’s image and therefore worthy of our help. After all, we are all members of one race, the human race.”

That’s something the Madoff scandal makes clear Jews haven’t forgotten.

The dream of a beautiful bat mitzvah — but whose dream would it fulfill?


For my daughter to have a bat mitzvah would be a dream come true — but for whom, for her or for me? Throughout my life, people have told me that I am only half Jewish, as my father is Jewish and mother is Japanese Buddhist, although Reform Jews now recognize children of Jewish fathers as Jews. I remember my own childhood as a series of colorful feasts of Jewish and Japanese tastes. But I still hunger for more meaningful cultural and religious traditions, as I had no formal rites of passage, no opportunity to study for a bat mitzvah or a tea ceremony.

Growing up with a Jewish father and Japanese mother did not mean I visited double the number of temples during holidays, like some special at your favorite restaurant. Instead I watched longingly as Jewish kids celebrated Chanukah and Japanese kids celebrated the Shichi-go-san, a festival for girls and boys that celebrates the 3rd, 5th and 7th birthday. At my house we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday.

While life in my family was always amusing and entertaining as a multicultural and interfaith family, we sacrificed both cultures and faiths in the interest of supposed peace and avoidance of cultural conflict and disharmony. As a result, the absence of religious and ethnic identity has left me longing for a personal identity I am just now beginning to find.

When I look at my daughters, I see their faces as both azoy shayne and uruwashii, “so beautiful” in Yiddish and in Japanese. I hope they never have to share my experience of being shunned and shamed for not belonging truly to either one culture or another. As a child I found it laborious and dispiriting to explain to Jewish and Japanese kids why I did not look just like them with either perfectly straight or wavy hair.

We celebrated holidays with few customs except culinary ones, with both miso and chicken soup served at the celebratory table. Growing up with Jewish and Japanese parents meant I lived among two distinct cultures, with an identity that was less secure and more obscure. As I did back then, I continue to long for a stronger sense of my Jewish culture, as well as to be considered simply Jewish rather than half.

Since my parents were artists who believed individual faith was a personal decision, even for small children, there are no marked passages to remember. Except if you count the afternoon I wore my grandmother’s silk kimono with my best friend’s prayer shawl to a Jewish deli in Hollywood. OK, I concede, there were no ceremonies — but that was certainly a rite of passage!

I suppose I should listen to sympathetic friends who attempt to console me.

“Saying you’re only half-Jewish is like saying you’re only half-pregnant,” says one. “Even a bit Jewish means you’re one of the tribe!” he continues, as he passes me a piece of bacon.

Remind me not to consult him should I decide to make a kosher home.

Or there is my friend who lists all the “cool” famous people who are half-Jewish, like Sean Penn, Harrison Ford and Gloria Steinem. Even Geraldo Rivera got to have a bar mitzvah, although his mother was Jewish.

My middle daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mommy, I think I am a Jewish girl. Can I attend Hebrew school like Daddy did?”

“Yes,” I answered, as I kissed her tan, cool forehead. “You are a Jewish girl, and you will know all of the traditions I never did.”

As my daughter will soon turn 10, my husband laments that she has not received any formal Jewish education. Dancing the hora at weddings, watching the Marx Brothers and trying on his yarmulke for laughs does not count.

Unlike me, my husband had a bar mitzvah when most ceremonies were still respectable, unlike a bat mitzvah I attended in which I couldn’t figure out which person on stage was the rapper for hire or rabbi for hire. Maybe they were the same person.

I can think of no parent who does not wish more for their children than they had, but I remain in a quandary: Do I wish my girls to have a bat mitzvah celebration because I missed out, or for more honorable reasons? Many American Jewish families consider having a bar or bat mitzvah to be the sole experience of their children’s Jewish education, a symbolic occasion securing them in the Jewish tradition.

Indeed, I have decided this is a gift I will give to our daughters, who are confident that they are Jewish and deserve to study in the traditional way all the more. Perhaps I am no different than my Jewish sisters and brothers, as I too want to ensure that my daughters feel secure in their Jewish identity, with this celebration a testament to their strong cultural history. The worst that might happen might be that they would study for a few years, receive a little more gelt than guilt and experience a valuable celebration they would neither be able to forget, nor wish to.

In the meantime, I have dreams of what my own bat mitzvah might have been like in laid-back, lackadaisical 1970s Southern California, when many expectations and traditions for children were abandoned, leaving many members of my generation feeling abandonment.

I see myself in a proper but pretty dress from my favorite Sears catalog I used to keep in a drawer by my bed. I am in a beautiful L.A. temple near my father’s Beverly Hills boyhood home and I begin to chant from the Torah in my songbird voice, while both my Jewish and Japanese relatives are verklempt and tokui — overcome with emotion and pride in two languages.

Too many mazel tovs and kisses are given to count, and my lyrical mother gently fixes a velvet ribbon in my hair while my father tells me how proud he is.

After that, my dream is not so clear, although there is some blurry vision of overeating knishes and California rolls simultaneously until I have to lie down, something I am still guilty of today.

Somebody please call the doctor.

Francesca Biller-Safran is an investigative print and broadcast journalist and recipient of The Edward R. Murrow Award. She specializes in political and social inequalities and is currently working on a book about her background. She is married with three daughters, lives in the Bay Area and can be reached at fsafran@hotmail.com.

Reprinted with permission from InterfaithFamily.com.

There is more going on than just a ceremony and a party


I have a confession to make.

I punched out my brother at his bar mitzvah. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

I was sitting at a table with him and a couple of cousins, and he told this joke I didn’t find very funny. I looked at this smirk on his face, and I just couldn’t stand it. When he did it again, I lost it.

It was strange and very unlike me. It’s not as if I was getting into fights all the time. I was a pretty mellow kid.

Now, compare that to a story a friend relayed to me recently. He told me about the first time his son put on tefillin. The bar mitzvah boy said that he felt as if God was standing right next to him. Deep stuff.

So while my brother got punched out at his bar mitzvah — by me — this other kid met God. Of course, some kids start getting into trouble at this age, while others really start to excel as students.

Why are people so prone to intense experiences at or around this right of passage? Is it just a coincidence, or is there something deeper going on?

Albert Einstein, no dummy himself, once asserted that God does not play dice with the universe. I think he was right.

Most rabbis, when talking or writing about b’nai mitzvah, mention becoming a grown-up, gaining a higher ability to discern between good and evil, becoming responsible for one’s own actions, being counted in a minyan, etc. While all these things may be true technically, they are a little counterintuitive.

Why is a 12- or 13-year-old kid suddenly an adult? They sure don’t look grown up; most aren’t even done growing yet.

It turns out that all Jewish rules, holidays and mitzvahs are actually a reflection of a kabbalistic cosmic reality. For example, Shabbat corresponds to the day of the week most opportune for spiritual renewal, the time when all the energy for the next six days comes in.

Men put tefillin on their heads and left arms to influence their hearts and minds in a more positive direction. Most people probably assume that their soul is with them entirely at birth, but Kabbalah disagrees. In the 15th century, Rabbi Issac Luria, known as The Ari, explained how a person’s neshama, or soul, comes down from heaven in stages, and that 12 or 13 is when one of the largest pieces finally comes down.

Sounds odd, I know. But check this out for yourself. Pick a memory from your childhood, any memory will do. Focus on it. Most people will find it kind of fuzzy and dreamlike.

Now, think of an event a few years later, during your teen years. Suddenly, those memories become as crisp as HD.

The Zohar, the principal kabbalistic text written in the first century C.E. by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, teaches that your soul is actually your intellect. Taken one step further, your brain is simply a processor that your soul uses, much like a computer. So, before b’nai mitzvah age, you are simply “not all there.”

Ever had a conversation with a 5-year-old? Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

So, once a person is “all there,” it makes sense that he or she can be held accountable for his or her actions. And of course, this is also where the roller-coaster of teen years begins.

Soul newly complete, we are bombarded with new thoughts, intellect and desires. It’s a wild, sometimes confusing ride.

But becoming responsible for one’s actions is not the only change. We also become responsible for our tikkun, the rectification a person is supposed to go through during his life.

Rabbi Luria wrote about this in detail in his ground-breaking Shaar HaGilgulim (Gates of Reincarnation). Apparently, a person is responsible for fixing his character flaws, learning certain lessons and paying back debts from prior lifetimes.

Everyone has their own challenges in life regarding career, relationships, parents, substance abuse, you name it. According to Luria, all these challenges are heaven-sent to allow a person to iron themselves out, so to speak. And it all begins at b’nai mitzvah time.

Most Jews would probably be surprised to learn that reincarnation is a Jewish concept, but it is. In the Midrash and in the Zohar, it is explained that Abel was reincarnated into Noah, then later into Moses, and that the 10 martyrs killed by the Romans were being punished for slandering Israel when they “spied out the Land” in their incarnations as the tribal heads.

So, when a kid turns b’nai mitzvah age, there is a lot more going on than just a religious ceremony and a good party. According to the sources quoted, the ceremony is an acknowledgement of much deeper things taking place in one’s soul, when one’s true self is present for the first time, along with all the things that go along with that.

Of course, none of this excuses me for hitting my brother during his big moment. Stewart, if you’re reading this, I really am sorry.

Matt Lipeles is a nice guy and doesn’t hit anyone these days — even if they really deserve it. He can be reached at malipeles@earthlink.net.

This book can help kick off successful year of study


Each week, children around the world partake in the b’nai mitzvah, a life-altering event that normally paves the way for greater Jewish participation. But how many of them actually know the meaning and origin of the simcha?

Given my own experience as a b’nai mitzvah instructor, I would expect it to be a relatively small number.

And before Bert Metter’s three sons went through their respective bar mitzvahs, he said he knew very little as well. Metter never had a bar mitzvah of his own, but he said after going through the experience with his children, he emerged a bit of an expert.

In 1984, Metter wrote “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: How Jewish Boys and Girls Come of Age,” a guide specifically geared toward the b’nai mitzvah student. But more than two decades later, Metter said the book deserved an update, because it no longer reflects contemporary ceremonies, especially since practices and celebrations have evolved.

“The whole position of the ceremony and cultural life has changed over the last 25 years,” said Metter, a 79-year-old Connecticut resident. “Many more non-Jewish people attend the ceremony, there’s more diversity now and the meaning of the ceremony has grown in importance.”

With the August release of his revised, “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah: The Ceremony, the Party, and How the Day Came to Be” (Clarion Books), Metter hopes to impart some timely clarity before young adults take to the bimah, by providing a “concise background” for those with a vague understanding of the b’nai mitzvah.

“Most books are too complicated,” said Metter, who has written the book at a fourth-grade level. Instead, he wants “to bridge the gap between kids that are going through the ceremony and the more secular kids without the religious training.”

Framing the b’nai mitzvah as similar to coming-of-age rites the world over and throughout history, Metter explores the evolution of the Jewish ceremony. Less physical and more spiritual than its counterparts, the age for b’nai mitzvah was set at 13 for boys and 12 more recently for girls, because these were considered turning-point ages. He writes that this stands in contrast to Jewish law, which put draft and tax ages at 20.

And while the bar mitzvah has been a tradition for boys since the Middle Ages, Metter devoted equal time to the more recent active roles women have taken in synagogue life, from Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, daughter of Reconstructionist movement founder Mordecai Kaplan, the first female to become bat mitzvah, to passages about Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first female rabbi.

In an effort to inspire students, Metter includes celebrity b’nai mitzvah testimonials from stars like Jamie Gertz, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marlee Matlin, Jeremy Piven, Ben Stiller and Zoe Weizenbaum.

Metter writes that Gyllenhaal’s party was in a homeless shelter, because his parents wanted him to appreciate how good his life was. But for Gertz, her bat mitzvah day was one disaster after another. She ran a 103-degree temperature, and a snowstorm kept half of her relatives from attending the ceremony. “I enjoyed my son’s bar mitzvah much more,” she says.

Covering ceremony basics, from the Torah scrolls and tallit to prayers, the book also provides insight as to what the student may be thinking on the nights prior to the ceremony.

“You lie in bed, and in your mind you go over the prayers that you are to read tomorrow. And you recite lines from your speech you will have to give,” wrote Metter, who spent several months researching the topic and interviewed one Reform and two Conservative rabbis to ensure the guide’s accuracy.

And besides the traditional reasons for the b’nai mitzvah — among them, publicly affirming one’s faith — Metter introduces young readers to the concept that preparation for the ceremony is helpful in that it helps them face “moral questions.” “The religious study encouraged by and required for the ceremony helps prepare them for facing these questions,” he writes.

Helpful to students, parents and tutors, “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah” provides an excellent overview of what the b’nai mitzvah is about. in addition to getting them excited about the whole process.

In addition to discussing the different b’nai mitzvah traditions and practices from cultures throughout the world, Metter also covers the growing practice of celebrating a b’nai mitzvah in Israel or in a congregation in the United States or abroad that has specific historical significance.

Although he’s more in favor of standard ceremonies and modest parties, Metter remains moderately balanced when explaining the different customs and styles of celebration. For every extravagant party that might feature Ja Rule or Ashanti, there is a modest small-town celebration, he writes, and yet both students will likely enjoy their simchas.

Written with a more religiously liberal crowd in mind, this book is one that can help kick off a successful year of b’nai mitzvah study.

Metter, an advertising executive, is currently at work on a book about helping kids improve their SAT scores. Expanding on the Jewish celebrations theme, he is also mulling over a book about the Passover seder.

As far as an adult bar mitzvah, another topic covered in his 80-page “Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah,” Metter isn’t ruling out the possibility of studying to become a son of the commandment.

“I plan on doing one in near future,” he said.

Time warp again? Take a step toward tradition


When I think back to my bat mitzvah 30-plus years ago, here’s what I remember most: following the photographer’s prompts as I posed against the tree in the synagogue courtyard, standing nervously on the bimah chanting my Torah portion, and giving a speech in which I excoriated President Nixon. I don’t recall how I tied that in with the parsha, but I relished having the congregation laugh at my political barbs. I loved dancing with my friends and hoped that the boy I had secretly admired for months would finally realize what a prize I was and begin to like me in return.

My bat mitzvah was exciting and fun. It even gave me a vague notion of the meaning of Jewish adulthood. My grandfather, who trained me for my bat mitzvah, claimed that back in the 1940s he pioneered bat mitzvahs (at least here in Los Angeles) when he trained my aunt for this rite of passage. My grandfather came to the United States from Europe with visions of a more modern religious life. He was proud to have blazed the trail for bat mitzvahs in the Conservative movement.

So what would he think of his great-granddaughter pushing the clock back and having a bat mitzvah, shared mostly with girlfriends, sans Torah reading? Well, styles in fashion and religion come and go, and over time my husband and I became more committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle.

Just as the peasant look that I wore in the ’70s has returned, so has the Orthodoxy that that my grandfather left behind in Bialystock.

I’m the first to admit that I once would have scoffed at the idea that any daughter of mine (I had been a dues-paying member of NOW, after all) would not read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah. It was too regressive to deserve comment. It took several years until I was willing to entertain the Torah’s views about spirituality. It rankled to learn that some of the ideas were totally, unrepentantly politically incorrect, including notions about men’s and women’s differing roles in public ritual life. But the insights they revealed about human psychology rang true.

It’s very clear to most people unburdened with a master’s in sociology that men and women need different types of nurturing for emotional, spiritual and intellectual health. Yet many academics still kick and scream when you state the obvious (just ask former Harvard President Larry Summers). Men’s obligations to attend minyan, lead services and read from the Torah are all part of this care-and-feeding program for men.

Psychologically, it’s brilliant: men, who tend to lack meaningful male bonding, can get regular doses at their neighborhood minyan every day. Women will bond with other women, minyan or no minyan. Just watch us.

That’s why I didn’t lose sleep that my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be a less public affair than her brothers’ bar mitzvahs. Girls are considered to become bat mitzvah at 12, again revealing the Torah’s insight that girls are usually a year ahead of boys in terms of maturity at that age.

Like her brothers, Yael was excited and a little awed at the prospect of becoming responsible for her own actions, for mitzvahs as well as misdeeds, responsible to fast, to pray, to continue to grow spiritually and to contribute her special talents and energy to the community.

We also wanted her bat mitzvah to be more than just an expensive birthday party. Of course we had great food, music, dancing and an art project that the girls made and donated to Chai Lifeline for their Purim baskets. But Yael also prepared by studying a text for several months with a teacher (in her case, me). Together we chose to study the Eishet Chayil, a portion of Proverbs that is traditionally sung in honor of the Jewish woman at the Shabbat table each Friday night.

We plumbed the text and its elucidation, written by a phenomenal rebbetzin in Jerusalem. It was the first time that I had gone beyond a superficial reading of the Eishet Chayil, despite having sung it hundreds of times. Together, Yael and I tried to understand the deeper insights these proverbs reveal about life, about the spiritual potential of the Jewish woman, and about faith. Many of the concepts were beyond the grasp of even the most mature 12-year-old. Still, we soldiered on, and by the end we each shared a sense of accomplishment.

On her big day, Yael spoke with maturity and depth about the concepts of oz and hadar, strength and splendor, for which the Jewish woman is praised in Eishet Chayil. She explained that this is the kind of strength that springs from faith in God and from the courage of one’s convictions.

Listening to her speak with confidence and poise, I was willing to bet that her great-grandfather would have been beaming with pride. True, she may not have stepped up to the bimah with a tallit draped over her shoulder the way her mother had, but she was clearly and purposefully stepping up to Jewish adulthood with joy, pride and faith. And ultimately, that’s what any bat or bar mitzvah should really be about, isn’t it?


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column @ judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Good albums drown out naysayers’ dire predictions


All in all, 2006 was a very good year for Jewish music. Fourteen CDs won the five-star plaudit, which is certainly a hopeful sign and a pointed rejoinder to those naysayers who have been proclaiming the death of (choose one): 1) klezmer; 2) new Jewish music; 3) old Jewish music.

On the downside, however, four of those albums were the products of deceased composers/artists. But still, the Kiddush cup is better than 70 percent full.

Here are my top 10 Jewish records of the year in alphabetical order:

Morton Feldman: “String Quartet (1979)” (Naxos). From a performer’s standpoint, it would be hard to imagine a quartet piece more physically demanding than this one, which is nearly 80 minutes long, meant to be played very slowly and features some truly mind-blowing shifts in dynamics.

Feldman was one of the most creative and rigorous of Webern-influenced serialists, and his work rewards — no, demands — close attention. If you can give yourself over to this piece of music completely, you will be richly rewarded, but it is almost as tough a test for a listener as it is for a performer. This recording by the Group for Contemporary Music is masterful.

German Goldenshteyn: “A Living Tradition” (Living Traditions). This is not merely a very fine album of traditional klezmer, it is also a historical document of 20th century Jewish culture of incalculable value. Goldenshteyn, who died earlier this year at 71, was a bridge between the Jewish musicians of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia and the young musicians of the American klezmer renaissance.

He was a walking encyclopedia of klezmer tunes, carrying in his head more than 800 songs, almost none of them known here. Fortunately, he imparted them to those younger musicians, and they are being published posthumously.

Equally fortunate, he was recorded in December 2005 at KlezKamp so that we have an auditory record of his playing to go along with the notated one. He was a superb clarinetist, with a bedrock sense of time and a deep, throaty tone.
The band that backs him is excellent, and the sound is remarkably good, given that this session was rather off the cuff. A must for anyone who cares seriously about klezmer. Available from www.livingtraditions.org.

The Klezmatics: “Wonder Wheel” (JMG). This CD continues the Klezmatics’ collaborations with the Woody Guthrie Archives, which is looking like a very fruitful pairing. Drawing a wide range of moods and tones from the archives collection of previously unset lyrics, the band gets to show off its considerable range, from a funky faux-Latin “Mermaid Avenue” to a lovely Calpyso-ish lullaby, “Headdy Down,” to a weirdly Asiatic/alt.country “Pass Away” to a klezmer “Goin’ Away to Sea.”

One of the surprises of the set is how profoundly spiritual some of the Guthrie lyrics are; one expects the good-natured progressivism of something like “Come When I Call You” and “Heaven,” but the deeply felt religious feeling of “Holy Ground” is unexpected and moving.

David Krakauer and Socalled w/Klezmer Madness!: “Bubbemeises: Lies My Gramma Told Me” (Label Bleu). This is by far the most interesting synthesis of hip-hop and klezmer attempted to date. It helps that Krakauer and Socalled are on the same page; that Socalled’s beats give a deliciously herky-jerky underpinning to Krakauer’s natural affinity for eccentric rhythms, and that the band is one of the best in this music. If you come for Krakauer’s clarinet playing, you won’t be disappointed. He’s in fine form here.

For the most part, the hip-hop elements won’t put off the true believer, although the bizarre, dirge-like “Rumania, Rumania” may prove hard for some to swallow. But it is precisely in the synthesis, the mix of phat beats and klezmer, the use of sampling and cut-and-mix, that this CD represents a significant step forward.

Ljova: “Vjola: World on Four Strings” (Kapustnik). After hearing this extraordinary album, you’ll never tell another viola joke again. Ljova, a Russian émigré now living in New York, is a superb player and composer, and this set, mostly of originals, ranges in emotion and colors across the globe.

Multitracked alongside accordionist Michael Bregman, Ljova is a virtuosic violist who can make the instrument do just about anything, and the set runs gracefully from the poignant to the jolly. This brilliant debut is available from www.kapustnik.com.

Jeremiah Lockwood: “American Primitive” (Vee-Ron). Lockwood got his start playing straight-ahead acoustic blues, and this fascinating recording draws on that part of his background. But “American Primitive” is anything but straight-ahead.
Imagine Captain Beefheart “unplugged,” and you have some idea of what this set sounds like. Dark and brooding variations on delta blues and the darker currents of bluegrass, filled with jangling guitar riffs and strangulated vocals. Not to all tastes, but a brilliant calling card from Lockwood.

Frank London: “Hazanos” (Tzadik). Since I acquired this, a week hasn’t passed in which I haven’t listened to it at least a couple of times. That is, to say the least, not usual for me, but it tells you how much I love this record.

Working with a brilliant rhythm section (David Chevan on bass, Anthony Coleman on keyboards, Gerald Cleaver on drums), several other superb musicians and several brilliant voices — most notably cantors Jack Mendelson and Simon Spiro — London has crafted the single-most compelling fusion of jazz and Jewish traditional liturgical music that I have heard to date. This is simply one of the best records I have heard in 10 years. Go buy it right now. Period.

Roy Nathanson: “Sotto Voce” (AUM Fidelity). From the start, this is clearly a very different Nathanson album, with human beatbox Napoleon Maddox supplying the rhythms and Nathanson coming up with a lot of the words. The result is a very satisfying, frequently funny and always witty jazz excursion, anchored by Nathanson’s superlative sax playing and fellow Jazz Passenger Curtis Fowlkes offering his usual trombone ingenuity.

The album runs the gamut from a vaguely satirical but surprisingly deeply felt “Sunrise Sunset” to a funk combustible “Sunny.” And all five band members contribute nicely judged vocals.

MOCA’s latest exhibition reveals the early years of the ‘Feminist Revolution’


That women corporate executives are now indicted for malfeasance reminds me of the old Zionist litany that: “We won’t have a normal Jewish state until it includes gangsters and whores.”

If the glass ceiling hasn’t exactly been shattered, it does show a bit of leakage, although it’s still difficult to determine comfort levels about a woman being third in line for the presidency — or even a viable candidate.

Does this move toward egalitarianism now constitute a state of normalcy?

These are just some of the questions that make it worth contemplating the significance of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s bold look back at a pivotal period for women in art in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” an exhibition that opens March 4 at The Geffen Contemporary and runs through July 16, 2007.

Women now make up about 30 percent of the membership of the Association of Art Museum Directors; that’s a huge difference from the early 1970s, when I first became a member and there were only a few women included.

Revisiting the once hot topic of feminism ought to be more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and the inclusiveness of MOCA’s exhibition — curated by former MOCA curator Connie Butler, currently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — suggests a new level of seriousness that ought to be of special interest to Jewish viewers.

We, too, have seen a shift in the way Jews are viewed in the society.

We’re now a long way from the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s, when fears of “special pleading” kept many Jews from boldly protesting events in Europe that we subsequently came to call the Holocaust. But that doesn’t mean we should shun the topic of anti-Semitism, how it shaped the role of Jews in American society, and how it once gave us a special sensitivity to the plight of other groups subject to prejudice and indignity.

The MOCA exhibition “will highlight the crucial 15-year period between 1965 and 1980 during which feminism became a cultural force, and the discourse of feminism intersected with the practices of artists around the world.” This exhibition is not about a particular style, but about attitude and about artists positioning themselves in relation to the art world: As women, as feminists and, foremost, as artists. And that should make for an engaging experience of our perception of this art. And once again, Jewish analogies abound, since there has long been discussion about whether there is any such thing as Jewish art” or whether there are “Jewish artists.”

Regarding either Jewish or feminist art, we may ultimately be stuck with Justice Potter Stewart’s comment about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” And perhaps that will be the most valuable contribution of this exhibition.

Just as I have known artists who didn’t want to be seen in a Jewish context, fearing it might diminish some larger connotations of their work, I have known women artists who wouldn’t want to be shown in Washington’s Museum for Women in the Arts. Strange, since the artist never knows how she will be absorbed by the viewer.

Do we know what people are thinking when they look at Chagall’s painting of a Jew wearing tefillin at the Art Institute of Chicago?

Do people looking at the abstract color-field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler or the sculptures of Louise Nevelson — two women, artists, and Jews — make associations to specific gender or ethnic issues?

Probably not, since they are among the handful of successful women artists who overcame typecasting to make it to the mainstream prior to the advent of feminism, which may suggest why they are not included in this exhibition.

Using scholar Peggy Phelan’s definition, as stated in the show’s advance materials, that “feminism is the conviction that gender has been, and continues to be, a fundamental category for the organization of culture” and that “the pattern of that organization favors men over women,” the exhibition suggests an enormous diversity both in the range of work and in the range of attitudes about what feminism means to women artists (presumably men aren’t capable of expressing ideas about feminism in their work).

Again, Jewish analogies abound, since there is surely no Jewish style, but various Jews have expressed themselves Jewishly in their art, while others have emphatically eschewed such an approach. And what about artists embracing issues that don’t “belong” to them? For example, artists using the Holocaust or racism as a theme, even if they themselves have no personal relation to either issue.

As with any interesting and provocative exhibition, “WACK” promises to raise more questions than it likely will be able to answer. Which may well be all to the good, since we surely need thoughtful questions more than we need simplistic answers. Jewish viewers might approach this work by considering whether there’s any connection between feminism and Jewishness in the work of the many Jewish women in this exhibition (indeed, so many they can’t all be listed here).

Is it fair to suggest that in the 1970s Jews were still in the forefront of what might be thought liberal politics, and that this explains Jewish women embracing feminism? Or did Jewish women feel a special need for stridency, considering the long tradition of male domination in traditional Jewish religious practice. (Yes, I know, women have “special” obligations, such as lighting Shabbat candles; but let’s admit that the Jewish tradition has relegated women to the back of the bus. Indeed, even today’s gender-sensitive liturgies, citing the four so-called matriarchs, omit the two poor handmaidens who went through the pains of childbirth to help make that full dozen of Jacob’s boys!)

There’s no question that such issues inform the work of Chicago — one of feminist art’s most vocal and visible presences. But Jewish questions also enrich the work of Eleanor Antin, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Hél?ne Aylon (the latter, strangely, missing from this show), and it will be worth pondering, in the presence of the work, in what way they do or don’t feel evident in the work of Eva Hesse, Miriam Schapiro and others.

Prager won’t apologize after slamming Quran in Congress


Conservative pundit Dennis Prager has come under fire from Muslim and Jewish groups after he attacked an incoming Muslim congressman who plans to bring a Quran to the House swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4.

But Prager said he stands by statements made in his column published Nov. 28 on the Townhall.com Web site and has no intention of apologizing to Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) or his critics.

“I called on [Ellison] not to break a 200-year tradition,” Prager, who is also a radio talk show host, told The Journal. “He thinks it’s important, and I think it’s important.”

“If you are incapable of taking an oath on [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” Prager wrote, adding that if Ellison brought a Quran to the ceremony, it would do “more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”

Ellison’s decision to carry a Quran into the ceremony has infuriated some conservatives, who draw a fine line between constitutional rights and American tradition. However, Ellison has some defenders in the GOP. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) told McClatchy Newspapers that Ellison’s ability to hold the book of his choice while he takes his oath embodies freedom of religion.

Prager is also being taken to task for equating Ellison’s proposed use of the Quran at the swearing-in ceremony with a racist toting a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” “On what grounds will those defending Ellison’s right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?” he wrote.

Prager defends the Quran-“Mein Kampf” parallel in his Nov. 5 column, saying he was presenting a slippery-slope argument and was not defaming Islam. He writes thatpeople who draw such conclusions are “deliberately lying to defame me rather than respond to my arguments. A slippery slope argument is not an equivalence argument.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called for Prager, who broadcasts locally on KRLA-AM 870, to be removed from his recent appointment to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Prager’s five-year term as a presidential appointee to the council expires on Jan. 15, 2011.

CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad wrote in a letter to Fred S. Zeidman, council chair: “No one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policymaking position at a taxpayer-funded institution that seeks to educate Americans about the destructive impact hatred has had and continues to have on every society.”

The Anti-Defamation League labeled the Nov. 28 column as “intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American,” adding that Prager’s recent appointment to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council holds him to a higher standard.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, wants Prager to apologize directly to Ellison, who converted to Islam from Catholicism as a 19-year-old college student. “The notion that the exercise of your first amendment rights should be banned because someone else might misuse your words or misinterpret your actions violates two centuries of Supreme Court rulings,” Saperstein said.

Prager is a popular speaker among Jewish groups around the country,
commanding appearance fees upwards of $10,000.

While most of these groups, contacted this week by The Forward newspaper,
declined to comment on Prager’s remarks, several said they would reconsider
inviting Prager barring an apology from him.

“There’s lines you draw, and Dennis probably crossed the line,” Stephen
Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said in
an interview with the Forward. “Just because we can get by with the first
Five Books and some people say it’s okay doesn’t mean it’s okay for the next
guy to stand up and say if they can’t swear on a Christian Bible, they’re
not qualified. He’s pandering… [and] I wouldn’t want the Muslim community to
bring in a panderer. So that’s what we’d have to think about.”

In his Nov. 28 column, Prager claimed that all members of Congress, including Jews, use a Christian Bible for the swearing-in ceremony.

However, members of Congress are sworn in together in a simple ceremony that only requires that the representatives raise their right hand. Individuals may carry a sacred text, but its presence isn’t required. Representatives can bring in whatever they want, said Fred Beuttler, House of Representatives deputy historian.

In his column, Prager also claimed that no “Mormon official demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.” In 1997, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), a Mormon, carried a Bible that included the Book of Mormon to his swearing-in ceremony.
But Ellison’s use of a Quran isn’t without precedent. In 1999, Osman Siddique became the first Muslim to serve abroad as a U.S. ambassador, and he took his oath using both a Quran and a Bible.

Prager told The Journal that he would have no problem if Ellison brought along a Bible in addition to the Quran. And while he agrees that Ellison has the constitutional right to use only the Quran, Prager thinks the incoming freshman should consider the cultural and historic implications of his act.

“It’s an unbroken tradition since George Washington, and he wants
to substitute it with his values,” he said.

Prager said he will not take Saperstein up on his call for an apology to Ellison. Instead, he believes groups like the ADL and the Religious Action Center have wronged him.

“I think Saperstein owes me an apology,” Prager said. “It’s chutzpah … arrogance on his part.”

To read Dennis Prager’s column on Ellison, click here.

L.A. Times in turmoil: is it good for the Jews?


Thinking about the mess at the Los Angeles Times, I can’t help but raise the question we usually bring to matters great and small. How does it affect the Jews?

The paper is going through hard times. The owner, Tribune Co., unhappy with the paper’s substantial profits, ordered publisher Jeffery Johnson and editor Dean Baquet to make big cuts. When they refused, Johnson was forced out. Baquet is hanging on, trying to forestall the inevitable.

For this particular Jew, it’s a sad time. I worked there more than 30 years. I retired in 2001, and I still have friends at the paper. I talked a lot to two of them last week and shared their worries over their futures and those of their families. It’s also sad to read the paper, to see it shrink, to watch the editorial staff drop from 1,200 to 940 and, likely, eventually to Chicago’s goal of about 800.

Why is this bad for the Jews? It’s bad because as residents of the Southland, we have a long and great tradition of civic activism, going back to early in the 20th century and continuing today in homeowner groups, neighborhood councils, public school support organizations, political parties, sports leagues and all the other activities that permit this sprawling area to function.

Because of their intense activism, Jews have been among the paper’s most devoted readers and fiercest critics. A substantial part of the paper’s circulation base has long been in the broad Jewish belt extending from the Westside through the West Valley.

Granted, the base has dwindled. Each year, I see fewer copies of the Times in front yards in my Westside neighborhood early in the morning. Some of the losses come from exsubscribers who now get their news on line. Other former Times subscribers are single-issue Jews who abandoned the paper after parsing every story about Israel, looking for imagined bias or anti-Semitism.

But a large number of us remain. For us, and for everyone else, a strong Times is important because it is one of the few institutions that holds this vast region together.

When I went to work there in 1970, covering politics, I was overwhelmed by the geographic immensity of my beat. In those ancient days, before the Global Positioning System, I was given a thick book known as a Thomas Guide, and I used its maps to navigate through the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, through Watts and Reseda, from Malibu to Boyle Heights.

Everywhere I went, the Times was a big deal. It connected these diverse regions, saw things in a regional way and championed regional solutions to the problems of the Southland, whether they were smog, education, health care or transportation.

As I began at the Times, less than a decade had passed since Otis Chandler had raised the paper from its long years as a right-wing rag to a publication of national renown. Jews, who had been brought up to read the old Daily News and to scorn the Times, had become loyal Times subscribers, depending on the paper for news of the state Capitol, their city halls, their freeways and their schools.

Public affairs was just part of the package, not as interesting to many readers as the sports pages and Jim Murray. And not as vital to many as the stories produced by the foreign staff, the Washington bureau and correspondents around the country. And not as important to many as news of movies, food, music, books, galleries and other aspects of the arts.

The secret of the Times’ success was the package, putting it all together. No matter what their interests, we knew our readers had something in common — they were readers, and they found something in the paper to interest them.

Now the management of the Tribune Co. is tearing up the package or at least diminishing it.
You can see it in the paper. The sports section grows thinner. I can get more and better sports news from the Web. The front section is squeezed for space, as is the California section.

This means that reporters who dig up good stories have to fight for a place in a paper that can barely find enough room for daily news. And as the staff shrinks, the remaining reporters are spending their time catching up with fast-moving events, rather than digging below the surface.

This is the way to lose readers. And as space and staff dwindles, the Times will no longer be able to exercise its function as the one regional voice of the Southland. Our problems are regional. What happens in a school in Carson has an impact on one in the Valley. The closing of an emergency ward in Inglewood will have a direct affect on emergency care on the Westside. If the paper can’t cover this — extensively as the news breaks, as well as with in-depth investigative reporting, both of which take substantial resources — we all lose.

This is why the dismantling of the once great Los Angeles Times is bad for the Jews and everyone else.

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Live from the ‘hood: we’re gonna party like it’s 5667


I love Judaism. It’s got answers for everything. If something bothers me, I just ask a million questions; I dig a little and, voila, I’m enlightened.
 
One thing that bothers me is how so many Jews go bonkers on Simchat Torah. If you’re not sure what I mean, come visit my Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the eighth night of Sukkot. It’s not quite Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnival, but you get the picture. This is the night when Grey Goose and Johnny Walker own the Pico strip.
 
As Torah scrolls are paraded inside the many shuls, a wild and crazy euphoria sweeps the strip. You’ll see Talmudic types rediscovering their rowdy inner selves, and Orthodox teenagers carousing in posse formation. There are even tourists from the Valley coming to check out the action. This is not a party, it’s the mother of all parties.
 
And please don’t think that I’m trying to coolly exclude myself from this holy balagan. My vocal chords will probably never forgive me for what I have done to them during a few Simchat Torahs past, some of which I can only faintly recollect.
 
Still, I do remember a little voice inside of me asking some uncomfortable questions, such as: How Jewish is all this rowdiness? Where is the depth and dignity so prevalent in other holidays? Can hard partying really be an expression of Torah joy?
 
I can see going a little nuts on Purim, when we celebrate a seminal victory that saved the Jewish people, but going bananas on a day of Torah?
 
So I decided to do some digging.
 
The first thing I uncovered is the special significance of the number eight. In our mystical tradition, just as the number seven alludes to time and to the cycle of nature, the number eight transcends time. It represents the day beyond days, when normal rhythms and boundaries do not apply. Simchat Torah, which falls on the eighth night of Sukkot, and celebrates something that itself transcends time (Torah), is ideally suited to break ordinary boundaries. Now stay with me; the plot thickens.
 
The explosion of joy on Simchat Torah is also the climax of a remarkable cycle of Jewish holidays that links the Torah with the liberation of our bodies and souls, by way of our emotions (I warned you). At Passover, our bodies are liberated from slavery and bondage, but this liberation is not complete until the holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the gift that gives purpose to our liberation: the Torah. This revelation is so mind-blowing that we learn the fear of God.
 
Six months later, a similar holiday pas de deux completes the cycle. The holiday of Sukkot liberates not our bodies but our souls, by freeing us from the bondage of materialism. This liberation, again, is not complete until we embrace the Torah, this time courtesy of Simchat Torah. By now, the Torah has earned our trust, so it inspires not fear but love for God’s eternal gift. There’s no fear without love, and no love without fear. Thanks to Simchat Torah, this holy cycle of liberation is now complete, and we can go party.
 
Is it any wonder, then, that we go a little over the top on Simchat Torah? On a day that transcends time, when we’ve liberated our souls, our love of Torah and our single malts, how could we not have a celebration to end all celebrations?How could we not get even a little rowdy?
 
It’s as if God is throwing us a party and picking up the tab, telling us that if we’re so madly in love, it’s OK to get a little carried away. Come to think of it, God must be pretty happy with us. Really, could you think of another people that reserves its most joyous day of the year to celebrate … a book! And raises it really high like a professional athlete raises a championship trophy?
 
You can bet that in my new neighborhood, this book will be raised really high.
 
Nothing Jewish is done halfway here. If Simchat Torah takes the joy of Judaism to another level, then I must live in the Simchat Torah of neighborhoods.
 
On the big night, I’ll probably start by watching grown men dance on tables at the Pinto shul, and then meander my way to the B’nai David parking lot, where Chabad usually throws its annual bash. With one of my kids on my shoulders, and the others ready for their annual Torah song and dance, I’ll then face an embarrassment of riches: killer celebrations at Aish, Beth Jacob, YICC (Young Israel of Century City), Mogen David and many more.
 
Wherever we end up, though, I don’t think I’ll be too bothered if people get rowdy, as long as their souls are liberated.
 

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

The Bittersweet Meaning of Mud


Mud

I had been waiting seven years, and my machon summer at Camp Ramah in Ojai was finally here. It would be different from every other summer, because we would finally be the oldest group, and camp domination would be ours. I knew it would be bittersweet, and I looked forward to making every moment of this incredible summer count.

Natalie KatzThere is one program in particular that embodies all of the emotionalism and meaning of machon summer: Tza’adah. Tza’adah is a five-day, four-night overnight trip that takes campers far from the boundaries of camp and into the nature of Northern California, where we bond with friends, while experiencing the outdoors. I was a little skeptical about not showering for five days, but before I knew it, the day finally came — we were ready to embark on a wild adventure.
We drove for what felt like a lifetime to Big Sur in Northern California. The next morning, we had our first day — and only day — in Big Sur. The morning started with a bowl of Rice Krispies and some scrambled eggs. Following breakfast, we were given the choice between a hard, medium or easy hike.

Assuming the hard hike was going to be well, hard, I set off with the rest of the adventurous campers on the hard hike. We trekked all the way up a beautiful cliff overlooking the ocean, singing songs to pass then time and admiring the scenery.

We walked along the beach and came to an astounding discovery. Earlier that day, a beached whale had died and was now lying on the sand. Staring with amazement at the gargantuan creature, we developed one of the verses of our machon song, “This Tza’adah of Mine,” sung to the tune of “This Little Light of Mine.”

Later that evening, after arriving at Lake Casitas, our campsite for the next three nights, we sat around the bonfire and sang cliched camp songs, aided by packets of the best songs hand selected by our wonderful counselors. We could all sing along and learn the words. I will keep the songbook forever as a memento of this journey.

The next day, we took a bus to a beautiful beach. As my two friends and I were walking along the shore, we found a rock shaped like a heart. We took it with us, promising to start a new tradition of passing the rock, along with a letter, among us so we can keep in touch after camp.

The last day, we were given a choice between kayaking, rock-climbing and mountain-biking. I chose kayaking.

The group leader gave us the task of fitting as many people in one kayak as possible without it tipping over. This may not seem to be difficult, but it was unbelievably hilarious and so hard! Try to imagine people laughing hysterically while squeezing their way onto a little kayak. Meanwhile, it’s sinking, and we’re desperately trying not to tip it over.

I was sitting near the front, and after the ninth or 10th person climbed on, the kayak flipped over. Everyone fell in the water — and to top off a perfect day, the water was the perfect temperature.

Then we had one last task: To stand up straight on the kayak and paddle it like a gondola in Venice. I succeeded after falling in a couple of times!
Tza’adah had finally come to a close, but we were not going to finish without a huge hurrah. As is tradition at Camp Ramah, the machon campers run into the chadar ochel, the dining hall, at the end of lunch, giving mud hugs to friends and family. On our last day, we trudged eight miles back to camp from Lake Casitas, singing, laughing and stopping for POWERade along the way, a necessity in the sweltering heat.

We finally got to camp, jumped in the mud pit and got ready to run into the chadar. I will especially remember being the first to do a belly flop in the mud.

Once everyone was finished getting muddy, we formed platoons and began to march to the chadar. The platoons lined up at different entrances. I could feel the adrenaline pulsing through my veins.

The counselors yelled, “Charge!” and we sprinted for the doors. It was complete pandemonium inside. I ran around yelling, cheering and giving mud hugs to all my friends, making sure to squeeze extra tight to ensure they were truly covered in mud.

Looking back
is so hard, because I know I will never again have the chance to run through the dinning hall covered in mud. Tza’adah defined my camp experience, and I know that even though I will never be a camper again, the memories I created this summer will last forever.

Natalie Katz, a 10th-grader from Manhattan Beach, has attended Camp Ramah for seven years.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; Deadline for the Ocotber issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

‘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.

Who We Are


Three times over the past six years that I’ve been editing this paper, I’ve come to work in the morning to find an old man waiting for me. A different man each time, though I remember all of them being thin and frail.

The men had walked past the receptionist and taken a seat on one of the upholstered chairs across from my desk. They had no appointment; they hadn’t called me first. They came and sat, and waited however long they had to.

They all wanted the same thing, though every conversation was slightly different. One presented me with a book he had just published and demanded that the paper review it. Another looked up at me when I walked in — to my office — and said, “I have a very important story.”

One of them, whose name I’ve forgotten, carried a photo. “I want you to see this,” he said.

It was a photo of him and his closest friends, taken in Germany just before the war. The boys in it were young men, dressed in suits, handsome and confident. Only one of them had survived — the one sitting in my office.

“You need to print this,” he said.

We spoke for a while about his concentration camp experiences, about what he knew of the fates of the others. But he kept his eye on the ball: “So, when will you print my picture?”

I said I wasn’t sure. The paper was divided into sections, I explained, community news, features, national and world news, opinion, singles, obituaries.

“I know,” he said, “I read it.”

I couldn’t think offhand where a picture like his would fit in. We run a page showing people in nice clothes receiving awards or handing out checks, and we run a photo spread of people celebrating weddings, engagements, bar mitzvahs. He and his friends were clearly celebrating, but it was 60 years ago, and then all but one of them were murdered.

I asked our art director to scan the photo, and I told the man I would think it over. Then I showed the man from my office.

He called me almost weekly after that. He was more difficult to deal with than the other two visitors. The one with the self-published book had written a Holocaust memoir. Over the years, we’d received dozens of such tomes, and I told the man what I’d told others with similar works — that we’d try hard to find a way to get something into the paper. I think we did.

The second man said that for months he’d been reading my column and figured it was time I listen to what was on his mind. I did, and he left.

But the man with the photo was relentless. Didn’t I understand how important it was to publish it? It should really be on the cover. What was taking so long? Occasionally, like many contributors, he would point out that his photo was much more important than some other article we ran. The singles columns maddened him: “You have room for some poor girl’s story about breaking up with her shaygetz but not for my photo?”

I got snappish. The singles column was for singles, I said. We couldn’t very well run a picture of him and his friends in it, could we? And the rest of the paper was stuffed with real news, about terrorism and Israel and the local community. I mean, we’re a newspaper, not the Shoah Foundation.

He hung up, and he didn’t call after that, and I lost his phone number.

After a while, I started to feel awful. What right did I have to say no to a man like that? He survived the Nazis, he saw everybody he loved destroyed, and all he wanted was to insert a fragment of their ripped-away existence into the public record, to give his lost friends a flicker of recognition after such a brutal death.

And this editor, this pisher with a corner office, couldn’t find space in any of those all-important sections to run a single, lousy snapshot.

So we ran the photo.

We put it among the photos of happy women and men in evening gowns and tuxedos attending charity banquets and handing out money and getting honorary degrees. Staring out from the midst of those penguin pictures, as we call them, are the faces of these vibrant young men from another era, who had also known a world of such wealth, and community, and acceptance, and then came face to face with its opposite.

It turned out the art director had written down the man’s number. I called and told him to look for his picture in the paper.

“I saw it,” he said. “I thought it could have been bigger.”

Why tell this story now, in the issue that marks our 20th year in print?

I guess it’s my realization — not for the first time — that a Jewish community paper is a different animal. We report on contemporary Jewish life, with its urgent or simply necessary issues, but our pages also can relate and even embody the joyful, self-satisfied or frivolous. And underlying every edition, every article, every word, is the understanding that we are rooted in something much deeper — our faith and traditions — and also something much darker — our often tragic past.

This convergence of meaning and meaningfulness, this is what I love about this paper and my job. Sometimes it arrives literally in the form of an old man wanting his book reviewed, or an old man determined to get his point across, or an old man with a picture to share with the world.

But one way or another, each day when I come to work, it is all there, waiting for me in my office.

 

Letters


Middle-Class Squeeze
Each year, the Jewish community bemoans the high cost of a day school education, while touting its value with subjective quote, such as, “Population studies have shown that day school alumni are more likely to retain a lifelong affiliation rate with Judaism and to educate their own kids Jewishly.” Objective statistics somehow are never included to support those claims.

In fact, commitment to Judaism stems from the home, not the school. If it appears that day school graduates are more dedicated, the likelihood is that they come from homes where Jewish values and observance are a priority. Those same graduates, had they attended supplemental schools, would be just as likely to become stalwart adult members of the Jewish community, without having impoverished their families in the process.

Despite the wonderful work being done by people like Miriam Prum-Hess, there will never be enough money to enable the vast majority of middle-class families to utilize day schools. That’s because there are other very worthy causes, such as caring for the elderly, indigents, immigrants and the Land of Israel, that also deserve additional funding.

Unlike those other causes though, there is a day school alternative — the supplemental school. Supplemental schools are far more affordable, can usually provide financial assistance and offer classes for kindergarten through 12th grade. Synagogues generally provide the kindergarten through seventh-grade components, while community schools, such as the Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAAHS), offer classes for students in eighth through 12th grade. On June 12, LAHHS graduated 68 students from its five-year program. This is its 55th graduating class.

Regretfully, during the past decade, many synagogues have downsized their Hebrew school programs from three days per week to two days or less, deeming them unattractive to committed families. Returning those programs back to their initial stature will provide middle-class families with a viable alternative that won’t drive them to the poor house.

The Jewish community must refocus its efforts and resources to bolster supplemental education. Synagogues must revisit the curricula of their schools to assure that their students receive a rigorous and robust Jewish education.

Finally, the Bureau of Jewish Education must raise its standards for accreditation of supplemental schools. Once synagogue-based Hebrew schools provide the level of Jewish education that they did in their glory days, middle-class families will no longer find it necessary to make great financial sacrifices when raising children, and a quality Jewish education will be accessible for all.

Leonard M. Solomon
Trustee

Los Angeles Hebrew High School
One practical solution to balance budgets and save is to move to nice, affordable areas of good value and build satellite communities as we are doing in Tehachapi (“Middle-Class Squeeze,” June. 9). The Kern County Kehilla is providing for the needs of the local Jewish population and has the guidance of the rabbis affiliated with the Orthodox Union, Agudah and Chabad.

Roger M. Pearlman
Tehachapi, Calif.

Define Holocaust
I note the reference in the article on the academic achievements of young Kenny Gotlieb that he is a grandson of a survivor of the “Polish Holocaust” (“Seniors’ Deeds Pave Path for Future,” June 9). Excuse me, but can someone explain to me what is a “Polish Holocaust?”

Is this suggesting that the majority of Holocaust victims were Poles? Or is it supposed to imply that the Holocaust was created by Poles? Surely neither of these. Is it supposed to mean that the Holocaust largely took place in Poland occupied by Nazi Germany? If so, then please say so.

I am afraid that this constant coupling of the word “Holocaust” with the word “Poland” makes the young people of today forget that the author of the Holocaust was Nazi Germany, whose armies conquered most of Europe and imposed the genocide of the Jews throughout the Continent. So please call it the “Nazi Holocaust” or the “European Holocaust,” or best of all, just “The Holocaust” (for there was only one) and not “Polish Holocaust.”

Wiktor Moszczynski
Via e-mail

Kashrut
It is unfortunate that the Jewish media is all too willing to jump on a bandwagon of kosher-bashing Rob Eshman and The Forward before him are being guided not by Jewish law and ethics but by the standards of Whole Foods and PETA (“But Is It Kosher,” June 9). PETA has consistently advocated that “meat is murder” and compared factory farming chickens to the mass murder of Jews in the Shoah. Any shechitah [kosher slaughter] is going to be deemed unkosher in their eyes.

Precisely because of the Jewish values Eshman refers to, Nathan Lewin, attorney for [Aaron] Rubashkin, and supervising rabbis hired independent investigators. They interviewed dozens of employees and found the allegations [of slaughter-house cruelty and mistreatment of employees] to be without merit. To summarize, “AgriProcessors, faithful to Torah ethics, provides an environment where its employees are treated with justice.”

Why are Jewish journalists giving a greater benefit of the doubt to PETA than to the companies that provide kosher meat and the rabbis who supervise them? The negative repercussions of such criticism amongst both the Jewish and non-Jewish world are self-evident. I would direct your readers to the recent edition of the Jewish Press to hear Lewin’s full account.

It would be nice if Rob Eshman were to shy away from articles critical of his fellow Jews. But, if he cannot resist the burning journalistic desire to attack, I would hope that he would put more energy toward presenting a balanced view.

Matthew Lefferman
Los Angeles

Mikvah
In the June 2 edition, a lengthy article by Amy Klein was published, featuring the use of the mikvah at the University of Judaism. It was a very instructive article but somewhat incomplete. The article failed to recognize the function of the Rabbinical Assembly Bet Din, which has been long established and meets at the University of Judaism (“Court Seeks to Ease Way for Conversions”).

The Rabbinical Assembly Bet Din serves conversion candidates of all persuasions and not only those of the Conservative movement. Candidates come to the Bet Din of the Rabbinical Assembly from throughout the Pacific Southwest area and even from other states or countries.

We are very proud of the Rabbinical Assembly Bet Din and the good work it has done for the past many years. We are especially appreciative of the wonderful rabbis who give of their time and expertise to serve on this Bet Din.

Richard Spiegel
President
Rabbinical Assembly
Pacific Southwest Region

Holocaust Remembered
In your May 19 letters section, Ilana Zadok asks, “Where were the American Jews [during the Holocaust]?”

For her information, hundreds of thousands of us were in the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines fighting Hitler and his allies. Of the nine-man B-17 crew of which I was the navigator, two others were also Jews: the pilot and the ball-turret gunner.

The lead pilot on my group’s Berlin raid of Feb. 3, 1945, when we scored direct hits on Hitler’s central command offices, was Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal of Brooklyn, who was flying his 52nd bombing mission, a record for the 100th Bomb Group. Rosie’s plane was shot down, but he and his crew parachuted behind the advancing Soviet lines and all returned safely.

The U.S. Eighth Air Force had begun attacking Germany in late 1942 as the Nazi campaign of genocide against the Jews and Gypsies intensified and the concentration camps became slaughterhouses. Thousands of American Jews died on the battlefields in World War II, and it is unfair to imply that the American Jews did nothing.

Leon Schwartz
Altadena

South Central Farm
I have been following the battle over the South Central Farm for some time and am disgusted at today’s outcome (“Ecohustle Blooms in Community Garden,” June 2). Developer [Ralph] Horowitz’s intransigent position and accusations of anti-Semitism do great harm to us all. It is past time for someone of influence to intercede. Where is his rabbi? Or his mother?

Curt Wechsler
Via e-mail

Kosher
From reputation and general veneration, I had always believed Rabbi Jacob Pressman to be an intelligent and reliable community leader. Reading his foolish letter this past week convinced me I was wrong on all counts (Is It Kosher?” June 16).

Pressman would have us believe that there is some Orthodox cabal controlling the purse strings of the literally hundreds of kashrut supervising agencies; that a group of black-hatted, white-bearded rebbes control the bank accounts and policies of these “for profit” groups — this is America after all — shades of the protocols! And all that has to be done to properly fund day schools is to divert these funds to cover the schools’ budgets, how simple and how asinine and misleading. Shame on you Rabbi Pressman. You do know better!

Growing up in L.A., I know that neither Pressman nor his Conservative (and Reform) colleagues contributed one whit to kashrut observance in this city. There were no restaurants or widespread bakery products available while he was in his prime, so he has nothing to say. Sit back and enjoy your Oreos!

As regards high and truly unbearable tuition rates in our city, there is a simple solution, one that both the secular rabbinate and The Jewish Journal oppose — vouchers. I and my fellow community members pay thousands in taxes to fund a public school system that we choose not to use. Can’t we get some credit?

Howard Weiss
Los Angeles

Nature of Kashrut
I enjoyed reading Rob Eshman’s article (“But Is It Kosher,” June 9), which detailed the controversy that followed People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) with the Orthodox Union over kosher slaughter practices, and AgriProcessors’ questionable treatment of its own workers. Most interesting to me was the latter part of the article, which tried to discuss the nature of kashrut.

The article quotes scholar Meir Soloveichik as calling the nature of kashrut “mysterious and obvious … the Bible insists that it be perfectly clear to the non-Jew that the Torah-observant Israelite lives a life that reminds him constantly of his unique relationship with God.” In other words, it is to let the non-Jew know that we are special and follow laws meant to “set us apart and elevate our souls.”

Then in the last breath of the article, Eshman recommends that “the kosher label should not just imply the humane, responsible treatment of animals and the just treatment of food industry workers, it should certify it.” In other words, kosher should mean that universal standards of humane treatment are being met, standards that any reasonable person would want.

So, which is it? Do we follow kashrut to set ourselves apart from the rest of the world or to encourage the rest of the world to join with us? It can’t be both.

Les Amer
Los Angeles

Finkelstein Syndrome
Roz Rothstein’s article on the anti-Semitic Jew, [Norman] Finkelstein, highlights a major lapse in common knowledge about Jewish history (“Beware the Finklestein Syndrome,” June 9). While every effort is made to inform the world about the Holocaust, very little information is disseminated about the history of lies and hate against the Jews, or its relationship to the Holocaust. I have seen history books that devote two pages to Anne Fran but fail to mention that Jews were patriotic Germans and no threat to Germany.

Theobald of Cambridge, a 12th century apostate to Catholicism, created the “blood libel” which has lasted to this day and caused thousands of Jewish deaths. If there was general awareness of the history of hatred against the Jews, then when people hear a Finkelstein, they can wonder, is he a whistleblower or a modern-day Theobald?

Those who wish to spread vicious lies against Jews today do not convert to another religion; their venom is more credible when they remain Jews, especially if they can claim to be from a family of survivors .

Ronnie Lampert
Los Angles

DaVinci Code
Enjoyed your articles on “The DaVinci Code,” (May 19), but only the first three gospels of the New Testament (Mathew, Mark and Luke) are synoptic gospels. They are synoptic because they are similar to each other and different from the writings of the fourth gospel of John.

Brett Thompson
Via e-mail

Converts
As a convert to Judaism, I was reassured to read your series of articles on those like me who chose to become Jews (“Did It Stick?” June 2). A lapsed Catholic with many Jewish friends growing up on Long Island, early on I was attracted to the ethics and worldly focus of Judaism. Following a course of study at Temple Emanuel in New York City, I converted in 1967, and my first wife and I raised our three children in the Jewish tradition.

In 1992, on the eve of her bat mitzvah, my youngest daughter asked if I would be bar mitzvahed with her. That glorious day came to pass at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, with Rabbi Harvey Fields observing that in the 130-year history of the temple, there was no record of a father and daughter having a b’nai mitzvah. At the party afterward, when Tessa and I greeted everyone, I said that I had checked around the room, and I was the only person who had had a first holy communion and a bar mitzvah.

In my life in Los Angeles with my wife, Wendy, inspired by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA and through my work with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, enriched by interfaith activities, Judaism has strengthened and complemented my struggle for civil liberties, human rights, peace and justice.

Stephen F Rohde
Los Angelesn

Correction
In the June 16 issue, the photo accompanying the story, “Jewish World Watch Eyes National Stage,” was taken by Alicia Bergman.

 

Next Year in Cannes


It’s a tough thing trying to arrange a Shabbat dinner at the Cannes Film Festival.

My friend, Scott Einbinder, had gotten the idea two years ago, during my first trip to the festival. At first, I was hesitant. I was focused on business, a filmmaker obsessed with my career. Plus, I was perfectly happy to twiddle my thumbs alone in my hotel room all Shabbat.

Einbinder, who is less observant, had to convince me, a “Young Israel” Jew, that this was a good idea. What better way to escape the madness and deal-making of the festival, he argued, than by joining together with friends for a Shabbat Friday night dinner?

I stayed skeptical. Would people be willing to spend $90 to attend a dinner without music, when they could instead be dancing it up with Paris Hilton at the MTV party?

We sent out e-mails, hired a five-star party planner and lo and behold, 42 people showed up. Einbinder flew in Rabbi Mendel Schwartz and his wife, Esther, of the Chai Center for spiritual leadership, and we invited the local Chabad rabbi to welcome the crowd. Steve Kaplan, our co-host, arranged free use of a magnificent villa, and our inaugural event was a great success.

This year, we wanted to do it bigger and better. Our goal was to double the number of guests. The rabbis joined as hosts, as did Hollywood heavyweights Craig Emanuel and Joan Hyler.

Unfortunately, the villa was not available. Rumor had it that Lenny Kravitz was staying there, and although Jewish, Shabbat dinner was not on his itinerary. Our party planner spent several months trying to find an alternate venue and eventually found a quaint, beachfront restaurant a few minutes walk from the hustle and bustle of the festival. The Chabad rabbi worked his kosher magic, and we hired one of the best chefs in town.

The response was great, everything was set and we were on our way to Cannes — then the bad news came. The restaurant bailed. Seems it wasn’t thrilled with the sweetheart deal we had negotiated and was talking to another party with a fatter wallet. Welcome to Cannes.

Our dream dinner was turning into a disaster. Fortunately, Einbinder was already in Cannes. Along with the Chabad rabbi — who no doubt threatened the wrath of God — they convinced the restaurant owner to honor the negotiated price. We were back in production.

Cannes is hard to describe. Its beauty is unparalleled, its ambiance is magical, full of romance and excitement. Most of all, people who travel there have a sense of jubilation.

We spent Friday recruiting a few more guests to the Shabbat dinner. I bumped into veteran producer Arthur Cohn, who unfortunately couldn’t make the walk to the restaurant but was so excited, he wrote a check for two seats just so he could somehow participate.

On my way to the dinner, I pulled aside two eager, young British paparazzi who were hanging out in front of the Carlton Hotel. I told them that although Tom Hanks and Penelope Cruz would not be attending, our Shabbat dinner was a unique party not to be missed. For a nominal fee and the promise of delicious kosher food and wine, they agreed to shoot the event until sundown.

As the sun started to set, guests trickled into the party. Twilight in Cannes is always beautiful, the calm waters adding to the tranquility of the Shabbat. About 15 guests huddled for a quick prayer service, while others circled the hors d’oéuvres and posed for photos. Shabbat candles were lit and Kiddush recited. Then it was off to the requisite buffet.

More than 80 studio executives, producers, directors, lawyers, agents, distributors and rabbis all enjoyed a Shabbat dinner together in the south of France. For some, Shabbat was a new experience. For others, a weekly ritual. Still for others, it was simply another networking event.

But amid all the business talk, I couldn’t help but notice that this Shabbat experience was transforming business acquaintances into friends, strangers into family — from all over the globe, Jew or non-Jew, Reform or Orthodox, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, it didn’t matter. In a town that evokes images of Bridget Bardot in a bikini and Pamela Anderson in “Barb Wire” leather, we were infusing Cannes with Kiddush, conversation and tranquility — the very essence of Shabbat.

After a few short speeches and probably a few too many l’chaims, the delicious dinner was over. Everyone was happy and vowing to bring more friends next year. One woman came up to me and proclaimed that she would return to Cannes next year “if only to experience such a Shabbat again.”

One guest was so moved that he said he was making plans to throw his son a bar mitzvah party so he can share with him the experience of his Jewish tradition.

The next few days were very gratifying for all of us. We were the talk of Cannes. As we walked the Croisette, familiar Hollywood faces stopped us and promised they’d come next year

I even found myself next to Paris Hilton at a party. She’d heard all about the dinner. “I’ll attend if I have a Jewish boyfriend next year,” she told me.

I’m available!

I got into the movie business because I thought movies could change the world. I’m not sure if my movies will ever change the world, but I know that our Shabbat dinner certainly affected a few people.

There may be a lot of stress and aggravation in planning a Shabbat dinner in Cannes, but I know it was biggest Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name, I had ever been involved with. Next year, we plan to have an even more spectacular event. Who knows? Maybe Lenny Kravitz will sing with us.

Max Gottlieb is a film producer living in Los Angeles. If you would like to be placed on the invitation list, e-mail snowmax@comcast.net.

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‘Because Judaism Feels Right’


Do not urge me to leave you, or to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and be buried.

— The Book of Ruth

When 50-year-old Hector Ventura was a young boy growing up in El Salvador four decades ago, his mother would always talk about Jewish customs. Which was strange, because the Venturas were not Jewish. Like most of their neighbors, they were Catholic — not particularly devout but Catholics just the same.

It was only years later that Ventura thought to ask: “Why do you always talk about Jews?”

“Your father’s grandfather came from Spain,” his mother replied.

Last year, before she died, Ventura asked her where the family name came from. His mother said the name became Ventura when the family fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. Originally, she said, it was “Ben Torah.” (In Hebrew that literally translates as the son of Torah, but figuratively refers to someone who is a follower and student of Torah and religious law.)

Finding that out was the beginning of Ventura’s spiritual journey, which culminated in March, when he converted to Judaism, with his wife and three children. The Venturas were part of a group of 10 — a minyan of sorts — mostly Latino, who converted at Los Angeles’ pluralistic Beth Din (see story on page 16) under the tutelage of Rabbi Len Muroff of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Lakewood.

With intermarriage on the rise and the Jewish denominations increasingly reaching out to non-Jewish spouses, conversion has probably never been more popular.

Muroff’s group represents a new breed of converts.

“There’s usually a reason, like love or marriage for converting,” Muroff said.

By contrast, these are spiritual converts, people who feel attracted to the religion because of a connection, a sense of belonging, even a return to their roots.

They are not unlike Judaism’s most famous convert, Ruth, whose book is read in synagogues this weekend on the Shavuot holiday. Also known as Pentecost, the holiday celebrates Jews receiving the Torah, and has evolved to honor the tradition of converts.

“Ruth teaches us that a Jew is not a Jew by virtue of genes, chromosomes or blood type. We embrace those who come to us with heart, mind and soul,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis said. The senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom was a pioneer in reaching out to converts, first in a speech to his community 10 years ago and then in a 2003 presentation to the Rabbinical Assembly about converts and accepting intermarried spouses.

Over the years, Schulweis said he has seen an increase in the number of spiritual converts or what he calls “seekers.”

“These are not people who are coming just to stand under the chuppah,” he said, meaning people who convert only for marriage. “You have people who have made a choice consciously and heroically,” he said, because these people must face opposition from their family and often from the Jewish community itself.

No convert has it easy, relinquishing a familiar faith or secular customs, but spiritual converts may feel less that they are giving something up and more like they are gaining. Spiritual converts have much to teach Jews born into the faith, Muroff said.

“What struck me most about my converts and the whole experience of teaching them was the intensity of their interest in being seriously engaged in a spiritual quest and their willingness to make many significant changes in their lives,” Muroff said. “They helped my congregation and me to look at our own spiritual lives in deeper and more innovative ways,” he said.

He learned from them how to see prayer as something deeply personal and spiritual, rather than something rote that had to be done at set times.

Of course, people who convert “for marriage” can be just as spiritual in their embrace of Judaism as anyone else, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, director of the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program under the Ziegler School of Rabbinics at the University of Judaism.

“These are [often] people who have thought about Judaism for some time, and then they choose someone. I think we insult ourselves when we say people are only converting for marriage, because that’s not the only reason,” he said. “There are a lot of different stories behind the choosing of Judaism.”

No matter the path toward Judaism, Jews-by-Choice are “blessings” to the community, Schulweis said.

“They are literally the most active people in the congregation in terms of reading from the Torah, in terms of working on committees, in terms of doing the haftorah, in terms of attendance, in terms of Jewish commitment,” he said. “They elevate the congregation.”

Luis Perez, a Latino convert who served as an unofficial adviser to the Venturas, began his journey to Judaism at age 13, when he began to question his own Catholic faith in religious school: “I was shunned and pushed away and told not to ask so many questions,” he said.

His father was more forthcoming, telling him about his Jewish ancestry, that he was raised a Converso — Catholic on the outside and Jewish in the home — in Leon, Mexico.

“I wanted to find out more about my faith and background,” said Perez, now 22, “and my father said, ‘Well, if you’re not happy with Catholicism, try Judaism.'”

Perez did, eventually converting (first through the Conservative movement and then through the Orthodox process). He is going to graduate from the University of Judaism in December and hopes to attend the Rabbinical School of the Institute of Traditional Judaism (Metivta) in Teaneck, N.J. “I always knew I was different [than] my friends and the rest of my family,” he said. “After I discovered Judaism, I felt that was the missing link.”

Many spiritual converts talk about a “special feeling” for Judaism.

Ventura, who at his conversion took on the name “Shmaryahu” — meaning God watched over him — said it ultimately wasn’t just his lineage that prompted him to convert.

“When I came to synagogue the first time, I felt a connection between me and God,” he said.

He told his wife, Rosie — renamed Esther at her conversion — and she started attending synagogue with him and loved it, too. Their children came along, as well, and they all started taking classes with Muroff about six months ago.

His children, Veronica, 23; Hector Jr., 20, and David, 14, told him, “If you go, we’ll go” — echoing the original pledge of Ruth to Naomi.

Susanne Shier, another of Muroff’s group, didn’t know exactly what attracted her to Judaism. Raised Episcopalian in Orange County, the single mother joined a Jewish chat room and had compelling conversations with Jewish women there, so she decided to take some classes about the religion. During one, class members sang “Hatikvah” — Israel’s national anthem.

“I started crying, and then I said to myself, ‘Now wait a minute — I’m not Jewish. Why am I crying?’ And then I thought maybe I am Jewish and I don’t know it.”

She began to explore these feelings and eventually joined Muroff’s class with her 13-year-old son, Justin.

“I read that there are Jewish souls who were there at Sinai,” she said, referring to a kabbalistic teaching: When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, at that moment, sparks of holiness touched the Jewish people and also flew out into the world, creating other “Jewish souls” — and those are the people who convert. They are less converting than coming home.

“I’ve been thought to be rational; things have to make sense to me,” Shier said. “But some things don’t make sense to my rational mind. There’s something in my heart that tells me something different.”

She and her son decided to convert. “It wasn’t really a difficult decision for us,” she told The Journal on the day of her immersion in the mikvah or ritual bath (see article on page 14). The Venturas had joined her there to show support (they’d immersed the week before.)

Shier’s son did not have to undergo a physical hurdle of conversion for men: circumcision. Justin had been circumcised at birth, so he only had to undergo the ritual symbolically, with a pinprick similar to a blood test. The Ventura men submitted to the full operation.

“When you need that surgery, that’s when you decide if you really want to convert,” said 14-year-old David. He had joined his father from the beginning in learning about Judaism.

“I never liked church,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged there,” he said. When he went to synagogue, “I really liked it. It was a new experience,”

Sometimes it’s a double whammy — being Latino and now being Jewish, especially in school and in the neighborhood.

“People already look down on you,” he said. But for the most part — except for the painful circumcision, which took several weeks to recuperate from — he has enjoyed being Jewish: “I feel higher. I feel proud as one with the Jewish community.”

 

Wandering Jew – Spiritual Headliners


Dozens of young giggling girls dressed in their finest skirts and blouses crowded the front of the Universal Hilton ballroom, which was hot and stuffy and filled to standing-room only capacity with women in anticipation of the big event.

When the music started all the girls and women jumped to their feet and started clapping, beatific, expectant smiles on their faces.

It could have been a rock concert — perhaps the debut of famous boy band — but it was not that kind of music and these were not that kind of girls. For most of the 3,000 men and women — seated in separate rooms, with a video screen for the women — the happening was one of the most important ever in Los Angeles and in the lives of these ultra-Orthodox Jews.

These members of Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox community had come together for an asefa, a spiritual gathering, to see and hear two of Israel’s greatest rabbis speak words of Torah and offer spiritual reinforcement to this far-flung Diaspora community.

These were gedolei hador, luminaries, leaders of the generation and the heads of the two separate — and often divided — factions of the ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Yakov Aryeh Alter, known the Gerrer Rebbe, represents the Chasidic faction, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman leads the Litvak, or Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) faction.

To the outsider, the sea of black hats might look monolithic, but these were worlds among worlds gathered in the room. The Chasidim, with their long curly peyos (sidelocks), furry streimel hats and shiny black kaputa coats, came from a long tradition that began in the 17th century, one that emphasizes spiritual joy in addition to academic Torah study.

More austere in trim beards and black suits were the Lithuanians, or Mitnagdim, literally meaning opponents to Chasidism. But today the word usually refers to black-hat non-Chasidic Jews who have a more analytic approach to learning, as practiced in their yeshivas.

It was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. In the men’s section, a three-level podium contained a veritable who’s who of the Los Angeles rabbinical world: Rabbi Avrohom Union of the Rabbinical Council of California, Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Sholom Ginsberg of Toras Emes, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi David Toledano of Adat Yeshurun Sephardic Congregation, Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (an actual Gerrer Chasid). There, too, standing out in a black hat and startlingly royal blue tie, was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To start things off, a number of rabbis spoke leading up to the two luminaries. They explained the significance of the evening.

“How could we be zocheh [meriting] for two gedolei hador to come here?” Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Gradon, from the Los Angeles Kollel, asked in that English-Hebrew-Yiddish mixture so prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.

“It’s hard to believe we’re on the West Coast of the United States,” he said.

Rabbi Ginsberg took pride in the growth of the community in this nonheavenly city.

“We in Los Angeles, we are not Eretz Yisroel [Israel], we are not New York, we are not even Lakewood,” he said, referring to the New Jersey community where the men learn full-time in Kollel yeshivas.

But, he said, this city has its own network of Kollels, yeshivas and outreach institutions.

In recent years Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest Jewish community, has become a stop for visiting Jewish dignitaries — especially politicians, hoping to tap into the fundraising network here. The visit of these two luminaries — together for the first time — also put Los Angeles on the map as an up-and-coming spiritual center. And perhaps, this appearance also was a testing ground for such an unusual pairing, an event that might get out of hand in a community as big as New York or New Jersey or Israel.

The occasion was also an effort to show unity between the two factions.

“There is no division between a Chasid and a Mitnaged, between Ashkenaz and Sephard, and between a businessman and yeshiva man,” Rabbi Ginsberg said.

There were some divisions, of course, with the men and women in separate rooms. According to the Israeli press, the two rabbis chartered a special El Al flight with no women stewardesses and no women in first class — and without movies. But this is de rigueur for a community accustomed to segregation (especially the Chasidic community).

The main purpose of the evening was to offer a lifeline of spiritual support to the Los Angeles community — a soulful community in a city of soul-seekers and religious innovators.

Rabbi Steinman, 93, clutched the podium, his face pale as paper, flanked on each side by rabbis for support. He spoke for 20 minutes in Yiddish. The Gerer rebbe, Yakov Alter, a more robust man with white hair and peyos and heavy lidded eyes, delivered a short, one-minute speech from his chair.

Both men’s words were translated by Rabbi Usher Weiss in a crisp, booming European-accented English.

“If all we would do here tonight is look and listen, then this effort would be in vain and this trip would not have achieved its goal,” he said to the rapt audience, some of whom were taping the remarks on their PalmPilots and other electronic devices.

Weiss was mostly translating the words of Rabbi Steinman, but he seemed to intersperse his own comments, as well: “A person must feel every day that our worship of yesterday is not enough. Every day is a new responsibility. The angels are great but they have no tests. For us it’s all about [personal] growth.”

“What matters is not how big you are but how much you grow,” said Weiss in his translation/commentary.

It was no accident that this gathering fell on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, a celebration in the middle of a mourning period, the 49 days of counting the omer. Jewish groups around the city made traditional bonfires to mark the holiday, which, by some accounts, marks the end of an ancient plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

At the Universal Hilton, Weiss spoke of Rabbi Akiva, whose most famous teaching was love thy neighbor as thyself.

“Mutual respect, this is the lesson we have to learn on this day,” he said.

He blessed the rabbis and the audience, his voice ringing out loud and clear: “I am confident that each of the participants will remember this day to the last of his days.”

 

Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

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Q & A With Rabbi Ed Feinstein


After more than 20 years at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein recently was named senior rabbi at the Encino synagogue, succeeding Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Recently, Rabbi Feinstein, 51, began teaching an adult education course called “Knowing God: The History of the Jewish Spiritual Journey.” The Jewish Journal spoke with him about his vision for the synagogue and the problems facing the Jewish community.

The Jewish Journal: So why did you decide to teach about God? Did you think people don’t know the basics?

Rabbi Ed Feinstein: Sometimes a teacher can help you discover what you already know. The Jews in my community have a lot of latent knowledge of our tradition, but it’s not conscious so they can’t share it with their kids. One of the complaints among the young people I went to school with is that we never talked about God. So I decided, let’s talk about God un-self-consciously. How do Jews think about God? It’s a historical view of theology. God talk is unfamiliar to those who teach our kids. The whole culture is awash in spirituality except for us.

JJ: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

REF: My father’s a closet philosopher, and he would hold big Jewish discussions around the table on Friday night; Jewish ideas were always part of the conversation. There was serious discussion at my table: whether a Jew can resist the draft, or whether we owed it to the country to serve. (It turned out I didn’t have to.) We talked about Israel. We talked about Jewish life in America, whether the synagogues were worth saving.

I felt the synagogue was cold. I went to my rabbi, and I said, “I can’t relate to the shul anymore.” He gave me Heschel and I started reading how religion “became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” It was my luck to find in my adolescent rebellion sources within the tradition to respond to my problems in the tradition; to find these guys who were willing to show me how to find an outlet for my own ’60s rebellion within the Jewish tradition.

JJ: What were you rebelling against?

REF: The government betrayed us by sending us to Vietnam; our parents betrayed us by giving us materialistic values; and Judaism betrayed us by becoming boring. But I could be a rebel in the Jewish community. Now I am a ’60s radical … I make a great radical, get the respect of the community and still say all the things I wanted to say when we were kids.

When Rabbi Schulweis came to [VBS] my father ended dinner early, and we started coming here. Rabbi Schulweis gave me a way to be religious without having to compromise the intellectuality that I grew up with.

JJ: You gave a sermon on Yom Kippur outlining your vision for the synagogue. Can you sum it up?

America gives us many gifts: freedom, security, hope. But there’re two huge holes in American culture. One, it’s very individualistic, and therefore lonely. And two, American culture doesn’t provide a sense of the purpose for living. And these happen to be the two things that Judaism does best. It connects us with each other into community. And it reminds us that we live for each other and with each other and provides a sense of purposeful living.

JJ: What is the most serious problem facing the Jewish community?

REF: The most important problem that I deal with is how to get people to take belonging seriously, and not think of themselves as consumers of the community, but to truly think of themselves as members, that the community belongs to them and they belong to each other and they belong to the community.

That’s the problem that all non-Orthodox synagogues have, because non-Orthodox people have an identity called the sovereign self. American individualism is reticent to join, to belong, to feel committed to something, to feel claim to something. The capacity of community is to make them feel like they really belong, and they’re not here just to consume the services of the synagogue when they need it, and [to leave] when their needs are fulfilled — it’s not Wal-Mart. That’s the problem that all of us deal with.

JJ: How do you deal with it?

REF: I deal with it in a couple of ways. I try to build personal relationships with lots of people and make myself accessible. I try to emphasize that the synagogue is not just for kids. We’re also here to create a vibrant Jewish culture. We welcome people of all kinds of backgrounds. We don’t assume that anyone knows anything when we start. We try to have lots of gateways for people to come in, lots of ways to get involved. We have people going to Habitat for Humanity to build houses. They don’t go to shul — that’s their Judaism. There are lots of gateways for lots of spiritual types: All trying to connect with each other and connect with the shul.

JJ: How do you try to attract the unaffiliated?

REF: You try to create a culture of adult Judaism that is compelling and you try to invite people to join. In the end, the thing that works best is nursery school. When people have kids, they begin thinking differently about their lives. We keep the doors open to singles, but people of that ilk tend not to join — their lives are very fluid and flexible, because they should be.

 

Community Briefs


After 22 years as head rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village, Rabbi Aron Tendler resigned last weekend.

“It is with mixed emotions that I write you today to let you know of my decision that, after 22 wonderful years, I have decided to step down as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek,” Tendler wrote in a letter to the 400-member families of the Orthodox synagogue.

“This has been a decision I have contemplated for some time, and after great soul searching and deliberation and with the full support of Esther and the family, I decided that it was time to explore other opportunities and embark on a new aspect of my personal and professional life.”

Tendler wrote that he intends to stay in the community but wants to spend more time with his family and pursuing writing, teaching and other projects.

“On occasion, I would like to sleep for more than four hours. Selfishly put, I want more time, and if not now when?” he wrote. Tendler will stay on through the High Holidays and help the search committee in its quest to find a new rabbi.

“Rabbi Tendler turned innumerable lives around, and it will be a great loss for us,” Brad Turell, Shaarey Zedek’s communications director, told The Journal. “He’s very talented and we wish him the best.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Sharansky Visits Southland

Israeli politician Natan Sharansky spent a quick two days in Los Angeles last weekend, giving four speeches on Jan. 22 calling for more American Jewish involvement in the upcoming World Zionist Congress.

“People have a need to strengthen their bond, somehow feel themselves part of a bigger family,” Sharansky told The Jewish Journal. “It doesn’t matter what origin; it doesn’t matter whether they are right or left; more and more Jews feel the need to become close to Israel. Before you are looking for the new way with your connection with Israel, what about the most traditional way?”

The prominent Likud party member was brought to Los Angeles last weekend by the West Coast chapter of American Friends of Likud. He encouraged Jews here to get more active in the quadrennial congress this summer of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which controls the multimillion dollar budgets for The Jewish Agency.

Organizers said Sharansky spoke to about 35 Likud supporters at a Sunday breakfast, then to 100 people at the Hillcrest Country Club, plus more than 200 people later Sunday afternoon at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills and finally another 90 at a private dinner at a television producer’s home.

Since last November, the WZO’s American branch has been selecting delegates for this June’s 35th WZO Congress in Jerusalem. Voting ends in late February with U.S. candidates from Likud, Russian, Green Zionist, Meretz, Harut and other Jewish movements. Sharansky wants more U.S. Jews to sign up with the $7 registration fee on the WZO’s American Zionist Movement Web site and then vote for delegates concerned about WZO spending.

In an interview between two of his speeches, Sharansky criticized the WZO Congress as a, “narrow group of people without broad involvement of Jews [worldwide]. So people simply don’t know, its connection of involvement and distribution of funds. Jews have an opportunity to participate in it, but they’re not using this opportunity. One percent maybe knows about its existence.”

Sharansky quit his minister-without-portfolio post last May in protest to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s pullout last August of Gaza settlers. While Sharon’s former Likud party sponsored Sharansky’s two-day L.A. visit, the onetime Soviet dissident said, “When speaking abroad, I’m trying to speak as little about splits in Israel as possible. When speaking to the Jews of Diaspora, you have to speak about building bridges between Jews of Diaspora and Israel.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

A Dozen Nonprofits Get Foundation Grants

The Jewish Community Foundation recently awarded grants totaling $116,000 to 12 mostly local nonprofit organizations to support a variety of services, ranging from suicide prevention hotlines to dental care for the poor and counseling and tutoring for abused and neglected children.

The Foundation’s grants ranged in size from $5,000 to $20,000 and will help fund valuable services that government money alone cannot underwrite, said Marvin I. Schotland, foundation president and chief executive.

“There are vast pockets of need that cannot possibly be met at this time by the public sector,” he said. “Support by our organization to the greater community is more critical, and immensely gratifying, than ever and remains a vital part of our mandate.”

The foundation, created in 1954, is the largest manager of charitable assets for Greater Los Angeles Jewish philanthropists. With more than $590 million under its management, the Foundation distributed last year $58 million in grants to more than 1,300 organizations.

Among the nonprofits that received grants in January:

  • The Los Angeles Free Clinic received $10,000 for its dental program. This year, the clinic, which provides health and other services to the uninsured and the working poor, expects more than 3,500 children and adults to make more than 9,000 visits for dental services.
  • Trevor Project Inc., based in Beverly Hills, received $10,000 for a suicide prevention hotline and educational programs that promote tolerance for gay teens and those questioning their sexual orientation.
  • New Ways to Work in Sebastopol, Calif., received a $10,000 grant to help prepare children in foster care for independence at age 18. Over the next four years, nearly 4,000 Los Angeles youths currently in foster care are expected to become emancipated and leave the foster care system.
  • Inner-City Arts received $10,000 for a hands-on arts program designed to improve literacy among grade school students enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Chabad in the House

What is “The Rebbe’s Gelt?”

Literally, “the rabbi’s money,” it’s the name of a new Chabad program unveiled last week at the annual West Coast Convention of Chabad/Lubavitch for Shulchim, or emissaries. The new initiative will provide grants and loans to those rabbis who need short-term financial aid.

More than 170 Chabad rabbis and emissaries gathered at the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel and the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, for the Jan. 15-16 convention. Chabad West Coast unveiled Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, a new Jewish overnight camp located on Chabad’s Kiryas Schneerson mountaintop campus. Chabad also announced its plan to organize the first ever Woman’s Convention of Shluchos on the West Coast, tentatively scheduled for May in San Diego. — Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Thousand Oaks Temple Teacher Receives Award

Bobbie Match, who has spent 10 years at Temple Adat Elohim’s Early Childhood Center received the Grinspoon-Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education presented by the Jewish Education Service of North America, Inc. The award recognizes outstanding classroom-based teachers in formal Jewish educational settings. It includes a $1500 grant for continued professional development. Last year Match received the prestigious Lainer Distinguished Early Childhood Educator Award from the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE).

Other recent BJE Award winners from Temple Adat Elohim are Michelle Princenthal, winner of the 2005 Smotrich Family Education Award; Tara Farkash, winner of the 2003 Lainer Distinguished Early Childhood Educator Award; and Marcy Goldberg, winner of the 2004 Lainer Distinguished Educator Award. — NZ

Yago Joins Israel Securities Authority Board

Glenn Yago, director of Capital Studies at the Milken Institute in Los Angeles, was appointed to the International Advisory Board of the Israel Securities Authority (ISA), the government body that oversees and regulates the Israeli capital market and serves the same function as the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States.

Yago joined key Israeli economic policy makers, including ISA chairman Moshe Tery, Bank of Israel Gov. Stanley Fischer and Tel-Aviv Stock Exchange chairman Yair Orgler, for the first meeting of the International Advisory Board in New York. Other board members from the U.S. include Leo Melamed, chairman emeritus of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; Douglas Shulman of the National Association of Securities Dealers; Bill Brodsky, chairman of the Chicago Board Options Exchange; Milton Harris of the University of Chicago School of Business; and David Loglisci, deputy comptroller of the State of New York.

Appointing Yago, Tery said that he wanted the economist’s experience and insight “to help build the legal and economic infrastructure to advance Israel’s capital markets and its standing as a venue for global investment.”

Yago is a leading authority on financial innovations and capital markets and specializes in privatization projects to improve the economic climate in the Middle East. He has experience working with municipal, government, business and academic leaders in the region to promote economic reform. He is a senior Koret Knesset Fellow and teaches at Tel-Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center-Herzliya. He is the author of numerous books and studies, including “The Economic Road Map: Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (Milken Institute, 2005). —NZ

Bubis Honored for Community Service

Professor Gerald Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service (SJCS) at the Los Angeles School of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), was honored recently when the school celebrated its 36th Anniversary at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Two-hundred guests turned out for the event, including colleagues, community leaders, fellow SJCS alumni and old friends, saluting Bubis’ efforts at the school and in the field of Jewish Communal Service.

The (SJCS) was founded in 1968 and is the oldest professional school of its kind. Its inter-disciplinary approach combines study of Jewish tradition and text with tools from the fields of the social sciences and business. Open to students from all areas of religious thought and communal life, the School seeks to be inclusive and pluralistic. Since its inception, 650 people have graduated from the school.

More than 300 SJCS graduates hold dual master’s degrees from USC. Twenty-five rabbis hold degrees from the school and 37 SJCS graduates have received dual degrees in Jewish Education from the HUC-JIR/LA Rhea Hirsch School of Education.

Concurrent with the celebration, alumni and friends of the School of Jewish

Communal Service raised more than $135,000 in scholarships in honor of Bubis. —Norma Zager

Stan’s Customers Go Bananas Over Reopening

Asked about the past three and a half months, shopper Kathy Mannheim said, “I hated it. It has not been a happy time in my life.”

She’s referring to the period of time she endured without her favorite local produce store, Stan’s. A Pico-Robertson neighborhood fixture, Stan’s closed after the High Holidays, when owner Stan Pascal got sick and was unable to carry on his usual six-day-a-week schedule.

Earlier this month, Pascal reopened and was greeted with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for rock stars.

“I’m thinking of giving autographs,” he joked.

Feyge Yemini, who patronizes the store twice a week to supply her large family, said she was “extremely happy” about Pascal’s return.

“I never found a comparable high-quality fruit store,” she said. “I had to go to five places to get what I can get here.”

Pascal started in the produce business as an 8-year-old in Windsor, Ontario, where he would help his father out on the weekends. In 1957, he came with his family to Los Angeles, and worked at his father’s three produce stalls at the Grand Central Market downtown. After his father died, Pascal and his wife, Susan, opened their own store on Fairfax Boulevard, where they remained for more than two decades before moving to the current location.

Fairfax resident Miriam Fishman continues to shop at Stan’s despite the distance.

“It’s a haimisch place,” she said. “There’s no other fruit store like it in town.”

In a time of big box markets and megastores, Stan’s has remained a place where retailer and customer maintain a personal relationship. Pascal greets customers by name, allows regulars to purchase with IOUs, and has been known to weigh a customer’s new baby on the produce scale.

During his absence, rumors circulated that he had sold the store, and in fact, he almost did. “At the last minute I changed my mind,” Pascal said. “I missed the people.”

The feeling is mutual. “I went to other places but it wasn’t the same,” said customer Mannheim. “It wasn’t Stan’s.” — Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Contributing Writer

 

Holiday Celebration of Arts and Eats


The year-to-year tradition of celebrating Chanukah doesn’t change at our home. It always includes lighting candles, playing dreidel, eating latkes and having the children open gifts. But, the highlight of Chanukah for me is having all of our family together at the same time. It is one of the few holidays when our children and grandchildren arrive from everywhere, so we can celebrate and spend time with each other.

But, for the past 15 years, the festivities have included our special friends, artist Peter Shire and his wife, Donna. It all began when we invited Peter to visit the Skirball Museum, which was then located on the campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, next to USC. We toured the collection of Judaica in the basement of the museum, and when Peter saw the menorahs, he was intrigued by their design and how the artists had adapted the local culture and architecture into their creations.

Several days later we called Peter and asked if he would be interested in a commission to create a chanukiah for our family, and he was delighted with the idea. He combined contemporary shapes, cactus, the local mountains, and included many colorful symbols that depicted a Southern California theme.

Peter’s chanukiah has a permanent place in our art collection, and is similar to the one that he later created for the Israel Museum and the Skirball. He recently designed several more, some contemporary, with simple architecture elements, others made in the shape of birds or plants.

During the holiday, Peter always lights the candles on his California-inspired Chanukiah at our home. After they are lit, it is time to eat the first batch of crisp and hot latkes, which have been fried in olive oil to commemorate the story of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days. I still remember the family Chanukah celebrations from when I was young, consisting of our extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins. This was a special time when everyone eagerly awaited the latkes, and later all commented on who had eaten the most.

Of course, while the latkes are served, the children are looking over the wrapped Chanukah gifts, eager to open them, but they have to wait until after dinner when we return to the living room.

The Chanukah meal this year begins with a salad composed of chopped chicken livers, placed on a bed of baby greens and garnished with pomegranate seeds. The main course, ground chicken loaf, everyone’s favorite comfort food, is baked in a tomato-wine sauce and served with homemade cooked apple slices.

For dessert we have a cookie exchange and ask everyone to bring his or her favorite ones to go with the Chocolate Sorbet that I have made. This supersmooth sorbet, made without milk, cream, or eggs, tastes as rich and creamy as ice cream, and I think the addition of Concord grape wine really enhances the sorbet’s intense chocolate flavor. At the end of the evening there are always bags of cookies for the children to take home as a Chanukah treat.

Award-Winning Perfect Potato Latkes

This latke recipe was chosen as one of the top 10 recipes of 1998 by the Los Angeles Times. “The best we’ve ever eaten,” said their test kitchen and food editors.

4 baking potatoes, peeled

1 large yellow onion, peeled and grated

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

4 extra-large eggs

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

Pinch of baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Olive oil, for frying

Grate the potatoes, using a food processor or fine shredder. Immediately transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and add the onion, lemon juice, eggs, flour, baking soda and salt and pepper. Mix well.

Heat 1/8-inch of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour the batter into the hot oil with a large spoon and flatten with the back of the spoon to make 4-inch latkes. Cook on one side until golden brown, three to five minutes; then turn and cook on the other side, about two minutes. (Turn once only.) Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately, plain or with topping.

Makes 12 latkes/four servings.

Chocolate Sorbet (nondairy)

3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder

2 cups sugar

12 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

1 cup Concord grape Wine

Combine the cocoa and sugar in a large, heavy saucepan. Add 4 cups of water, a little at a time, in a thin stream, mixing with a wire whisk until well blended and smooth. Bring to a boil and boil for five to 10 minutes, or until thick. Stir in the melted chocolate and port. Bring to a boil and simmer for about four minutes, or until thick, stirring constantly. Pour into an 8-cup pitcher or bowl and place in a larger bowl filled with ice and cold water. Mix until cool. Remove bowl from ice. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Process in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the sorbet to a covered container and freeze for at least one hour for flavors to mellow. If frozen solid, soften in the refrigerator and beat until smooth and creamy before serving.

Makes about two quarts.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

 

Rhodesli Keep the Faith in L.A.


As a student at Cal State Northridge more than 30 years ago, Aron Hasson wrote a paper about the Sephardic synagogues of his ancestral homeland, the Greek island of Rhodes. His professor was so taken with Hasson’s research that it ended up in a history journal.

Hasson paid his first visit to Rhodes in 1975, after a stint in an Israeli kibbutz. In 1997, he returned with his teenage children. Standing in the 400-year-old Kahal Shalom Synagogue, where three of his grandparents had once worshipped, he realized that the tourists who gaped at the Judeo-Spanish wall plaques had no knowledge of Rhodes’ rich and complex Jewish history.

Hasson’s first response was to create a pamphlet, “The Jewish Quarter of Rhodes,” for distribution in Kahal Shalom. Next he turned the synagogue’s women’s prayer rooms into the Rhodes Jewish Museum, in which old photographs and artifacts document the thriving Jewish community of pre-World War II Rhodes, once some 4,000 strong. Now, through his nonprofit Rhodes Jewish Historical Foundation, the Westwood attorney works toward the restoration of other old synagogues and holy sites that can be called “Rhodesli” (or “pertaining to Rhodes”). Hasson has also sponsored the visit of an 800-year-old Sefer Torah — which had long ago been carried from Spain to Rhodes before ending up in Buenos Aires — to Sephardic synagogues across the United States. Although not a religious man, he feels great pride when other Rhodeslis acknowledge his efforts with a heartfelt “Kol Ha Kavod.”

Hasson’s obsession with Rhodes mirrors that of an earlier generation of Angelenos. Cousins Art Benveniste and Shirlee Peha, now both in their 70s, remember growing up in South Los Angeles when the area was a magnet for Jews from Rhodes. Their immigrant parents and relatives, all of whom left the island before World War II to improve their economic prospects, spoke Ladino (also known as Judeo-Spanish) in the home. They helped found the Sephardic Hebrew Center, a Ladera Heights congregation that merged in 1993 with Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, as a way of preserving Rhodesli religious practices. They also instituted the custom of group visits to Catalina Island, whose location resembles that of Rhodes in relationship to Turkey.

“It was natural to them to take a boat across the water to an island nearby,” Hasson said of the immigrants,

By the time Benveniste and Peha reached adulthood, members of the close-knit community were starting to scatter. The annual Catalina trips, which currently attract about 40 of the 900 Rhodeslis now living in the L.A. area, could not fully satisfy their desire to meet and mingle. Since then, they’ve inaugurated regular luncheon gatherings at a local restaurant, and their yearly picnics bring together 200 people representing several generations: on the menu are all-American hot dogs and hamburgers, along with more exotic treats. Benveniste, who also participates in a Ladino-speaking havurah, has made numerous sentimental journeys to Rhodes. His last visit came in 2002, when a group of 20 Rhodeslis traveled from Los Angeles for the dedication of a Holocaust memorial in Rhodes’ Square of the Martyred Jews.

If Benveniste and Peha represent an older generation of Rhodeslis, Rachelle Hasson stands for the future.

At 21, Aron Hasson’s daughter feels increasingly connected to her roots. Having inherited from her Rhodesli grandparents a love for baking, she takes pride in the flaky bourekas, boyos and masas de vinou (Passover wine cookies) that have her family begging for more. In school she elected to study Spanish, because “in the back of my mind I always wanted to learn the language of my ancestors.”

Now, at UCLA majoring in world arts and cultures, she has just returned from a junior year in Spain. She chose the University of Granada partly because it offered courses touching on the Sephardic tradition. Since she’s come home, she delights in chatting with her grandparents in Ladino and said one day she will be the keeper of their memories of Rhodes: “I feel it’s my duty to continue the tradition and keep it alive.”

 

Lack of Jewish Life in Greece Just Myth


When twilight descends on mountain villages and sun-kissed beaches, sociable Greeks make their way to tiny sidewalk cafes. They toast the end of the workday with anise-flavored ouzo, accompanied by plates of broiled octopus and green olives.

Dinner in the taverna is a long, lingering affair filled with an array of garlicky salads, fish, meat and maybe a slice of phylo-wrapped kasseri. As the night winds down, life moves to the cafeneion, where sweet and potent Greek coffee and perhaps a nibble of baklava serve as the perfect nightcap.

Poets have been known to wax lyrical about “the glory that was Greece.” Yet a visitor to Greece today quickly finds that the glory’s not only in the past tense. While those who built the shrines to Zeus and Apollo are long gone, the people who inhabit modern Greece are unquestionably alive.

The nation’s once-proud Jewish population, which dates back to Alexander the Great, was largely decimated during World War II. But from Rhodes to Athens, Greece’s rich Judaic history and culture are being preserved, and the seeds of the Jewish community are beginning to take root again.

Athens, a megalopolis whose population tops 3 million, has all the hallmarks of a major city: museums, theaters, office towers, the occasional Starbucks. Still, it remains quintessentially Greek.

Armed guards in short, pleated skirts; tasseled caps, and shoes with floppy pompoms keep watch in front of Parliament, across the street from Athens’ Syntagma (Constitution) Square. At regular intervals, they solemnly perform an oddly lopsided strut, complete with high kicks and sustained balletic poses. It’s a hint that the impulse to break out the dance moves is deeply rooted in the Greek soul.

Part of the thrill of Athens is that history is everywhere. A shady café in Plaka borders the delightful Tower of the Winds, dating from the time when Julius Caesar’s Romans ruled Greece. On a shopping expedition to the Athens Flea Market, tourists find themselves skirting the Ancient Agora, where Socrates and Plato once strolled. The city’s main bus lines terminate not far from the massive, horseshoe-shaped Panathenaic Stadium. Built in the fourth century CE on the ruins of an earlier stadium, it was restored for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and played a dramatic role in the opening ceremonies of the Athens Olympiad of 2004.

But what makes Athens most special is the large flat hill in its center — the fabled Acropolis. Visitors must wend their way on foot, past the charming restaurants and shops of the old Plaka district, to reach one of the world’s most dazzling sights. The Parthenon, along with the other ruined temples that gleam in the bright Greek sun, dates from the fifth century BCE. In ancient times this was the center of community worship, and it’s easy to imagine throngs of pilgrims bearing offerings for the goddess Athena here.

But not every ancient Greek worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses. In the marketplace under the Acropolis are the remains of a fifth century BCE synagogue, which still feature carvings of lulavs and a menorah. Happily, Athens can also boast Jewish sites of much more recent vintage. The city is home to the handsome Jewish Museum of Greece, built in 1997, which gives eloquent testimony to the lost glories of Greek-style Judaism. Today Athens’ small but vibrant Jewish community — comprising more than 3,000 of Greece’s 5,000 Jews — supports a day school, a youth center and a functioning synagogue.

Beth Jacob, founded in the 1930s, occupies an austere neoclassical building on a quiet street that was once the heart of a bustling Jewish quarter. It is open for Sephardic services throughout the year. Directly across Melidoni Street, one can also spot the historic (and well-guarded) Ioannina Synagogue, dating from 1903. Once the headquarters for Athenian Jews who embraced Greece’s ancient and unique Romaniote tradition, it is used on the High Holidays, but can also be viewed by special arrangement with the Jewish Community of Athens organization, which shares its premises.

Further afield, the traveler can find traces of Jewish life both on the Greek mainland and on many of Greece’s most romantic islands. One prime destination is Thessaloniki, also known as Salonika, where Jews who had fled from Spain in the 15th century found a safe haven under Ottoman rule. As late as 1900, almost half of the city’s population was Jewish. Now the 1,300 Jews still remaining in the area enjoy a community center, a school, and a kosher butcher, as well as a daily minyan. It’s possible to visit several charming Thessaloniki synagogues, along with a newly enhanced Jewish history museum that stands in the heart of the picturesque Modiano Market.

Jews planning to cruise the Greek islands can explore their heritage when they tire of beachcombing. In Corfu, a 300-year-old synagogue displaying a collection of Torah crowns is open every Saturday and by appointment. Remnants of Jewish life dating back to antiquity are found on Delos, Naxos and Zakynthos, among others. Chalkis, on the island of Euboea, claims to be the oldest Jewish community in Europe: today a 19th-century synagogue is a reminder of past glories. In Hania, Crete, an international archaeological effort led to the recent restoration of a Romaniote synagogue built in the middle ages. And a similar venture, spearheaded by Aron Hasson of Los Angeles, has helped preserve the Jewish historic sites of Rhodes. (See accompanying story.) The island’s 16th century Kahal Shalom, Greek’s oldest-functioning synagogue, now also plays host to the Jewish Museum of Rhodes. This informative museum makes an excellent jumping-off point for tours of the ancient Sephardic quarter known as “La Juderia.”

Most Hellenic vacations prove unforgettable because of the hospitality of the Greek populace, the beauty of the Greek landscape and the antiquity of the Greek culture. It’s no surprise that Jews lived contentedly on Greek soil for more than 2,000 years. Today’s visitor can revel in the splendors of Greece, while still pausing to remember the Jewish people who once made this land of sun and sea their home.

 

Cantor Carries on Tennis Tradition


Steven Walfish’s life is ruled by the three Ts: tallit, tefillin and tennis.To illustrate this point, when his son Sam was in first grade, he asked his dad to drop by the school and join other fathers in talking about their professions.

So the elder Walfish appeared in full regalia and talked about what it means to be a cantor in a synagogue.

Then he stripped off his robe, displaying the tennis shorts and shirt underneath, and discussed the job of managing three municipal tennis centers.

Walfish credits one of his professions to his father, the other to his mother.

His Polish-born father and Holocaust survivor, Heshel Walfish, has been the legendary cantor at Beth Israel for 50 years, and at 85 he shows no sign of slowing down.

Located at Beverly and Crescent Heights boulevards, Beth Israel was founded in 1899 as the first Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and was also known as the Olive Street Shul.

When Steven was 5 years old, Cantor Walfish put his son next to him on the bimah on Shabbat, and the boy starting belting out prayers at the Orthodox service.

By the time of his bar mitzvah, Steven had learned his dad’s craft and would pinchhit for him when he was out of town.

At the same time, the boy’s American-born mother, Betty, took over the physical education of the only male heir among her four children.

She took Steven bowling, fishing, and, most importantly, instilled in him a lifelong love of tennis.

Now, at 74, Betty Walfish still plays against her 48-year old son, who describes her as “a really sharp player.”

By stages, Steven Walfish became a full-service cantor the old-fashioned way, by learning from his father rather than through ordination.

For the past nine years, he has conducted one of the High Holiday services at Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform congregation, and tutors bar and bat mitzvah students.

(Full disclosure: Walfish tutored and officiated recently at one of my granddaughters’ bat mitzvah, so this report may be biased.)

When The Journal interviewed Walfish last week outside Starbucks on Beverly Glen Circle, a parade of trim-looking women stopped by for cheery hellos.

“All mothers of my b’nai mitzvah kids,” he explained.

On a parallel track, Walfish’s tennis fervor kept growing. “I am an ardent fan,” he said. “If Tom Cruise came by now and sat down at our table, it wouldn’t mean a thing to me. But if it was Pete Sampras or John McEnroe, I’d die.”

In 1994, Walfish got a chance to combine pleasure and business. With partner Lee Ziff, he formed the Beverly Hills Tennis management company, and soon entered into a contract with the City of Beverly Hills to manage its 26 courts at Roxbury Park, La Cienega Park and Beverly Hills High School.

“We supervise all the lessons, leagues, competitions, facilities and special events,” he said. “We have 30 pros, so I can always find somebody to play with.”

Recently, Walfish had the opportunity to fuse his two favorite occupations by conducting a bar mitzvah on a private Beverly Hills tennis court.

In preparing Jewish youngsters for the rite of passage, Walfish takes a special interest in the sons and daughters of Russian immigrants and in children with learning disabilities.

“The Russian kids have practically no Jewish background but they have an intense thirst for Jewish identity,” he said.

Walfish, a divorced father of a girl and two boys, has developed a personal understanding for children with special needs through his 14-year old daughter Emily.

Emily was born with Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that prevents her from walking or communicating in any way.

“She is a beautiful girl, she laughs and cries, and living with her — we would never put her in an institution — has made her two younger brothers much more sensitive and empathetic boys,” Walfish said.

A big man, who erupts frequently into hearty laughter, Walfish puts in pretty long days as cantor, manager of tennis facilities, and “full-time dad.” In addition, he “dabbles” in real estate, and hopes to rejuvenate his father’s Beth Israel congregation, which now consists largely of Holocaust survivors.

As a religious person, Walfish says he is somewhat conflicted. “My father is from a Chasidic background and I was educated in Orthodox schools, but I have worked mainly at Conservative and Reform synagogues,” he mused. “I guess theologically I look at life from a Reform perspective, but my heart and soul are still Orthodox.”

 

We Must Heal Divide Over Life Views


The first half of the 20th century saw Americans locked in a fierce ideological debate surrounding economic class and the distribution of wealth.

In the second half of the century, the cultural wars addressed issues of race and gender.

As we stand at the dawn of the 21st century, a perhaps even more fundamental issue divides the American body politic. From stem cells, abortion and human cloning to the Schiavo case and physician-assisted suicides, the question of life has become this generation’s great ideological battle ground.

Jewish tradition certainly sees life as a primary value. Rosh Hashanah is so significant in the Jewish calendar precisely because it celebrates the birth of the world. Life is God’s first gift to humanity.

The liturgy of the High Holidays constantly celebrates life, and as Rabbi Irving Greenberg has suggested, in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God tells Abraham that Divine service does not mean sacrificing human life for the Divine but rather living a life devoted to bringing the Divine into the world.

However, Judaism’s emphasis on life is matched by its emphasis on choice. Human freedom to choose is incorporated within Maimonides’ 13 primary theological principles. Maimonides in his Mishnah Torah (Laws of Repentance 2:1) suggests that the essence of repentance is rooted in choice.

“What is complete repentance?” he asks. “It is the case of someone who has the opportunity to commit a sin he or she has committed, and has the ability to commit it [again], and yet separates from it and does not commit it, because of having done repentance, not because of fear or because of lack of power … such a man is a master of complete repentance.”

Such a conception of law highlights the unique choice-centered nature of Jewish law and repentance.

But in today’s American society, the complementary qualities of life and choice have come to represent opposing worldviews. Both sides have taken absolute positions, demanding that human beings live either by the credo “the sanctity of life” or the motto “life without choice is not worth living.” So blinded are those who express such ideologies that in their talk radio extremes, they refer to the other position as the equivalent of communism or Nazism.

Both these noisy sides ignore the silent majority who stand in the very gray, murky and complex terrain called living. Those who stand in the world of the living realize each of us chooses life: “ubacharta b’achaim.”

Living means recognizing that though dogmatic, absolutist and all-encompassing worldviews might make for good media headlines, tenure at a university or electablity at the voting booth, they fail to make any sense in the real world. In the real world, people are not rational computers who make every decision based on a priori theoretical doctrines.

In some cases, we are more open to the pain and suffering of the present. In other cases, we feel more the weight of history and text.

Jewish tradition recognizes that each decision involving human life is a world unto itself. To be sure, the Jewish tradition is not unprincipled. It states unambiguously that never one, but a number of competing factors exist in every bioethical decision. It stands in opposition to both extremes of the debate and offers a sober worldview that gives dignity to the often conflicting rhythms of life.

While the tradition worries about partial-birth or late-term abortions, there are times that even under such circumstances the most stringent of rabbis would allow for terminating a pregnancy. Likewise, almost all rabbinic authorities acknowledge the importance of stem cell research, and while the vast majority of the tradition opposes physician-assisted suicide, much debate and legal room exists around the status of those who are brain dead.

These rulings might seem contradictory, but on closer examination, they give testimony to a theology not of life or choice per se, but rather a theology of the living. The word repentance, teshuvah, so commonly heard over the High Holidays, has many meanings. Among them is reconciliation.

As we sit and watch the political and religious absolutism infecting the American body politic threaten to irreversibly rend our national soul, we as Americans and Jews must become baalei teshuvah, masters of reconciliation. We need to help in healing and reconciling this divided country and remind our fellow citizens there is more to living than life or choice.

Rabbi Eliyahu Stern is scholar-in-residence at Park East Synagogue and is finishing a Ph.D. in Jewish studies at UC Berkeley.

 

Young Jews Choose Offbeat Expression


A new study of Jews in their 20s and 30s reveals that though these young people are underaffiliated with traditional institutions, many have a strongly defined Jewish identity that they express in creative new ways outside synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and the federation system.

“There’s indirect evidence that young Jews care about being Jewish, but they are expressing it in ways that are not institutional,” Hebrew University sociology professor Steven Cohen said.

Cohen has been conducting research on Jewish identity and culture, commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York, with Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion research fellow Ari Kelman for the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

The final reports won’t be released for several months, but the two men discussed preliminary findings from one of the studies, dealing specifically with younger Jews, with JTA.

“If younger Jews are not institutionally engaged, where are they engaged?” Cohen asked.

One place is with friends and family. Another is through cultural events such as Jewish concerts and film festivals, and one-third is through Jewish social service opportunities that are “oversubscribed, with many more young Jews willing to serve than there are places to accommodate them,” he said.

Above all, Cohen and Kelman said, the younger generation is expressing its Jewish identity through culture — a vibrant, socially inclusive, hybrid culture centered in New York and a handful of other cities that draws upon popular youth culture with a distinct Jewish aesthetic.

Noting the emergence of such things as klezmer-hip-hop bands, Heeb magazine, the “Hebrew Hammer” film and alternative holiday “happenings” in downtown clubs, Cohen and Kelman take the explosion of new Jewish culture as a given, and set out to determine what it means for Jewish continuity as well as the young Jews involved.

Is it just fun, they wondered, or does it have implications for American Jewry’s future?

“There are a lot of anecdotal impressions people have, but nothing has been done to date to show how prevalent these programs are or what impact they have on the participants,” said Jennifer Rosenberg, planning director for the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal of the UJA-Federation of New York, explaining why the federation commissioned the research.

She expects the final reports to help the federation and other Jewish organizations with their strategic planning.

Kelman and Cohen conducted their research at 13 Jewish events in New York City between December 2004 and June 2005, ranging from “Slivovitz and Soul” — a party held at a Lower East Side bar featuring Yiddish rapping, hora dancing and a disk jockey who sampled hip-hop and cantorial music — to “Golem Gets Married,” a mock wedding at the Knitting Factory club starring a cross-dressing bride and groom, and a band that played klezmer music, along with midcentury American dance favorites.

Several themes emerged from the interviews, they say.

First, the events were inclusive and pluralistic, open to non-Jews as well as Jews. Jewish literacy may help one understand the goings-on, but it’s not needed to enjoy the events.

The events are held in clubs, parks and other mainstream venues to make access even less threatening or ethnically specific. That removes a lot of the subtle guilt or sense of obligation that may be associated with attending events at synagogues or other Jewish institutions.

“The organizers would like you to come because they think they have a good product and you’ll have fun, but no one’s taking attendance,” Kelman said. “There’s no sense that you ‘ought’ to be there, or that you’re a bad Jew if you don’t come. It’s not like synagogue in that way.”

Second, the events mix music, dance and other entertainment with Jewish rituals, such as megillah readings or Chanukah candlelightings. Entertainment and ritual are interwoven and both are presented as equally valid, adding to the nonjudgmental, inclusive atmosphere.

Third, organizers and participants use irony and irreverence to distance themselves from Jewish tradition and community — creating a safe zone to explore their relationship to tradition and community, the researchers say.

“One of the hallmarks of modern culture is self-referentialism and playing with stereotypes, like Heeb magazine, but there ought to be substance behind it,” Kelman said. “Having the ability to laugh [at Jewish tradition] opens up a critical space” for Jews in their 20s and 30s to try on different aspects of Judaism and see where they’re comfortable.

That creative play often contains a serious search for meaning, he says. He points to one event where participants started dancing a hora while laughing at themselves — but they continued dancing.

“Really, dancing a hora and playing at it look really similar,” Kelman noted. “So the irony opens up a window to engagement.”

So what’s the message to the organized Jewish world? Though the final reports aren’t yet in, Cohen and Kelman are able to suggest certain guidelines.

First, they say, it’s time to pay attention to what’s going on and stop griping about how young Jews aren’t joining synagogues or showing up at singles events.

“There is an opportunity for organized Jewry to be more active in engaging younger Jews,” Cohen said. “Provide more frequent opportunities for cultural life, support for young artists, more social service opportunities, give them more opportunities to travel to Israel — there’s a segment that wants to spend significant time in Israel but doesn’t know how.”

That means money.

“A judicious use of money to support the cultural and social entrepreneurs” putting on these events would help them focus on their creative endeavors instead of “burning out doing fundraising and administrative work,” he said.

It’s wrong to think the young Jews involved in such events are alienated from Jewish communal life, Kelman said.

“There’s this myth of the ‘great unaffiliated masses,’ but those people are much less likely to come to these events,” he said.

Many of the participants Kelman interviewed had gone to Jewish summer camps and Israel programs, and still go to synagogue on the High Holidays.

“These people are not rejecting synagogue; some just haven’t found one where they feel comfortable,” he suggested. “Even those who told me, ‘I’m not involved,’ as we talked they said, ‘It’s important for me to marry Jewish.’ ”

But the researchers say this cultural renaissance is important on its own terms, and shouldn’t be viewed merely as a way to funnel young Jews into establishment institutions.

“If our research makes one impact, I hope it’s this,” Kelman said: “This is not a gateway drug. It’s not intended as, ‘Come to this, and now go to synagogue or now give money to federation.'”

 

Give Some Honey to Apples of Your Eye


The High Holiday Hustle. We know the steps well. It starts with a tireless trek to the mall in search of that stylish synagogue suit. Next comes the culinary juggling act, simultaneously preparing Aunt Sophie’s tzimmes, Bubbe’s killer kugel and a 22-pound turkey, dressed and trimmed. The last step is grooming an entire family and shuffling the whole gang out the door and into the synagogue in under an hour.

The entire dance sequence — minus the shopping — is generally repeated the following day. Scrambling through the better part of October, it’s easy to forget that the true meaning of the High Holiday season can’t be found in Nordstrom or Bloomingdale’s or Aunt Sophie’s tzimmes, but in appreciating and giving thanks for life’s sweetest blessings. So steal a few moments from the holiday hoopla to remind the true apples of your eye just how delicious they are. Even the simplest acts can send children a message, as loud and clear as the shofar, that they’re loved and cherished. The following sweet suggestions will help you show your children the honey this Rosh Hashanah and every other day of the brand new year.

Rosh Hashanah Honey for Kids

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• Take them to a paint-it-yourself ceramic shop and decorate Kiddush cups, apple plates or honey bowls together.

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• Leave Hershey’s Kisses on their pillows on erev Rosh Hashanah, along with a note wishing them a sweet New Year.

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• Celebrate the birthday of the world with a family nature hike.

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• Give the world a birthday present by planting a tree together.

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• Have a honey cake baking party.

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• Let them design the Rosh Hashanah tablecloth and challah cover using fabric crayons or markers.

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• Make a Rosh Hashanah hunt by giving children clues that lead them to different places in your home — i.e., go to the place where you rest your rosh (head) every night. Have a new clue waiting at each stop and a bag of holiday treats at the final destination.

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• Take a family excursion to an orchard for apple picking.

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• Bake a round challah together.

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• Visit ” target=”_blank”>www.babaganewz.com, where little techies can find Rosh Hashanah games and activities.

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• Have a Tashlich ceremony by a lake or river, so children can cast their sins away and start out the year with a fresh, clean slate.

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• Turn an apple on its side and cut it in half to reveal a star in the middle. Dip the fruit in washable paint, and let your little stars stamp away.

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• Steal some time to read a High Holiday picture book together — even if they say that they’re too old to listen to a story. Some noteworthy choices are “Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year” by Eric Kimmel (Scholastic, 2000), “The World’s Birthday: A Rosh Hashanah Story,” by Barbara Diamond Goldin (Harcourt, 1990), “Sophie and the Shofar” by Fran Manushkin (Urj, 2001) and “How the Rosh Hashanah Challah Became Round” by Sylvia Epstein (Gefen,1999).

Year-Round Sweet Stuff for Kids

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• Flip through photo albums and baby books, and tell them stories about when they were little.

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• Have lunch with them at school (note: disregard in case of preadolescence).

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• Have a campout in the living room. Roast marshmallows over candles and tell ghost stories by flashlight.

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• Give them a coupon that they can redeem for something priceless, like going to a movie with mom or a ballgame with dad.

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• Plan a family game night once a week. TVs, cellphones and computers not invited.

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• Have an unbirthday party — complete with a cake — for everyone in the family who does not have a birthday that day.

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• Take them on a “mystery trip” to a place you rarely go, like an amusement park, sporting event or children’s museum.

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• Proudly display their finest schoolwork.

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• Transform your family room into a movie theater, complete with tickets and popcorn.

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• Send them comic books, baseball cards or other goodies in the mail.

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• Create a new family tradition like a weekly pizza-making night.

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• Do something completely out of character, like starting a pillow fight.

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• Pack dinner up in a picnic basket and eat at the park.

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• Watch cartoons with them.

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• Make up a secret signal together for saying “I love you.” (Little ones will love being sneaky; older children will be thankful to save face in public.)

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• Arrange with the teacher to read a book to their class.

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• Host special dinners to celebrate their every day accomplishments, like losing a tooth, scoring a soccer goal or getting an “A” on a science test.

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• Slip a joke into their backpacks.

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• Ask them for advice about something they know well.

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• Tell them you love them — even if they roll their eyes when they hear it — every morning and every night.

L’Shanah Tovah to you and your honeys.

Sharon Estroff is a syndicated Jewish parenting columnist with graduate degrees in education and child psychology.

Letters to the Editor


Jewish Festivals of Yore

Rob Eshman does not have to apologize for sounding like a cranky old-timer in his lament about the Jewish festivals of yore (“A Bigger Sunday,” May 27). Much has changed since I participated in the Rancho Park festivities with my children. If attendance at the Woodley Park festival was 90 percent Israeli, many in Los Angeles must share the belief that Israel today may not represent the Diaspora view of Jewish values or Judaism itself.

The actions of the Israeli state suggest a people marching to a different drummer than the communal spectrum of the ’70s and ’80s that gathered at Rancho Park.

Martin Wallen
Bethesda, Md.

Many thanks for the nice mention of Big Sunday in your recent editorial.

Big Sunday is a volunteer day whose mission is to bring diverse people together from all walks of life, all over the city. As such, finding a date that is convenient for everyone is like walking a minefield. Big Sunday is always on a Sunday in the spring, and once you eliminate Passover, Easter, school breaks and Mother’s Day, the pickings are slim. One year we finally found a date, only to discover it was Greek Orthodox Easter. (Who knew?) This year we overlapped not only with the Israeli Festival, but with the NoHo Arts Fair, as well – and we happily sent volunteers to help out at both.

At Big Sunday our goal is to celebrate inclusiveness. Please tell your readers that any or all of them (and their congregations, schools, clubs and offices) are welcome to join us next May 7 for Big Sunday 2006.

David T. Levinson
Chairman
Big Sunday

As one of those cranky old-timers, I read, with nostalgia and great sadness, your description of the present-day festival. I’m afraid that the community of the ’70s and ’80s may be irretrievably gone. The Solidarity Walk of yore was organized and operated by The Federation as a communitywide event – not Israeli, Russian, Sephardic or any other single group – nor did we secularize it with “Mitzvah” programs on that day. We had and have other days for those programs.

It was truly an inclusive Jewish community day, demonstrating our solidarity with Israel and as a Jewish people. Organizationally, the only competition among ourselves was to vie for the honor of having more people participate, be they from the country clubs, the Jewish day schools, or from each and every synagogue in the city. The 30,000-50,000 people who participated – whether walking the 18 km, organizing the event, singing or dancing in the park ’til dusk, working the booths – all felt a sense of the total community that unfortunately doesn’t prevail today.

You raised an issue that is, I believe, a sad manifestation of what our community has and is evolving to. Your plaintive hope that the future generations will somehow change this situation is, I feel, misplaced.

I feel the loss that you have articulated. Somehow, that sense of community must be recaptured. It does not exist today. What should we be doing about it and whose responsibility should it be to act? It won’t happen by a laissez-faire approach, and that seems to be the present status quo.

Ozzie Goren
Los Angeles

Reform’s Reforms

I cannot speak for all Reform Jews, but I love the feeling of pluralism (“Reform’s Reforms,” May 20). If congregants choose to worship with us garbed in head-to-toe tallit, wearing tefillin and are comfortable sitting next to me with my bare, bald head, and having a young woman in a mini-skirt on the other side, they are more than welcome. Our temple, in the Conejo Valley, had a beautiful standing-room-only community prayer service after Sept. 11. Clergy and local residents representing every race, color and creed, sang, hugged and wept together. I have no problem if fellow congregants, or our rabbis, choose to become more halachic as long as there is no impact on my personal Jewish lifestyle or beliefs. That’s the beauty of Reform Judaism.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village

Cantorial Correction

Thank you for the wonderful article highlighting how far the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) has come in just a few short years (“Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step,” May 20). The article and accompanying photo do, however, merit a clarification and correction. In addition to the nontraditional roles noted, our graduates are also becoming congregational clergy. Indeed, of our 2005 ordinees, five out of seven will be serving in synagogues, in California as well as Arizona and Iowa. In addition, five of our eight past ordinees are also serving as congregational rabbis and cantors. Finally, the accompanying picture stated that it was of the “AJR rabbinical ordinees.” In fact, Paul Buch and Phillip Baron are being ordained as cantors.

Everyone associated with AJR has worked very hard to make the accomplishments noted in the article possible and we appreciate The Journal’s recognition of those efforts.

Rabbi Stan Levy
Chair, Board of Governors
Academy for Jewish Religion Los Angeles

Reform’s Reforms

Perhaps Micha Odenheimer of Ha’aretz has an excuse, but your editors have none. The principal architect and driving force behind the Pittsburgh Statement is our own community’s Rabbi Richard Levy, then president of the [Central Conference of American Rabbis]. That was itself a tribute to his stature within the movement as he was then neither a congregational rabbi nor a full-time teaching one, but instead the long-time executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is a major influence on the movement’s return to tradition, not to mention author/editor of several of its prayer books, which reintroduced Hebrew to the liturgy. Your failure to acknowledge Levy’s contributions in print is unforgivable.

Immanuel I. Spira
Los Angeles

Yip Is a Yid

Whatever her credentials may be, Jacqueline Bassan, author of the letter on May 27 denying Yip Harburg’s Jewishness, is simply wrong. Yip Harburg was born Isadore (or Isidore) Hochberg in New York City (Letters, May 27). His work is repeatedly referenced in “Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood” by Jack Gottlieb (State University of New York Press, 2004).

Eric A. Gordon
author,
“Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein”

Given his passionate and quintessentially Jewish concern for the underclass, not to mention his literary genius, I confess I would have been crestfallen to read that E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was of some other persuasion, had I not known better. In fact, he was a product of both Russian Jewish immigrants and the Lower East Side. I’m quite sure the Christian lyricist the writer had in mind was Johnny Mercer, one of the very few non-Jewish songwriting giants of that era.

Mark Ellman
Los Angeles

Lost Parking, Lost Temper

On my return to my car after attending the Israel Independence Day celebration in Woodley Park, I could not help but notice on the other side of the street a young man wearing a kippah in his early 30s arguing with another young man of similar age about a parking spot (“L.A.’s Big Sunday,” May 20).

He was so enraged, this young man wearing the kippah, he couldn’t let it go. Soon some people passing by saw what was going on and tried to extricate the two men from a soon-to-be fist fight or worse. The young man wearing the kippah had left his young wife with a baby in tow and kept going back and forth to the man that aced him out of a parking spot. The anger was so evident you couldn’t help but notice. I feel sorry for this observant young man; he obviously had a problem that it ticked him off so bad. I’m sure this is what the media calls “road rage.” But still, how can you ruin a lovely Sunday afternoon for yourself and your little family all over a lost parking spot? How will we ever achieve peace in the Middle East if young men here fight over a parking spot on Israel’s Independence Day?!

Jacqueline Bereskin
Calabasas

Platform for Extremist

Why are Jews so self-destructive? In response to an ad in The Jewish Journal, I attended a forum run by UCLA Center for Jewish Studies on May 22 (“Is Israel Jewish, Democratic, and Western? And What Should It Be?” May 20).

One of the three speakers was Israeli Arab Nadim Rouhana, who rejects Israel’s right to exist. That he’s not tried for treason is proof that Israel is indeed “liberal, democratic and western.” The question I have for the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies is why provide a platform to this extremist so he can reach impressionable students and Jewish Angelinos? Surely there are other Israeli Arabs with whom a rational dialog is possible. Why buy the bullets for someone who wants to kill you?

Harriet P. Epstein
Santa Monica

Stand With Sudan Refugees

Almost four years ago, Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, and I brought out Francis Bok, a Sudanese slave who escaped after 10 years of being held in captivity to speak in Los Angeles prior to Pesach 2002 (“We Must Work to Free Today’s Slaves,” April 9).

We made calls not only to synagogues and Jewish schools, but to many African American Churches to hear the horrific account of what happened to him as a 7 year old when he lost his entire family and became a slave for the next 10 years. His account of violence and slavery was not unusual and continues to happen to his people, the Dinka tribe, and the people of Darfur.

Four years ago, we were sadly met with a strange sense of indifference by the First AME Church where the Pastor Cecil Murray asked us, “Why should blacks in America care about slaves in Africa when we are still slaves here?” Although Murray did have Bok tell his story at the First AME, only about 150 of more than 400 members were interested enough to show up and listen.

To their credit, Francis was welcomed at UCLA, B’nai David, Beth Am and Stephen S. Wise to tell his tragic story. The most touching and heartwarming event was when Bok spoke to the Stephen S. Wise eighth-grade classes, which had been studying and doing a project on Sudan over the year. They welcomed him as if he was a rock star! This class had more knowledge of what was going on than their adult counterparts, and the Stephan S. Wise administration is to be congratulated for that.

Every year after that, Roz and I tried to again bring this issue to the Jews in Los Angels and were met with very little interest. More than 2 million human beings have died, and we are happy to see Los Angeles waking up. We need to show support and hope that this urgent message is brought to the attention of thousands if not millions of Jews. Jews can certainly identify with slavery and genocide and should play an active role in helping to stop this horrific atrocity. It is never too late to step up to the plate.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Associate Director
American Jewish Congress

Throw Book at Quran Flushers

Rob Eshman’s article makes good sense in reporting on religious stories; writer treat them sensitively (“Articles of Faith,” May 20).

I take exception to his questioning Newsweek’s story on the flushing of the Quran. They do indicate it was done by American interrogators. They are the guilty parties and need be tried by a military court.

Hyman Haves
Pacific Palisades

Another Jewish D.C. Museum

Most visitors to Washington, D.C., are aware of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (“Learn to Remember,” April 29). Yet for Jewish visitors there is a little-known museum that should also be seen: the National Museum of American Jewish Military History at 1811 R St. N.W. (free admission). Exhibits include a section on Jewish military involvement in the liberation of the concentration camps and a section on Jewish women in the military.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller
Los Angeles

 

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