Sexual Taboos Split Persian Generations


Like many single Jews, Sharona Saghian met her husband on JDate, the Internet dating service aimed at Jewish singles. Although by doing so, the 28-year-old broke her community’s old, venerated matchmaking traditions.

Saghian is Persian and in her community most parents prefer to know the background of their child’s prospective mate when dating begins.

“Meeting someone through the Internet is very difficult, and most Persian families wouldn’t approve of it because it breaks with tradition,” Saghian said. “I met my husband through the Internet because I wanted to try something different.”

This change is yet another example of the widening generation gap between older and younger Persian Jews in Southern California. After 25 years of growing up in the United States, Persian Jews in their 20s and early 30s are increasingly questioning their community’s social taboos and expectations, while trying to forge their own identities.

With the majority of older Persian Jews having been raised in Iran’s socially conservative and male-dominated society, their children are now grappling with issues of dating, marriage and sex as Iranian standards come into conflict with American expectations.

“Although we have been in the United States for over 20 years, we still haven’t acclimated into American society,” said Sharon Taftian, 22. “The biggest problem is that our parents do not fully understand the culture their kids are growing up in.”

Taftian was one of about 100 young professional Persian Jews who participated in an open discussion at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana last month. The event was just one of many recent efforts by a few in the local Persian community to enable young Jews to voice their concerns, frustrations and fears about their social difficulties without being rejected by their elders.

“Our younger generation does not have a venue to talk to each other; they are still unable to talk in public, especially when their parents are present,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “We wanted to offer them an opportunity that they are not used to having at home or with older people.”

Many young Persian Jews say premarital sex is one taboo not discussed. A double standard in the community still strongly disapproves of young women having sex before marriage but looks the other way when it comes to young men who do.

“I think our parents came from a different environment, where they were not sexually free, and they have a hard time accepting the way of life here,” said Liane Kattan, 27, of Los Angeles.

Dr. Shawn Omrani, an Iranian Jewish psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, said that young Jewish women in Iran were married in their late teens, so maintaining virginity until marriage didn’t hold the same stigma that it does in today’s American culture.

“In Iran, virginity for a woman was a virtue, and she remained that way for a few years until getting married at a young age,” Omrani said. “Here, the average age of marriage is much higher for a woman, because they want to grow, get an education and experience life. So it may be unrealistic to expect them to remain virgins for many years before getting married.”

Many Persian parents may have difficulty discussing issues of sex with their children, Omrani said, because in the past in Iran, even though some extended families lived together and knew of couples having sex, their society prohibited them from discussing sex openly.

A number of young Persian Jewish women said a few of their Persian female friends who have been sexually active before marriage have chosen to have gynecological surgeries in order to create the effect of them being virgins, because of the pressure their community has placed on them to keep their virginity.

This is not a new trend. Omrani says that in the past, sexually active women had this procedure done before getting married.

Several young Persian Jews said they were frustrated with their relatives getting involved with their decisions to find a spouse and pressuring them to get married at a younger age.

“Whether you like it or not, whatever you do when you’re younger comes back to haunt you, because people in the community remember if you had a boyfriend and bring that up when you’re looking to get married,” Saghian said.

Other young Persian Jews say their friends sometimes have trouble marrying other Persian Jews since individuals in the community have preconceived notions of their family’s background.

“Everyone knows everyone in the community,” said Robert Kavian, 35, of Brentwood. “They base their notions of you on your family’s reputation and name, so it can be beneficial or negative.”

A large number of young Persian Jews contacted for this story declined to give their names or discuss taboo topics. They feared being ostracized or being the subject of rumors by older individuals in the community.

“The biggest problem in the community is that there’s a lot of gossip, with people making up things about you that aren’t true, just because they don’t like the way you are or think,” said Nora Tavili, 24.

Social science experts within the Persian Jewish community said the fear among young Persian Jews to voice their opposition to their community’s taboos is not unique since change is not welcomed in many tight-knit cultures. They say individuals seeking changes are often attacked.

“Not too many people have the guts to stand up and talk about these issues,” Omrani said. “This is something that the younger generation in our community needs to work on. If anyone can change the trend in our community, it’s the younger people, because they can’t depend on their parents to do it since their parents are too set in their ways.”

Omrani says younger Persian Jews can overcome many of their societal difficulties through greater education and communication with their parents about their societal problems.

“I think the younger generation should not dismiss their parents’ experience, because experience itself is very valuable,” he said. “For example, young people should learn that making love is the highest level of emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy, and it has to be shared with someone very special, otherwise sex is just a simple physical release.”

Parents in the Persian Jewish community must also educate themselves about their children, their new society and hold onto their good values, but also have the flexibility to let go of some of their older traditions that are not constructive, Omrani said.

He said many of the taboos young Persian Jews face today may dissipate in the future as the community is more exposed to the American culture and psychology.


Tips to Engage Your Family in the New Year

"Dad, I have my first big test in biology next Thursday," Sandy explained.

"Next Thursday?"


"Sorry, honey, you are going to have to miss it. Next Thursday is Rosh Hashanah and I want you to go to services with me."

"Dad, I can’t miss the test. Mrs. Smith said that the only excuse was a death in the family or our own death — and I think she meant it, literally."

"No, you will go to services , end of discussion."

Sandy was very unhappy with her father’s position. Her father was Jewish, but he hardly stepped foot in the synagogue all year long. Her mother was a Seventh Day Adventist. She didn’t have a problem with skipping Rosh Hashanah services. And both of Sandy’s parents stressed the importance of school. Unlike her friends, she could never take a "personal" day off. Now that she wanted to be in school, her dad said no.

Sandy called asking for my support. She wanted me to call her dad and tell him to let her go to class on Thursday. She realized that it was strange asking a rabbi to persuade a Jew to let his daughter miss services, but Sandy was convinced there was morality in going to school and hypocrisy in going to services.

The blessings of interfaith families are many. However, when families are not clear about their faith direction, when parents struggle not just with their spouse’s faith but with their own, the results may be less than blessed. The question Sandy was trying to ask was, "How do interfaith families deal with the High Holidays?" It is an important — and, at times, difficult — question to answer.

The High Holidays are the central communal worship experience for Jews. For centuries, these days have drawn disparate Jewish families to the synagogue to recite prayers acknowledging our failures and searching how we might become better and more complete Jews and human beings. The essential themes of the High Holidays are repentance and renewal.

So what do interfaith families do with these High Holidays?

There are no simple answers. Each family will swim in interfaith waters with their own unique strokes. All I can offer are some simple coaching tips to make the swim easier and more enjoyable.


• High Holidays are family events. Share in an erev Rosh Hashanah dinner before services. Have a family break-the-fast after Yom Kippur. Invite all members of the family, regardless of their individual faiths, to help create family memories, just like we do at Thanksgiving.


• Attend High Holiday services as a family. Just because a family member is of another faith, the family is stronger when it celebrates together. If your synagogue permits, invite those members of your extended family who practice other faiths to join you at some of the High Holiday services. This will help them understand the history and importance that our Jewish traditions hold. (Of course, check with your synagogue first, to make sure you can get enough tickets for these family members. Also, selecting one of the shorter segments of the service for them to attend would probably be wise.)


• As a family, take this season as an opportunity to do some soul-searching. Have a family meeting and share your successes and disappointments during the past (Jewish) year. Discuss what each family member can commit to doing that will help the whole family to grow. Make a family covenant, describing what you promise to one another. It can be a simple piece of paper or an elaborate family art project.


• Rosh Hashanah is a wonderful time to plan out the family year — what vacations will be taken, what allowances will be given out, what curfews, house rules or chores will be expected of each family member. It is a way of acknowledging the start of a new year for your family.

There are dozens of wonderful ways to incorporate the High Holidays into an interfaith family. The key is to focus on making Judaism a part of one’s everyday life. Sandy’s struggle existed because Judaism was being imposed, as a foreign object.

My response to Sandy?

I asked her if she thought of herself as Jewish. She paused. Then she said, "No one has ever asked me that question before. I know I am not Christian. I don’t believe in Christian doctrine. I am not sure if I’m Jewish. Why?"

I explained to Sandy that if she felt she was Jewish, she should be at services for Rosh Hashanah, that it was central to her identity as a member of a community. However, if she rejected being Jewish, I would be happy to speak with her father. Sandy said she would think it over and let me know.

I didn’t hear from Sandy. Instead, at the end of Rosh Hashanah services, she approached me, smiling. Her test had been delayed a day, at her request. Then she said, "If I am going to be Jewish, I probably should learn something. Is there another class I can take?"

Serve Up Something Different in 5765

Food is the centerpiece of every Jewish holiday. For Rosh Hashanah especially, our traditional foods are a kind of ritualistic prayer where we ask that the coming year be better than the last. During a time when are lives are weighed and measured, we dip the apple in honey and eat the head of a fish (or broiled cow tongue in certain Sephardic households) to ask for the next year to be sweet and prosperous. Every Rosh Hashanah you probably expect your mom’s famous roast, or the traditional honey cake, but why not make this year about trying new recipes with similar flavors. Sweet is the theme for this season and new cookbooks are varying the holiday fare by borrowing from other culinary cultures and serving up some traditional favorites with a twist. Before you gather around your table this year, check out these latest cookbook offerings and surprise your family and guests with something a little bit different.

It’s so easy to refer time and again to the family recipe book to create your Yom Tov menu, but it’s more exciting to bring other culinary traditions to your holiday table. Dispersed across the globe for centuries, Jews have adopted much of the cuisine of their host countries and incorporated local and available ingredients. Jewish cookbook queen, Joan Nathan, in her book, "Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook" (Schoken, $29.95), has updated the recipes from her two classic books, 1982’s "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" and 1997’s "The Jewish Holiday Baker," and invites you to prepare classic dishes from Jewish households all over the globe, making this year’s holiday a cross-cultural feast.

Right before the High Holidays, the bakery is always the last place you want to be shopping. This year, instead of taking a number and waiting in an endless line, opt for the simple pleasure of making your own challah. In her book, Nathan includes an authentic Moroccan family recipe for Pain Petri (challah) to spice up your holiday table.

For the main course, go with Persian Fesenjan, a chicken stew made with walnuts and pomegranates — another fruit traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the meal with all of the other symbolic foods. The many seeds of the pomegranate are a sign of fertility, and serving an entrée that incorporates its juice is an original way to further indulge in the seasonal fruit.

Pain Petri (Moroccan Challah)

Note: You can either make this by hand or using a food processor.

7-8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

3 eggs plus 1 yolk

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon anise seeds

1 1/2 scant tablespoons (1 1/2 packages) active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups warm water

Place 7 cups of flour in a huge bowl. Make a well in the center and place the sugar, three eggs, 1/3 cup of oil, salt and sesame and anise seeds in the well. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, then add it to the well.

Using your hands, gradually work in the flour with the ingredients in the well. Add more flour as needed. When a medium-stiff dough is formed, knead on a wooden board for about 20 minutes.

Form the dough into a ball, turn it in a greased bowl to coat the surface and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place for 30-40 minutes, or until doubled in size. Punch down and knead once more. Divide the dough into five pieces. Either shape each into a round ball or make a long piece of it and twist it into a spiral with the end of the dough at the high point in the center. Cover and let rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil.

Remove the dough to the cookie sheet. Brush with the remaining egg yolk mixed with the tablespoon of oil and bake for 35-45 minutes.

Persian Fesenjan (Pomegranate-Walnut Chicken Stew)

One 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut up

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cups walnuts, ground

1/3 cup hot water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cups pomegranate juice or 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons sugar

Brown the chicken in the oil and remove to drain on a paper towel. Brown the chopped onion in the same oil.

In another pan, brown the walnuts, stirring constantly, without using any shortening. When brown, add the onion. Then slowly add the hot water so that the mixture does not stick. It should not be too liquid — more like a paste. Then add the lemon juice, pomegranate juice, tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste and sugar, stirring with a spoon. When well-mixed, add the chicken.

Bring the mixture just to the point of boiling (not a fast boil). Decrease to a simmer and let cook, covered, until the chicken is very tender, about 45 minutes. If the sauce is not thick enough, remove the chicken and boil the liquid down until the desired thickness is reached, stirring as it cooks.

For a holiday menu rich in fruit and vegetables, a vegetarian cookbook is a great source to draw from on Rosh Hashanah when on the hunt for new recipes. Try a soup with sweet fruits and vegetables to change up the first course. Vegetarian cookbook veteran Nava Atlas, in her new book "The Vegetarian Family Cookbook" (Broadway, $17.95), offers tasty recipes for the die-hard vegetarian or for anyone looking to enrich their diet with more fruits and vegetables. With the plethora of junk food at our fingertips, it is more tempting to reach for potato chips than carrot sticks to satisfy hunger. Inspired by a lack of healthy food choices for adults and children, Atlas compiled a cornucopia of wholesome meals and snacks for even the pickiest eaters. Her Creamy Butternut Squash and Apple Soup is a great starter for the Rosh Hashanah feast, or a fabulous meal by itself when opting for a lighter lunch after days of endless holiday eating.

Creamy Butternut Squash

and Apple Soup

1 large butternut squash

2 tablespoons light olive oil

1 large red onion, chopped

4 cups peeled, diced apple, any cooking variety

4 cups prepared vegetable broth, or 4 cups water with 1 vegetable bouillon cube

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 cups low-fat milk, rice milk, or soy milk

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Halve the squash lengthwise with a sharp knife and scoop out the seeds and fibers. Place cut side up in a shallow baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Or, if you’d like a more roasted flavor, simply brush the squash halves with a little olive oil and leave uncovered. Either way, bake for 45-50 minutes, or until tender. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and sauté over medium-low heat until golden, eight to 10 minutes.

Add the apples, broth and spices. Bring to a simmer, then cover and simmer gently until the apples are soft, about 10 minutes.

In a food processor, puree the squash with 1/2 cup of the milk until completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl.

Transfer the apple-onion mixture to the food processor and puree until completely smooth. Return to the soup pot and add the squash puree; stir together. Add the remaining milk, using a bit more if the puree is too thick.

Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, then cook over low heat until well heated through, five to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at once or let the soup stand off the heat for one to two hours, then heat through as needed before serving.

Serves six.

Honey cake is a great way to end the meal, but Lise Stern’s "How To Keep Kosher" (Morrow, $24.95) offers a great variation you might want to serve after a light pareve or dairy lunch. The sponge honey cake is a tradition not to be forgotten, but Stern livens it up hers with some honey frosting and tops it with caramelized apples. Her creation is one of the many kosher recipes she features in her book which is primarily meant to educate and excite her readers about the fundamentals of kashrut, its origins and modern-day practices.

Honey Layer Cake With

Caramelized Apples

1 large egg

1 cup honey

1 cup plain yogurt, stirred until smooth

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Oil for the pans

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray or lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

Combine the egg, honey, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed until well blended.

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a sifter. Sift half the flour into the honey mixture. On low speed, blend until fully incorporated. Sift in the remaining flour and blend in until smooth.

Divide the batter into the prepared pans. Bake at 350F for 25-30 minutes, until pale gold in color and a tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.

Cool in the pans for 20 minutes, then remove and cool on racks.

When fully cool, spread Honey Cream Frosting (see recipe below) between the layers and on the top of the cake (not on the sides). To serve, slice into wedges and put on individual plates. Top each slice with a spoonful of Caramelized Apples (see recipe below).

Makes 12 servings.

Honey Cream Frosting

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

2 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature

Pinch salt

3 tablespoons honey

1 1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

Cream together the cream cheese, butter and salt until smooth, using an electric mixer or a wooden spoon. Blend in the honey, then the confectioners’ sugar. The frosting should be of an easily spreadable consistency. If it seems too thin, add additional sifted confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Caramelized Apples

2 tablespoons salted butter

3 apples (preferably pink lady or gala), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1/4 cup light brown sugar

Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add the apples and sauté for two minutes. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the apples. Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat, and simmer over low heat for five to 10 minutes, until the apples are softened but still hold their shape. Serve warm; the compote may be reheated.

If the thought of slicing into a rich cake is a bit unbearable after a long meal, opt instead to prepare a helping of Yetta’s Stewed Summer Fruits. Former actress and neophyte cookbook author Pamela Hensley Vincent compiles treasured family recipes in her new scrapbook cookbook, "The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook" (Overlook Press, $24.95). So much of our history is in our culinary heritage and Vincent offers a glimpse into the lives of her immediate family and the recipes for which they were famous. Yetta’s — short for Henrietta, Vincent’s maternal grandmother — stewed fruit is a light desert that fits neatly into the sweet holiday theme.

Yetta’s Stewed Summer Fruits

4 to 6 peaches, peeled, pitted and quartered

12 plums, pitted and quartered

12 apricots, pitted and quartered

1 pound fresh cherries, stemmed

Juice of 1 lemon (or 2 limes)

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 cup dark rum

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Put the peaches, plums and apricots into a pot. Add the cherries (whole & un-pitted). Add the water, lemon or lime juice, brown sugar, rum and cinnamon. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for about 40 minutes. Allow to cool. Then pour into a glass jar and store in the fridge.

Yields four to six cups.

Lights Were Last to Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Into the Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Rabbi’s Suggestions for High Holiday Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday Judaism

Late-night giggles in a bunk bed, lazy afternoons in a cool pool, sweet summer Shabbats with friends that will last a lifetime — to Rabbi Daniel Greyber, the new executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the Jewish camp experience is a delicate balance of athletic, social and artistic adventures, all peppered with soulful Jewish traditions.

“There’s a Jewish way to play basketball, to paint, to write, to do everything in life. And camp is the perfect place to learn that Judaism can enrich everything you do,” said Greyber, a 2002 graduate of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. “Ramah is a place for campers to discover what Judaism means to them in their own everyday life.”

With this philosophy in tow, Greyber prepares to head up his first summer at the Conservative camp in the Ojai Valley. “At Ramah, our staff doesn’t supplant a fixed form of Judaism on the campers. Instead, they help each camper uncover their own personal Jewish vision,” said Greyber, who lives in West Los Angeles with his wife, Jennifer, and their two young sons, Alon and Benjamin.

Greyber first embraced his own Jewish vision while competing at the 1993 World Maccabiah Games. Ranked 33rd in the world in the 100-meter backstroke, he gold medalled in the event at the international Jewish competition. “Being in Israel, winning the gold while surrounded by so many other amazing Jewish athletes — at that moment, I felt for the first time how important my Judaism was to me,” said Greyber, who captained the Northwestern University swim team while earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications.

The University of Judaism (UJ), which owns Camp Ramah in California, is thrilled to welcome Greyber into his new career. “The board is delighted with the selection and unanimous in their approval” UJ President Dr. Robert Wexler said. “In Rabbi Greyber, the board found someone who could serve as a role model for both campers and staff, a deeply spiritual individual and the type of person who can connect with young people.”

Greyber envisions Ramah as a place for adults as well as youths, a place for campers of all ages to explore their own spirituality. “I see Ramah and its programs as an invaluable resource for the entire Los Angeles Conservative Jewish community,” Greyber said. “It’s an incredible summer camp, but it’s also a place for family education, for adult retreats and young adult experiences,” said Greyber, who will continue Ramah’s tradition of family camps, Israeli dance weekends and winter week. Greyber also hopes to expand the yearlong programming to include para-rabbinic training.

Greyber contributed to Camp Ramah’s expansion long before he accepted the executive director position. Inspired by his own experience at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Greyber proposed that Ramah establish a similar study environment in Southern California.

A former media buyer and planner with The Leo Burnet Agency, Greyber gathered grant money, recruited faculty and spearheaded fund development. While still a rabbinic student, Greyber watched his vision become a reality. Lishma (from the phrase “Torah studied for its own sake”), Ramah’s egalitarian yeshiva study summer program for young adults ages 18-25, opened in 1998. Greyber spent his past two summers at Ramah, overseeing the newly created program. For his work with Lishma, Greyber was selected as a Joshua Venture Fellow.

Greyber not only brings his rabbinic knowledge, Lishma experience and athletic prowess to Ramah, but a true, deep-rooted belief in the camping experience itself. “If Shabbat is a respite from the chaos of the week, then Camp Ramah is a respite from the craziness of life. Both provide time to spend with family and friends, to study Torah, to celebrate soulful Judaism and to do this all in an environment that promotes peace and contentment,” Greyber said.

For more information on Camp Ramah in California, call
(310) 476-8571 or visit

My Very Own Chuppah

Hold onto your son’s baby blanket. Don’t give away your daughter’s cheerleading uniform. If they hold precious memories and deep meanings, you may be able to recycle them — as part of your child’s chuppah.

Chuppahs and ketubahs are long-standing Jewish wedding traditions. But Los Angeles couples are now taking their heritage to a more personal place, using chuppahs and ketubahs with intimate, as well as religious, significance. And they are asking their parents to help them create these special wedding fixtures.

With their parents’ assistance, Los Angeles-area brides and grooms are trading in hotel rent-a-coverings and standard flowered archways for chuppahs they can truly call their own. Joan and Joel Schrier of Brentwood helped their daughter and son-in-law produce a patchwork chuppah. Joan Schrier, a Skirball Cultural Center docent, sent out 36 fabric squares to her daughter’s wedding guests, asking the friends and relatives to decorate their swatch with a meaningful illustration.

"Weddings all have common denominators: a white bridal dress, a band and not-so-wonderful food. This was a way to make Kimberly and David’s wedding unique to them," Schrier said. She collected the finished squares and her husband sewed them into the quilt under which their daughter, Kimberly Gowing, married.

Gowing, a pediatrician, attended Palisades High School with her husband David, a singer-songwriter. The former classmates started dating after their 10-year reunion and married on July 1, 2001, at the Skirball.

"It was amazing to stand under the chuppah, glance up during the ceremony and see how many special people contributed to our day," Gowing said. Cherished chuppah panels displayed the handprints of a 6-month-old niece, a non-Jewish friend’s Tree of Life and Joan Schrier’s embroidered Rashi quote. The Gowings, who now live in Seattle and attend Temple De Hirsch Sinai, plan to prominently display their chuppah in their home.

The quilt chuppah is a fast-growing Los Angeles wedding trend. Nicole Jessel Heilman, who attends Temple Judea in Tarzana, also recruited her guests’ talents. "I wanted to get my family and friends involved with our wedding," she said.

Heilman, a teacher, was married at the Bel Air Bay Club under a schoolhouse painted by her kindergarten teacher, photos scanned by a childhood friend and a police car she designed for her husband, Dave, a law enforcement officer. Heilman’s mother, Maxine Jessel, spearheaded her daughter’s chuppah effort. "It’s the way people who shared in their lives could share in their ceremony," said Jessel, owner of The Max Event Coordinators.

Variations on the patchwork chuppah are springing up around the Southland. Some couples turn to themselves, not their guests, for square ideas. Newlyweds-to-be have sewn together fabric swatches from memory-filled clothing like football jerseys, baby blankets, beach towels from a first date at Zuma and even college pennants.

Carol Attia, owner of Under The Chuppah Online, has seen a significant increase in personalized chuppahs during her 10 years in business. She believes these self-designed chuppahs truly enhance a wedding day.

"A wedding is so personal, people want their chuppah to reflect who they are," said Attia, recalling one bride’s chuppah made of white fairy lights. She sewed her favorite chuppah out of the mother-of-the-bride and mother-in-law’s wedding dresses.

"The couple married under this chuppah viewed their wedding not as a union of two people but as a union of two families," Attia said. "It’s wonderful that couples now feel free enough to express their love through creative concepts," she added.

Los Angeles couples and their parents display this same creativity with their original ketubah designs. While ketubah prints and texts can be purchased at Judaic galleries, catalogs and Web sites, many Angelenos produce their own. Original artwork can highlight everything from the couple’s hobbies to their engagement stories.

Jessel recently created a ketubah that incorporated the newlywed’s occupations. A teacher and a veterinarian, the couple’s ketubah was covered with animals and children. "Bride and grooms really want the ketubah art to represent their lives, and their two worlds coming together," Jessel said.

Michah Parker, president of, just constructed a ketubah using a grandmother’s painting of the bride and groom at sunset. Parker noted that the number of nonconventional ketubah requests he receives has increased every year since 1995. He credits this trend to technology

"Nontraditional, abstract, even bizarre, ketubah art and language has become more popular. When people surf the Internet, they get new and unusual ideas," Parker said. "Plus, now we can download art files, like the grandmother’s work, or a friend’s painting, so we have the ability to accommodate original ideas," he added.

Gene and Ruth Kirshner, members of Temple Beth El in San Pedro, enlisted modern technology to produce their daughter, Shana Johnson’s, ketubah. Gene Kirshner authored the ketubah text and created the artwork on his home computer. "I once did a sample photo mat that looked like the two tablets. I had that in mind when I designed the art," said Kirshner, who once owned a framing business.

The proud father shaped his daughter’s ketubah like the covenant tablets. "I’ve been putting away ketubah texts and ideas for years, in anticipation of my children’s weddings. A ketubah is more meaningful if it has the exact words and images you want," Kirshner said.

Johnson, a physician’s assistant, and her husband Matt, a Score Learning Center executive, married on March 25, 2001 at La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes. Johnson beams as she talks about her cherished ketubah. "I love it. It really captures our relationship, and it means even more to me and Matt because my Dad made it for us," Johnson said. Their ketubah, written in English, is bordered in the same deep rose color as Johnson’s bridesmaid’s dresses.

"It’s so much more special and personal than the standard ketubah. It was a way to take the Jewish heritage and make it our own," said Johnson, whose ketubah hangs in her living room.

This desire to mesh Jewish culture with personal expression seems to drive these wedding trends. In producing their own chuppahs and ketubahs, couples weave their religious ties with their own lives. And in doing so, perhaps they are starting their own tradition.

Gowing was so moved by her personalized chuppah and her parent’s involvement, she hopes to continue the custom when she has children of her own. "I’d love if they got married under our quilt chuppah, but with an added a perimeter of squares made just for them," Gowing said. Perhaps this new nuptial trend is actually becoming a new nuptial tradition.

Women Take Part in Ceremonies

When Leslie Landman and Aaron Feigelson began planning their wedding four years ago, they knew it would follow Jewish law. “Tradition is very important to both of us,” Landman says. But, unlike countless generations of brides before she says, “I wanted to have an active role.”

In the framework of public obligation and commandment, Jewish men are the central characters of wedding ceremonies, with women taking a more passive role. From the prenuptial festivities like the chatan’s tisch (groom’s table), to the signing of the marriage contract and the giving of the ring, the bride — when she is even present in the room — is surrounded by males who have all the speaking parts, while she remains silent.

But because women have not had roles in wedding ceremonies in the past doesn’t mean they can’t participate today, according to Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Jewish law “gives us a direction to go in but whatever is not assur [prohibited] is permissible. There is a lot of flexibility and the wedding should be an expression of the couple. It is good to include as many people in the ceremony who are close to the bride and groom, including the bride and groom themselves,” Lopatin says.

Jewish law requires a groom to “acquire” the bride through presenting a ring and proclaiming, “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring under the laws of Moses and Israel.” Some rabbis discourage brides from giving rings under the chuppah to avoid the appearance of an exchange of property. “The kidusha [consecration], in the sense of acquiring, is the man’s responsibility,” says Rabbi Vernon Kurtz of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Ill.

For Landman and Feigelson, the challenge was to figure out how they could respect tradition but each have a significant role in the ceremony. “It was important for me to say something under the chuppah that was consistent with tradition and meaningful to me,” Landman says. She found a Hebrew text that acknowledged her acceptance of the obligations and duties of a Jewish wife and gave her husband a ring after the ceremony in the privacy of the yichud (seclusion) room, a practice that is acceptable to many Orthodox rabbis.

Wilmette, Ill., native Shira Eliaser chose a verse from “Song of Songs” to say under the chuppah when she and Norman were wed last July. She recited the verse: “His mouth is most sweet; yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem”(5:16). This was done just before the breaking of the glass so that there was no appearance of an exchange.

“I wanted something that was romantic and expressed my love. It wasn’t supposed to be an imitation, or a politically correct phrasing of [the groom’s declaration] but I found in it an echo of kiddushin,” she says.

She and her husband met at Northwestern University’s Hillel, and are now active members of the Egalitarian Minyan of West Rogers Park in Chicago.

Miriam Silverstein chose not to say anything under the chuppah when she married Brian Silverstein last October. “I wanted the wedding to be as religious as possible without alienating anyone. I’m not an egalitarian person [within religion]; I’m not a religious feminist,” she says.

Nonetheless, Silverstein and her groom (who has the same last name) incorporated both male and female friends and family members in other ways. Rather than having the prenuptial kabballat panim (receiving of faces) and chatan’s tisch in separate rooms, they used one big conference room with the groom’s activities on one side and the bride’s on the other. While the d’var torah and ketubah signing were on the men’s side, women could see and hear everything. While the tenaim (the prenuptial agreement) was read in Hebrew by a man, a woman read it in English.

By expanding the ceremony to include English translations of the ketubah and the Sheva Brachot (seven blessings), women can be included under the chuppah and afterward at the festive meal.

A traditional wedding includes both law and custom. “Custom should be divided into minhag Yisrael, which is as binding as law, and various hanhagot, that aren’t official customs or aren’t universally observed, are no problem to change or eliminate,” Lopatin says.

“In minhag Yisrael, the one who reads the Sheva Brachot in Hebrew, is a man. I can’t be flexible with that,” Lopatin says. “So we have couples come up and a woman reads the English translation for each bracha. The ceremony will have a feel of inclusivity, but the man is doing the halachic part of brachot.

“Walking around under the chuppah is not minhag Yisrael, but it has become very popular. If the groom wants to walk around the bride, or they want to walk around each other, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with the bride breaking the glass, or both of them breaking it together,” Lopatin adds.

Women can also hold the chuppah, Kurtz says.

Both Lopatin and Kurtz allow women to sign English translations of the ketubah but insist that the official document be signed by two male witnesses. “The Conservative movement is struggling with whether women should be counted as witnesses,” Kurtz says.

“I try to use inclusive language as much as possible under the chuppah,” Lopatin says. The wedding represents the life of the couple, “it is not just the groom taking the bride into his home.”

Reprinted with permission of JUF News in Chicago

Thanksgiving Traditions

This Thanksgiving, red, white and blue American flags waved among orange, gold and brown gourds, Indian corn and honeycomb crepe paper holiday decorations. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was heard among choruses of “Gobble Gobble Fat Turkeys.”

This is only fitting. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving should be observed as an annual holiday on the last Thursday of November, to foster a sense of patriotism and unity in a country enmeshed in a Civil War.

This Thanksgiving, following the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, we are already a patriotic and unified country. But, we are also a frightened and anxious country, in need of the comfort that tradition brings.

We Jews, perhaps better than anyone, know the power of tradition. We mark our lifetimes and our calendar years with ceremonies and celebrations. These provide us with meaning and a sense of identity — and, more than anything else, ensure our survival, even through pogroms, persecutions and exile.

For Americans, no national holiday is as special, as widely observed or as tradition-laden as Thanksgiving. It brings us together, Americans of all races, religions and walks of life, no matter how or when we or our ancestors ourselves arrived in this country, to celebrate a common heritage. And to eat quintessential American foods — turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie.

And so, on Nov. 22, we remembered the story of the First Thanksgiving, which was celebrated for three days, in friendship and peace, at Plymouth Plantation in the fall of 1621. But the story of the first Thanksgiving wasn’t incorporated into American history until the 1890s or early 1900s. And it also wasn’t incorporated entirely accurately.

Many of the Pilgrims were not merely seekers of religious freedom but rather strict fundamentalists, separatists from the Church of England, who were intent on building their version of the “Kingdom of God” in the New World. And 50 years after that First Thanksgiving, their descendants, by transmitting diseases and waging war, had wiped out almost the entire Wampanoag tribe.

“Mom, why do you have to ruin every holiday?” my son, Jeremy, 12, asks. But the truth is, while we need to remedy the historical misconceptions and re-examine our treatment of the Native Americans, we also need to retain the mythologized story. And to tell it.

We tell the story of the Exodus, whether or not it occurred as the Bible describes it. Whether or not God literally rained Ten Plagues on Egypt, the Red Sea parted or 603,550 Israelites, along with their wives and children, their flocks and herds, wandered in the desert for 40 years.

What matters is the story — how, with God’s help, we escaped from slavery in Egypt, journeyed through the wilderness and finally entered the Promised Land. This story defines us as Jews. Similarly, the story of the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving defines us as Americans. As a people who fled religious oppression, who exhibited courage and tenacity in face of terrible conditions, and who ultimately survived and thrived in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

And so this Thanksgiving, we can add a tradition of lighting two candles and displaying them among our flags and holiday decorations. And we can hope, as Lincoln implored God in his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation and as is only fitting, for “the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

For our country and for our world.