Jerusalem high on new skyline


Ten years ago, Jerusalem was just starting to emerge from the Second Intifada, which scared away local residents as well as investors. Many shops and restaurants closed during that period, leaving hundreds of storefronts with “for sale” signs. 

Fast-forward 10 years, and Jerusalem feels like a vastly different city. Many trendy stores, restaurants and hotels have opened in the city center; there is a world-class shopping district in Mamilla, as well as the adjoining Alrov residential complex, right next to the Old City; and the suddenly chic Mahane Yehuda open-air market is now a huge tourist attraction. 

 An equally important sign of Jerusalem’s rebirth is the number of luxury apartment projects being built downtown and elsewhere. Several luxury buildings, some of them high-rises, have gradually changed the skyline and brought a sense of stability and affluence to a city not known for either.  

The city has approved several of these high-rises, sometimes to the chagrin of local tenants accustomed to Jerusalem being a low-rise city. The impetus came in 2006, after former Mayor Uri Lupolianski acceded to environmentalists’ pressure to scuttle the Safdie Plan, which would have expanded Jerusalem westward and added 20,000 housing units. Unable to move outward, the city had nowhere to go but up. 

In truth, the new luxury homes haven’t made a dent in the city’s chronic housing shortage because the average Jerusalemite can’t afford to purchase one. But no one denies that the projects have created numerous jobs, brought hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and generally improved the city’s atmosphere. 

Shay Lipman, a real estate analyst at Excellence Nessuah Brokerage Services in Petach Tikvah, said the city “began to turn around” about five years ago. 

“Today, we’re seeing demand from many foreigners, including Russians, who also like Tel Aviv, [and] Americans and Europeans, especially from France and Belgium, partly due to rising anti-Semitism. Many are religious Jews.” 

Some Israelis invest as well.  

Lipman said buyers may be businesspeople who spend several weeks or months in Israel for work “and want a home base and the high standard they’re used to.” 

Others are empty-nesters, often in their 50s and 60s, who want a spanking-new apartment with condo-style services — no more mowing the lawn or repairing the roof — with an on-site maintenance team. 

Still others are families with young children who visit Israel regularly, or new immigrants who’ve decided to make their home in Jerusalem.  

While most purchase apartments as their second — or third or fourth — home, many eventually use them as their primary residence, Lipman said. 

In Jerusalem, the most sought-after properties tend to be within easy walking distance of the Old City and the center of town. 

One of the most luxurious projects is King David’s Crown, located across the street from the King David Hotel, directly adjacent to the landmark Jerusalem YMCA building. The apartments, with three, four and five bedrooms and large balconies, have direct underground access to the YMCA sports center and overlook a 1.25-acre park. The buildings feature 24-hour security, Shabbat elevators and a beautiful synagogue. 

The homes range from more than $1 million to several million dollars. 

Another luxurious property is the Saidoff Houses project, a 23-story residential building close to the Mahane Yehuda shuk on Jaffa Road. It offers 90 penthouses and duplexes (three to six rooms), a pool, spa, gym and synagogue. The views are stunning.  


Some of the penthouses in the africa-israel Residences at 7 rav Kook St. cost more than $5 million. Their spacious terraces offer fantastic views of Jerusalem.  Photo by Michele Chabin

For sheer location, nothing beats the Africa-Israel Residences at 7 Rav Kook St., a surprisingly quiet street perpendicular to Jaffa Road. The other side of the building adjoins the Ticho House, the famed restaurant, museum and former home of the artist Anna Ticho.  

The project, which was jointly initiated by Africa-Israel and Shainfeld Investments, has 131 apartments, including 112 “premium” apartments, eight penthouses and 11 “grand” apartments. The ground floor offers 11 hotel rooms and has 12 retail stores. All of the premium apartments, with one to four bedrooms, have been sold; marketing has begun for the grand ($1.28 million to $2 million) and penthouse homes ($3.4 million to $5.7 million), the latter boasting large terraces. 

Despite being in the heart of the city, the building has the feel of an inner sanctum. The apartments are sunny and quiet, and offer marvelous views. The property includes a hotel-standard exercise room, a large event room for tenants and many other amenities, said Dalia Azar Malimouka, a spokeswoman for the residences. 

During a tour, she showed two penthouses. The first was unfinished, to enable prospective owners to design the apartment to their taste and specifications. The second, a nearly 800-square-foot apartment with a 155-square-foot balcony, was completely furnished. The wood-decked terrace, which comes with a huge wooden pergola (or sukkah frame), provides a fantastic view of much of the city. 

In a phone interview, Oren Hod, CEO of Africa-Israel, recalled the intifada years, “when the city was neglected.” Today, he said, “people feel safe and confident, and you see [this] in the amount of investment” in infrastructure and real estate. 

Hod acknowledged the new luxury homes being built in Jerusalem aren’t for everyone: “All of us have a budget, and not everyone can live in the heart of Jerusalem.”

Tourism to Israel reaches all-time high


Israel reported an all-time high in annual visitors in 2013.

A record 3.54 million visitors arrived in Israel in 2013, half a percent more than the previous record year. Meanwhile, some 272,000 tourists arrived in December, a 14 percent increase over December 2012, setting a record for most arrivals in the Jewish state in one month.

The figures were released Thursday by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Nearly 18 percent of tourists arrived from the United States, with some 623,000 Americans visiting. Russia sent 603,000 tourists, and France 315,000.

More than half the tourists, or 53 percent, were Christian; only 28 percent were Jewish.

Overall, tourism contributed about $11.4 billion to the Israeli economy in 2013, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

“The year 2013 is a record year for tourism, and we are proud of that. Despite Operation Pillar of Defense and the security situation in the region, tourists voted with their feet,” said Tourism Minister Uzi Landau.

‘Come back [to Israel] and bring a lot of people with you’


“No Shopping!” guide Nadav Kersh admonished his charges as they entered the crowded Old City of Jerusalem. “I mean it. No shopping! It’s just too easy to get lost here.”

Kersh was guiding a group of tour operators from the U.S., U.K. and South Africa on a whirlwind tour of the holy places in Jerusalem. Simultaneously, other tour groups were listening to guides speaking Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German. They are part of a group of 160 tour operators invited by the Ministry of Tourism for a week-long trip to Israel.

The day began at the Israel Museum, and a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls housed in a special building shaped like a giant white Hershey’s kiss.

“Scrolls are like money,” Kersh told them. “The more they get used, the more worn out they get. Anyone know which book of the Bible is the most popular?”

“Psalms?” asks Tony Lock from the UK.

“Right!” answers Kersh. “Even today, if you go on a bus in Israel you see old ladies reading Psalms. Here you’ll see one of the oldest versions of Psalms.”

After a quick circuit of the museum, the tour operators were given a preview of an upcoming exhibition on the Roman king of Judea, Herod the Great, who ruled the area from 40 BC to 4 BC and has been described both as a genius and a madman.

“It will be the first exhibition in the world about Herod,” David Mevorah, the museum’s archaeology curator, told the group. “It took us 40 years to find his tomb, but that convinced us to do the exhibit. Herod was a massive builder in stone and the [Second Jewish] Temple [in Jerusalem] was his greatest project.”

After a detailed PowerPoint presentation, the group headed off to the Old City of Jerusalem. At the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Christians believe Jesus walked on the way to crucifixion, Kersh points out a stone handprint, which tradition says belonged to Jesus. Many in the group touch their hand to the stone.

“To me, this whole city has a special feeling,” Phyllis Brown told The Media Line about her first trip to Israel. “I’m really very impressed. Jerusalem is simply breathtaking. I expected it to be flatter and more desert-like, but it is so pretty.”

Brown, from Santa Barbara, California, has sent about 10 clients on trips to Israel each year, but now hopes to increase that.

“I definitely feel more capable now to organize a group,” she says.

The trip came just a few days after the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after eight days of heavy fighting. Brown says that while she was not afraid to visit Israel, her adult children were concerned and asked her to cancel her trip.

“There was about a week when I didn’t hear anything from the Tourism Ministry and I wasn’t sure if the trip was on,” Brown says. “But within 24 hours of the cease-fire they sent a barrage of emails making sure we were still coming.”

Another tour operator, Douglas Kostwoski from Travel People in Miami, Florida, agreed.

“As soon as I saw the cease-fire was holding, I started packing,” he told The Media Line. “I already send about 100 people each year to Israel, but my mind keeps racing with new things to add to the itinerary and what I’ll tell potential clients.”

Israeli tourism officials said the group’s visit became even more important after the fighting in Gaza.

“There is no doubt that Operation Pillar of Defense affected incoming tourism,” Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said. “But we are already taking steps toward swift rehabilitation, minimizing damage and renewing the momentum of incoming tourism over the last three years.”

Tourism is a key economic sector in Israel. In 2010, some 3.45 million tourists visited Israel and 2012 was set to bring even more. Officials are also targeting previously untapped markets, including India and China. In 2009, according to the Ministry of Tourism, the sector brought $3.3 billion into Israel’s economy. More than half of the tourists visiting are Christian, while 40 percent are Jewish.

“There are some church groups coming from Mumbai,” Sarah ReSello, from Go Beyond Travels India, told The Media Line. “But we will be trying to get them to also go to the Red Sea resort of Eilat and the Dead Sea.”

It is impossible to visit Israel without some talk of politics. Tour guide Kersh told the visitors how the Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim – but how the residents of the quarters are also mixed.

“Take the Muslim Quarter, for example, which is the largest with 20,000 inhabitants,” he said. “You can have Christians living there, and even some Jews. If you see Israeli flags there, it means that a Jewish Israeli bought the house and he wants to annoy his neighbors.”

“Are all four quarters safe?” Kostowski asks.

“Yes,” replies Kersh. “The whole country is safe.”

Rebirth of Jewish life in Berlin


Once the infamous Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the sweeping reconstruction that began in West Berlin at the war’s end,was repeated and even accelerated in what had been the Communist controlled East Berlin.  Spectacular shopping complexes, elegant new hotels and office towers dominate the now united city.  But, at the same time, the horrendous fate of Berlin’s once thriving Jewish community of some 160,000, largest in Europe, was observed with somber memorials now found throughout Berlin.

Included are the moving Holocaust Museum, the “Stumbling Stones”, the Topography of Terror on the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters, Platform 17 from which men, women and children were loaded like cattle into rail cars to be transported to their death.  Wall murals with the names and locations of all the infamous concentration camps are in building lobbies. All these and others remind visitors as well as residents of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis against what had been a thriving Jewish community. At the war’s end, it had essentially vanished.

In the view of many, if not most, Jews living elsewhere, Berlin could never – should never – again be a home for Jews.  Yet to the surprise, even dismay of many, Jewish life today has returned to Berlin.  Upon learning that as many as 30,000 Jews have come to Germany and settled in Berlin, an elderly woman in the Fairfax district asked almost in disbelief, “Have they forgotten?”

By way of response, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, chairman of the Chabad Jewish Educational Center, in Berlin by way of Brooklyn, says flatly, “That is an irrelevant question.  The fact is that they are here and they should be welcomed with love and warmth and we should invest every resource to enhance their Jewish awareness.”  He adds, “We’ll never forget what the Nazis have done but it’s not in our interest to seek revenge. We have to do something for the present and undo what the Nazis tried to bring about.  We owe that to the six million holy souls, to answer darkness with light.”

Still, Jewish life in Berlin today is diverse and reflects an admittedly complicated, often a confusing tapestry of social, national and economic fabrics.

Only a relatively small number of Jews resided in Berlin after the war while it was still divided between the East and the West. Once Germany was politically, socially and economically again unified in 1990 things began to change dramatically. First was a wave of thousands of Jews mainly from Russia but other countries of Eastern Europe who came to escape discrimination and who were welcomed by the German government.  Adding to their numbers soon came entrepreneurs from abroad including the U.S. who found in Berlin’s booming economy attractive business opportunities.  Then most recently some 15,000, mostly young, secular Israelis, have moved to Berlin to enjoy what one described as a “better life” where it could be enjoyed a cost of living far less than back in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Put together, the social, religious, artistic and commercial interests of these various groups from various countries have created something few believed would ever exist again – a Renaissance of Jewish life in Berlin. Physical evidence of this rebirth is seen throughout Berlin, but mainly in the eastern neighborhoods that historically were centers of Jewish life until the rise of Nazis in the mid-1930s.

Something of a showplace is Rabbi Teichtal’s Chabad Lubawitsch Center. Opened in 2007 at a cost of $7.8 million, it was the first Jewish facility in Berlin built entirely with private funds. The three story structure of some 25,000 square feet includes a sanctuary accommodating 250, an elementary school, the King David Kosher Restaurant, a mikvah, a small yashiva headed by Rabbi Uri Gamson from Israel, an impressive library, a media center, social hall and a Judaica store. A soup kitchen provides free meals to elderly indigent Jews. Rabbi Teichtal last fall opened another Chabad Center in east Berlin using an available office building.

Badly damaged and desecrated synagogues like the Moorish-style domed Neue (New) Synagogue and its Centrum Judaicum museum and venue have been restored as much as possible and now reopened for Shabat services.  Its great sanctuary that once seated 3,200 worshipers, was destroyed but what had been one of the upper tiers where women were accommodated is now the main room for services conducted by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, one of only two female rabbis in Berlin. Before the advent of Nazism, Berlin boasted 34 synagogues.  Most were closed by the Nazis and either destroyed or badly damaged in the war.  But today nine including the impressive Rykestrasse Synagogue belong again to the Jewish community.

As with almost every Jewish institution in Berlin (and in other European cities, as a matter of fact), the Neue Synagogue is distinguished outside by no-nonsense barriers, usually concrete or massive steel stanchions.  Uniformed German police are also always present, often supplemented by young armed Israel guards in civilian dress, authorized for such duty by agreement with the German government.  Actual entry to major centers like this one is via a security screening area, not that different from those in airports. Concedes one Jewish resident, “We do have anti-Semitic graffiti and there are neo-Nazis here, too.”  But while the real threat from terrorists is quite low, it’s clear that the Germany government doesn’t want anything to happen again like the massacre of the Israelis during the Munich Olympic Games.

Upon visiting Berlin, many Jewish visitors who perhaps came reluctantly and were inclined to be critical of Germany, frequently express a change in attitude. One of these was Bernard Valier, a French-born Israeli whose father was deported from France and killed in Auschwitz. On a visit to Berlin a few years back he says, “I sensed a feeling of genuine remorse on the part of the German government.  Unlike the situation in some other countries in Europe, I felt in marking the Holocaust with the many memorials throughout Berlin that the authorities actually meant it.”

Given the disparate origins of so many new Berliners, it’s inevitable that organizations representing their cultural and political interests are in place.  Among these are the European Jewish Congress, the Central Committee of Jews in Germany, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Center.

Beyond the memorials and the synagogues, it’s not hard at all to spot example examples of lively rebirth of Jewish social, gastronomic and artistic life in Germany’s capital.

Just opened in February was a red brick building that was formerly the Jüdische Mädchenschule, the Jewish Girls’ School. A simple plaque near the main entrance recounts the horrible fate of the young women who once studied, laughed and played here and their teachers.  An adjoining open area was a collection point from which other Jews from the neighborhood were transported to camps to be murdered.

While the building’s name has been retained as a mark of respect, it now has been redeveloped by art dealer and entrepreneur Michael Fuchs at a cost of some $6.5 million to be a center for art and gastronomy. On the main floor is the Pauly-Saal, a fine dining restaurant and bar with seating outside in a garden area.

Down the hall Oskar Melzer and Paul Mogg run a lively New York style delicatessen that features what chef Joey Passarella, until recently of the Upper East Side, claims is the only home-made pastrami to be found in Berlin.  On his menu, too, matzoh ball soup, chicken liver and New York cheese cake. On the premises, too, is the Kosher Classroom, actually a small restaurant and catering service. All the upper floors are galleries whose space is given over to exhibitions by local and international artists and photographers.

After 60 years, live Jewish theater returned to Berlin in 2001 with the opening of the Bimah, Jewish Theater Berlin under its creative director, Israel-born Dan Lahav.. Presented now in its 250-seat theater on the smart Admiralspalast are cabaret acts and original plays, usually satire and comedy, mostly written by Lahav.  In the Bimah’s company is a cast of eight.  Among its recent productions were Shabat Shalom, A Friday Evening in a Jewish Family and Three Lusty Widows and a Dancing Rabbi.

Another quite lively example of the future face of today’s Jewish community in Berlin is the Jewish High School in Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. It reopened behind the usual security fences in 1993 as a co-ed private school offering classes 5th to 12th grade. Initially, it had just 27 students. Today the school has 430 students of whom 70% are Jewish.  Barbara Witting, principal of the Jewish High School, estimates that more than 80% of the school’s graduating seniors go on to university and, additionally, others take a year off before starting university to participate in humanitarian programs abroad.

To be found throughout the city today are specialty restaurants catering to Russian patrons while there are plenty of bars, cafes and clubs popular with the young Israelis. Many of them reside in the Neukoelln neighborhood, dubbed “Little Israel.” where you’ll find Keren’s Kitchen along with restaurants specializing in humus dishes and Palestinian fare. The Facebook page “Israelis In Berlin” is said to have some 3,000 friends.

Jews are well represented in Berlin’s entertainment industries, too, by film makers, artists, designers, stand-up comics , young rock performers like Sharon Levy, winner of “Voice of Germany,” local TV’s equivalent of “American Idol”, and a DJ called Meshugena.  To accommodate the increasing number of Jewish tourists coming from abroad is Milk&Honey Tours started nine years ago by German-born Noa Lerner. She has seen her business expand some 20 times and today has 20 guides in Berlin alone.

After appropriate religious services, such traditional family events as weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs are celebrated in top Berlin hotels.  The InterContinental Berlin is particularly popular because its main ballroom can accommodate up to 1,200 although 250 to 400 is a more typical guest number for parties in the Pavilion Room.  The hotel hosts an average of two such Jewish events a month.

In Berlin’s booming business world, Jews are certainly prominent.  Among the most high profile of these is Michael Zehden. Among other positions, he’s CEO of Albeck & Zehden, a hotel management and consultancy firm that has a portfolio of 12 hotels, four in Berlin. Zehden was a co-founder of Berlin Tourism Marketing, is a board member of the Berlin Airport and personally and through his firm supports a variety of charities.

Charlotte Knobloch, former head of the Council of Jews in Germany, is quoted this way.  “The Jewish community has arrived.  Germany is once again a home for Jews.”

At Passover, let my people go south


Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the desert for 40 years, and their ultimate deliverance to the Promised Land.

But a contemporary observer might be forgiven for imagining the holiday marks a different sort of migration: Large numbers of American Jews making their annual pilgrimage from cool northern climes to southern tropics, and from major metropolitan centers to the country, in advance of one of the most celebrated Jewish observances of the year.

For decades, a dedicated — and apparently growing — cohort of Jewish families has seen Passover as an opportunity to escape not from slavery but from crummy weather, kitchen drudgery and endless house cleaning, finding their salvation in gourmet kosher vacations on white-sand beaches in Miami or Aruba. Dozens of programs around the world are now offering fully catered, kosher-for-Passover vacations at top vacation destinations, saving families the hassle and headache of ridding their homes of leavened products and preparing a succession of lavish meals for friends and relatives.

This year, Passover is being observed by visitors at beachfront hotels in Miami; on a Caribbean cruise; along the canals in Venice, Italy; at an eco-resort in Costa Rica; at an exclusive getaway in Phuket, Thailand; and steps from Niagara Falls. There are programs in Ixtapa, Mexico; Sardinia, Italy; Marbella, Spain; and the south of France.

Those of a less adventurous spirit hit the Jersey Shore, the tried-and-true kosher hotels of the Catskill Mountains and the more corporate-style hotels in Connecticut and upstate New York. And that’s not counting Israel, where virtually every city offers multiple options for the Passover traveler.

“This year has probably been the biggest year we’ve ever had,” said Laurie van Esschoten, owner of the Ontario Travel Bureau in California, a travel agency that books Passover vacations to dozens of destinations. “It looks to me like people are getting back to the idea of traveling. It’s really been phenomenal for us.”

Passover vacations have existed as long as there have been kosher hotels. For decades, the Catskills in New York state and Miami Beach were the two prime destinations. But beginning in the early 1990s, operators began to expand their offerings — Puerto Rico, Arizona, Aruba and more became the sites of fully kosher Passover programs featuring noted speakers, entertainment, children’s programs and day trips, not to mention the ever-popular 24-hour tearooms.

With the proliferation of offerings, van Esschoten has become something of a Passover consultant, helping arrange travel and other logistics for Passover travelers but also guiding them through a bewildering array of options to a venue appropriate to their needs — particularly with respect to religious nuances.

The programs are generally geared toward an Orthodox clientele, with traditional gender-segregated prayer and high standards of kashrut. But there’s a range of observance within those parameters, and van Esschoten can divine the subtle clues that hint at the particular shade of Orthodoxy at each destination.

“The most important thing is, I’m checking to see if they’re going to have separate swimming,” she said. “Some of the more modern programs do have separate swimming, but only at certain times of day. If it’s not a complete hotel takeover, that might not be possible.”

Families who succeed in identifying the right program often return year after year. And once they become accustomed to outsourcing their Passover preparations, the habit becomes hard to break. Tour operators say their repeat business each year can be upward of 70 percent.

“This population is pretty much addicted to going away for Passover,” said Stuart Vidockler, who runs Presidential Kosher Holidays.

The typical Passover traveler is generally Orthodox, lives in a major Jewish center in the northern United States (though the programs boast they draw customers from around the world) and is relatively affluent. The price tag for the programs is not for the faint of heart, generally starting at about $2,500 per person based on double occupancy for 10 days.

Presidential is operating three programs this year — in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Aventura, Fla.; and on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico — that aim for the higher end of an already high-end market, with five-star resorts featuring championship golf courses, multiple swimming pools and other luxury amenities.

At the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach — one of the largest, oldest and best-known Passover destinations in the country — prices begin at more than $4,000 per person. A two-bedroom suite in the hotel’s Versailles Building will set you back about $10,000, not including a 25 percent surcharge for tips and taxes. For families traveling with children and grandparents, total travel costs can easily run into the tens of thousands.

There are less expensive — and often colder — options as well. Among the most affordable is the Stamford Plaza hotel in Connecticut, which runs over $2,000 per person (average April high temperature: 63). Ten days in Aruba starts at $3,299, but that doesn’t include airfare, which minimally adds another $500 per person for flights from the New York area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, industry insiders say a challenging economic climate — and especially the collapse in the financial services sector in 2009 — has had a dramatic effect on business, leading to the collapse of some companies.

In 2009, Lasko Family Kosher Tours, operators of the popular Fontainebleau program, was sued for failing to pay more than $200,000 to one of its suppliers. A federal judge ruled against the company, requiring Lasko to make payments of $120,000.

Sam Lasko declined to discuss his company’s finances. But this year, the company is operating under a new name, Lasko Kosher Getaways, and is operating only two programs, in Miami and Orlando, down from seven in 2009, when it ran programs in Nevada; Arizona; and Westchester County, N.Y.

“Passover 2009 was the worst year,” Vidockler said. “About half the operators went out of business. Customers disappeared. We probably had a 20 percent decrease.”

For those who would otherwise be cleaning their homes and spending endless hours preparing meals, the appeal of Passover vacations isn’t hard to understand. But with restrictions on travel and electricity use mandated by Orthodox observance of the holidays, they can also become confining — and a bit boring.

“There’s nowhere to go,” said Lisa Rubenstein, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and goes away for Passover with her family almost every year. “It’s what I imagine a cruise to be. You can’t leave. There’s always some food happening in the dining room. It’s always teatime, snack time, dinner’s being served, whatever. And you’re seeing old people from your synagogue in bathing suits — you know, people you don’t want to see in bathing suits.”

Program organizers go to great lengths to pepper their itineraries with diversions. Jewish scholars are flown in to deliver lectures. Bands, comedians, mentalists, magicians and more provide entertainment. Some programs feature well-known cantors leading services and seders. The Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu performed at several Passover destinations before his celebrity profile outgrew them.

But veterans of Passover programs almost uniformly agree — it’s all about the food.

“The eating situation in general, I think back on it as pretty gluttonous,” said Jack Steinberg, who has gone away for Passover with his family about a half-dozen times. “The food is a really major aspect of the whole event. There are people storming the cafeteria the moment that it opens.”

Ellen Weiss, who also has been on numerous programs at various destinations and describes their cost as “an insane, sick amount of money,” has had more mixed experiences. At a Florida hotel one year, she enjoyed a private beach and an extremely solicitous staff. Another year, in New York, the crowd was pushy and impolite.

It was also more religious than Weiss would have liked. One gentleman upbraided her for not dressing with sufficient modesty.

“He wondered why I was wasn’t wearing stockings,” Weiss recalled. “I said, ‘Well, why are you looking at my feet?’ ”

Moscow poisonings bring only shrugs and rumors here


The phone rings and it’s the media. I get the usual questions: “How does the Russian-speaking community feel about the poisoning in Moscow of Marina Kovalevsky, 49, and her 26-year-old daughter, Yana?”

The two women, who are Jewish and have contributed to Israeli charities, fell ill in late February, a week after they arrived in Moscow on a pleasure trip to visit with friends and to attend a wedding. They were rushed to a hospital and found to have been poisoned with thallium, and after being treated with the help of Leon Peck — Marina Kovalevsky’s brother, who is a Beverly Hills oral surgeon — the women returned to Los Angeles, where last week Yana Kovalevsky told federal and county investigators that she believes the poisoning was an accident.

“Would you say that the people are upset?” I was asked. As a journalist in Russian-language media and longtime advocate for Soviet Jewry, I am often called upon to explain how the Russians think:”Are they nervous? Is it anti-Semitism? Did she know the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko — the guy who was poisoned by polonium in London?”

Most of the questions are impossible to answer, either because I don’t know the answers or because the question is not specific enough.

How does one judge a community’s feelings? What part of the community? The older immigrants who spent their bleak lives in the Soviet Union and came to a country that is so different that it might as well be Mars? The younger ones who came here as children, who speak English better than they do Russian, but still date one another and aren’t all that comfortable with the “real” Americans their age?

The most recent entrepreneurs who came here with money, eager to make more, who travel back and forth, convinced that the good times will go on forever?

I am part of that community because I spoke Russian as a kid, speak Russian with my wife and most of our friends and was involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. But I am also an American who speaks English better than Russian.

I have lived here most of my life, have had a wife and children who didn’t speak a word of Russian, and I find that much of what is normal for the Russians is actually very strange and, very often, funny. In Russian, I am “ni ryba ni miaso” — neither fish nor meat — and in English I am neither fish nor fowl. I don’t really know how the Russian community feels about the Kovalevskys’ misfortune of being poisoned by thallium in Moscow. It all depends.

So what should I say to the media? Should I say that the most frequent response is a shrug and a “What did you expect? What’s the big deal? That’s the way things are over there.” And if there are others listening, someone will usually chime in, “And they always will be like that.”

There are very few who were surprised by what happened. If they talk about it at all, the question, “Why?” Is usually seen as pointless speculation. “What’s the use? We’ll never know what really happened.”

Rumors abound. Conspiracy theories flourish. The Russian community knows — absolutely knows — that nothing is ever what it seems.

Take your pick: It was a robbery. She tried to invest in a Russian business and offended the wrong people. She was contacted by political opponents of Putin and refused (or agreed) to collaborate with them. The whole thing is an effort to embarrass Russia/America/ Israel. There never was a poisoning (who can believe that there was no antidote, an artist’s paint, Prussian Blue, available in all of Moscow, and that it had to be brought in a by a private individual from America — and what else did he bring in, hmm?)

And if I look doubtful when I hear some of this nonsense, I get the pitying look that Americans get from Russians — “God, how naïve these Americans are?”

In a way they are right. Americans know next to nothing about law enforcement over there.

When I was in Moscow about 15 years ago, I was invited by a friend to dinner in his apartment. One of the guests was a Moscow police colonel, resplendent in his uniform and medals. As we sipped our post- (and pre- and during) dinner ice-cold vodka, he told me how he envied American cops. I looked surprised, and he gave me that — “how naïve you are” — look.

“Don’t you see? An American policeman can stop anyone, and if the guy gives him a hard time, he can just pull out his gun and shoot him, right? Well, we can’t do that here, you know….”

A few weeks ago, a group of Russian law enforcement officers came to California to meet with local law enforcement in order to learn how we deal with hate crimes and how our officers develop relationships with communities they serve. I am a member of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department Russian Community Advisory Board, and we were all invited to meet with the Russian officers for an informal exchange of views and ideas.

I came prepared. I pulled off the Internet, in just that one day, seven reports of racially motivated attacks throughout Russia: beatings, kidnappings, threats, arson against Asians, Caucasian minorities and black foreign students.

I told the Russians that I am often called to testify as an expert witness at immigration courts, where a refugee is asked to prove that it would be dangerous to be sent back to Russia, where he or she would be persecuted for racial, religious or political reasons.

The cases are diverse but, overwhelmingly, have one thing in common: the distrust of law enforcement. Most applicants smile bitterly if asked whether they reported the incidents to the police and generally reply, “No, not this time. I had done so in the past but nothing happened, so I stopped bothering.” Or even worse: “No, it is too dangerous. If I complained, I probably would be dead — and probably the cops would be the ones who would catch me in a dark alley.”

I was shocked to see that some of the cops nodded when I told them — politely — that they had a terrible image; that people didn’t trust them, believed they were no better than the mafia they were supposed to control. Our visitors knew and probably were surprised — maybe pleased — that here was a Russian-speaking American who knew what was what.

‘Yippee’ — Paul Mazursky documents Chasids gone wild


In all his 76 years, filmmaker Paul Mazursky had never seen anything like the 25,000 Chasidim singing, swaying, blowing shofars and dancing around a lake.

“It’s like the old days at the Apollo in Harlem, with the crowd going wild,” the irreverent Mazursky said. “Can you dig it?”

The scene is from his documentary, “Yippee: A Journey to Jewish Joy,” which had its Southland premier this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. The film is quite a change of pace for the creator of such quirky social comedies and dramas as “Bob”&”Carol”&”Ted”&”Alice,” “Harry and Tonto,” “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” “An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story.”

Despite his artistic reputation and string of Oscar nominations, Mazursky has found it increasingly difficult to find backing for his iconoclastic movies, which are infused with his wry take on the human condition.

During the past decade, after a quadruple heart bypass operation, Mazursky has gone back to his roots as an actor and comedian, including parts in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Sopranos,” while looking for the right combination of film and financing.

But last year, he and his two camera crews found themselves in Uman, a Ukrainian town of 80,000, whose population swells every Rosh Hashanah during an invasion of ecstatic Chasidim dressed in white kitels (robes), black suits or streimels (fur hats).

They come to pray at the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great Chasidic master, disputatious tzadik (learned scholar) and great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement. Nachman was buried in Uman in 1811 at the age of 38.

What had brought the insistently secular Mazursky to Uman were the urgings of three disparate Angelenos: David Miretsky, his optometrist; Shmuel Levy, a devout Moroccan-born rock musician; and Rabbi Ezriel Tauber.

All three regularly participated in the pilgrimage to Uman, and they promised Mazursky that he would witness an event unlike any he had ever experienced.

Putting up $50,000 of his own money, and with his broken arm in a sling, Mazursky embarked on the adventure with his friends and a six-man crew, including his son-in-law.

During a brief layover in Munich, he warmed up by filming the beer-swilling Oktoberfest, before stopping in Kiev, where his grandfather is buried, and then reaching Uman after a three-hour drive.

In the run-up to the climax of the three-day celebration, Mazursky meets and talks with Chasidim, policemen, scholars and peasants, combining the roles of an innocent abroad, travel guide and self-described “wise guy from Brooklyn.”

Typical is his encounter with two local peasant women selling fruit from a sidewalk cart. They, like all the other Uman natives, know about Rosh Hashanah, which enriches the town by $2 million each year.

Despite the windfall, one woman is not entirely happy.

“Jews are not cultured people,” she complains. The other woman disagrees.

“They are cultured,” she insists, “they are just different.”

Mazursky’s camera lingers on other happenings. There is a rustic folk festival with pretty dancing girls in costumes and later, Vodka Appreciation Day, during which the filmmaker digs into his bottomless reservoir of jokes, many unprintable.

His favorite joke, told at least three times in the film, goes something like this: Cohen meets Schwartz in New York’s old garment district and Cohen says, “I heard about the fire.” Schwartz puts his fingers to his lips and whispers, “Shhhh, tomorrow.” (The joke dates back to at least the Great Depression, when some storeowners facing bankruptcy would set fire to their shops to collect insurance money.)

The film climaxes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, when the 25,000 Chasidim throw their sins into the lake and pray, dance and sing through the candle-lit night.

“Madonna and Woody Allen should be here,” Mazursky murmurs.

Before leaving, Mazursky organizes a bull session with Tauber and Dr. Julian Unger, a British neurologist, to explore the meaning of what he has seen.

“We come to Uman because on the day of judgment, Rabbi Nachman will be our lawyer, pleading our case before God,” Tauber explains.

Unger has a darker observation. “You know, 37 years before Rabbi Nachman came to Uman, there was a great pogrom here and thousands of Jews were drowned in the lake.

“When the Nazis came, they again murdered Uman’s Jews,” Unger continued. “It is a great irony that in 2005, we should be dancing in the streets of Uman. We are dancing on the graves of our martyrs.”

Mazursky, the wise guy from Brooklyn, drew his own lessons. “I could never think like a Chasid,” he ruminated during a two-hour interview in his crowded Beverly Hills office.

“I think of life as a cosmic joke, which keeps getting bigger all the time. But I’ve learned tolerance and maybe affection for the Chasidim. They are real people, who can see light in the darkest things,” he said.

The title of the film comes from another Mazursky observation. “It is better to wake up in the morning and instead of kvetching, say ‘Yippee.'”

“Yippee” is available on DVD through the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University and will be included in a retrospective of Mazursky’s works at New York’s Lincoln Center, May 4-10.Paul Mazursky

Jews in the Military: High Holidays Under Fire


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God bless that man,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Highlands, Vietnam

A Jungle Clearing
Central Highlands, Vietnam
September 1966

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saddam's Palace

Saddam’s Palace
Tikrit, Iraq
September 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I felt honored,” Mish said.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.

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

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

Israel-Lebanon Strife Reverberates Locally


[Monday July 17] A nationwide effort to call Jews to prayer services Wednesday evening, July 19 — in support of Israel — is being organized by the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the National Council of Young Israel.

In addition, a central service and study session will be available
at http://www.ou.org led by OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, in downtown Manahattan.

Text of OU Press Release

ORTHODOX SYNAGOGUES CALL FOR NIGHT OF PRAYER AND TORAH STUDY
ACROSS NORTH AMERICA THIS WEDNESDAY EVENING

Responding to the urgent need of American Jews to do whatever they can in support of Israel and her people at this time, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, together with the National Council of Young Israel and the Young Israel Council of Rabbis, have announced the convening of a nationwide Night of Prayer and Torah Study this Wednesday, July 19.

The organizations are asking Jews to gather in their synagogues throughout North America beginning at 9:00 pm E.D.T. (6:00 pm Pacific) for the simultaneous recitation of tehillim (Psalms) and other designated prayers.

While many congregations are already adding extra tehillim to their regular services, Jewish tradition places great value in having an entire community raising their voices in unison.

With the expectation that several hundred synagogues will participate, many, many thousands of Jews will be united in their prayers at this time.

The program’s second segment will be Torah study, also a key means of spiritual support, for which study materials on relevant topics such as the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, rescuing captives, will be provided to the synagogues by the OU.

A central service and study session, to be led by OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb at OU headquarters in downtown Manhattan, will be webcast and may be viewed by any synagogue, family or individual who wants to participate in this way at http://www.ou.org

The OU has also produced a Seven Point Action Plan, entitled “Israel Under Siege — What You Can Do,” which may be read on its web site.

Further plans for special round-the-clock Torah learning programs with the involvement of OU member synagogues, Young Israel synagogues, the batei
midrash and learning programs of Yeshiva University, and the rabbis of the RCA and of YI, will be announced shortly.

*****
Friday’s Stories (July 14, 2006)
*****

Rally
More than 900 Attend Wiesenthal Gathering

Hot was not the word for Thursday’s rally outside the Simon Wiesenthal
Center.

As if mirroring the escalating heat of the day’s escalating violence in, as
Hezbollah sent rockets into Israel and Israel attacked Lebanon, the Los
Angeles summer sun provided no relief for the 900-plus people gathered in the
center’s enclosed back courtyard for the 5 p.m. community rally.

“Rally” was not exactly the word for Thursday’s last-minute event either, as
it was less a public demonstration and more a gathering of friends of
Israel. The Wiesenthal Center took the lead early Thursday morning in
organizing a community event to show support for the embattled Jewish state.

“Condemn the Terrorists, Not the Response,” read a sign on the podium, which
was backed by an American flag, an Israeli flag and the Wiesenthal flag, as
well as a modern statue of Israel’s menorah, which always stands in the
courtyard.

The two-hour ceremony included speeches from Wiesenthal Rabbis Abraham
Cooper and Marvin Hier, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles Consul General to Israel Ehud
Danoch, Judea Pearl (father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl) and Federation
President John Fishel.

“It’s important that we’re here today,” said Villaraigosa, who told the
story of his interrupted phone call with Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal.

“This experience shook us to the core,” he said.

The mayor also emphasized the importance that non-Jews were present at the
rally as well, referring to himself, and what may have been one of the few
other non-Jews in the audience, the Rev. Billy Ingram of Maranatha Community
Church.

“If not here,” he asked, “then where will we come together united in
solidarity with Israel?”

Always the showstopper, Hier drew the crowd to its feet a number of times.

“Let us be clear today. This is not about borders,” he said. “It’s about a
Middle East that is Judenrein — free of Jews.”

Hier drew parallels in this situation to the Holocaust, saying that the
world “did nothing” about the constant missile attacks on Israel, and on the
diplomatic front on getting captured soldier Gilad Shalit returned. He said
there was collateral damage on Germany when the Allied forces bombed the
Nazis, but that was the price they had to pay, and that Israel did not want
this terror, and those who support the leaders “have only themselves to
blame.”

Cooper played a recording of a phone call with Cheri Drori,
a former Angeleno whose husband, Tzephania, has been the chief rabbi of
Kiryat Shemona for 30 years. Drori, was in a bomb shelter in Kiryat
Shmoneh, two kilometers from the Lebanese border.

America’s support, she said, “gives us great strength to continue … we
want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Danoch took a tough line with the terrorists: “If in Israel they are going
to go into shelters, then in Lebanon they will go in shelters This operation
will not end until we make an end to Hezbollah,” he said. “Israel is strong.
The government is strong. The Jewish people are strong and we will last an
eternity.”

Thursday was a fast day, the 17th of Tamuz, which signifies the beginning of
the three weeks of mourning for the Jewish people when the walls of
Jerusalem were breached by the Ancient Romans before the destruction of the
Temple. A number of Orthodox rabbis recited Pslams, first in English, and
then in Hebrew, to commemorate the fast day and to pray for Israel.

The program, which began with the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”
ended with “Hatikva” and the singing of “Oseh Shalom”: “Oseh shalom
b’mromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu
…” “He who makes peace in high
places, He will make peace for us and for all Israel, let us say amen…”

— Amy Klein

Travel to Israel Uninterrupted by Mideast Conflict

Delta Airlines Flight 152 from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv via Atlanta left on
time Friday, despite the escalation of conflict between Israel and Lebanon.

While some travelers, mostly Israelis, were tranquil, others remained
skittish.

Tammy and Amit Stavinsky were flying with their three small children to Tel
Aviv to visit family. Waiting in line to check in at LAX, Tammy Stavinsky
said she was “petrified.”

Her Israeli husband was calm, however.

“The truth is nobody knows anything about life,” he said. “It could be more
dangerous here, who knows?”

“Well, obviously I have children so I don’t want to go at all,” said his
wife.

“We’ve been fighting about it,” she said, gesturing toward her husband.
“He’s going with or without me, and I don’t want to be a bad wife.”

Behind them a Calabasas man traveling to his father’s funeral in Israel said
he wasn’t concerned for his safety.

“I wouldn’t take my family with me, but I’m OK traveling on my own,” he
said.

Another Israeli man traveling to Israel via New York and Budapest said he
wasn’t worried at all.

El Al Israel Airlines reports that its Israel-bound flights continue to be
nearly full, and that the airline has not experienced an increase in
cancellations, spokeswoman Sheryl Stein said Friday. Recent demand has been
so great that on July 23 El Al will inaugurate thrice-weekly roundtrip
flights between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv.

“Tourism has really picked up in Israel, and our flights are very, very
full,” Stein said.

Like El Al, Delta Air Lines said its daily flight to Israel remains popular.
On July 14, Delta had oversold its Israel-bound flight, which departs from
Atlanta and carries up to 234 passengers, spokesman Anthony Black said.

“There hasn’t been any impact to our flights from the events at this time,”
Black said.

In other local travel news, about 60 Southland Jews have just departed for a
mission to Israel, forming half of the participants in a trip sponsored by
United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for the nation’s
federations.

Marc Ballon, Senior Writer & Lisa Hirschmann, Contributing
Writer

L.A.’s Jewish Groups Come Together in Support

What are the leading Jewish organizations doing to support Israel?

That’s what they gathered to find out at The Jewish Federation of Greater
Los Angeles on Thursday, July 13, as Israel came under attack from
Hezbollah, prompting Israeli air strikes into Lebanon.

The 3 p.m meeting, coordinated at the last minute, saw the participation of
major players here, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,
StandWithUs, Peace Now, the Pacific Jewish Alliance, The Wiesenthal Center,
the Israeli Consulate, Hillel and the Board of Rabbis of Southern
California, to name a few. Press was not invited to this “strategy session.”

“We were really trying to get an update on what everybody in attendance is
doing in support of Israel,” said John Fishel, Federation president.

He was referring to the general programs the organizations had been planning
as well as future action in light of the escalation. It was a brainstorming
session, he said, where people threw out ideas for future action — some
related to action within the Jewish community to show support and others
reach outside the community. It was not clear what the group would do to
actually help people in Israel — although The Federation will be sending
Fifth District City Councilmember Jack Weiss to Israel next week on a
support mission.

The “strategy” session will reconvene early next week, Fishel said, to
hammer out a specific plan. Perhaps this kind of unity in such a disparate
community is unusual.

“I was impressed by their sincere willingness to work together,” Fishel
said. “It’s a good reflection when there’s a crisis, everybody does pull
together.”

— AK

*****
Thursday’s Stories (July 13, 2006)
*****

Hebrew Union College Students Travel to Israel

About 15 rabbinic, cantorial and educational students from the Southern California campus of Hebrew Union College (HUC) have just arrived in Israel to fulfill their year of
required study at the school’s Jerusalem campus, according to Steven
Windmueller, interim dean for HUC’s L.A. campus. HUC, the Reform movement’s seminary and intellectual center, believes that future leaders of the Jewish community “need to be present in demonstrating their solidarity with the people of the
state of Israel,” Windmueller said.

Even at times of crisis, including the worst of the first Intifada and the Gulf War, HUC kept its doors open at its Israel campus, Windmueller said.

Funds to Move Children Raised Thursday

The Jewish Agency for Israel raised $1 million within a few hours Thursday to remove children from the North of Israel, according to a release from the agency. Working with the Jewish communities worldwide, as well as the Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, the money was raised to move children who were in the line of fire to youth villages in central Israel.

–Susan Freudenheim, Managing Editor

Israeli Consulate: “Act of War”

The Los Angeles Consulate General of Israel today issued a statement directed to community leaders on the unfolding situation in Israel. The statement offers help in organizing local event related to the ongoing conflict in Israel.

“This morning’s attacks were not a terrorist attack but the action of a sovereign state that assaulted Israel for no reason and without provocation,” the consulate’s statement says, putting a unilateral spin on Israel’s attacks, which have been condemned around the world are condemning as overly harsh.

After explaining the axis of terror in the Middle East and how Lebanon is responsible for Hezbollah and its actions, the statement asserts: “The State of Israel and its citizens now stand united. In light of these circumstance, Israel has no choice but to defend itself and its citizens and will take any measure necessary for the security of its people.”

Anxious Parents Worry About Kids in Israel

For parents with children currently in Israel, these are tough times.
The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), for one, has received several calls from
mothers and fathers worried about their kids’ safety, said Emily Grotta, the
group’s spokeswoman.

An estimated 600 11th- and 12th-graders are currently in Israel on five-
to six-week visits through the URJ. In light of the turbulent situation in
the Middle East, the group has modified travel plans to ensure student
safety, Grotta said. On Thursday, July 13, a group of children who were
supposed to go to the northern Golan Heights near Lebanon went instead went
to the southern Golan Heights, she said.

The fate of the URJ’s planned semester-long program in Israel for high
school students will be determined at a later date.

Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Israel Advocacy Group will Proceed with Plans for Israel Trip

StandWithUs’s plans to proceed with its upcoming mission to Israel, although
the program will be somewhat modified according to the group’s Executive
Director Roz Rothstein. The pro-Israeli, Los
Angeles-based advocacy group plans to bring about 20
people to the Holy Land on a nine-day trip beginning
July 31, with an emphasis on better understanding
Israel’s security situation.

The intensifying violence in the Mideast will likely mean
the cancellation of a scheduled visit to checkpoints
near Gaza and a planned trip to the Israeli-Lebanese
border, Rothstein said.

Participant reaction to the growing violence has been
mixed, she said.

“I got a note today saying, ‘Please don’t cancel the
mission. I want to go no matter what,'” Rothstein
said. “I got another note that said, ‘I’m concerned.
What are we doing?'”

Rothstein said that given Israel’s past success in prevailing in defensive
Wars — in 1967 and 1973 — she expects the Jewish
state to win again and that the StandWithUs mission
will go forward.

–MB

U.S. State Department Travel Advisory

A Feb. 27, 2006 travel advisory from the United States Department of State
“urges U.S citizens to carefully weigh the necessity of traveling to
Israel,” because of the threat of violence between Israeli forces and
Palestinian militant groups based in the West Bank and Gaza and rocket
attacks into Israel by Palestinian terorists, among other reasons.

The State Department also encourages Americans to avoid all travel to the
Gaza Strip and to defer unnecessary travel to the West Bank.

— MB


Birthright Trips Continue as Planned

Officials at Birthright Israel, which sends 18- to 26-year-olds to Israel
for free 10-day trips, said it has received no more cancellations than usual
for its remaining summer trips to Israel. An estimated 7,000 young adults
have already gone to Israel this summer through Birthright, with another
300 slated to go, a spokesperson said.

“There’s been nothing out of the ordinary. No one’s canceled,” said a
spokesman, who asked not to be named. “People are still going.”
The last Los Angeles residents slated to participate in this summer’s
Birthright program departed for Israel Thursday morning, July 13, he added.

— MB

Judaism Finds Its Niche in Great Outdoors


There are Jews hanging from mountaintops all over Colorado. Others are lighting Shabbat candles on sailboats or discovering their spirituality on the ski slopes.

These Jewish adventure enthusiasts not only make an effort to do the hobbies they love with other Jews, but they do so looking for religious or spiritual meaning. By combining their dual interests, this growing cadre of adrenaline seekers is building a new definition of what it means to do — or be — Jewish.

Take Rabbi Jamie Korngold.

When Korngold realized that the Reform Jews she was trying to reach in Boulder, Colo., were more interested in skiing than sitting in synagogue on Saturday mornings, she strapped on a pair of snow boots and headed up the mountain: “For 30 percent of us, synagogue life is working really well, but the other 70 percent, we need new ways of reaching those people.”

“There are so many people whose religion is the outdoors, who really experience their spirituality outside of the synagogue,” said Korngold, who has biked from New York to San Francisco and competed in a 100-mile trail run. “So what I do is say, ‘You’re going to be outdoors, you say it’s a spiritual experience. Let me show you how it’s Jewish.'”

Korngold’s Adventure Rabbi program challenges participants to discuss Torah passages, as well as Judaism’s relationship to nature, during mountain minyan hikes, backpacking treks through the desert and Rosh Hashanah retreats to a ranch in the Rockies. Her trips are so popular that Korngold said her main problem is finding enough guides to meet demand.

“Our Web site gets 200,000 hits a month,” she said. “Our e-mail list is larger than the local federation’s.”

Rabbi Howard Cohen, a Reconstructionist rabbi who runs the Vermont-based Burning Bush Adventures organization, also talks about the need to build bridges between Judaism and the outdoors.

“I know so many Jews who have essentially grown detached from the Jewish community because as they were growing up, they couldn’t get what they wanted from the Jewish world,” he said. “So they went outside of it. But Judaism doesn’t have to be a separate part of their lives.”

Cohen calls the stereotype of the unfit, nonathletic Jew “residual anti-Semitism,” noting that Jews long have been involved in heart-pumping activities like boxing and farming.

Cohen himself is proof of the Jewish athletic tradition. Before attending rabbinical school, he spent 10 years working for Outward Bound. Now he leads day school students, among others, on such expeditions. Before going, participants are sent Torah portions, as well as a list of questions, quotes and readings.

Cohen promotes discussion on these materials out in the woods and has students keep Shabbat and bake challah in the field. Being with students in this context changes his ability to relate to them, Cohen said.

“There are a lot of rabbis who ski or play golf and put their kippah in their back pocket,” he said. “But rabbis who take their congregants skiing, they have a different bond.”

Cohen admitted that rabbis who follow this path may not serve Jewish community “needs,” such as Shabbat services and bar mitzvah training, but he said they do provide some of the “wants” Jews have from their religion.

Rabbi Nachum Shifren, an Orthodox surfer who rides waves in a wetsuit and full beard, said the surfing lessons he offers in Los Angeles and Israel offer catharsis.

“It’s definitely a therapeutic thing,” Shifren said. “Once you’re hooked on all that power and might of the ocean, you’re just never going to be the same.”

Shifren is working on a new program to wean innercity youngsters off drugs and gang life through surfing. Cohen also is developing a program for troubled youth.

“We tend to think of religion as a place where you have to toe the line … but there’s room for rebellion in religion,” Cohen said, citing “iconoclastic rabble-rousers” in the Torah such as Abraham.

The Chicago-based Steppin’ Out Adventures uses this community-building effect as a vehicle for matchmaking, allowing Jewish singles to schmooze while biking in Ireland or climbing the Inca Trail in Peru.

Robin Richman, director and one of the co-founders of the organization, described the bonding that takes place as “amazing.”

“When you’re on an adventure you plan as best you can, but things happen. Those are the things that become jokes between you,” she said, citing a weekend getaway to Wisconsin, where, due to three straight days of rain, the group wound up eating lunch in their underwear.

“It definitely brought the trip close together very quickly,” she said with a laughed.

Richman’s method has produced results. Since it began in 1993, Steppin’ Out Adventures has led to 60 marriages, 34 babies and “a whole lot of friendships and business partners,” according to the group’s Web site.

For the 20 members of the Chesapeake Bay’s Sailing Chavurah, the marriage of the outdoors and Jewish life also has proved transformative.

“At first, we all thought we were the only one” who sailed and was Jewish, said Julien Hofberg, the group’s commodore. But over time, boats named Tikkun Olam and Miss Shue Goss found each other, as did a Holocaust survivor, an accomplished Orthodox racer and a half-dozen Reform and Conservative Jews from the region.

“Now we hold Havdalah services every Saturday; we have a Chanukah party,” Hofberg said. “We share our expertise … and watch out for each other.”

 

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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Jews in Poland Speak of Shoah Remembrance as a Curse


This tale is about two visions of Poland.

In one, Poland is about pain and loss. It’s the place where 3 million of a total population of 3.3 million Polish Jews perished in the Shoah, where Jews have nothing left, where indeed there are almost no Jews other than a few languishing, aged survivors who can’t even scrape together a Shabbat morning minyan. Poland is Auschwitz; it’s Never Again.

Defining this Poland is the March of the Living, an annual event that lays bare Poland’s deepest, murderous shame and then immediately whisks participants to Israel, to showcase that nation’s glories, and its essentialness to the Jewish people. The March of the Living has won wide acclaim from donors and participants, including students from Los Angeles.

March arrives at Birkenau
A Jew in Poland: Severyn Ashkenazy celebrates oneg Shabbat at Warsaw temple.

But there’s also another Poland competing for the attention of Jews. This is the Poland of 70-year-old Severyn Ashkenazy, who, although a victim of the Holocaust, chooses to paint a different picture. Ashkenazy, who splits his time between Poland and Los Angeles, is a co-founder of Beit Warszawa, a Warsaw synagogue that belongs to the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Ashkenazy’s Poland offers Jewish studies programs at three leading universities. It will hold its 16th annual Jewish Culture Festival this summer in Krakow, expected to attract 20,000 people and its fourth annual Jewish Film Festival this November in Warsaw. His Poland now has an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Jews, according to figures published by the U.S. State Department. Ashkenazy and others estimate the number to be considerably higher.

In his Poland, Judaism has a present and a future, which makes March of the Living, and its thousands of participants, a sore point.

“They are the opposite of ambassadors of goodwill,” Ashkenazy said. “To the Poles, it seems that the whole world comes and looks at them as murderers.”

March of the Living, the international educational program that began in 1988, has brought approximately 90,000 teenagers, accompanied by Jewish educators, social workers and survivors, to Poland for a week. Every year, in late April or early May, thousands of Jewish teenagers from around the world gather to commemorate Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day, by recreating the 3-kilometer “death march” of concentration camp inmates from Auschwitz to Birkenau. In addition to Auschwitz-Birkenau, they visit the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka as well as the destroyed Jewish communities of Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow. They then fly to Israel for a week where they celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and tour the country.

Participants pay a subsidized fee of $3,300, plus their own roundtrip airfare to New York. Some scholarships and additional subsidies are available.

Many teenagers report that the trip has profoundly and positively changed their lives, and two studies by William B. Helmreich, a sociology professor at City University of New York, concluded that the program strengthens participants’ Jewish identity.

“If the most important goal of the March was to increase Jewish identity, it clearly succeeded. Over 93 percent of those who participated reported that it did,” wrote Helmreich about research he conducted in 1993 and 2004. “This is especially noteworthy because so many of those attending were strongly identifying Jews to begin with.”

But there are critics, too, who say the March builds that identity based on death and destruction, creating an irrational fear of anti-Semitism in impressionable adolescents and sending a message that the primary reason to be Jewish is to keep the Holocaust from happening again.

Critics frequently take issue with the juxtapositioning of dark and gloomy Poland with sunny and joyful Israel. Participants have little or no contact with Poles or modern Poland, which has a strong relationship with Israel. Nor does the itinerary emphasize the burgeoning Jewish community in Poland.

But this year, Ashkenazy hopes to change things, even if it means getting in the face of participants. For the first time, many of the estimated 8,000 marchers will be confronted with something that belies this image of unmitigated death and darkness, of a decimated culture with only a few old, struggling Jews remaining.

On the streets of Warsaw, Krakow and Lublin, representatives of Poland’s small but vibrant Jewish community will be handing out flyers introducing marchers to the Poland they don’t know and, for the most part, won’t experience. To help drive this message home, Ashkenazy is overseeing the preparation of thousands of handouts presenting the Poland that he knows and cares about. The materials cost about $4,000 to assemble and print and were funded by several private donors, Ashkenazy said. The handout includes a cartoon by Steve Greenberg (whose work appears regularly in The Journal) that lampoons “Depressing Tours, Inc.” as well as a listing of Poland’s many active Jewish institutions and organizations, plus other relevant articles. Ashkenazy says that the visiting Jews ought to be celebrating their faith and heritage with the Jews of Poland, not acting as though they don’t exist.

“This is perverted,” he said of the March. “Jews should be standing in line to meet us, to celebrate Shabbos with us and instead we have to go running after them.”

He’s hardly alone in his discomfort among Jews living in Poland.

“They are everywhere,” Ania Zielinska said about the marchers. The 30-year-old trade officer in the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw has been a four-time March participant, but has soured on the event: “They are like a plague.”

Zielinska, a member of the Orthodox Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw — which is under the leadership of Rabbi Michael Schudrich and which she says has 500 members — didn’t discover she was Jewish until 10 years ago. She completed an Orthodox conversion two years ago. Zielinska resents the visitors who ignore the modern Polish Jewish community: “Polish Jews are very bitter. We feel abandoned.”

When Adrianne Rubenstein went to Poland on March of the Living with a group of about 200 Montreal teenagers in 2000, she expected the trip to be difficult but transformative. Instead, she found it controlling and numbing as she was constantly sleep-deprived and “talked at” by her group’s leaders, a deliberate tactic on the part of March officials, she believes.

“I don’t remember associating anything positive with Poland. It was all shock, shock, shock,” said Rubenstein, 23, a senior at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. She was especially affected by the large exhibits of “tons and tons of shoes, watches, wallets and hair” in the Auschwitz Museum.

“I don’t know what can be taught by that, except to show that it’s sad,” she said.

Aliza Luft, 22, a senior at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, who participated on the March with Rubenstein, thinks Holocaust education is important but needs to be more all-encompassing, taking into account the 1,000 years of Poland’s rich Jewish culture and focusing less on the history of persecution.

“We’re told we need to support Israel and be Jewish, but we don’t know why, except if we don’t, things like the Holocaust are going to happen again,” she said.

There are any number of glowing testimonials to counter such criticisms from participants. They note that the shock value is part of the point — organizers want to make a stronger, sobering impression.

But Ashkenazy believes that point is made unfairly. “What’s our problem with the Poles today? What do we want from them?” he said.

In 1939, he points out, 60 percent of Poles were illiterate, under the sway of the then-anti-Semitic Catholic church. And while many individual Poles enthusiastically aided the Nazis during World War II, Poland historically has welcomed Jews, who started arriving in the Middle Ages, fleeing oppression in other countries. Despite periods of pogroms and persecution, Poland gave Jews substantial economic freedom and, compared to other places, allowed Jewish life to flourish. Polish Jewish culture gave birth to Chasidism and Jewish Enlightenment, and it was a bastion of Zionism.

The nonprofit March of the Living, founded by in 1987 former Knesset member and current Minister of Tourism Avraham Hirshson, does not hide its mission of teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. Organizers of the New York-based group want to make sure that the stories of the survivors live on, that the ongoing problem of anti-Semitism is confronted and that participants come to see the necessity of a strong and secure state of Israel.

The stark contrast between Poland and Israel is deliberate, even in the welcoming statement from the first paragraph of the current educator’s manual: “You will be transported … back in time to one of the darkest chapters in human existence, to one of the most terrifying times in Jewish history. Then, before you can take a breath, you will travel to Israel, the Jewish Homeland, to celebrate with the people of Israel, Independence Day. It will be a journey from darkness to light. It will be an experience of a lifetime.”

left - Phil Liff-Greiff, right -
Survivor Nandor Markovic, right, sitting with Phil Liff-Grieff, from Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, at Auschwitz before the March of the Living (2005).

Understandably, memories of the horrors persist for survivors and their families. Nandor Markovic, 81, was shipped from a shtetl in the Carpathian Mountains to Birkenau at age 15. His parents and three siblings were killed; he somehow survived six concentration camps and a death march before being liberated. For him, the streets of Poland will always be paved with blood.

Markovic, known as “Marko,” insists on accompanying the Los Angeles teen contingent on this year’s March, despite difficulty walking because of a tendon operation that never healed properly. It’s his third trip. He feels strongly that he stayed alive for a purpose, not only to have a family but also “to give back to society and to my people who have suffered so much.” For him, the March of the Living is a righteous duty, a way to honor and give meaning to the sacrifice of the victims.

No one would have more right to identify with the aims of the March than Severyn Ashkenazy. Born in Tarnopol, home to more than 18,000 Jews before World War II and now part of Ukraine, Ashkenazy survived the war by spending two years, from ages 6 to 8, holed up in a 6-by-12-foot sub-cellar — “a cellar dug under a cellar” — with his mother, brother and uncle, paying a non-Jewish Polish family to bring them food. For the last eight months, his father and three others joined them. Only one night in those two years was he allowed outside to see the moon.

Out of hundreds of blood relatives on both sides of his family, only an uncle and two cousins, in addition to his immediate family, survived. Ashkenazy left Poland in 1946, eventually making his way to the United States with his family in 1957. Later, in the early 1970s, while doing business in Russia as a real estate developer, he began traveling back through Poland. Each time, he was told only a few thousand old Jews were left in Poland. But gradually, after meeting many people who appeared to be Jewish, he came to realize that there was a community that deserved to be nurtured rather than abandoned.

In 1999, he co-founded Beit Warszawa, to give the Jews in Poland a non-Orthodox place to study, practice and explore their Judaism. The synagogue, which currently has more than 200 members and more than 1,000 on its mailing list, hosts weekly Shabbat dinners, services and concerts; Saturday morning services; and preschool and religious school. And beginning in July, Beit Warszawa will have its first full-time rabbi, Burt Schuman, an American Reform rabbi who has served Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pa., since his ordination in 1995.

Ashkenazy and others estimate there could be more than 50,000 Jews living in Poland today (a figure much higher than the 5,000 to 7,000 Jews March of the Living officials publish in their educational materials).

One of those is Malgorzata (Gosia) Szymanska, 25, who discovered that her father was Jewish about 12 years ago, when she asked him why he tuned into news about Israel more than other news. The revelation didn’t mean anything to her at the time but later, at 16, while visiting her father’s family in Canada, she was introduced to Shabbat and to her relatives’ close-knit Jewish community, which resonated with her. Returning to her hometown of Lodz two months later, she began learning Hebrew. A few years later she moved to Warsaw, where she became involved with the Polish Union of Jewish Students, which now claims about 300 members, and Beit Warszawa.

Szymanska is currently in Los Angeles getting a joint master’s degree — in Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and public administration at USC. After graduating in May, she plans to return to Poland and become Beit Warszawa’s first full-time administrator. She is especially upset by people she meets who say Poland is anti-Semitic and Jews shouldn’t be living there.

“The fact is, we are there,” she said. “And we are comfortable being Poles and Jews.”

Latent anti-Semitism does persist, especially among less-educated segments of the population. More historical than political in nature, it’s typically expressed in the form of graffiti and verbal slurs rather than actual physical harm. It’s also in decline, according to a 2005 report by the U.S. State Department, and officially condemned. When the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw was firebombed in 1997, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski issued a statement expressing his outrage that day.

Polish Jews interviewed for this article say they feel safe in Poland. They are comfortable publicly identifying as Jews, telling strangers they meet that they are Jewish and wearing kippot or Stars of David. Their synagogues do not have visible armed guards at the entrances, as in Sweden and other European countries. According to Ashkenazy, even Chasidic Jews, in full religious garb, feel safe traveling alone.

Furthermore, Poland is a solid friend of Israel. One of its first moves, when it became a democratic country in 1989, was to establish diplomatic ties. Since then, Poland has officially apologized for crimes that Poles committed against Jews and made denying the Holocaust a crime. It entered into an agreement to purchase $350 million worth of Israeli anti-tank missiles and has allocated land and $26 million for the building of a Jewish museum in Warsaw.

Additionally, many Poles note that the death camps in Poland were the primary responsibility of German Nazis. And while many Poles aided and abetted the Nazi, others risked their lives to help the Jews. In fact, Poles constitute the largest number of Righteous Gentiles honored at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Leaders of the March are not entirely insensitive to the criticisms. Phil Liff-Grieff, associate director of Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), has led groups of marchers three times. He says the depiction of Poland should be balanced. Over the years, he has arranged meetings with various groups of Polish and Jewish young people.

This year’s group of 60 Los Angeles teenagers, under the leadership of the BJE’s Monise Newman, is hoping to spend one Friday morning celebrating Shabbat with students at the Lauder-Morasha Primary and Elementary School in Warsaw, a Jewish day school established by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. They also will spend a day helping to restore a cemetery in Otwock along with a group of Israeli students, a project of the Jewish Federation’s Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership. Along the way, they hope to meet with Polish Jews from the Polish Union of Jewish Students.

Some 55 Jewish Poles will be participating in this year’s March and others will be meeting separately with visiting groups of Jews, said Yossi Kedem, executive vice chairman of International March of the Living, in an e-mail. But outreach to Poles and local Jews is simply not part of the March’s core program.

“It’s always a logistical nightmare,” Liff-Grieff said, especially given the tight schedules, bus availability and Shabbat observances.

Several adult groups, who can provide their own transportation, have arranged to celebrate Shabbat at Beit Warszawa during this year’s March.

“It’s a pity no young people can come,” Ashkenazy said.

Still Liff-Grieff and others defend the fundamental goals, which include creating the next generation of witnesses and celebrating Jewish survival.

“It’s not all roses and light,” he noted.

For their part, educators in Poland are working to enhance cultural ties that would add nuance and balance to the March. Professor Annamaria Orla-Bukowska works with specific group leaders from Australia, Israel, New York and Connecticut to arrange student meetings, often coordinated months in advance.

But she had to aggressively instigate such contacts. Four or five years ago, while at Birkenau waiting for the commemoration services to begin, she recalls running around from group to group asking, “Would you like to have a meeting with real Polish people?”

Participants were surprised to learn that this was possible and several accepted her offer.

Orla-Bukowska, a practicing Roman Catholic born and raised in the United States by non-Jewish Polish parents, moved to Poland in 1985. She’s now an associate professor of sociology at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Orla-Bukowska has been involved with several organizations working on improving Jewish-Christian relations, trying to get both sides over what she calls “this plexiglass wall” — where people see each other but don’t touch.

She recognizes some benefits in the March, especially for her non-Jewish students. Going on the March and spending the entire Holocaust Memorial Day embedded with a group of Jewish teenagers is the best way, she said, to understand the Jewish perspective.

But it wasn’t until 1998 that non-Jewish Poles were allowed to take part in the March, and only two years earlier that even Jewish Poles were permitted.

Today, the number of non-Jewish Polish students allowed on the March is a negotiation between March of the Living officials and the Polish Ministry of Education. This year, 1,000 Polish students will participate, although the number of those wishing to be involved is larger, said Andrzej Fowarczny, president of Forum for Dialogue among Nations and a former member of the Polish National Parliament. He also recalls that up to three or four years ago non-Jewish Poles were relegated to the back of the line. Fowarcyzy’s organization works on Jewish-Polish reconciliation, fighting anti-Semitism and breaking down stereotypes. While he feels that March of the Living deepens those stereotypes, he also tries to arrange meetings between Jewish and Polish high school students.

“This is a golden opportunity for dialogue and for Polish students, many of whom are meeting a Jewish person for the first time, to fight their anti-Semitism,” Fowarczny said.

 

‘Voodoo’ Jew Finds Love, Truth in Haiti


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Could You Help Me Find My Uncle?


Dear President Ahmadinejad:

Allow me to introduce myself to you. My name is Robert Stevens, and I am a 27-year-old child of Holocaust survivors. The purpose of my letter is not to criticize you for being anti-Semitic or for wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the earth or for making an international statement defaming the legitimacy of the Holocaust by calling it a myth. Instead, I just wanted to share with you a little glimpse into my life and actually ask you for some advice.

This past Saturday evening, before I left my apartment with my fiancee to celebrate a friend’s birthday party in New York City, I remembered that it coincidentally was also my uncle’s birthday — my father’s brother. My uncle’s name is Boroch Jeszyja Miedzinski. Indeed, it is certainly a Jewish name. His first name, Boroch, means “blessed” in Hebrew, and Jeszyja, which is another form of the name Josiah, means “fire of God,” also in Hebrew.

I really wanted to reach out to my uncle to wish him a happy birthday, but I didn’t have his phone number or his address. If I did, I’d certainly call him or visit him, and certainly I would have mailed him a card. To be honest, I am embarrassed to admit this, but I actually don’t know where he really is now, and perhaps you could help me find him.

I tried looking up his address throughout the United States, Israel, Poland, Germany, Russia, France, England and other countries in Europe, but I just couldn’t find his address or phone number. Various organizations wrote me informing me that they never even heard of him. I used the Google search engine to try and find him or something about him but to no avail.

My father died 10 years ago and, unfortunately, he hadn’t seen his brother in many years, so he also didn’t leave me with any contact information for his brother.

Thankfully, because you have pointed out to the world that the Holocaust is a myth — that the Nazis could not have killed him because such killings were just Zionist propaganda to get world support for Israel — you have renewed my hope that he may still be alive, and that I can find him.

I guess I can admit that I feel a little silly, too. I mean, I used to think that perhaps the Nazis killed him, but if the Holocaust never happened, he must be alive, or he’s just a myth that existed to bring about sympathy for Jews. My father, however, was pretty darn convincing when he told me that I reminded him of his brother because we both had the same squint and intense look in our eyes.

Before I give up, though, I do have the following information, which perhaps a man of your power and influence could use to help me find him.

My uncle was born on Jan. 28, 1931, in Lodz, Poland, to my grandfather and grandmother, Pinkus and Tauba Miedzinski. He was the youngest of four children, with my father, David, the eldest.

I have a copy of a photograph of him that I can send to you, if you think it will aid your search. The photograph was taken presumably by the Germans or the Judenrat, and was affixed to a Lodz Ghetto ID card. I know this because you can see that the corner of the photo was stamped with “Litzmanstadt.” If you weren’t already aware, Litzmanstadt was the name Germans gave to Lodz when they took it over and formed a ghetto for the Jews.

The remaining information I have for you about my uncle is that sometime after his bar mitzvah, when he was 13 years old, he was presented with a train ticket — perhaps as a bar mitzvah present from nice German soldiers — to catch a ride out of the Lodz Ghetto.

His travel information, which is the only information I have about him, might be the missing link to help you locate him for me. The Germans, as you know, were great record keepers.

According to a chronicle kept by Jews of Lodz, June 26 was also apparently a popular day for travel for the youths of Lodz. Of the 912 total people who had the same train tickets as my uncle, the majority were teens and younger children.

The German records state that my uncle was last seen boarding the Cattle Car Express, Transport No. 867 under Record No. 611. One-way ticket, Lodz Ghetto to Gan Eden — or what historians whom you might consider misguided refer to as the Chelmno extermination camp.

President Ahmadinejad, any assistance you could offer in helping to locate my uncle would be appreciated. I would love to meet him. He just turned 75.

I’m definitely going to bust his chops for being an actor in this silly Holocaust charade. In the meantime, for his birthday, I will resort to lighting a candle for him next to the only photo I have of him, taken when he was just a little boy in the Lodz Ghetto. The birthday candle, which I lit this past Saturday night, on Jan. 28, is actually what Jews call a yahrtzeit candle.

And when the flame of the yahrtzeit candle glows brightly, it symbolizes an eternal fire from God that will always and forever burn, representing the sacred souls of my beloved uncle and all my other 6 million Jewish ancestors and declaring that despite any of your endeavors, their memory will be for a blessing, not a myth.

Kind Regards,
Robert Stevens
Courtesy New Jersey Jewish News.

Robert Stevens resides in New Jersey. He dedicates this letter in honor of his parents. He can be reached at: rstevens27@gmail.com

Curtain Rises on Mozart’s Jewish Tie


On Jan. 27, Austria is marking the 250th birthday of its favorite son, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In honor of this sesquibicentennial, the city of Vienna is planning an impressive program of more than 1,000 events, including 350 public concerts and performances of the composer’s operas and sacred works.

But for the first time, the Viennese are doing something that has never been done before. After more than 200 years of silence — felt most deeply during Hitler’s rule — Austria is finally talking about Mozart’s Jewish connection.

“Mozart does not belong to any nation. It would be a total misunderstanding for anyone to lay claim to Mozart,” said Peter Marboe, Vienna Mozart Year artistic director. “That makes it obscene that the Nazis should claim him as an example of a great German artist and all the while hide his Jewish collaborators.”

In celebration of Mozart Year, which is being marked throughout Austria, the Jewish Museum of Vienna is presenting a look at the composer and his greatest collaborator, the Jewish-born Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist best known for “The Marriage of Figaro” (1786), “Don Giovanni” (1787) and “Cosi Fan Tutte” (1790), long considered the composer’s greatest operatic masterpieces. The exhibit, “Between Tolerance and Aryanization–Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart and Vienna,” which opens mid-March and ends Aug. 31, illuminates the effects of Nazi propaganda on our perceptions of both Mozart and his librettist.

Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in the Jewish community of Ceneda, Italy, in 1749. He converted to Catholicism, along with his entire family, shortly after his bar mitzvah, when his widower father remarried a Christian woman. He and his brothers were immediately sent off to a seminary to study for the priesthood, where he describes himself as an “inmate.” He later complained that “at that time, I intended to perfect my knowledge of Hebrew, which in my youth I had studied assiduously.”

According to his memoirs, Da Ponte became a Catholic priest at 20 in response to his father’s bidding. Da Ponte writes with great bitterness about his fate, which he blames for leading him to “embrace a way of life opposed to my temperament, character, principles and studies, thus opening the door to a thousand strange happenings and perils.”

Within two years, Da Ponte escaped to Venice, where he worked as teacher and poet. During that time, he had affairs with three society women. His exploits eventually caught up with him, and scandal forced him to flee Italy in 1782.

That year Da Ponte ended up at the imperial court in Vienna, where he met Mozart, who had just been kicked out of the service of the prince-cardinal of Salzburg. The collaboration of these two refugees from the church was to produce monumental results.

Their first collaboration, “The Marriage of Figaro,” was an enormous success.

But it was in their second collaboration that Da Ponte’s Jewish roots began to show. The tragic opera, “Don Giovanni,” is punctuated throughout with a sense of humor that was unheard of at the time. Commissioned for the Prague Opera, the so-called “perfect opera” reaches its climax when a huge statue comes to life to exact vengeance on a murderer. The oblique reference to the Yiddish legend of Der Golem was not lost on Czech audiences — in Prague “Don Giovanni” was an immediate hit. But in Vienna, it closed after 13 performances.

Da Ponte and Mozart collaborated once more on what would prove the composer’s final comic opera, “Cosi Fan Tutte.” The following year, Mozart died and Da Ponte was exiled to England for his scandalous affairs. The librettist eventually made his way to New York, where he founded the chair of Italian literature at Columbia University.

More than a century later, Nazi Germany annexed Austria and instituted the policy of Aryanization. Under the Nazi regime, Da Ponte’s Jewish identity was stolen by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, who banned all music by Jewish composers, including Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelssohn, Jacques Offenbach and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. But Mozart’s music was too valuable to the Third Reich, so like Johan Strauss, Mozart’s collaborator was “Aryanized.” Hitler reportedly told critics: “I decide who is Jewish.”

After the war, Viennese city government worked closely with the Jewish community to help rebuild a society devastated by the Holocaust. Their projects included the funding of the Vienna Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial. This year’s Mozart celebrations provide the perfect opportunity to openly discuss Da Ponte and his contribution to Mozart’s greatest works.

The Vienna State Opera has performances of all three Da Ponte-Mozart collaborations slated for this season, running from January to April. If seeing Mozart’s operas in Vienna has ever been on your to-do list, now is the time. And when viewed in concert with the Vienna Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, you’ll see them in a whole new light.

 

Vienna Glories in Past and Present


Sixty years after the end of World War II, Vienna has reclaimed its roots as a city of culture. Not the culture of stoic monuments to faded glory or landmarks illuminated by historical plaques, but in a living, breathing, heart-still-pumping way. Grand-yet-graceful music, art and architecture are the lifeblood of this city and those fortunate enough to live here.

Strolling along the wide pedestrian mall of the Kartnerstrasse, you cannot help but feel swept up in the art and culture of this elegant city. The impressive architecture rises up and surrounds you as the beauty of the city embraces you.

As the sun sets on the Kartnerstrasse, Viennese girls window shop Euro chain stores for platform shoes and designer scruff denim, shadowed by elegant palaces that line the cobbled street. A girl plays Strauss on a grand piano. Down the street, a man plays a symphony on crystal glasses of water, as students in black tie and spiked hair saunter past with cellos. The street comes to life with people who seem to not be in a hurry to go anywhere in particular.

Music is at the heart of Vienna, and since 2006 is being celebrated as the Mozart Year in Austria, the most rewarding Mozart experience is the city that inspired him. By all means, visit Mozart’s statue and the house he lived in, but to really experience Mozart’s Vienna, wander the cobbled lanes like the Blutgasse, where Mozart lived and worked. While away a morning by lingering over café and strudel in a plush coffee house (complete with charmingly polite tuxedoed waiters).

The best way to discover Mozart here might be a night at the Vienna Opera. I was lucky enough to attend a performance of “The Magic Flute” during my visit, which was sponsored by Austria Tourism. This was classical Mozart through and through in terms of the music, but the performance was strikingly modern.

A minimalist industrial set was the backdrop for bearded ladies painted blue and dressed in 18th-century industrial corsetry, while the priests of Sarastro were done up in white, minimalist hazmat suits. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll concede, but that completely sums up a city that glories in its past but revels in its modernity.

Lets remember that Mozart was cutting-edge cool in his day. It’s fitting that this city still pushes the artistic envelope while embracing its artistic history. Vienna is a place where the elegant Hofburg Palace can stand alongside stunning Hundertwasser House.

Vienna’s influence as a cultural center also drew such Jewish composers as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Zelimsky, in addition to numerous Jewish writers, actors, artists and doctors. And while the city’s Jewish history has been a tumultuous one — only 2,000 of the city’s pre-World War II population of 183,000 Jews survived the Shoah — Vienna today boasts a very active community of about 7,000 Jews.

The city features 15 synagogues (including a Sephardic congregation), a yeshiva, a Jewish museum and an office of Jewish Welcome Service. Most of Vienna’s Jews live in the city’s Second District, where you’ll find kosher supermarkets, butchers and restaurants.

The other must-see on any Austrian Mozart tour is the quaint city of his birth, Salzburg, where the Hohensalzberg fortress looms over the Salzach River, and the pastel shades of the shops in the Aldstadt are undeniably photogenic.

In Salzburg, you’ll have the opportunity to see the house where Mozart was born and visit the Mozart museum, which struggles to understand the composer’s genius. Both are worth a look, but the truly hot ticket in Salzburg is the Marionetten Theater, which regularly stages Mozart’s operas.

Appreciating the preservation of a centuries-old art is the key to enjoying Salzburg, a town that seems content to linger in its past. And provided that a look into a time capsule is all you expect, you may not be disappointed.

Jewishly speaking, Salzburg never fully recovered following the Holocaust. Only about 100 Jews inhabit the city, which features a single synagogue at Lasserstrasse 8. But despite its anti-Semitic reputation, the city was host to such Jewish luminaries as dramatists Max Reinhardt and Carl Zuckmayer, who were drawn to its Salzburg Festival and its cultural scene.

However, Mozart himself preferred the energy and vibrancy of cosmopolitan Vienna. Like a deep breath of fresh air, it’s a city that will make you sigh.

 

Jews Thriving on Peace of the Rock


Long before there was a State of Israel, there was a state of the Jews. Its name was Gibraltar, and it was ceded to Conversos — Spanish Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism — in 1474 at the urging of Pedro de Herrera of Cordoba, himself a Converso.

Herrera convinced the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had led the recapture of Gibraltar from the Moors in 1462, that special taxes and costs born by Conversos to build homes and maintain a cavalry on the rock would make it worth his financial while to give the Conversos control, as is detailed in a small book devoted to the subject published in 1976. For two years, 4,350 Conversos lived in Gibraltar, until the duke decided he would rather run the show and forced them to return to Cordoba and, ultimately, to the clutches of the Inquisition.

Although Jews were later tortured and expelled by the Spanish, the Jewish Gibraltarian population later flourished under British colonial rule to such an extent that the first and longest-serving chief minister, Joshua Hassan, was Jewish. The saying goes that when he took the helm in 1964, Gibraltar and Israel were the only two places where the heads of state were Jews.

In addition to a strong Jewish history, Gibraltar shares many similarities with Israel. A sheer limestone rock jutting out of the sea, tied by history’s label as a “Pillar of Hercules” to classical tradition, the tiny peninsula has been a continental crossroads and hotly contested epicenter. Taken over by the British, claimed by the Spanish, coveted by everyone, Gibraltar, as local newspaper editor Dominique Searle quipped, is “a bit pre-Copernican. We tend to view ourselves as the center of the universe.”

Such constant traffic also gave it a healthy dose of representation of the three monotheistic faiths and Eastern-Western identity confusion. As in Israel, the cultural melange might best be described as Mediterranean. But unlike in Israel, with its own rocks, traditions and politics (and pre-Copernican attitude), in Gibraltar, multiculturalism has thrived.

Three religions have lived happily, rather than uneasily, side by side. Although the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht — which delivered the enormous rock to England much to the eternal angst of the Spanish — contained a Spanish stipulation that Jews (and Moors) not be allowed to dwell there, by 1721, England had signed an agreement with Morocco, stating that both Jews and Moors be allowed to engage in trade.

Gibraltar takes its name from the Arabic Jebel Tariq (Tariq’s Mountain) in honor of the governor of Tangier who conquered the strategic point in 711 C.E. to kick off the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula, which they held until the Spanish Christians ultimately regained it.

By 1749, the ability of Jews and Moors to live there legally was guaranteed. That same year, the first rabbi arrived. Also pouring in were Geonese ship-builders, Maltese and Portuguese traders and, of course, British officers.

The Spanish were outraged by the violation of the Utrecht Treaty terms, using such unwelcome hospitality as a pretext for one of their sieges of the strategic fortress over the course of the 1700s. Not only did the British prevail, but a sense of solidarity and group identity was forged among the various inhabitants, which has persisted to this day.

Only the recent arrival of Moroccan laborers, who live in lower socioeconomic standards, has given rise to some racial tension. Religious parochialism certainly didn’t factor into the political success of Hassan, who has been called the “Father of the Gibraltarians.”

The president of his synagogue, Hassan was elected for a total of 10 terms as chief minister. Twenty years ago, the chief minister (Hassan), the mayor and the head of the chamber of commerce were all Jewish.

Hassan — and Jews generally — didn’t just excel in the political realm. His law firm, established in the 1930s, has become the largest on the rock. Haim Levy, the current president of the Jewish community, is a senior partner at his late uncle’s firm.

Offshore banking has contributed to a financial boom in Gibraltar, despite the removal of nearly all of the British military presence in recent years.

But British culture and language linger on, with the population increasingly speaking English as its primary language, despite a deep attachment to Spanish.

While the colonial power of the UK has often put the country at odds with the local population, that’s nothing compared to Spain’s pretensions of power — largely viewed as illegitimate by the population. People still refer to a 1967 referendum in which 12,138 voted to maintain ties with the United Kingdom, while only 44 favored Spanish control.

“There’s a love-hate relationship [with the British],” Searle said. “There’s not really a love relationship with Spain at all.”

The tension with Spain, looming large just over the border, contributes to active identification with Israel on the part of Gibraltarians, according to Levy.

“They identify with Israel,” he said. “They see Gibraltar as a small place surrounded by neighbors that are not entirely friendly.” n

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Skip Beaten Path for Zipline Adventure


High above Kiryat Shemona, the Bekaa Valley to our left and the Golan Heights straight ahead, my wife and kids jumped from a cliff and sailed hundreds of feet on a zipline.

Waiting to leap were two young Orthodox men. The first pushed off, his payot flapping in the wind as he held on to his harness with one hand and his kippah with the other. After thinking for a moment, his friend stuffed his kippah in his pocket and jumped, both hands firmly on his harness.

Ziplining with the Orthodox. Digging for Maccabean relics with archaeologists. Off-roading on the Golan. We planned our family trip to Israel on the theory that our kids would learn more if they were happy and engaged than if they were bored and bedraggled.

Our strategy paid off. If you ask Jacob, 10, about the Lebanese border, he’ll tell you about ziplining and tobogganing — and about the Hezbollah flags he saw nearby. If you ask Mollie, 12, about the 1948 War of Independence, she’ll tell you about her visit to the bullet factory hidden under a kibbutz laundry room.

Grown-ups have asked Mollie and Jacob about our trip and often get right to the point — “Was Israel scary?” The fact that our kids can answer that Israel is a place of fun, not fear, while demonstrating an understanding of some of Israel’s security dilemmas, gives us great satisfaction.

Our kids declared during our trip that while tiny Israel may look like “nothing” on a world map, “there’s a whole lot of something inside.”

It’s important to take your kids to Israel. If the best route to American Jewish kids’ hearts and minds is the fun route, then here are some adventures slightly off the beaten path you can pursue with your family:

Community Briefs


Israel Travel Penalty Ends

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill that seeks to bar life insurance companies from penalizing travelers who visit Israel and other countries commonly perceived as dangerous.

The states of Washington, New York and Illinois have similar legislation on the books.

The change, signed into law Sept. 30, should help both Californians planning to travel to Israel as well as those who have previously visited Israel. Both groups have faced increased premiums or outright denials of coverage. Insurance companies based this practice on the presumption that traveling to Israel significantly increased the chances of a person’s death.

Many companies based the policy on State Department travel warnings, which to this day classify Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip as dangerous for Americans.

“That’s not provable [by] data,” said Nancy Appel, regional deputy director for the Anti-Defamation League, which lobbied in favor of the bill.

“The [dangerous] events could be highly localized, while other parts of the country are fine,” said Appel, who testified before legislative committees on behalf of Senate Bill 1105.

The bill enjoyed swift and broad support, but there was concern about opposition from the influential insurance industry.

Backers of the bill, including its sponsor, state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco), made an important compromise in June to avoid opposition from the insurance industry. The industry agreed to stay neutral in exchange for a clause allowing insurers to continue former practices when there is documentation supporting a country’s dangerous reputation.

“They would have to come up with statistics that your risk of death has gone up and therefore [they are] denying you coverage or charging you a higher rate,” Appel said. — Idan Ivri, Contributing Writer

MTA Driver Wins Discrimination Suit

A Jewish bus driver has been awarded $20,000 from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which had refused his request for time off on Shabbat and eight major Jewish holidays.

The award is the result of a religious discrimination suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department last year on behalf of Henry Asher, 56, of Tarzana against the MTA.

In a settlement announced this month by the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., the MTA agreed that drivers who are assigned shifts that conflict with their religious observances can take up to 30 days of unpaid leave while waiting for a more suitable shift to open up.

The case was initiated by the Justice Department’s civil rights division, after MTA refused to change its rule that all drivers must be available for work at all times.

Asher was hired by MTA as a driver trainee in June 2002 and fired a month later after he allegedly missed two work days.

“Public employees should not have to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihood,” Bradley J. Schlozman, U.S. acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the L.A. Times.

“While public employers have the authority to set reasonable standards for work schedules, they cannot reflexively refuse to consider an accommodation at the cost of civil rights,” Schlozman added. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Jewish Mission Visits Chad

A delegation of Jewish leaders visited Chad to meet with Sudanese refugees. Last week’s mission, led by Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), also included John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, and two other Reform rabbis. The AJWS has led Jewish activism in response to the massacres and displacement of millions in Darfur in neighboring Sudan. — Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Not Just for Republicans

A documentary on radical Islam was named best feature at the second annual Liberty Film Festival last weekend in West Hollywood. The event is known for its gathering of politically conservative filmmakers.

The 70-minute film, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” took top honors at the Pacific Design Center gathering of several hundred film fans and creators. Jewish Director Wayne Kopping prompted laughter when he acknowledged the festival’s large number of Jewish attendees by picking up his Liberty statuette and, instead of thanking the awards “jury,” he said, “I’d like to thank the Jewry.”

The festival showcased about 25 short films, dramas and documentaries. A festival audience of about 350 cheered “Obsession” footage of Winston Churchill, after booing the film’s shots of filmmaker Michael Moore

A more sobering part of “Obsession” was its excerpts from a 2003 Arab miniseries, in which actors portrayed Jews killing a Christian child for his blood during Passover.

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told the filmmakers that Hollywood’s studio brass might understand Islamic extremism better, “if terrorism had struck on the West Coast rather than on the East Coast.”

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) made a cameo appearance at the festival, where he hobnobbed with Jewish Republicans, including Santa Monica dentist Joel Strom and Laura Willick, Jewish outreach committee chair of the Southern California Republican Club.

After watching “Obsession,” Willick said, “If students were to see this, it would open their minds to the actual threats we face. It’s just a matter of can we get this out to the liberals?”

Winning Liberty’s short film award was a 30-minute exploration of college political correctness called, “Brainwashing 201: The Second Semester,” with the short’s honorees including producer and Encino attorney Blaire Greenberg.

The festival also debuted a 72-minute travelogue on Israel called “Entering Zion.”

At a panel discussion, Seattle-based Jewish talk show host and festival board member Michael Medved praised the pro-Israel film and joked about conspiracy theories on Jewish control of the media.

“With all of this ‘Jewish control,'” Medved said, “a great film about Israel had a self-raised budget of about $7,000.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

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.

 

Paint Colorful Table With Italian Dishes


While Crostini di Spuma di Tonno, Zuppa di Pesce Passato, Dolce di Tagliatelle might not sound like Jewish food, Italian Jews have long enjoyed these dishes.

Joyce Goldstein made her first trip to Italy in 1957 and instantly became what she calls a “fanatic Italophile.” The former chef-owner of San Francisco’s Square One and daughter of Russian immigrants, Goldstein threw herself into Italian art, architecture, language, culture and food.

Out of her travels and study came “Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen” (Chronicle Books, $19.95). Newly released in paperback, the book is a beautifully photographed homage to a cuisine that dates back to Roman times.

It’s not exactly the first place you’d think to look for a Rosh Hashanah menu. But the Jews of Italy can trace their roots to the second century B.C.E., making it one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world, Goldstein said.

As in every corner of the Diaspora, Jewish cooks throughout the ages have used their creativity to wed regional cuisine to the laws of kashrut. Sometimes a clue lies in what is missing — no besciamella (cream) sauce or cheese on meat, for instance. The names of recipes may contain a tell-tale ending, “alla Guidia” or “alla Mosaica,” denoting “Jewish style,” “per Sabato” for Sabbath dishes or “per Pesach.”

“These are very regional Italian recipes,” Goldstein said, “and often you can tell just by looking at them where the Jews lived. Sometimes what makes these recipes Jewish is the name, like Scaloppini di Tacchino Rebecca or Minestra di Esau, but a lot of times you can’t tell, unless you see margarine or oil where they might have used butter.”

While the book is thoroughly researched, Goldstein never sacrifices flavor for authenticity. Where she finds a recipe bland, she adjusts the seasoning. “Our palates today are not used to things simple and good; they’re a little more stimulated. We’re used to eating all kinds of food here, so the ante is up and we want a little bit more flavor.”

She also admits to adjusting cooking times, as many of the oldest recipes were overcooked by today’s standards. “These are people who lived without ovens. They brought things to the baker to be cooked and picked up later, and some things were cooked a very long time. Vegetables — in those days you never got a crunch in your life,” she said.

Trained and educated as an artist, in Goldstein’s capable hands food and art blend. “When you cook you are organizing flavors and appearance, colors, smells, tastes. To me that’s like organizing a canvas when you’re painting, like the composition, choice of textures and colors. With art you don’t have smell and taste, so maybe food has an advantage, although art lasts and food gets eaten up. But both make use of creative energy.”

She is equally passionate about using locally grown ingredients. “The raw materials of the region are fabulous: Italian eggs with red yolks; flavorful, fresh chickens; vegetables that are picked one minute and served the next. Italians are totally driven by the quality of their ingredients; whereas if I go to the supermarket, when was it picked? When was it put out? When did I cook it? Three days maybe have lapsed, and it’s not as flavorful.”

Many of the ingredients traditionally used in Italian cuisine — tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, pumpkin — were New World foods brought by the explorers to Spain and Portugal, where Jews, relegated to making their livelihood in trade and import, introduced them to the community at large. They were then transplanted to Italy by Sephardim who found refuge there during the Inquisition.

For Rosh Hashanah, try Stufadin di Zuca Zala (Braised Meat with Butternut Squash), reminiscent of Ashkenazic tzimmes. And no wonder. Many Ashkenazim immigrated to the Veneto, where this Venetian stew became popular. Here squash and Marsala add a touch of sweetness, bringing a wish for a sweet new year to your Rosh Hashanah table.

Traditionally for the holiday new fruits are served, and it is customary in Italy to poach quinces both for Rosh Hashanah and to break the fast for Yom Kippur. With an infusion of cloves and cinnamon, Mele Cotogne in Giulebbe (Quince in Syrup) brings a sweet, aromatic finale to your holiday feast.

Stufadin di Zuca Zala

(Braised Meat With Butternut Squash)

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

2 pounds cubed veal for stew

Salt to taste

1 cup Marsala or other sweet wine

1 butternut squash, about 1 pound, halved, seeds and fibers removed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and parboiled in salted water for 5 minutes

1 1/2 cups meat or chicken broth, or as needed

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Warm two tablespoons of the olive oil in a sauté pan over low heat. Add onions, garlic, and rosemary and sauté until tender and translucent, about eight minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Warm the remaining two tablespoons olive oil in a heavy pot over high heat. Add meat and brown well on all sides, sprinkling with a little salt after it has browned. Add wine and let it bubble up. Add sautéed onions, butternut squash, and broth to cover and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer gently until meat is tender and squash has formed a puree, one to one-and-a-quarter hours. Season with salt and pepper before serving.

Variation: You can use three-quarters of a pound carrots, peeled and grated, in place of the squash.

Makes four to six servings.

Mele Cotogne in Giulebbe

(Quince in Syrup)

2 pounds quinces

2 cups sugar

1 cup water, or as needed

2 whole cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

In a large saucepan, combine quinces with water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook, uncovered, until barely tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain quinces and when cool enough to handle, peel, halve, core, and cut into slices.

In a saucepan large enough to accommodate the sliced quinces, combine sugar, 1 cup water, cloves and cinnamon sticks. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add quinces and additional water if needed to cover. Simmer five minutes. Then over the course of 12 hours, bring quince slices to a boil in the syrup three times, boiling them for five minutes each time. This helps to bring up the rich red color of the fruit and allows them to absorb the syrup over time.

Transfer to a serving dish and refrigerate. Serve chilled.

Makes six servings.

Judy Bart Kancigor, the author of “Melting Pot Memories” (Jan Bart Publications, $19.95), can be found on the Web at

People, Motifs Blend at The Shul


 

At the crossroads of four Miami Beach communities is a thriving Chabad synagogue that welcomes Jews of all stripes. The Shul of Bal Harbour — locally known as The Shul — is a thriving community, which draws an unusual blend of Jews from around the world.

A significant number of people who attend its services are first- and second-generation Sephardic immigrants. So many Latin Americans attend services that Shabbat announcements are made in Spanish as well as English. Like many of the more than 2,000 Chabad centers worldwide, a share of the community is not Lubavitch but “Chabad friendly.”

Even with its immense and striking architecture, the palpable sense of achdut, or unity, is perhaps what most distinguishes The Shul, which serves the communities of Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands, Surfside and Indian Creek Village.

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar has served as The Shul’s spiritual leader for more than 20 years, and his sermons clearly reflect a Chabad perspective. Likewise, he and his wife, Chani, teach classes with that same outlook. Yet in what is also traditional Chabad fashion, they welcome all, as evidenced by a Sunday evening barbecue I attended during my weekend stay.

The Shabbat Torah service underscored this tangible sense of unity. A “calling gabbai” with a Galitzianer accent (along the lines of “baruch elokeni”) preceded a beautiful Torah reading by a Mizrachi member. Services in the cavernous main sanctuary were momentarily suspended while members of the Sephardic Hashem’s Minyan next door recited a resounding blessing over Kiddush.

Rabbi Joseph Oziel, who leads the minyan, also conducts classes in English and Spanish.

The Shul’s powerful sense of Jewish solidarity is well-documented. In May 1995, it hosted a meeting of the annual Sephardic Rabbis Convention, which featured an address by Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, then the the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.

Similarly, The Shul’s architecture integrates diverse elements from various Jewish communities. Three great old-world synagogues inspired its unique design.

The majestic, gothic cage-like bimah was inspired by the Old Synagogue of Kazimierz, Poland. The first 12 letters of the Hebrew alphabet surround the cage, recalling the ingathering of the 12 tribes of Israel with the Torah as their unifying force.

The picturesque arches and courtyard echo the Rema Synagogue of Krakow. The ark, whose triangular design draws from the Rema’s entrance, holds a Torah scroll dedicated in February that was penned in Florida.

The Shul’s twin domes, hanging lamps and open women’s balcony are reminiscent of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw.

Also of note are the more than 100 glass mezuzot created by sculptor Donnie el Berman, a congregant who also designed its evocative Wall of Souls that greets guests as they enter the building. Constructed in 1997 from 9 tons of Jerusalem stone, the 18-by-36-foot piece features cantilevered asymmetric rock outcroppings.

Within the stone itself, nine natural earth tones create a “mosaic of complementary textures and color,” Berman said. Together, they suggest a “natural landscape painting of the hills of Jerusalem.”

A large cavelike alcove is adorned with asymmetric, bent carved panels of pale-green glass that feature the names of Shul members’ departed relatives. In two side alcoves, dedication plaques memorialize the loss of life during the Holocaust and conflicts in Israel.

A wealth of fascinating, subtle details is also found throughout the wall. The word zachor (remember) is etched above. Thirty-six autumnal colored leaves from around the world appear to fall as the memorialized souls ascend toward heaven.

Scattered within its inner archways, Berman faintly carved text and images — icons of Jewish faith and continuity, including Torah passages, rabbinic teachings and a fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll.

The words “Ani ma’amin/I believe” appear in one arch. In another, tiny images recall the Tomb of Rachel the Matriarch and the ancient harps played in the Temple. Replicas of ancient Canaanite graffiti describe the Jewish people as the “foundation of the world,” a reference echoed in the biblical book of Jeremiah.

Observers recognize Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith, as well as a map depicting both the historical inheritances allotted to the biblical tribes and sites in contemporary Israel. Musical notes signify what Berman described as “souls murdered in the Holocaust who continue to sing in perpetuity.”

When asked about his choice of materials, Berman said he incorporates glass in his work, because as compressed sand, it comes from the earth.

“Jerusalem limestone is our holy stone where our forefathers walked,” he said.

The entire structure is held up by steel, which Berman pointed out translates to barzel in Hebrew. Barzel, he said, is an acronym for Bilchah, Rachel, Zilpah and Leah — Jacob’s wives and their handmaidens, who gave birth to the ancestors of the 12 tribes.

“Those are our mothers. That’s who we come from,” Berman said. “These carvings are faded in to represent our heritage, our origination thousands of years ago.”

The Shul of Bal Harbour is at 9540 Collins Ave. (305) 868-1411;

Wild Ride With Wildlife in Miami


 

Stretching along the popular beachfront area of Miami, approximately 650,000 Jewish residents support more than 100 synagogues, several Jewish community centers and abundant kosher restaurants, including authentic Thai food. The South Florida city even employs a full-time kashrut supervision department.

So on a recent trip to Miami, I indulged in Thai food and a few other favorites. Along with spotting baby alligators in the wild, viewing ancient art and other treasures, that meal was one of many memorable highlights.

We couldn’t skip the Everglades, one of the most well-known sites in Florida. Since we were on limited time over a long weekend, a friend and I opted for an airboat ride in the Everglades Alligator Farm.

With 10 other passengers, our craft launched from a canal filled with adult and adolescent alligators swimming just feet away. Their amphibious compadres, soft-shelled turtles, resemble snakes swimming with their heads above water.

As we took off, the boat’s engine roared so loudly that our driver instructed us to stuff our ears with complimentary cotton balls. We floated along as he pointed out the wildlife, alligator tracks and a breeding den. He spoke so loud, we could hear him even with the cotton.

When we neared an expansive glade he warned us to hold on. Suddenly, as if levitating on a flying carpet, we were airborne. The sensation was remarkable; the moment magical. We were weightless, skimming along gentle curves, skirting above the water and the abundant grasses. As far as the eye could see, there were only the Everglades: a clear blue sky, water and grasses spreading in every direction.

Then suddenly, the driver changed course, taking us in a 180-degree turn. He immediately accelerated again, then spun us in full circle. After a handful of more wild spins that created giant splashes and left us laughing for more, we headed back to an open stretch that led to the mainland.

There we took in a snake show, where we handled a magnificent albino python with striking yellow and white skin that was cool to the touch. We also toured the breeding ponds on a nature trail. Covered with a bright green moss, the alligators lay still, many of them just visible with their scales skimming the surface and their beady eyes staring above the water.

On our return trip, we dropped anchor at Robert Is Here, which specializes in exotic fruits. With delicacies such as monstera deliciosa, which looks like a giant green ear of corn but tastes like banana-pineapple pudding, you could easily say the blessing for tasting new fruits again and again. Mamey, atemoya, longan, canestel, anon, sapodilla, sapote and many other natural treats all qualify at this “Shehecheyanu store.”

Our next unique destination was Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a majestic bay-front villa established between 1914 and 1916 by American farm equipment manufacturer James Deering as his winter home. Designed in the style of Italian Renaissance villas, the estate originally spanned 180 acres and resembled a typical northern Italian village with a dairy, poultry house, mule stable, greenhouse, machine shop, paint and carpentry workshop and staff residences.

The fully restored mansion was made to look as if a family had lived in it for 400 years, adding its own period furnishings, neoclassical, rococo and much more. As a result, Vizcaya contains one of the finest collections of European decorative arts from the 16th through 19th centuries. Vizcaya was purchased by Miami-Dade County in 1952 and now functions as an art house museum.

We capped off our Florida adventure at Thai Treat & Sushi, located just a few minutes drive from The Shul at Bal Harbour, where we spent Shabbat. Opened two years ago by a Thai and Indian couple, June and Naresh Choudhury, the kosher restaurant’s extensive menu features truly authentic Thai specialties.

We were sold on two superb dishes. Rich and flavorful Tom Kha Kai soup featured chicken in coconut milk, fresh mushrooms, lemongrass and lime juice. The exceptional Thai Basil Special featured chicken (or tofu or beef) sauteed with bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, chili paste and fresh herbs.

We were so taken by the captivating Thai flavors, we gave the sushi only a taste. The yummy vegetable combo, like all the sushi platters and bento boxes, was beautifully presented (and available with brown rice instead of white). We washed it all down with refreshing Thai iced tea.

The chef also recommended chicken and beef satay, montod — fries made from sweet potato and coconut — and spring rolls. We were far too stuffed for more. At least we know what we’ll try when we return — as if we really needed a reason.

Thai Treat & Sushi. Sans Souci Plaza, 2176 N.E. 123rd St., North Miami. (305) 892-1118.

The Everglades Alligator Farm. 40351 S.W. 192 Ave., Homestead. (305) 247-2628; everglades.com.

Robert Is Here. 19200 S.W. 344th St., Homestead. (305) 246-1592; www.robertishere.com.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami. (305) 250-9133; vizcayamuseum.org.

 

New Berlin Memorial a Sign of Hope


 

Each year our congregation travels to a different corner of the Jewish world, and last Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating persecutions and destructions that have befallen the Jewish people, we found ourselves in Berlin.

We entered Germany’s gleaming, dynamic capital with ambivalence, eyeing its people, especially those over age 75, wondering what they did during World War II. We sat and watched, discussing our reluctance to be there, but acknowledged that nearly 60 years have passed and accepted the fact that most contemporary Germans had nothing to do with the Shoah.

And while we felt haunted during our stay, we enjoyed Berlin as a lively and lovely city, and took comfort in the numerous Holocaust monuments we saw.

The newest memorial, Peter Eisenmann’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, will be officially unveiled May 10, two days after ceremonies mark the 60th anniversary of World War II’s end.

The memorial’s opening comes nearly six years after the Bundestag originally passed a resolution for its construction, and almost four years after the official opening of the city’s Jewish Museum.

Situated in a five-acre field near the Brandenburg Gate in the center of Berlin, The Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe is made up of 2,751 concrete blocks, emulating gravestones of varying heights. Visitors can enter the memorial from all four sides and can walk through the narrow paths between the blocks. Its wave-like design is haunting in its simplicity, and the unevenness intentionally evokes a sense of being disoriented and lost.

An information center is located beneath the memorial, supplying biographies of individual victims and their families.

Berlin’s Jewish Museum is the city’s second most visited site and is well complemented by the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by architect Daniel Liebiskind, who is now creating the World Trade Center Memorial, the museum teaches its mostly non-Jewish visitors about the Holocaust, but it also explores the pivotal role that Jews played in Germany over the last 800 years.

Architects often say their buildings tell a story. The Jewish Museum is no exception. Its Holocaust spaces evoke feelings of fear and claustrophobia with slanted floors that disorient, mazes that confuse and confined spaces that make escape just out of reach. Never have I seen architecture used more effectively, especially in the Garden of Exile.

When Germans walk by the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag (since 1999, once again the seat of Germany’s Parliament) or the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, purposely left partially destroyed, they are reminded of the past.

Located just outside of the Wittenbergplatz subway station, in the center of town, a large sign lists the names of extermination camps, urging passersby never to forget the horrors. It rests a few yards from where one of our synagogue members lived as a child. And at Levetzowstrasse, where another member was deported to Riga, there are powerful sculptures depicting horrors of the Shoah and plaques that mark where synagogues once stood.

One synagogue still standing is The New Synagogue. Built in 1867, with 3,000 seats and modeled on the Alhambra, the synagogue is now a glorious museum of Berlin’s Jewish religious past, from traditional to liberal.

While there, we joined our cantor, Ruti Braier, in singing “Mah Tovu,” with music written by the New Synagogue’s former Cantor Moshe Lewandowski. For a moment, present and past were joined.

We wanted to see how Jews in Berlin live, so we visited the Jewish Community Center, which is built on the site of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, where another of our members sang in the children’s choir on High Holidays. All that is left of the original building is an arch over the center’s main door.

So much of Berlin’s Jewish life is like that — the void is more powerful than what exists.

And, yet, Germany’s Jewish population is growing to fill the void left by the Shoah. Before the Holocaust there were 535,000 Jews in Germany; after, only 15,000. Today the country’s Jewish population is more than 110,000, many whom are from former Soviet countries and have a minimal religious background. As part of its reparations, Germany admits Jewish refugees, providing them with welfare benefits and, ultimately, if employed, citizenship after eight years.

We saw other signs of hope around Berlin. There were long lines for a wonderful Chagall exhibit in artist Max Liebermann’s home, next to the Brandenberg Gate, where six decades earlier Hitler drew adoring crowds. In Pottsdamerplatz, where 60 years before, both blacks and Jews were considered undesirable “untermenschen,” the Klezmatics and American gospel singers performed together, with young Germans singing, clapping and dancing.

Dealing with one’s past — personal and communal — is always a path to healing pain and facing the future more openly. Sixty years later, the situation isn’t black and white. There are many shades of gray. But hate, anger and avoidance aren’t as constructive as engagement and discovery.

Arnold Rachlis is rabbi of University Synagogue in Irvine.

 

A Swiss Family Bind — No Hotel Heirs


 

In Switzerland, resorts like St. Moritz and Arosa are second only to chocolate and cheese fondue in popularity. But these two disparate destinations, more easily accessible by train than car, both offer something rarely found in other Swiss mountain retreats — kosher hotels.

The Hotel Edelweiss in St. Moritz and the Hotel Metropol in Arosa are Jewish sanctuaries for observant tourists, offering everything from kosher dining and space for simchas to daily religious services and snow-melt mikvahs. They are family-run havens that inspire fierce loyalty in their guests, sometimes drawing generations of families from countries like England, Israel and the United States.

As the hotels prepare for the big Pesach rush that marks the end of the winter season, the couples that run the Edelweiss and Metropol are looking forward to returning home to Zurich. But they are also wrestling with doubts about the future of these kosher hideaways, and one question looms: Who will take over the family business?

In glitzy St. Moritz, women don fur coats as they window shop stores like Gucci and Armani, and the ski instructors suit up in Prada-designed uniforms. People flock to the town’s spas and nosh in its tea rooms, or they turn to funicular-accessible Corviglia for skiing and hiking.

A short walk from the central area of St. Moritz-Dorf brings guests to the Hotel Edelweiss, a family affair that has served kosher-conscious consumers since 1883. Leopold Bermann grew up in the hotel, which catered to Jewish American soldiers after World War II. He is the third Bermann to run the Edelweiss, having taken over for his father at 22 in 1953. His British-born wife, Rita, has worked alongside “Poldi,” as his family calls him, since 1960.

“All of our children have been married here,” said Leopold Bermann, referring to his four daughters and one son.

Now 73, Bermann continues to operate what he says is the world’s oldest-operating Jewish hotel, but he has no clear successor. Only one of his five children, Shoshana, still lives in Switzerland, and while his son, Josef, bought the hotel a few years ago, he leaves the management up to his parents. His son has expressed no interest in returning to Switzerland from Israel, so the Bermanns are pinning their hopes on the grandchildren.

Their 20-year-old granddaughter from Jerusalem, Rachel Bitton, spent her first season working at the hotel this winter. She’s looking forward to starting a family, but she’s not sure if she wants to do it in Switzerland.

“For now, I still want to live in Israel,” she said. “I’m really connected to the hotel, and I feel like I need to be here, but I don’t know.”

Rita Bermann, who left London to be with her husband, hopes Bitton will make a similar choice to carry on the family tradition.

“She’s the best to take over,” she said.

A half-day rail trip shared by the Glacier Express and Rhätischen Bahn takes travelers through Graubünden’s glacial valleys. It’s clear when arriving in Arosa that the resort is the polar opposite of St. Moritz.

“St. Moritz is high society. Here is a place where everyone is welcome,” said Marcel Levin, owner of Arosa’s Hotel Metropol.

One main street is the focus of all activity in this sleepy hamlet, where parents take their bundled-up babies out in sleds rather than strollers, and couples snuggle ensconced under thick blankets in horse-drawn sleighs.

Levin, 52, was born and grew up in Arosa. He talks glowingly of non-Jewish friends carrying schoolbooks for him on Shabbat and putting up a sukkah in more than a foot of snow. His father purchased the Metropol in 1949, and Levin took over the hotel in 1975, one year after he married his Israeli wife, Lea.

Levin happily shmoozes in the dining room, talking with guests as they eat, while his wife works behind the scenes with the staff. But this jovial man turns serious when he talks about the Metropol’s future. Jewish tourism is changing in Arosa, he said, and more people are starting to rent homes, turning to his hotel only for religious services and meals. It’s a sentiment echoed by the Bermanns in St. Moritz.

“Everything is going to private apartments, so we’re a bit scared,” he said.

Levin said none of his six children have expressed interest in taking over the hotel, but he still has some time on his side before he retires. “Maybe one will take it over,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

In the meantime, Marcel and Lea Levin say they still take full advantage of their seasonal stays in Arosa. A few times a week at noon, they walk to the Weisshorn and take a tram to the halfway point, the Mittlestation, to enjoy the view of towering snow-covered peaks and take in the crisp mountain air.

“We’re new people after half an hour,” Levin said.

For more information about the Hotel Edelweiss, call 011-41-(0)81-836-5555. For more information about the Hotel Metropol, call 011-41-(0)81-378-8181 or visit www.levinarosa.com.

For Swiss travel information, call (877) 794-8037 or visit www.myswitzerland.com. Switzerland Tourism paid the writer’s travel expenses.

 

The Grand Old Jews of York


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamaican Elegance With a Jewish Twist


Set back from the Main Road behind the tall and majestic trees is the splendid mansion of Devon House. This stately mansion a regal tribute to the craftsmanship of Jamaica, and it also stands as a proud symbol of Jamaican Jewish history. Sitting on the aptly named Hope Road, this magnificent mansion is now open to the public.

The story of Devon House starts with George Stiebel. Born the son of a German Jew and a Jamaican housekeeper in the 1820s, his mixed parentage made his early years difficult. Taunted by his peers, young George left school at 14. At 19, he joined the crew building the Ferry Inn between Kingston and Spanish Town and by the time he reached his early 20s, his father rewarded his tenacity with enough money to buy a ship. One ship turned into three and soon his fleet was trading between the other West Indian islands. When the rebel slaves of Cuba wanted guns, Stiebel began delivering them aboard his ships. But that scheme came to an abrupt halt when he was thrown into a Cuban jail cell on a gunrunning conviction.

But young George wasn’t all about making money. He was also a romantic who fell in love with Magdalen Baker, the Jamaican daughter of a missionary. Aware that his Cuban jail record and mixed background didn’t exactly make him an attractive prospect for a son-in-law, the young couple waited until after the death of Magdalen’s parents before getting married. A son and daughter soon followed, but so did tragedy.

Stiebel had moved to Venezuela where his trading business flourished. However, bad weather caused one of his ships to sink off the South American coast. Miraculously, he survived only to discover he had lost everything except the money belt he tied to his waist before jumping ship.

With a young family in Jamaica to support, Stiebel stayed in Venezuela, determined to recoup his lost fortune. Eventually his investments in Venezuelan gold mines paid off and he returned to Jamaica in 1873 as a man of great wealth.

But bad luck struck once again when he discovered his teenage son had died while he was away in Venezuela. While in his 50s and financially secure, Stiebel bought sugar estates and 99 Jamaican properties (local law at the time forbade owning 100 properties). Now officially Jamaica’s first “black millionaire,” the Honorable George Stiebel, as he was known, was a man of respect.

In 1879, he bought 53 acres of land from the St. Andrew Parish and built his dream house on the foundation that was the church rectory. He called that dream house Devon House and for 10 years, George and Magdalen, their daughter, Theresa, and her husband, Richard Hill Jackson, who had become the mayor of Kingston, lived like Jamaican royalty.

With its elegant single staircase in the grand lobby, European antiques and handcrafted mahogany furniture, Devon House was a sight to behold. Its many bedrooms, with their Southern-style verandahs, grand ballroom, library, gaming room, grand Wedgwood ceilings and exquisitely carved fanlights above the doorways, earned Devon House the coveted National Monument honor bestowed by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

But the fairy tale on Hope Road began to unravel for the Stiebels. In 1892, Magdalen died. In 1895, their grandson died of typhoid and, a week after that, Richard Hill Jackson died. Heartbroken again and in his 70s, George Siebel died in 1896 leaving behind his beloved Devon House.

After Theresa Stiebel Jackson’s death in 1922, Devon House was sold to Reginald Melhado, another successful Jewish Jamaican entrepreneur whose descendants had been forced to leave Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition. He lived in the mansion for five years and in 1928, passed the torch to another member of Jamaica’s Jewish community.

The new owner, Cecil Lindo, was descended from a Sephardic family that fled to Costa Rica and Jamaica to keep from becoming Christian converts during the Inquisition. Lindo lived in Devon House until his death in 1960 at the age of 89.

Like Stiebel, Lindo left Devon House to his family. It was Lindo’s wife who was approached by developers to sell it in 1965. However, under the National Trust Act, the Jamaican government stopped the developers from demolishing the mansion and began their own restoration process in 1967.

George Stiebel’s life story is “an inspiration for all Jamaicans,” said Janice Francis-Lindsay, the promotions coordinator for the Devon House Development Company, which owns Devon House today. “His monetary donation helped stage the Great Exhibition of 1891, which introduced tourism to Jamaica.”

And so it is goes that Devon House was home to three families of Jamaican Jewish descent and today is one of the most visited attractions in Kingston, a turn of fate that would have made Stiebel smile.

The great ballroom has the original English crystal chandelier. The 200-year-old clock still ticks, and you can see some of the Stiebel family possessions in the master bedroom.

Once the servants’ quarters, the Courtyard Shops sell a variety of Jamaican products in stores like Rum, Roast and Royals, Elaine Elegance and T and Treasures. Traditional Jamaican recipes can be sampled in what used to the Stiebel coach house and the best ice cream on the island is for sale in the lush courtyard. The west lawn gazebo is popular for craft fairs and picnics, and the majestic Great House is one of the islands preferred venues for elegant affairs.

“Tourists come for more than just a tour of the House,” said Norma Rhodan, who has been conducting guided tours of Devon House for 16 years. “I’ve seen them spend an entire day here. It is one of the most peaceful and relaxing places in all of Jamaica.”

Devon House is located at 26 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica. Tours offered Monday-Saturday from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. $5 (adults), $3 (children). For more information, e-mail devonhouse@cwjamaica.com.

Melanie Reffes is a travel journalist living in Montreal. She’s a correspondent with the Montreal-based “Travel World Radio” as well as a regular contributor to several publications including the Montreal Gazette newspaper.

Seattle — Kosher Mecca of Northwest


In the past, the dynamic and innovative Pacific Northwestern city of Seattle has been associated with Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, The Pike Street Market, The Space Needle and grunge bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

Today, the city can boast of having a stunning new downtown library, a cutting-edge science fiction museum, state-of-the-art football and baseball stadiums and the Experience Music Project, a hands-on rock museum. And, a well-kept secret is that Seattle is the “kosher mecca” of the Pacific Northwest.

Previously, the thriving Seattle Jewish community of 40,000 was best known for having the third-largest Sephardic community in North America (after Los Angeles and New York). Many of Seattle’s 3,000-4,000 Sephardim (who came to the city in the early 1900s from Turkey and the Greek island of Rhodes) and many of the city’s Orthodox population, reside in Seward Park, which has two large Sephardic synagogues, the city’s main Ashkenazic Orthodox synagogue and an eruv. (Many Jews also reside in areas like Mercer Island, Bellevue and the North End of Seattle.) The existence of such a large Sephardic population may be one of the main reasons that there are so many kosher restaurants scattered throughout the city.

In fact, Seattle, which has a population of 2.5 million, has more kosher restaurants than the nearby cities of Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Ore., combined. Seattle’s kosher establishments receive their kosher certification from the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, which among other things, takes care of kashrut issues and gives supervision on various kosher products and kosher establishments. (They also get a lot of calls from tourists wanting to know where they can find kosher restaurants and kosher food in the city.)

For a city of its size, Seattle has an incredible array of kosher restaurants to satisfy almost every palate. There is mouth-watering kosher pizza, pasta, soups and sandwiches at the Panini Grill Cafe near the Green Lake area; traditional Jewish fare and kosher baked goods at Leah’s in the North End; traditional fare can be found at Nosh Away and tasty North Indian Punjabi vegetarian kosher at Pabla Indian Cuisine — both in Renton; pareve Thai and Chinese Vegan cuisine at The Teapot Vegetarian House in Capitol Hill, a funky neighborhood near downtown Seattle; vegetarian Chinese food at the renowned Bamboo Garden in Queen Anne near Seattle Center; and kosher vegetarian Indian cuisine at Namasthe in Redmond.

Joy Somanna, the manager of Pabla Indian Cuisine, points out that business has increased since the restaurant (which is owned by Harnil Pabla) decided to become kosher at the request of the Jewish community of nearby Seward Park. Pabla’s also has a downtown location that the owner, J.S. Pabla, attempted unsuccessfully to convert into a kosher restaurant. But Pabla — who helped to establish the Renton location with his brother, Harnil — is hoping to open a kosher vegetarian Pabla’s outlet on Mercer Island in December. Seattle could have its eighth kosher restaurant before the end of 2004.

In addition to the many great kosher restaurants in the city, there are several bagel shops and coffeehouses under Va’ad supervision that offer kosher fare in Seattle. And, not only does Seattle have a wide variety of kosher establishments, but it also has a distinctive hechsher, or kosher symbol: a K-shaped Space Needle.

According to Rabbi Aharon Brun-Kestler, the executive director of the Seattle Va’ad who came from the Orthodox Union in New York, “Our standards are in line with other mainstream organizations and our supervision is generally accepted by outside agencies such as The Orthodox Union in New York.”

Ellen Kolman of the Seattle Va’ad noted, “You know that you’re getting a good hechsher, when you buy a Va’ad-approved kosher product from Seattle.”

Kolman, who is from Philadelphia (but came to Seattle with her husband from Northern California) is impressed with the number of kosher restaurants in Seattle.

“But even though there is a big Orthodox population in Seattle, kosher restaurants can’t survive with only Jewish customers because Seattle is not New York,” she said.

Daniel Cohanim, the owner of the Panini Grill Cafe, which opened in North Seattle in 1997, is also impressed by the number of kosher restaurants in the city. According to Cohanim, who is a native of Seattle, “There is a lot of co-operation between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the Seattle Jewish community.”

This cohesiveness, he believes, may partially explain why there are so many kosher restaurants in the city. He also agrees with Kollman’s assertion that it would be difficult to survive solely with a Jewish clientele and attributes the success of his restaurant to the fact that he has been able to attract both a Jewish and non-Jewish clientele from the nearby trendy Green Lake area.

“Some of my non-Jewish customers don’t even know that they’re eating kosher food at a kosher restaurant,” he said, “but I’ve worked hard to make Paninis feel like a regular restaurant in order to attract a broad customer base.”

Cohanim also gets a great response from kosher travelers from New York and other eastern cities who are amazed by the quality of the food available at The Panini Grill and by the selection and quality of kosher restaurants in the Seattle area.

“We have some great kosher restaurants in the city, so food should not be an excuse not to travel to Seattle,” he said.

For more information about kosher Seattle, visit www.seattlevaad.org. For more information about visiting Seattle, visit ” target=”_blank”>www.seattleattractions.com.

A Perestroika for Russian Women


It’s not every day the words “brit milah” work their way into conversation, let alone in discussing a 12-year-old boy. But here in the Russian air they hang for a moment.

“Yes,” Olga Finogenova says through a translator; her son, after returning from a summer spent at a religious school for boys, wanted to undergo a brit milah, also known as a bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision.

It’s a sunny day on the Volga River when Finogenova imparts this story. We’re partaking in a conference to bring together Jewish women from the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union (FSU). Our trip, Women Turning the Tide, A Voyage on the Volga, is being sponsored by Project Kesher, a Chicago-based organization that’s been working with Jewish FSU women for the past 10 years in the areas of Jewish renewal and women’s empowerment.

It’s a few days into our trip already (they sponsored me), but I still manage to be continually awed by the stories these women have to tell. To visit Russia is to see a country where history is just a few years old, where Moscow street signs are newly replaced to indicate a return to pre-communist street names. To speak to these women is to hear the stories of those who have lived it — have lived communist anti-Semitism and perestroika. How can I convey to them that their passion is so inspiring to someone who comes from a place where we take our Judaism — and even our food on the table — for granted? It’s embarrassing to admit, and so I don’t. I just listen.

Despite having known all her life that she was a Jew, when Finogenova first got involved with the group in 1999, it was her first real introduction to Judaism.

“Since childhood, Judaism had always been a thing that was upsetting to us. There have been many problems with being a Jew and studying Judaism,” she told me, noting that her first positive Jewish experience was with Project Kesher. Now Finogenova is the Project Kesher women’s group leader in Smolensk.

Today, Judaism is clearly an important part of her and her family’s life. Her son’s choice to have a bris at age 12 is just the most startling example. She and her son celebrate all the Jewish holidays, and also welcome Shabbat every week by lighting candles and saying Kiddush. Finogenova leads the Torah study for her Project Kesher women’s group. Her son will have his bar mitzvah next year.

Finogenova’s group in Smolensk is one of 165 Project Kesher women’s groups operating throughout Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. While it is only one of numerous organizations working for Jewish renewal in the FSU since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is the only organization that focuses on women.

It didn’t start out that way, according to founder Sallie Gratch. In the beginning, Gratch was interested in trying to help FSU Jews, as a whole, to organize. But in visiting small-town community leaders, she found herself surrounded entirely by men. Women were not included in official meetings, and in Briansk, for example, “the head of the community didn’t understand why we’d even want to meet with the Jewish women,” Gratch said.

Thus, it didn’t take long for Gratch to realize that the kind of organization she was trying to build — self-led, pluralistic and egalitarian — would only be possible if she started with the women. In 1994, with the help of her Russian friend and translator Svetlana Yakimenko (now Project Kesher’s FSU director), she convened the International Conference of Jewish Women, clearly defining Project Kesher as a women’s organization for the first time. Ten years later, what has emerged is an organization that focuses on the spiritual and practical concerns of Jewish women in the FSU: Jewish learning; computer vocational and leadership training; and activism in the issues the women’s groups feel most impact their lives, namely women’s health education, trafficking in women and domestic violence.

On the second day of our trip, there’s a low but energetic hum as we take our seats in the dimly lit auditorium of Moscow’s Hermitage Theater. Off to one side of the stage, six Torahs lay covered on a large podium. They have been carried the long distance from communities in the United States to be donated to six budding FSU Jewish communities and officially handed over today in what is sure to be a highlight of the week: the Torah Return ceremony.

As we settle in, folksinger Debbie Friedman and Project Kesher’s musical coordinator Azariya Medvedova play an opening song in English, Hebrew and Russian on their guitars. Various women speak, including Jewish feminist educator and spiritual leader Tamara Cohen, who offers a blessing on the women handing over the Torahs, and then on the women receiving them for their communities.

Friedman is one of a number of prominent American women leaders who have made the trip. The long list also includes Orthodox feminist movement leader Blu Greenberg and Angeleno Marcia Cohn Spiegel, Creative Jewish Women’s Alliance organizer who, like a number of women, has brought her daughters with her.

It’s a tearful ceremony, with women trying to express the emotional weight of the moment — and failing.

“All of these overwhelming feelings cannot be put into words,” says Olga Shevchuk of Vinnitsa, Ukraine, whose Torah originates from a dwindling classical Reform Jewish synagogue in Helena, Ark.

“Gratitude,” she says, is the closest she can get to putting a name to what she is feeling.

We move so organically from a state of tears to song, dance and cheers that I can’t say how it happens. Only suddenly, Friedman and Medvedova are playing again, and women have linked hands and started impromptu horas, circling around the bolted-down chairs and making their way into the area behind the seats to dance more freely. Other women embrace, caught up in the moment.

At breakfast the next morning, I sit with Carol Avins and her daughter, Claire Solomon, at a table finely set with black bread, smoked fish, blini and other Russian breakfast delicacies. They, along with Avins’ sister-in-law Nancy Solomon, carried the Torah from the Helena synagogue where the Solomon family once belonged. At its peak in the 1950s, Temple Beth-El’s membership included some 125 families, but today, only about 10 elderly members remain. I ask Avins how she felt standing up on that stage.

“I found myself unexpectedly emotional about it, especially because the community that’s giving the Torah is becoming a thing of the past,” she says. “But then I got amused…. Women were dancing around with the Torah and I thought it was the kind of celebration with the Torah that [Temple Beth-El] would never do. Their tradition is dignified and simple. This Torah kind of goes on to a new phase of its existence.”

In the weeks to come, Avins will be proven right. We will all get updates about the great celebrations taking place in the cities that receive these Torahs, their women’s groups now continuing their Jewish learning armed with real Torahs, and using the lessons of repairing the world and charity as the inspiration for their activism.

With the current state of economics in the region, many FSU women dream of marrying foreigners or of finding lucrative jobs abroad. They are promised these things, but the dream quickly turns to a nightmare as they find themselves the victims of unscrupulous businesspeople trafficking in human beings. They are sold into sexual slavery in countries where they have come illegally, and with no support system and little knowledge of their new country, they often have no way out.

“Until recently, the problem of trafficking wasn’t spoken of. It only recently became a subject of the mass media,” Elena Zyablikova tells us in one of our lectures. As the leader of Belarus’ Borisov women’s group, she has helped coordinate their campaigns to combat trafficking in women and domestic violence.

There are no laws against trafficking in women in Russia or Moldova, and while Ukraine and Belarus do have laws against it, they are rarely enforced, she says.

No statistics exist in the region on the numbers of women being trafficked (nothing showing the general state of apathy more clearly). But in Israel, for example, it is estimated that about 80 percent of people involved in trafficking are Russian-speaking, and the 432 reports of trafficking to police stations in Belarus in 2003 are considered to be just the tip of the iceberg in a region where there is a great sense of shame in coming forward.

Educating women and working for legislative gains are primarily where Project Kesher has put its efforts, including being a signatory to the advocacy group working to get the International Marriage Brokers Act passed in the United States. In addition to other measures, it would force men seeking marriage brokers to submit to criminal background checks.

More than 90 Kesher groups are also involved in programs to fight domestic violence. A recent poll indicated that 60 percent of female university students believe that it is women who make men violent. By educating the public through pamphlet distribution and lectures in schools, Kesher groups work to put an end to this tragic misconception.

They also participate in the annual 16 Days Against Domestic Violence campaign and have united with 18 governmental and nongovernmental institutions to provide free legal, medical and psychological assistance to victims of domestic violence.

With about one-fifth of all calls to police relating to domestic violence, Project Kesher’s next step will be creating coalitions with local police departments, said Evelina Shoubinskaya, a social worker at the forefront of Kesher’s anti-domestic violence programming.

Recognizing that these problems have everything to do with economic concerns, Project Kesher works to empower women through its various programs, as well. Its new micro-enterprise loan program has granted more than 90 small low-interest loans to women to build their businesses; its vocational computer training centers, co-sponsored by World ORT, assist women in finding better jobs in a region where unemployment and underemployment are significant problems; and its leadership training program teaches women to lead in their Kesher groups and the world.

The sun continues to shine for us in Rybinsk, and actually well into the night. As we travel farther and farther north, experiencing Russia’s famous white nights until almost midnight, I remember that I’d thought this place would be gray and dreary, cold and sad. Instead, I’ve witnessed rebuilding, and the warmth and joy and optimism of a people who see much work ahead, but a bright future at least, perhaps for the first time. The near-eternal sunshine suddenly feels symbolic and very fitting.

“I connected with yesterday’s prayer where Miriam stood at the edge of the river and everything was new,” Elena Knyazhitskaya says at Saturday’s Shabbat service, which included a Hebrew naming ceremony for some 22 of the women. Elena picked the name Ruth, because she, like Ruth, is not halachically Jewish. There was also a Leora (“for her there is divine light”), Chana, Leah and Eliana (“it was she who got answers”).

“I feel in my life that a lot of changes are about to happen,” Knyazhitskaya says to me.

Big changes seem imminent for Project Kesher, too. While its slow growth has been intentional — it was important to Kesher leaders that group members and potential members feel “ignited, not pushed,” according to Yakimenko — with more than 3,000 members, they’ve now built solid foundations and are ready for people to know who they are, Executive Director Karyn Gershon said.

The two largest impediments against future goals of expansion into Moscow, Germany and Israel seem to be lack of recognition and consequent lack of funding. Next year’s budget weighs in at just $650,000, as opposed to Chabad’s FSU arm, whose annual operating budget is $15 million, with $80 million set aside for new projects.

“If you can get a person to underwrite the concert, I will come to your city!” singer Friedman announces at our end-of-the-trip brainstorming meeting. Other women have also caught the fever, raising their hands to speak, promising to tell their synagogues back home about Project Kesher and to organize various fundraising events to get the word out about the work we’ve now witnessed firsthand.

“My daughter told me that you have to go to Israel to practice Judaism,” Finogenova said, “but through Project Kesher, we understood that we may lead Jewish lives here.”

For more information on Project Kesher visit,

Exploring Mexico City’s Jewish Past


For someone wandering the cobblestone streets of Mexico City’s Historic Center, where the sound of the cathedral bells fills the air and the streets have names like Jesus Maria, it’s hard to imagine that this neighborhood was once the heart of the country’s Jewish community.

But here, where the streets are now crowded with vendors selling everything from tacos to baseball hats, Mexican Jews founded their first synagogues and community centers. Centuries before that, it was the area where Jews were burned at the stake during the Inquisition.

For nine years, Monica Unikel-Fasja has given Jewish historical tours in Mexico City’s oldest neighborhood, a dilapidated area that is now under construction as part of Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s plan to revitalize what has been the city’s nucleus for centuries.

Unikel-Fasja guides groups through streets where Jewish immigrants found their first homes in converted convents and established their first clothing and jewelry stores, the places where they began their lives in Mexico.

“I think you can appreciate history more when you see it visually, when you retrace the steps,” said Unikel-Fasja, the author of a Spanish-language book that translates as “Synagogues of Mexico.”

Unikel-Fasja begins her tours at the city’s main post office, a beautifully preserved building decorated inside with ornate gilded metal.

The post office? Unikel-Fasja explains that it’s the perfect place to start because when Jews first immigrated to Mexico from countries like France and Syria, it was a gathering place — a place they would go to send and receive mail from loved ones.

“Jews laughed here, they cried here,” Unikel-Fasja explained. “Some would go every day to their post office box to check for mail from home.”

The first Jews came to Mexico in the 16th century. When the Spanish Inquisition arrived in the New World they were forced to convert or practice Judaism in secret.

Another wave of Jewish immigrants, including many from France, came during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz (1877-1911), who invited Europeans to immigrate to Mexico.

But the immigrants who form the base of Mexico’s modern Jewish community didn’t arrive until the 20th century, Unikel-Fasja said.

In the early and mid-1900s, Jews arrived from Turkey, Greece, Syria and Eastern Europe.

Today, Mexico is home to about 40,000 Jews, most in the capital, Mexico City.

Walking through the narrow streets, Unikel-Fasja says she gives tours in Spanish or English whenever people request them. In addition to her Historic Center tour, she gives a Jewish history tour in the Roma neighborhood of the city.

Most of her visitors are Jewish, but not all.

“I think it is important that non-Jews come on the tour,” she said. “Mexico is the product of a cultural mosaic, and we don’t know or understand members of other groups.”

On one recent tour, most people are Jewish, and there also is a Catholic couple that has heard Unikel-Fasja interviewed on a local radio program.

“We are fascinated with the history of other religions,” says Ofelia Hernandez, who attended the tour with her husband, Jose Manuel, and their 3-year-old grandson. “We have been to Israel, but we never knew about the synagogues in Mexico.”

Jews built their first synagogues in Mexico City’s Historic Center, but they abandoned them and built new ones and as they acquired wealth and moved to other parts of the city. Some of the old synagogues remain in the Historic Center, still owned by the Jewish congregations but rarely used.

The Sephardi synagogue at 83 Justo Sierra St. was Mexico’s first, built in 1923. Sometimes, Jews who work in the Historic Center pray there on weekdays, but usually is empty on the Sabbath.

Just down Justo Sierra is another abandoned place of worship, Mexico’s first Ashkenazi synagogue, built in 1941. There, the floor tiles are mismatched and the old wooden pews creak loudly when someone sits down, but the intricately painted ceiling gives a glimpse of its past beauty.

“It’s a piece of Lithuania in Mexico,” Unikel-Fasja says.

Unikel-Fasja’s tours focus more on Jewish life than anti-Semitism, but it’s chilling when she points to the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main plaza, and explains that it Jews were executed there during the Inquisition. Centuries later, anti-Semitic demonstrators marched there, demanding that the government expel Jews from Mexico.

But Mexico generally was a good place for Jews, Unikel-Fasja says. At times when other countries — including the United States — shut their doors to Jewish immigrants, Mexico welcomed them.

“Mexico opened the doors to Jews, gave them the freedom to set up their lives,” she said. “Gracias, Mexico.”

More information is available about the history of
Jewish Mexico City at