Seeking Torah in the City of Angels

In a city that seeks to capture the perfect image, I recently found myself wondering how to picture Shavuot, which begins on the evening of May 30. For the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, I wanted to find a location that would bring this revelatory event into my daily focus.

Though Shavuot often is associated with an image of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, I was looking for something that was more expansive. I wanted something that showed how the Torah was everywhere — especially in the City of Angels. I wanted to see if the angels, who according to the Talmud initially objected to God giving the law to the Jewish people, would now lend me a hand or a wing — or whatever it is they have.

My idea was inspired by a custom many celebrate on Shavuot: staying in to study all night, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot (repairing the eve of Shavuot). The practice relates to a midrash that teaches that on the morning the Children of Israel were to receive the Torah they overslept and needed to be awakened by Moses. To make repairs for our somnolence, we now show we are awake by studying, especially the beginnings and endings of the 24 books that comprise the Tanach — an acronym for Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

But instead of sitting down to pages of textual study, I wanted to turn to the streets to demonstrate my awakening, my readiness to receive, by finding visual counterparts or representations of the scriptural passages — a photographic tikkun. The world of Torah was all around me, waiting to be studied. All I needed to do was open my eyes and focus my lens.

Setting out to find my “text,” I began driving around my familiar Sinai — the urban landscape west of downtown Los Angeles and east of the 405. At first, amid the visual clutter, I was overwhelmed. The “words of the prophets” might be “written on the subway walls” in the music of Simon & Garfunkel, but on the streets of Mid-City L.A. you are more likely to find looming billboards for TV shows.

Then I had my moment of revelation: If I could find Moses the Lawgiver — and not just Charlton Heston’s handprints and footprints in the courtyard of the TCL Chinese Theatre — it would be a good start. After all, it worked for the Israelites. Remembering a recent visit to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, I found him in the form of a stone statue seated incongruously in the hospital parking lot, at the corner of George Burns Road and Gracie Allen Drive.

Seeing Moses with the law under his arm, I could not help but think of Torah and Sinai and, yes, the giant sculpture of the Torah affixed to Sinai Temple on Wilshire Bouelvard in Westwood. Having made that connection, more Bible imagery began to pop up from the streets around me: the words of the prophet Jeremiah; a reference to the Book of Kings; a reminder to pursue justice, from Deuteronomy.

As for the angels, they were everywhere, too, turning my head, lifting my search, leading me on my way.

A bit of Torah on the streets of L.A.

1. Moses climbing Sinai
“Angel Wall” (detail) by Barbara Mendes
2709 Robertson Blvd.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain.’ ” Exodus 24:12

2. ‘American Gods’ billboard and angel wings
7769 Melrose Ave.
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Leviticus 19:2

3. Mezuzah with inscription
Fleishik’s, 7563 Beverly Blvd.
Inscription: “A cry is heard in Ramah.” Jeremiah 31:15

4. Angel
640 S. San Vicente parking structure
“For He will order His angels to guard you wherever you go.” Psalms 91:11

5. Torah — L’dor vador
Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd.
“Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”
Deuteronomy 6:6-7

6.  “Fear of God is the Start of Wisdom”
Baba Sale Congregation
404 N. Fairfax Ave.
Proverbs 1:7

7.  Moses
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center parking lot, Gracie Allen Drive and George Burns Road
“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.”
Deuteronomy 34:10

8. “Justice, Justice, shall You pursue”
Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center
1525 Robertson Blvd.
Deuteronomy 16:20

9. Ethiopian Jew
“Not Somewhere Else, But Here” (detail) by Daryl Wells National Council of Jewish Women, 360 N. Fairfax Ave.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8

10. King Solomon
Marciano Art Foundation (former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple)
4357 Wilshire Blvd.
“… Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.” I Kings 6:1

Fran Drescher

Fran Drescher: Flushing’s funny lady finds her voice

Just about every word and sound that’s dropped out of Fran Drescher’s mouth over the last quarter century has made me laugh, but nothing could compare to her description of the “Flamingo Beach Club”, located in Queens, NY.  “There were no flamingos”, she once said, “and no beach.  It was a pool in a concrete slab in the middle of Flushing”.

Like Drescher, I’m a Flushing native, and a fellow alumnus of both the Flamingo Beach Club and Queens College of the City University of New York.  Our paths never crossed, however, until earlier this month, when she received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Queens College annual fundraising dinner.  Although best-known for her 1990s hit TV sitcom The Nanny, which she created, starred in, and executive produced, Drescher has since gained a reputation as a tireless crusader for cancer awareness, LGBT rights, arts and education funding, and the environment.

Drescher made her big screen debut in a scene with John Travolta in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, but it was her small screen role as the Jewish nanny Fran Fine from Flushing that made many Americans sit up and take notice. Others, presumably, just covered their ears. Drescher’s nasal, Noo Yawk-accented foghorn of a voice, along with a laugh that sounds like a machine gun snorting, must have come as a shock to viewers in, say, Fargo, North Dakota.

“But I figured out how to monetize this voice”, Drescher noted proudly in a conversation before the fundraising dinner.  “And I kinda put Flushing on the map with The Nanny.  Before that, people were a little embarrassed to admit it. Then they started coming up to me on the street, saying, ‘I’m from Flushing’, and we’d high five each other!”

Drescher also was the first Jewish woman to play an outwardly Jewish character on television in decades, for which she was honored at Israel’s Knesset by Prime Minister Netanyahu.  One episode of The Nanny even featured Miss Fine taking the family she worked for to the kibbutz where she’d volunteered as a teenager.  Another storyline showed Fine falling for a Professor Goldberg.  And, incredibly, Ray Charles once appeared on the sitcom and sang “My Yiddishe Mama” to Fran’s grandmother Yetta.

Drescher’s college tenure was short but enjoyable.  “I loved learning.  I loved history”, she recalled, “and I loved the view of Manhattan, because I already had dreams of going there as an aspiring actress”.   Given that she left the university after a year, I had to ask which had a greater impact on her life:  going to college, or to the Flamingo Beach Club?

Drescher exploded in that unmistakable laugh.  “Let’s see.  At the age I went to Flamingo, I was just starting to have an interest in boys, turning from a child into a young lady.  So it was a very significant time, I would have to say a more transitional stage in my life”.

The now-59-year-old actress married her high school sweetheart Peter Marc Jacobson in 1978; he co-created, wrote and produced The Nanny with her.  They divorced in 1999, after which he revealed he was gay.  “I was always a gay icon to my Nanny fans”, Drescher told the dinner crowd, “but Peter’s coming out moved me up to Judy Garland status!”   The two remain good friends, and Drescher has been honored with several awards for her LGBT-related advocacy.

In 2000, Drescher was told she had uterine cancer, following two years of misdiagnoses.  Surgery saved her life, and after writing a book about the experience called Cancer Schmancer, she formed a non-profit organization with that name.  Washingtonian magazine listed her among the country’s top five celebrity lobbyists, writing “She’s been a prime mover behind passage of cancer-awareness legislation”.

It’s obvious that Drescher is passionate about early screenings and patients’ rights.  “We’re a very uplifting, motivating, educating, fun organization.  We empower people.  We transform patients into medical consumers”.

Drescher continues to “work in show business to stay current”, so she can get attention for the causes in which she believes.  She advises young people to “Figure out what makes your heart sing, and then figure out how to make a living at it”.

What’s next for a still-youthful woman who’s achieved virtually every goal she’s set for herself?  Fran Drescher, who once gazed at Manhattan and dreamed of the future from her college window, says she continues to learn.  “I’m on a journey of self-refinement, and becoming connected to my soul, as much as possible.  I walk through life like I’m in the biggest classroom ever.”

For more information on Cancer Schmancer and upcoming events, go to

Hecklers shout ‘Heil Hitler!’ during Jewish school’s Holocaust play

Teenage hecklers interrupted a South African Jewish school’s performance of a play about the Holocaust with chants of “Heil Hitler!” and other anti-Semitic taunts.

Middle-school children from the King David Victory Park School were performing “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” on May 18 as part of a one-act play festival at Waterstone College, a private K-12 school in Johannesburg. While they were performing the story of a Jewish boy who perished in a concentration camp, teenagers in the audience from another high school began to taunt them.

“They were chanting ‘Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler.’ I was shocked and disgusted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, “Alic Gluch, a 14-year-old King David student, told theSouth African Jewish Report.

The teenagers continued to taunt the Jewish students, their teachers and parents as they retreated to the dressing rooms and packed up early to leave.

Witnesses said the ringleaders were students from Edenvale High School, which was also participating in the festival.

Renos Spanoudes, who heads the drama department and arts and culture at King David, said in a WhatsApp message that an Edenvale High teacher downplayed the seriousness of the incident, while some of the Edenvale students said they were ” very, very sorry.”

Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said her group was seeking a meeting with the the principal of Edenvale High “to address this issue and determine a constructive way forward.”

“From time to time anti-Semitic incidents of this nature occur during interschool events, both in the cultural and sporting arenas,” she told the Jewish Report. “We have in the past been involved in addressing these incidents. We do not believe that this is an indication of an upsurge in anti-Semitism. ”

The headmaster of Edenvale High did not respond to the Jewish Report’s requests for comment.

Photo by David Miller

Survivor Tomas Kovar: Hiding in Slovakia, awaiting liberation

The Germans were coming.

Nine-year-old Tomas Kohn, then living as Tomas Blaho, knew the drill. He headed to the front door of the cottage in Ponicka Huta, a village in the Low Tatras mountains in central Slovakia, where he and his parents were living as the supposed cousins of the home’s owners, Alexander and Maria Kur.

As Tomas’ mother grabbed a jacket for her son — it was March 1945 and chilly — Tomas pushed open the door, only to discover three German soldiers already climbing the steep alley leading to their cottage. He couldn’t wait for his mother without arousing suspicion — even with false papers, the Jews in Ponicka Huta didn’t feel safe — and instead walked directly across the alley, disappearing into the forest.

“They didn’t say anything or follow me,” Tomas recalled.

As he walked deeper into the forest, Tomas frequently looked behind him hoping to see his mother. Several hours later, he was lost, certain the Germans had captured her and were lying in wait for him.

Eventually, Tomas came across a woodcutter, who led him back. As Tomas exited the forest, he dashed into the cottage. He didn’t see his mother anywhere.

During the war, Tomas didn’t realize the extent of the dangers he and his parents faced. “They didn’t talk about it. Not during the war and not after the war, either,” he said. Instead, his parents changed the family name to Kovar, a non-Jewish surname, and the family kept a low religious profile.

As he grew up, Tomas didn’t want to hear about the Holocaust, in which many of his aunts, uncles and cousins had perished, and spoke only rarely about his experiences until five years ago, when he attended a talk by another Slovakian survivor at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Since then, he has told his story at the museum twice a month. “There are fewer and fewer survivors,” he said. “I want the people to know what happened.”

The only child of Ernest and Klara Kohn, Tomas was born on Feb. 18, 1936, in Nitra, Slovakia, the closest town with a hospital to the western Slovakian village of Zabokreky nad Nitrou, where his parents and 55 other Jewish families lived.

Ernest managed a large farm, which was owned by a Jewish man named Ernest Gruen. The family lived in Gruen’s unoccupied farmhouse.

Sometime in 1941 or so — about two years after Slovakia had declared its independence and allied itself with Nazi Germany — the farm was confiscated and given to a Mr. Kasicky (Tomas does not remember his first name), a private secretary of Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest who had become Slovakia’s president. Kasicky retained Tomas’ father as the farm’s manager.

By spring 1942, as the Slovak government began deporting its Jewish population, only the Kohns and two other families of men whom Ernest needed on the farm remained in Zabokreky.

After the Slovak National Uprising broke out on Aug. 29, 1944, and German troops began occupying the country, Kasicky could no longer protect the three families. They immediately loaded up a large wagon with some food and household goods and followed the partisans, who were headed toward the mountains.

After reaching Banska Bystrica, a city in central Slovakia, they proceeded uphill to a flat mountaintop area. The partisans departed, and the families settled into separate huts used to store hay. Other Jews hid, scattered across the mountains.

About a week later, townsmen from Ponicka Huta appeared, looking for items the partisans had abandoned. Ernest asked one of the men, Alexander Kur, if he could pay him to hide the three families. Kur, whose cottage was small, left to consult with his brothers-in-law and returned before nightfall, leading the families to the village, already occupied by the Germans.

The Kurs gave their small bedroom to Tomas and his parents, sleeping in the large living room with their three children. The other families each bunked with a brother-in-law.

During this time, according to Tomas, the Germans conducted roundups two or three times a week. Only occasionally did the Jews, who were being harbored in almost all of the village’s approximately 25 houses, have advance warning.

At a moment’s notice, Tomas and his parents could move the living room carpet, where a trap door and a few steps led to a small, dank cellar, a tight fit for three people. With more time, they climbed into an armoire, escaping out a hole in the back into a storage room. But the safest shelter was the forest, directly across the alley. “The Germans shied away from it,” Tomas said.

At some point, possibly in early 1945, the Germans began rounding up the men of Ponicka Huta to dig trenches. The men, Jews and non-Jews, began spending their days in a bunker they had constructed in the forest, essentially a large dirt hole covered with boards.

By February, the roundups had increased, and the men began living full time in the forest bunker. Everyone was waiting for the Russians, “like for the Messiah,” Tomas said.

Ernest was in the bunker on the day Tomas escaped into the forest without his mother. And Klara, Tomas discovered, had been hiding in the cellar. She emerged, grateful that the Germans had not captured her son.

A few nights later, at midnight, Russian soldiers knocked on the Kurs’ door. “We don’t want to destroy this town,” a Hungarian-speaking soldier told Klara, who spoke the language, explaining that they needed to find the German trenches. Klara took the soldiers to the bunker, and Ernest led them to the trenches.

The following day, sometime in mid- to late March 1945, Ponicka Huta was liberated.

Soon after, the Kohns returned to Zabokreky, where Ernest again managed the farm for Ernest Gruen. Tomas enrolled in public school.

On Sept. 24, 1945, a pogrom broke out in Topolcany, about 60 miles southeast of Zabokreky, spreading across the country. “Wherever they could find Jews, they were beating them up,” Tomas said. He and his parents quickly left, returning later that day and deciding they needed to leave Slovakia.

Finally, in January 1947, they boarded a ship in France, headed for Chile, where they had relatives.

Ernest rented a farm in La Florida, an area southeast of Santiago. Tomas attended Jewish school, Instituto de Hebreo. A year later, he transferred to Escuela Nacional de Artes Graficas, a boarding school in Santiago, graduating in 1956. He began working in the meat market his father then owned in Santiago.

In summer 1960, Tomas met Rita Bromet, who had moved to Santiago after the May 22 earthquake in Valdivia. They married on Jan. 27, 1963. By then, Tomas managed his own meat market.

Their daughter Jacqueline was born in November 1963 and son Bernardo in April 1965. Eleven months later, the family immigrated to Los Angeles, and their son Desidario was born in April 1968. They now have six grandchildren.

In Los Angeles, Tomas first worked as a meat cutter for Gelson’s Markets. Then, after a series of jobs, he and Rita owned Hallmark stores from 1978 to 2000, when Tomas began working as a Spanish-English interpreter assisting workers’ compensation patients. He retired in 2015.

Tomas, now 81, is trying to donate a piece of his history, a Torah that belonged to the Zabokreky Jewish community and that was safeguarded by the town’s Catholic priest during the war, to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Tomas’ family carried the Torah to Santiago, where it now resides in their former synagogue, La Sociedad Cultural Israelita B’nei Israel.

“It’s very old and will disintegrate,” Tomas said. “It should be in a museum where it could be more appreciated.”

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer. Photo by Reuters

Doctor Dermer makes his Jewish mom proud

In front of thousands of graduates, their family members and friends, gathered in the Madison Square Garden Theater on Thursday, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer delivered the keynote address – his first commencement since his own graduation – at Yeshiva University’s 86th Commencement.

[This story originally appeared on]

“Doctor Dermer, Doctor Dermer. Finally, after all these years, my Jewish mother can be proud,” the American-born Israeli Ambassador said with a touch of pride in his voice after receiving YU’s honorary doctorate.

The Donald Trump connection: “When I was 15, I read a best-selling book by a very successful entrepreneur who had gone to the Wharton School of Business. I wanted to be an entrepreneur too so I decided to study there. But my life ended up taking a very different course. From an interest in business and finance, I became interested in public policy and politics, and later decided to move to Israel determined to serve my new country. The funny thing is, I just saw the author of that best-selling book in Israel and he lives not far from me in Washington. His book is called the ‘Art of the Deal’ and people call him President Donald Trump. I guess reading that book proved to be very useful after all.”

The Hillary Clinton connection: ‘While this degree from YU is not a first, this commencement speech is. Last time I attended a commencement was my own graduation from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993. The speaker that day was the new First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember how I felt.  I had no idea what I’d be doing the next year, let alone for the rest of my life.”

Amelia Saltsman’s silan recipe for Shavuot


Results will vary depending on how dry the dates are and the variety used. Unfortunately, deglet noor dates, the most commonly available variety, produce beet-red silan and honey dates turn purple when cooked. You can halve the amount of dates and cut your prep time, but I don’t recommend multiplying the amount unless you’ve got extra hands to help.

– 2 pounds dates, such as barhi, medjool or khadrawy
– Water

Soak: Place dates in a large bowl. Add water to the bowl to cover dates by one inch, about 6 cups for 2 pounds of dates. Cover bowl and set aside, away from direct sunlight, to soak at least 4 hours or overnight.

Cook: Lift dates out of soaking liquid and shred them with your fingers. Place them, along with the pits, into a wide pot. Stir in 4 cups fresh water. Bring to gentle boil, uncovered, over medium heat, about 10 minutes. At this point, the tan-colored mixture will start to thicken. Skim off any scum that rises to the top. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the date mixture has reduced by about one-third, is shiny, thick and jamlike, and its color has deepened to a medium brown, about 50 minutes longer. As the mixture thickens, after about 40 minutes, stir more frequently to prevent sticking. Remove date mixture from heat and cool.

Extract: Place a strainer over a large bowl and place a nut-milk or jelly bag in the strainer. Transfer some of the cooked date mixture into the bag. Drain date “juice” into the bowl, wringing the bag to extract all liquids from the date solids. Discard solids and repeat with remaining dates, working in batches. You’ll have about 4 cups of bland “date juice.”

Reduce: Place date juice and 1/2 cup fresh water in a medium pot. Starting over medium heat, bring to a good simmer; reduce heat as needed to keep liquid at a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced by more than half to a deep brown rich-tasting syrup the consistency of honey, about 1 hour, stirring more frequently to prevent scorching as the syrup thickens. The silan is ready if it stays parted briefly when you run a spatula through the pot. (If it has thickened too much, turning almost taffy-like, stir in 1/4 cup water, and cook briefly.) Turn off the heat. The silan will continue to thicken as it cools.

Pour into clean jars, cover tightly, and store at room temperature away from sunlight. The silan will keep at least 4 to 6 weeks, although complex flavors may flatten over time and sugars crystalize. Heat silan briefly to dissolve crystals.

Makes about 2 cups silan.


Toasted nut and silan squares

These chewy bar cookies taste better the day after they’re baked and keep well for several days.

– 1 cup walnuts or pecans
– 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
– 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
– 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/4- to 1/2 -inch pieces, plus 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
– 3 tablespoons sugar
– 1/4 tsp salt
– 1/2 cup silan
– 1 tablespoon water
– 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place nuts on sheet pan and toast in oven until fragrant and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Make the crust: In a mixing bowl, toss together the flours, 1 stick of butter, sugar and salt. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter, crumble the ingredients together to the texture of coarse cornmeal. Pour mixture into 8-inch-square pan and gently press evenly over bottom and partway up the sides of the pan, giving extra attention to where the bottom meets the side of the pan to keep thickness even. Bake until light golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and gently smooth the crust with the back of a soup spoon to seal any cracks, pushing gently along sides if crust has slumped during baking.

While the crust is baking, prepare filling. Place silan, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, water, lemon and pinch of salt into heatproof or microwavable bowl (I like to use a 1-quart glass liquid measuring cup). Heat in microwave just until butter melts, 30 to 45 seconds, or place bowl in a pot of simmering water just until butter melts. Stir to blend.

Chop nuts and stir them and any “nut dust” into silan mixture. Pour filling evenly over crust. Return pan to oven and bake until edges of crust are golden brown and filling is bubbling and thickened, about 20 minutes. Filling will continue to set as it cools. Cool several hours or overnight before cutting into squares. Store covered at room temperature up to four days and refrigerate up to six.

Makes 16 2-inch squares


Use a mix of sweet potatoes, carrots and beets, or all of one kind of vegetable. Served with freekeh or rice and lentils, this makes a hearty vegetarian main course. For a vegan version, substitute tahini sauce for the shanklish. Accompany with pickled peppers, okra or onions. Note: If using red beets, keep them separate during preparation to avoid staining the other vegetables.

– 3/4 pound sweet potatoes
– 3/4 pound large carrots
– 3/4 pound tennis-ball-size beets
– 1/2 cup healthy oil, such as olive, avocado or safflower
– 1/4 cup silan
– 2 heaping tablespoons harissa
– 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
– 2 cups labneh
– 2 cloves garlic
– 2 tablespoons za’atar spice blend
– 1/2 to 1 teaspoon Aleppo, Maras or Urfa pepper
– Chopped parsley, cilantro or thyme leaves, optional
– Cooked freekeh or other grain, optional

Scrub or peel carrots and cut on the diagonal into largest possible oval slices, 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Scrub sweet potatoes and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick wedges. Scrub beets and cut on diagonal into largest possible disks, 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick

Have a bowl filled with ice and water ready near the stove. Cook carrots in generously salted boiling water until their color brightens and carrots are slightly flexible, 2 minutes. Lift carrots out with a spider or slotted spoon and drop into the ice water bath to stop the cooking process and preserve color. Repeat with the sweet potato wedges. Lift carrots and potatoes out of ice bath and drain on cloth or paper towels. Repeat blanching process with beets and place on separate towel. Pat vegetables dry. Vegetables may be prepared a day ahead to this point and refrigerated covered.

Prepare the shanklish. Crush garlic through a press into the labneh and add za’atar and Aleppo pepper to taste. Stir vigorously to blend. Labneh may be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated.

Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium. Place oil, silan, harissa and salt in a microwavable or heatproof bowl. Heat briefly in microwave oven or place bowl in a pot of simmering water to soften ingredients. Whisk to blend.

Toss silan mixture with vegetables to coat generously (toss red beets separately to prevent staining the other vegetables). Grill vegetables, reserving silan mixture, until nicely scored and tender, 4 to 6 minutes per side. Adjust heat or move vegetables to cooler part of grill as needed to avoid burning. As vegetables are done, return them to the remaining silan mixture and toss to coat.

Arrange vegetables on a platter, top with chopped herbs, if desired, and accompany with the shanklish. Vegetables may be grilled several hours ahead and served at room temperature. Serve warm or at room temperature and accompany with freekeh, if desired.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Spicy Sweet Grilled Roots and Tubers With Silan, Harissa and Shanklish. Photos by Tess Cutler

In the land of milk and silan

The Bible drips with mentions of honey. There’s the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey; its symbolic use at Rosh Hashanah for a sweet new year; and at Shavuot, coming next week, to represent the sweetness of the gift of the Torah. And then there are those sensual lines in The Song of Songs: “Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue.”

But what sort of honey? Historians now believe that most bibilical mentions of honey refer not to the golden nectar produced by bees, but to a syrup prepared from dates. This makes sense. Reducing bushels of dates — one of the revered seven biblical species — into amphorae of “honey” turns out to be a perfect preservation method. Not to mention, those long-lasting jars of the region’s first sweetener were immensely portable just in case of an expulsion, say, to Babylon.

[Recipe: Silan recipe for Shavuot]

Creating date honey, dibs in Arabic (also translated into English as date molasses or syrup), was, and is, a processing technique common to all date-growing regions of the Middle East and North Africa. For Jews, the culinary tradition is most associated with the Jews of Iraq (ah, Babylon), who spoke Judeo-Arabic. They called it silan, the term adopted into modern Hebrew.

According to Jewish food scholar Gil Marks, Iraqi silan-based charoset, halek in Judeo-Arabic, is the original “mortar,” a logical deduction, given the abundance of dates in early Jewish civilizations and the absence of apples. (The Ashkenazi apple-based version is a mere thousand or so years old.) Traditionally, silan was made once a year after the date harvest in early fall, giving dates and date honey first-fruit status at Rosh Hashanah.

Over the millennia, silan has never been out of production, whether at home or in date-syrup manufactories. (Date presses were found in the ruins at Qumran and elsewhere; modern Israeli commercial production didn’t begin until the early 1980s). The sweetener always has been highly regarded by locals for its antibacterial and antioxidant properties and thought to aid a variety of conditions, including lowering blood pressure and enhancing sexual prowess.

With today’s growing interest in Middle Eastern cuisines, silan is having a well-deserved moment. The ancient recipe is pretty much the same one used today: one ingredient plus water subjected to four basic techniques in sequence — soaking, cooking, extracting and reducing — that require no kitchen inventions beyond fire. The result is something of a miracle: silky smooth, rich brown that glows auburn when the light catches it, and complex notes of deep caramel, citrus and even coffee revealed through long, slow cooking. And, once upon a time I imagine, there were hints of smoke as the date extract slowly reduced over live embers.

I wanted in. I needed to join the ancient lineage of cooks in a process little changed by modern technology. My fascination with silan began with my paternal grandmother, Rachel Yochanan Ben-Aziz, who came from many generations in Iraq before she, my grandfather Ezekiel, and six of their seven children, among them my father, immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in the early 1930s. Although I learned a lot about Iraqi cooking from Safta Rachel during our visits to Israel and hers to us in Los Angeles, I somehow missed the bit about silan until after she had died.

A few years ago, my cousin told me about our safta’s delicious silan-and-toasted-pecan charoset. I immediately added it to our Passover traditions, using ready-made syrup I bought at the Iranian market in my neighborhood. Then, one day, my Aunt Hanna let slip that safta used to make her own silan. Wait, what?!?

I had little to go on. From Hanna, I knew only that my grandmother had soaked a lot of dates in water and enlisted her nephews to vigorously wring, that is, extract, the “juice.” Initial research in cookbooks and online didn’t offer much more. In fact, I discovered some pretty wild attempts to re-create silan, including the addition of copious amounts of sugar. This would have been unlikely in the original process, since, at 60- to 80-percent sugar, dates were the regional source for sugar production, not sugar cane or beets. And besides, how would my grandmother have had access to all that sugar in those early lean years in Israel? My guess is that the use of cane sugar is a modern shortcut to thick syrup, and that the missing ingredients lost through the years were a couple of steps plus time and patience.

But, the misguided sugar shortcut offers clues. Because date solids are very dense, water must be introduced to release the sugar, resulting in diluted flavor. A second step was needed — cooking the soaked pulp — to begin reconcentrating the sugars and start caramelization.

Then, using what I know about making clear caramel syrup by slowly heating, melting and reducing cane sugar with a little water to keep it liquified, I applied those principles to Safta Rachel’s extracted “date juice.” That was it; a slow reduction was the fourth and final step to gorgeous silan.

So, not exactly a recipe. Just four rudimentary techniques that ask a cook to slow down, pay attention and develop a feel for the process. Making silan never ceases to surprise me. I’ve learned something new with every batch I’ve made these past few months. I suspect it will always be thus. Perhaps by the time I will have been at it as long as my grandmother was, I’ll be OK with that.

Amelia Saltsman

Here’s what you need to know about making silan at home. It requires a lot of dates. Two pounds net a scant two cups of syrup, which is actually an ample amount of honey. Any number of date varieties will work, such as barhi, medjool, halawy or khadrawy. Each imparts its own color and flavor characteristics to the finished silan, and each particular batch of dates affects the cooking time and final yield, depending on how fibrous or dried it is. Avoid the deglet noor variety, the most commonly available cultivar; it changes color when exposed to heat and yields beet-red silan. And the honey date variety, I learned from Chef Jeremy Fox, turns purple when cooked.

Start soaking the dates the night before you want to make silan, and figure on a half day of intermittent work to finish. There’s not a lot of active work other than the extraction step; plan on puttering around the house as the dates cook, cool and reduce in turn.

Invest in a nut-milk bag to simplify the extraction step, but don’t bother to spend money on pitted dates or take time to pit them, since you’ll discard all the date solids anyway. The uncracked pits may even add flavor — there’s a traditional date-pit coffee substitute made from roasted and ground seeds.

The syrup is rather forgiving. If you’ve reduced it too far and it’s turning into taffy, stir in a little water and cook briefly to restore. After you pour the finished silan into jars, deglaze the pot with water for a small, second round of thin silan that is the cook’s reward.

And here’s what you should do with silan. Drizzle over almond butter or tahini and toast for a breakfast of champions. Spoon over thick yogurt or vanilla ice cream and top with strawberries, bananas or orange segments, and chopped nuts (a little crumbled halvah couldn’t hurt). Use silan instead of molasses or brown sugar in pies and cookies. Mix it with harissa for a spicy-sweet mop for grilled vegetables. When served with shanklish — a Lebanese way with labneh with za’atar and garlic — and the green wheat known as freekeh — “new ears parched with fire” — this main dish becomes a Shavuot homage to both milk and honey and the spring wheat harvest we’ve been so anxiously awaiting.

Ready-Made Silan

Let’s get real. Silan is too wonderful and versatile to enjoy only when you have time to make your own. Ready-made silan is a fantastic convenience condiment to have in one’s pantry — if you buy a good-quality one. Now you know to look for those that contain dates and nothing else (some ingredient lists include water; some don’t). Various brands have long been available at Middle Eastern, Iranian and Israeli markets. Silan has gone mainstream enough to show up at Whole Foods and other high-end supermarkets; Date Lady, an American brand selling imported silan, is the most commonly found. My favorite commercial Israeli brand is Kinneret Farm, the country’s largest producer of high-quality silan. It is available online at and on Amazon. I haven’t yet found it on grocery shelves in the Los Angeles area.

Episode 39 – The yeshiva kid who made it big … in China

Dr. Shmulik Hess is the CEO of Valin Technologies and he joins 2NJB to talk about his amazing life story and his inspiring career.

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Ben Platt’s ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ performance stuns Stephen Colbert


Ben Platt performs an emotional number from the Broadway musical ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’

Meghan Markle at an event at the NoMad Hotel Rooftop in New York City on April 27, 2016. Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Glamour

Is Meghan Markle Jewish? The internet is confused.

Is Meghan Markle, an American actress and the girlfriend of the British royal Prince Harry, a member of the tribe?

Stories in publications across the United States and United Kingdom have prompted the question. An article in the British tabloid Daily Express claims that Markle’s father is Jewish; Vanity Fair, Elle UK, Tablet and many others have cited the story.

The story also says that a spokesperson for Westminster Abbey, the historic London church where British royals get married, confirmed Markle’s Jewish background.

“The spokesman also confirmed that Meghan’s Jewish background would not prevent her from having an ‘interfaith’ marriage there,” Camilla Tominey writes in the May 14 article.

Unfortunately, for those who would love to see a Jew marry into British royalty, the claim is utterly false.

Duncan Jeffery, Westminster Abbey’s head of communications, told JTA on Wednesday that the church never said that Markle was Jewish. It only confirmed that Markle could be married at the church despite a previous divorce, thanks to a rule that was instated in 2002.

“[Markle’s Jewishness] is merely conjecture on the part of other people,” Jeffery said.

Markle’s publicist Chantal Artur also confirmed on Wednesday that her client is not Jewish.

Markle, who is best known for her role on the USA Network drama “Suits,” was married to Jewish producer Trevor Engelson from 2011 to 2013. As Tominey notes, the pair had a Jewish wedding in Jamaica (complete with a “Jewish chair dance,” meaning the hora).

Markle’s father is Irish and her mother is African-American. She wrote an essay for Elle magazine in 2015 about her identity (it was subsequently published in Elle UK, one of the publications that has misstated her Jewish identity). The essay did not mention any Jewish ancestry or hint at a past conversion to Judaism.

“‘What are you?’ A question I get asked every week of my life, often every day,” she wrote.

Tominey’s article is correct in explaining that there is no “legal barrier that keeps a royal for marrying someone from the Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim faith, or even an atheist.” Since 2015, even those formerly despised Catholics can marry into the royal family — however, a Roman Catholic still cannot become the queen of England.

Nonetheless, we’d like to say “Mazel tov!” to Meghan and Prince Harry, who are considered likely to marry, even if they aren’t actually engaged yet.

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump’s trip: experts react

“If President Trump wanted to demonstrate his stunningly pro-Israeli credentials to pave the way for pressing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu for concessions down the road, this trip couldn’t have gone any better.”

Aaron David Miller, Middle East analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

“President Trump risked stepping on his own narrative of strong support for Israel and restarting peace talks with his ‘I didn’t say the word Israel’ moment. … Regardless, the president is likely to leave Israel with the well-deserved sense that the visit was a success.”

Dan Shapiro, former United States ambassador to Israel

“The president’s belief that the Palestinians are ready to reach for peace appears to be based on statements made to him by [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas. But actions by the PLO speak louder than words. The previous Israeli offers of peace were rejected, the glorification of terror continues, and payments to terrorists continue to be made.”

Elliott Abrams, former United States assistant secretary of state

“If he is going to try the same flawed policies that have failed for decades, he, too, will fail. The road to peace will begin in the towns and cities of Judea and Samaria, and we pray that he will accept our invitation to come and see real peace and coexistence in action.”

Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council of West Bank Jewish communities

“Donald Trump is the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall. To a Jew, that is remarkable. … His timing to visit the Middle East at this time was impeccable. He couldn’t have picked a better time. It’s true that the Saudis proposed a peace proposal years ago, but now it’s a different Saudi Arabia. Oil is down. Saudi Arabia has a huge problem with Iran. Saudi Arabia realizes that there’s only one strong country in the Middle East that can benefit it, and it’s Israel. … [The Gulf States] are waiting for the time when it will be acceptable to have that great alliance and one of the great players will be the State of Israel, because who else can stand up to Iran other than Israel or the United States? His timing was excellent. This he could not have handled better.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles

“At a time when UNESCO and others continue to deny Jewish history, identity and rights in Jerusalem and Israel in general, the president’s visit to the Western Wall serves as a critical reminder to the world that Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. We are grateful that the administration recognizes the threat Iran’s regime poses to the world and to Israel in particular. We are also excited about the new possibilities of increased cooperation and even peace between Israel and the Arab world. Time will tell if these regional efforts and peace negotiations with the Palestinians will be successful, but we remain hopeful.”

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO StandWithUs, an Israel education organization

Seth Rich was shot and killed early Sunday in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Northwest Washington. Photo from Democratic National Committee

Fox News removes stories on WikiLeaks link to slain Jewish DNC staffer Seth Rich

The Fox News Channel removed stories based on unfounded allegations that Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer slain last year, was targeted because he was leaking information to WikiLeaks.

“On May 16, a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich,” Fox said Tuesday on its website.

“The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed. We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.”

The Daily Caller, a conservative news site, removed a similar site; the story now redirects to a not found page. Breitbart, a conservative news site that had picked up the Fox story, still has its story online.

Last week, Rich’s family had called on Fox to retract the stories and threatened legal action.

Rich, 27, a Jewish Nebraska native, was shot dead while walking home before dawn on July 10, 2016. Police have speculated that he was the victim of a robbery gone awry. Rich’s body was found about a block from his home with his wallet, watch and cellphone still in his possession.

His death sparked several conspiracy theories, including that he was a source for WikiLeaks.

Several days after Rich’s death, WikiLeaks released a collection of Democratic National Committee emails that U.S. intelligence officials now say was related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Fox’s Washington affiliate in its original story linked Rich’s death and the email dump, citing statements from Rod Wheeler, a private investigator who said he is working with the Rich family. Wheeler said, among conflicting comments, that there is evidence of emails between Rich and WikiLeaks.

The report also cited an unnamed federal agent, though Rich’s family told BuzzFeed that no federal agency is working on the case. Wheeler has since backed off his claims.

In August, WikiLeaks offered a $20,000 award for information leading to the conviction of Rich’s killer. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in an interview on Netherlands TV suggested that Rich may have been a source for the leaks clearinghouse, reigniting conspiracy theories. Assange refused to substantiate his implication.

It was not clear whether Fox pulling the story from the website will stop some of its commentators from trying to advance the story. Fox personalities, including Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich and Geraldo Rivera, in recent days have fervently embraced the conspiracy theories.

President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In Israel, Trump reinforces the Wall

Let the record show: On May 23, 2017, the president of the United States updated his Twitter header to display a photograph of himself standing at the Western Wall. Not saluting an American flag, not kissing a Latino baby or speaking at a Midwest rally or shaking a veteran’s hand, but communing with Judaism’s holiest site.

I have nothing cynical to say about it. For a man whose self-worth is in direct proportion to the size of his Twitter following (30.2 million), and who likely checks his feed more often than his briefing papers (OK, that was a little cynical), this means something.

The most powerful person in the world is demonstrating the power of that place. President Donald Trump is linking the sovereignty of the Western Wall to the State of Israel, despite the demurrals and hedging of his advisers and representatives. Tel Aviv may be one of the most dynamic, creative and delicious cities on earth, but only a fool, or the former head of a large oil company, would say, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did, that it is the “home of Judaism.”

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which must be solved sooner rather than later in a just way for both sides, is not going to be solved by ignoring or minimizing the narratives each side claims as its own.

In their justified desire for a homeland, Palestinians have sought to deny the primacy of Jerusalem in the Jewish narrative. This week, one prominent Palestinian activist wrote that the holiness of the Western Wall is a post-1967 development, not an age-old tradition. When I read that I laughed and looked up at my study wall, at a photo taken in the late 1800s of Jewish men and women packed up against the ancient stones, in prayer.

In defense of their rights to Jerusalem, many Jews have negated the Muslim claim on the city. There seems to be an online cottage industry in this, in fact. Don’t fall for it. Do your own research. Jerusalem is a holy place in Islam — that big gold-domed mosque atop the Temple Mount might be your first clue.

Jerusalem has been wracked by a long history of dumping on other people’s history. And I mean this literally. To assert their own primacy over the holy city, the Byzantine rulers turned the Jew’s Temple Mount into the city dump. In the “Encyclopedia of Religion,” professor Reuven Firestone relates the legend that it was the Muslim caliph Umar who, after vanquishing the Christians, ascended to the desecrated area, rolled up the sleeves of his robe and began cleaning up the soiled Muslim and Jewish holy place himself.

The caliph then built the Dome of the Rock, not as a mosque, Firestone writes, “but rather as a monument celebrating the presence and success of a new faith.”

We are just about a week away from the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, when the Israelis ascended to the Dome, captured East Jerusalem and united the city.

That moment when Israeli soldiers gathered where Trump stood this week, and wept and prayed that the Wall was back in Jewish hands, remains the iconic image of the war, the Jewish Iwo Jima. The emotion, the sacrifice, the sense of historical and religious destiny has affixed in Jewish minds the idea that from that moment on, all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel.

Har HaBayit b’yadenu,” Lt. Gen. Motta Gur proclaimed as his troops captured the Old City, the most famous single sentence of that war. “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

But the irony of Trump’s visit is that if the president gets his way, the grip will have to be loosened. For years, Jews and the groups that pander to them have proclaimed intractable sovereignty over every square inch of the city. “Jerusalem will never be divided,” has been the go-to applause line for every Jewish or Israeli speaker — despite the reality that the city even now is pretty much divided.

The truth is every serious final status solution ever put forth by an Israeli prime minister, and any agreement that would ever be agreed to by the Palestinians, would include some shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. What’s the alternative — constant fighting? You can’t pray for the peace of Jerusalem and want to see it, like Aleppo or Damascus, reduced to pieces.

I don’t know how serious Trump is about making what he calls “the ultimate deal.” He has a short attention span, a disdain for details and a lot of ’splaining to do back in Washington. But this week, he leveraged Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to crack open negotiations, demonstrated the kind of support for the Israelis they need to feel secure, and showed the proper respect to the Palestinians.

A dear friend and die hard Israeli leftist  I know e-mailed me as Trump departed for the Vatican.

“The bastard gave a fantastic speech that was even given compliments by Barak Ravid from Ha’aretz,” he wrote, citing the left-leaning columnist. “He’s going about this whole Middle East thing in a completely opposite manner than Obama, and it may be that he is hitting the spot. Oy vey….”

If Trump continues on this path, and doesn’t shy away from confronting each side with the truths the other holds dear, the president might just have a prayer.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Emergency responders arriving at the Manchester Arena following a bomb attack at an Ariana Grande concert on May 22. Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

In Manchester, Jews have been preparing for an attack for years

Britain’s bloodiest terrorist attack in over a decade occurred Monday just two miles from Rabbi Yisroel Cohen’s synagogue.

Yet one day after the deadly bombing in Manchester, Cohen told JTA he has no intention of changing security arrangements at his congregation.

In fact Cohen, a Chabad emissary who works in a Jewish enclave in the northern part of the city surrounded by a heavily Muslim area, said there is little room for improving security across his tight-knit community.

After all, the Jewish community in Manchester — one of the U.K.’s fastest-growing spots thanks to an influx of immigrants and young couples seeking alternatives to pricey London — has been on its highest alert since long before the explosion that killed 22 people and wounded 50 at an Ariana Grande concert. On Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the act.

“Well, the radio equipment is working, the residents have been briefed, police are patrolling, security professionals from the Jewish community have been in place since the attacks in Belgium” last year, Cohen said when asked about security. “There is only so much you can do – except pray.”

On Kings Road, a busy street of the heavily Jewish borough of Prestwich, residents keep an eye out for strangers. Any abnormal behavior – particularly photography or the gathering of information — quickly invites polite but firm inquiries by both passers-by as well as shopkeepers who cater to the local population of haredi and modern Orthodox Jews.

The vigilance in Jewish Manchester owes much of its preparation and training to the local police, the Community Security Trust organization and other groups. But it is also born of circumstance: Manchester’s some 30,000 Jews are concentrated in a relatively small area. This makes them an easy target, but it also means that the community’s institutions are easier to protect and vigilance is easier to instill.

While there are also concentrations of Jews in North London, in Manchester — a city of 2.5 million, where 15.8 percent of the population is Muslim — there is added tension because the Jewish and Muslim communities live in close proximity. Kings Road, for example, is sandwiched between the Judaica World bookstore on its western end and the Masjid Bilal mosque on its eastern one.

This juxtaposition in recent years has generated some friction, including in the harassment of Jews on the street and the occasional violent incident.

At least one more premeditated plan to attack Manchester Jews was uncovered and foiled five years ago. In 2012, a British judge imprisoned a Muslim couple, Mohammed Sajid  and Shasta Khan, for seven years for gathering intelligence on Manchester Jews for an attack.


“That incident came at a time of reassessment about the threat to Jews in Manchester, and it was one of the reasons that led to a complete overhaul,” Cohen said.

“So today, we in the Jewish community are perhaps less surprised than others at what happened,” the rabbi added, though he also said that Mancunian Jews are “shocked at the horror” witnessed at the concert.

Paul Harris, editor of the city’s Jewish Telegraph weekly, told JTA he generally agrees that Manchester’s Jewish community is well prepared to deal with any emergency or fallout thereof, but he also flagged one weak point: On evenings and afternoons, observant Jews in the city congregate outside synagogue — a habit that makes them an easy target and which, for that reason, has largely been abandoned in at-risk communities in France and beyond.

“Maybe that will change now,” Harris said.

In a statement Tuesday following a suspect’s arrest, Prime Minister Theresa May said the bombing was a “callous terrorist attack” that targeted “defenseless young people.” Police believe a homemade explosive vest was detonated by a suicide bomber who may or may not have been working alone.

The explosion ripped through the 21,000-seat Manchester Arena at 10:30 p.m. after Grande, a 23-year-old pop singer from the United States, had already left the stage. At least 12 of the 22 killed in the attack were children younger than 16. News of the explosion sent worried parents to the arena, where children, teenagers and young adults streamed out of the main exit in a state of panic.

Cohen said that Chabad was not aware of Jewish fatalities in the attack.

The attack happened a little over two weeks before the June 8 general election in which hardliner Theresa May from the Conservative Party is running against Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party. The attack may further increase May’s lead in the polls on Corbyn, a left-leaning promoter of outreach to Muslims who has called Hezbollah and Hamas his friends.

Last year Corbyn — amid intense criticism in the media and from members of his own party for his perceived failures in curbing expressions of anti-Semitism within Labour’s ranks — said he regretted expressing affection to the two Islamist terror groups. Following the attack Monday, all parties agreed to suspend campaigning for three days.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference Tuesday in Jerusalem with President Donald Trump, who was visiting Israel, referenced the attack in criticizing incitement to terrorism by the Palestinian Authority under its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

“President Abbas condemned the horrific attack in Manchester,” Netanyahu said while standing next to Trump. “Well, I hope this heralds a real change, because if the attacker had been Palestinian and the victims had been Israeli children, the suicide bomber’s family would have received a stipend from the Palestinian Authority. That’s Palestinian law. That law must be changed.”

Speaking in Bethlehem, Trump joined other world leaders who condemned the attack.

“I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. I will call them losers,” he said.

Back in Manchester, Rabbi Shneur Cohen of the Chabad Manchester Center City organized a food and drinks distribution to police officers who were stationed outside the arena where the attack took place.

“We are Manchester, we stand together,” Cohen told reporters at the scene.

But Harris, the Jewish Telegraph editor, said that despite such gestures, “there is definitely a silence, a shocked silence” in the city following the attack.

President Donald Trump touches the Western Wall on May 22. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Hopeful rhetoric, vague vision for peace after Trump’s Middle East visit

President Donald Trump has come and gone from his trip to the Middle East, his first foreign excursion since taking office earlier this year. He arrived — first in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, then Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Israel — with strong words about Iran as the neighborhood bully and, like so many American presidents before him, buoyant words for the Israeli and Palestinian people.

Optimistic words. Hopeful words. They all conveyed a vision and new possibility for peace in the region, a prospect “I’ve heard,” he said, that is “one of the toughest deals of all. But I have a feeling we will get there eventually, I hope.”

Good for Trump. A new American president. A new chance for a solution. A new team to get it done.

But where were the new ideas Israeli leaders are so certain he has? What is the new approach? How does he propose to untangle the thorny issues on the ground — boundaries, settlers, Jerusalem, etc. — that have left so many presidents before him bloody with failure?

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians was a topic of much discussion when Trump visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It was front and center, but not necessarily the first item on the agenda. In his speech to the Arab world in Riyadh days before, in his unscripted photo-op with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his later remarks in the prime minister’s house, Trump was more focused on Iran as the source of menace in the region. He and Netanyahu suggested that there are new opportunities in the region. Countries must unite against a common threat — Iran. That’s an opening that can be explored.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chat as White House senior advisor Jared Kushner is seen in between them. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Courtesy of Government Press Office

Michael Oren, historian, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and currently Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, said he believes that this new reality is a conduit of a “tremendous” shift. If once it was assumed that a peace with the Palestinians could lead to reconciliation of Israel with the rest of the Arab world — the situations is now reversed: A peace with the Arab world could lead to a deal with the Palestinians. If the Saudis come on board, if other Gulf states come on board, if the Arab world realizes that fighting against Israel makes no sense in this era of radicalism, the Palestinians might realize that the train of peace is leaving the station and that they’d better hurry so they don’t miss it.

Maybe this is what Israeli leaders mean when they constantly talk about “new ideas.” Trump is a devotee of “new” ideas, “bold” ideas, “different” ideas. For Israel, to resist his push for a deal would be a mistake. But it might be able to convince him that his predecessors failed because of their conventional thinking — and that he, a man bold enough, ought to reformulate the meaning of the ultimate deal. The “two-state solution” is old, tired — and it is so Clinton and Obama. Trump could make his mark by thinking outside of the box, that is, by dropping old ideas and replacing them with new ideas.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin sang the praises of new ideas after his meeting with Trump: “Our destiny — Palestinians and Jews — is to live together in this land,” he said. “In order to achieve this, we need new ideas, new energy that will help us move forward, together.”

But move where? Rivlin has his new ideas; he supports one state, or a confederation of Israelis and Palestinians. Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home Party and the leader most forthright in attempting to directly tell Trump what needs to be done (“We expect you to be the first president to recognize a united Jerusalem,” he said, to which Trump responded, “That’s an idea!”), has different new ideas. He supports an autonomy for Palestinians and annexation of the rest. Other leaders also have new ideas, including the oldest “new” idea of sticking to an improved status quo.

Does Trump have new ideas? If he does, we were still waiting to hear what they are as he departed for Europe. It was worth noting that Trump refrained from using the term “two-state solution” during his visit. It is possible that he is more open than his predecessors to considering alternative ideas, assuming he has them. In Saudi Arabia, in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem, he kept hinting that his deal is partially built on the goodwill of the conservative Arab regimes of Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Former President Bill Clinton failed to get them on board at Camp David. He was disappointed by their refusal to help him push the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, toward accepting the deal that was offered to him. Trump and some of his top advisers believe circumstances have changed in a way that could make such a push more realistic today.

His brief trip was barely a beginning of a long process of exploration of these assumptions and ideas. Although it sent a symbolic message of involvement and new energy, it did little to advance a detailed vision of a peace process. And of course, involvement is crucial, as both Arab and Israeli leaders made clear in their remarks, taking a swipe at the Barack Obama administration.

“We are happy to see that America is back,” said Rivlin, usually not the type to bash the former president. Netanyahu, not surprisingly, was more direct: “I want to tell you also how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.”

President Donald Trump with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The new American president ought to know that there is no correlation between the number of visits to the Middle East and the level of success in handling Middle East affairs. Yes, Trump made “history” — a word used much too often to describe routine events — in going to Israel and Saudi Arabia earlier in his term than any other president. He made “history” again by being the first sitting American president to visit the Western Wall. So what? Nixon made history by being the first president to travel to Israel. Shortly afterward, he was forced out of office. Clinton made history by coming to Israel more than all other presidents, four times. It did not guarantee his success.

The only presidential visit that really made a change was Jimmy Carter’s in 1979. That was a dramatic visit, with ups, downs and crises. It was a make-or-break visit: Carter traveled to Egypt, then to Israel, and forced the hand of the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to accept the peace deal that was proposed to him. A few years ago, Israel’s state archives released documents from that visit, including a cable that was sent from Zvi Rafiah, Israel’s then-liaison to the U.S. Congress. Carter briefed congressional leaders when he was back in Washington, D.C., and Rafiah reported to his superiors in Jerusalem that during this meeting, Carter described his meeting with the Israeli cabinet as “terrible.”

“Terrible” and “horrible” are two of Trump’s favorite words. So maybe he will also describe parts of his visit as terrible. Maybe he did not appreciate the food, or the heat, or the forced selfie with Knesset Member Oren Hazan. But as far as we know, by the end of his visit on May 23, nothing truly “terrible” happened. Everybody was nice to him. Everybody agreed with him. Everybody encouraged him to keep doing what he is doing, whatever that is.

A time for confrontation might still come, when a more detailed plan emerges, and a real price is demanded of the parties. Already, Israel and the Palestinians got a taste of the future. Israel watched reluctantly, yet silently, as the Saudis bought weapons in quantities that might put Israel’s military edge at risk. The Palestinians witnessed an American president visiting the Kotel. They heard an American president, not for the first time, raise the issue of terrorism as an obstacle they need to overcome to achieve their objectives. They heard him say “peace” but not “a Palestinian state.”

And so. There was a visit and it went smoothly. For Trump, that is certainly an achievement. Everybody was trying to convince everybody that the visit was successful and that Trump is exactly what they expected him to be.

But there was reason for caution. On the evening of May 22, about an hour before Trump and Netanyahu made their joint statement in Jerusalem, I was sitting in a radio studio in the city of Modi’in. The interviewee on the line was Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi, an Arab legislator, an articulate critic of Israel’s policies, and a frequent visitor at the offices of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

He was cautious. Very cautious. Wisely cautious. Tibi has hopes, but he isn’t letting them get too high. He knows Trump changes his mind, he said. He knows it is not yet clear what Trump wants, beyond the generalities of having a “deal” and brokering “peace.” He knows Trump won’t always have the patience necessary to see a bumpy peace process through. And so Tibi’s message was simple: I’ll believe him about his Israeli-Palestinian peace effort when I see it.

When I asked Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s communications minister, about Trump reportedly walking back on his campaign promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, Hanegbi didn’t even blink before explaining that a visit to the Western Wall is much more important than moving the embassy. And when Tibi was asked if he was annoyed by Trump’s visit to the Kotel, Tibi didn’t even blink before explaining that it was an insignificant event that reinforced the fact that the U.S. does not recognize the site as Israeli.

Despite what did and didn’t happen, give Trump credit for this: He was polite, almost gaffe free and vague enough to keep the valuable posture of a Rorschach test: for now, all interpretation of his actions and intentions are still in the eye of the beholder.

Saree Makdisi

UCLA Professor: What’s wrong with Jews being a minority in Israel?

Finally, after about an hour of partisan arguments from both sides, I heard something that got my attention. 

I was attending an event Monday night sponsored by the UCLA Debate Union, billed as “A Spirited Debate on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).” It featured, on one side, Professor Judea Pearl and students Philippe Assouline and Joseph Kahn, and, on the other side, Professor Saree Makdisi and students Ahmad Azzawi and Wali Kamal.  

From what I hear, after I left there was a controversial afterword from a professor who was not officially part of the debate. Since I didn’t see it, I will comment only on the formal debate. 

In front of an audience of about 100 people who represented both sides, the Judea Pearl side argued the motion that “BDS is not moral.”

Nothing surprised me too much in the back and forth. The Pearl side reiterated the well-known arguments against BDS — namely, that it is out to undermine the Jewish state rather than search for peace –while the Makdisi side framed BDS as fighting the injustice of the Israeli occupation with the best non-violent tool available.

While we’ve heard many of the arguments before, it was helpful to hear them all in a civil manner, with no yelling and insults. You could feel some underlying tension throughout the debate, but the panelists made a genuine effort to conduct themselves with class and civility.

Professor Makdisi based many of his arguments on universal values such as fairness, equality, justice, and so on. Focusing on those values helped him finesse the Achilles Heel of the BDS movement– the fact that they don’t recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Promoting the “right of return” of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel, for example, means the effective end of the Jewish state, what a panelist on the Pearl side called “national suicide.”

Makdisi took that word — suicide — and ran with it, almost ridiculing it as an example of needless hysterics from the Zionist side. You could see where he was going. What kind of just society would treat the arrival of Palestinians as a national suicide? Sure, there may be a great number of Palestinians who want to enter the Jewish state, but what’s wrong with Arabs and Jews living side by side, in full equality, in the same state and under the same government? 

Then, he got my attention when he blurted out these words:

“What’s wrong with Jews being a minority?”

There was a gasp among pro-Israel members of the audience. Professor Pearl made a grimace, commenting that minorities are not treated very well in the Middle East. 

I have a feeling Makdisi himself regretted his words as soon as he said them.

Why? Because he’s no fool. He’s a knowledgeable professor, and he surely knows what’s wrong with Jews being a minority in a country of the Middle East.

He knows that, for centuries, Jews in Arab and Muslim countries were treated as second-class citizens, or Dhimmis. He knows that many of those Jews were persecuted and expelled after the birth of Israel in 1948.

He knows that there are 50 Muslim countries in the world, but only one Jewish state.

He knows that in many of those 50 countries, non-Muslim minorities are routinely persecuted and oppressed.

He knows that the Arab minority in Israel has more rights, freedom, legal protections and economic opportunities than Arabs have virtually anywhere else in the Middle East.

He knows all of that.

So, when he said, so innocently, “What’s wrong with Jews being a minority?” he probably forgot who was in the audience. Maybe he thought he was talking to a Students for Justice in Palestine crowd, for whom a Jewish minority in the Jewish state would be like manna from heaven.

But he wasn’t. There were some proud Zionists in the audience, and I was one of them.

I’m a Jew who was born in an Arab country, where my ancestors were a minority for centuries. The stories I heard were not of human rights and equality. They were stories about surviving by behaving — by keeping our heads down and never forgetting our second-class status. My grandparents in Morocco never got to fight for their rights, as Arabs do in Israel. They couldn’t.

That’s why for 1900 years Jews from all over the world dreamed and yearned to return home to Zion and Jerusalem. That’s why the Zionist movement fought so hard for the rebirth of the Jewish state. Because the Jewish experience of being a vulnerable minority in a hostile land is certainly not one we want to relive. 

For Makdisi to suggest that it’s OK for Jews to become dhimmis again, in their own state, well, if you ask me, that’s not very moral.

Guess what? The world needs Israel

Since its inception, Israel has been a country under siege. When it’s not attacked by terrorist forces, it’s attacked by diplomatic ones. Over the past few decades, it has been condemned mainly for its failure to make peace with the Palestinians. This conflict has dominated global consciousness like no other. Throughout the Middle East, it has been used by dictators to divert attention away from the oppression of their people.

President Donald Trump’s eagerness to make the “ultimate deal,” which he reiterated during his visit to Israel, only continues the obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether we like it or not, it is the conflict, as much as anything, that has shaped Israel’s narrative throughout much of the world.

And yet, despite all that, something is changing. New winds are blowing. Slowly, quietly, a parallel narrative about Israel is beginning to emerge. And since the conflict with the Palestinians is so intractable, my sense is that this new narrative will play an increasingly greater role in shaping Israel’s future.

In essence, more and more countries are looking at Israel and saying: “Politics or no politics, these guys can help us. They’re doing things no one else is doing. They seem to have a pulse on this crazy and fast-changing new world we’re in.”

If your country, for example, has a problem with cybersecurity that can endanger your infrastructure, and you hear that Israel has unique technology that can fix the problem, are you going to pass on that solution because the Palestinian conflict is unresolved?

Similarly, if your people are running out of drinking water and you need Israel’s cutting-edge desalination technology, or if your country is under threat from Islamic terrorists and you know that Israelis have the most expertise in that area, will you let the Palestinian conflict get in the way of your core interests?

Giant nations like India and China, as well as emerging nations on the African continent, are not waiting for a peace breakthrough before engaging with Israel. Why should they? Doing business with Israel is in their interest. It boosts their economies. It strengthens their countries.

The same thing has been happening in Israel’s own backyard. In a 2012 report titled, “The Badly Kept Secret of Israel’s Trade Throughout the Muslim World,” Haaretz detailed Israel’s low-key but growing engagement with its Arab and Muslim neighbors, including the export of medical, agricultural and water technologies to the Gulf states.

In terms of security, Sunni-dominated countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states need Israel’s military might to fend off their sworn enemy, the predatory Iranian Shia regime. There’s a reason the Gulf states compiled a proposal to take “unprecedented steps toward normalization with Israel,” as reported last week in the Wall Street Journal.

They need Israel.

Sure, they had to throw in the obligatory statements about Israel making gestures to the Palestinians. But don’t kid yourself– these requests have softened with the years. They’re a sign of the shifting tides. These Arab countries are feeling vulnerable and they need help, even from Israel. Drumming up hatred for the Jewish state because of the Palestinian problem is not as good for business as it used to be.

None of this means that Israel shouldn’t make every effort to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians, regardless of the odds. A solution is strongly in Israel’s interest. And in global diplomacy, optics matter and effort counts, even if it ends in failure.

Drumming up hatred for the Jewish state because of the Palestinian problem is not as good for business as it used to be.

To its credit, though, Israel has never let the failure of peace and the presence of war demoralize the nation. While much of the world condemned the country, and hostile neighbors launched attacks, Israel kept right on innovating to meet the challenges of the modern world. Instead of being paralyzed by a siege mentality, the little Jewish state pushed relentlessly to build a thriving nation, with all of its flaws and imperfections.

And now, suddenly it seems, this tiny nation is in big demand. From medical breakthroughs to green technology to cybersecurity to digital innovation to water conservation to food security, Israel is at the forefront of creating solutions for the new century.

This is not Start-Up Nation as a tool for better hasbara, or positive propaganda. This is Start-Up Nation as a tool to better the world.

It must make Palestinian leaders sick to see the hated Zionist state start to thrive on a global scale. Maybe they were hoping that by refusing all peace offers, glorifying terror and attacking Israel’s legitimacy, they would make Israel implode. The opposite happened.

We can only hope that, one day, they too will realize that building hatred for the Jewish state is bad for peace and bad for business.


Israeli Light #3 – Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem of Holon, Israel

I received two urgent emails on Friday morning, May 5, asking me to contact Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, the Rabbi of Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol in Holon, Israel with whom my congregation was in a sister synagogue relationship. Both asked me to extend Galit my emotional support.

One came from Rabbi Nir Barkin, the Director of Domim, a program funded jointly by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) that links Israeli synagogues with Diaspora congregations. The other was from my ARZA President, Rabbi Joshua Weinberg.

Earlier that day in Jerusalem, Rabbi Noa Sattat, the Executive Director of Israel’s Religious Action Center, asked me to give Galit a hug for her that night when my leadership tour would be spending Shabbat with her congregation.

None of the three explained what had occurred that provoked them to reach out to me. I am well aware of how challenging Galit’s work is and I assumed they were just encouraging me to be as supportive as I could be.

Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem began this Holon Reform community located southeast of Tel Aviv five years ago. A thriving city of 250,000 mostly secular middle-class Jews, it is fertile ground for the growth of non-Orthodox liberal Judaism. Given Galit’s keen intellect, open heart, liberalism, and her infectious enthusiasm, if anyone can build a community there, she can.

Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol does not yet have its own building. It rents space for services and classes and has enormous potential to be a center of Reform Jewish life in Holon. Its congregants include people of every walk of life and many highly educated and professionally productive members. For example, the community’s chair is Heidi Pries, a researcher, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University School of Social Work. Her husband Ori is a lead web developer in a Tel Aviv-based web company. Another member, Anat Dotan-Azene, is the Executive Director of the Fresco Dance Company and her husband Uri is the tech director of a leading post production sound studio for Israeli television and film. Another member, Michal Tzuk-Shafir, is a leading litigator in the Israeli Supreme Court and was President Shimon Peres’ (z’’l) legal advisor. Her husband Nir is an industrial engineer working as an information systems manager. Galit’s husband Adar is the former chief inspector of civic studies and political education of the Israeli Ministry of Education and is the soon-to-be manager of teachers’ training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In association with her congregation, Galit created a Reform Jewish elementary school that is a part of Israel’s national secular school system. More than 100 children are enrolled in kindergarten, first and second grades and a grade is being added every year.

Despite all the activity, Kodesh v’Chol faces substantial financial and space challenges because unlike Israel’s orthodox synagogues and yeshivot, the Reform and Conservative movements receive no government funds due to the political hegemony of the Orthodox political parties.

In the secular city of Holon, Galit did not anticipate what was to take place the night before my leadership group joined her for Shabbat services, which turned out to be the reason for the two emails and Noa Sattat’s concern.

Galit’s elementary school had been offered classroom space in a Holon public school for this coming year by the Holon municipality, and a meeting was planned on the night before our arrival with all the parents. However, four uninvited parents from the public school that was hosting Galit’s congregation’s school crashed the meeting and began screaming obscenities against Reform Judaism, Rabbi Cohen-Kedem and the planned-for presence of the students in the local public school building.

They viciously threatened Galit and warned that the children themselves would be in danger should the congregation’s school be on the premises. They said that they would spit on the children.

Galit confessed to me that she lost her cool, but when I asked what that meant, it was clear (recalling Michelle Obama) that though Galit was deeply offended and upset by the behavior of these parents, ‘when they went low she went high.’

Galit called the principal of the school and though apologetic and embarrassed, she would not take action against the offending parents.

Galit called the municipal authorities who had given the Kodesh V’Chol School its space and demanded that they find new classroom space. At this time, we are waiting to learn where the school will be housed.

I and our group were stunned, but in hindsight, we should not have been surprised. The Reform movement in Israel still has a long way to go in establishing itself as broadly as possible.

At the moment the Israeli Reform movement attracts 8% of all Israelis. According to surveys, however, when Israelis are asked about their attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, between 30% and 40% say that if there were a Reform or Conservative synagogue in their neighborhood, they would attend.

I told Galit how proud I am of her for the dignity and resolve with which she stood her ground and responded with moral indignation to those offending parents. I was moved as well that she placed the welfare of the children first. She refuses now to use this public school out of concern for the well-being of the children.

I also expressed my own conviction that this ugly incident could be a watershed moment for her community.

When word spread of the Thursday night encounter, many more families showed up for services. There were more than a hundred men, women and children singing and praying together. The children came under a tallit for a special blessing. Modern Hebrew poetry and music was sung along with music from the American Reform movement. The service was warm-hearted, upbeat and joyful.

Galit delivered a passionate and moving sermon based on two verses from the weekly Torah portion Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) – “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart” and “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

She did not mention the incident from the night before, but everyone understood the context of her remarks.

Galit represented the very best of Judaism generally and the Israeli Reform movement specifically.

That was a Shabbat service I will never forget and Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem has shown herself to be one of the bright lights in the firmament of Israeli leaders.

Kevin Pillar of the Toronto Blue Jays on Oct. 15, 2016. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Kevin Pillar suspended by Blue Jays for homophobic slur

The Toronto Blue Jays suspended their center fielder Kevin Pillar for two games after he hurled an anti-gay slur at an opposing pitcher.

Pillar used the slur against Jason Motte of the Atlanta Braves during a game Wednesday night when he thought the pitcher tried to “quickpitch” him — throw a pitch before he was ready to hit in the batter’s box.

The Jewish player was quick to apologize for the incident.

“I was ashamed. I regret saying it,” he told reporters before another game against the Braves on Thursday. “I’m going to be used as an example of how words can really offend a lot of people.”

Pillar, known as one of the top defensive outfielders in the major leagues, will be able to return on Saturday, when the Blue Jays play the Baltimore Orioles. He will also be fined an undisclosed amount.

Carl Reiner in the HBO documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” Photo courtesy of HBO

Carl Reiner, 95, dishes his secrets to longevity

The first thing Carl Reiner does every morning is pick up the paper and read the obituary section to check if he’s named there.

“If I’m not, I’ll have my breakfast”— or so he says in the charming and appropriately titled HBO documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.”

Then the 95-year-old actor, writer and director, the creator of the “Dick Van Dyke Show” — “my greatest achievement,” he tells JTA — goes to his computer to work on his latest project, a book. In fact, that’s what he was doing when a reporter calls to talk about the film and their shared genesis in the Bronx (and not necessarily in that order).

Reiner, however, is not entirely in a reflective mood and dismisses the invitation to reminisce.

“You know,” he says, “I wrote three books about growing up in the Bronx.”

Instead, he quickly brings the conversation into the present.

“It’s funny you mention the [Loew’s] Paradise [Theater on the Grand Concourse]. While we’re talking I’m working with a graphic designer,” he says. “We’re putting together a book of posters of movies that influenced me as I was growing up. Movies and TV moved me more than anything. Eddie Cantor. Jack Benny. Fibber McGee and Molly.”

The book — tentatively titled “Carl Reiner Alive at 95 Recalling Movies He Loved” — is one of several recently published or in the works in his crowded pipeline. These include a newly released children’s book, “You Say God Bless You for Sneezing and Farting,” and the forthcoming memoir “Too Busy to Die.”

Staying busy is one of the bromides offered in the the heartwarming HBO film Reiner hosts. The idea for “If You’re Not in the Obit” percolated from an obituary Reiner read for actress Polly Bergen, who died in 2014 at age 84.

“It scared the bejeebers out of me,” he says in the film.

The obit, Reiner goes on, stayed with him.

“How come we got the extra years and we’re thriving?” he wondered.

Mel Brooks, left, and Norman Lear, center, with Carl Reiner in “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” Photo courtesy of HBO


So at the suggestion of his nephew, the producer George Shapiro, Reiner set out to find what keeps some old people young. For example, he visits 102-year-old Ida Keeling, who does push-ups and jogs daily. She started running at 67 to overcome depression resulting from the drug-related murders of her two sons.

Among others appearing in this delightful film are Patricia Morrison, 101, who starred in the original productions of “Kiss Me Kate” and “The King and I”; comic actress Betty White, 94, and fashion icon Iris Apfel, 94.

“People ask me where I get my vitality,” Apfel says, “and to tell you the truth, I don’t have a clue.”

A funny bone is one thing that almost all the people interviewed had in common. For example, the late Fyvush Finkel — who was 92 when he was interviewed in 2015 — says, “There’s nothing more boring than a clean old man.”

Kirk Douglas, 100, speaks about how his wife urged him to go on the road with a one-man show to show how he was recovering from a stroke.

“What does an actor who can’t talk wait for? Silent pictures to come back?” he asks.

They also shared a zest for life, a joie de vivre. Among those interviewed were 93-year-old Harriette Thompson, the oldest woman ever to finish a marathon, and Jim “Pee-Wee” Martin, who fought in D-Day and still parachutes today.

The film doesn’t provide a definitive answer to living a long life.

“I think it’s partly your genes,” Reiner says. “Also, it’s your environment. Also, if you have a funny bone; if you grew up in a family with a sense of humor.”

For Reiner, at least, religion or spirituality hasn’t played much of a role in his longevity. He didn’t attend Hebrew school growing up.

“I got a bootleg bar mitzvah,” he says. “An old Jew taught me just enough to sneak by.”

Reiner’s spirituality hasn’t increased much with age — his belief in a higher power was a casualty of World War II.

“Six million people died in the Holocaust and 6 million others yelling to God, ‘Please stop this f***er,’ and He didn’t.”

Reiner does, however, point to family and friendships as an important aspect of achieving old age, noting in the film, “The key to longevity is to interact with other people.”

His support system includes multiple Emmy Award winner Norman Lear and longtime buddy Mel Brooks. If not reflective about the Bronx, Reiner is more than willing to talk about his 67-year friendship with Brooks.

“Mel and I go back to 1950, the first day I came to the ‘Show of Shows,’” he says, recalling the 90-minute variety show featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. “I was hired as an actor, to be a straight man for Sid. Mel was in the office. He wasn’t on the [show’s] writing staff yet. He was working for Sid, giving him jokes.

“I came in and didn’t know who he was. But Mel was standing there doing a Jewish pirate, saying, ‘You don’t know how hard it is to set sail. It’s $3.87 for a yard of sail cloth. I can’t afford to pillage and plunder anymore.’

“So I just started interviewing him, and I just interviewed him for the next 10 years.”

The pirate warped into the 2000 Year Old Man — a routine they performed at parties and made a private recording “for our non-anti-Semitic friends,” Reiner quips. “Cary Grant loved it and asked if he could have a dozen records. He was going to England and wanted it for his trip. You know they speak English there.

“When he got back he said, ‘she loved it.’ We asked, ‘Who?’ and he said, ‘the Queen Mother,’” he says. “What an endorsement. The biggest shiksa in the world loved it.”

Reiner and Brooks became inseparable buddies; an intense friendship that continues to this day. Reiner says that what helped cement their relationship was that their wives, Estelle Reiner and Anne Bancroft, got along. Bancroft, an Academy Award-winning actress, died in 2005, and Estelle Reiner passed away in 2008.

“It was easy; it was a foursome,” Reiner says. “Mel still comes over almost every night. We watched ‘Captain Blood’ yesterday.”

Who decides what to watch? “We talk it over,” he explains. “We’ll see anything on that’s worth a look. We also watch journalism — Rachel Maddow, who knows that Trump is a schmuck.” (That’s an opinion Reiner frequently shares about the president with his 169,000 followers on Twitter.)

In addition to his collaborations with Brooks, Reiner has enjoyed a long and enviable career — of which he sees creating, writing and appearing in the legendary “Dick Van Dyke Show” as a pinnacle. Reiner calls Van Dyke, 91, “the most agile human being I’ve ever seen in my life” — a talent that he demonstrates in the film, dancing and singing with his wife, Arlene.

Van Dyke, as it happens, also authored a book on aging, its title encapsulating his philosophy: “Keep Moving.”

Then again, three years before Van Dyke’s book was published, in 2015 he married Arlene, a makeup artist.  She happens to be half his age — perhaps  another key to a long life.

“If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” premieres on HBO at 8 p.m. June 5.

People walking through the mostly haredi Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, Israel, on July 16, 2015. Photo by Flash90

Israel’s demographic future: Crowded and very religious

Israel’s projected future looks a lot like a visit to the Jerusalem central bus station: crowded and very religious.

According to a government report to be released in full next week, the Jewish state’s population will double in about 40 years. Some 29 percent — or 5.25 million of its projected 18 million residents — will be haredi Orthodox Jews. That’s more than triple the current 9 percent.

“Israel will have the highest population density in the Western world,” Sergio DellaPergola, a preeminent Israeli demographer and member of the report’s steering committee, told JTA. “Interestingly, haredim will overtake Arabs as the largest minority.”

The Central Bureau of Statistics revised upward its previous projection, made in 2012, that the population will reach 15.5 million in 2059, with 4.5 million haredim. DellaPergola said the bureau had wrongly assumed Israel’s fertility rate would continue to decline.

If this report proves accurate, Israel — with a land area of some 8,000 square miles — will be more densely populated than the West Bank and the Gaza Strip taken together are today. Some experts have warned of impending disaster, but DellaPergola said Israel still has room to expand outside its geographic center, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem region, in what Israelis call the “peripheria,” or periphery.

“Israel has a huge area that is very underpopulated,” he said. “If you can distribute the population more equally across the periphery, density is not a problem. But I haven’t seen much strategy from the government.”

The government has implemented a development plan focused on poor rural towns, but a State Comptroller’s report released last week accused former housing minister Uri Ariel of misappropriating tens of millions of shekels earmarked for such places.

Gilad Malach, who analyzed the Central Bureau of Statistics report for the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, noted that other societies have proven able to adapt to high population density.

“It’s not necessarily a disaster,” he told JTA. “Singapore and Hong Kong are even more populated [than Israel is projected to be], and they are successful states. Great cities also function almost like states.”

Israel is growing rapidly mostly because of its birth rate, which DellaPergola said is the highest of the world’s 100 most developed countries, “some of which aren’t that developed.”

Once exceptionally fertile, Arab-Israeli women now have an average of 3.13 children, the same as their Jewish fellow citizens. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics report, Arabs will comprise 20 percent of the Israeli population in 2059, compared to the current 21 percent.

By contrast, after ticking downward when child subsidies were slashed in 2003, the haredi fertility rate has stabilized the past five years at 6.9 children per woman. Malach said the projected haredi population boom should be a “call to action” for Israel. He recommended the government, along with civil society, invest in haredi education and workforce integration, as well as rethink its large-family policies.

The idea is that as the haredi community becomes a bigger part of Israeli society, it must hold its own in the economy — but some current government policies incentivize haredim to remain out of the workforce. Hundreds of thousands of haredi men receive government stipends of $120 to $215 a month to study in yeshiva. Just under half of them do not work, although the percentage has been unevenly decreasing for over a decade.

Haredi families also disproportionately benefit from monthly government allowances of $42 to $52 per child.

“If we focus on policy regarding pro-natality, and specifically integration of the ultra-Orthodox into society, the dramatic growth predictions may not be fulfilled,” Malach said. “It would also be good for the prosperity of the State of Israel.”

Although hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into haredi education and employment in recent years, child allowances were restored in 2016 as a condition of the haredi political parties joining the governing coalition.

DellaPergola agreed that a change in government policies could lower the haredi fertility rate. But he insisted the Central Bureau of Statistics report was accurate to within “hundreds of thousands,” saying it had taken into account the trend toward haredi employment.

Moshe Friedman, the CEO of Kamatech, a nonprofit that helps bring haredim into the high-tech industry, said there is no reason to fear the growth of his community. He said his group has trained or found jobs for 7,000 people since it started five years ago, and that he cannot accommodate everyone who wants to participate. A 40-person cybersecurity course he recently opened with Cisco got 900 applicants, he said.

“I see a really good trend of haredim who want to be part of society, part of the economy,” Friedman told JTA. “I understand from this new report the importance of the work we are doing to help the haredim integrated into society. So I think it will be OK.”

Can gay and lesbian teens find a home in Orthodoxy?

By eighth grade, Micha Thau knew he was gay. But he also knew that being gay was not acceptable in many of the Orthodox spaces he inhabited. So he buried that part of himself.

But it didn’t stay buried. He began to suffer headaches, vertigo and other physical symptoms he attributes to his feelings of intense isolation. He relished days when the symptoms would send him to the doctor, just because “I got to leave the hellhole that was my life.”

“There were times when it was just crushing,” said Thau, 18, who graduates from Shalhevet High School next month. “I thought it was over, like I really could see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Youth in Thau’s position face few options, none particularly rosy. They can quit Orthodoxy and live out gay lives, either as secular Jews or within another branch of Judaism. They can stay in Orthodoxy and renounce a part of themselves, living in celibacy or difficult relationships. Or they can do as Thau did and fight for openness and inclusion, and risk becoming poster children.

Still, as the secular world increasingly has embraced same-sex couples, the Orthodox has not been left totally behind. A number of congregations and communities, pulled by the conscience of some of their members, are taking a hard, wrenching look at their laws and traditions, and how they impact Orthodox youth.

When Thau came out during his sophomore year to Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, and Principal Rabbi Noam Weissman, he was literally shaking. The administrators were surprised by the toll it had taken just to talk to them.

“We thought we had done an amazing job” promoting inclusion, Segal told the Journal. “And it turned out he had waited to come out to us because he was scared — he didn’t know what the school’s position was.”

Shalhevet student Micha Thau last summer at the Jerusalem gay pride parade. Photo courtesy of Micha Thau

Segal has since emerged as an advocate for teens like Thau. In an opinion column in the Shalhevet school newspaper, he called the dilemma they face “the biggest challenge to emunah [faith] of our time.”

Thau’s coming out has turned into something like a coming out for the entire Modern Orthodox community in Los Angeles: a highly visible test case for a virtually invisible issue. Thau has joined with Shalhevet’s administration to reshape perceptions of lesbians, gays and bisexuals in a religious community pulled in opposing directions — toward acceptance by its modernity and toward silence by its Orthodoxy.

The letter of the law

For the young people caught up in that struggle, the root of the problem lies in Leviticus, which labels gay sex a toevah, most often translated as an abomination, and, a couple of chapters later, prescribes the death penalty as punishment.

Strains of Judaism differ in how this law, like most laws, is applied. Reform Judaism suspends the prohibition, allowing clergy to officiate same-sex marriages. The two greater Los Angeles synagogues with outreach programs for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Beth Chayim Chadashim in Mid-City Los Angeles, are aligned with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Conservative Judaism openly grapples with the law. As of a 2006 Rabbinical Assembly decision, gays and lesbians have been welcomed into Conservative congregations and rabbinical posts, but sex between men remains prohibited — the 2006 ruling did not address sex between women — and deliberations continue on same-sex marriage.

Orthodoxy generally adheres to the letter of the law, and homosexuality is no exception. Though outright hostility toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals is less common in the United States than it was before legalized same-sex marriage, so too is unconditional acceptance. Orthodox teens struggling with their sexual orientation in this environment can’t be sure how their communities will react if they come out, or whether they will risk losing friends and family.

Photo by Fabio Sexio/Agencia O Globo

It’s impossible to know how many teens are caught between their Jewish faith and their sexual orientation. Within the general population, multiple studies have found that around 3.5 percent of respondents self-identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual. But even those studies may not reflect an accurate count because not all respondents provide truthful answers, and many surveys, including the U.S. Census Bureau, do not ask about sexual orientation.

At Shalhevet alone, a school with an enrollment of slightly more than 200, general population estimates suggest there are something like eight lesbian, gay or bisexual students. Thau said he currently is the only out gay student at the school.

“For every Micha Thau at Shalhevet, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of gay, lesbian, transgender students at Orthodox institutions struggling, fearful, worried, self-destructive,” said Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. and an activist for LGBT Jews.

Walking a fine line

For Modern Orthodox communities, the word of biblical law translates practically into a stance that neither embraces same-sex partnerships nor outright condemns those who choose to undertake them.

“On the one hand, we’re not going to support it,” Rabbi Steven Weil, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union, one of the major national Orthodox institutions in the United States, told the Journal. “But on the other hand, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that gay and lesbian members feel as much a part of the community as anyone else.”

Nonetheless, the model of an Orthodox marriage, without a doubt, is a husband and wife. Weil said, “Where there’s a little bit of pushback is where a couple wants to be discussed as ‘Mr. and Mr.’ or ‘Mrs. and Mrs.’ ”

For teens contemplating their romantic and religious futures, the range of answers they might receive from rabbis and school administrators is wide. For now, Shalhevet seems to represent the most progressive response they might receive in Los Angeles.

Valley Torah High School in Valley Village occupies a more conservative place on the spectrum. Reached by phone, Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, the head of school, was quick to note that intolerance against gays, lesbians and bisexuals is not welcome.

“With my students, I feel it’s important that they understand that this is not something that we look down upon,” he said. “This is not a choice that people make.”

However, he wouldn’t budge on the issue of Jewish law: The rules are clear, and a student who wanted to live an out gay or lesbian life at the Orthodox high school would run into trouble.

“This would be inconsistent with the atmosphere — for a kid to say, ‘I’m gay, I’m acting out on it and I want to be a member of Valley Torah in good standing,’ ” he said. “It’s inconsistent from a halachic viewpoint.”

Asked whether such a student could, for instance, lead prayer services or school activities, he answered, “In 31 years, it hasn’t happened. But honestly, let’s just sort of change the question. I’d have the same dilemma if a kid came to me and said, ‘Rabbi, I love Valley Torah but I’m just eating at McDonald’s every night. That’s who I am.’ ”

At YULA Girls High School, the policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual students is in flux.

“We’ve had internal discussions, but we haven’t yet formulated a policy,” said Head of School Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, who plans to leave YULA Girls this summer after leading it since 2008. “It would obviously include the greatest amount of respect for the students and understanding of whatever they’re going through.”

He said the heads of the area’s Orthodox schools — including YULA Girls, YULA Boys, Valley Torah and Shalhevet — meet periodically to discuss important issues, including this one. As of now, they haven’t formulated a conclusion. But Lieberman expects that soon most local Orthodox schools will provide statements or policies on the matter.

As attitudes about homosexuality have shifted, with gay rights and narratives becoming more mainstream, hard-line positions have become more difficult to maintain.

Thau recalled telling his grandfather that he was gay and getting a surprising answer.

“He said, ‘So?’ ” Thau recalled. “And he said, ‘If you had told me that 10 years ago, I would have had a very different reaction.’ ”

Thau went on, “As much as the Orthodox community tries to isolate itself from the secular world, there are always cracks in the wall — no matter how high the wall is. Culture will always bleed through.”

Caught in the middle

But ensconced behind the walls of a Torah-observant lifestyle, many teens still face an awful choice between God and love.

“When you’re living in the Orthodox community, being gay and being religious — they’re not cohesive,” said Jeremy Borison, 25, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in Los Angeles. “So me, if I had to choose one, I was gonna stay with the religious side of it.”

He said he’s now able to balance his faith and sexual orientation — but only because he found a welcoming community in B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson, where Senior Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky has been outspoken in favor of greater acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Others, like David, a gay man in his 20s who grew up in an Orthodox family in Los Angeles, no longer feel like they have a place in the Orthodox community.

Some of the gay and lesbian individuals interviewed for this story, including David, asked not to be identified by their real names or even the schools they attended, fearing they and their families would face sigma and untoward gossip. David still is wary about sharing his story publicly, for that reason.

At the Orthodox high school he attended in L.A., he knew he was attracted boys, but thought it was a phase, something all teenagers go through. There were no Orthodox Jews who were gay, as far as he knew; it simply wasn’t conceivable.

He had a good time during his high school years, though, enjoying his religious education and even getting close to some of the rabbis. But by the time he found himself in yeshiva in Israel, in a completely different environment, he realized his feelings weren’t going to go away. His first reaction was to treat them as something wrong with him that needed to be fixed.

A good deal of therapy later, David is leading an out gay life, but he finds that he’s uncomfortable in Orthodox spaces. His experience didn’t make him hate Judaism; he’s still finding his place in the religion. But he no longer considers himself Orthodox. How could he feel welcome in a community that considers who he is to be a great sin?

Every problem begs a solution

From time to time, students approach Stulberger, the head of school at Valley Torah, struggling with feelings of attraction to members of the same gender. Stulberger said he has “helped many students over the years in their struggle — but in a private way.”

His first reaction when students come to him with this issue is to assure them, “We are here to talk to; we are here to help you.” But after that he draws a line: “What I won’t do is give the indication that giving into your same-sex attraction is something that’s acceptable.”

To these students, he presents two options. One is celibacy. The other is to “get help, find the right professional who can help you to reorient.”

Stulberger alleges there are thousands of young men who have changed their sexual orientation with professional help. While the scientific and LGBT communities dispute its effectiveness, the internet is filled with testimonies from people who claim to lead happy, heterosexual lives as a result of “reparative therapy.” Stulberger even knows a handful of them, he said.

One of those is Naim, an Orthodox man in his early 30s who attended Valley Torah and who asked to be identified only by his middle name. For years, he struggled with his attraction to men but rejected the idea of living an out gay life.

“I didn’t want that lifestyle,” he said. “I wanted to get married. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to do what men do — period.”

Photo by Eitan Arom

By the time he was 28, he said, he’d been in and out of rehab for drug addiction and was addicted to gay porn. Then, he made an electrifying discovery on the internet.

“There’s a whole community out there — Jews and non-Jews alike — that don’t want to live that lifestyle and have struggled with it and gotten help, and now they’re married,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible, God is talking to me right now. Why did it take 28 years to tell me this?’ ”

He enrolled in reparative therapy designed around what he called a “gender wholeness model.” He identified factors such as a troubled relationship with his father and an unhealthy identification with traits he admired in other men as the cause of his same-sex attraction, which he referred to as SSA. He treated it like a condition that needed to be fixed, he said, and he began to heal.

“My attraction for men has diminished significantly,” he said. “Usually, my SSA, on a scale of 1 to 10, is at a 0.”

Now, he’s looking for a wife.

“There are still days when I struggle every once in a while,” he said. “Thank God it doesn’t happen very often.”

Taking a pledge

Told that a Los Angeles high school recommends reparative therapy, Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or of JQ International, a West Hollywood-based Jewish LGBT support and education organization, was horrified.

“What it does is, it encourages people to kill themselves,” she said. California law bans the practice for mental health providers.

David moved away from his Orthodox community after high school and hasn’t returned, but some of its stigmas and taboos lingered with him. He sought out reparative therapy while in college, and while he didn’t find it particularly traumatizing, he said it made him hate himself. Since then, he’s blocked much of it out in his mind.

Now, Segal and Thau at Shalhevet are asking other Jewish schools to affirm in a pledge, written jointly by Thau and the administration, that they “will not recommend, refer, or pressure students toward ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion therapy.’ ”

“We believe that’s damaging,” Segal said of the practice.

The pledge includes five other points — which Segal insisted schools can adopt altogether or individually — including an assurance that gay, lesbian and transgender students won’t be excluded from school activities and will be provided with support services. The full statement is available online at As of now, Shalhevet is the only school to have signed it.

Asked about the pledge, Lieberman, the head of YULA Girls, said, “It’s very powerful,” adding that if YULA Girls were to issue a policy about LGBT students, “it would definitely gravitate toward that.”

The idea of the pledge has its origins in Thau’s coming out to Segal and Weissman.

“What could we do?” Segal said he asked the teen. “What could we have communicated to you, Micha, that would have helped?”

Photo courtesy of Builders of Jewish Education

The administrators realized that communicating anything at all would have been a good start. Even though both men assumed a gay student would be welcomed, Thau struggled through years of uncertainty because they had never said as much publicly.

“Schools and communities and shuls should have this conversation and decide what they believe, and then publish it,” Segal said — even if it is less progressive than what Shalhevet came up with.

Bat-Or said she hopes other schools will follow Shalhevet’s lead and take steps toward inclusiveness, for instance by circulating JQ’s helpline for LGBT Jews and advertising their counselor’s offices as safes spaces for students questioning their sexual orientation.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 150,” she said of Shalhevet’s efforts. “I really mean that. It took huge courage for [Segal] and for Micha to get together and to do this.”

A movement in the making

Cases like Micha’s make it increasingly difficult for Orthodox communities to ignore issues faced by their lesbian, gay and bisexual members.

“Centrist Orthodoxy is conflicted and not admitting the conflict,” said Greenberg, a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi who came out years later and co-founded Eshel, a Boston-based organization that promotes inclusiveness in Orthodox communities. “They are pulled by much more traditional frames, and they are pulled by the human realities they’re facing.”

At least in some communities, that conflict has meant a long, slow drift toward acceptance.

Elissa Kaplan, a clinical psychologist who came out as lesbian 15 years ago while living in an Orthodox community in suburban New Jersey, has watched attitudes change before her eyes.

“The world has changed since then,” Kaplan, 55, said. “Gay marriage is legal now in the civil world. That’s enormous, and it has an impact. It matters. Even people who say they are not influenced in their attitudes by what happens in the secular world — it’s just not true.”

She’s felt the impact of those changes herself, she said.

“My wife and I would go into one of the kosher restaurants in the area and might get dirty looks from people,” she said. “That really doesn’t happen anymore.”

In Los Angeles, that change has played out in parlor meetings where community members get together to grapple with the issue of inclusiveness. In March, some two dozen Jewish teens and parents gathered in the dining room of a Beverlywood home, sitting on folding chairs and nibbling on cookies and cut fruit as they listened to Greenberg speak.

The parlor meeting was the work of Eshel L.A., a local group allied with the Boston-based organization. It first convened in June 2015, when Harry Nelson, a local health care attorney, invited community members to his home to meet Greenberg and Eshel’s other co-founder, Miryam Kabakov, the group’s executive director.

From there, they formed a steering committee. That December, they had the first of many parlor meetings on topics like how to curb homophobic comments at the Shabbat table and how to talk to their children about same-sex couples.

“The thing that struck me most with this issue is that the Orthodox tradition that I so value and the Orthodox lifestyle I so love were creating pain, intolerable pain, for people who are gay,” said Julie Gruenbaum Fax, one of Eshel L.A.’s principal organizers and a former Jewish Journal staff writer.

Fax and her peers are looking to create Orthodox spaces where lesbians, gays and bisexuals can exist openly and comfortably. Sometimes, that entails actually grappling with Jewish law. At the parlor meeting in March, Greenberg, 60, who has salt-and-pepper stubble and a professorial air, moved fluently through the halachah and commentary on the topic of homosexuality.

On the face of it, the law as it is appears in the Torah seems clear enough. Leviticus 18:22 states, “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.”

But Greenberg pointed out to his Beverlywood audience that the rabbinate has created work-arounds for all kinds of mandates and prohibitions, such as those against carrying objects outside the home on Shabbat or farming during a jubilee year. The laws governing these exceptions are complex, but the point is, they are negotiable — unlike homosexuality, for most Orthodox rabbis.

During his presentations, Greenberg is careful to allow room for dissent and questions, and community members frequently take him up. One woman at the meeting, who wore a long black skirt and said she’d adopted Orthodoxy later in life, admitted that the concept of full acceptance for gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community makes her uncomfortable.

“I did this to bring boundaries to my life, to my kids,” she said of her decision to begin strictly observing Jewish law. “So when we start to open things up,  it scares me.”

She continued on the topic of boundaries: If you’re going to toss out the prohibition on gays and lesbians, she suggested, why not let women wear jeans instead of skirts?

Thau was sitting in the front row. As the woman went on, he turned around and began to cut her off, looking upset, but Greenberg gently put a hand on his shoulder, and Thau sat back in his chair. During an interview a week later, Thau said he was grateful to Greenberg for stopping him from saying something he might regret.

“I’m always in the hot seat as the poster boy for gay people, answering all the questions,” he said. “And it’s not a role I’m unwilling to take, but it is very difficult to be perfect all the time.”

Inching forward

Becoming a poster child is exactly what Nechama wants to avoid if she decides to come out.

A student at Shalhevet who asked that her real name not to be used, Nechama said she’s only questioning her sexual identity. But if she were to come out, she would be hesitant to speak about it with too many people at her school.

“I just feel very uncomfortable with the idea of being gay in a Modern Orthodox school,” she said.

While the school itself is progressive enough, some students come from more conservative backgrounds, she said.

She said she hopes to remain Orthodox, even though she struggles with some of the Jewish laws she’d be obligated to observe. To the community at large, her only plea was for empathy.

“We’re teenagers and we’re going through confusing times,” she said. She urged peers and parents “just to hear everything out, because it’s kind of hard to be alone in something like this.”

For his part, Greenberg is clear-eyed about the work in front of him: Creating a fully accepting Orthodox community will be neither quick nor easy. But he holds it as the responsibility of Orthodox leaders to sympathize with members of their communities who struggle with their identities.

“If you’re not willing to suffer with that kid who is caught in the crosshairs of this cultural and religious conflict,” he said, “if you’re not willing to be with that kid, then you don’t deserve the role of leadership.”

From left: Steve Zimmer and Nick Melvoin

Charter schools the key issue as Jewish candidates seek LAUSD seat

Update: Steve Zimmer, LAUSD board president, conceded the May 16 runoff election for the District 4 seat, encompassing most of West Los Angeles and the West San Fernando Valley.

Ceding the race, Zimmer said he would not call his opponent, according to the Los Angeles Times. The contest between Zimmer, who has the support of unions, and Nick Melvoin, 31, backed by pro-charter school forces, was bitter at times, featuring sensational negative campaign ads and mailers.
Together with a win for pro-charter candidate Kelly Gonez in the Valley, Melvoin’s win signals a shift in favor of charter schools on the seven-member board. Election returns were not immediately available.

What normally might be a sleepy contest over a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board has instead become the latest proxy battle between teachers’ unions and charter schools.

The runoff between school board president Steve Zimmer, a longtime educator, and reform candidate Nick Melvoin has taken on an outsized significance and drawn record-setting campaign chests. Teachers’ groups, primarily United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), have worked toward electing Zimmer, while the California Charter Schools Association and other pro-charter forces have spent heavily for Melvoin. More than $7 million has been spent on the two candidates, records show.

The result is a race whose implications reach far beyond District 4, the Westside Los Angeles district the two men are competing to represent. All the major players — both candidates and the president of the teachers union, Alex Caputo-Pearl — are Jewish.

The two candidates face voters in a May 16 runoff after neither captured a majority of votes in a four-way primary in March. Zimmer came the closest with 47 percent, followed by Melvoin, with 33 percent.

To hear the teachers union say it, the race is about its very existence.

“It’s about whether we continue to have a civic institution of public education,” said Caputo-Pearl, standing outside the union’s Koreatown headquarters as a May Day march kicked off.

The march, he said, signaled the union’s participation in a national campaign “to resist all of the movements that we see coming out of the Trump administration.” Most presciently for the teachers is the fight against efforts, backed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, to promote what supporters call school choice and opponents like Caputo-Pearl brand as privatization.

UTLA’s rhetoric proposes an axis that runs through President Donald Trump, DeVos, billionaires such as Eli Broad who dabble in education reform, and Melvoin, who in 2015 expressed support for a Broad proposal to put half of Los Angeles students into charter schools.

“They intend to create a school system that is not for all kids and is a privatized system,” Caputo-Pearl said.

In a statement, Melvoin disputed that characterization, saying L.A. Unified already is failing students by graduating 7 out of 10 students without basic math skills.

“To me, that’s not a district that’s serving all kids,” he said in the statement.

For his part, Zimmer describes a district that, while not perfect, is trending upward.

“I’m not saying we’re doing well enough, but we are doing better,” he told the Journal earlier this year. “An honest narrative is: This is a district that is improving.”

By contrast, in an op-ed in 2015, Melvoin asserted the district was ripe for a “hostile takeover.” UTLA took those as fighting words.

“Sounds a lot like Steve Bannon saying everything needs to be blown up,” Caputo-Pearl said, referring to the Trump administration adviser known for his disdain for big government.

Melvoin dismissed Caputo-Pearl’s barbs as “childish taunts” in the statement.

A victory for pro-charter forces in District 4, along with another seat up for grabs in the San Fernando Valley between seventh-grade teacher Kelly Gonez, backed by charter advocates, and community organizer Imelda Padilla, with support from unions, would spell a power shift in favor of charter schools on the seven-member school board. Although the district is cautiously favorable to charters — it currently has more charter students than any other school district — pro-charter victories in the two runoffs could mean a board disposed even more favorably to growing its charter enrollment.

Melvoin paints his approach as an all-of-the-above stance rather than an indiscriminately pro-charter one.

But charter forces apparently see an opening in him. Parent Teacher Alliance, a group funded by the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), has mounted a muscular independent expenditure campaign on his behalf, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help him defeat Zimmer. Others who have spent heavily for him include Broad and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican.

Richard Garcia, a spokesman for CCSA’s advocacy arm, says it supports Melvoin because “he’s open to listening to all voices,” whereas Zimmer would “remain beholden” to unions.

UTLA has responded with a campaign of its own, blanketing the city with mailers supporting Zimmer and attacking Melvoin. One branded Melvoin the candidate most likely to “implement the Trump/DeVos education agenda in L.A.”

Caputo-Pearl doesn’t expect to be able to outspend his ideological opponents in this race. Instead, he’s relying on the union’s manpower to help re-elect Zimmer.

“What we have,” he said, “is the credibility of educators going door to door, being on the phones and standing up for a public education system for all students.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House on Feb. 15. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Under Trump, daylight re-emerges in US-Israel relationship

Just days before President Donald Trump’s first visit to Israel, the U.S.-Israel relationship is undergoing its first major crisis in the Trump era. ZOA’s Klein: “The President is getting bad advice.”

HOW IT STARTED: During a Sunday morning interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, Tillerson said that any decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would not be made for some time, adding that it would take consultations with Israel and the Palestinians to see if the move would advance the peace process. “I think it’ll be informed, again, by the parties that are involved in those talks,” Tillerson said. “And most certainly Israel’s view on whether Israel views it as being helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction.”

[This story originally appeared on]

Hours after the interview was broadcast, Netanyahu issued a rare statementresponding to Tillerson’s remarks. “Moving the American embassy to Jerusalem would not harm the peace process,” Netanyahu said. “On the contrary, it would advance it by correcting an historical injustice and by shattering the Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.” He repeated this statement at the weekly Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on Monday.

DID BIBI ADVISE TRUMP AGAINST MOVING? On Monday, in response to a Fox News report that Netanyahu told Trump not to move the embassy right away, the Prime Minister’s Office released partial transcripts of Netanyahu’s White House meeting as proof that he had urged the President to move the embassy. “The embassy – the PM supports moving it,” a summary of the Oval Office meeting read. During a working lunch at the White House, “the PM was asked about the embassy and explained [that moving it would not lead to bloodshed in the region, as some were trying to intimidate President Trump into believing.”

The Prime Minister’s office also released a transcript of a meeting between Ambassador Ron Dermer and former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn on January 16: “Dermer explained why moving the embassy would help advance peace and not the opposite. This would send the message that we are in Jerusalem to stay. Moving the embassy would force the other side to contend with the lie they’ve constructed – that Israel has no connection to Jerusalem – and will cause them to understand that Israel will be here forever with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Visiting the Wall: According to a report by Israel’s Channel 2, the U.S. advance team rebuffed a request from Netanyahu’s team to accompany Trump while he visits the Western Wall. According to the report, the US team explained that the site is part of disputed territory in the West Bank and not under Israeli sovereignty. An official in Netanyahu’s office expressed“astonishment” over the comment. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel has contacted the administration to discuss the matter.

REACTIONS: Abe Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), lambasted the White House for its “very serious misunderstandings” on sensitive and important issues to Israel and the Jewish people. “It makes many of us — who are hoping for a change in U.S.-Israel relations — nervous,” Foxman, the current Director of Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, told Jewish Insider. “I cannot believe that the traditionally pro-Palestinian functionaries in the American Consulate in Jerusalem are making the decisions on the Kotel and Jerusalem.”

The current CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, urged the White House to clarify its stance following the report. “The Kotel is 100% part of Israel and holy to Jews around [the] world,” Greenblatt wrote on Twitter.

“When a President or Prime Minister needs to put out record of a private conversation to defend themselves against the other or their domestic opposition, it’s not a good sign,” Aaron David Miller, Vice President for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told Jewish Insider. “Remember the agreement between these two [leaders] to manage differences by not going public?”

“Playing with the Jerusalem issue complicates not just the putative peace process, but everyone’s politics,” Miller explained. “If Trump wants to hang a ‘closed for the season’ sign on the peace process before it ever gets started, he should fool around with the Jerusalem issue.”

“The administration has boxed itself in by focusing on Jerusalem and not doing what every other administration (R or D) has done which is to punt the issue,” he added.

Dore Gold, former MFA Director General and current President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, defended Netanyahu’s action, saying the Prime Minister is right to push on Jerusalem as Israel commemorates the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. “Now that the administration is expressing strong determination to reach a final status deal, naturally Israelis are concerned about what happens to Jerusalem,” Gold said in an email. “This is a core value of national identity for Israelis which may not be fully appreciated by the outside world.”

Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who will be in Israel during Trump’s visit, was reportedly “furious” about Tillerson’s comments on the embassy. Mort Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), said on Monday that he is very disappointed with Trump’s handling of the issue. “I am very disappointed he hasn’t moved the embassy,” Klein told Jewish Insider in a phone interview. “It’s a mistake. This harms President Trump’s credibility and if the Arabs don’t respect his credibility, it is more likely that they would be making impossible demands.”

“The President is getting bad advice from some of his aides,” Klein continued. “All I say to his people is: the embassy hasn’t been moved for the 23 years since Oslo and you haven’t gotten peace. So the problem is obviously not moving the embassy to Jerusalem.” Klein elaborated that in recent meetings at the White House he told Trump aides, Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, that “moving the embassy would make the Palestinians and the Arab world understand that Trump is serious and doing what’s right and that the jig is up.”

Klein said he’s worried about Tillerson citing the current Secretary of State’s relationship with former Secretary of State James Baker. “I am concerned that Tillerson will begin to pressure Israel to take stands that they can’t take,” he said. “I am worried.”

A White House spokesperson told Jewish Insider, “The comments about the Western Wall were not authorized communication and they do not represent the position of the United States and certainly not of the President.”

In honor of Jewish refugees from Arab lands: Letter from a forgotten Jew

I am a forgotten Jew.

My roots are nearly 2,600 years old, my ancestors made landmark contributions to world civilization, and my presence was felt from North Africa to the Fertile Crescent — but I barely exist today. You see, I am a Jew from the Arab world. No, that’s not entirely accurate. I’ve fallen into a semantic trap. I predated the Arab conquest in just about every country in which I lived. When Arab invaders conquered North Africa, for example, I had already been present there for more than six centuries.

Today, you cannot find a trace of me in most of this vast region.

Try seeking me out in Iraq.

Remember the Babylonian exile from ancient Judea, following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE? Remember the vibrant Jewish community that emerged there and produced the Babylonian Talmud?

Do you know that in the ninth century, under Muslim rule, we Jews in Iraq were forced to wear a distinctive yellow patch on our clothing — a precursor of the infamous Nazi yellow badge — and faced other discriminatory measures? Or that in the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, we faced onerous taxes, the destruction of several synagogues, and severe repression?

And I wonder if you have ever heard of the Farhud, the breakdown of law and order, in Baghdad in June 1941. As an AJC specialist, George Gruen, reported:

“In a spasm of uncontrolled violence, between 170 and 180 Jews were killed, more than 900 were wounded, and 14,500 Jews sustained material losses through the looting or destruction of their stores and homes. Although the government eventually restored order… Jews were squeezed out of government employment, limited in schools, and subjected to imprisonment, heavy fines, or sequestration of their property on the flimsiest of charges of being connected to either or both of the two banned movements. Indeed, Communism and Zionism were frequently equated in the statutes. In Iraq the mere receipt of a letter from a Jew in Palestine [pre-1948] was sufficient to bring about arrest and loss of property.”

At our peak, we were 135,000 Jews in 1948, and we were a vitally important factor in virtually every aspect of Iraqi society. To illustrate our role, here is what the Encyclopedia Judaica wrote about Iraqi Jewry: “During the 20th century, Jewish intellectuals, authors, and poets made an important contribution to the Arabic language and literature by writing books and numerous essays.”

By 1950 other Iraqi Jews and I were faced with the revocation of citizenship, seizure of assets, and, most ominously, public hangings. A year earlier, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Sa’id had told the British ambassador in Amman of a plan to expel the entire Jewish community and place us at Jordan’s doorstep. The ambassador later recounted the episode in a memoir entitled From the Wings: Amman Memoirs, 1947-1951.

Miraculously, in 1951 about 100,000 of us got out, thanks to the extraordinary help of Israel, but with little more than the clothes on our backs. The Israelis dubbed the rescue Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.

Those of us who stayed lived in perpetual fear — fear of violence and more public hangings, as occurred on January 27, 1969, when nine Jews were hanged in the center of Baghdad on trumped-up charges, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis wildly cheered the executions. The rest of us got out one way or another, including friends of mine who found safety in Iran when it was ruled by the Shah.

Now there are no Jews left to speak of, nor are there monuments, museums, or other reminders of our presence on Iraqi soil for twenty-six centuries.

Do the textbooks used in Iraqi schools today refer to our one-time presence, to our positive contribution to the evolution of Iraqi society and culture? Not a chance. 2,600 years are erased, wiped out, as if they never happened. Can you put yourself in my shoes and feel the excruciating pain of loss and invisibility?

I am a forgotten Jew.

I was first settled in what is present-day Libya by the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy Lagos (323-282 BCE), according to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. My forefathers and foremothers lived continuously on this soil for more than two millennia, our numbers bolstered by Berbers who converted to Judaism, Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition, and Italian Jews crossing the Mediterranean.

I was confronted with the anti-Jewish legislation of the occupying Italian Fascists. I endured the incarceration of 2,600 fellow Jews in an Axis-run camp in 1942. I survived the deportation of 200 fellow Jews to Italy the same year. I coped with forced labor in Libya during the war. I witnessed Muslim rioting in 1945 and 1948 that left nearly 150 Libyan Jews dead, hundreds injured, and thousands homeless.

I watched with uncertainty as Libya became an independent country in 1951. I wondered what would happen to those 6,000 of us still there, the remnant of the 39,000 Jews who had formed this once-proud community — that is, until the rioting sent people packing, many headed for the newly established State of Israel.

The good news was that there were constitutional protections for minority groups in the newly established Libyan nation. The bad news was that they were completely ignored.

Within ten years of my native country’s independence, I could not vote, hold public office, serve in the army, obtain a passport, purchase new property, acquire majority ownership in any new business, or participate in the supervision of our community’s affairs.

By June 1967 the die was cast. Those of us who had remained, hoping against hope that things would improve in a land to which we were deeply attached and which, at times, had been good to us, had no choice but to flee. The Six-Day War created an explosive atmosphere in the streets. Eighteen Jews were killed, and Jewish-owned homes and shops were burned to the ground.

I and 4,000 other Jews left however we could, most of us with no more than a suitcase and the equivalent of a few dollars.

I was never allowed to return. I never recovered the assets I had left behind in Libya, despite promises by the government. In effect, it was all stolen — the homes, furniture, shops, communal institutions, you name it. Still worse, I was never able to visit the grave sites of my relatives. That hurt especially deeply. In fact, I was told that, under Colonel Qaddhafi, who seized power in 1969, the Jewish cemeteries were bulldozed and the headstones used for road building.

I am a forgotten Jew.

My experience — the good and the bad — lives on in my memory, and I’ll do my best to transmit it to my children and grandchildren, but how much can they absorb? How much can they identify with a culture that seems like a relic of a distant past that appears increasingly remote and intangible? True, a few books and articles on my history have been written, but— and here I’m being generous — they are far from best-sellers.

In any case, can these books compete with the systematic attempt by Libyan leaders to expunge any trace of my presence over two millennia? Can these books compete with a world that paid virtually no attention to the end of my existence?

Take a look at The New York Times index for 1967, and you’ll see for yourself how the newspaper of record covered the tragic demise of an ancient community. I can save you the trouble of looking — just a few paltry lines were all the story got.

I am a forgotten Jew.

I am one of hundreds of thousands of Jews who once lived in countries like Iraq and Libya. All told, we numbered close to 900,000 in 1948. Today we are fewer than 5,000, mostly concentrated in two moderate countries—Morocco and Tunisia.

We were once vibrant communities in Aden, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and other nations, with roots dating back literally 2,000 years and more. Now we are next to none.

Why does no one speak of us and our story? Why does the world relentlessly, obsessively speak of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars in the Middle East — who, not unimportantly, were displaced by wars launched by their own Arab brethren — but totally ignore the Jewish refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars?

Why is the world left with the impression that there’s only one refugee population from the Arab-Israeli conflict, or, more precisely, the Arab conflict with Israel, when, in fact, there are two refugee populations, and our numbers were somewhat larger than the Palestinians?

I’ve spent many sleepless nights trying to understand this injustice.

Should I blame myself?

Perhaps we Jews from Arab countries accepted our fate too passively. Perhaps we failed to seize the opportunity to tell our story. Look at the Jews of Europe. They turned to articles, books, poems, plays, paintings, and film to recount their story. They depicted the periods of joy and the periods of tragedy, and they did it in a way that captured the imagination of many non-Jews. Perhaps I was too fatalistic, too shell-shocked, too uncertain of my artistic or literary talents.

But that can’t be the only reason for my unsought status as a forgotten Jew. It’s not that I haven’t tried to make at least some noise; I have. I’ve organized gatherings and petitions, arranged exhibitions, appealed to the United Nations, and met with officials from just about every Western government. But somehow it all seems to add up to less than the sum of its parts. No, that’s still being too kind. The truth is, it has pretty much fallen on deaf ears.

You know that acronym — MEGO? It means “My eyes glazed over.” That’s the impression I often have when I’ve tried raising the subject of the Jews from Arab lands with diplomats, elected officials, and journalists — their eyes glaze over (TEGO).

No, I shouldn’t be blaming myself, though I could always be doing more for the sake of history and justice.

There’s actually a far more important explanatory factor.

We Jews from the Arab world picked up the pieces of our shattered lives after our hurried departures — in the wake of intimidation, violence, and discrimination — and moved on.

Most of us went to Israel, where we were welcomed. The years following our arrival weren’t always easy — we started at the bottom and had to work our way up. We came with varying levels of education and little in the way of tangible assets. But we had something more to sustain us through the difficult process of adjustment and acculturation: our immeasurable pride as Jews, our deeply rooted faith, our cherished rabbis and customs, and our commitment to Israel’s survival and well-being.

Some of us — somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of the total — chose to go elsewhere.

Jews from the French-speaking Arab countries gravitated toward France and Quebec. Jews from Libya created communities in Rome and Milan. Egyptian and Lebanese Jews were sprinkled throughout Europe and North America, and a few resettled in Brazil. Syrian Jews immigrated to the United States, especially New York, as well as to Mexico City and Panama City. And on it went.

Wherever we settled, we put our shoulder to the wheel and created new lives. We learned the local language if we didn’t already know it, found jobs, sent our children to school, and, as soon as we could, built our own congregations to preserve the rites and rituals that were distinctive to our tradition.

I would never underestimate the difficulties or overlook those who, for reasons of age or ill health or poverty, couldn’t make it, but, by and large, in a short time we have taken giant steps, whether in Israel or elsewhere.

I may be a forgotten Jew, but my voice will not remain silent. It cannot, for if it does, it becomes an accomplice to historical denial and revisionism.

I will speak out because I will not allow the Arab conflict with Israel to be defined unfairly through the prism of one refugee population only, the Palestinian.

I will speak out because what happened to me is now being done, with eerie familiarity, to other minority groups in the region, the Christians and Yazidis, and once again I see the world averting its eyes, as if denial ever solved anything.

I will speak out because I refuse to be a forgotten Jew.

David Harris is Chief Executive Officer at AJC, Edward and Sandra Meyer Office of the CEO; Senior Associate, St. Antony’s College, Oxford (2009-11)

Howard Jonas

Daily Kickoff: How Howard Jonas’ “worst mistake” made him billions | Haim hosts Hillary | Inside NYC’s Eruv | Schottenstein’s new sunglasses startup

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SPOTLIGHT: “How Telecom Speculator Howard Jonas Made Billions From Verizon, AT&T” by Thomas Gryta and Drew FitzGerald: “Jonas, who sold a startup to AT&T for $1.1 billion in 2000, just sold another one to Verizon for $3.1 billion. It is a big premium for an obscure company called Straight Path Communications Inc. that has just nine employees and has yet to build out a network. The 60-year-old cut his teeth selling hot dogs in the Bronx, N.Y., at the age of 14, studied economics at Harvard and eventually moved into the phone business with the founding of long-distance provider IDT Corp. in 1990. He used the windfall from his Net2Phone deal to fund an array of ventures including looking for shale oil in Mongolia, publishing “Star Trek” comic books and trying to cure cancer.”

“One of these forays led to the creation of Straight Path. IDT bought a swath of U.S. airwave licenses and other assets for $56 million in 2001 and 2002 from Winstar Communications Inc., which had filed for bankruptcy protection. At the time, Mr. Jonas praised the deal: “It might not top the Dutch settlers buying the Island of Manhattan for twenty four dollars, but it comes pretty close.” The thinking was the Winstar assets would allow IDT to expand its telecom offerings to customers, but the business didn’t develop as expected and led to losses that eventually piled up to $300 million, Mr. Jonas said. “If you asked me two years ago what was the worst mistake I made in business, I would have said Straight Path,” he said this week.”

“Despite his repeated success, Mr. Jonas doesn’t fit the stereotype of a New York investor… On the wall is an original painting by Winston Churchill, an 1878 letter from Thomas Edison, pictures of Mr. Jonas with past Republican presidents and a drawing of him from comic legend Stan Lee. He has a framed check for $37.02 signed by notorious Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky in 1936 to the New York Telephone Company, now part of Verizon… He has family members scattered throughout his businesses, including some of his nine children. His son Shmuel is chief executive of IDT, while Davidi runs Straight Path. Another son, Michael, was involved in the search for shale oil in Mongolia and is chairman of cellphone ringtone maker Zedge.” [WSJ]

LOOKING BACK ON ’16: “New York Playbook Interview: Howard Wolfson” by Azi Paybarah: Was that Bloomberg’s mistake, not staying in one of the two major parties? Wolfson: “No… He had been pro-choice and pro-gun safety earlier in his life… I believe it is fair to say had he not changed his position on those issues, he would not have been able to gain traction within the Republican primary, or not enough traction. Mike is not someone who is ever going to change his position on issues for purposes of politics. He doesn’t fit neatly in a box. On the Republican side, his position on choice and guns makes him suspect. And on the Democratic side, his position on capitalism, wealth and finances make him suspect. In theory, if he was willing to change his position on one of those sets of issues he could have been an extremely competitive candidate in one of those two primaries, I believe.” [Politico] • Ed note: Happy birthday to Howard who turns 5-0 on Sunday!

THANK YOU TOUR: “Hillary Clinton Returns to L.A. for Dinner Event at Home of Haim Saban” by Ted Johnson: “Hillary Clinton attended a private dinner at the home of Haim and Cheryl Saban on Thursday night at an event that sources described as a thank you to 2016 campaign donors and an introduction to her plans to launch a political group, Onward Together. Sources said that the gathering was for about 40 to 50 people, including a number who were major donors during her 2016 presidential campaign… Hillary and Bill Clinton are both in Los Angeles for the graduation of her nephew, Zach Rodham, from USC, sources said.” [Variety]

CREDIT KUSHNER: “Saudis Said to Boost U.S. Ties With $40 Billion Investment” by Dinesh Nair, Keith Campbell and Matthew Martin: “The kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund is set to announce plans to deploy as much as $40 billion into U.S. infrastructure, according to people familiar with the matter. The investment may be unveiled as early as next week to coincide with Trump’s visit to [Saudi Arabia]… No final decisions have been made and the announcement may still be delayed, they said… A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the plans were in the works and that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had played a critical role in the discussions.” [Bloomberg]

DON’T FAULT KUSHNER: “Trump’s attempt to fix the Comey crisis made it worse” by Josh Dawsey, Annie Karni, Eliana Johnson and Tara Palmeri: “Trump told aides and outside advisers that the press shop was failing him and he was displeased that “they don’t know how to defend anything,” in the words of one adviser. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, is also upset with the press operation, according to a close Trump ally.” [Politico]

DRIVING THE CONVERSATION: “Rosenstein Pressed White House to Correct the Record on Comey Firing” by Del Quentin Wilber, Aruna Viswanatha and Rebecca Ballhaus: “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein pressed White House counsel Don McGahn to correct what he felt was an inaccurate White House depiction of the events surrounding FBI Director James Comey’s firing… Mr. Rosenstein left the impression that he couldn’t work in an environment where facts weren’t accurately reported, the person said… Mr. Rosenstein grew more distressed when, in television interviews that evening, White House advisers reiterated that the decision was made in response to the Justice Department’s recommendation… Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior Thursday denied reports that Mr. Rosenstein had threatened to quit over the White House depiction of the events leading up to Mr. Comey’s dismissal.” [WSJ; Politico]

“Sen. Mike Lee floats Garland for FBI, a move that would skew D.C. Court of Appeals” by David Weigel: “Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)… used a tweet and a morning TV appearance to float an idea… nominating Judge Merrick Garland to run the FBI… Lee quickly got a bipartisan attaboy from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)… The praise from a Democrat stopped at that, for a simple reason: Taking Garland off the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit would open a seat to be filled by Trump. Since Democrats ended the filibuster for lower-court nominees, it would take just 51 Republican votes to replace Garland with a conservative, shrinking the Democratic-appointee advantage on the court from 7 to 4 now to 6 to 5.” [WashPost]

— “Both [VP Mike] Pence and [WH counsel Don] McGahn are said to have seen merit in the idea of Garland as FBI chief, while others in the White House said it was a non-starter given Garland’s affiliation with the Obama administration.” [FoxBusiness

JI INTERVIEW — Jeremy Wynes, the Midwest Regional Director for the Republican Jewish Coalition and formerly AIPAC’s Midwest Political Director, announced this week he is running for Congress in Illinois’ 10th congressional district against Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider. Claiming voters are tired of partisanship, Wynes stresses his background at AIPAC where he worked with both Democrats and Republicans in an interview with JI’s Aaron Magid. “I have close to a decade of experience focusing in a bipartisan way on issues in Congress that are hugely important and we can only solve when both parties are on board,” he said. “Part of what I did, both here in the 10th district and across the Midwest: travel around, advising and briefing Members of Congress and candidates on both sides of the aisle on these critical issues where too often the two sides can’t get together and work on this.”

Q: Congressman Schneider opposed the Iran Deal and joined with Republicans to condemn the UN Security Council vote in December against Israel. What makes you different on Israel?

Wynes: “The 10th district is very unique in that there are a large number of constituents here are very passionate about this issue and the US-Israel relationship. I don’t doubt that Congressman Schneider is a pro-Israel Congressman. But it’s also about to being a leader, and when it comes to the Iran deal, what we have seen over the past few years both when he was in Washington and a candidate is an example of him being unwilling to break from his party in a real meaningful way. Yes, I give him credit for eventually coming out against the Iran deal. Let’s not forget that for a month that both Democrats and Republicans were in the trenches fighting over the Iran deal, we heard radio silence from candidate Schneider on the issue. I would question, if you are going to be a leader on this issue, where was Congressman Schneider or then-candidate Schneider when those of us were in the trenches fighting? Is it leadership to wait a month until the party leadership gives you the ok because you are worried about a partisan primary? I don’t think that’s the leadership this district demands when it comes to this issue.” Read the full interview here[JewishInsider

“By firing Comey, Trump makes Israel nervous (again)” by Shmuel Rosner: “Israel tended to worry about Barack Obama for somewhat similar reasons. Obama didn’t always bother to update Israel about his intentions. He occasionally chose to surprise Israel with a speech or an action. This habit made Israel less trusting, less prone to rely on American commitments… Israeli leaders, observers, and citizens are now processing the Trump phenomenon and learning to live with it. Some of them – like me – realize that they were fooled by a candidate whom they thought was a man of his word (I believed that the embassy will be moving). Some of them – mainly on the right – must live with disappointment.” [JewishJournal]

THE ‘ULTIMATE DEAL’ TRIP — “Netanyahu wary of Trump’s interest in solving Israeli-Palestinian conflict” by Itamar Eichner and Smadar Perry: “17 Arab and Muslim rulers affiliated with the Sunni camp received invitations Wednesday from Saudi King Salman to participate in a series of summit conferences to be held in Riyadh on June 21 during Trump’s visit to the country. Among those invited were the kings of Jordan and Morocco and the presidents of Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and Egypt.” [Ynet

“‘Abbas has decided to sign peace deal with Israel’” by Yaakov Katz: “Since his meeting with Trump last week, Abbas has changed his rhetoric, issuing a number of statements meant to reflect flexibility on previous demands. He has, for example, said that he would renew the talks under Trump’s auspices without preconditions… He has also sent his advisers to the press to declare that the Palestinians are prepared to negotiate land swaps with Israel, a recognition that some West Bank settlements will remain part of Israel in the framework of a future deal. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has largely remained quiet. The strategy within the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem seems to be to wait and hope not to be blamed for preventing the success of the peace talks Trump is planning to restart.” [JPost] • Palestinian Leader Hails Trump’s Mideast Peace Efforts [AP]

AMBUSH? — “Netanyahu Fears Trump’s Cooking Something Big” by Yossi Verter: “The official, who often speaks to the president’s envoy to the Middle East, attorney Jason Greenblatt, said this week he was surprised to hear the rightist, Orthodox Jew, Har Etzion yeshiva graduate’s repeated references to former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s ideas on the peace process. “Several times during my conversation with Greenblatt he said ‘Livni says,’ ‘Tzipi believes,’ ‘in Tzipi’s opinion.’ It’s like she’s become a quasi-mentor. It appears he appreciates her a lot and is very attentive to her views,” the official said with a note of dread in his voice. This relationship isn’t helping reduce the worry level in the Prime Minister’s Office. At the end of March, before the AIPAC conference in Washington, when Greenblatt tweeted he was hosting Livni at home for a Sabbath meal, Netanyahu and his people took it hard. An Israeli official said Livni was… also refuting Netanyahu’s argument about being unable to reach an agreement because of his government’s makeup. Livni told Greenblatt that the Prime Minister was assured of the opposition’s votes in the Knesset… Livni stressed that her meetings with him, including one this week, aren’t held underground but with the Israeli Embassy’s knowledge.” [Haaretz]

“U.S. Ambassador Advises Israeli Officials: Trump’s Serious About Peace, Work With Him” by Barak Ravid and Amir Tibon: “[David Friedman] termed Trump a great opportunity for Israel, someone who greatly wants to help the country, inter alia by achieving a peace agreement with the Palestinians. As evidence of this, Friedman noted that all the people Trump has appointed to deal with the Israel issue are graduates of Jewish religious schools… This week, Friedman met with Trump to receive the president’s final instructions and his best wishes for his new job… Two people who have spoken with Friedman… told Haaretz that the new ambassador has given Trump his own assessment that the chances of achieving a peace deal are slim.” [Haaretz]

“How Trump Can Have an Impact in the Holy Land” by Daniel Shapiro: “Rawabi is the first new, entirely planned Palestinian city in the West Bank, long heralded as the advent of the Palestinian economic future… By associating himself with Rawabi’s future, Trump can instantly incentivize Israeli, Palestinian and Gulf leaders to ensure its success; none will want to be blamed for the failure of a project with Trump’s stamp of approval… It’s hard to find better optics too. Only a short helicopter ride from Jerusalem or Bethlehem, Rawabi’s grand scale will appeal to Trump the real estate developer.” [Bloomberg]

TAYLOR FORCE ACT: “Cabinet source: IDF fears defunding Palestinian Authority will increase terrorism” by Lahav Harkov: “Almost all of Israel’s security and intelligence agencies are opposed to proposed Knesset legislation that would cut off tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority due to its payment of salaries to terrorists imprisoned in Israel, a senior cabinet source told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. According to the source, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories unit, the IDF, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and other security bodies are opposed to the measure, fearing that a cut to PA funding will lead to an escalation in terrorist attacks.”[JPost

KAFE KNESSET — Interview with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — by Tal Shalev and JPost’s Lahav Harkov: Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked met her US counterpart Jeff Sessions yesterday for the very first time, concluding a five-day visit to NYC and DC in the midst of the Comey crisis. Shaked told Kafe Knesset that she and Sessions discussed the latest developments at length, and that “it was very interesting to hear his point of view,” although she refused to reveal any more details. Speaking from the train on her way back from DC, Shaked shared some impressions from her visit.

Shaked on the US Embassy move to Jerusalem: “I still hope that the President will stand by his commitment – to his voters and constituents – and move the Embassy. We need to ignore all the intimidation attempts. There will always be fears and concerns – we know that from every significant move we have made in the past, but we have to believe in the move and make it happen. Let us wait for the President’s visit, maybe he will surprise us.”

On the Trump’s push for peace: “We have made our position clear to the Prime Minister and it has not changed. We do not oppose talks so long as there are no preconditions or demands. If they want to talk, they are invited to do so, as long as there are no preconditions. From our brief history in the Middle East, we have seen that after every intensive and significant effort to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, there has been a wave of violence. I am therefore afraid of such a scenario if we go back to intense efforts again.” Read the full interview and today’s entire Kafe Knesset here [JewishInsider]

HEARD YESTERDAY — Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats at the Senate Intelligence Committee: “Tehran’s public statements suggest that it wants to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action because it views the deal as a means to remove sanctions while preserving some nuclear capabilities. Iran’s implementation of the deal has extended the amount of time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few months to about a year. Tehran’s malignant activities, however, continue.”

** Good Friday Morning! Enjoying the Daily Kickoff? Please share us with your friends & tell them to sign up at [JI]. Have a tip, scoop, or op-ed? We’d love to hear from you. Anything from hard news and punditry to the lighter stuff, including event coverage, job transitions, or even special birthdays, is much appreciated. Email **

BUSINESS BRIEFS: Kushner Companies Backs Out of Chinese Investor Events After Furor [NYTimes; WashPost] David Lichtenstein’s Lightstone Group seeks EB-5 funds for $700M FiDi condo project [RealDeal] Loan for Rubin Schron: Cammeby’s locks down $54M for 614 Sheepshead Bay Road [TRD] • Seth Klarman Sells Innoviva Days After Activist Stakeholder Defeat [Forbes] • How James Packer made six times his money on Macau [AFR] • Former cyber-intelligence sleuths for Israel now work to uncover malicious hackers [CNBC] • Fidelity is betting $65 million that David Tisch’s Spring app can be a department store of the future [Recode]

STARTUP SPOTLIGHT: “Privé Eyewear shakes up the industry by releasing frames for less than $30” by Rachel Strugatz: “The well-heeled start-up wants to undercut the “under $100” business model that’s dominated eyewear online since Warby Parker hit the scene in 2010 by offering hundreds of styles that cost less than a third of that price. Founder David Schottenstein has tapped a handful of celebrity partners to help spread the word via their respective social media channels and participate in the design and marketing of product. Jamie Foxx, Hailee Steinfeld, Ashley Benson and Jeremy Piven are all partners in the venture. Schottenstein declined to say how much of a stake each has in the company but confirmed they all have equity… Schottenstein — whose family started DSW and whose cousin Jay is head of American Eagle Outfitters — isn’t worried about the pressure on margins the tie-up [with Amazon] will cause.” [LATimes]

TALK OF THE TOWN: “Miami Beach board moves forward with citywide casino ban” by Francisco Alvarado: “Fontainebleau owners, led by developer Jeffrey Soffer, are interested in competing for a gaming slots license should the State Legislature authorize a gambling expansion in Miami-Dade County. Currently, gambling is only allowed at pari mutuel facilities and Indian reservations. During the recently concluded legislative session, an update to existing gambling laws that would have allowed more casinos in South Florida did not pass, but Miami Beach leaders still want to move forward with a preemptive strike.” [TRD

“The Ins and Outs of New York’s Eruv” by Allan Ripp: “Every Thursday and Friday, Rabbi Moshe Tauber dutifully travels to Manhattan from his home in Monsey, N.Y. The 43-year-old rabbi and father of 12 usually arrives by 5:30 a.m. He drives as far as 25 miles in the city, his eyes focused well above street level. That’s because he sees what nobody else does. Rabbi Tauber’s job is to keep tabs on the Manhattan eruv, a precisely designated zone that zigzags from 126th Street in Harlem to the bottom of the island and from the Upper East Side to the Lower East Side. Its perimeter is marked by heavy-duty fishing line strung almost invisibly on city light poles 18 feet high… For many of New York’s observant Jews, their enjoyment of the Sabbath depends on Rabbi Tauber. Under cover of the eruv, which symbolically extends one’s residence into the public domain, carrying and pushing are kosher.”

“Two locations will never be certified: Times Square and Penn Station. The number of people passing through both reaches levels the Torah finds unacceptable for eruv inclusion, or so the sages say. The United Nations is also off-limits. Rabbi Tauber noted that the land under the U.N. is not owned by the city but by all member states, making an appeal for a Jewish safe zone unlikely.” [WSJ]

“Rahm, sitting in his old Cabinet Room seat, ponders nature of evil” by Kim Janssen: “Emblazoned with the words “Chief of Staff, January 20, 2009,” the seat that once graced the Cabinet Room in the White House now sits in a conference room on the fifth floor of City Hall — just to remind everyone who’s boss… “I bought it when I left, and it kind of has my tush indented in it, so I keep it,” [Mayor Rahm Emanuel] said in a recent interview, acknowledging he was sitting in the chair at the time. And he rejected the suggestion, first made by his White House pal David Axelrod, that switching from the White House to become mayor had “maybe taught Rahm a bit of empathy.” “I’ve always had empathy and I’ve always cared,” he told interviewer Kai Ryssdal… “David may be right, but he may not be totally right… It’s not like being chief of staff lends itself to public expressions of empathy.”” [ChicagoTribune

TRANSITIONS — Steve LeVine, who has been Quartz’s Washington correspondent, has left the business news organization to become the Future editor at Axios. [TBN]

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) has named Rori Kramer its new Director of Government Affairs. Kramer previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Senate Affairs at the State Department. Before joining the State Department, Kramer worked as the Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to Sen. Ben Cardin.

WINE OF THE WEEK — Adir Plato 2013 — by Yitz Applbaum: The Adir Plato 2013 is absolutely stunning. Instead of describing where I was physically when I devoured this bottle of wine, I am going to describe where the wine took me in my imagination. The forest. I was sitting on a damp patch of ground situated in a clearing, fit for a small picnic. It was close to dusk and a bit cold outside. The ground was littered with leaves and birds were howling, out of sight, from the tops of the tall dark trees. I imagined that I sat alone eating a large smoked turkey leg and other smoked meats.

The Adir Plato is a powerful wine. The tannins and complexity are drawn from the 24 months it is aged in new French oak. The result is just short of overpowering. Each flavor-sense in the mouth is put on high alert. There are notes of very ripe blackberries, a slight lemon tartness and of deeply roasted coffee. The wine is made of 90% Cabernet grapes and 10% Syrah. The Syrah has a disproportionate influence on this wine. The nose is of mushroom and mold. Drink this wine with a very close friend. You will talk and think about this wine a lot. [AdirWinery]

WEEKEND BIRTHDAYS — FRIDAY: Composer, songwriter, record producer, pianist and singer, Burt Bacharach, who won three Academy Awards and six Grammys, turns 89… Co-founder and the first CEO of Home Depot, Chairman of the Board until retiring in 2002, Bernard “Bernie” Marcus turns 88… British lawyer and member of the House of Lords until 2015, Baron Joel Goodman Joffe, turns 85… Israeli agribusiness entrepreneur and real estate investor, was chairman and owner of Carmel Agrexco, Gideon Bickel turns 73… World renowned architect and master planner for the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, Daniel Libeskind turns 71… Former member of the California State Senate (2008-2016), following six years as a Member of the California State Assembly (2002-2008), Lois Wolk turns 71… Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News, previously an investigative journalist for Newsweek and NBC News, Michael Isikoff turns 65… Washington correspondent for the Miami Herald covering the Pentagon, previously a McClatchy reporter, James Rosen turns 62… Romanian-born, made aliyah in 1965, member of the Knesset for Meretz (1999-2003 and again since 2009), Ilan Gilon turns 61… Matthew Hiltzik, founder of strategic communications and consulting firm Hiltzik Strategies, turns 45… Communications officer for the DC-based Open Society Foundations, previously a speechwriter in the State Department (2009-2012) and a reporter for The Hill (2002-2009), Jonathan E. Kaplan turns 45… Member of the US House of Representatives from Colorado since 2009, serial entrepreneur and philanthropist, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, Jared Polis turns 42 (h/t Playbook)… Digital director at American Action Network and Congressional Leadership Fund, Erica Arbetter turns 25… Analyst in the Boston office of venture capital firm Battery Ventures, Galit Krifcher

SATURDAY: Lawyer, businessman and philanthropist, Sir Sydney Lipworth QC turns 86… Film, television and stage actress, Zohra Lampert turns 80… Actor and producer Harvey Keitel turns 78… San Francisco-born, raised in Israel, UCLA and Harvard Law graduate, author, attorney, columnist and CEO of LRN, a legal research, ethics and compliance management firm, Dov Seidman turns 53… NFL defensive lineman (1995-2002), he has played for the Lions, Jaguars, Patriots, Dolphins, Raiders and Panthers, Josh Heinrich Taves, a/k/a Josh Heinrich, turns 45… UK Labour Party MP since 2010, Luciana Berger turns 36… Software entrepreneur, Google project manager (2004-2007), Facebook engineering lead (2007-2008), co-founder of the collaboration software company, Asana, Justin Rosenstein turns 34… NFL offensive lineman since 2008, he has played for the 49ers, Chiefs, Panthers, Seahawks, Saints, Bears and Redskins, Brian de la Puente turns 32… Actress, writer, producer and director, best known as the creator, writer and star of the HBO series “Girls,” Lena Dunham turns 31… Community Engagement Manager at Google, alum of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Raquel Saxe… Israel Director for J Street since 2012, Yael Patir

SUNDAY: Facebook’s chairman, CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg turns 33… Physician, environmental and social activist and politician, she was the Green Party’s nominee for President of the United States in the 2012 and 2016 elections, Jill Stein turns 67… Technion professor of computer science, Orna Grumberg turns 65… Founding dean of the University of California Irvine School of Law in 2008, one of the most frequently cited American legal scholars on constitutional law and federal civil procedure, Erwin Chemerinsky turns 64… Los Angeles City Attorney since 2013, previously a member of the California Assembly (2006-2012), the Los Angeles City Council (1995-2001) and executive director of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Mike Feuer turns 59… Author of five international bestsellers on topics such as strategy, power and seduction, Robert Greeneturns 58… ESPN’s SportsCenter anchor and football sideline reporter, Suzy Kolber turns 53… Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Howard Wolfson, former Deputy Mayor of NYC, turns 5-0… Managing partner of Alexandria, VA-based MVAR Media and a leading strategist in Democratic politics, Jon Vogel turns 42 (h/t Playbook)… Emmy award-winning executive producer of CNN’s political programming, David Philip Gelles turns 40… Bloomberg Businessweek reporter covering the union movement, labor law and related policies and politics, Josh Eidelson turns 33… Actress who has appeared in nine movies, member of a band called Wardell with her brother Theo, daughter of Steven Spielberg, Sasha Rebecca Spielberg turns 27… Research analyst at SRI International’s Center for Education Policy, former track star and then football player at Harvard, Andrew Ezekoye turns 25… Director of Intergovernmental Affairs for Senator Charles Schumer, Alex I. Katz… Senior defense analyst for Bloomberg Government, previously a strategic communications consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, Robert Levinson … Connecticut State Senator Gayle Slossberg (h/t Jeff Wice)…

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Former President George W. Bush with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

Moving & Shaking: Milken Institute Global Conference, Women of Excellence Awards luncheon and more

“Building Meaningful Lives” was the theme of the 20th annual Milken Institute Global Conference, held April 30 through May 3 at the Beverly Hilton.

The conference, which drew more than 4,000 attendees from 48 states and over 50 countries, bills itself as convening “the best minds in the world to tackle the most stubborn challenges.” One of those challenges is California’s water supply. “I have no doubt California can stand up to its [water shortage] challenges,” Eli Groner, director general of the office of Israel’s prime minister, said during a May 3 panel titled “Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies.” “It has been done, can be done,” Groner said, “but it takes real focus.”

Joining Groner were Jeremy Bentley, head of financial institutions and public sector for Citi Israel; Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board; Richard Blum, chairman of Blum Capital and former chair of the University of California Board of Regents; Angela Homsi, director of the Angaza-Africa Impact Innovation Fund; and Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Glenn Yago, senior fellow and founder of the Milken Institute’s Financial Innovations Labs and the senior director of the Milken Innovation Center at the Jerusalem Institute, moderated the discussion.

Antendee Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said he wished supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel could have heard the speakers from Africa discuss the work they are doing in partnership with Israeli businesses. “This is reality, and BDS is ideology,” Cooper said. “It’s a shame.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

The event featured political, business and entertainment leaders participating in speaker sessions and panels on a variety of topics.

Former President George W. Bush participated in a conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, on May 3. At the beginning of their discussion, they talked about increasing foreign aid to Africa, part of the 43rd president’s legacy. “I believe all life is precious, and I believe we’re all God’s children,” Bush said.

Additional speakers included U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who discussed the effectiveness of implementing sanctions against countries sponsoring terrorism.

“These sanctions really do work,” he said during an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network. “When you cut off the money to terrorist organizations, you have a big impact. And I think you saw this in the case of Iran.”

Sherry Lansing, CEO of the Sherry Lansing Foundation and former film studio executive. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

Jamie Dimon, chairman, president and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, who is working closely with President Donald Trump, said he has advised the president on business matters such as China’s currency manipulation. “I was not a Trump supporter, but he asked me to serve in [the president’s business strategic advisory council]. I was criticized by a lot of people, including one of my daughters. … [But] I’m a patriot. I am going to try the best I can to help my country,” Dimon said in an interview with Willow Bay, the incoming dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

From left: Jon Favreau, Eddy Cue and J.J. Abrams. Photo by Ryan Torok

A dinner on May 1 featured a conversation titled “Multi-Hyphenates” that involved Hollywood actor and director Jon Favreau, Hollywood director and producer J.J. Abrams and Apple executive Eddy Cue. Favreau, director of “The Jungle Book,” said he hews to the philosophy of making the old new again. “[Telling] the old stories and giving it a new look, using new technologies and new settings” is rewarding, Favreau said.

From left: Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services honorees Terry Bell, Betty Sigoloff and Dana Sigoloff come together at the Women of Excellence Awards Luncheon. Photo courtesy of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

Social services organization Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services held its fifth annual Women of Excellence Awards luncheon on April 18 at the Beverly Wilshire. The event drew more than 450 attendees.

Honorees were Terry Bell, former chairwoman of the board at Vista Del Mar, who received the Ruth Shuken Humanitarian Award; and Dana Sigoloff and her mother-in-law, Betty Sigoloff, who received the Visionary Award, in recognition of their leadership and mentorship roles within the organization.

The gathering raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Vista Del Mar programs, according to a press release.

Attendees included Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steven Leder, who led the blessing over matzo (the event coincided with the final day of Passover).

The event co-chairs were Laurie Konheim and Laurie Harbert.

The Passover-friendly menu included salmon over spaghetti squash, avocado gazpacho and flourless chocolate cake.

Vista Del Mar, its website says, is dedicated to improving “the mental health and well-being of children and families by providing specialized and therapeutic services.”

From left: Filmmaker Yariv Mozer, Dora Nazarian Kadisha and Ido Aharoni, former consulate general of Israel in Los Angeles, attend a screening of “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” at the Skirball Cultural Center. Photo by Orly Halevy

Dora Nazarian Kadisha held a screening of the Israeli documentary “Ben-Gurion, Epilogue” at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 27.

Based on archive material, the movie revisits Israel founder and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s outlook and prophecy in 1968, when he was 82 years old and living in his secluded home in the desert, five years before his death. At the time, Ben-Gurion found himself outside of Israeli politics, removed from all leadership discourse, which allowed him a hindsight perspective on the Zionist enterprise. He expressed his opinion about the events going on around him and engaged in introspection, which is the focus of the film.

Yariv Mozer, director and producer of the 2016 film, traveled from Israel to present the film. A Q-and-A featuring Mozer, moderated by Rabbi David Wolpe, followed the screening. Together with the movie’s producer, Yael Perlov, Mozer said the filmmakers discovered an unknown interview with Ben-Gurion, which became the core of the documentary.

Dora Nazarian Kadisha, who heads her family’s philanthropic activity, which includes establishing the Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, was joined at the event by her father, Iranian Jewish businessman Izak Parviz Nazarian, who founded the telecommunications company Qualcomm. Other attendees included Pouran Nazarian; Ido Aharoni, former consul general of Israel in New York; Jimmy Delshad, former mayor of Beverly Hills; TRIBE Media and Jewish Journal President David Suissa; entertainment and media entrepreneur Larry Namer; Keshet International CEO Alon Shtruzman; Hollywood producer Danny Dimbort (“The Wolf of Wall Street”); and j2 Global CEO Hemi Zucker.

David Levinson, founder and executive director of Big Sunday, speaks at the nonprofit’s gala. Photo by Ryan Torok

The second annual Big Sunday gala was held April 27 at the studio lot of Paramount Pictures and honored Zazi Pope and Kara Corwin, as well as Raun Thorp and Brian Tichenor, the founders of Tichenor and Thorp Architects.

“The hard work and kind and generous spirits of Kara, Zazi, Raun and Brian, and so many folks at Tichenor and Thorpe, is what Big Sunday is all about. They inspire me and I’m thrilled to be able to honor them,” said David Levinson, executive director and founder of Big Sunday, which originated as a Temple Israel of Hollywood Mitzvah Day in 1999.

“What we do is connect people through helping, with the idea that we all have something to give,” Levinson said, addressing the attendees from underneath an arch and a wall emblazoned with the words “Paramount Pictures.” 

Big Sunday says it has grown “from a single day of service to a year-round, independent, nondenominational, multicultural, nonprofit organization.” Big Sunday is involved in a variety of projects, including school beautifications, clothing drives and bringing Valentine’s Day cards to seniors. The organization also operates an emergency fund for people in need that provides assistance for medical bills, transportation expenses, funeral costs and more.

Upon accepting her award, Corwin said brightening seniors’ days with unexpected gifts like Valentine’s Day cards ranks among the most enjoyable Big Sunday projects.

She addressed a crowd that included philanthropist and businessman Bruce Corwin, her father-in-law.

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas.

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Rape in the Bible: A handmaid’s tale

When biblical passages emerge in Hollywood products, they don’t usually provide a star turn for religion. More often than not, believers are portrayed as weird, kooky cultish types or dangerous fanatics. This trend cuts across religions: In Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the man who weathered God’s flood was a lunatic who nearly killed members of his own family. In the Showtime series “Homeland,” Islam and the Quran are promotional vehicles for terrorism. And let’s not forget Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the most brutally literal and political depictions of a biblical event in Hollywood history, portraying Jews as a bloodthirsty mob.

When Hollywood takes on religion, religion doesn’t usually look good. 

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Margaret Atwood best-seller turned television series on Hulu, is no exception. The dystopian tale posits a future when United States democracy has capitulated to an authoritarian regime rooted in religious fanaticism. When the effects of environmental degradation cause a scourge of infertility, reproductively healthy women are enslaved as childbearing surrogates. In a form of state-sanctioned rape, women are nothing more than ovaries with legs whose sole purpose is to serve the “commanders” and their barren wives.

Where on earth did Atwood find precedent, let alone justification, for this mass oppression and rape? I hate to be the bearer of bad news: The Hebrew bible.

The passage cited in the book and the show is from Genesis, in which Jewish matriarch Rachel is suffering from barrenness and tells her husband, Jacob: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

Torah readers know that this instance of offering up a maidservant as fertility surrogate is not the only one: Rachel’s sister Leah gives Jacob her handmaid, Zilpah, who births Gad and Asher, whom Leah claims as her own. Earlier, when an aging Sarah cannot conceive, she offers Hagar to Abraham, and she births Ishmael.

Atwood’s appropriation of this ancient, uh, practice of state-sanctioned rape is disturbing for many reasons, not least for forcing a confrontation with what Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg calls “the unconscious” parts of our text. Neither in the case of Rachel nor Sarah does the Torah refer to this practice as “rape,” even as it openly acknowledges rape elsewhere, as in the rape of Dinah, the prevailing story of rape in the Bible but not the only one.

In “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” edited by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Rachel’s act is given spiritual embellishment through metaphor and symbolism. To move from barrenness to fertility, she must bridge an equivalent gap between herself and God; by “employing” Bilhah as her surrogate, she engages in “imitative magic,” acting like the deity herself, claiming the body of another in the hope God will fertilize her, too.   

It’s a lovely flourish of literature, but of course the reality is cruel.

“It’s a moral gray area, which many, many biblical texts are,” Rabbi Rachel Adler told me.

Adler is the David Ellenson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the HUC-JIR campus in Los Angeles and a renowned feminist theologian. She warned against biblical literalism.

“When I read the beginning of Genesis, I don’t protest a snake speaking Hebrew, a world created in six days or two archetypal humans in a garden,” she said. “The Torah is not a science book.”

As a Reform Jew, she favors a more historical, interpretive view.

“These are texts that come out of a society very different from our own,” she said, noting that slavery was common practice in the ancient world. “In our [society], slavery is an abomination. And using a woman to beget heirs outside of the marital relationship, and without the consent of the woman whose body is being used, is morally repulsive to us. The fact that people do certain things in biblical texts does not mean that we should do them, too.”

No wonder Hollywood is having so much fun with this. Bad religion makes for great storytelling. But is Atwood’s mirroring this practice an indictment of the Bible — or us?

“Atwood is pointing out ways that people who take a rigid, fundamentalist view of the Bible in our society can combine that with a kind of authoritarianism and fascism that reduces people, especially women, to a slave-like status, and justifies it in crude religious terms,” Adler said.

“If you want a symbol of subjugation,” she added wryly, “a woman is about the oldest, most ancient one you can find.”

But what about our vaunted Jewish matriarchs — Sarah, Rachel and Leah — who participated in this caste system of culturally sanctioned oppression?

“They’re part of a system,” Adler said. “And unless a woman understands that there’s a system, she’s an unconscious part of a system. In a system, everybody takes their place; unless they are conscious that it is a system and they seize the opportunity to resist.”

The same could be said of how we read the Bible, the Quran, even the U.S. Constitution: It’s on us to become more conscious of the texts we read and believe — and whether it’s bad policy or bad ritual, to resist.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2017. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Rod Rosenstein: 5 things to know about the man who helped get Comey fired

Until this year, Rod Rosenstein was an unassuming U.S. attorney with a reputation for fairness.

Now he’s at the center of the controversy over President Donald Trump’s snap firing of James Comey, the FBI director.

Rosenstein, 52, whose appointment by Trump as deputy attorney general was confirmed only two weeks ago, wrote the memo outlining concerns with Comey’s performance, mostly related to his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Based on the memo, said the White House, Trump decided to fire Comey, delivering the surprise decision last night.

The move puts Rosenstein in a difficult position: He is the Justice Department official overseeing the FBI investigation of Russian involvement in Trump’s presidential campaign that Comey was leading. Pundits are questioning the timing of the memo, as well as asking whether it was drafted to provide cover to what was a foregone conclusion to oust Comey.

So who is Rosenstein? Here’s where he came from, his Jewish ties and what people are saying about him now.

Rosenstein was respected as a skilled, by-the-book government lawyer.

Before ascending to the deputy attorney general post, Rosenstein spent more than a decade serving as a U.S. attorney in Maryland. He is politically conservative and was appointed by President George W. Bush. But when Barack Obama took office, Rosenstein was one of only three U.S. attorneys among 93 to be kept on the job by the new president.

As U.S. attorney, Rosenstein led successful prosecutions for leaks of classified information, corruption, murders and burglaries. He was particularly effective taking on corruption within police departments, according to an essay in Vox by Thiru Vignarajah, a former colleague.

Vignarajah wrote that Rosenstein “made real strides.”

“Over his first decade as the lead federal prosecutor in Maryland, murders statewide were cut by a third, double the decline at the national level. Other violent offenses like robberies and aggravated assaults also fell faster than the national average,” he wrote.

A sign in Rosenstein’s former office read, “Don’t tell me what I want to hear. Just tell me what I NEED TO KNOW.”

The Senate voted 94-6 to confirm Rosenstein to his new post.

He played a key role investigating Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Comey was allegedly fired for mishandling his investigation of Hillary Clinton. If that’s true, he may have learned from Rosenstein, who was praised for his own Clinton probe two decades ago.

In 1995, Rosenstein joined the team of lawyers investigating the Whitewater scandal, which involved allegations of illegal real estate dealings by the Clintons. The allegations against the Clintons were ultimately unproven, but they led to the exposure of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton’s subsequent impeachment.

Rosenstein headed one of the few successful Whitewater prosecutions, which led to the conviction of former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and Clinton associates James and Susan McDougal. He questioned Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1998 as part of a separate case, according to the Baltimore Sun, but she was never implicated.

He graduated from Penn and Harvard — and he’s a family man.

Rosenstein grew up in the upscale Philadelphia suburb of Huntingdon Valley. He’s a 1982 graduate of the public high school and earned a merit scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business — also Trump’s alma mater. He later attended Harvard Law School, joining the conservative Federalist Society, which gave him a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2006.

Rosenstein is married to Lisa Barsoomian, who also served as a U.S. attorney. The couple have two daughters, 17  and 15, and live in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. While Rosenstein works late nights, the Sun reported that he would often go bicycling with the family on Sundays.

He used to play sports at the local JCC.

Not much surfaces about Rosenstein’s Jewish involvement online, but he has been affiliated with Jewish institutions in the past. He was a member of Bethesda’s Reform Temple Sinai from 2008 to 2014, and of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from 2001 to 2011.

According to a questionnaire he filled out ahead of his Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this year, Rosenstein also was a member of a “Jewish Community Center Sports League” from 1993 to 2012.

Which JCC? Which sport? An ongoing JTA investigation has yet to uncover the answer.

He wrote a damning letter against Comey — but never explicitly recommended firing him.

Rosenstein didn’t hold back in a 1,000-word letter delineating Comey’s missteps. He lambasted Comey both for his July statement that Hillary Clinton would not face indictment and for Comey’s Oct. 28 letter announcing the reopening of the Clinton investigation.

“I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken,” Rosenstein wrote. “Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes.”

But the evisceration stops just short of calling for Comey to be canned. Rosenstein does write that “the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”

But just before that, he cautioned, “Although the President has the power to remove an FBI director, the decision should not be taken lightly.” The memorandum is dated Tuesday, May 9.

Trump read Rosenstein’s letter and made the decision.

Gad Elmaleh struggles with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (w/ Ron Livingston)

Video by Funny or Die.

For a full profile on comedian Gad Elmaleh, click here.