Rabbi Leah Kroll takes solo trip to fulfill aliyah dreams


Rabbi Leah Kroll has been dreaming about living in Israel since she was a teenager at a Jewish summer camp in California, and now at 55, she has said goodbye to her mother, three adult children and one grandchild, boarded an El Al jet and made aliyah.

The Los Angeles native comes from a long line of Zionists, but it was the little emotional tugs that helped make up her mind.

“Every time I visited Israel and landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, I would stand in the foreign visitors line and look with envy at the people standing in the Israeli citizen line,” she recalled, sitting in her spacious Sherman Oaks home crammed with cartons and suitcases just before her departure.

“In Israel, I feel my soul nourished,” she said. “I feel nourished when I go to the supermarket on Thursday and complete strangers greet me with, ‘Shabbat shalom,’ and when cab drivers wish me, ‘chag sameach.'”

She had a less-elated feeling when she spent time in Israel 2006 at the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War and saw American tourists scurrying to the airport to get out of the country.

“I was embarrassed as an American Jew,” she said. “We always talk a big game; we proclaim that we are one, but now when the chips were down….”

Kroll had a different experience last year.

“I went to Mount Nebo and saw for myself how close Moses had come to entering the Holy Land,” she said. “He never made it, but I could. There was nothing to stop me from settling down in Israel except my own fears, and I decided I didn’t want get to the end of my life and have missed the chance.”

Kroll was in the first group of women rabbis ordained by the Reform movement, and, for the past 26 years, she has served as pulpit rabbi, rabbinical director of the middle school at Milken Community High School and supervisor of social action and community service programs at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

In mid-August, she joined 240 other North American olim, or new immigrants, on an El Al flight chartered by Nefesh B’ Nefesh (Soul to Soul), arriving to an emotional welcome in Israel.

Nefesh B’ Nefesh (NBN) was founded in 2002 specifically to revitalize aliyah from the United States, Canada and Great Britain by easing financial, professional, social and logistical obstacles to immigration and to integration into Israeli society.

During the last six years, NBN has welcomed 15,000 new immigrants, including 300 from Los Angeles, with 2,000 more expected by the end of this summer, among them 50 Angelenos.

Kroll settles in Israel with considerable advantages. She speaks Hebrew fluently, enjoys a reputation as a first-class educator, will teach pedagogy and design school curricula at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and is remodeling a newly bought house in the German Colony quarter of the nation’s capital.

She is just about breaking even selling her 2,500-square-foot, five-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley and buying a 1,000-square-foot house in Jerusalem. The big attraction is that the new house has a backyard, where her two Boston terriers, Samson and Delilah — who have not been consulted about making aliyah — can romp.

Yet even with all the outside help, which includes two months of free Internet access and two months of free use of her current American landline for calls back to Los Angeles, plus her own skills, Kroll realizes that her new life won’t be all joyous hugs and spiritual highs.

“Things have changed a lot in Israel over the last few decades; there is much less pushiness and rudeness, but the bureaucracy can still be infuriating, and the country still has a lot to learn about customer service,” she said.

But Kroll remained upbeat and resilient.

“I am amazingly resourceful. I have a great sense of humor, and I’m not naïve and starry-eyed,” she said.

Like any big move, only more so, the details of making aliyah have been overwhelming, with numerous details and constant decisions on what to take and what to leave behind.

The toughest part was breaking her decision to her closely knit family of a daughter, two sons, grandchild, mother, brother and nephews. After their initial attempts to change Kroll’s mind, the family rallied around, including her former husband, professor Michael Zeldin.

What else will she miss most?

“My house, where I raised my family, celebrated Sukkot and had hundreds of Shabbatons with my students,” Kroll said, choking up.

“I’ll miss coming over the rise on the 405 Freeway and suddenly seeing the San Fernando Valley spread out in front of me,” she said.

Then Kroll cheered up,

“Just think,” she said, “in two days I’ll be at Ben-Gurion Airport, and I’ll stand in the line marked ‘Israeli citizens.'”

Books: ‘Primo Levi’s Journey’ traces the path of a survivor


“Primo Levi’s Journey” defies neat categorization. It’s part travelogue, part Holocaust remembrance, part philosophical reflection.

The documentary’s roots lie in the Italian Jewish writer’s long journey after his liberation in January 1945, from Auschwitz to his hometown of Turin on a train trip escorted by Russian soldiers for a 10-month zigzag course across much of Europe. It seems guided, or rather misguided, by an unknown hand and could have been mapped out by Kafka himself.

Levi and 600 other Italian camp survivors and ex-prisoners of war crossed from Poland to Ukraine, laid more than two months in Belarus, then traveled through Moldavia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany, finally reaching northern Italy thousands of miles later.

He wrote down the recollections of these wanderings in “The Truce” (published in the United States as “The Reawakening”) many years after describing his one year in Auschwitz in his major work, “If This Is a Man.”

In 2005, Italian filmmaker Davide Ferrario decided to mark the 60th anniversary of Levi’s liberation by retracing the route with a camera crew. Intercutting footage from the 2005 journey with Levi’s earlier observations on the same places, the film is disorienting in the beginning. Only gradually does it become clear that Ferrario is contrasting how much — and how little — has changed in the 60-year interval.

In the cities, Americanization and globalization have left their obvious marks. Intimate pubs, and corner stores have given way to McDonalds and supermarkets patronized by jean-clad natives and foreign immigrants. But, to his surprise, Ferrario found that in rural and farming areas, time has often stood still.

In Belarus, he encounters a perfect replica of the 1930s Soviet Union, as if preserved in amber. After being arrested as a suspicious foreigner, Ferrario is proudly treated by the local KGB to a grainy agitprop film of peasants celebrating the joys of working on a communal kolkhoz.

Old hatreds remain, as in Lvov, where young Russians beat a young singer to death for performing patriotic Ukrainian tunes, and in Munich, where neo-Nazis mourn the good old days.

Levi’s 1945 observation of a planet “that prefers disorder to order and stupidity to reason” seems as apt as ever.

There are some truly Kafkaesque sights along the way. In Budapest, it is the Cemetery of Communist Statues, displaying huge sculptures of Lenin, Stalin and muscular workers with a sign, “We accept credit cards.”

Like most Italian Jews, Levi grew up thoroughly assimilated and really awoke to his Jewishness only in Auschwitz. In one scene from his 1945 travels, Levi encounters two Yiddish-speaking girls and introduces himself as a fellow Jew. The girls reject him outright, saying, “You don’t speak Yiddish, you can’t be Jewish.”

When Levi returned to Turin after the war, he resumed his profession as a chemist, writing intermittently. In 1987, he fell down a flight of stairs in his home and died. The coroner classified the death as a suicide, though Levi’s family and some friends protested that he had died accidentally.

Ferrario believes that the writer took his own life, but, hesitating to use the word “suicide,” simply states in the film that “he threw himself down the stairs.”

Perhaps Elie Wiesel had it right, when, hearing of Levi’s death, he remarked, “Primo Levi died 40 years earlier in Auschwitz.”

“Primo Levi’s Journey” opens Nov. 2 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

From Darfur to Israel: A Family’s Perilous Exodus


“We left Sudan, took a boat on the Nile to Aswan and went to Cairo to seek protection at the United Nations office,” said Ahmed, sitting in Ketziot, a maximum-security Israeli prison near the Egyptian border.

Some 150 miles away, sitting in the office of a women’s crisis center in the western Galilee, Ahmed’s wife, Fatima, learns of her husband’s whereabouts from this reporter. They had not seen each other since Dec. 29, when they sneaked into Israel with their three children.

“My husband was arrested in Darfur and then in Khartoum,” said Fatima, her head wrapped in a blue scarf, with her children beside her. “We had to leave.”

Knesset members and the Israeli media have been barred from Ketziot, where dozens of Sudanese are being detained. But JTA was granted an exclusive interview and entrance to the Negev prison.

Together, the husband and wife pieced together their story.

From Darfur, where he was imprisoned and tortured, Ahmed and his family made their way to Khartoum, where he was similarly arrested. Seeing that the Sudanese capital was not safe, they went to Egypt.

Even as he sits in an Israeli prison, Ahmed’s fate and the fate of his fellow refugees could still be determined by Egypt. Both the government of Israel and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would prefer to see the deportation of the refugees in Israel back to Egypt, if they were guaranteed not be to be deported back to Sudan.

Ahmed’s family was among the tens of thousands of Sudanese who have sought safe haven in Cairo, with the hopes of being recognized as refugees by the United Nations and therefore eligible for asylum in a third country.

Egypt’s handling of the current Sudanese refugee crisis can be traced to a 1996 assassination attempt, in which extremist Egyptians had been plotting for months in Sudan to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Although the assassination attempt failed to kill the Egyptian leader, it did lead to a change in policy for Sudanese entering Egypt. For half a century, some 2 million Sudanese had entered Egypt without a visa and had unrestricted access to employment, education and health care.

According to UNHCR’s Cairo office, between 1994 and 2005, 58,535 Sudanese nationals sought safe haven in Egypt, with two-thirds coming from either the Darfur region, where some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million displaced, or the south, where an estimated 1.5 million Sudanese, mostly Christians, were killed in a 21-year civil war.

By the end of 2005, 31,990 Sudanese were granted refugee status in Cairo and obtained the coveted U.N. blue card that certifies their refugee status and qualifies them as candidates for resettlement to third countries, mostly the United States, Canada and Australia. About half of those were actually resettled, but another 13,327 were still in limbo, and they were becoming increasingly frustrated.

“I went to the U.N. office,” and was told “to come back in six months for an interview,” Ahmed said. “He went back six months later, and they said they had to wait another six months,” Fatima said.

On Sept. 29, 2005, at the start of Ramadan, Sudanese refugees moved into Mustafa Mahmoud Park, put up protest banners and received the protection of the Egyptian police.

“We lived in the park with the other families, across from the United Nations office for three months,” Fatima said. “It was very hard to find work, to feed my family,” recalled Ahmed, who has been transferred to an Israeli prison near Ramle. “I joined the demonstrations.”

The demonstrators wanted UNHCR to resume processing applications for asylum, which had been suspended for all Sudanese since June 2004, when a cease-fire was announced in southern Sudan.

At 1 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2005, 4,000 Egyptian security force members surrounded 2,000 Sudanese protesters. First came the water canons, Ahmed and Fatima recalled. They clubbed Fatima, then three months pregnant, in the stomach. Ahmed saw five people, including two children, killed. Fatima’s aunt was shot point-blank. The official death toll in front of UNHCR’s Cairo headquarters was 27.

“They took us all to jail, each one to a different lockup,” Fatima recalled. “There, they tortured me, gave me no food and I learned that they did the same to my husband. Only later did I learn from my children that each of them was alone.

“Only when my 2 1/2-year-old began crying did the police take him around to other jails to see if anyone could identify him. My 8-year-old daughter identified him and told the police that he was her brother. They were allowed to be together, but they weren’t given food for long periods.

“After five days, they released me, and I began looking for my children. I went from jail to jail until I found them.”

Ahmed said he was freed a week after his wife.

They threatened “that we would be deported to Sudan.” That is when “I decided we are going to leave Egypt and go to Israel to seek protection. We were not safe in Egypt.”

The UNHCR office in Cairo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ahmed said he kept his departure plan secret from everyone, including Fatima. Visiting an Internet cafe in Cairo, he was able to find friends from Darfur who were resettled in the United States and Canada. With earphones on, sitting next to the computer, the Darfurian with a seventh-grade education used a computer voice communications program to plead with his friends to send him money, but he didn’t say what it was for.

When the money arrived, he told Fatima of his plans to escape with the family to Israel, arranged for the Bedouin smugglers and set out to cross the Sinai Desert.

“The Bedouins said that I was going to be taken to prison, and that Fatima would be taken to a shelter in the north,” Ahmed said. “But at least we would be safe.”

Yosef Israel Abramowitz is an award-winning journalist and founder of socialaction.com. Abramowitz, who moved with his family last year to Israel, blogs daily at peoplehood.org. JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Israel contributed to this piece. The names of the refugees have been changed to protect them from reprisals against family members in Arab countries.

War enhances intensity of Israel trip


The siren went on for at least a minute.

It was a Friday evening in early July 2006, during the war with Hezbollah, and I was sitting on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, getting ready to welcome in the Shabbat with the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.

Unlike the previous week, when we quickly evacuated the north, the siren we were hearing now was not an air strike or emergency alarm. It was the customary siren sounding the start of Shabbat, unique to Jerusalem.

Along with 44 other teenagers and six staffers, I was on the Eastern Europe-Israel Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. We had arrived in Israel that week after spending two weeks traveling through Prague, Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow and Budapest, and everyone was so enthusiastic and completely ecstatic that the air was charged with happiness and excitement. As we sat there, we had a moment of silence listening to the alarm.

We had been supposed to spend our first week on the banks of the Kinneret, but the plans were canceled after five rockets hit a town 15 minutes from our hostel. Even though it was Shabbat, we were immediately evacuated back to Jerusalem. Later, our free time in public places was suspended because a suicide bomber was caught right before entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate, which we used regularly.

While our family and friends back home voiced concerns for our safety when we called them, nobody in our group felt in danger or unsafe. Nobody wanted to go home. Instead of fear, I felt anger that there was a war and anger that Israel still has to fight for her existence.

Being at that hilltop as we welcomed the Shabbat and listening to the siren and watching the Old City’s walls as the Holy City went dark, I felt so many emotions. Though we had been there a week, the realization that I was in Israel — the country of the Jewish people — our land — hit me hardest at that moment. I held back tears of gratitude, joy and happiness as we went around the circle we were sitting in, discussing our favorite part of the week. Mine was that moment.
The strong feelings I had came not only from the realization that we were in Israel. It was the magic of the moment or the magic of the city — the lights were so astoundingly beautiful, the walls gave off an air of age, history and religiousness and the view could not have been more perfect. The breeze ruffled the treetops, and I felt that God was hovering over us, watching.

What made this unforgettable experience even more irreplaceable was the two weeks that came before renewed my understanding of how much Israel means.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, our close-knit group visited the concentration camps, sites of mass murder and mass graves, the ghettos and places of resistance. Viewing all these places where history made its horrific mark was actually proof of what we had been learning since elementary school. We saw the gas chambers, the crematoria, the indentations in the earth that formed years after a mass grave was filled.

We saw what happened, and it became real in our eyes. It was no longer something we read about in textbooks — the ashes kept at Majdanek were once people, Jewish people; at Mila 18 in Krakow, the bunkers where the partisans of the Krakow ghetto had once fought. I understood more about the Holocaust and the resistance. I also understood how much Israel means to our people and to me.

I looked at the partisans, the resistance fighters, the Zionists, the Haganah fighters, the early halutzim or pioneers, and I saw the determination and love they had for Israel. I understand now that Israel is not just the place toward which we face when we pray daily, or the distant homeland, or the place where our forefathers lived but our haven and our land. It is the place where Jews from all over the world look to for hope in seemingly hopeless times.

Especially the week after being in Krakow, when the war started, I felt so lucky to be there, so lucky to actually have an established Jewish state.

Instead of making me feel cautious and insecure, being there during a time of war allowed me to connect more with Israel. I only realized with stronger effect that Israel truly is my homeland and haven — the one place in the world I can be a Jew in the land of my forefathers.

While I was in Jerusalem, I bought a ring that I hope to wear at least until I return. On it is engraved a passage describing my sentiments exactly: “Libi be’mizrach, veanochi b’sof ma’arav,” meaning, “My heart lies in the east while I am far to the west.” Especially after my journey, Israel will never be far from my heart.

Daniela Bernstein is an 11th grader at the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.

Public Reactions Are Strong to A Personal Journey


Los Angeles photographer Naomi Solomon capped off her informal summer presentation series “Settlers: A Photographic Journey of the Life and Disengagement of the Jews Living in Gaza” at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills last week, drawing more than 150 people.

Her evocative slide-show was a culmination of her personal explorations of life in Judea, Samaria and Gaza that began with her initial visit in 2002 to the mixed secular-religious Judean outpost, Ma’aleh Rechavam, and continued through the Gaza disengagement of August 2005.

After months of post-production since her return to Los Angeles, Solomon created a show of 100 select photos, which she has presented largely to Orthodox synagogues in the L.A. area. However, she says her mission to portray the diversity, humanity and culture of settlers and settlement life through her photographs is far from complete.

“My focus now is to branch out of local synagogues,” Solomon told the Jewish Journal in a telephone interview.

Predicting a particularly strong anti-Zionist sentiment on campuses this year, she plans to secure speaking engagements at universities, as well as at Reform and Conservative synagogues. Synagogues of all streams, however, have sometimes been reluctant to host her, as they fear that her presentation is too “political,” a fear that Solomon attributes, in part, to her provocative title.

While in her presentation Solomon makes clear her stance against unilateral withdrawals, she asserts that her aim is to “share her experience” rather than her political opinions.

“My goal is to unravel a human story within a political tornado,” she said.
Her photographs range from romantic scenes of settlers building homes, tilling land, playing guitar and surfing on the Gaza coast, to the more emotion-packed scenes of settlers protesting and soldiers evacuating settlers and demolishing their homes.

Solomon cannot say with any certainty that the recent war in Lebanon has drawn more interest in her work, although she believes her presentation is already changing perceptions. At the end of the recent show at Nessah, which climaxed with the image of the gates of Gaza closing, many congregants were tearful and the hall was silent. She related that on several occasions audience members came up to her afterward and retracted their support for the disengagement.

Celebrate Rosh Hashanah in India? No Problem


Young Israelis are among the world’s most prolific travelers, gravitating to hot spots like Bolivia, Thailand and India, where the shekel stretches far. Having experienced Pesach in Argentina, surrounded by more than 400 mostly Israeli backpackers, I was curious to see where I might end up for Rosh Hashanah on my around-the-world journey.

I knew that I would be in India, and given that several hotels in Delhi’s Pahar Ganj district had signs in Hebrew, there had to be something going on.

As it turned out, I would be in the holy town of Rishikesh, where ashrams and yoga studios line the Ganges. A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, I had fallen in with an Israeli crowd in Goa who had highly recommended Rishikesh as a place to find the inner spirituality that India is so famous for. Like so many others who visit India, I was looking to find myself, too.

During a challenging night bus ride from Delhi, in which the driver seemed hell-bent on having a head-on with every truck on the road, I found myself chatting up an Italian girl in the seat next to me. When we arrived, I followed her to an ashram outside of town. Naturally, we got horribly lost on the way, but I suppose you have to get lost before you expect to find yourself.

The swami there was world famous, and the Italian girl had flown in from Rome to spend eight months studying yoga and inner bliss. It seemed like just the ticket, so I followed her to a yoga class, where I found myself surrounded by post-high school Californians with immaculate tans in the latest, hippest designer yogaware. The instructor, an American, spoke with an unnerving calmness while the class anxiously took notes.

“Can you repeat clearly how one should position our shoulders during two-minute meditation,” asked one kid, as if nirvana would be the best possible grade at the end of year semester.

It all seemed a little ridiculous, so I quietly backed out the door, grabbed my pack and headed into town.

Unlike the lower Ganges, where the water pollutants are apparently 150 times more than the most dangerous allowable level, the Ganges here flows thick and fast from its source in the nearby Himalayas. A suspension bridge crosses the gray water at Ram Jhula, a popular neighborhood with the holy set. Pedestrians, cyclists, cows and monkeys all make use of the bridge, and as I stepped foot on the other side, I was surrounded by babas, Indian holy men who meditate all day and survive through the charity of the community.

I followed my nose to a wonderful little guesthouse at the top of the hill, dropped my things and went off in search of a beer. Easier said than done, this being a holy city after all, where most restaurants are vegetarian and the chiming of ashram bells echo in the air.

With a little perseverance, I found what I was looking for above an Internet cafe, where the signs were all in Hebrew. Seconds later, I was talking to some girls from Haifa.

“Nu, and where are you going for Rosh Hashanah?” they asked in that friendly Israeli way that makes you feel like a younger sibling.

“Wherever you are, I hope,” I replied.

Turns out there were so many Israelis in Rishikesh, that three different Rosh Hashanah celebrations had been organized. Early the next evening, I met with the girls from Haifa and followed them to the next village of Luxman Jhula, across another bridge. After passing rustic Indian shacks, hundreds of locals getting ready to sleep on the streets, beautifully exotic ashrams and more than a few monkeys and cows, the last thing I expected to see were chandeliers.

A large enclosure had been set up in a field below a hotel, with seats and tables laid out, and chandeliers hanging from the plastic tarp walls, lighting it up. The ceiling was open, the sun was setting and it looked surreally beautiful.

Unlike my Pesach in Argentina, where we had to walk through metal detectors to enter the five-star hotel in Patagonia, this Rosh Hashanah service was open to anybody and everybody, bringing together quite an eclectic mix of travelers.

I turned to talk to a Japanese backpacker, curious how she stumbled upon Chabad, and it turned out she was Jewish, too. By my rough count, there were about 300 people, and this was just one of three celebrations.

We were served a meal of chicken, potato and vegetables after a service that saw uplifting singing and dancing. I wondered how on earth Chabad managed to secure kosher food. But since it was Chabad, I figured it must be kosher. It was the first time I had eaten meat in India, as I was determined to avoid getting sick and was avoiding all meat, eggs and anything uncooked.

At the same time on the Ganges below, a traditional Hindu puja, a religious ritual showing respect to God, was taking place. Floral offerings were made and set forth on the river, young boys chanted holy songs, incense was burned and a gold urn was passed around and touched with reverence by the community, much like a Torah on the way back to the ark.

Never mind the ashrams and the yoga centers.

As I sat beneath the stars, celebrating a new Jewish year surrounded by Jewish backpackers of all nationalities, I decided the Ganges was the perfect place to find myself after all.

Vancouver-based freelance writer Robin Esrock has traveled to 32 countries in the past 18 months, posting pictures and stories on his Web site,

Spectator – The Theme Park Without a Prayer


Bible Storyland must have a guardian angel. Dissolution by the clergy, dormancy for 45 years and a fatal fire were not powerful enough to erase the plans for this Bible-based theme park from history.

And now, art collector Harvey Jordan is working to inform Californians about this piece of their past in a new exhibition at the University of Judaism titled, “Dream Parks: Artwork From the Bible Storyland Theme Park.”

Nearly five decades have elapsed since Nat Winecoff, former Disney promoter and theme park developer, conceived of a $15 million Bible story-based Disneyland-esque place, which he planned to build on 220 acres of land in Cucamonga (now Rancho Cucamonga). Investors included actor Jack Haley and Donald Duncan of Yo-Yo and modern-day parking meter fame. However, the clergy allegedly quashed the idea and Bible Storyland was never erected.

More than 200 drawings and watercolor paintings of Winecoff’s brainchild, created by former Disney artist Bruce Bushman and a handful of other artists, remained after the deal went sour. Another art collector purchased the artwork from Winecoff’s estate and kept it holed up in his apartment until he and his possessions perished in a fire. Miraculously, 50 paintings of Bible Storyland survived the blaze.

Bible Storyland was a unique concept that mingled Disneyland-type family-oriented rides and attractions with biblical stories. A press release issued in 1960 described the plans at length.

To be constructed in the shape of a heart, Bible Storyland would have included different “lands,” each with its own theme, tied to either pre-Christian times, the Bible or the New Testament. Parkgoers would arrive at a Star of David garden and could then saunter through the Garden of Eden and visit Adam and Eve. Visitors could also venture to Israel and ride animals through Noah’s Ark Carousel, explore the inside of the whale with Jonah and watch Moses on Mount Sinai. Other locales would have included ancient Egypt, Babylon and Rome, as well as Ur, where Abraham began his journey to the Promised Land.

Jordan has assumed the role of promoter and savior of the history of Bible Storyland.

“I am now the holder of Bible Storyland,” he said. “From what I understand, I have the rest of the drawings and nobody else has kept them alive or written about it.”

The art can be seen at the Borstein Gallery at the University of Judaism through Aug. 20. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310) 440-1201 or visit

The Ones Left Behind


The bus bounces its way along the road from Axum to Shire, generating a huge cloud of dust as it barrels through the brown, rocky highlands of Tigray.

Bombed-out tanks that were brought to a standstill 20 years ago by Tigrean rebels fighting Ethiopia’s communist government still sit near the road in the places they were stopped, as much a part of the landscape today as the thatched-roofed tukuls, barren fields and dry riverbeds that comprise the territory of northwestern Ethiopia in summer.

The bus comes to a sudden halt as the driver spots a funeral procession alongside the road, a sign of respect accorded to the dead here. The passengers fall silent while the mourning procession walks by — first men carrying flags and rifles, then wailing women carrying parasols and trailing the body.

A bit farther along, the bus slows again as it takes a hard, cliffside curve; the passengers crane their necks to see an overturned truck that appears to have tumbled off the road just minutes before, its load of plastic crates spilled all over the hill.

It takes about two hours to travel the 35 or so miles from Axum to Shire, and then another hour of driving over dirt roads and empty fields to reach Adigereb, a remote village populated exclusively by Jews until 1980, when they all left for Sudan.

There have been rumors of some Jews still left in Tigray, holdouts who opted not to join their co-religionists embarking on the arduous and dangerous journey to Zion in the early 1980s.

“In the beginning, I didn’t want to go to Jerusalem because I was scared of the journey,” confessed Shirva Goyto’om, one of the lone Jews remaining in the province. Shirva lives in a small town about 30 miles west of the city of Shire, which itself has but one paved road.

“In recent years, we went to Addis — I was there — but because of the economic situation, people stay in Addis for three to five years and then come back,” Shirva said.

Like a few other Jews scattered about in this region, Shirva married an Ethiopian Christian and now has a sizeable family. He is a farmer, like his father was. His mother lives in Israel.

Shirva says he no longer keeps the Jewish traditions because they are impossible to maintain without the support of a community. Also, without the ability to immigrate to Israel — he tried but was unable to gain the ear of Israeli officials in Addis Ababa, he says — he has lost interest in practicing Judaism.

All over Tigray, the locals have the same response when asked about the Jews. The Beta Israel left years ago, they say, using the Ethiopian appellation for members of the Jewish caste. A few use the more pejorative term, Falasha, which means stranger.

But even when absent, the Jews are remembered. The houses they once occupied are still called by the names of the Jewish families who used to live in them.

The Tigrean Jews were the first large group of Ethiopians to immigrate to Israel, coming in secret Mossad operations in the early 1980s, before Operation Moses. They passed through Sudan on their way to Israel, sneaking with forged documents onto Athens-bound planes from Khartoum, moving through Port Sudan onto clandestine Israeli naval vessels, or getting airlifted from the Sudanese desert on illicit flights.

Some Tigrean Jews had to wait for up to two years in Sudan before being taken to Israel, and many died along the way. By 1984, approximately 6,000 Tigrean Jews had come to Israel in small groups. Most of them went to live in Beersheba, where Israel’s Tigrean population is still concentrated.

Here and there, in bigger cities like Axum and small villages like Aduhala, a few Jews remain in Tigray.

When everyone else left, they, or their parents, remained. Some stayed behind because they were afraid to leave their homes for an unknown place. Others were fighters with the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, the rebel army fighting the forces of Ethiopia’s central government, and they were too caught up in the war when the Jews left. (The rebels won in 1991, and rebel leader Meles Zenawi is now Ethiopia’s prime minister.) A few were married to Ethiopian Christians and didn’t want to leave their families behind.

A Tigrean community leader in Israel estimates that there are as many as 2,000 to 4,000 Jews left in this remote region. The governor of the region, who is from the historic city of Axum, where Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant resides, is Jewish.

But the Jews who remain here are no easier to distinguish from the local Christian population than the Falash Mura, whose ancestors converted to Christianity from Judaism decades ago. Unlike the thousands of Beta Israel who lived here 25 years ago, the Jews that remain no longer maintain the Jewish practices that made them easily identifiable to outsiders as Jews.

As one official with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee put it, the Jews here are like the Jewish remnant in other countries whose Jewish populations experienced mass exodus: Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq. There will always be a few who remain.

Before leaving for Israel, the Jews of Tigray were cut off from the outside world, known to a few Jewish scholars and advocates but largely ignored by and ignorant of the world beyond their fields, villages and marketplaces.

A lot has changed since they left.

Though camels, mules, cows and other livestock still roam the streets of Shire, they wander past the city’s Internet cafe and CD stores. Shire now has an airport, though the runway is unpaved, the terminal has no electricity, and an empty shipping container serves as the passenger waiting area.

Perhaps most significantly, Tigray’s isolation has been tempered by a close relationship with its most prominent expatriate community: Tigreans in Israel.

Israelis born in Tigray come back to visit, and the people of this region — even the farmers who live in places cars cannot reach and where electricity sheds no light — have grown used to seeing the occasional visitor from the outside world.

Zeudei Adem, an old Ethiopian woman of indeterminate age, lets out a yelp when she suddenly realizes that the foreign visitor in her stone-and-straw home is the son of her old friend and neighbor, Workunesh. Her niece looks on with a wide smile as Zeudei embraces the visitor.

“We knew you made it to Israel,” Zeudei says, rocking back and forth on the mud bench in her niece’s home. “Too bad you didn’t take us.”

The Israelis often come bearing gifts — clothing for former neighbors, cash, badly needed medicine.

One young Ethiopian man living near Adigereb said the area has suffered since the Jews left. The grasses in winter do not grow as tall as they used to, groves of trees have been cut down to make way for military installations, and the cows seem even thinner than before. Somehow, one Tigrean lamented, the Jews took their good fortune with them.

Ethiopian Israelis returning here for heritage visits are as amazed by the locals as the locals are by them. The Ethiopian villagers marvel at the Israelis’ attire, digital cameras, and money, and the Israelis marvel at how they ever lived in as primitive a country as this, where people live without running water or electricity and little prospects for a future different than that of their great-grandfather.

“As soon as we saw the way they live here, we said, ‘Thank God that we left this place,'” said Mazal Rada, who left Ethiopia with her family when she was 3. She now works in security in Kiryat Gat, Israel.

“I stayed at one ‘hotel’ in some town that was so bad it made me cry,” she said. “I want to go home.”

Q & A With Rabbi Ed Feinstein


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

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

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

JJ: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

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

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

JJ: What were you rebelling against?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JJ: How do you deal with it?

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

JJ: How do you try to attract the unaffiliated?

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

 

Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Inner Joseph


Each of us lives a spiritual journey. One of greatest tasks in life is to know our journey, to understand its contours and what it demands of us. The Torah teaches us these journeys, these paths into our center.

As Genesis ends this week with Vayechi, Jacob pronounces blessings for his sons, often using word play with their names. It seems that the names their mothers chose for them (all but Benjamin, who was named by Jacob) set a destiny for them; their names, in turn, created their lives. From this we might learn that each of us has an inner name that identifies our spiritual journey.

Understanding our inner lives in terms of narratives and themes of a sacred text is often referred to as archetypal psychology. The major characters and moments are not just historical (or ahistorical, according to some), they are signs for us, as well, maps to our inner lives. As we study the characters and themes of Genesis carefully, especially as they are elucidated in the rabbinic and mystical commentaries, we are alerted to the tensions, themes and potentials of our own inner lives.

The spiritual assumption is that Torah and our own souls emanate from the same origin, from the Soul of the Universe. Our souls and Torah share the same essence, but are in different forms. Torah is what links us to the Holy One. Torah contains our narratives. And from studying Torah, we begin to see our own narratives peering out at us.

One of my favorite narratives is that of Esau, older brother of Jacob and putative inheritor of his father, Isaac. But his mother, Rebecca, has received word from God that Jacob is to inherit, not Esau. Unbeknownst to Esau, forces are in motion to deprive him of that which was his.

Or was it his?

The narrative seems to be telling us that some things to which we have a right or a claim are not truly ours. Esau seems to know this when he comes in from the field, utterly exhausted. He sells the birthright for a bowl of stew. One tradition says he was exhausted trying to be something he wasn’t — the kind of person who would inherit his father’s world. He didn’t despise the birthright per se, but rather he hated his own fraudulence, trying to be something he was not.

Jacob, the trickster, set the world right. Esau, in a moment of truth, gave it to his brother. And, like many of us, he forgot the clarity in that moment of truth, only to gain it again as an older man, when he truly forgave Jacob. When he forgave Jacob, one might say, he truly became himself.

Take the story of Joseph, who is sold off as a slave after drawing the wrath of his brothers. Joseph rises to prominence in the house of Potiphar, only to fall to scandal after spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He sits in an Egyptian prison, certainly bemoaning his fate.

As he sits in prison, he thinks and considers. His brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite. He was his father’s favorite because he was the first born of his mother Rachel, whom his father dearly loved, and who died birthing Joseph’s only full brother, Benjamin. Being his father’s favorite, he thought himself special, above others. He put on airs.

Of course his brothers hated him; of course his father favored him. Deep human forces were put into action by his father Jacob having to marry Leah, who bore those half-brothers of his, who always resented his being the favorite. Deep human forces were put into action by the death of his mother, placing his father in unbalanced grief. Perhaps as he sat in prison, Joseph realized the tragedy of it all; tragedy mixed with human frailty.

Perhaps Joseph now remembered himself back to his old games in the house of Potiphar, unconsciously (or not) flirting with Mrs. Potiphar. Joseph came to know himself in that prison. Later in life, he would engineer reconciliation with his brothers, breathtaking in its pathos and elegance.

As we read that story, some of us who may be feeling sorry for ourselves will come to know the tragedy of it all, and our part in the tragedy. And perhaps instead of ruminating on hatred and revenge, we dream up the possibilities for healing.

We have our Esau moments, our Joseph moments (and moments of the rest of matriarchs, patriarchs and other characters in Genesis).

If we don’t know that inner narrative, the name of our journey, our own lives are often a mystery to us, and we are mysterious to others. Life is mystery, but one that we should explore and come to know.

The study of Torah, especially through the archetypal approach as is suggested in the midrashic and mystical sources, helps us to understand our own narrative, to come to know our own inner name, to engage the mystery of being.

We learn to live — wisely, deeply and well.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and ethics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

 

Television – Bruce Feiler’s Biblical Road Trip


For anyone who’s forgotten that the events of the Bible happened in real places, Bruce Feiler is on hand — and on location — to remind them otherwise. He’s also there for those who haven’t forgotten — for those who find joy, entertainment or even enlightenment in visiting these places through his books.

And now he’s taken his biblical road show to television, through a miniseries airing this month on PBS.

The three-part “Walking the Bible With Bruce Feiler” follows the recent documentary trend of sending a charismatic host to a series of dangerous or hard-to-get-to places. Accompanied on occasion by archaeologists, scholars, Egyptologists, and theologians, Feiler tracks his way through places in the Middle East where the biblical stories of Genesis and Exodus are assumed to have occurred.

Feiler goes to Mesopotamia, to the lush shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the legendary location of the Garden of Eden. He also travels to Mount Ararat, the place that the Bible records Noah’s Ark as coming to rest — and speaks to a Turkish pasha-like figure who is cryptic about whether or not he found remnants of the ark itself. And he goes to the deserts where Abraham walked and into the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham supposedly put his son Isaac on an altar with the intent of sacrificing him to God.

He then journeys to Egypt to scale the pyramids — and look at hieroglyphics that might have mentioned Moses. He also hops a ride on a decrepit Red Sea fishing boat, from where fisherman trawl for “Moses Fish” — a flat flounder-like fish that is black on one side and white on the other. It is called Moses fish, the Egyptian fisherman tells him, because when Moses split the sea he also split the fish in half.

Even though the series was filmed within the past two years, it somehow conveys an ancient feel. Scenes are populated by Arabs wearing long robes and kaffiyehs, congregating in marketplaces where cows run amok. Feiler himself camps out in Bedouin tents (there are no five-star hotels in many of these locales) — where he sleeps on the ground and kneels on a blanket to eat flat bread cooked by his hosts over an open fire. It all seems tremendously authentic, as if not much has changed in 5,000 years.

As a writer, Feiler is no stranger to this territory. In 1998 he set out on his first Bible-inspired adventure, trekking through ancient deserts, mountains, rivers and cities — resulting in the best-selling book “Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses,” (William Morrow, 2001). That’s the book on which the current series is based. He followed that up with two books of the same hybrid adventure-archeology-travelogue genre, “Abraham, a Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths” (Harper Perennial, 2004) and “Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion” (Harper Collins, 2005).

For the PBS series, Feiler returned to some of the places he had written about, but this time, in September 2004, he was accompanied by a BBC film crew and American producer Drew Levin.

“I really feel that these [biblical] stories happened in real places, and the power of television is that it puts you in those places,” said Feiler in an interview with The Journal from his house in Brooklyn. “For me, part of the goal of ‘Walking the Bible’ is to take the Bible out of those black covers and replant the story into the ground.”

Feiler is not biblical scholar per se. It’s more accurate to cast him as an intelligent, curious, educated, spiritual seeker who takes his readers — and now his viewers — on both a journey through Bible lore and his personal journey.

“When I set out, I was interested in scientific questions: Was this the actual rock or mountain [where the story took place]? I still find those questions fascinating [but] very quickly … I became more interested in the meaning of the story,” he said. “‘Walking the Bible’ is in some ways a reluctant spiritual journey.”

Feiler “is not a trained scholar of the Bible, but that said, he nonetheless offers thoughtful insights into the biblical narratives,” said Carol Bakhos, assistant professor of late antique Judaism at UCLA.

His “take you to where it happened” style has won a following among readers, and PBS is betting the allure will attract television viewers as well.

“We wanted to tell a story that would draw the audience into the region,” said Levin. “What I am hoping will be the result of this production is that people will realize there is a place called the Bible, not just a book called the Bible.”

The first episode of “Walking the Bible With Bruce Feiler” premiered Jan. 4 on KCET. Subsequent episodes will air on Jan. 11 and 18 at 8 p.m. Consult listings for replay times.

How to Keep Your Love Alive


I’m smiling a lot these days because I’ve recently fallen in love. Starting over at 56 years young, it’s unlikely that I’ll experience a golden anniversary, but I’d really, truly like to enjoy and adore one special person for the rest of my hopefully long, healthy life.

With the divorce rate in this country still shockingly high, I wondered how it’s possible to stay in love for many, many years.

But then there are the examples of:

Joan and Harry Gould, married 51 years;

Ruth and Herb Forer, married 55 years;

Janet and Jake Farber, also married 55 years;

Millie and Mike Hersch, married for 58 years;

and Marjorie and Rabbi Jacob Pressman, married for 63 years.

There is much that we “young” folks can learn from these devoted partners who have succeeded at keeping love alive, year after year after year.

Couples who have created a partnership and life together consistently talk of the effort involved. Yes, some relationships seem easier than others, but all say it takes time, energy and a true willingness to face whatever comes along on their journey together.

“It’s a lot of give and take, just like in business,” Jake Farber said. “If you don’t have that, you won’t have a lasting marriage.”

“I think you have to be patient and flexible,” Janet Farber said. “Compromise is so important. One time you give in a little bit, and the next time the other person gives in. Everyone has times where someone in the family is having problems, or there are emotional difficulties, but you try to communicate and get through the hard times.”

Rabbi Jacob Pressman has counseled many couples over the years, some of whom, he said, have “stayed together miraculously. I notice that as the years go by and they stick it out, the differences begin to melt away and they begin to be more like each other and grow closer. And they have a mature love. They’ve gotten over some of the pettiness of some of the differences in life. Now their lives are more the same and the controversies are minimized.”

This shared commitment to face challenges and keep communicating through difficult times seems to be such a critical aspect of keeping love alive. In his book “Becoming Partners” psychotherapist Carl Rogers writes about threads of permanence and enrichment in relationships. One element he explores is dedication — not to a marriage contract, but to a continuing process that the partnership goes through. “The commitment is individual, but the constant, difficult, risky work is of necessity work that is done together,” he writes.

The Forers, both 75, met when they were 16, and got married when they were 20 years old. The constant work that Rogers writes about is familiar to Herb Forer.

“There’s no perfect person,” he said. “We all come into our relationships with our own warts and shortcomings and our own strengths. On any given day in a marriage, anybody could say, ‘What do I need this for?’ But then you realize the things that bother you are silly. You have so much more in common and so much fun together, and those difficult days pass.”

And the Forers’ know about difficult days. Their relationship was severely tested when they lost their first child at 10 months old. Herb and Ruth were both 25 at the time, but the tragic loss led to a conscious decision about how they would live as a couple.

“We vowed that we’d work together to fulfill the type of life we wanted — to not blame each other, not find fault, or let unimportant things upset us,” Herb Forer said. “We agreed to discuss things openly and communicate. And we decided to focus on the real priorities in our life and our common goals, rather than using the strains in life to separate us.”

Along with common interests and commitments, couples who create a successful life together seem to really support each other’s individuality and growth. Rogers writes, “When each partner is making progress toward becoming increasingly his or her own self, the partnership becomes more enriching.”

Joan and Harry Gould, who are both psychologists, agree. “Keeping yourself vital and interested in the world is the primary thing,” said Harry Gould, who is 81. “You can’t just look to the other person to keep you inspired. If both people are thinking about their own lives and development, it enhances the relationship.”

Joan Gould appreciates the fact that both her husband and their relationship are constantly changing. “I discover new things about Harry that I never knew before. It would be boring otherwise. He is a different person at 80 than he was at 40 or 50. He’s changing and I’m changing. Consequently the relationship changes and grows,” she said.

Rabbi Pressman sees his marriage to Marjorie as a constant source of stimulation and fun. “We’ve always entertained each other,” he said. “We’re both rather clever and bright, and we admire that in each other, so there’s a freshness about our lives almost all the time. We laugh together at the same things. And we surprise each other so there’s ever a new personality and yet the same personality. We didn’t have any mid-life crisis; we’re still juveniles.”

“When my husband retired and it was the first time he could take a weekend off, I’d arrange a weekend away,” Marjorie Pressman said. “Sometimes I’d surprise him. I’d just tell him what to pack and we’d go down the coast and stay at a hotel and just have a good time together. We’ve been really blessed. I don’t think either of us expected to live this long but here we are. He just turned 86…. I’m a little younger.”

Looking back with amazement at the many years they’ve shared seems a common theme for these couples.

“Being married this long came as a surprise to me,” Millie Hersch said. “When we were first married, I worried about what I’d talk to him about and figured it wouldn’t last very long. But the years have just gone by.”

When a love lasts for many, many years and people grow old together, there seems to be a shift in what is most important within that partnership.

“It’s a lot better for us in retirement, when there are minimal pressures on us, and we just face life together as a team,” Herb Forer said. “We don’t take ourselves seriously. We take what we do seriously, but not ourselves. We listen to each other and try to anticipate each other’s needs and try to make each other as comfortable as we can and do for each other. We’re just having fun.”

But having a relationship that lasts many years can also mean facing difficult challenges, and making adjustments with age.

“The aging is a whole new time of life,” Harry Gould said. “We haven’t been each others’ physical and psychological and mental helpers before. There’s a sense of becoming a parent to each other at times. That’s new. Some people get frightened of the changes they go through as they age, and it might cause them to pull away and withdraw in their marriage. But it’s so important to talk about your feelings. Talk about how this new time of life is for you. Talk, talk, talk. Share yourself.”

Besides the challenges of aging together along a shared path, these couples have all discovered new ways of loving.

“The senior caring about each other is different than courtship and honeymoon. We take care of each other at this point, not out of duty, but out of a profound love,” Rabbi Pressman said.

I’m inspired and moved by these stories of heartfelt, lifelong devotion. Whether you are renewing an existing relationship or starting a new journey in love as I am, these couples can give us hope that someday we, too, will look back in celebration over many years of keeping a precious love alive.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

Where India Meets Neil Simon


Michael Schlitt sees a definite connection between his type of Jewishness and his reasons for directing a Neil Simon play in India. Being drawn to India and all things Eastern is Jewish, he says. And so is asking a million questions about everything.

“Basically, my work is very Jewish, even if it’s not about something Jewish,” declares the 44-year-old actor, writer, director and founding member of the Actors’ Gang theater company, now based in Culver City. “I’ve always been a searcher, the wheels in my head always spinning. A rabbi once told me that’s as Jewish as it gets.”

Schlitt spent the past five years transforming a midlife crisis, a professionally disastrous trip to India, and his burning and failed ambition to make a movie about that disaster into a one-man show called, “Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure.” A play about a film about a play, Schiltt’s work premieres Friday at EdgeFest, the annual Los Angeles festival dedicated to new and experimental theater. His play’s script reads like a page of Talmud, with the central event of the India adventure framed by commentary about the trip itself, the filming of the trip and the questions that inevitably arise from the failure “to create a masterpiece.”

“If someone told me to see some one-man show about a guy’s attempt to make a movie about his trip to India, I’d probably say ‘No thanks,'” says Schlitt over coffee at a Culver City Starbucks. “But on the other hand, there’s a real hook to the show. Neil Simon in India is bound to pique curiosity.”

Directed by Nancy Keystone, who’s also married to Schlitt, the play, at its core, addresses the painful realization that certain youthful dreams will never materialize, “that moment you understand you’re never going to make ‘Citizen Kane,'” Schlitt says. “Rarely is the journey what you think it’s going to be.”

In 1999, a producer of questionable repute invited Schlitt to direct a production in India of Simon’s “They’re Playing Our Song.” In the throes of a midlife crisis, Schlitt, who detests this play, ignored his intuition and accepted the offer to put together a production ASAP and tour it in three Indian cities. His rationale: He’d make a movie about whatever happened because that’s been his dream, even though he despises the movie business.

“All my life there had been this strange tension between working in the theater and working in film. I mean I live in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world,” he writes in the script.

“The whole prospect was so shady,” Schlitt recalls. “I thought I would just bring the cameras and I would have this great film, some kind of cross between ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘Salaam Bombay.’ Instead, I wound up butting my head against the wall for years.”

Unable to complete his film, Schlitt finally listened to the advice of a filmmaker friend and returned to the theater.

“You could say it was the path of least resistance, but it’s where I needed to be,” he says. “I know the theater and that feels great.”

“What I love about Mike’s play is that it’s blazingly honest,” says Keystone, whose directing credits led her to be named as one of 2005’s “Faces to Watch” in the L.A. Times. “He exposes everything, including some unpleasant aspects of himself, and I have a lot of admiration for him.”

Describing himself as “a laid-back neurotic,” which he attributes to growing up first in New York and later in Berkeley, Schlitt says his Jewish education ended after nursery school and until recently, “never thought of myself as Jewish.” Raised by his mother, who once aspired to be an actress, Schlitt also credits his father, who wrote for the 1960s TV show, “The Monkees,” as a considerable artistic influence.

“He was the kind of Jewish father who got me reading Kierkegaard at age 4,” he says.

As a theater major at UCLA, Schlitt met the future famous actor Tim Robbins. And they and other fellow students formed the Actors’ Gang in 1981, a company that rose to prominence in the L.A. theater scene for its often provocative, avant-garde productions.

“We were this group of guys who all hung out together,” he says of the Gang’s origins. “There was a lot of testosterone but we all had this great passion for the theater.”

Standing in as leader of the Gang when Robbins left for a life in New York with actress Susan Sarandon, Schlitt worked on some 40 productions. This included directing the American premiere of George Tabori’s “Mein Kampf,” an adaptation of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and performing his critically acclaimed solo show, “Drive, He Said.” In 2000, Schlitt essentially parted from the Gang, a move he’d rather not discuss in great detail. It did, however, have something to do with the midlife crisis that led to his current show. “For 16 years, I was the company’s resident Solomon,” he says. “It was time to step away.”

Though Schlitt says he hasn’t completely given up on finally making his movie, the play he wound up with instead “has definitely gotten the monkey off my back. I have fed myself artistically,” he says. “And if it’s between the artistic or the commercial path, I know which one I’d choose.”

“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” runs Oct. 7-23, 9:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tickets are $15 or $8 with EdgeFest Passport. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.edgeoftheworld.org.

 

The Curious Little Monkey’s Tale


“The Journey That Saved Curious George : The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden (Houghton Mifflin, $17).

It was a truncated tale, repeated in the hallways of publishing houses, printed on book jackets: On a rainy day in June 1940, the creators of “Curious George” fled Paris on bicycles, hours before the Nazis seized control. H.A. Rey and his wife, Margret, carried with them nothing but food, clothes and a pile of papers, including the manuscript of what would turn out to be one wildly successful children’s book. The End.

That was it.

“There was never anything about what happened to them during that journey,” said Louise Borden, herself the author of 20 books for children. “I wanted to read a book with visual images of how they escaped and where they went, and there was no book.”

So Borden wrote one.

In “The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey,” the 55-year-old author fleshes out the couple who created the beloved, mischievous monkey.

The 70-page children’s book chronicles the Reys’ narrow escape from Paris on homemade bicycles, as the German army marched toward the French capital. Fleeing among a “sea of humanity,” the German-born Jews “pedaled … and pedaled … and pedaled,” Borden writes, until arriving in southern France.

Relying on H.A. Rey’s diary, ticket stubs, photographs, letters and newspapers, Borden recounts the journey from France to Portugal to Brazil and, finally, to the United States.

Borden calls her book a sort of “travel journal” for its presentation of archival materials, such as diary pages and letters to editors, along with watercolor illustrations.

“As you turn the pages, that’s kind of what my desk looked like when I was trying to sort through all this information and find the story,” Borden said.

To illustrate, she chose a Brit, Allan Drummond, because the humor in Drummond’s drawings and the way he used vibrant reds, yellows, greens and blues seemed to “echo” the drawings of H.A. Rey. She needed a “European sensibility” and “whimsical” style that nevertheless “conveys the seriousness of the times.”

In her research, Borden traveled to France, visiting the Paris hotel where the couple lived and the countryside chateau where they stayed for four months at the beginning of World War II.

She began uncovering details in the life story of Hans Augusto Reyersbach (H.A. Rey) and the woman, Margarete Waldstein, who became his wife and collaborator. Reyersbach grew up in Hamburg, Germany. As a boy, he liked to paint, and he loved animals, the zoo and the circus. Like the Man with the Yellow Hat who would lure the monkey from the jungle in “Curious George,” Reyersbach smoked a pipe. After serving in the German army in World War I, Reyersbach took his sketchbooks and pipe to Brazil.

Waldstein (Margret Rey), who also grew up in Hamburg, had studied art and photography at the Bauhaus, the German school of design famous for its influence on modern architecture. Looking for adventure, she followed Reyersbach, a family friend, to Brazil.

The two began working together on artistic projects. Reyersbach would come up with the ideas and illustrations, while Waldstein would write. They balanced each other according to Borden’s book: “Hans was the gentle one. Margarete, with her red hair and artist’s spunk, was never afraid to speak her mind.”

In 1935, they got married. It was just the two of them — and two pet monkeys, which “were always getting into mischief,” Borden writes.

Although Waldstein’s father and Reyersbach’s grandfather were rabbis, the couple lived as secular Jews, according to Lay Lee Ong, executor of the Reys estate.

To make his name easier to pronounce in Portuguese, Reyersbach changed it to “H.A. Rey.” Waldstein shortened hers to “Margret Rey.”

On their honeymoon, the Reys stopped at a hotel in Paris. What was supposed to be a two-week stay stretched into four years.

By the time the Reys left Paris, they had already published some children’s books. But it wasn’t until the fall of 1941, after they had reached the United States, that “Curious George” debuted.

Not until 1958 did it sell more than 10,000 copies a year, said Anita Silvey, who used to oversee children’s book publishing at Houghton Mifflin Co., which publishes the “Curious George” series.

“It was only when those who had read the book as a child began to share it with their children that the book started to achieve classic status,” she said. Now, the series has sold more than 27 million copies and been translated into 16 languages, including Yiddish.

The “Curious George” books have achieved such success because they capture “the curiosity, the spontaneity, and joy of living as young children experience it,” Silvey said. “George is the surrogate of every small child — he gets into trouble, he explores, and then he is always saved in the end.”

What readers can now learn is how George was also saved in the beginning.

On Sunday, Sept. 25 at 2 p.m., Louise Borden will speak about her book at the Museum of Tolerance Family Day. No charge. For more information, call (310) 772-2526 or visit

L.A. Visit Excites Shoah Survivors


 

For Israeli Shifra Fyne, 83, this week’s journey to Los Angeles will be her first time leaving Israel in 56 years, and her first trip ever on an airplane.
Yehuda Goldstein is making the same trip. He hopes to reconnect with John Gordon, an L.A. resident he met last year in Israel. They think they grew up in the same pre-World War II neighborhood in Budapest.
Avi Levie, originally from Slovakia, hopes to find his sister, Erna Muhlstein. They were separated after the war and he thinks she might be living in the United States.
Fyne, Goldstein and Levie are among 20 travelers coming to Los Angeles in association with Cafe Europa, an international social club for Holocaust survivors that started in Los Angeles with funding from Jewish Family Service and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Last year, a group from Los Angeles made its first voyage to Israel to meet with Cafe Europa members there. This year, a group from Israel is making the trip to Los Angeles, also for the first time.
Cafe Europa’s weekly meetings, held in a variety of settings, allow survivors to recapture the joy that was brutally taken from their youth. On a recent sunny Sunday in Tel Aviv, some 75 Cafe Europa members gathered at the elegant and spacious Golda and Yehuda Zucker Senior Citizens’ Day Center, with its outdoor fountain and garden that could have been drawn out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Participants included Helen Segev, a 76-year-old grandmother with red-tinted hair, who stepped outside the noise of the dance hall to recount what happened to her at age 14. Segev, the middle of three daughters, was grabbed by the Gestapo while her mother — powerless to help — hastily escaped with the rest of the family. She rolled up her sleeve, showing the number tattoo she received in the concentration camp.
“Most of the people here are survivors that had been hidden,” she said in English with a Flemish accent. “Most hadn’t survived the camps like me.”
The tattoo near her elbow has faded to a soft blue over the years, and the numbers have merged together.
Segev prefers to look forward, especially to the L.A. trip.
“I am beyond excitement,” she said.
“Varda!” she yelled, pointing to a woman across the courtyard, “She’s another one I convinced to go to L.A.”
Cafe Europa began in Los Angeles in 1986. The Tel Aviv club opened in 2001 to serve that city’s 30,000 Holocaust survivors. During its inaugural weeks, the Tel Aviv club scheduled lectures and various talks, but that didn’t last long, because the seniors preferred to dance, said Marilyn Fefer, projects coordinator for the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, which sponsors Cafe Europa.
For three and a half years, the Los Angeles and Tel Aviv clubs communicated face-to-face by videoconferencing. Then, last year, the L.A. group sent 14 survivors plus staff and lay people to meet with their Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv. There they toured Masada and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as part of their weeklong visit.
Not long after, the Israelis were asking when they could go to Los Angeles — even though the average age of the would-be travelers was 75. Group members are paying most of their expenses, although outside organizations are helping, just as they do with regular Cafe Europa events.
In Los Angeles, the visitors will be hosted at Jewish homes. Over their nine-day stay, they’ll meet with schoolchildren, tour museums and rekindle memories with their L.A. counterparts — as well as visit area attractions such as Universal Studios.
“Café Europa is about life,” says Susie Forer-Dehrey, associate executive director of Jewish Family Service, the agency that brought the two groups together. ”It allows survivors to learn from each other and gives them a comfortable place where they don’t have to explain the past. Everyone in the group understands.”
The two groups will commemorate Yom HaShoah, including a visit to the Holocaust memorial by artist Bernard Baruch Zakheim at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuaries. This year’s remembrance will mark 60 years since the Russian army entered the Auschwitz death camp and shut it down.
Those dark years contain dark memories for 75-year-old Channa Dercin. She resisted talking at first, preferring instead to listen to the singer at the mid-April Tel Aviv social. Dercin’s story was tough. One brother left to Lodz ghetto as a volunteer laborer for the Nazis, thinking that would save his family. He was never heard from again. Her father died in the ghetto of starvation — he gave his food rations to the children. All the remaining family members ended up in work or death camps or both. Dercin’s mother died just after liberation.
As for Dercin, she’d injured her knee while collecting logs in the forest near the Bergen-Belsen death camp. A Nazi SS officer saw her limping and threw her to the ground, knocking her unconsciousness. Some time later, two men picked her up and threw her into a wagon while on their rounds collecting the dead. She was dropped off among the dead and dying at an infirmary. There she met a local Polish woman who would later help reunite Dercin with her family members. One of Dercin’s brothers survived, but she never saw her four other siblings again.
Dercin had been willing to share her story, but she was more interested in watching the chicken dance and the kissing dance, in which a man held an unfolded napkin and waved it in the air. He then danced around several women and dropped the napkin in front of one woman. They both went down to their knees and kissed. Then, the woman took the napkin, and began dancing around the men.
Maybe these seniors haven’t found eternal youth, but for these survivors life is something to make the most of.
For more information go to

C’mon Get Happy


 

Before she inspired her father’s debut film, “Smile” — a feature about an American teenager who goes abroad to help children with facial deformities — Katie Kramer was a normal, popular student at Malibu High School.

“I had a boyfriend, I had friends, I shopped,” she said. “I lived in a world where a lot of material things were important, but I always knew that other things were important and that there was more inside of me to give.”

Kramer found it when she signed up for a school club, Operation Smile, a Virginia-based charity that provides free reconstructive surgery for children in Third World countries. In 2002, she left her family’s five-bedroom ranch house for a hospital in the Philippines, where she worked 18-hour shifts helping to facilitate operations.

“It was a shock,” she said of her initial experience. “I walked into a room filled with 75 children who had facial deformities, all of whom had been ostracized, some of whom had walked for days to reach the hospital. But I told myself not to cry, because I realized I could help make a difference in their lives.”

Kramer, now 19, returned home determined to become a doctor and to remain active in charitable causes — a change that prompted her father, actor Jeffrey Kramer, to turn her emotional journey into a film.

Unlike the real Katie, who worked to help pay for her black Volkswagen Jetta and also intensely trained as a competitive ice skater, the fictional Katie is selfish and high-maintenance, but she finds her heart as she befriends a Chinese girl who had been abandoned as a newborn because of her cleft palate.

The director learned about dozens of such stories while interviewing Operation Smile personnel — as well as psychological traits he brought to his characters. “The children who come in for surgeries hide their faces, and they hide themselves emotionally,” he said. “Afterward, they feel emotionally free for the first time in their lives.”

Katie Kramer, like “Smile’s” heroine, found her own transformation to be dramatic.

“The typical teenage problems that used to trouble me have become so unimportant,” she said.

“Smile” opens today in Los Angeles.

 

A Numbers Game


 

A few months ago, I scribbled out a Web site, bought a camera, hired a director, raised $42,000 and embarked on a journey across

the United States.

“I’m looking for true love,” I told my father, “even if she’s husking corn in Iowa.”

In three weeks on the road, I dated a radio station DJ in New Hampshire, a beauty queen in Maine, seven feminists in Rhode Island, a yeshiva attendee in New York, a 42-year-old mother in Washington, D.C., and some eccentric others. I was often asked by the critics and by the media (who were never that critical) to justify the camera’s intrusion on dates.

“Won’t it get in the way of true love?” they’d ask.

“Well maybe,” I’d reply. “But” — like all great artists who excuse their art by calling it a social critique — “this is a social critique.”

“But how?” they’d ask.

“Well, everyone knows reality shows are a misnomer. They don’t accurately portray reality. In the real world, I think, most women aren’t as superficial or slutty as the ones on television. They actually care about stuff like honesty, sense of humor, and sensitivity in a man. To show this, I’m asking any and all of them to give me a try.”

The idea was that I am not a typical bachelor type or anything close. I am short, silly, sensitive, love-struck, yada yada yada. And, if a nice, sensitive, albeit not-so-all-American guy like me can find true love and be a figurehead for not-so-perfect men around the world, then I’d be doing a service to myself and millions of others.

Of course, things didn’t exactly go as planned. I was producing a mainstream film without film experience, without enough money, without trustworthy contacts and without much of a brain. As a result, I returned home penniless and humbled after just 12 dates.

“You’ve got to deal with the facts,” my father said. “You’re $35,000 in debt, you don’t have a job, you have a huge inventory of ‘Sensitive Guy’ T-shirts that nobody wants and you can’t seem to get serious about anything.”

I swallowed hard.

“But I was on the front cover of the Style Section in The Washington Post,” I said. “They called me a Beau on the Go.”

“You were wearing a propeller hat,” he said. “That’s nothing to be proud of.”

“Well,” I said. “There are still 5,274 women who asked me out on dates.”

His jaw dropped: “5,274?”

“There’s more every day,” I said. “They’ve seen me in the newspapers or on television, or they’ve heard about me from their grandmothers, and they just ask for dates.”

He repeated the number as if it held some sort of significance: “5,274. That’s a lot.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It gets better — 263 mothers asked me out for their daughters. All but three of the mothers were Jewish.”

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “I mean, I’m not surprised the mothers were Jewish.” He scratched his head. “Have you dated any of them, you know, since you failed with this whole endeavor?”

“I haven’t been able to,” I said. “There are too many. I wouldn’t know where to start. Sixty-two called me a ‘soul mate’ and 14 called me their ‘partner in crime.’ That’s a lot of pressure. They don’t even know me!”

“That might be a good thing,” my father said. “No offense, but you weren’t doing too hot with girls that actually did know you.”

“You’re missing it,” I said. “If I date any of these women, it’ll be under false pretenses. They asked a different guy out, an imaginary one. They saw me on a 90-second telecast, or read about me in an 850-word article, or browsed a few silly childhood stories on my Web site, and they think they know me well enough to assert that I was the missing piece of their puzzle.”

“So?” my father said.

“It’s scary,” I said.

“I think you should start with a Jewish one,” he said.

“Which?” I asked, showing him the thousands of e-mails. “That’s my biggest demographic. I’ve got 2,768 Jewish women to choose from.”

“Get a short one,” he said. “And make her smart and funny, too.”

“But I’d have nowhere to take her,” I said. “I don’t have money or a future.”

“That’s true,” he said. “But this is the new millennium. Ask her to pay. She’ll probably like you better for it. And that reminds me; make sure she’s rich, too.”

“That’s a lot to ask,” I said.

“Well, 5,274 is a big number,” he said. “Use it!”

 

Our Madonna


Madonna’s just-completed visit to Israel has been called a lot of things: scandalous, threatening, inspiring, encouraging, cheap.

But what it mustn’t be called is shocking.

If Madonna really wanted to shock us, she wouldn’t have flown to the Holy Land with 2,000 other followers of the Kabbalah Learning Centre (see story, page 28). She would have joined a mainstream American synagogue, shown up in the sixth row on Rosh Hashanah and sat in rapt attention for the whole service, without fidgeting. Now that would be shocking.

Some Jews are stunned and others outraged that the Queen of Pop has been attracted to a newfangled iteration of kabbalah. Never mind that kabbalah itself, according to University of Judaism professor Pinchas Giller, over the centuries often appeared in newfangled iterations. Wouldn’t it be more astounding and inexplicable if Madonna adopted what passes for normative Jewish practice these days: an annual visit to synagogue, a limited donation to Jewish causes, no ongoing study, no Hebrew knowledge and no visit to Israel?

Some Jews can’t believe Madonna can find anything spiritually powerful and meaningful in Judaism because they find nothing spiritually powerful and moving about Judaism. How dare she appear to draw insight and power from a religion that they feel has left them spiritually bereft. Who is Madonna to become Esther when so many Jews have become Buddhist? A lot of the people disparaging Madonna’s Jewish practice have long ago given up their own.

Madonna’s faith is hardly newfound. I’ve had several long conversations with the men Madonna claims as her spiritual teachers, Eitan Yardeni and Michael Berg, both rabbis at the Kabbalah Learning Centre in Los Angeles. These conversations took place in 1998 when I wrote a long investigative piece on the center. At the time, it was a mysterious place on Robertson Boulevard that generated shadowy rumors of cult-like practices, yet drew scores of white-clad believers every Shabbat — including Madonna.

I attended services, interviewed current and former adherents, harsh critics and fervent supporters. I didn’t speak with Madonna, but I did say "Shabbat shalom" to Sandra Bernhard.

Rumors and accusations have long besmirched the center. In my mind there is no question that its claims and practices sometimes cross the line into the absurd and the unethical. In Israel, Madonna and other center adherents made a pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, the kabbalist whom center founder, Rabbi Philip Berg, claims as his spiritual teacher. But my own research found that Ashlag’s yeshiva issued a statement disassociating itself from Berg, as have the descendants of Berg’s other putative teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Brandwein.

The center sells water it claims contains special spiritual powers. When The Journal had the water tested by a reputable lab in September 2000, the lab reported that the water was indeed, water.

Perhaps most disturbing were the fervid sales and retention tactics some center adherents used on others.

"There was a constant push to give money," a former member told me. When a teacher at the center suggested the member write a check for $1,571 because it was "a special number" for him, the man’s skeptical wife asked her husband, "Can’t we just give $15.71? Why should God care about a decimal point? I’m sure he wouldn’t care if we gave $15,710."

Reports of center lapses have cooled in recent years. One scholar of religion told me that, like Scientology, whose marketing techniques Berg has emulated, success provides incentives to smooth off any rough edges, or at least keep them far from Madonna.

I don’t know Madonna, but, this being Los Angeles, I know people who know Madonna. They have sat at seder tables with her and found her engaged and curious. Her questions about the Passover story revealed a Jewish foundation built with the limited tools provided by center rabbis. But there are many Jews who take their seders less seriously, and many who don’t ever sit down at one at all.

The center has often served as a way station for people on a Jewish journey. By inserting Jewish spiritual practice into mainstream culture and New Age argot, it presents an appealing if (to the rest of us) bizarre face of Judaism. I know several people for whom the center was the first step to more serious Jewish learning and practice. They tired of the center’s particular approach, but they stayed intrigued enough by the Judaism to which it had exposed them.

These people stand in contrast to those for whom Judaism has remained a static inheritance, who have never strayed from their particular orthodoxy, whether that orthodoxy is one movement, one set of political beliefs, one rebbe or one service per year.

The variety of Jewish religious experience wholly embraces the kind of folk religion Madonna experienced in Israel. The country is filled with reputed graves of ancient mystics whose adherents gather to light candles and leave offerings and amulets in hopes of miracles.

Judaism, in all its various guises over the centuries, offers something lasting and important to those who explore it. It’s not a club, it’s a journey, and Madonna — I mean, Esther — is welcome on the path.

Exhibit Celebrates Century of Dignity


To celebrate 100 years of offering interest-free loans to the needy, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) has put together a traveling photo exhibit that chronicles its growth from bit player to an integral part of the city’s Jewish philanthropic network.

In the past century, more than 300,000 Southern California families have benefited from JFLA’s largess. Today, JFLA has total assets of $8.3 million, employs seven full-time and four part-time workers and makes more than 1,100 loans annually.

The exhibit, which began touring in late May and will make two-week stops at several Southland synagogues and Jewish community centers until November, features black-and-white pictures, yellowing newspaper clippings and personal stories that tell the organization’s rich story. It also "serves as an excellent platform to begin JFLA’s sparking future," said executive director Mark Meltzer.

The free-standing exhibit begins by taking visitors on a journey to the past. Several pictures of Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century, including on showing horse-drawn buggies on city streets, set the scene.

A small group of businessmen, led by Rabbi David Cohen, founded the Hebrew Free Loan Association in 1904 "to prevent recipients from becoming objects of charity." In the early days, the leaders conducted meetings exclusively in Yiddish. They made loans from $25 to $200 to the unemployed and indigent. A few small loans went to aspiring entrepreneurs to purchase pushcarts to sell fruits and vegetables and to tailors to buy sewing machines.

"JFLA’s mission hasn’t changed in all these years," said Martin Shandling, president of Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills, who viewed the exhibit at his synagogue in early August.

Like many in the community, Shandling’s has a personal connection to JFLA. He recently referred a temple member to the organization because the man needed money while waiting for a real-estate transaction to close. Shandling co-signed the $5,000 loan, which the businessman paid off, in full, four months later.

JFLA’s raison d’etre might have changed little since its inception, but the organization has grown up considerably, especially in the past 25 years under Meltzer’s direction. Meltzer, working closely with chief operating officer Evelyn Shecter, has established 17 new programs since 1980, including student loans, loans for fertility treatments for Jewish couples and loans for women to start new businesses. In that time, JFLA’s assets have also grown more than tenfold.

"The agency is now much more a part of the Jewish mainstream than it ever was," JFLA President James Kohn said. "We’re better known, have more contacts in the community and more publicity."

In addition to pictures and press clippings, the exhibit features personal stories of JFLA loan recipients. In 1926, a Mrs. Goldberg, for instance, took out the first of 16 loans that the widowed mother of nine needed to survive. Among other things, the money went toward buying supplies for peddling, paying taxes, business school tuition for one of her daughters and food and clothing during the holidays. The loans allowed the Goldberg clan to stay off welfare.

A more recent case history in the exhibit describes the plight of a Soviet immigrant named Valentine, who arrived in Los Angeles without any family. Through a friend, she met the manager of a beauty salon who promised Valentine a job if she completed cosmetology school. There was only one problem; she had no money. JFLA loaned her the money that allowed her to graduate and land a job at the salon. Later, the agency gave her a second loan so she could pay the security deposit for her own apartment.

Over the years, JFLA showed an ability to adapt to societal change. To address the needs of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and immigrating to the United States, Free Loan groups nationwide established the Business Advisory Council in 1940. The new outfit made loans to immigrants in Southern California and elsewhere to open businesses, including cigar stands, service stations and manufacturing plants, according to the exhibit.

As a nonsectarian group, JFLA has long assisted non-Jews. In 1957, the Bureau of Indian Affairs penned a letter of appreciation to the group for having helped Native American families moving to Los Angles get on their feet.

Looking forward, Meltzer said he would like to expand the student and small business loan programs to meet growing demand. He would also like to increase the endowment for a program that makes loans for bar mitzvahs, Jewish weddings and other communal needs.

"We want to maintain Jewish continuity," Meltzer said. "If we don’t do it, who will?"

The exhibit will be at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Sept. 8-22, and Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Sept. 22-Oct. 6. Additional dates and places for the exhibit will be announced soon. The exhibit’s final stop will be Nov. 7 at the St. Regis Hotel in Century City to commemorate JFLA’s centennial celebration.

For more information on the organization’s 100th anniversary dinner, call (323) 761-8830.

Wandering BackInto the Fold


“Shanda: The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew” by Neal Karlen (Touchstone, $23).

Like Bob Dylan a decade before him, writer Neal Karlen turned up on Rabbi Manis Friedman’s doorstep in St. Paul, Minn., in desperate search of his soul. It was three years ago that Karlen hoped the renowned Chasidic scholar might be able to provide him with some of the existential answers he’d given Dylan, when Friedman brought the pop icon back to Judaism after he’d spent a decade as an evangelical Christian. &’9;

Karlen, who had broken the Dylan story as a Rolling Stone writer in New York, had alchemized from a devout, kosher-keeping youth intent on the rabbinate into the title of his new book, a shanda, “a disgrace to Judaism.” “Shanda’s” subtitle tells the rest: “The Making and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew” (Simon and Schuster).

“I’d gone to 10 years of Hebrew school four days a week, tutored hundreds of kids in Torah and haftorah reading for their bar or bat mitzvahs, studied with Rabbi Jacob Neusner at Brown [University] and was a whisper away from going to rabbinical school,” Karlen said on a recent visit to Los Angeles, where part of the book takes place during the High Holidays. Instead, he was lured by Newsweek magazine to a job in Manhattan, where he discovered the world of glitzy, fast-paced journalism.

“It was a sense of erosion,” Karlen explained. “It happened so gradually I was barely aware that I was losing not just the values I’d grown up with, but also my Jewish identity.”

Karlen became a successful journalist — after covering politics at Newsweek, he worked as a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and wrote regularly about pop culture for slick glossies like GQ, Esquire, Spy and Vanity Fair. By his late 30s, he’d penned a rock opera with musician Prince, was on contract with The New York Times and had published five books.

What had made his last vestige of Judaism crumble, he felt, was his short-lived marriage into a Protestant family.

“When her grandfather told my father 10 minutes after the ceremony that he should have ‘Jewed him down,’ I had a feeling it wouldn’t work,” Karlen said with a grimace.

As he neared 40, Karlen felt a nagging sense of emptiness and lack of connection — but to what, he didn’t know.

Enter Friedman.

“Besides the depth of his scholarship, his authenticity and humility are remarkable,” Karlen said of his mentor.

Centering on Karlen’s weekly meetings with Friedman, “Shanda” reads much like “Tuesdays With Morrie,” but has both a wry irreverence and a seething edge.

“I felt I had to be honest,” Karlen continued. If I wanted my questioning of faith to resonate with other assimilated Jews as deeply as it did with me, I couldn’t gloss over what a schmuck I’d become.”

Karlen’s memoir is an alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching spiritual adventure but, like Dylan, the writer eventually finds his way back to Judaism — on his own terms.

As part of this journey, Karlen writes of a visit to Los Angeles during the High Holidays. To his surprise, he is both humbled and moved by his experiences in a Chasidic shul on Pico-Boulevard, and is completely underwhelmed when he checks out Madonna’s Kabbalah Centre a block away. As a newcomer, Karlen was granted the honor of an aliyah, and as a Levi was sent at the proper time to wash the feet of the Kohanim.

“I didn’t wash this man’s feet fast enough, and he started yelling at me and demanding a new Levi,” he said. “My grandfather, if he were still alive, would have been humiliated.”

Yet Karlen does not turn into a Chasid, the fear of many mainstream Jewish parents. In addition to studying with Friedman, he interviews octogenarian atheist socialist Jews at a Yiddish Club where he puts on a skit in which he reads Shylock’s famous “Am I not a Jew?” speech in the mamaloshen. He tutors a girl from a Reform synagogue led by a lesbian rabbi. Not only did he teach the 12-year-old how to read Torah and Haftorah, he gave her lessons in Yiddishkayt that included talk of Sandy Koufax, John Goodman’s role in “The Big Lebowski” and Lenny Bruce.

Through it all, Friedman had only one requirement in order for Karlen to study with him: He had to put on tefillin. When Karlen still balked, saying he didn’t want to cut open his grandfather’s nearly century-old tefillin to see if they were still kosher, Friedman knew just how to convince his pupil.

“Dylan,” Friedman said, like a Chasidic rapper, “wears tefillin.”

Playwright’s Alter Ego Returns Home


For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, "Brooklyn Boy" represents both a return and a departure.

Like several of his early plays, the drama explores obsessions culled from his Brooklyn boyhood: "The legacies parents instill in their children, the continuity of wounding that occurs from generation to generation, the relationship between fathers and sons in particular," the 49-year-old author said.

"But while my previous Brooklyn plays have involved the coming of age of various Marguliesian figures, I’ve never really let myself be a man in Brooklyn," he continued. "This is the first time I’ve placed a middle-aged alter ego on that turf."

"Boy" revolves around 40ish novelist Eric Weiss, who returns home — actually to the hospital where he was born — to visit his dying father, Manny, a shoe salesman. It’s his first trip back in a while, and he’s ambivalent: "I saw what Brooklyn did to my parents, and I knew I had to get the hell out of here," he tells a friend. "I saw … the fear, the xenophobia, the suffocating double grip the Holocaust and the Depression had around their throats."

Yet Eric has just had his first literary success with a semiautobiographical novel.

"So he’s at a juncture where he’s realizing that Brooklyn isn’t just a place he has to keep himself in exile from," actor Adam Arkin (Eric) said. "He’s coming to see that whatever he has to offer as an artist is going to have to embrace who and what he was there. And what he had regarded as a kind of purgatory now can be a kind of key to his being whole."

It appears that Margulies made a parallel journey. Before a recent rehearsal at South Coast Repertory, he described growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors who "instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history." His American-born father, meanwhile, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, "physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences," who lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.

These twin shadows of the Holocaust and the Depression "instilled certain fears in me, legacies I had to shake," Margulies said.

The playwright did so, in part, through his work. "The Model Apartment" (1984) is a kind of "Frankenstein" story in which Holocaust survivors have created a monster in their schizophrenic daughter; "What’s Wrong With This Picture?" (1985) features an artsy kid named Artie who spars with his father; "The Loman Family Picnic" (1988) tells of a downtrodden salesman whose son is writing a musical comedy version of "Death of a Salesman."

Margulies’ intensely personal (but not strictly autobiographical) work places him in a unique niche.

"[He] does not have the master work plan of an August Wilson … or the political urgencies of a Paula Vogel or Tony Kushner to shape and drive his work from play to play," said Jerry Patch, dramaturg of South Coast Repertory. "Instead, his theatrical output, now more than a dozen plays, six of which have enjoyed prominent lives on American stages, has come from assessing his own changing vision of himself and the world in which he lives."

So it makes sense that Margulies eventually left Brooklyn — and tales of restless, artist sons — to explore midlife concerns. "Sight Unseen" (1991) describes a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The Pulitzer-winning "Dinner With Friends"(1999) was inspired by Margulies’ observations of "a succession of domestic catastrophes" in his circle.

"Brooklyn Boy" began with another observation several years ago.

"My wife and so many of our contemporaries were dealing with failing and dying parents," he said. Since Margulies’ own parents had died by the time he was 32, inventing the fictional Manny was "an opportunity to create a fantasy of what an aged version of my father might have been like."

The character also "embodies so many of the generation who are now failing and dying; very often first-generation American Jews who were battered by the war and the Depression; who married and did all the traditional things and are now at the end of their lives with their generally overpsychoanalyzed children."

It was the late playwright Herb Gardner ("Conversations With My Father") who persuaded Margulies to set the piece back home: "I’d steadfastly steered clear of Brooklyn for a time in my work, because I feared I’d tread familiar ground," he said. "But Herb convinced me it was an exciting prospect to revisit Brooklyn at this stage of my life, not as a boy but as a man."

Perhaps the play is Margulies’ way of acknowledging Brooklyn as a source of creativity, as well as shadows.

"’Brooklyn Boy’ feels to me like the work of a more mature writer, so I’m glad I made the trip," he said.

The play runs Sept. 10-Oct. 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (previews are Sept. 3-9); for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.scr.org. Margulies will speak Sept. 9 as part of Chapman University’s Visiting Writers Series at Kennedy Hall. For more information, call (714) 997-6750.

Irvine Orthodox Plan to Erect Eruv


Ten years ago, Sean and Linda Samuels moved to Irvine, home to both a Chabad center and the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, along with other synagogues.

As the couple grew more observant and had children, they wanted the family to be part of their journey, which, of course, included weekly walks to shul.

But how? Irvine had no eruv, an unbroken boundary that uses existing electrical lines and fencing to encircle a synagogue and neighboring homes, which, according to rabbinic law, encloses a “private” space where observant Jews may carry objects on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. Without an eruv, people who need to carry, or push strollers or wheelchairs, are stranded at home.

Sean Samuels, a Beth Jacob board member, was instrumental in the quest to erect Irvine’s eruv, which should be operational by Rosh Hashanah. His initiative underscores Irvine’s reputation for welcoming people of many faiths and how the Orthodox community aims for inclusiveness.

At least eight others eruvs are in the works around Southern California, too, a reflection of observant communities taking hold outside urban areas. With an estimated 5-mile perimeter, Irvine’s boundary is a triangle bordered by the San Diego Freeway between the Michaelson and University exits, and University and Harvard avenues.

“It’s going to make Irvine this whole new playground,” said Samuels, who still needed to raise two-thirds of the eruv’s projected cost, $27,000.

“Having an eruv is a huge attraction,” he said, claiming property values will increase within its boundaries because of demand by observant Jews. Howard Shapiro, the project manager of a 50-mile perimeter eruv in West Los Angeles completed in January 2003, is now consulting on eight projects regionally. Most are on the scale of Irvine’s, he said.

“An eruv becomes another sign the community is coming of age,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, the West Coast director of the Orthodox Union, whose members are Modern Orthodox synagogues. “It’s a very important sign that people don’t look singularly in Pico-Robertson and North Hollywood,” he said, where eruvs have existed for at least 20 years.

The number of observant Jews and their proportion among American Jewry appears to be increasing, as does the potential for municipal clashes over eruvs.

An eruv is a modern phenomenon, Kalinsky said, which was unnecessary in Europe’s walled cities and enclosed ghettos, but were erected beginning 40 years ago in the New York area. The highest-profile and longest-running eruv battle divided Jew against Jew and sparked charges of anti-Semitism in Tenafly, N.J. Although the resulting court case focused on the legality of allowing a religious use of public property, proponents say the eruv’s critics, including some Reform Jews, exploited the constitution to bar Orthodox Jews from their neighborhood. Opponents of the eruv said their opposition was not based in anti-Semitism, rather in the fact that Orthodox Jews often spoiled community endeavors, such as public schooling (they send their children to private school) and local politics (they don’t participate).

Orange County’s Jewish denominations lack the rancor seen in Tenafly and other Eastern cities, said Benjamin Hubbard, chair of Cal State Fullerton’s comparative religions department. “Here, there is not the same history of bad will; interreligious feuding is the nastiest kind,” he said.

Without dissent, the eruv was approved on the consent calendar by the Irvine City Council on July 13. Even so, the project took two years to complete because of the number of public and private entities involved, including supervision by an eruv authority, Rabbi Gershon Bess of the Rabbinic Council of California, whose members are Orthodox rabbis. Besides stringing fishing line between 58 Edison poles, Bess required installation of five new poles and the addition of four poles to existing fences.

Samuels said Irvine’s Chabad is considering expanding the eruv to encircle its location in Woodbridge. The Chabad’s Rabbi Alter Tanenbaum could not be reached for comment.

While in some areas of Los Angeles an eruv tended to buoy property values in a flat market, Ethyl Krawitz is uncertain Irvine will experience such a phenomenon. “It’s only appealing to the very observant; it means nothing to anyone else,” said Krawitz, a RE/MAX Realtor in Irvine whose clientele is 80 percent Jewish.

Irvine’s new Jewish Community Center already is a more potent magnet, she said. Krawitz sees the JCC’s location influence housing decisions of people relocating to the area, as well as Jews relocating internally from Anaheim, Orange and San Juan Capistrano.

“It’s a wonderful draw,” she said.

To maintain the eruv, the line’s integrity will be checked weekly. Once the eruv is up, results will be disseminated by e-mail and at www.irvineeruv.org. For more information, e-mail drsamuels@pacbell.net.

How to Approach a Grieving Jew


"Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief" by Rabbi Maurice Lamm (Jewish Publication Society, $30).

Grief erases all regular rules. All the logic that has ever seemed to govern one’s life suddenly seems useless. More than useless, it seems pointless. In death, we are all brought down to the same physical level. In grief, all rules are shaken to the core. Individual, groups, even whole societies can exist in states of suspended animation, for in struggling with the implications of death, they cannot participate in the daily activity of living.

In a religious context, that very suspension is a double-edged sword. Religion must be based on a system of logic. Without it, no belief or ritual would make any sense. So what is a religion like Judaism, with its long history of legal logic, to do with mourning? How is Judaism to cope with the mourner, who is living the paradox of grief: showing the rest of us exactly how crucial the laws that govern every moment and gesture can be to maintaining order and meaning in life, but also making us face the question of whether those rules really mean anything at all.

In 1969, Rabbi Maurice Lamm published "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning," which became a staple for those trying to cope with the death of a loved one, and served as the template for the hundreds of books dealing with grief in a Jewish context that have been written since. Now, 35 years later, he has returned to the subject in "Consolation: The Spiritual Journey Beyond Grief."

An Orthodox rabbi, Lamm lives and writes in a world that values halacha, or Jewish law, as the proper way to deal with all aspects of life, both good and bad. Yet grief is the one example of a time and state that defies law. We can see in his treatment of the topic of mourning the ways in which Judaism itself has tried to reconcile the difficulty of grief.

Lamm goes into great detail about the practice of "sitting shiva," the seven-day period of enforced mourning that traditional Jews have long followed. During that week, members of the community visit those who have experienced a death. He goes into great detail about the particulars that govern even the experience of shiva: The mourner is to sit low to the ground so that he or she is closer to the earth and thus to death; the mourner doesn’t wash his or her hair and wears a piece of clothing that has deliberately been torn. Visitors, too, are given instruction about how to interact with those whom they visit. They may not allow the person to isolate himself in his sorrow, but by the same token may not greet the mourner directly.

All these rules to regulate what is ultimately ungovernable. Even this has been written into Judaism’s understanding of the grief process. Before shiva even begins, the mourner exists in a netherworld, not subject to the regular rules. For a day or two, the mourner exists outside the legal system. He or she lives out the fact that death cancels all logic, that law is powerless in the face of death.

What Lamm never seems to confront is that in laying out how the mourner is to travel from that netherworld to full participation in life, Judaism finds a way to re-exert its own logic onto the moment of greatest grief. In the progress from the first shock of death to the re-entry into the community one week later, the mourner is brought back from the place where law has no meaning to the world in which law reigns supreme. In fact, traditional Jewish thoughts about grief and the practices that it has devised, never really do let go of the logic of law.

The result, for "Consolation," is that Lamm is on surest ground when he sticks to the formalities of grief — not just the laws of interaction with a mourner, but even in the suggestions he gives about how to deal with someone in that delicate state.

In fact, Lamm shows sensitivity to the turbulent emotions of any mourner in his approach toward those who would wish to give consolation. The book stresses patience. It offers detailed advice about how to avoid the most dreaded of all situations: saying the wrong thing to a person sitting shiva. He even encourages those visiting to endure some discomfort if it will alleviate some of the mourner’s anguish.

To his credit, Lamm anticipates the existential questioning that comes up during a period of grief, but his book is less successful when it tries to engage those questions on their own, precisely because the law is never too far out of sight. One cannot attempt to answer the spiritual dilemmas that death inevitably brings up if one is unwilling to also suspend all logic, if only for a brief moment, and Lamm simply cannot do that. His worldview is too caught up in the reassertion of the law, and not open enough to its seeming irrelevance in the light of grief’s suffering.

For all that, Lamm has written an important book, a book that offers something to grab onto at a time when the bottom seems to have dropped out, when nothing makes sense and we yearn for the assurance that there is meaning, that the existential questions do have answers. Sometimes, rules can be the greatest consolation of all.

Lamm will be speaking Aug. 31 from noon-2 p.m. at the University of Judaism. For more information, call (800) 757-4242.

UCLA Alumna Heads Film School


Barbara Boyle has come full circle.

When she first entered UCLA in 1957, she was one of four female law students in a class of 140. She considered herself a beatnik, dreaming of saving the world. Now she’s back at UCLA as head of the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media.

During the intervening four decades, Boyle worked as a corporate counsel for American International Pictures and put her business savvy to work at New World Pictures. As a film company executive, she oversaw production of “The Terminator” and “Platoon.” As an independent producer, she made “Phenomenon,” one of the top-grossing movies of 1996. In April 2003, she stepped down from the presidency of Valhalla Motion Pictures (“The Hulk”) to accept the post at her alma mater.

Boyle’s travels through the film world pale in comparison to her parents’ journey from Europe to the United States. Her father, William Dorman, left a Russian shtetl at age 13 to accompany his 22-year-old brother to America. Without an American nickel between them, the two brothers walked from Ellis Island to the Brooklyn Bridge, where they planned to meet a cousin.

That walk through the teeming streets of New York, circa 1905, quickly showed them the dark side of American life. Their payot, black coats and dangling tzitzit immediately established them as greenhorns, and thus fair prey for the Bowery bums who scattered the contents of William’s cardboard suitcase before running away.

But the story has a happy ending: The suitcase was recovered (and remains one of Boyle’s prized possessions). The cousin told the two brothers that he had found them a grocery store job. Two years later, they bought the store from its owner and sent for the rest of the family.

America was the place where a penniless immigrant like Willy Dorman could grow up and become a successful businessman. But to Boyle’s mother, Edith Kleiman, America was a poor substitute for the world she’d left behind. She was the daughter of a Russian Jew whose high intellect endeared him to a local count. His patron smoothed his way into the legal profession, and he and his family enjoyed an affluent lifestyle. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution. The father was killed, and 17-year-old Edith took charge of getting the family to Paris.

Ultimately, they landed in New York. While making a speech about conditions in her homeland, she caught the eye of the much-older Willy Dorman. “Isn’t that romantic?” Boyle said. “I tell these stories, and it’s hard to imagine they’re not just stories. It’s like reading Sholom Aleichem.”

Boyle attributes everything she is to her parents. “If I’m anything, it’s all because of them.” Her childhood home was a place where Zionism flourished, and where political views were hotly debated around the dinner table. Her father, who had a passion for moral and ethical study, devoted his free hours to the Talmud, and the children were sent to an Orthodox cheder after school. Both proved to be gifted students. Brother Albert became a prominent engineer and architect, who later endowed the honors college at his alma mater, New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The expectations for Barbara were equally high. Her mother made sure she was educated, “So that I could stand side by side with my husband, and not on his shoulders.” When Barbara decided to become an attorney, she was fulfilling Edith’s own dream of studying law like her father before her.

While in law school, Barbara met Kevin Boyle, the son of immigrants from Ireland. It was she, and not her family, who insisted he convert to Judaism before they wed. Their marriage, which lasted 37 years until his death, produced two sons, both of whom, said the longtime member of Kehillat Israel, are strong in their Judaism.

Boyle has brought to UCLA the nonprofit experience she gained as president of both Women in Film and the Independent Feature Project West. She delights in the opportunity to interact with students. In William Dorman’s value system, teaching is the noblest profession of all. As Boyle settles into this new professional challenge, she keeps in mind her father’s words: “There’s only one way you can become a better person. Only one. And that is by giving to others.” She also relies upon her mother’s lesson: “Anything you can dream you can do.”

Parents Don’t Kid About Day Schools


After extensive research, campus tours, a detailed application and an interview, Aidan Buckner was recently accepted into the school of his choice. While his parents may have done the legwork, it is Aidan who will enter kindergarten at the Ronald and Trana Labowe Family Day School at Adat Ari El in Valley Village this fall. The 5 1/2-year-old seems unfazed by the upcoming transition, but for his parents, the news marks the end of a long journey.

“We put Aidan on the wait list at Adat Ari El and Valley Beth Shalom when we moved [to Sherman Oaks] when he was 1 1¼2,” remembers Denise Buckner, Aidan’s mom. Since that time, Buckner has gone to numerous day school open houses over the years, sat in on classes and spent countless hours making school-related phone calls.

“I [visited the schools] every year because I felt every year I learned more about who my son was and what kind of person he was,” Buckner said.

Like many Jewish parents in the Southland, Buckner knew she wanted her child to attend Jewish day school, but the process of selecting a school and getting in proved nerve-wracking at times.

With the shaky reputation of local public schools around Los Angeles, many families look to day schools for a solid education. While Jewish schools are eager to accommodate young students, class size limits can make the process feel cutthroat.

Samara Fabrick, a licensed clinical social worker on the Westside, remembers the competitive vibe she felt last year when looking at schools for her 6-year-old son Zachary.

“I kept having to remind myself that we’re not talking about Columbia. We’re not talking about Tufts. This is kindergarten,” said Fabrick, whose son now attends the Geri and Richard Brawerman Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

While her son was accepted to both schools where the family applied, Fabrick’s worries were not completely unfounded, as many schools cannot take every applicant.

“We have only 40 spaces [for kindergarten] and this year we had over 80 applications,” said Maxine Keith, the assistant head of school and director of admissions at Whilshire Boulevard’s Brawerman Elementary.

In addition, since siblings of current students and children from Wilshire’s preschool have priority, it is clear that not everyone is a shoo-in.

Psychologist Lisa Lainer recalls the stress of waiting to see if her daughter, Sophie, now 6, got accepted to Sinai Akiba Academy at Sinai Temple last year. Even through Sophie attended Sinai’s preschool, more preschoolers than there were available spots in the day school kindergarten program that year.

“In part, we felt confident that she’d get in, but then there’s there anxiety of ‘What if I’m wrong?'” Lainer said.

For the Reform and Conservative day schools in Los Angeles, applications are usually due in December and the admissions decision letters usually go out in March. For the Orthodox day schools, admissions are on a rolling basis and most students enter in preschool rather than kindergarten. At Maimonides Academy about 80 percent to 90 percent of the students come through the early childhood program. “We sometimes tell parents to make sure they get in on the preschool level because the classes are jampacked and may be closed by the time pre-one rolls around,” principal Rabbi Karmi Gross said.

Even though many day schools continue to fill up quickly, there is actually a decline in the number of Jewish children in the United States. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, only 20 percent of the U.S. Jewish population is 18 and younger, a number that has decreased in the last 10 years. As a result, the number of kindergartners in Los Angeles Jewish day schools has decreased over the last few years, as well.

While getting in can be anxiety-provoking, parents seem to feel the stress is worth it in the end.

“I’m exceedingly happy,” Fabrick said. “We made a great choice and Zach is getting a great education.”

Buckner is excited for Aidan to start kindergarten in September.

“I’m hoping that going to a values-based school is going to change who my son is for the better,” she said.

Israel Needs Hope for Survival


Nearly 60 years ago, out of the ashes of the Holocaust, thousands of Jews came with not much more than the shirts on their backs to a land recognizable only as a collective and distant memory. There they found other Jews who had been there for several years, working to forge a new destiny for a people long beleaguered by suffering and hardship that culminated in the mass slaughter of roughly 30 percent of our entire population.

On May 14, 1948 (Iyar 5 on the Jewish calendar), after a journey begun nearly 1,900 years before, the Jews managed to find their way home. It had indeed been a long journey, one that involved an ancient and holy promise of a return to Eretz Yisrael, our ancient homeland.

For the first time in nearly two millennia, Jews had something we had lacked during the whole of the Diaspora — hope. Hope for a better life for us and for our children, and hope for survival of our faith and of our people, something that seemed impossible just a few years before.

Throughout our history, the world has not let us rest, and this certainly did not change upon the founding of the modern State of Israel. From the moment it was established, Israelis have been forced perpetually to defend the Jewish state from a multitude of adversaries, whether conventional armies, terrorist groups or a culture of incitement and hatred that spans the globe. These threats against Israel, much like the threats against the Jewish people throughout the centuries, have come about not because of anything we have done but because of who we are and what we represent.

Israel is a microcosm of the Jewish existence. On one hand, our nation is a model of freedom, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law in an otherwise enslaved, intolerant, totalitarian and lawless region of the globe. Given a chance, this could serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East.

On the other hand, we still have many challenges to overcome. For the last three and a half years, Israel has been the target of a relentless campaign of terror and murder. Simple day-to-day activities — a bus ride, a trip to the supermarket, a night out at a cafe — have become cause for great anxiety among Israelis.

Nearly 1,000 innocent civilians have been tragically murdered, causing great pain throughout the nation. Anti-Semitism, masked as anti-Zionism, has become legitimate in many circles in Europe and even here in the United States — not to mention the Arab and Muslim worlds. On top of all that, we have witnessed an international propaganda campaign designed to undermine our legitimacy.

Israel is a democracy and a strong one at that. But we are also a democracy facing terrible dilemmas, trying to walk the thin line between defending our citizens on the one hand and defending morality and the rule of law on the other.

It is a difficult task. But just like we have done throughout our history, we shall emerge from these challenges wiser, stronger and with a better sense of ourselves and of our role in the world.

This year on Yom HaAtzmaut, we are celebrating not just our independence. We celebrate our survival, our prosperity and our accomplishments in the face of extraordinary adversity.

Despite the efforts to destroy us, we have not only survived but have transcended our own expectations. Despite living in a virtual war zone, Israel has managed to maintain its democracy.

We maintained and even enhanced civil rights for all, including more than 1 million Israeli Arabs. We have become a global leader in engineering, computer science, agriculture, medicine and biotechnology. And, most importantly, we have strengthened our resolve to one day achieve a just and lasting peace with those who would destroy us.

It is on this day that we reflect on the uniqueness of Israel. For centuries, the Jewish people had no territory, no land to call our own. We had only a book, a faith and a collective history.

Since then, as always, we Jews are still striving to find a sense of normalcy in an abnormal place. But through it all, we have not forgotten, nor will we forget, that our destiny as a people is to make the world more human.

This is the hope that fuels our identity and our pride in the State of Israel. It is a hope that is built upon the collective memory of nearly 2,000 years. It is our hope to live in freedom in our land — the land of hope, the land of peace the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

A Towering Achievement


At a willowy 5-foot-10 1/2, Jennifer Rosen ticks off the quandaries of growing up supertall, female and Jewish: At her Miami Beach religious school she scraped her knees on the desk, which practically stuck to her backside when she stood up. At her Conservative bat mitzvah, she danced with boys who had to lean their heads on her chest. While reciting her Haftorah, she even towered over the rabbi: "He was wearing a bad toupee, and I was looking down on it," said Rosen, now in her 20s.

Her height felt all the freakier because Jews are generally more vertically challenged than, say, Swedes.

Rosen, who now wears high heels, eventually embraced her stature. It’s a journey she recounts in her debut monologue, "Tall Girl," a visiting production at The Groundlings Theatre, directed by Groundlings founder Gary Austin. The tall tale is a more G-rated version of the kind of comic monologue, celebrating the liberated self, epitomized by shows such as Margaret Cho’s "I’m the One That I Want."

In the highly physical piece, Rosen plays herself and a variety of characters, such as classmates who called her Big Bird and Daddy Long Legs. Throughout her childhood, she said, "There were stares and people pointing at me and thinking I was older. I felt extremely awkward, unsure of what to do with my limbs."

Her mother shlepped her to endocrinologists and also to acting class, which helped draw the painfully shy teenager out of her shell. After graduating from Stanford, she studied at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square theater school and with Austin, who taught her to use her long limbs to comic advantage.

"Initially, Jennifer was more self-conscious," recalled the director, who has also coached stars such as Helen Hunt. But as he helped her develop "Tall Girl," she "became much more committed to using her whole body, not just while playing herself but in the extreme character work."

These days, the poised Rosen still stands out at Jewish singles events such as Friday Night Live, where she’s taller than many of the guys. "But that no longer bothers me," she said.

"Tall Girl" runs Tuesdays through March 30. $15. 7307 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 934-4747.

Escape to Shanghai Saved Refugee’s Life


At a time when the world shunned them, an estimated 20,000 Jewish refugees from Russia, Germany, Austria and elsewhere made their way to Shanghai before World War II. Jews in this forgotten corner of the world survived on donations from the Joint Distribution Committee, whose financial support paid for three meals a day, then two and then one.

As difficult as life was for Shanghai’s Jews, it was certainly better than the alternative, said Michael Berenbaum, director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, which explores the religious and ethical implications of the Holocaust. The Jews in China "didn’t know the language and were impoverished," he said. "But comparatively speaking, they were free. The people they left behind died."

By the late 1940s, Shanghai’s Jews had largely immigrated to the United States and Israel, closing a little-known chapter in Jewish history. Most of them have since succumbed to old age and illness, taking their memories to the grave.

In San Juan Capistrano though, 80-year-old Kurt Wunderlich remembers. The spirited, retired music shop owner — "I like the Beatles and Stones, but most of the stuff today is crap" — recently described his wartime experiences to a visitor at his modest but comfortable Orange County home.

Wunderlich, a diminutive man with a strong, direct gaze, escaped from Germany in 1939 with his lawyer father, Felix. They fled soon after the Nazis sent his father to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin for one week for the crime of being Jewish. The elder Wunderlich was released only after promising to leave Germany within six months.

But where to go? Almost no countries, including the United States, wanted Jewish refugees. China was an exception. So Wunderlich and his father were among the 459 Jews who chartered a ship built for 200 and sailed on an arduous, nine-week journey to Shanghai. The Nazis permitted each passenger to leave with only one suitcase and $4.

Wunderlich’s mother, Margarete, had planned to meet up with her son and husband within months. She never made it. Through a German friend, Wunderlich later heard that she had died in the death camps or poisoned herself before boarding a train bound for them. No one is really sure.

In Shanghai, the bewildered 14-year-old and his father settled in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, teeming with 5,000 other refugees. They lived in abandoned schoolhouses, 120 to a room. Wunderlich said he endured those grim conditions for nine years.

Shanghai’s Jews, as best they could, though, tried to recreate the rich cultural lives they had left behind.

"Jews opened operas, nightclubs, restaurants," Wunderlich said. "There were clubs. There was soccer. We found things to do."

But life was by no means carefree. Violence and danger lurked.

Wunderlich remembers a young friend who used to bicycle around Shanghai. A truckload of Japanese soldiers grabbed the boy and his bike; he was never seen alive again. Another time, a Japanese soldier put a gun to Wunderlich’s head for violating the prohibition against gambling. Instead of killing him, the drunken soldier punched him in the back.

In 1943, American bombs destroyed a Japanese radio station in Wunderlich’s neighborhood, killing 17 Jews and wounding 53 others. He remembers pulling limp bodies from the rubble. Around the same time, Wunderlich said he contracted dysentery and nearly died after losing 20 pounds from his already skinny 100-pound frame.

A couple years later, chaos descended on Shanghai, when the Japanese evacuated the city after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that ended World War II. For three days, Chinese looters ravaged the city, stealing everything they could, Wunderlich said.

"Nobody wanted to stay there one day longer than necessary," he said.

But stay he did. In 1948, Wunderlich and his father finally emigrated and arrived in San Francisco, where the younger Wunderlich met his future wife, Jane. The couple, who married in 1950, later moved to Houston and then Mexico City, before making their way to Southern California. The Wunderlichs had three children. His wife did in 1994.

Today, Wunderlich lives a relatively quiet life. He remarried in 2001, wedding Nenita, a Filipina he met on the Internet, who is in her 40s. He lives on dividends from mutual funds, a monthly Social Security check of $836 and reparations from the German government.

Looking back, he finds it difficult to believe that he survived when so many others perished.

"I’m not a religious person, but I think God has looked out for me," he said.

Once Upon a Mime


Once upon a time, Joel ben Izzy worked as a mime — until he injured his hip in a car crash.

Then he became a storyteller who lost his voice.

"If I could market irony, I’d be rich," said the wry, rueful performer.

Ben Izzy — who eventually regained his speech — recounts the journey in a moving new book, "The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness" (Algonquin, $22.95). Woven into the memoir are 15 multicultural folk tales, including the Talmudic legend of how King Solomon achieved wisdom after temporarily losing his empire.

If ben Izzy’s tribulations sound like a not-so-funny cosmic joke, it’s fitting that he began an interview with a story set during a Purim carnival at his Arcadia Conservative synagogue three decades ago. There, the budding performer, now 44, met "Professor Presto," the Jewish magician who would become his first magic teacher. Ben Izzy went on to become a mime in Paris until a Ford sedan gave him "a very quick physics lesson," and dislocated his hip in 1981, he said.

While recuperating, he read a newspaper article about the emerging storytelling movement spurred by artists such as Jackie Torrance; he knew he’d found his new calling. After earning a degree from Stanford in that craft, he traveled from Japan to Israel, collecting folk tales he performed live and on several acclaimed CDs.

He felt blessed until the medical checkup in 1997, where the doctor found the lump in his throat.

"After surgery, the good news was that the thyroid cancer was gone," he said. "The bad news: So was my voice and my livelihood."

While waiting to see if a second, experimental surgery could help, the desperate ben Izzy began "The Beggar King" to explore whether he could carve meaning from his misery. He was "shocked" when "King," his first book, earned rave reviews and potential movie deals: "I never thought that losing my voice would be my ‘big break,’" he said. &’9;But as soon as ben Izzy mentioned his newfound success, he sheepishly added that he should perhaps spit to ward off bad luck. "An irony-free life would be nice," he said.

Ben Izzy performs Feb. 25, 7 p.m at Borders Books & Music, 1415 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica; and Feb. 26, 7 p.m., at the Central Library downtown. For reservations, call (213) 228-7025.