New genetic evidence links Spanish Americans of Southwest to Jews


In 1995, Demetrio Valdez, his wife, Olive, and some of their neighbors in Conjehos County, Colo., started a kosher food co-op.

“We wanted to harvest our own meat, but we couldn’t get a good price for it, so we decided to do it kosher to make more money,” said Valdez, 64, who has raised cattle all his life.

The co-op members, all non-Jews, flew in a rabbi from New York to instruct them in kosher slaughter. To Valdez’s surprise, many of the practices introduced by the rabbi were ones that Valdez, a Catholic, had grown up with and maintained on his ranch.

“I saw that we do a lot of things the same,” he recalled. “The rabbi was surprised, too.”

Financial woes and a fire forced the co-op to close soon after it started, but Valdez’s experiences with the rabbi—the first Jew he had ever met—lingered.

Since childhood he had heard rumors that his family had Jewish ancestors dating back to colonial New Spain when, as historical records show, a good number of Converso Jews—Jews and their descendants forcibly converted during the Spanish Inquisition—came to the New World. Many of the Conversos who had made the trek over had become Catholics in name only. They were Crypto Jews who in traveling across the Atlantic were attempting to flee the Inquisition.

“My parents never spoke about it, but everyone knew there was something there,” said Valdez.

Now a new study in the Journal of Human Genetics has turned up fresh scientific evidence that the Spanish Americans of the Southwest must have had some Jewish forbears.

A group of researchers in the United States and Ecuador analyzed DNA from two communities who trace back to Spanish colonial times: one in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, which includes Conjehos County, and one in the Loja Province of southern Ecuador.

The study found “observable Sephardic ancestry” in both communities and calculated Jewish ancestry among the Lojanos at about 5 to 10 percent and among the Spanish Americans, also called Hispanos, at about 1 to 5 percent.

“This study provides firmer evidence for what people have been conjecturing for up to 20 years now,” said the study’s director, Dr. Harry Ostrer, director of genetics and genomic testing at Montefiore Hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Over the past several decades, scholars have been pursuing stories like Valdez’s and claim to have found remnants of Crypto-Jewish practices in communities in the U.S. Southwest and Latin America. Some Hispanos and Latin Americans also have come forward to claim a Crypto-Jewish past, with a small number embracing a Jewish identity outright.

“The ancestry is really dispersed throughout the communities,” Ostrer said of his findings, which also concluded that along the maternal line, Native American ancestry is as high as 30 to 40 percent.

“You can’t say person A has Jewish ancestry and person B does not. These genes were introduced some 500 years ago,” he said. “Originally there was a fair amount of intermarriage, and then the communities remained isolated.”

As the historical hypothesis goes, once the Inquisition arrived in the New World, Crypto Jews pushed on to the remote corners of the Spanish empire, such as New Mexico and Colorado, to escape the Church’s reach. The San Luis Valley and Loja—both located in the farthest corners of what were once Spanish holdings—would therefore be expected to have discernable Jewish ancestry.

But the groundswell of interest in a Crypto-Jewish past among those of Spanish origin, particularly in the American Southwest, also has sparked controversy. A number of scholars have vociferously disputed any present-day evidence of Judaism, arguing that practices reported as Jewish had their origins in Seventh-day Adventism or fundamental Christianity.

“It certainly wasn’t my intention to take sides in this argument,” said Ostrer.

Rather, he and his team were, in part, picking up on previous genetic and clinical studies that found something surprising: Genetic mutations viewed as predominantly Jewish for a number of diseases, like breast cancer or Bloom’s syndrome, were popping up at a notable rate among Hispanos.

A mutation for breast cancer called 185 del AG that is much more common among Ashkenazi Jews than other populations, for example, turns out to be prevalent among Hispanos as well. According to Dr. Paul Duncan, a medical oncologist in private practice in Albuquerque, N.M., only his Hispano and Ashkenazi Jewish patients carry the mutation.

Curiously, scientists calculate that 185 del AG arose approximately 2,000 years ago prior to any split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

In Loja, genetic traces of ancestry are even more apparent. Scattered across the remote villages of the province are nearly 100 people with Laron syndrome, which is marked by a severe short stature. When Dr. Jaime Guevara-Aguirre, a diabetes specialist based in Quito, Ecuador, who collaborated with Ostrer on his study, first began treating this group in 1987, the referring physician told him that legend had it that these people all descended from the same Sephardic Jew who had come over with the explorers.

In 1992 and 1993, scientists discovered that all Lojanos with Laron’s carried the same mutation and shared it with one person in Israel and nine others in Latin America.

“When I saw this I thought there is a strong possibility that the story was true,” said Guevara-Aguirre, because “what are the chances that in the billions of nucleotides the same mutation would happen twice at random? But Harry’s study confirms it for the first time.”

Ostrer’s study stands out from previous studies in its scope. It is the first time that any researcher has looked beyond particular disease mutations or shared individual genetic markers to view the entire genome for large chunks of DNA that indicate shared ancestry.

“Statistically it is very difficult to see it any other way” other than that “these people [in Ostrer’s study] were descendant from Conversos,” agreed Duncan.

Back in the San Luis Valley, Maria Clara Martinez, a retiree who edits the local paper, La Sierra, said she wasn’t “at all surprised” by Ostrer’s findings. A genealogist who has amassed a database of more than 77,000 individuals from New Mexico and southern Colorado extending back to 1598, Martinez explained that everyone in the area is somehow related.

Martinez helped to publicized Ostrer’s study, but did not get tested herself because, she said, “I’m afraid of needles.”

Although she said she never heard of any ancestors in her own family who were Jewish, she has heard others speak of Jewish forbears or family practices. And then there was an ancestor of hers who married a woman from Portugal whose father was tried by the Inquisition.

“Community members were jealous of him, so they reported him, saying he had a tail,” Martinez recalled. “He was cleared, but it’s very likely he was Jewish, although it was never proven.”

Dutch lawmakers offer compromise on kosher slaughter ban


The Dutch Parliament has offered a compromise on a bill that would ban kosher slaughter.

Under the compromise hammered out June 22, ritual slaughter will not be included in a bill that would ban the slaughter of animals in the Netherlands without first stunning them if it can be proved that the ritual method of slaughter does not cause additional suffering.

Under the laws of shechitah, or Jewish ritual slaughter, animals may not be rendered unconscious before slaughter. Muslim law has a similar proscription.

The compromise means that the Jewish and Muslim communities can “go and investigate what is possible instead of just telling them what they can’t do,” lawmaker Stientje van Veldhoven of the centrist D66 party said.

The Jewish community has rejected this line of reasoning, saying the ban and the new amendment demonstrate a lack of religious freedom for Dutch Jews. As many as 50,000 Jews and approximately 1 million Muslims are living in the Netherlands, according to reports.

The Dutch parliament will vote on the proposed ban, with the amendment, next week. If the legislation passes, it would make Holland the first European Union country to ban shechitah.

Shechitah is permissible under European law and to ban it goes against the E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights, which clearly states that there is freedom of religious practice.

A controversial ban on kosher slaughter put in place by New Zealand’s agriculture minister was partially reversed last November amid allegations that the decision was taken to appease Muslim countries that have lucrative trade relations with New Zealand. The ban on kosher slaughter of poultry was suspended; the ban on beef remains.

Growing taste for kosher boils in U.S. melting pot


Hispanic and Asian foods are so different — in taste, textures, ingredients (even the utensils with which they are eaten) — that it seemed a strange pairing when the annual Expo Comida Latina was combined with the All Asian Food trade show at the Los Angeles Convention Center recently.

Yet among the 500 exhibitors offering food service establishments everything from refrigeration equipment to signage, etc., there was one with an “intangible” asset: kosher certification, something that intrigues ethnic food providers of all stripes.

Sitting alone in a simple booth with a few brochures and a backdrop banner declaring, “Star-K Kosher Certification / Kosher Supervision Worldwide / A Vital Ingredient in Your Success,” Steve Sichel, director of development for the Baltimore-based agency, fought off fatigue. He had raced to the airport right after Simchat Torah to fly across the country overnight.

Sichel is no stranger to conferences where he is the only man wearing a kippah: “I attend these kinds of shows all over the world.”

Kosher has come a long way from designating merely a set of obscure dietary restrictions that are strictly observed by only a minuscule fraction of the world’s population. According to a 2005 Mintel Organization International report, Kosher is a $14.6 billion industry and ranks among the fastest-growing segments in the retail food business.

“Outside of Israel and North America, Star-K has offices in Europe, Asia and Latin America,” Sichel reported. “Obviously, our consumers are not in India and China, but a growing number of food processing plants are interested in kosher certification in order to broaden their export markets, and they call on our mashgihim based in Bombay and Shanghai.”

The increased availability and desirability of kosher food, whether imported or domestic, is reflected in its astonishing growth rate. “While retail food sales grew at a rate of 6 percent last year, kosher food sales grew 15 percent,” Sichel told the audience attending his expo seminar, “Kosher Certification 101.”

The turnout for Sichel’s workshop was small: only a minyan of men and women, both foreigners and locals. Undiscouraged, Sichel went through his complete bilingual (English and Spanish) slide presentation: “The Latest Wrap About Kosher Hispanic Food — Lo Ultimo en Comida Latina Kosher.”

As Sichel likes to tell his audiences, “You don’t have to be Jewish to have kosher products.” In fact, Star-K is a member of the American Tortilla Industry Association, and Los Angeles’ own Tumaro’s Gourmet Tortillas — the country’s best-selling flavored (savory and sweet) tortilla brand — is certified kosher.

Nor do you have to be Jewish to buy, consume and enjoy kosher products. “The second largest consumer group for kosher food is Muslims,” Sichel noted. “There are 10 million Muslims in the United States, and in the absence of widespread halal certification, they have come to rely on kosher certification.”

According to Sichel, others who prefer to eat kosher include Seventh-day Adventists, vegetarians and health-conscious consumers.

“The kosher symbol is seen as an indication that there is another set of eyes keeping watch on what the company is doing,” he said.

The growing number of non-Jewish consumers of kosher food has not been lost on the supermarket chains.

“Given a choice, supermarkets prefer to stock kosher products — particularly products whose kashrut certification comes from a reliable agency.” he said.

Nor did this growth escape the attention of Diversified Business Communications, the company that owns and operates Expo Comida Latina and All Asian Food Expo, as well as Kosherfest, the country’s largest exhibition of kosher foods. In fact, Kosherfest — which was founded by Menachem Lubinsky 18 years ago and purchased from him by Diversified four years ago — was combined with New York City’s joint Expo Comida Latina and All Asian Food Expo in mid-November.

According to Brian Randall, Diversified’s group vice president for ethnic and cultural foods, Kosherfest, was not held in Los Angeles this year because of an unwritten agreement with Kosher World that the latter would hold kosher trade shows on the West Coast, as it did last spring in Anaheim.

In the meantime, Kosher World has been sold, and the brand dissolved, leaving it up to Randall and Diversified to decide whether to bring Kosherfest to Los Angeles next year.

Randall predicted more avenues for the growth of kosher products.

“We are going to see kosher kid products in all cuisines,” he said. “In addition, organic food is a nexus with kosher food for the growing healthy food market. Jewish parents want the best for their kids. Look for major kosher food producers, like Manischewitz, to introduce organic lines under their labels.”

Sinai Dinner Prompts Revamp of Biblical Proportions


In February 2004, chef Ido Shapira of Tel Aviv received an impassioned phone call from the United States.

“I want you to cook for a banquet in Beverly Hills in 2006.” The insistent voice belonged to Irwin S. Field, of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple, who was planning a lavish dinner-dance to culminate a year of celebrations for the congregation’s centennial celebration.

Although Field, who is also chairman of the board of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, couldn’t reserve the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton more than a year in advance, he wanted to make sure that his favorite Israeli chef would be available.

Field’s hiring of this master caterer with a reputation for exquisite innovative cuisine set the bar for the elegance of the evening. The goal was to treat the 765 Temple Sinai members who ultimately R.S.V.P.’d to the most spectacular social event in the temple’s long history.

“I wanted the menu to be as meaningful as the event, so I sought out the best kosher chefs I knew,” said Field, who co-chaired last spring’s event with Julie Platt.

Joining Shapira would be chef Katsuo Sugiura, in charge of the kosher kitchen at the Beverly Hilton, and Jeffrey Nathan, New York chef/co-owner of Abigael’s restaurant, all of whom were adept at orchestrating banquet-sized meals.

Nathan was also well-known, both in the United States and Israel, through his PBS television cooking show where he introduced a whole generation of viewers to what he calls New Jewish Cuisine.

Almost simultaneously, Shapira and Nathan have been reinventing kosher cuisine. Challenged by the strict dietary laws but not satisfied with serving, as Nathan puts it, “chicken on a plate,” they have made a point of creating dishes that use not only a variety of herbs, spices and unexpected ingredients, but modern cooking styles from all over the world.

Before they were even introduced to one another, they were, as they say, on the same page of the cookbook.

Nathan traveled to Israel to meet Shapira, and the two got on immediately.
Sitting with Shapira’s family in Hertzliyah, the pair of culinary iconoclasts began conceptualizing an exotic array of flavors from Israel, Iran and Morocco, combined with sophisticated dishes served in classic, five-star kitchens in the United States and Europe.

“We realized the menu should reflect the population of Sinai Temple, so we set about developing a mélange of Ashkenazi, Persian and other Sephardic dishes,” Shapira said. “We wanted to make this symphony of cuisines come together with flavors as diverse as the people who would be eating it.”

Shapira foresaw some challenges: He would have to cook in a country where some of his favorite herbs, such as zatar and sumac, are not readily available and some cuts of meat are not available as kosher. He practiced the adage “necessity begets creativity” and relied on Nathan’s experience.

“When Jeff returned to the U.S., we continued working on the menu in real time, Shapira said, referring to the half-day’s time difference between Israel and the United States
“I would e-mail him in the morning. I’d get my answer back at night,” he said with a laugh.

Most importantly, they wanted the meal to embody the bittersweet spirituality of the complicated Sephardic cuisine, forged by Jews who wandered all over the world after Spain’s order of expulsion in 1492. Making homes outside of their homeland, these ancestors incorporated the exotic flavors and unexpected combinations from their new countries with Jewish, Moorish and Spanish cuisine.

Shapira’s tabbouleh would not simply call for a cup of lemon juice sprayed over curly parsley and bulghur wheat. Instead, bits of cubed lemon would add unexpected piquancy at first bite. For the parsley, delete “curly” and insert “flat-leafed.”

His beef would not be baked at the traditional 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes per pound; instead it would be roasted three times longer at a temperature below 200, so the juices would stay inside the meat instead of escaping to the bottom of the pan. Forget the expected mashed potatoes; the dish would be accessorized with a puree sweetened by parsnips and made pungent with Jerusalem artichokes.

The sauce for Nathan’s Sea Bass Nicoise wouldn’t settle for any old olives; only juicy kalamatas, swimming in a sauce of brandy, orange zest and saffron threads would do.

They decided the menu would feature biblical food quotations, which would be printed underneath the name of each dish on the menu. Instead of traditional passed appetizers, they imagined a palatial table of fruits and nuts in the Persian tradition, which translated into a long winding table of beautiful seasonal offerings accentuated with orchids and champagne.

On the menu was a quote from the Bible: “The Lord is bringing you into a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.”

Although this menu was assembled for a beautiful party, these recipes are perfect for a lovely erev Rosh Hashanah feast.

The recipes have been adapted to family-sized servings with the help of chefs Jeffrey Nathan and Ido Shapira.

Sea Bass Nicoise with Saffron Tomato Jus
From Jeffrey Nathan, chef/co-owner Abigael’s On Broadway, New York.

1 bulb fennel, halved directly through the core
12 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
1 pound fingerling potatoes
1 medium red bell pepper

For Sauce:

1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup brandy
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
1 15-ounce can whole tomatoes in juice (pureed with immersion blende)
1/2 teaspoon toasted ground fennel seed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

For Fish:

48 ounces of sea bass fillets
Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
3 tablespoons parsley, chopped coarsely
2 tablespoons thyme, chopped coarsely
2 teaspoons rosemary, chopped coarsely
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved
1/4 cup capers

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.Lightly coat fennel in olive oil and place on a greased baking sheet, with the cut side down. Toss garlic cloves, fingerling potatoes and red peppers in olive oil and place on different sections of baking sheet.

Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until potato is fork tender and fennel, garlic and pepper are fork tender and lightly caramelized. Remove from oven; allow to cool.

To make sauce: In a medium sauce pan combine broth, brandy, orange zest, saffron, tomatoes and fennel seed. Bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper.

Cut baked fennel and red pepper into medium dice, garlic cloves in half, potatoes into 1/2 inch rounds. In a large bowl, combine with olives and capers. Toss with a small amount of olive oil.

To make fish: Place sea bass in a large roasting pan. Dredge one side of fish in fresh herbs. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour prepared vegetables and sauce over fish. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes until fish is cooked through.

Makes four servings.

Moroccan Carrot Salad
From chef Ido Shapira, Cutlet Catering Company, Tel Aviv.

2 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch cilantro, rough chopped
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat a large soup pot of salted water. Bring to a boil and blanch carrots for one minute. Drain and shock the carrots under cold water.

For dressing: In a small bowl, combine olive oil, cilantro, paprika, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper.

Toss dressing with carrots. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes eight to 10 servings.

Citrus Pesto
From chef Ido Shapira.
(This is delicious as an accent to vegetables, fish or pasta.)

1 cup flat leaf parsley, stemmed
1/2 cup cilantro, stemmed
3 garlic cloves, peeled
Grated zest from 1/2 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon, strained
1/2 cup olive oil

Prior to preparation chill first five ingredients in refrigerator, along with bowl of a food processor. Place mixture in processor; pulse just long enough so ingredients are thoroughly combined but not mushy. Strain through a chinois into a bowl so pesto remains and escaping liquid can be saved for another use. This pesto may be made ahead of time and kept cold in the refrigerator.

Makes eight servings.

Tabbouleh Salad
From chef Ido Shapira.

2 cups coarse bulgur
1 pound flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 pound mint, chopped
1 bunch chives, chopped
2 red onions, chopped
4 lemons, peeled and cubed
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Soak bulgur in plenty of cold water for 10 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed.

Rinse in colander and toss with parsley, mint, chives, red onion, lemons, olive oil and salt and pepper.

Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes eight to 10 servings.

Nation World Briefs


Rebbe Commemorated at White House
A commemoration of the death of the Lubavitch rebbe culminated in a White House briefing. Leaders of both parties in Congress, as well as top Bush administration officials, attended the two-day tribute to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died June 12, 1994. The theme was education, and speakers included Elie Wiesel; U.S. Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff; and Australia’s defense minister. Chertoff and Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff, who are both Jewish, attended the White House briefing Wednesday morning. About 30 diplomats joined Lubavitch emissaries to their countries at the events. Thousands of people gathered at the rebbe’s grave in New York on the anniversary of his death.

Tourists Attacked in Mea Shearim
Fifty pro-Israel Christian tourists were attacked June 28 in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, according to reports in The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz. The tourists, who arrived decked out in orange T-shirts that read “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” were seemingly identified as Christians by Charedi residents of the neighborhood, 100 of whom then gathered in the vicinity of the visitors and proceeded to hit them. Police broke up the attack, which left three tourists and one police officer with minor injuries. Israeli authorities have made two arrests but are waiting for the tourists to press charges before proceeding. — Ali Austerlitz, Contributing Writer

Kosher Suppliers Subpoenaed
Federal subpoenas were served against several kosher meat suppliers in the United States in connection with an antitrust investigation. The New York Jewish Week reported that AgriProcessors, in Postville, Iowa, is among those hit with subpoenas. The subpoenas could be focusing on collusion in the kosher industry. The Conservative movement currently is investigating complaints about working conditions at AgriProcessors, the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse. After an animal-rights group produced an undercover video of conditions at the plant in 2004, investigators with the U.S. Agriculture Department determined that some plant employees had violated humane slaughter regulations.

Darfur Postcard Campaign Reaches 1 Million
The Million Voices for Darfur campaign has reached its goal of collecting 1 million postcards against the genocide in Sudan. The postcards, which will be delivered to the White House and Capitol Hill, ask President Bush to “support a stronger multinational force to protect the people of Darfur.” The campaign has been a project of the Save Darfur Coalition, the group of 150 faith-based advocacy and humanitarian organizations responsible for April’s Darfur rally in Washington. The coalition now is planning a second major rally this September in New York City. Despite the signing of a peace agreement last month, the systematic rape, torture and killing of black Africans by government-backed Arab militias continues in Darfur, where some 400,000 have been killed since 2003.

Jewish Astronaut Asks for Ramon Mementos
A Jewish astronaut asked Ilan Ramon’s widow for mementos from the late Israeli astronaut to take on a shuttle mission in 2007. Garrett Reisman, 38, will fly to the International Space Station in 15 months. He underwent training and became friends with Ramon, who died in the Columbia shuttle crash in 2003. At Rona Ramon’s invitation, Reisman attended a ceremony Tuesday in Rehovot, Israel, naming the Kaplan Medical Center’s new emergency medicine department in Ilan Ramon’s memory. “It was so incredibly tragic,” Reisman said. “Ilan had a great sense of humor and worked very hard to represent not only Israel but every Jew in the world.”

Technion Tops Israeli University List
The Technion was named Israel’s best university. A poll conducted by the Israeli Student Union, released this week, put the Haifa technological institute at the top of 35 schools of higher learning in the Jewish state. Often described as Israel’s version of MIT, the Technion was followed by Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The study was conducted on the basis of 56 criteria, including the employment rates of alumni and quality of on-campus life.

Ashkelon Named Politest Israeli City
Ashkelon is Israel’s politest city, according to a study. Ma’ariv published a study Wednesday in which Israel’s biggest cities were scored on residents’ responses to basic etiquette tests such as holding doors for women or providing instructions to motorists. Ashkelon came out top, followed by Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Lowest on the list was Rishon le-Zion. According to Ma’ariv, Ashkelon’s average score an 86 percent responsiveness rate is higher than that of New York City in a recent courtesy test carried out by Reader’s Digest.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

20+ Ideas to Jump-Start Jewish L.A.


David Suissa:
“Drink more coffee.”

One big, bold idea to energize L.A.’s Jewish community?

Three words: Drink more coffee.

I’m not kidding.

A new study from the University of Queensland in Australia suggests that drinking coffee makes people more open to a different point of view. In other words, it can make all of us more open-minded.

Can you imagine what would happen if our precious Jewish community in Los Angeles became more open-minded? Let’s go on a high-octane ride together:

Imagine if on one Shabbat, every synagogue would “open up” to a different rabbi. For example, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky could switch with Rabbi Yacov Pinto, Rabbi Yosef Shusterman with Rabbi David Toledano, Rabbi Laura Geller with Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Elazar Muskin with the Happy Minyan, Aish with Chabad, Rabbi Steven Weil with the Persians, and so on. All over Los Angeles on this One Sharing Shabbat, Jews would experience something different, but very Jewish. If it’s a hit, we can make it a monthly tradition, and yes, the chazans would also switch, to give us the full effect.

Want a refill?

On campuses, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller would down a double espresso and invite hard-nosed right-winger Mort Klein, of the Zionist Organization of America, to speak. Seidler-Feller himself would go (with three bodyguards) to give his message of peace at Rabbi Moshe Benzaquen’s shul.

You get the picture: cross-promotion across all the colors of Judaism to energize a great community. All we need to put this ingathering of exiles together is one enthusiastic volunteer who is not afraid of rejection and has a good phone plan. (Any takers? E-mail me at dsuissa@olam.org)

This is peoplehood, my friends. We are one big, noisy, opinionated family, and we are diverse. But what good is a diverse family if we all stay in our own rooms? How can we strengthen our bonds if we so rarely hang out, pray, eat, sing and learn with each other? The opposite of love is indifference. Instead of obsessing over Jewish continuity, we should ignite Jewish curiosity. Sure, the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable, but in this case it has one thing going for it: It’s Jewish!

Forget the whiskey club. For those of Jewish unity, let’s all choose the coffee bean.

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

 

Robin M. Kramer:
“Welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience….”

What if a welcoming, modern, accessible, authentic Jewish nursery school experience were available to the families of every 3- and 4-year-old Jewish child in Los Angeles?

The result would be new dynamism, connection and community, judging by the experience at my shul, Temple Israel of Hollywood, which has tried to create a program worthy of emulation.

What are the characteristics of a top-quality nursery school program? A school’s learned and loving faculty should reach out in the best tradition of Abraham and Sarah, welcoming strangers and those less connected to the Jewish tent, extending the community’s embrace to grandparents and to families of all configurations, including the diversity of faith traditions. Where isolation exists in our big city, the school community should offer warmth and connection — a family-centered, holistic port of entry to Jewish life. This essential school should, with mirth and through experience, mark the sacred moments of the Jewish year, and introduce the literature, music, art and soul of our people, bringing to life the belief that every individual is both special and part of a larger human family. A fine nursery school experience builds family demand for an ongoing pipeline of robust Jewish invention and education, both formal and informal. This could be catalytic.

But how could this be affordable for all Jewish families? It would require unprecedented focus, partnership, wisdom and vision — as well as the development of millions of dollars of new financial and institutional resources. Regional and master plans for early education could provide a roadmap, which would include support for educator preparation, increased salaries, and ongoing professional development. Another key is providing facilities and scholarships to ensure universal accessibility that does not presently exist.

All told, it would be a massive undertaking, but relatively speaking, the investment would be modest, given the potential yield of enduring communal dividends.

Robin M. Kramer is chief of staff for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Gary Wexler:
“The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”

The idea is about ideas.

In my work with Jewish communities throughout America and Canada, I have learned that Los Angeles possesses a wonderful characteristic that none of those other communities have.

We are blessed with the absence of ingrained tradition, free of the boundaries cast by “the way things are just done.” Unlike the New York, D.C. and Boston Jewish communities, we aren’t committed to pass our thinking and ideas through a paralyzing hyper-critical sieve encumbered with an inner lining of hyper-intellectualism, hyper policy orientation, and a hyper-sense of ownership of all things Jewish.

The L.A. Jewish community is a wide-open environment where we can embrace the vibrant, free flow of ideas. It is time we grabbed that opportunity. Los Angeles, with its thriving creative industries, is poised to become the center for the creation of new ideas in Diaspora Jewish life and beyond.

If we will it.

We even have space where this mission could be planted, nurtured and allowed to flourish. The physical center could be the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, an institution that has for years been in search of its mission. The Institute could convene the best Jewish and non-Jewish minds in Los Angeles, even establishing a creative and thinking discipline, a Los Angeles/Brandeis-Bardin brand — something that would be celebrated, respected and sought after.

Four times a year, the best minds would convene to discuss such topics as

American values and how they are influenced by Jewish traditions, including themes like education, literature, music, Next Generation issues, Israel/Diaspora relations, medicine/healing, humor, etc. The participants would represent diverse perspectives so that we are not just exchanging the same ideas back and forth. Ideas, like genes, need to be cross-pollinated, or you have a flawed process.

The Institute would have to be strategically and carefully reconstructed so that the Jewish world would wait to see what ideas are coming out of Los Angeles, the natural environment for this gestation. The discipline would lend itself to all other offerings of the Institute, including its camps, and community activities, turning them into national models.

The Brandeis-Bardin Institute would have to give up a lot of what it is holding on to, which is actually holding it back. It would need to form the type of board capable of bringing this to reality. (Imagine that process!)

Of course, you could expect that the East Coast Jewish establishment would reflexively try to negate what we do. The owners of Jewish life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan would write articles challenging our every move.

It could be just what Los Angeles and the Diaspora Jewish community needs.

Gary Wexler is the founder and president of L.A.-based Passion Marketing.

Lisa Stern:
“More children … born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.”

Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and my son were born.

In the ensuing years I, indeed my generation, have been busy chasing the illusive balance between career, community service and family. Many of us delayed marriage and restricted the size of our families so we could collect degrees and worldly possessions. We had the lowest birthrate in our history and the trend, we are told, is getting worse. In that echo we may have short-changed our community and ourselves.

It’s time to do something about this. We cannot afford to let our legacy evaporate. This will involve sacrifice. Our progeny may have to do more with less and those who are able will have to fund this vibrancy.

Ours is a shared mission because we are a covenantal people; our fate is inextricably bound one to another. History teaches us that even during the most cataclysmic times our people did not deviate from the Jewish narrative: the preciousness of life, family, community and continuity.

My vision for the future is both simple and radical. I pine for a bold and transformative era where more children are born, adopted, fostered and reared in loving Jewish homes.

Lisa Stern, a Hancock Park attorney, has long been active in local Jewish causes and spearheaded litigation that forced Nazi-era insurance companies to pay benefits to families of Holocaust victims.

Joan Hyler:
“The next generation must learn.”

We are at a key moment — our culture must engage a conversation between the Heeb generation and The Federation generation. The way to do this is to develop a single citywide program that will identify, train and involve these young up-and-coming adults. The program must transcend organizational and denominational boundaries.

We who have come before already know the essentialness of The Jewish Federation, synagogues, the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, etc. The next generation must learn and, indeed, must take over. To make this transition successful, these vital organizations will have to do something that they don’t always do well: work together. The future of the Jewish community in Los Angeles depends on a focused collaboration among these well-funded, mainstream institutions.

As someone who helped initiate start-up groups in Los Angeles (MorningStar Commission under Hadassah and the National Foundation of Jewish Culture’s Entertainment Council), I’ve witnessed the difficulty in getting these large unwieldy institutions to talk to one another. They must do so, and open up to new conversations with the 20-somethings who are pouring into public life — or waiting for the right invitation.

Along the way, we must embrace the tension of not knowing who and what is next.

Joan Hyler, a former William Morris Agency senior vice president, runs Hyler Management, a boutique entertainment company and agency.

Rachel Levin:
“Bring back salons.”

Conversation. That is my “bold” idea to help invigorate Jewish life (and just plain life) in Los Angeles — good old, face-to-face, word-flying, idea-exchanging talk. In a city dominated by cell phones, Blackberries and dinner reservations, the idea of inviting people to your home to sit in person and talk about things that matter may just be a radical notion.

Specifically, I am suggesting we bring back salons — a structure for conversation that originated in 16th-century France, eventually making its way to 19th-century Germany, where the most important salons were run by Jewish women. These evenings mixed Jews and non-Jews, artists and aristocrats and according to some, were “nothing less than central to the development of modernity.”

Lest I scare you off with the weight of these previous gatherings, have no fear. I am not talking about the wittiest of hostesses and guests the likes of Klimt or Rodin. At their core, salons are just “talking parties” and, according to Mireille Silcoff, who started one in Toronto (and is the inspiration for this idea), for a salon to work you only need four things: (1) a willing host; (2) a good mix of people (you don’t want “like minds to sit there and be in agreement all night”); (3) someone to keep the conversation on track; and (4) food and drink. Add to that a topic of your choice – anything from “Jewish Guilt and Pleasure” to “What’s great about our city/What’s missing?” and you’re set. (See www.rebooters.net to download topic ideas and readings.) Now imagine if 100 of these were happening around the city – with people of all ages and backgrounds. Imagine how they could change the way people experience community – not to mention the new ideas they could spark. Now go talk amongst yourselves!

Rachel Levin is the associate director of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation.

Rabbi Marvin Hier:
“24-hour satellite network….”

Today, the majority of Jews are unaffiliated, and our challenge is how best to reach them. In a world dominated by media and technology, one of the answers is through the medium of television. The time has come for the creation of a 24-hour satellite network that would combine films, concerts, theater, educational programs and live coverage of breaking news events that have particular relevance to Jews around the world. After all, there are specific cable networks for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, etc.

While it is true that such an undertaking would require significant funds, it is also true that the Jewish community has the resources and its prominence would surely be an incentive for the major network and cable television providers to offer the programming.

Let us remember that our world has changed. If we want to reach the unaffiliated, we must think beyond our small neighborhood and the traditional methods to deliver the message of Jewish continuity as widely as possible.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

Zev Yaroslavsky:
“We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community.”

Years ago, when I was active in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, there were two Jewish Community Relations Committees that made a huge difference. The JCRC chapters in San Francisco (under the leadership of the legendary Earl Raab), and Cleveland, Ohio, stood tall and pushed the envelope of social activism. They successfully rallied the Jewish and non-Jewish community to pressure our government and the international community to do the right thing. Our cause was helped, our community was energized and our relations with other communities were strengthened.

It’s time to bring that formula to Los Angeles.

The JCRC of The Jewish Federation should be a forum for discussion, advocacy and action on the issues that affect us and our relations with others. The JCRC should be invigorated by making room at the table for representatives of the wide variety of stakeholders within our community. This should include the breadth of the religious spectrum, our diverse social welfare and social action organizations, and the myriad active youth movements.

We cannot afford to be silent or absent from the compelling issues facing our community or our neighbors at this critical time. We should speak out on foreign affairs, domestic policy, immigration and much more. Our voices need to be constructively heard both within and outside our organizational walls.

We really don’t have a minute to waste.

Zev Yaroslavsky is a Los Angeles County supervisor.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis:
“We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas.”

Can the Siddur be taught without Jewish theology? Can you pray without a conception of God? Can you read the Torah or haftorah without understanding the philosophy of the Bible? Can you observe the Sabbath or keep kosher without understanding its sense of purpose?

You can.

It is being done in school and shul, and to our great loss. We have been taught and learned to mimic the “how,” “when,” and “where” of ritual behavior, absent the “why” and “what for.” That sort of practice will not satisfy our spiritual and moral yearnings.

Jewish theology deals with ultimate questions: to whom do we pray; for what do we pray; and can we pray for anything? What is the nature of the God we worship? What are the attributes of Godliness, and can they be imitated in our lives? Stripped of Jewish teleology — the Jewish sense of purpose — we are left with a mindless orthopraxy. Fluency in reading Hebrew does not reveal the meaning of the sacred prayer and biblical text.

The common complaint is boredom. Boredom signifies the emptiness that comes from belief-less living. Add responsive readings, enlarge the choir, multiply musical instrumentation, shorten the sermon and all to no avail. Prayer is poetry, but it is poetry believed in. Without belief, prayer is reduced to rhetoric.

Belonging, behaving and believing are the three marks of Jewish identity. We have wrongly thought that we can overcome the need to believe and fill its vacuum with belonging to institutions, paying dues and making contributions. We have wrongly thought that ritual busyness can substitute for the rationale of our behavior.

The Sabbath; the salting of the meat; the binding of the tefillin; and the blessing over lights, bread and wine — must not be gestures of mechanical behaviors.

We need a believable Jewish theology, not a set of dogmas. We call not for a monolithic set of doctrines, but for the adventure of the ethical and spiritual wrestling with our angels of conscience. Our goal is to persuade the so-called Jewish atheists and acquaint them with the rich theological alternatives within the Jewish tradition. The role of Jewish theology is to awake in our people the excitement and moral sensibility of ideas as ideals, which makes our earned belief system credible and actionable.

C.S. Lewis sagely wrote, “When a person ceases to believe in something, it is not that he believes in nothing, but that he believes in anything.”

Human nature, Jewish human nature as well, abhors a vacuum. A theological hole is soon filled with magic, superstition and cultic sectarianism. Neither esthetics nor edifices can serve as surrogates for the foundation of religious rationale. The three intertwining threads of belonging, behaving and believing must not be unraveled.

Harold Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Daniel Sokatch:
“Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut.”

Observant Jews in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) look for a certificate of kashrut, a heksher or a teudat heshgoha on a product or on the wall or window of a restaurant or market. These symbols tell them what they can buy and where they can eat. These foods, these restaurants, are certified as strictly following Jewish ritual observance.

Similarly, many Jews and non-Jews have come to rely on the county health department for its own version of a teudat heshgoha: letter grades, portrayed in bright colors on a uniform white placard – to determine, at a glance, the level of cleanliness at restaurants and markets. Whether a restaurant has a blue “A,” a green “B,” or (God forbid) a red “C” has become part of the calculation Angelenos make when considering where to dine.

But there is a next, important step to take. It’s beyond the reach of county inspectors but entirely in keeping with Jewish tradition. The notion of what is “kosher” should extend beyond preparation of food in accordance with ritual law; it should encompass the way in which human beings treat one another.

Jewish tradition is just as insistent that Jews respect the rights of workers as it is that Jews adhere to the rules of kashrut. We can tell if the restaurant we are about to enter is clean and kosher by looking for the certificates. But how does it treat employees?

Los Angeles needs a Human Rights heshgoha. We should insist that businesses that want Jewish customers treat their workers fairly and pay them a living wage. Those that do so could proudly display the blue aleph. And we would know to avoid the businesses with the red gimmel in the window – until they improve working conditions.

Who knows? Other community groups might just follow our lead, making Los Angeles fairer and better for all its inhabitants.

Daniel Sokatch is executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

 

Uri D. Herscher:
“Jews do not and cannot thrive as “a people that dwells apart.”

For many centuries of the Jewish people’s history, the world outside was hostile at best, lethal at worst. In such a world, insularity was tempting, and sometimes essential. We now live in a nation that strives, if not always successfully, to realize democratic ideals that include openness and inclusiveness. The Skirball Cultural Center was founded on the conviction that Jews need to respond in kind, that Jews do not and cannot thrive as “a people that dwells apart.”

And full Jewish participation means that our good works, too, must resist insularity. The Jewish obligation to help the needy, to heal the sick, to school the unschooled only begins in the Torah. It ends on the street, whether that street runs through Fairfax or Pacoima.

If we offer a Judaism that stops at the margins of the Jewish community, we will have marginal Jews. They will walk a narrow path, and a futile one. For we have learned, to our sorrow, that unless the society at large is safe, Jews will never be safe. In an open society, insularity is a grave danger. Even if we could exist in a vacuum, there would be no air to breathe. Whatever the future holds for the Jews, our destiny is tied to the society as a whole, the two strands intertwined — a double helix, like life itself.

When the Torah commands, “Open your hand to your needy brother,” it does not qualify the statement. The person in need is not subjected to an identity test. Jewish concern is ultimately human concern.

We should discover and give voice to people within and beyond the Jewish community. Examples matter! We must seek out opportunities — as individuals and through our organizations — to make positive examples of ourselves. And we should focus the benefits of our good deeds where such acts are most needed — outside the Jewish community as well as within. To open our hands to those in need is to open them as wide as we can.

Uri D. Herscher is founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center.

Dr. Michael B. Held:
“Build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity.”

As awareness of “full inclusion” grows, the distinction between “regular” and “special” education is changing. In truth, every child has both typical and special features and Jewish education should be for every child regardless of ability or challenge.

By typical standards, 10 percent of all students have special needs. Given that, we would expect to find 1,000 students with special needs out of the 10,000 enrolled in local Jewish day schools. But fewer than 100 such students have been identified in this category. Why are so many students apparently excluded and how do we go about creating “inclusive” Jewish schools?

Largely because current efforts to help special-needs children are simply inadequate.

Local educators have sincerely tried to address the need, by adding on special services, but in a piecemeal fashion. Rather, we can build inclusive schools where all students benefit from diversity, state of the art curriculum, and a truly collaborative, team-based approach.

In other words, there needs to be a paradigm shift from the goal of simply creating make-do programs to adopting a human rights model, guaranteeing full access for all Jewish students.

As utopian as that sounds, it is the only way to create and sustain access for special needs children and improve education for all students.

And it is doable. Anyone who doubts this should visit the CHIME Charter Elementary School in Woodland Hills, an inclusive public school. CHIME’s Academic Performance Index (API) jumped an amazing 77 points in one year. Further, the school was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for innovative education.

It is not about the money; it is about transforming Jewish education by including 900 new students who belong in our school system with programming that is educationally sound and morally right. Let’s not delay!

Dr. Michael B. Held is the founder and executive director of the Etta Israel Center.

Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin:
“Any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one.”

Any serious discussion about revitalizing Los Angeles’ Jewish community must focus on one thing: our children. They’re our most precious resource, and we must protect and nurture them to safeguard our future as a people. Sadly, we’re neglecting this responsibility each day that we fail to guarantee them access to an affordable Jewish education.

This is a real crisis. Whenever a child is denied a Jewish education by prohibitive tuition costs, we lose something that can’t be replaced. We squander a chance to impart our values to a new generation- and we abandon the future leaders of our community.

Simply put, any child in Los Angeles who wants a Jewish education should get one. At Chabad schools, we strive to accept every deserving child who comes to us, regardless of family income, so that nobody is denied for lack of funds. Now our entire community must step forward with generous scholarships for all of Los Angeles’ Jewish schools to ensure that no child is ever turned away, anywhere.

Other major American Jewish communities are already doing this. Does it cost money? Yes. But we live in a city of riches. And if we don’t make this investment today, we’ll pay a terrible price tomorrow.

Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin is director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley:
“Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks….”

I am pro-synagogue, but synagogues as they now function do not serve all Jews well enough. The problem for these Jews and other potentially interested spiritual seekers is that affiliated Jewish life is too expensive, too boring, too irrelevant, too far and just too “other.”

That’s a shame, because it’s vital to bring in as many unaffiliated Jews as possible to the wonders and beauties of Jewish life, study and practice. And as a people, we need all possible Jews to commit to Judaism and to the state of Israel. Many good people and good places are taking on this mission, but they are not networked nor coordinated, and they are under funded.

What’s needed, communitywide, is the outreach energy of Chabad and Aish HaTorah. We need to reach the hundreds of thousands of Jews (and un-churched Americans) who will not become Orthodox, who may be turned off by worship services, who might not believe in God, for whom Hebrew is (at least for now) too high a threshold for participation in Jewish life.

I would like to see Outreach Centers for Jewish Life and Learning as ubiquitous as Starbucks, as inviting as the as the first sentence of a leather-bound classic. They should feature libraries and bookstores filled with Jewish books, music and videos — for all ages, intellects and interests. There should be ongoing classes conducted by deep, learned engaging teachers who will bring the profundities of Jewish wisdom to bear on people’s lives. And these classes should be geared to different types of beliefs, learning styles, ages, and goals. These gathering spots should include a Beit Midrash (study hall) — some should remain open 24 hours a day.

Because some people are turned off by worship, or by conventional styles of worship, there should be more create ways to celebrate Shabbat. Maybe a group could read and discuss Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Harold and Larry Kushner, etc. There could be Learners’ Minyans for those who would like to break the code of Jewish prayer. How about music-oriented experiences, meditative experiences, even political discussion (with knowledgeable, fair and balanced moderators)?

As for the next steps…. Well, the possibilities are many, but first a few caveats.

This effort will take substantial funding. Jewish educational institutions – undergrad program, grad programs and seminaries must be ready and able to produce hundreds of talented teachers (who ought to receive excellent salaries and benefits, and lots of variegated support in their work). And synagogues and other communal institutions need to be ready to transform.

What are we waiting for?

How wonderful it would be to send the word out: “All unaffiliated Jews: Come home. We are now ready.”

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

Dr. Bruce Powell
“Pay all, or a significant part, of every third child’s Jewish day school tuition.”

Millions of dollars have been expended by our fabulous national mega-donors for the Birthright Project — two free weeks in Israel for college-age students who have never been on an organized program. This is real vision.

What I now suggest is the next big step: The Birthrate Project.

Married couples with two children, and who value Jewish day school education, have told me that they have chosen not to have a third or fourth child because they cannot afford one more child in a Jewish day school or Jewish overnight camp. These choices portend a Jewish demographic reality that does not even replace our current population of Jews in America, given that many who are physically able have one or no children at all. If we believe that Judaism, and by extension, Jews, have an important contribution to make to America and the world, this situation cannot stand. We have not even replaced, in 60 years, those souls lost in the Shoah.

My “Modest Proposal” is to launch the Birthrate Project where the national community makes a commitment to pay all, or a significant part, of every third (or perhaps fourth) child’s Jewish day school tuition, kindergarten through 12th grade and/or for Jewish overnight camp. All awards would be based on financial need. A fourth or fifth child might also be funded in partnership with the local Jewish schools. If, for example, this funding produces 100,000 new kids, the total yearly cost at, say, $15,000 a year for tuition, is $1.5 billion.

Imagine the historic implications for the community, over time, of a 100,000 new, Jewish human beings all in possession of deep Jewish knowledge, vision and values from day school — or deeply identified through their Jewish camp experiences. Now imagine our Jewish future without this new life.

I’m ready to follow up on this idea. Are you?

Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School.

Randall Kaplan
“Adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make it easy for volunteers”

Our business model was relatively simple. We started with the idea for a different kind of fundraiser — a fun and cool event for a great cause — and then recruited between 20 and 30 of our most talented friends to serve on our planning committee and sell tickets and sponsorships.

But here’s where we were different. We weren’t well-heeled people in our 70s, or even in our 60s or 50s. We didn’t do this after our primary careers, after we’d made money. We were in our 20s.

And that’s how The Justice Ball was born about 10 years ago. Each year, it raises vital dollars for Bet Tzedek, a legal aid service for the poor, disabled, elderly and homeless. During nine straight sellouts, we’ve raised more than $3.6 million — making the Justice Ball the most successful under-40 nonprofit fundraiser in the country. Besides making donations, our more than 16,000 attendees and contributors have been introduced to the wonderful work of Bet Tzedek.

We started The Justice Ball at ages when conventional thought dictated that we would be more focused on careers than on philanthropy. In reality, most people in their 20s are interested in philanthropy and simply don’t know how to get involved. In essence, we made it easy for them — we formulated our idea after choosing a great cause, and with those in hand we targeted a specific but untapped group of talented volunteers.

This “adopt-a-cause, create a fun event, and make-it-easy for volunteers” approach is transportable and would work in other contexts. There are tens of thousands of young professionals in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) who want to get involved. Each synagogue could appoint a rabbi or lay leader to identify future leaders. Nearly 130 synagogues exist in Los Angeles, and if each of these adopted a cause and put its best young leaders together, this formidable but unused human capital could be harvested to do an incredible amount of good.

Randall Kaplan is CEO of JUMP Investors.

Gerard Bubis
“No economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences….”

We live in a silo community — many vibrant communities throughout the city that connect and cooperate, if at all, intermittently throughout the years.

My wish is to ascertain, in a thoughtful and representative way, the driving Jewish visions for the greater Los Angeles Jewish community. Are people and institutions ready to set forth an over-aching vision for our collective future? Are there those who would act to bring those visions into reality?

I propose a series of town meetings throughout the community. Participants would be asked to ponder:

Is it important that a Jewish community exist in Los Angeles that is devoted to the cultural, social, psychological, and physical betterment of Jews here and around the world?

If the answer is some form of yes, then I would want to explore exactly how to enhance Jewish identity and how to expand interactive and purposeful relations with likeminded Jews throughout the world.

I would have as many venues as possible; the gatherings would be heavily advertised. I would train 100 or so discussion leaders to keep the focus on the question. Discussions could then lead to specific proposals to satisfy those answering the question in the affirmative.

The first stage of the follow-up would be bringing together 15 to 20 opinionmakers, shakers and doers from the worlds of business, the arts, academia, the rabbinate, Jewish educators and communal professionals. Their charge would be to refine the suggestions into an action program, set priorities and put a price tag on the visions about which there was sufficient consensus. This group would become the sales force to package and sell this set of visions to those individuals and organizations that could assure and underwrite the effort.

What do I imagine could come of such an enterprise?

I’d like to see no economic barriers limiting the creativity and creative continuity of Jewish experiences for individuals and families

What if education, trips to Israel, memberships in all manner of organizations were truly open to all, regardless of economic or social status? How much more would Jewish life flourish if more scholarships were available for those prepared to spend the lives as educators, communal professionals and rabbis serving the Jewish community? What if subsidies were available to pay decent wages for those now staffing services that assist the Jewish community in a manner related to their Judaism?

We live in a golden city and could produce a truly Golden Age of energetic,

creative and purposeful Jewish life here. Are we ready? I would hope so.

Professor Gerald Bubis is the founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Presently he is vice president and fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and adjunct professor of social work at USC.

Rabbi Laura Geller
“A year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish “Peace Corps.”

What if we could change the culture so that most American Jewish teenagers took a year off between high school and college to volunteer for a Jewish “Peace Corps” in the United States or somewhere around the world? What if this year of service was organized in such a way that these young Jewish people would be placed in meaningful work situations with social justice or social service organizations so that they would be serving the larger community? What if, at the same time, they would be living together with other Jewish young people, studying Jewish texts about justice, making decisions together about Shabbat and kashrut, and reflecting together on the work they were each doing?

What if that year were sufficiently funded so that these young Jewish people could earn enough money to live (and maybe even save something for college), and that the program could support the training and placement of spiritual mentors, counselors and resident advisers who would live with the participants? What if other young Jews around the same age from all over the world, including Israelis (before army service), also participated in the program so that all these young people came to understand the reality of Jewish peoplehood simply by living, working, learning and becoming friends with Jewish people from different backgrounds?

Maybe then … our kids would actually be ready for college when they got there, because they would have come to understand that to be a mensch isn’t measured by SAT scores.

Maybe then… these young people would have a better understanding of the world, because they would have lived in another culture. And they would be more grateful for all the privileges that they have because they will have worked with people who have so much less.

Maybe then … they would feel more able to make a difference in the world. And they would feel part of the Jewish people, because they would have developed deep and lasting relationships with Jews from other countries and other perspectives.

Maybe then … they would be turned on to Torah study, and understand how profound the connection between Jewish learning and living can be.

And maybe then … the foundation of their future Jewish lives would be enriched by an experience that transformed their lives.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
“A community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning.”

I dream that one day, Los Angeles Jewry will have the vision to create a community-funded, community-owned and community-operated House of Torah Learning. This centrally located House of Learning would not be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Persian, Israeli or Russian. It would belong to the entire Jewish community. Its common agenda, ideology and language will be one and the same — Torah study. It would offer no academic degrees, no rabbinic ordination and no teaching diplomas. There would be no prayer services, no “prestigious fellowships,” and no one rabbi would be called “the rabbi” in this building. This House of Learning would be open to every Jew, irrespective of background, age group or financial status.

In this House of Learning, Jews would seek spirituality through the intellect, finding God in a page of Talmud. Singles would ask each other out on a “study date,” and would meet at the House of Learning to get to know each other over a Midrashic text. Lay leaders would gather there to take a break from community meetings, and at the end of the night, new ideas would be inspired and born out of an intense study of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. Newlywed lovers would spend a few hours reading Yehuda Ha-Levi’s poems and S.Y. Agnon’s stories, and parents would sit with their children and study Rashi’s commentary to the Torah. Text study would no longer be the realm of a select few rabbis and scholars, but it would belong to everybody. It would suddenly be cool to sit and study text, and the House of Learning would become L.A. Jewry’s hottest hangout. The new Jewish greeting in Los Angeles will be, “Hi, how are you, and what are you learning these days?”

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.


Janice Kamenir-Reznik
“The Circuit Rabbis’ services would be provided free of charge.”

All too often, affiliated Jews and the leaders who serve them, become territorial. This territorialism often clouds the greater sense of purpose of what it should mean to be a Jew or a Jewish leader. Their priority becomes the survival or success of their particular institution, rather than a desire also to serve the broader community or to propose a broader and grander Jewish message. Such behavior presents a special problem in Los Angeles because the Jewish community is so large and dispersed — and because it takes a lot to stimulate people to positive Jewish action in Los Angles’ Hollywood-centered society. Thus, dynamic leaders and dynamic programs need to be even more dynamic.

Here’s one potential remedy: The community could hire 10 outstanding rabbis and/or other leaders to serve as “Circuit Rabbis.” They would travel to various L.A. venues, providing dynamic impetus to stimulate new programs in existing institutions. The Circuit Rabbis would have no bond whatsoever to any existing institution; nor would they have to fundraise as part of their jobs. Their only objective would be to serve as a resource and to work together with the synagogue and organizational leaders and rabbis to improve and elevate programming, learning, and Jewish life. The Circuit Rabbis would be cutting-edge thinkers and effective, collaborative and dynamic doers.

The Circuit Rabbis’ services would be provided free of charge, inasmuch as this program would be underwritten by visionary and generous members of the Jewish community.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is president of Jewish World Watch.

John R. Fishel
“Our mission is to work toward true community.”

A recent issue of Commentary Magazine contains a provocative article by two well-known Jewish scholars. They hypothesize that the concept of Jewish peoplehood is becoming rarer as efforts to stress individualistic approaches to Judaism and Jewish life in the U.S. increase.

This dilemma manifests itself visibly in Los Angeles. We live here as associated Jews in a vast expanse, but are we a “community” at all or merely a highly diverse group of individuals? Do we coalesce in a meaningful way or are we just occasionally bound together by religious or political ideology, geographic residence or, perhaps, ethnic origin?

I believe our mission is to work toward true community.

A Los Angeles Jewish community that could meld the entrepreneurial creative energies and dynamic singular expressions of Jewish identity with the traditional strength of a collective concern for all Jews as a people, regardless of their beliefs, could set the tone for a potential revolution across the country.

John R. Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

 

Letters 06-30-2006


South Central Farm
Ralph Horowitz’s claim of anti-Semitism simply serves to inject ethnic conflict into a debate it does not belong (“A Harvest of Conflict,” June 23).

As part of our senior project, I and my friend, Deepak Seeni, interviewed some of the people involved in the farm. I suffered no anti-Semitism. On the contrary, some of the people seemed interested when I explained why I could not eat the food that was being sold there.

To portray Horowitz negatively at a time of negotiations was foolish, but to judge on the basis of what a hate group the leadership condemned said is ridiculous. If Horowitz was interested in negotiating in good faith but found current leadership distasteful, I don’t understand why he didn’t accept the deal negotiated by the city and nonprofit groups on the basis that the city or another neutral agency be in charge of running the urban garden.

Throwing out misleading accusations doesn’t show good faith, and the fact this piece of land was not saved, in the end hurts only the kids whose closest alternative for play is an empty parking lot, while the parties unproductively blame each other.

Horowitz now has the chance to be a true mensch by simply reentering negotiations and finding a way to save that space for the community.

Charlie Carnow
Northridge

Assemblymember Monta?ez
In a column providing all sound bites and no substance, Jill Stewart offers comments disparaging Assemblymember Cindy Monta?ez (“These Dems Could Help Unlock Gridlock,” June 16). These comments are both mean-spirited and baseless.

Stewart’s first barb that Monta?ez (D-Mission Hills) is “an emotional hyperpartisan” is both sexist and false. Exactly how does one measure emotional hyperpartisanship? First, Monta?ez is a policymaker; [L.A. City Councilman Alex] Padilla is a power broker with little interest in real policy.

Next, Stewart makes claims like “[Monta?ez] proved incapable of working with both sides of the aisle in Sacramento.” Stewart, unsurprisingly, provides no support for this claim. Indeed, were Stewart an informed journalist, she would know that Assemblymember Monta?ez has co-authored 12 bipartisan pieces of legislation this session alone (AB547, AB568, etc). And readers should know that her legislation, signed by the governor, was, by definition, acknowledged by Republican leadership as necessary and important work.

Stewart is also off base in her ludicrous assertions that Monta?ez’s pro-labor position hurts her Latino constituents. In fact, being pro-labor and a being a friend to small business are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the reason that major labor organizations support Monta?ez is that she takes on, not kowtows to, big business. Stewart needs to do her homework.

Roy Kaufmann
Field Representative
Office of Assemblymember
Cindy Monta?ez

Jews and China
You’ve got it partially right — the next revolution in Jewish life is already taking place relative to China, but in a very different way than you describe and for a very different reason. (“This Week,” June 16).

Let me explain. Both traditional Judaism and the predominant Chinese philosophies are unbroken traditions addressing the whole person — intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Traditional Chinese medicine, based upon that premise, is truly holistic and integrative in both theory and clinical practice.

For this reason, an ever-increasing number of Jews seeking to bring balance to their lives and wellness to their health are attracted to Chinese medicine. Also, an ever-increasing number of Chinese medical practitioners and students are Jewish.

Yehuda Frischman
Los Angeles

You are not alone in your envisioning of Jews in China. In 1970, plus or minus a few years, Max Dimont, the author of “Jews, God and History,” was the speaker at a Temple Soleal retreat in Santa Barbara. He ended his talks with the prediction that the next great revival of Jews would be in China. Needless to say, most of us were dumbfounded. But the thought remained with me ever since.

Stan Burney
Via e-mail

Campus Activism
In his op-ed, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller mischaracterizes pro-Israel campus activism and ignores its importance and effectiveness (“Different Tack on Campus Challenge,” June 23). UCLA, in the heart of Jewish Los Angeles, does not always reflect what is happening nationally and internationally.

The rabbi’s approach certainly can enhance these efforts, but contrary to his charge, activist groups like StandWithUs promote coalition and bridge-building as a necessary part of activism. If the pro-Israel/pro-peace community abandons activism, it will do so at great risk.

Roz Rothstein, National Director
Dr. Roberta Seid, Educational Consultant
Esther Renzer, President StandWithUs

Kosher Entity
I am perplexed as to where the millions –if not billions — of dollars in profits that the “strongest and wealthiest entity in the Jewish world, ” except for Israel, as described by Rabbi Jacob Pressman, reside. Is there a secret bank account in Switzerland for the Orthodox Union (OU), the largest kosher certification entity?

The OU is a registered not for profit, so Pressman could easily check its financial documents (Letters, June 23).

While a few purveyors of kosher food –many of them non-Orthodox Jews or non-Jews — may make a handsome profit, the idea of a massive, megawealthy Orthodox “kosher entity” is as mythical as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

As an admirer of Pressman’s many contributions to L.A. Jewry and a member of a Conservative congregation, I am sorely disappointed that the rabbi has chosen to engage in what can only be called Orthodox bashing. And his words reinforce the negative canard that kashrut is “all about the money.”

Jodie Davidson
Woodland Hills

John Fishel
While the article titled, “A Private Man,” about John Fishel that ran May 26 was informative, it did not highlight one of Fishel’s key strengths.

Expert after expert has declared that a vital dynamic causing growth and change in 21st century Jewish life is directly proportional to the successful rise of entrepreneurial, Jewish, social venture startups. Jewish Los Angeles has spawned more of these new and creative organizations that address the myriad interests and needs such a diverse population requires than any other area outside of New York.

A great deal of these initiatives are being adapted and re-created in cities across the country, such as new spiritual communities, organizations that decry global genocide and serve the special needs of Jewish children among many others. Fishel has consistently taken the position that new organizations can and should arise and that their existence alone adds immeasurable value.

This is not true in most places. I believe the prolific number of creative ventures attest to the success of this position and must be noted.

Rhoda Uziel
Executive Director
Professional Leaders Project

Correction
In “Young Lawyer Has a Ball With Bet Tzedek” (June 23), The Journal incorrectly reported that Jeffrey A. Sklar is an attorney at Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan LLP. Although he once worked at that firm, he is now an associate in the corporate practice of Loeb & Loeb LLP in Los Angeles.

In “Jesus’ Man Has a Plan” (June 23) the Rev. Rick Warren received his kippah from Jimmy Kolker, former U.S. ambassador in Uganda, not from the country’s president, as reported. Additionally, the invitation to Warren came from Rabbi David Wolpe, Craig Taubman and the ATID program at Sinai Temple, not from Synagogue 3000.

 

Letters 06-16-2006


Is It Kosher?
I applaud and appreciate that you were ready to take off the gloves and attack what merits attack, but I fear you left one on (“But Is It Kosher?” June 9). You were too much of a gentleman.

I understand that you were courageously tilting against the strongest and wealthiest single entity in the Jewish world, second only to the state of Israel: the kashrut entity. Think of all the products that bear the kosher seal — from my delicious Oreo cookies to my bottled spring water (water?) to my milk from Ralph’s. Think of the add-on for personal supervision on the premise by mashgihim at all the kosher events in town. Consider the kosher wine industry, and the Passover product annual gouging orgy, and I come to a guesstimate that we are talking about millions, perhaps billions of dollars in profits for some people somewhere.

Understand, I benefit from the many reassurances that I am consuming kosher products. If along the way some of those involved are misleading me, the transgression is on their heads.

However, the issue of money leads me to another excellent article in the same Journal: the problem of funding Jewish education, especially day schools, so as not to deny such schooling to those who cannot meet the high cost (“The Middle Class Squeeze”).

What I am proposing now is that the collective Orthodox community take the huge profits from kashrut in which we are all consumers, and feed that money back into education. It happens that the majority of all-day schools are Orthodox and it would behoove the Orthodox community to investigate what is happening with all the enormous profits in the kashrut industry which they have arrogated unto themselves and hopefully are reporting every penny to the IRS.

As to misconduct, which always seems to happen in huge human endeavors, let the Jewish community not be guilty of suppressing information and sheltering misconduct in the religious establishment as some other great religious establishments are doing.

There, Rob Eshman, I have taken off both gloves, and I hope that from the pivotal position you have in L.A. Jewry’s primary information source you will succeed where I have not in elevating the sacred regulation of kashrut to what it should be, namely: to guarantee to all Jewish children whose families devoutly wish to provide them with a high quality, deeply Jewish-rooted education, the opportunity to receive it at our hands.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman
Rabbi Emeritus
Temple Beth Am

It seems that “kosher” has devolved into a mere technicality, a trend which needs to be reversed. Jewish law forbids cruelty to animals, as they are part of God’s creation. We now know that the OU heksher does not signify a cruelty-free slaughter. We are forced to awaken from our slumber of ignorance and indifference.

We must follow the lead of Whole Foods and not buy Rubashkin’s products. (There are other kosher brands available.) And we must do this until kosher means kosher once again.

Sue Roth
Los Angeles

Bravo to editor-in-chief Rob Eshman for bringing up the controversial subject of meat labeled “kosher” but which derives from animals treated inhumanely in plants where workers are exploited. There is significant room for improvement in another segment of the kosher industry, as well — prepared foods. I have long struggled to feed my children healthy kosher food. It’s not easy! There is not one brand of kosher chicken broth that doesn’t contain MSG. The one brand of kosher powdered chicken broth without MSG contains partially hydrogenated oils, also known as “transfats,” which are now universally understood to be the most unhealthy fat of all and which have recently been cut out of the recipes from most major brands of baked goods. Almost every “kosher for Passover” cake, brownie or cookie mix available in the supermarkets and kosher markets I shopped in this year also contained transfats.

Feeding our Jewish children healthy kosher food we can feel good about shouldn’t be such a struggle. How about it, Maneshevitz and Streits? Why not remove the unhealthful additives and sell us foods that are truly “kosher”?

Stephanie Gold
Los Angeles

Welcoming Converts
The non-Jewish spouses of Jews often feel unwelcome in Jewish circles. Synagogues ostracize them. Rabbis ignore them. Families insult them. Spouses call them by ugly names. It’s no wonder that they don’t explore the possibility of becoming Jewish.

If Jews are proud of our Jewish tradition, then we should practice our values of generosity, kindness, warmth and inclusiveness with the non-Jews who are close to our community. Why drive pro-Jewish partners away?

I appreciated The Journal’s cover story on June 2 about “Court Seeks to Ease Way for Conversions.” It demonstrates a concrete way in which a unique transdenominational beit din is genuinely welcoming candidates for conversion into the total Jewish community. This community beit din will not embarrass or harass the non-Jews who seek to join the Jewish people.

Ninety Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis are associated with the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din (www.scbetdin.us). People can rely upon these rabbis to provide sensitive and constructive paths into conversion.

Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein
Secretary
Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California

The Journal’s articles on conversion were excellent. During my years of experience with converts to Judaism, I have discovered the reason that so many converts backslide or no longer show the interest in Judaism they once had is because of the indifference and apathy their Jewish spouses have toward Judaism and its traditions. When one converts to Judaism, he or she is excited to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays, go to synagogue weekly and keep some level of kosher observance. Unfortunately, after the conversion has taken place, the Jewish spouse thinks their former non-Jewish partner has now become “too Jewish” and discourages observance so that the convert’s enthusiasm for Judaism is dampened.

In our program, we encourage the Jewish partner to take our class with the potential convert, but many times the Jewish partner for various reasons refuses to enroll. However, when the Jewish and non-Jewish partners take our class together, they get closer, more knowledgeable and observant of Judaism. At the end of our program we have not only converted the non-Jew to Judaism, but also the Jewish partner, as well.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg
Director and Instructor
Judith and Louis Miller
Introduction to Judaism Program
University of Judaism

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

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

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

Stephen F Rohde
Los Angeles

Middle-Class Squeeze
Are education tax credits (let alone publicly funded school vouchers) so politically anathema to the Jewish community that they escape mention in a 3,000 word article subtitled “What Can Be Done to Make Jewish Day Schools More Affordable?” (June 9)?

Tax credit schemes avoid elements typically cited as objectionable by opponents of voucher plans. No money is conveyed by the government to private schools, either directly or indirectly. Since every dollar allocated to qualifying recipients is the product of a voluntary contribution, it cannot be argued that “my tax dollars are underwriting the operation of schools whose purposes I do not support.” And as for those who argue that tax credits divert scarce resources from public education, cannot the same be said of Jewish day school enrollment?

If supporting and augmenting enrollment in our Jewish day schools is regarded as a fitting community priority, on what grounds are education tax credits viewed as treif?

Dr. Ron Reynolds
Van Nuys

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

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

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

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

Regretfully, during the past decade, many synagogues have downsized their Hebrew school programs from three days per week to two days or less, deeming them unattractive to committed families. Returning those programs back to their initial stature will provide middle-class families with a viable alternative that won‚t drive them to the poor house.

The Jewish community must refocus its efforts and resources to bolster supplemental education. Synagogues must revisit the curricula of their schools to assure that their students receive a rigorous and robust Jewish education. Finally, the Bureau of Jewish Education must raise its standards for accreditation of supplemental schools. Once synagogue-based Hebrew schools provide the level of Jewish education that they did in their glory days, middle-class families will no longer find it necessary to make great financial sacrifices when raising children, and a quality Jewish education will be accessible for all.

Leonard M. Solomon
Trustee
Los Angeles Hebrew High School

UCLA Palestine Week
As a student leader at UCLA, I was disappointed with the coverage of the recent campus anti-Zionism Awareness week (“UCLA Jews, Muslims Alter Protest Tactics” June 2). Unfortunately, the article implied that Jewish and Muslim students were the only major campus groups involved in these events and avoided discussion of the recent positive steps toward dialogue between our respective communities.

June 2, at noon, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) along with Hillel and other student communities of faith, assembled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for distribution to the homeless on skid row. That evening, members of MSA joined our community at Hillel for Shabbat Shavuot featuring a discussion with Dr. Nayer Ali on Islam. On June 5, MSA and the UCLA Jewish Student Union (JSU) broke bread together at an event marking the first time kosher/halal meals have been available to dormitory residents at UCLA, due to the successful year-long campaign organized by leadership of both JSU and MSA.

For the alarmists of our community, there exists a fervently anti-Zionist and often anti-Semitic campus community more numerous and less nuanced than our Muslim cousins. Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a sponsor of UCLA’s anti-Zionism week, and other Mexican-American empowerment groups see the Israel/Palestinian conflict as white male oppressors asserting their dominance over women and children of color and draw parallels between the occupation of Palestine and the occupation of Aztlán (Southwestern U.S. ceded after the Mexican-American War). Chicana/o students tend to invoke charges of deicide grounded in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition and have been more vocally anti-Semitic, claiming the “Jews are the criminals” responsible for the plight of immigrant communities at a rally in April, for example.

We, as the Los Angeles Jewish community, have an obligation to promote education and dialogue efforts reaching the Chicana/o community and other communities of color who tend to have less nuance and far more misconceptions about Jews and Israel than members of the Arab and Muslim communities.

Andy Green
President Emeritus
Hillel at UCLA (2005-2006)

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

Theobald of Cambridge, a 12th century apostate to Catholicism, created the “blood libel” which has lasted to this day and caused thousands of Jewish deaths. If there was general awareness of the history of hatred against the Jews, then when people hear a Finkelstein, they can wonder, is he a whistleblower or a modern day Theobald? Those who wish to spread vicious lies against Jews today, do not convert to another religion; their venom is more credible when they remain Jews, especially if they can claim to be from a family of survivors .

Ronnie Lampert
Los Angles

Polish Holocaust
I note the reference in the article on the academic achievements of young Kenny Gotlieb that he is a grandson of a survivor of the “Polish Holocaust” (“Seniors’ Deeds Pave Path for Future,” June 9). Excuse me, but can someone explain to me what is a “Polish Holocaust?”?Is this suggesting that the majority of Holocaust victims were Poles? Or is it supposed to imply that the Holocaust was created by Poles? Surely neither of these. Is it supposed to mean that the Holocaust largely took place in Poland occupied by Nazi Germany? If so, then please say so. I am afraid that this constant coupling of the word “Holocaust” with the word “Poland” makes the young people of today forget that the author of the Holocaust was Nazi Germany whose armies conquered most of Europe and imposed the genocide of the Jews throughout the continent. So please call it the Nazi Holocaust or the European Holocaust, or best of all, just “The Holocaust” (for there was only one) and not “Polish Holocaust.”

Wiktor Moszczynski
Via e-mail

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

Brett Thompson
Via e-mail

Correction
In “Seniors’ Deeds Pave Path for Future,” (June 9) Ruben Zweiban was sponsored by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys).

 

The Ultimate Taste Test


Inside Kosher World, the recent “for-the-trade” food show, you had to remind yourself you were in Anaheim. To my left, two gentlemen negotiated a deal in animated Hebrew. To my right, wine connoisseurs swirled, sniffed and sipped kosher-for-Passover premium varietals from Israel and 11 other countries. Behind me, hungry visitors, beckoned by the intoxicating aromas of smoked meat grilling, speared six varieties of kosher sausage. And at what other trade show would you find a curtained section designated “Davening Area”?

While this was the third year for Kosher World, it was the first time the show joined with the ethnic and halal markets, under the umbrella of the World Ethnic Market.

“These foods are no longer limited today to specialty suppliers or people of a particular religion or ethnicity,” said show director Phyllis Koegel. “They’re now routinely available at major food retailers, restaurants, hotels and food service operations.”

About 40 companies exhibited kosher products, ranging from wines to cheese to meat and halvah, but there also were cashews from Dan-D-Pack, a product of Vietnam; halal beef franks from Midamar, and salted lassi from Gulf & Safa Dairies of Dubai.

As usual at such shows, I sampled far too much, but what don’t you do in the name of research? My first stop was Neshama Gourmet Kosher Foods, for the best sausage I’ve ever tasted. My personal favorite is the exotic Merguez line, made from beef and lamb.

“For the first time our smoked andouille and country apple will be available kosher for Passover,” announced vice president Evelyn Baran.

I sampled salad dressing from Mistral — loved the soy ginger — and the yummiest individually wrapped Kugelettes — sure, there were Traditional Golden Raisin, but could grandma dream up Green Chile and Cheese with Salsa?

Next I visited Raphy’s booth, where samples of baba ghanoush, stuffed eggplant and a host of other delicacies, all produced in Turkey — the watermelon peel preserves are to die for — were dished up with flair.

Only fine wine could top off this “balanced meal,” so I headed for Royal Wine Corp., the world’s largest producer, importer and distributor of kosher wines. “When people hear ‘kosher’ and ‘wine’ in the same breath, they think sweet,” said Dennis Bookbinder, the company’s director of sales. “Our slogan is: ‘We produce and import premium varietal wines that happen to be kosher.’ Today you’ll find world-class kosher wines from $200 a bottle on down.”

Many of the company’s 300 wines from 12 countries regularly garner awards and top ratings from the world’s foremost wine critics and publications. And with Passover around the corner, expect a flood of new kosher wines. Petit Castel from the Judean Hills is considered the finest wine from Israel, Bookbinder said. Baron Herzog Jeunesse, as well as premium wines from Segal’s, Barkan and Carmel, are just a few he recommended to grace the seder table.

This year’s show also included the Natural Products Expo in the same building, “because people tend to associate kosher food with natural and organic,” said show director Koegel.

According to analysts, only 20 percent to 33 percent of kosher foods produced worldwide is consumed by Jews, and this is one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry. So just who is buying the rest? Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus and others who follow similar dietary restrictions, for starters. With 20 percent of the population lactose intolerant and millions calling themselves vegetarians of one sort or another, plus countless others who are health conscious, it is easy to see why kosher products have wide appeal. The mad cow disease scare hasn’t hurt either; because of strict cleanliness requirements and butchering procedures, there has never been a case of the disease found in kosher beef.

So, as the motto on a banner said at the first Kosher World: “Bringing kosher to mainstream and mainstream to kosher.” Truer today than ever, I’d say.

Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 652 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman, September 2006) and can be found on the Web at

Passover Fest Offers Many Paths to Fun


At a time when hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded downtown chanting “Let My People Stay,” Passover may be resonating more acutely across all racial and ethnic groups than it has in recent years.

It is not only illegal immigrants for whom the Passover tale holds appeal. The story of the Exodus can be easily updated for any of the numerous people in the Third World seeking freedom from oppression. That is why Craig Taubman, who has produced events like Sunday Funday at the Ford Theater, has broadened the scope of Let My People Sing, his inaugural Passover festival, to include a seder on behalf of those suffering in Darfur. That is also why he has included musicians like Ani, a Malaysian Muslim, and Joshua Nelson, an African American who says he descends from the Jews of Senegal.

Every program is free, except for the seders, the profits of which go to building medical and water facilities in Darfur, said Taubman, who adds that at all the events people will receive gifts.

The eight-day festival actually takes place over 12 days. It kicked off on April 4 with a Clippers basketball game. Some of the festival participants sang the “National Anthem” at the Staples Center; others will play in basketball tournaments on the last day of the fest, April 16, at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, a recreational property that Genie Benson, one of the organizers, refers to as “the best kept secret in L.A.”

Benson, executive director of Keshet Chaim, an Israeli folk ballet dance ensemble, is spearheading Let My People Rock, a full-day finale at Brandeis-Bardin. While some kids play hoops, others will replicate the Exodus by going on a trek through the 3,000-acre hilly property, led by an individual resembling Moses. Benson says that there will be a number of surprises along the way. That’s not including the different “culture” tents, such as a Moroccan tent and a Persian tent that simulate a Middle Eastern village. Or the giant sand sculpture being carved by Kirk Rademaker, an interactive environmental artist. Or the performances by the Israeli rap group, Hadag Nachash, and singers Rick Recht and Nelson.

Nelson may hail most recently from East Orange, N.J., but he traces his Jewish ancestry back to the West Coast of Africa. The 29-year-old singer, who sings and composes what he calls kosher gospel, soul music with Jewish liturgy, has been performing since his bar mitzvah. He was 18 when he released his first CD.

Nelson says that Jews of African descent, by which he means not only Falash Mura from Ethiopia but also Ugandan Jews, Nigerian Jews and Lemba Jews from Southern Africa, view Passover as the New Year because it celebrates aviv, or the spring. Because of the obvious parallels to black slavery, Nelson says that African Americans, irrespective of their religion, identify with the Jews in the Passover story.

So do many Muslims of different racial backgrounds. Ani, who will be singing passages from the Quran with the backing of the A.M.E. Church Gospel Choir at the Islamic Center of Southern California, said that, “Islam is very inclusive of all faiths, especially of the Abrahamic faiths.”

Ani has performed at many interfaith gatherings in the past, including a Muslim-Jewish seder at Wilshire Boulevard Temple; she points out that all faiths have a version of the Passover story, a story about struggling for freedom. In a phone interview, she reads a passage from the Quran in which the Israelites flee Pharaoh so that they can worship Allah.

Beyond the inclusion of non-Jews in the program, Taubman has also planned events all around Los Angeles, whether it’s Koreatown, the locale of the Islamic Center for Ani’s event, UCLA Hillel for the Darfur seder, Pasadena for a Raise the Roof performance by Rick Recht’s band, or the West Valley for the Let My People Rock freedom walk.

Nor is he limiting the entertainment to song, dance and basketball. There will also be comedy. Comedian Joel Chasnoff will perform on Friday and Saturday, April 14 and 15.

Chasnoff, 31, hopes that attendees “come out with a different view on Judaism” than they had before the show. For Chasnoff, the humor, even absurdity, of Judaism is in its “strange details.” For instance, he likes to talk about the hilarity of keeping kosher in the modern era. Boiling calves and milk may have been routine in 1906, but these practices sound almost alien in 2006.

If these kind of observations remind one of Jerry Seinfeld’s brand of humor, that is not surprising because Chasnoff admires Seinfeld’s dedication to writing. Chasnoff, who once opened for Jon Stewart and cites the “Daily Show” host as another comic influence, will also regale audience members with tales of Jewish guilt. One favorite line of his mother’s: “If my son worked just a little bit harder, I, too, could have an honor roll student.”

Like Chasnoff, many of the organizers and performers cite family as the common theme to Passover. Benson, the organizer of the finale at Brandeis, points out that Passover is uniquely participatory for everyone, children, adults, even strangers. She remembers how her father “always rented a room and invited everyone. No one had to pay. Just like now.”

Everyone may have participated, but she says that her father, in not charging anyone, was not being altruistic so much as trying to control the nature of the seder.

As her father would say, “When everyone contributes, everyone has an opinion.”

Let My People Sing, which opened with a Clippers game on April 4, continues through April 16. For more information, visit ” target=”_blank”>www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15273

 

I Love You, Carnivore


This column is in response to last week’s Torah Portion by Rabbi Zoë Klein, who confessed her secret enjoyment of meat, despite her family’s predominantly vegetarian diet.

To: My Not-So-Flesh-Eating Wife

From: Her Closeted Carnivorous/Publicly Vegetarian Husband

Worry not, my dear, your struggle is safe with me over vegetarianism. I try to be one, but you know the truth of my dilemma, although it is less debilitating for me than it is for you. After 20 years, I think I’m close to being true to myself when I ignore the leftover Shabbos schnitzel from our Hillel caterer.

You see, as you know, I love meat. Love it! Growing up, although it wasn’t kosher, I took extra delight in my mother’s marinated flank steak. She also made great meatballs, and do I ever miss Shake N’ Bake chicken. How fun it was to overcook hotdogs until they blistered on the grill outside, while watching “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings as a family.

I have absolutely no repulsion toward seeing carcasses; only a sadness that others are troubled by it. Ultimately, “we are like vanity; our days are as a shadow that passes,” as you and I read when we officiate at funerals, so why not accept that the life on the paper plates used in our homes for the kids eating a little meat is temporal? When medical shows present brain surgeries, complete with machines sucking the blood away, I can watch without any angst.

You, on the other hand, must turn the station, and at the site of roadkill, you bristle and say, “God bless it.” Actually, thank you for teaching me to do the same.

“Does it really matter if I don’t turn off the water while I brush my teeth?” one of my environment-conscientious students queried me the other day. Elizabeth had been caught by another conservationist in the throes of committing what some consider a chilul Hashem, desecration of that which was holy. Wasting water is an act of bal tashchit, our tradition’s way of saying that we are stewards of the planet and as such, we have no right to waste or destroy needlessly.

“Industries and big businesses waste far more water every day than people do brushing their teeth and watering their lawns,” she added. “Truth be told, I knew that I should turn off the water faucet, but does it really matter?”

“Maybe the key is to try to turn it off but not feel immense guilt for keeping it on, since it has virtually no effect on the environment,” I offered as a compromise. She seemed content.

As we left this “lunch ‘n’ learn” at USC’s health science campus, I had an epiphany. I wondered whether Elizabeth was channeling Torah from Sinai for me with my struggle to conquer my yetzer hara, the evil impulse toward consuming fleishigs: If I privately eat the Persian kabob leftovers after our weekly Wednesday barbecue, so that no one knows and it has no impact on anyone, might that be the ideal?

My act of civil disobedience — refusing to consume the flesh of once-living, breathing animals — has virtually no effect, perhaps none whatsoever. Agribusiness decides far in advance how many cows to raise and then slaughter without regard to my individual case.

It is almost entirely unlikely that the good folks at Rubashkin’s or some other slaughterhouse would ever take an inventory that would reflect my decision. It seems that being a vegetarian in America is as effective for slowing down meat production as trying to convince our son, Rocky, that muesli tastes better than marshmallows.

However, perhaps eating leftovers is still a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of these animals. Kabbalah teaches that when we eat foods, we elevate the divine sparks within them, so by consuming these leftovers, I am ensuring that these sparks are not wasted. It would be wrong to let the leftovers get dumped, as that would certainly be a violation of the law of bal tashchit.

The purposeful consumption of leftover meats then makes sense. However, if anyone were to find out that I was not a true vegetarian, they might never consider a vegetarian lifestyle. This would betray my values: While I can’t individually change the meat production levels in this society, creating a vegetarian movement would help keep cows jumping over the moon in perpetuity. I’m pretty much convinced that had my sister, Sylvia, never been a vegetarian, I might have never ended up in this dilemma, which pits my conscience against my cravings.

So, dear, continue to chew gum after eating a hamburger in order to mask the taste of once-living animals on your breath. Even as I argue for public vegetarianism with a strictly private consumption of leftovers, I am beginning to reach the point where even my interest in meat is disappearing. One too many PETA videos, I suppose.

Hoisting and shackling the cows horrifies me, and while kosher, I would much rather take my cues from the likes of Shlomo Goren, Isaac Bashevis Singer, S.I. Agnon and A.D. Gordon, not to mention Albert Einstein, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, all famous Jewish vegetarians.

Our prayers are for Moshiach, a messianic era in which the world order will improve in its very essence. When I say “Bayom Hahu,” on that day, I join Rav Kook in imagining a world when we need not sacrifice animals on any altar ever again.

I love you, even if you do sneak a roast beef sandwich from time to time.

Jonathan Klein is the Allen and Ruth Ziegler rabbinic director at USC Hillel.

Campus Outreach Connects Orthodox


At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s Welcome Week last September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.

A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.

“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.

“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”

That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for him or her, she believes.

But her particular mission is to serve Orthodox Jews and to encourage observant Judaism.

Sharona Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus(JLIC), a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.

Since the program began five years ago, it has anchored couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this past September — as well as at Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day school world.

Over the past year the Kaplans have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and they invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.

They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.

In many ways, the JLIC program is similar to campus programs run by the Chabad organization. The JLIC couples, however, are sent mainly to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.

Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd nonobservant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.

“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, the program’s national director, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an in-reach to Orthodox students.”

Haber says an important aspect of the program is sending a couple to each college: “We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students.”

This point is driven home on a September afternoon at Brooklyn College in New York where Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports.

Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly dressed students are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.

Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago.

Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.

Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”

Sarah Roller, 18, says, “It’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”

Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is a first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.

“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.

Haber, the national program director, says that as more and more Modern Orthodox began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.

Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus, too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.

“Between JLIC, Chabad and JAM,” a Southern California-based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director.

“If a kid wants to study Talmud,” he can benefit from the Orthodox rabbi, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?”

The answer, for now, is that such students will have to rely on secular coursework.

Still, the goal of funding campus professionals is “important” to the Conservative leadership, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “We are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”

A Reform movement leader considers such aspirations a “fantasy” for his movement, given that there are Reform students on several hundred campuses.

“I even question the efficacy of it,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, adding that a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.

“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would [involved students] increase from 5 percent to 10 percent or 20 percent? I doubt it.”

For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.

 

A Blog World After All


Last year, the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimated that 8 million American adults had created blogs. Although the number of specifically Jewish blogs is unconfirmed, those with knowledge of the blogosphere say the pool is substantial. Jewish blogs, or Web diaries, run the gamut from kosher cooking to Israeli advocacy. They include leftist rants, dating melodramas, rabbinic ruminations and secular musings from all corners of the globe.

“I’d estimate the number of active blogs at some several thousand,” says Steven Weiss, who currently blogs about religion (canonist.com), food (kosherbachelor.com) and the Jewish college experience (campusj.com).

“Among young, highly affiliated Jews, J-blogs are very popular,” the 24-year-old New Yorker continued. “As you move up the age brackets, the popularity drops off somewhat, though many in the organizational and rabbinic establishment have started paying a lot of attention to them.”

What exactly are these Jewish bloggers seeking on the Web?

Some, like 30-something New York blogging guru Esther Kustanowitz, say the blogosphere connects them to a larger, global Jewish community.

“I started looking at other Jewish blogs to see if there were other people like me out there — single, Jewish and blogging,” she explained.

The No. 1 thread on Jewlicious (jewlicious.com), a group blog focusing on Judaism, Israel and pop culture, addresses premarital sex in the Orthodox community. It pulled in 676 comments.

The No. 2 post, with 502 responses, tackles an equally contentious topic — the identity of Conservative Judaism.

Oftentimes, noisemakers walk a fine line between healthy debate and mudslinging.

“There are definitely blogs where the conversation tends to be acrimonious,” said Barenblat, who recently received anonymous hate mail. “People feel free to be obnoxious because it’s just through a computer screen.”

Fiery language also peppers the Jewlicious site, with posts often descending into vitriolic exchanges.

“It’s a paradigm for disagreement,” Kustanowitz said. “I think because of the anonymity and lack of accountability, people tend to not think before they write.”

Where exactly this blogging phenomenon is going remains unseen.

Schiano, for one, predicts a continuously evolving blogosphere.

“I think there will always be this room for grass-roots voices on the net,” she said.

And as long as rabbis continue to preach, advocates to crusade, singles to gripe and ideologues to spar, Jews will continue clicking — and posting — away.

 

Kosher Gospel — a Joyful Noise at Shul


Joshua Nelson is resting his voice. That’s a tall order for Nelson, the 29-year-old African American Jewish singer who has blended black style and Jewish prayers and folksongs into a new, foot-stomping, synagogue-shaking praise music he has dubbed “kosher gospel.”

Though he’s been spreading his unique gospel for years, lately it’s been catching on like wildfire; an appearance on “Oprah” last fall solidified it as a hot commodity in crossover music, and Nelson as its inventor and chief spokesman. So Nelson has been speaking — and singing — a lot lately, which is why he is doing his best to do as little as possible of both between dates of his current tour (he and his band arrive at University Synagogue in Irvine on Jan. 22).

But once he gets started, once a certain spirit moves him and a passion for the subject matter takes hold, it’s hard for him to stop.

One subject he never seems to tire talking about is how he was moved to create kosher gospel, which for all its appeal strikes many people (Jewish and non-Jewish) as a contradiction of terms. Nelson is African American in the truest sense of the word: his Orthodox mother (his father is also Jewish) is from West Africa, and he grew up in South Orange, N.J. He is a third-generation Jew who grew up around predominantly black synagogues in Harlem and in his hometown. But his original inspiration for kosher gospel came from a traditional rabbi in Jersey who cornered him when he was a teenager honing his singing style. Rabbi Sky saw not only potential in Nelson as a performer, but also in his performance style–the potential to attract new generations of Jews.

“Rabbi Sky was strict, and I thought he was going to scorn me and the way I sang,” recalls Nelson. “But he didn’t. He said, ‘You should put that sound to Jewish music. You can encourage young people to come to temple!'”

Nelson has done that, and then some. His widening audience includes not just reinvigorated Jews, but non-Jews drawn to the undeniable spirit of the music, especially African Americans who were raised on this music in churches and who have always been steeped in it culturally. The fact that Nelson sings Jewish liturgy and prayer — often in Hebrew and not about Jesus — matters not to folks like Oprah, who respond primarily to Nelson’s soaring voice, his infectious rhythms and his conviction, all of which look and sound awfully familiar.

And the fact that Jewish and Christian themes and theology overlap, especially in the black church — the story of Moses and the divinely aided deliverance of his people from slavery comes to mind — makes Nelson resonate that much more. All of which is fine by him.

“Blacks have always put soul into something, wherever they are in the world,” he says.

A scholar of gospel, he stresses that despite the synonymity of the music with church, gospel originated in the fields where black slaves toiled for centuries in the American South.

“When slaves were introduced to Christianity, their moans and groans were wedded to hymns — that was syncopation. That was how gospel really came to be,” explains Nelson, who in addition to being a singer is a Hebrew teacher at his longtime temple, Shari-Tefilo Israel in South Orange. “Gospel wasn’t really accepted by churches, which thought it was too bluesy. Ultimately, it was too black.”

Nelson says his idol, gospel great Mahalia Jackson (whom he closely resembles in voice), encountered the same kind of disapproval early in her career in her adopted hometown of Chicago, which was populated by middle-class blacks seeking to distance themselves from black folk traditions and all things Southern. The power of gospel won out, of course, and Jackson went on to become a superstar and a catalyst for the music’s popularity.

Nelson says there’s a parallel between that dynamic and one unfolding today in Christianity: “You have a euphoric element in all denominations now.”

As for Judaism, he believes that gospel at temple is an idea whose time has come.

“In Jewish tradition, there were songs that [blacks) always sung with soul,” he muses. “We always did at our temple. It wasn’t exactly gospel, but it was different. We brought our traditions to it, like Jews all over the world brought their own traditions to the faith.”

It’s irresistible to speculate that kosher gospel is just the sort of entertaining, listener-friendly thing needed to help bridge the divide between blacks and Jews that developed after the 1960s and that conscientious folks in both camps have wrung their hands about ever since. Though he has no problem with multiculturalism or with coalition-building — his own Reform temple is notably diverse — Nelson cautions against equating race with religion, or implying it, in any discussions of blacks and Jews, or of Jews and any other ethnic group.

“Jewishness is not a race,” he says emphatically. “We tend to think in this country that all Jews are European or Ashkenazi. That’s how the immigration went. But that’s not the case.” Ironically, Nelson says that he encounters skepticism most frequently not from Jews or whites, but from blacks. “They’ve just never met a black Jew before,” he says, particularly one singing gospel. He adds, with a laugh: “They get a little confused.”

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will be in concert Jan. 22, 6:45 p.m., at University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine. For tickets, call (949) 553-3535.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

 

Let My People Merlot


 

In the beginning, there was sweet wine. Really, really sweet wine.

But as the kosher market broadened, a trickle of new wines targeted to a more sophisticated audience began to raise expectations among Jewish wine lovers.

Now kosher wines have entered a third era, in which many are not only passable, they’re praiseworthy. Though winemakers in Israel and the United States still grow the largest numbers of these wines, vineyards all over the globe — from Australia to South Africa to Chile — are joining in, giving Jewish consumers an array of choices to accompany their charoset and brisket.

Passover is the kosher industry’s peak season; virtually all kosher wines are kosher for Passover. In North America, perhaps 50 percent of annual kosher wine sales are made during the holiday or in the weeks that precede it. This percentage is falling, though, as kosher wines gain more year-round acceptance.

The kosher food market is growing by perhaps 15 percent a year, said Menachem Lubinsky, the editor of koshertoday.com and president and CEO of Lubicom, a marketing consulting firm that focuses on kosher brands. He estimates that sales of kosher wines in the United States will reach roughly $160 million in 2005, up from $130 million just two years ago.

Lubinsky said that the number of kosher wines on the North American market is in the thousands, so everyone preparing a seder has plenty of strong choices at a variety of prices.

To make sense of this welter of wines, JTA’s editorial team took upon itself the task of taste-testing 20 kosher wines and picking out some winners. The wines we tested were provided by Royal Wines, one of the world’s largest producers, importers and distributors of kosher wines.

Wines we reviewed that are mevushal, an additional koshering step that involves flash-pasteurizing, are indicated with an “M” next to the price. (To make the testing more fair, we did not know how much each wine cost when we tasted it.)

According to Herzog Wine Cellars winemaker Joe Hurliman, the process changes the way fruit in the wine tastes. Indeed, a handful of nonkosher wineries have begun to flash-pasteurize their wines to capture this distinctive taste.

To best simulate the actual seder experience, our testers ate only Tam Tam matzah crackers for palate cleansing.

Our overall favorites were a pair of inexpensive moscatos that would be excellent choices to accompany desserts, or perhaps spicy foods. Italy’s Bartenura Moscato ($11, M) and Moscato di Carmel ($9) received equally high scores from our reviewers for their light, sweet, extremely fruity flavors. Of the Carmel moscato, one taster wrote, “Smells like honeysuckle, tastes like a party.”

Segal’s Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) is from Israel. This deep red wine is vivid, rich and slightly tart, with an alluringly earthy aroma; it had the most uniformly high scores of any wine in our testing.

Spain is a less traditional kosher wine producer — Spain has less than 40,000 Jews — but the Ramon Cardova Rioja, a Spanish tempranillo ($13), is a terrific dry red, offering a sharp berry taste with hints of vanilla and a potent fruity aroma. It ranks high on our list of best buys.

According to JTA’s testers, several other red wines also deserve a look: The Carmel Appellation Bordeaux Blend Limited Edition ($40) is an Israeli blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, dark and thick with a spicy aroma and a smooth taste that has notes of both sweetness and tartness. Another nice blend is the Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet/Zinfandel/Syrah ($35), a brand-new California wine from Herzog. It was a bit thinner than many of the reds we tasted, but we appreciated its smoothness, layers of fruit and less acidic finish.

A few of the white wines we tasted stood out. Aside from the dessert wines, the tasters were most impressed by the Francois Labet Puligny Montrachet, a French chardonnay ($55) that is vivid and a bit acidic, with a pleasant lingering finish. Also from France, which is the third largest producer of kosher wine in the world, is the Verbau Gewurztraminer ($15, M), a sweet, fruity wine with a mildness that makes it more versatile than the moscatos.

Of the kosher champagnes we tested, the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut from France ($47) drew the most praise. It has a tempting aroma, earthy taste and crisp aftertaste, though some testers felt it was too heavy.

Our testers intended to include a traditional sweet concord wine in our sampling, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to open it after tasting all these elegant wines. However, concords continue to be strong sellers year after year and cost $5 or less, so perhaps there is a place for one at your table.

Listed prices are approximate retail prices. The less expensive wines — $15 and under — often can be found at retailers for a dollar or two less during the days before Passover.

The Best of the Bottles

Though it would be impossible to sample even 10 percent of the thousands of kosher-for-Passover wines on the market there are a number of solid choices we can recommend from the group of wines we sampled with Jay Buchsbaum of Royal Wine, who holds free tastings with many Jewish groups throughout the year.

Mevushal wines are indicated with an ‘M’ next to the approximate retail prices.

Best Values

Bartenura Moscato (Italy, $11, M)
Moscato di Carmel (Israel, $9)
Ramon Cardova Rioja (Spain, $13)
Verbau Gewurztraminer (France, $15, M)
Baron Herzog Zinfandel (U.S., $13, M)

Best reds

Segal’s Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon (Israel, $60)
Ramon Cardova Rioja (Spain, $13)
Carmel Appellation Bordeaux Blend Limited Edition (Israel, $40)
Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet/Zinfandel/Syrah (U.S., $35)
Chateau Leoville Poyferre (France, $85)

Best whites (nondessert)

Francois Labet Puligny Montrachet (France, $55)
Verbau Gewurztraminer (France, $15, M)
Binyamina Special Reserve Chardonnay (Israel, $15)

Best for dessert

Bartenura Moscato (Italy, $11, M)
Moscato di Carmel (Israel, $9)

Best champagne

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut (France, $47)

 

Briefs


 

700 Gather to Protest Suicide Bombings

With the charred remains of Israeli Bus No. 19 as a backdrop, about 700 Angelenos gathered Jan. 30 at the Museum of Tolerance to take a stand against suicide bombings.

In a show of support with the community, guest speakers such as Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn; Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and Carrie Devorah, a free-lance journalist whose sibling perished on the bus, inveighed against the destruction wrought by suicide bombings.

“This is my brother Scotty,” said Devorah, clutching a framed picture of him while fighting back tears. “It’s all that’s left.”

At the exhibition, signatures were gathered to petition the United Nations to declare suicide bombing a crime against humanity. Hier said that the scourge of suicide bombings represented a clear and present danger that called for a unified response from the international community.

“This hate threatens all of us: Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths,” he said. “Today, these fanatics can murder thousands. Tomorrow, they will have the technology and know-how to murder and maim tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands and more.”

Bus No. 19 came freighted with controversy both for its message and the messenger. Some local Jewish groups opted not to attend the event, because they considered it exploitive, inflammatory and a hindrance to Arab-Jewish reconciliation. Peace Now, the Progressive Jewish Alliance and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles declined invitations to participate.

And then there’s the messenger. Jerusalem Connection, an Evangelical Christian group owns the bus, and the group’s leader has rankled some in the community. Dr. James M. Hutchens said in a recent interview that Palestinians are not a distinct people, that a religious war between Muslims on one side and Christians and Jews on the other is taking shape and that true Muslims believe in Jihad or holy war.

Hutchens’ beliefs prompted the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to ask event co-sponsor, the Wiesenthal Center, to call off the exhibit. The center denied CAIR’s request.– Mark Ballon, Senior Writer

Board of Rabbis to Lead Christian Clergy Israel Tour

The Southern California Board of Rabbis is taking a tour group to Israel next week, largely composed of Protestant clergy from churches often at odds with Israeli policies.

“Christians and Jews who visit Israel see different things,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, the board’s executive vice president. “We tend to see things from the Israeli perspective; they tend to see things from the Palestinian perspective. This trip is an attempt to say, ‘Can we do one unified mission, where we visit Israel and also meet with the Palestinians, and see and do the same things?'”

Diamond organized the trip with support of the local Council of Religious Leaders, which he chairs, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which funds the Board of Rabbis. The Feb. 7-14 trip, with each of the 19 participants paying their own way, is centered on the council’s leadership of Jewish, Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders and will touch on Jewish-Protestant clashes over the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s calls last summer for divestment of church funds from companies doing business with Israel.

Traveling with Diamond and B’nai David Judea’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will be local leaders from the Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, all of which have faced internal divestment debates.

Along with meeting Knesset members and Cabinet officials, the clergy tour group will meet Israeli journalists, such as Yossi Klein-Halevi; politicians from the recently elected Palestinian leadership; and Episcopalian/Anglican leaders at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. Diamond said that Saturday, Feb. 12, will be a free day for the Christian clergy to tour Bethlehem and meet their Arab Christian counterparts. – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Sympathetic Ear

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, chaplain for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, went to the site of the recent Metrolink crash in Glendale to provide counseling and a sympathetic ear. As medical examiners and coroners were removing the 11th and final body from the wreckage, Kravitz rushed to their side and led them in a short prayer. – MB

Synagogue Raises Funds for Darfur Genocide Victims

Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) hosted several-hundred people at its Jan. 31 Darfur awareness event, with the Encino synagogue announcing $45,000 in local Jewish donations for genocide victims in Sudan’s Darfur region.

“We fight with whatever weapons we have, and this is my weapon,” said actor Theodore Bikel, pointing to his guitar, before singing at the evening sponsored by the Conservative shul’s Jewish World Watch (JWW) group. Linking Jewish history to Africans slaughtered in Darfur, Bikel said, “It is always my fight. It is always our fight.”

Speakers stood at the bimah in front of a large picture showing a refugee mother and her child, with the headline, “Genocide in the Sudan: A Human Tsunami.” The event followed JWW’s mid-December Darfur event at the Skirball Cultural Center, which attracted more than 650 people.

Reform shuls Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills and Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, the UCLA Hillel and the Jewish Community Foundation, have been sponsoring the Darfur awareness evenings.

“God is not in the cause; God is in the response,” said VBS Rabbi Harold Schulweis. The rabbi is the driving force behind JWW raising the funds for the Santa Monica-based relief group, International Medical Corps, and its Darfur refugee work in neighboring Chad.

Another $13,000 has been donated to the corps by students at Milken Community High School, organizers said. Students have been wearing green Darfur awareness bands. VBS day school students have raised about $1,100.

Human-rights experts have estimated that about 10,000 people a month were killed last year in Darfur, most of the victims were tribal residents killed by Sudanese military and Arab terrorists.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), who sits on the House International Relations Committee, told the VBS audience, “Many other countries do not seem to view the situation with the same gravity as we do.”

On April 6, Sinai Temple will host another Darfur evening with American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger. – DF

 

World Briefs


Bush: Happy Rosh Hashanah

President Bush asked Jews to “pray for peace” in his annual Rosh Hashanah message. “May we build a future of promise and compassion for all, and may the coming year be filled with hope and happiness,” Bush said in the presidential message, released Tuesday. He also called on Jews to find inspiration from Abraham and Isaac’s “willingness to sacrifice everything to do right.”

Israelis Bodies Found

Two bodies found in California may be the remains of a pair of Israelis who disappeared last December. FBI agents on Sunday were led by suspects arrested last week to a shallow grave near Barstow, where Ben Wertzberger and Adar Neeman were believed to be buried, The Associated Press reported. Authorities say the two probably were killed after a drug-related dispute with the suspects.

Iraq Off-Limits to Israel

Israel will not be allowed to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq, Iraqi officials said. Speaking at the International Monetary Fund conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Iraq’s interim planning minister said Israeli entrance into the Iraqi market is “out of the question,” Agence France-Presse reported. A member of the U.S.-appointed transitional Governing Council, Adel Abdul Mahdi, added, “There is no intention to recognize Israel.”

Israeli officials are in Dubai this week for the IMF conference.

Al-Qaeda Planned Attack on El Al

Thai police reportedly foiled an Al-Qaeda plot to down an El Al airplane and attack Israeli passengers at Bangkok International Airport. A man arrested three months ago by police in Thailand was found to have detailed plans of a plot to attack passengers in the terminal and shoot down an El Al plane with a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile, Israel’s Channel 2 reported. Al-Qaeda operatives are the prime suspects in an attack last November on an Israeli aircraft in the skies over Kenya. The plane managed to evade those missiles and land safely in Tel Aviv.

Bernard Manischewitz Dies at 89

Kosher food giant Bernard Manischewitz died Saturday in New Jersey at age 89.

Manischewitz was the last in his family’s line to run the kosher food giant B. Manischewitz Company, the Newark “Star-Ledger” reported. The food company was sold to private investors in 1991 after it had been in the Manischewitz family for three generations. Renowned for its sweet wine and matzah, the business was founded in Cincinnati in 1888 by Bernard’s grandfather, Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz. The company opened a second factory in Jersey City in 1932, eventually moving operations there. Born in Cincinnati, Bernard joined the company in the 1940s after graduating from New York University. The company expanded under his tenure but also weathered a scandal in the mid-1980s over price-fixing for matzah. Bernard Manischewitz was a Jewish philanthropist, serving as president of New York’s United Jewish Appeal and of New York’s Shearith Israel synagogue. Manischewitz is survived by his wife, son, daughters, six grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

Former Israeli Ambassador Dinitz
Dies

Simcha Dinitz, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and chairman of the Jewish Agency, has died. Dinitz, 74, died Tuesday of a heart attack in Jerusalem. Born in Tel Aviv, Dinitz joined the Haganah in pre-state Palestine and served in the Israel Defense Forces during the War of Independence. He spent 37 years in a variety of public posts, including the Knesset, the Foreign Ministry, Golda Meir’s Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency, which he headed from 1987 to 1994. Dinitz served as vice president of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a diplomat in Rome and Washington for prime ministers Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. Dinitz’s public career ended in 1996 when he was found guilty of fraud and breach of trust connected to misuse of Jewish Agency credit cards, though Israel’s highest court overturned the conviction a year later. Dinitz, whom Israeli President Moshe Katsav called “one of the leaders of the nation,” leaves behind his wife, three children and eight grandchildren.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

A Short Escape to Prewar Italy


Even when it’s 40 F out and a freezing wind sweeps through the narrow streets of Florence, it is good to be in Italy.

No, it’s great to be in Italy.

My wife, Naomi, and I spent 10 days in Rome and Florence in the dead of winter, bundled like Aleuts in the Mediterranean cold. I’ve read that of all the world’s art treasures, 70 percent reside in Italy — the sacking of Baghdad has probably upped that number to 75 percent — and a chance to see beauty we had only read about was one reason for our long-planned vacation.

What better place to visit as civilization teetered at the brink than the repository of much of civilization’s bounty?

There was a subtext to the voyage as well, inevitable when a rabbi and a Jewish journalist disembark anywhere. The war in Iraq was a few weeks away, and the conflict in Israel blared over CNN International and in the Italian headlines. We would inevitably seek out Jews, Jewish sites and opinions on the international situation, finding plenty of all three along our way. But this was primarily a vacation, and we had no qualms about a brief encounter with Italy’s seemingly unlimited array of pleasures.

Rome was first. Although it was cool in the capital city, we found ourselves walking everywhere from the new and charming Hotel Ottocento, near Piazza Barberini. Nicola, the concierge, just about threw his arms around us when he discovered we were Jewish and from Los Angeles. He was convinced we knew the lyrics to every Barbra Streisand song ever sung. “Peace, war, Bush yes, Bush no” he waved off all talk of the impending conflict. “Do you know, ‘Stony End?'”

Laden with maps Nicola marked up for us, we set off.

If all roads lead to Rome, all Roman streets lead to surprises. Turn a corner and there before you is the Spanish Steps. Tourists dawdle, lovers snuggle and poets linger in the shadow of the building where Byron and Shelley once wrote (and where Shelley, at age 24, died). More walking that first evening led to the sites we had read about but never visited — the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona. Even in February, even before a war, tourists crowded into Rome, but the atmosphere was festive and the people relaxed. If the world was coming to an end tomorrow, why not enjoy tonight?

If the looming war was hurting tourism among Americans, it didn’t seem to faze thousands of others. The next day, when we set off by subway for the Vatican, we emerged to find a line for the Vatican Museums that was at least a mile long. Instead, we headed for the synagogue.

Rome’s grand synagogue sits on the banks of the Tiber River at the edge of the ghetto, or Jewish quarter. Security is tight, and has been ever since a PLO attack in 1982 that left a child dead. Italian soldiers stand guard with machine guns, and visitors pass an armored door to get inside. The interior is stunning, and an exhibit of congregational artifacts, including Nazi-era deportation orders, provides yet more evidence that Jewish life is both adaptable and immutable.

Many Israelis joined us in one of the many daily tours of the synagogue, and over the next 10 days we’d meet several more Israelis taking a break from their country’s tensions by making the four-hour hop from Lod airport to Rome or Milan. Several carriers, including El Al, offer the flights, which run about $500 round trip, making Italy a perfect stop to or from Israel. Perhaps not what Moses Hess had in mind when he penned the Zionist manifesto “Rome and Jerusalem,” but the makings of a great trip nevertheless.

The ghetto is home to several busy kosher butchers, bakeries and a handful of restaurants specializing in Roman Jewish cuisine. To eat this food is to understand, in a bite, much about Italian and Jewish history. As early as the second century B.C.E., Jews traded and settled in Rome. Thousands more were marched off as slaves to the city after the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. forming, by some estimates, a quarter of the ancient city’s population.

“Perhaps the greatest single force in maintaining culinary tradition over the city’s 2,800-year history,” writes David Downie in the indispensable “Cooking the Roman Way” (HarperCollins, 2002) “has been the Roman Jewish community.”

The 16,000 Jews of Rome (about half of Italy’s Jewish population) are scattered about the city now, but the ghetto still provides Rome’s best glimpse into the Italian Jewish past.

At La Taverna del Ghetto, just behind the synagogue, you can sample excellent renditions of these contributions to Italian cuisine, including deep-fried carciofi alla giudia (literally, “Jewish artichokes”) and sweet-and-sour salt cod.

Working backward in history, we visited the ruins of ancient Rome next, stopping to see the frieze on the Arch of Titus depicting the destruction of the Temple. The image looms large in books on Jewish history. In reality, it is tucked away inside the arch. One people’s tragedy is another’s interior decoration.

At the Coliseum, we joined up with a local tour group. The guide, Paulo, tells us it is Jewish slaves who built much of the structure, which was adorned with gold and silver from the sacked Temple. History books are less certain on this point, but in itself it seems a mere footnote to the tens of thousands of people murdered there in the name of sport. The worst reality TV is the pinnacle of civilization compared to what the emperors watched, and our own bloody times seem reassuringly tame in comparison.

When we finally joined the line at the Vatican, it was down to a half-mile, and it went surprisingly fast. The Vatican Museums are built partly on the conquest of bodies — plundered treasures from around the world — and partly from the winning of souls — wondrous artworks from devoted, or at least well-paid, masters. In any case, the assembly is mind-boggling. By the time we reached the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s revived frescoes, we doubted any art could further impress us.

We were wrong. The chapel, a vast room with the soul of a warehouse, is home to a creation that somehow magnifies the power of all creation. We lingered, refusing to be shooed away, as the guards emptied the vast crowd for closing time. Our stiff-necked refusal paid off as we stood almost entirely alone beneath God and Adam.

Somehow it was fitting, not jarring, to be surrounded by so much beauty even as the world was poised on the brink of a war which, if you remember, threatened to doom the Middle East, Europe and America. Flags calling for PACE were hung from hundreds of windows, groups gathered in St. Peters Square singing hymns of peace, the headlines inveighed against President Bush and the Italian prime minister, who had joined the coalition of the willing. In my college Italian, I followed café arguments about how America, with Israel behind her, was pushing the world into a war no one wanted. But whatever doubts Italians had about our country’s policies, they were warm and effusive toward us.

In Florence, the people were just as warm, the air colder.

The lush Tuscan countryside was taking the winter off, but the city itself was full of life and tourists. And art.

Neither of us had ever been to Florence, and we walked the narrow streets unashamedly clutching maps, camera and guidebooks. You get giddy from the quantity and quality of the masterpieces — the light and shadow of Il Duomo; the work of the young Leonardo in just one of the endless galleries of the Uffizi; Ghiberti’s bronze doors at the Baptistery; and, of course, Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia di Belle Arte.

For nearly five days, we explored Florence and Sienna. Sienna’s main square, or campo, proved a perfect place to soak up the sun’s rays on an otherwise cold day, and the small city is a marvel of well-preserved tradition.

The synagogue in Sienna — one of Europe’s best-preserved — was shuttered (we had neglected to call ahead), but the Florence synagogue became a trip highlight.

A friend of mine from Israel, Shulamit, met and married the man who would eventually become the chief rabbi of Florence, Yossi Levi. Shulamit showed us the beautiful interior, painted in Tuscany’s muted reds and greens, and the preschool, where the din of children matched that at any busy L.A. synagogue. Florentines, in general, are private and tolerant of other people’s privacy, and despite the fears of Jews in France and other parts of Europe, Shulamit said the community in Florence felt generally secure.

But Shulamit did say the congregation in Florence could benefit from the participation and energy of long-term non-Italian residents, Jews on study or work visits to Florence, and she was eager to get that word out.

On our last day in Florence, with about 500 museums left unseen and only 2 percent of Italy’s masterpieces under our belts, we made one last stop to see David. Nothing in picture books had prepared us for the power of that sculpture, and we knew, back in Los Angeles, back in our lives, we would miss it. So back we went, and the line was magically nonexistent. You stare and stare at David, and end up feeling that we humans, with our petty arguments and massive wars, are capable of a much grander world. Maybe a world more like … Italy. N

Italian Travel Tips

Kosher establishments are so noted.

ROME

Hotel

Albergo Ottocento

Via dei Cappuccini 19

info@albergottocento.it

011-39-06-42011900

Food

La Taverna del Ghetto (Kosher)

Via del Portico d’Ottavia

011-39-06-68809771

Kosher Bistrot (Kosher)

Via S. Maria del Pianto, 68-69

011-39-06-6864398

Gusto

Piazza Augusto Imperatore, 9

011-39-06-3226273

La Tamerici

Vicolo Scavolini, 79

(Fontana di Trevi)

011-39-06-69200700

La Toretta

Piazza della Torretta, 38

011-39-06-6833494

At this family-run restaurant specializing in fish, the owners forbid smoking — a fact which makes it a rarity in Italy. It’s also quite good and reasonably priced.

Caffe Sant’ Eustachio

Piazza Sant’ Eustachio, 82

(Near the Pantheon)

011-39-06-6861309

The be-all and end-all of coffee. Roasted over oak wood and prepared by dedicated barristas following a secret method. Stand in line, order a gran’ caffe, and you’ll weep the next time you set foot in a Starbucks.

Gelateria San Crispino

Via Della Panetteria 4

011-39-06-6793924

Long ago discovered by The New York Times, still superior to all other gelatos we tried in Italy — 45 F weather be damned.

Other

Kadima

Murano Glass Judaica

Via del Lavatore, 33

(Fontana di Trevi)

011-39-06-6789860

FLORENCE

Hotel

Hotel Galileo

Via nazionale 22/a

011-39-055-496645

A very reasonably priced three-star hotel in a city known for high-priced accommodations. Clean rooms, friendly and helpful staff, and a convenient location near the train and bus stations.

Food

Buzzino

Via dei Leoni, 8r

011-39-055-2398013

Zibibbo

Via di Terzollina, 3

011-39-055-433383

www.zibibbonline.com

Garga

Via Del Moro, 48r

011-39-055-2398898

Now famous and deservedly so.

Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Food (Kosher)

Via Farini, 27a

011-39-055-2480888

Next to the synagogue, Ruth’s focuses on Middle Eastern specialties.

Osteria Ganino

Piazza dei Cimitori, 4

011-39-055-214125

Know Before You Go:

www.FaithWillinger.com is a wondeful site by an expert on Italian food and restaurants.

www.Jewishitaly.org has all the names and addresses of the country’s Jewish sites.

CulturalItaly.com is an L.A.-based firm through which you can make museum reservations before you leave. It costs a bit more, but unless your idea of a vacation is standing in line for a half day, do it.

The Sabra Kosher Gourmet


In late February, I went to Israel at the invitation of the Ministry of Tourism. Having studied abroad in Jerusalem between intifadas, I thought I had seen the attractions and sites of the land, but the ministry offered a view a student on a budget never imagined: Gourmet Israel, eight days of cutting-edge kosher restaurants and winery tours. I jumped at the chance. With El Al’s help, I actually flew at the chance.

The nightly news, even before the violence became a full-blown war, kept the group small. Only three others joined our merry band of foodies in the Holy Land. With a wonderful tour guide (Judy Goldman, who co-wrote Joan Nathan’s first cookbook) and our driver, Nisso, we set a table for six.

We traveled for a taste of what Israel stands to lose most immediately. We sipped excellent local wines at fine restaurants — quiet, empty restaurants. Everyday life is disappearing from Israel. At every stop, Israelis marveled that we Americans were there at all. How brave we are. No, we told them, we’re on a fancy vacation, living better here than at home. Tell a friend, they said. Send more tourists.

In Jerusalem as across the country, strings of shops and restaurants are "closed for remodeling." Many, if not most, will neither remodel nor reopen their doors. Still, there is much to see, even for the veteran Israel tourist. Yes, the holy sites and archeological wonders will still be around (we pray) when the current round of fighting is done. But much of what I saw, the life-affirming and luxurious best of Israel, already is in danger of disappearing.

The treasures of Jerusalem go beyond the Wall and the ancient and holy sites. There is life unique to contemporary Jerusalem. Even more than the Chihuly glass sculpture exhibit last year at the Tower of David, the Davidson Visitor Center, south of the Western Wall, illuminates every cliche about Israel’s clash of the most ancient and modern wonders. In a plaza next to the remains, the Davidson center features a UCLA-designed virtual reality tour of the Second Temple’s magnificent arches and stairways and plazas.

Of course, we ate. Of many meals in varied, unique (and financially endangered) restaurants in town, my favorite was Eucalyptus, in Safra Square (next to City Hall) on Jaffa Road, walking distance from the Ben Yehuda shops. Chef-owner Moshe Basson’s passion for Israeli cuisine makes his small restaurant a must-eat destination for food lovers (see sidebar). Basson serves dishes based on the food of biblical times, made with ingredients so fresh we spent an afternoon watching him pick our meal from the Judean Hills.

A Eucalyptus meal is special; a meal you can’t get outside Israel. The tehina and date syrup dessert plate, called dibs, is a goopy-sweet liquid halvah worth a trip to Israel by itself. Eucalyptus also makes and bottles its own liqueurs, including a strong, smoky licorice arak that goes perfectly with the dibs.

You can find Eucalyptus in Israeli travel guides, but for less-traveled roads you’ll want a tour guide. Goldman, our gourmet guide, was up to the task of sniffing out the best in Israel. Not just any guide, much less a tour book, can lead you through the winding dirt and gravel roads of the Judean Hills to the extraordinary cheesemaker Shai Zeltzer.

In a cave on a goat farm on a green and boulder-strewn patch of Jerusalem hill, Zeltzer is making an international name for Israeli cheeses. With flowing robes and a long white beard, Zeltzer dresses in a Bedouin style, but his casual warmth and Yiddish-laced sense of humor show him up as a uniquely Israeli sort of hippie. Zeltzer sells his cheeses on Fridays and Saturdays only. As we sat, sipping tea and tasting a dozen of his sharp, pungent cheeses, a steady trickle of in-the-know Jerusalemites parked their cars next to the goat pen and ducked into the cool cave where Zeltzer has his counter.

Our time in Jerusalem, in February, was warm and sunny. At night, we watched the news to see where violence had struck, just as we would at home. Then we called our loved ones to let them know that life goes on in Israel; that we were safe and very well fed.

Taking our fill of cheeses and biblical cuisine, we ruefully decamped from the King David Hotel (after the breakfast buffet, of course) for a stay in the Northern Galilee.

We spent most of the next two days visiting some of Israel’s most successful wineries, which felt less like traveling 8,000 miles east, and more like 20 years back in time to the early California wine industry, when grape-loving microclimates first met the will of adventurous vintners and the capital to produce world-class drink. The family owned and operated Tishbi Winery in Binyamina, near the Carmel region, just installed a beautiful picnic-like tasting area. At the Amiad Winery, on Kibbutz Amiad in the Galilee Hills, they add new varieties seasonally to a strong collection of fruit wines and liqueurs. And our hardy group stood for a marathon tasting session at Golan Heights Winery, a massive operation with vinyards all across the country, where they produce the Yarden, Gamla, Golan and Hermon wines.

After a quick stop in Tiberias and dinner at the dramatic tented meat palace Decks, we spent our last few days in Tel Aviv. At trendy Lilit, a restaurant just off Rothschild, we met Janna Gur, editor of the Israeli gourmet magazine Al Ha Shulchan (On the Table). We talked about the Israeli wine expo her magazine would sponsor that weekend, the first ever all-Israeli wine exhibit. Thirty-five wineries would offer their spirits to the discriminating nose and lips of Israel’s aesthetes. We talked about Israel’s developing wine culture and, as we ordered dessert, Gur explained why even in the midst of rising violence, she would stake her career on gourmet food and drink. "It takes years go from a first planting to a bottle of wine," she said, "To be a winemaker, you have to be an optimist."

The waiters brought dessert, a mascarpone cheesecake. It was sweet. And it did not last long.

Up Front


A Viagravating Pesach

Pfizer’s Viagra, the anti-impotence drug, contains chametz and therefore is not kosher for Passover, rabbis say.

“The coating apparently has a leavened substance,” Rabbi Menachem Rosenberg, the rabbi of Clalit Health Services in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post. Therefore, the drug (sildenafil citrate) is not kosher for the holiday.

Dr. Alexander Olshinitzky, a Dan Region physician who treats impotence, told the Post he has received numerous queries from observant patients about whether they can take Viagra during the holiday. The doctor said with a smile that some women may welcome the news that Viagra contains chametz, as “surveys show that before Pesach and during the first days of the holiday, women are so tired and stressed from preparations that they’re not very interested in sex.”

Hands Up! It’s the Matzah Police!

Israel’s Interior Ministry will fine any business offering leavened foods during Passover. The ministry is borrowing five Druse inspectors from the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry to be matzah inspectors during the eight-day holiday. The fine will be $80, more than double last year’s fine for selling leavened food. Druse Arabs often work as government inspectors, carrying out certain tasks forbidden to Israeli Jews on holidays. — Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Jewish Hollywood

When Hollywood lauded studio and independent films during two awards ceremonies last weekend, there were the expected Jewish jokes.

“I got an e-mail today that said that Frodo Baggins was an anti-Semite,” Oscar host Whoopi Goldberg deadpanned, referring to a character in “The Lord of the Rings.” Goldberg was really referring to the mudslinging campaign against John Nash’s alleged anti-Semitism in the 74th Oscar fave “A Beautiful Mind,” which took home four awards.

Veteran director Arthur Hiller accepted the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his long list of activities, which included direct aid to Russian Jewish refuseniks and support of the Anti-Defamation League.

A surprise appearance by Woody Allen, who hadn’t bothered to show up for any of his own three previous Oscars, elicited the evening’s first standing ovation.

Meanwhile, at the 17th Annual Independent Spirit Awards — indie cinema’s version of the Oscars — gross-out comedy director John Waters gleefully noted that “Hollywood’s closed for a month at Christmas, and everyone’s Jewish.”

Director Terry Zwigoff of the subversive teen flick “Ghostworld” — which has a Jewish heroine — won two awards, including best first screenplay. Some previously unknown filmmakers received Spirit nominations for their Jewish-themed films: Henry Bean of the controversial Jewish neo-Nazi saga, “The Believer”; Sandi Simcha DuBowski of “Trembling Before G-d,”; and B.Z. Goldberg, Carlos Bolado and Justine Shapiro of the doc “Promises,” about children in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. — Tom Tugend, Naomi Pfefferman

Traveler Trepidation


Of all the businesses affected by both Sept. 11 and the recession, the tourism industry is perhaps the hardest hit. Business has come almost to a standstill for travel agents and tour operators in the Los Angeles area, and nationwide.

“We have corporate clients who are still traveling, but the leisure travel business is completely down,” said Ricki Bergman, of Ricki Bergman Travel Syndicate, an American Express office, in Woodland Hills.

Reservations are down by almost 80 percent, according to Yosef Naiman, owner of Jerusalem Tours on Fairfax. The majority of his clientele travel between Los Angeles and New York and Los Angeles and Israel. At Calig World Travel and Cruises, in Woodland Hills, the story is pretty much the same.

“People aren’t flying, period, if they don’t have to,” said Jerusalem Tours President and CEO Marsha Calig.

National tour operators who coordinate trips for travelers throughout the United States and worldwide are experiencing the same thing as locally based travel companies. Kosher Expeditions, based in Atlanta, canceled its fall tours to international destinations, and cut back most of its staff to part-time. Only small groups of seasoned travelers are keeping their reservations for overseas trips.

“Kosher travel is probably the most affected. All kosher tours are planned to return home before Shabbos. If you get stuck in an airport, you may not get home in time and you’re probably going to be without kosher food. People don’t want to pay all this money for a trip only to get stuck in that situation,” said Kosher Expeditions manager David Lawrence.

Israel Discovery Tours usually operates 18 tours, sending 3,000 tourists to Israel each year. So far, those figures are down by about 60 percent for the Chicago-based company. Some families are still going on bar/bat mitzvah tours, others are afraid to leave home, according to the company’s president, Ilene Wallerstein.

“Our people flying El Al feel secure. If they use other carriers from Europe to Israel, there is a lot of security,” Wallerstein said. “Our tours are strictly Jewish. They are not anywhere near the West Bank. Security is always excellent in Israel.”

Lack of travel to Israel is a sore point for many Jewish travel agents and operators.

“Israel is in a very serious way economically because of all the terrorism. The U.S. is seeing what it’s like to live with terrorism, something Israel has been doing for years,” Bergman said. “I don’t see any outcry of Jewish organizations here in L.A., or elsewhere in the U.S. Jewish organizations not showing solidarity with Israel is really psychologically damaging to Israel.”

In spite of the huge drop in travelers, agents and operators are optimistic that business will pick up, though not for overseas travel. Instead, customers will look to stay close to home, opting for vacations where they can drive or take trains.

“We are really looking to the drive market. People feel that, God forbid if something happens, they can jump in the car and get home,” said Yakov Stevens, president of Tripsetter, in Toronto, which specializes in group travel in Canada and the United States.

As a result, destinations like Las Vegas are expected to be popular on the West Coast. Kosher Expeditions is promoting its trips to Wyoming dude ranches, American ski resorts and a possible Disneyland Passover package.

Cruises to Hawaii, Mexico, Alaska and the Caribbean are expected to be huge draws, with many cruise lines offering deep discounts as incentive.

“Princess completely turned around its itinerary from Europe, where they did great, and instead is focusing on the domestic cruise market,” Bergman said.

Calig is moving forward with the annual travel show her company holds in January. Representatives from all major cruise lines and resorts are on hand to meet with travel agents as well as consumers. Calig is hoping the event will jump-start travel for the year.

“This is what the Taliban want — for people to be afraid. All the safety precautions are made. Security is fantastic,” Calig said. “People have to realize it’s OK to go on living, to go out there and have a good time. We’re not going to be on hold forever.” — S.F.

My Year with Pork


About a year and a half ago I found myself in need of employment. I scoured the papers in search of openings in my field, which is quality control of food products. One opening caught my eye — “QC Manager of a medium-size food processing plant, within commuting distance.” Just what I was looking for. The product? Deep-fried pork rinds.

I had never eaten a pork rind, and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure exactly what they were. Like many Jews of my generation, I grew up around old-world, kosher-keeping grandparents, at whose table you’d be as likely to find pork rinds as fresh vegetables or a garden salad. Even though habits changed over the generations, pork rinds never made it into our culinary canon. Still, a job was a job, and I needed one. I faxed over my resume and got the call to come in for an interview.

While waiting in the lobby I perused the sales literature. The company, I learned, was a family business — a Jewish family, in fact. The first person I met was the owner’s father, a 70-something accountant whose main function seemed to be entertaining the staff with Catskill-vintage wisecracks. He was the office tummler, the Henny Youngman of the pork rind business. This could turn out to be an interesting gig after all.

The interview went well, and a week later I got the call offering me the job. Could I start right away? It didn’t take long to make the decision. I knew there would be a downside though. Certainly my mother-in-law wouldn’t be kvelling to her friends in the sisterhood about “My son-in-law, the pork rind tester.” Still, better this than “That unemployed bum my daughter married.” In a way, I was following a family tradition of iconoclasm. My Litvak great-great-grandfather, according to family legend, earned money to bring over his wife and children by peddling pictures of Jesus door-to-door in New York. Hey, you’ve gotta give the people what they want, right? I decided to go for it.

Before long I was immersed in the minutiae of the industry. Pork rinds, I learned, are made from rendered bits of pig skin and fat. Deep-fried in 400-degree lard, they puff like popcorn as the water in the meat turns to steam. Sales of the product had gone through the roof in recent years, due in part to the popularity of Dr. Atkins’s diet (no carbohydrates, plenty of protein and fat), which heartily endorsed rind consumption. Latino immigration also played a part, as did exports to countries such as China and the Philippines, where pork rinds are a delicacy. Spicing up the product with salsa, oil and vinegar, and barbecue flavoring was also goosing sales. The rind business was better than ever, and our factory worked around the clock to meet the demand.

As quality control manager, one of my responsibilities was dealing with the rabbis from the Orthodox Union who inspected our plant. Yes, the pork rind factory was kosher certified. Not the rinds themselves, of course, but other products such as popcorn and cheese puffs that we made in pork-free areas of the factory. In addition to our regular inspections, we occasionally had visits by rabbis from the Union office in New York. Visiting rabbis were always fascinated by the pork rind operation, and I often gave plant tours, featuring my canned spiel (“The puffing of the rinds when immersed in hot oil is truly a marvel of nature”). During one tour, a smart-aleck line worker asked a rabbi what it would take to get kosher certification for the rinds. Unfazed, the rabbi shot back, “Well, for that, you’ll need a higher authority than the Orthodox Union.”

After a year on the job, it began to wear on me. The hours were long, the commute tough, and my wife was getting tired of the fried-pig smell that permeated my clothes and hair. I began fishing around, found another job, and said farewell to the pork rind business. I can’t say that I really miss the place, but I do have a greater appreciation of the effort and dedication it takes to make a good rind. Still, I have to admit that I don’t find the greasy, salty morsels particularly appetizing. Call it a cultural thing, but I prefer a good schmaltz-laden fried kishka to a pork rind any day.

Beyond Ordinary


The Silverado Trail, a picturesque highway that winds its way through the Napa Valley, isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find someone staking his claim to Jewish identity.
But for Ernie Weir, this is home base.

Weir is owner and winemaker of Hagafen Cellars, one of California’s three kosher wineries that exist in an industry dominated by hundreds of non-kosher wineries.

From all appearances, Hagafen, headquartered in a small yellow building at the end of a gravel driveway and bordered by vineyards on either side, could be any other Napa Valley winery — except for the mezuzah on the doorpost, the first clue to the Jewish nature of the enterprise.

As Weir told me, it was a need to express his Jewishness that led him to make kosher wines. But beyond the leitmotif of Jewish identity there lies a more practical side.

“To this day,” he said, “I’m respectful of the religious nature of it, but it’s not my intent. My intent is to make a product which can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.”
Weir’s approach also reflects the view of Baron Herzog and Gan Eden, California’s two other kosher wineries, that if you want to make it in this business, you must reach out beyond the rather limited Jewish market.

And today, of course, there is nothing to prevent winemakers from achieving this goal — now that kosher wine has thrown off its screw-cap identity to join the mainstream world of sophisticated varietals.
Weir, who worked for Domaine Chandon after graduating from the University of California at Davis wine department, prides himself on producing what he terms “ultra-premium” Napa Valley varietals, specializing in reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

He owns about 12 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes, buying Chardonnay, White Riesling, Syrah and Pinot Noir from vineyards where he can exercise quality control. In 2001, Hagafen will introduce its first Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.

Hagafen’s total output is about 7,000 cases a year.

Since Weir is without his own production facilities, he makes use of other wineries, rendering them acceptable for kosher production by high-temperature water purification of the equipment. Soon, however, he will complete a new winery and tasting room on his own property.

During my visit, I tasted Hagafen’s 1997 oak-aged Merlot, a varietal enhanced with 5 percent Cabernet Franc that was named Best of Class and Best of Region at a recent California State Fair Competition. The wine had very soft tannins with layers of cherry and plum.

Hagafen’s wines have reached the White House for kosher state dinners. Its best sales, Weir noted, come from “very knowledgeable, very sophisticated” consumers on the West and East coasts.

While Hagafen’s origins are Napa Valley, it’s a different story for Baron Herzog and Weinstock, both made by New York-based Royal Wine Corporation, the largest producer of kosher varietals in the United States.

The Herzog family reaches back to 19th-century Czechoslovakia, when it was the exclusive wine supplier to Emperor Franz Joseph. Royal Wine purchased Weinstock Cellars in 1994.

Royal draws on long-term relationships with growers in a number of California regions, including Napa Valley, the Russian River, Sonoma, Clarksburg, Alexander Valley and Monterey County.

From its winery in Santa Maria, Calif., the company is making a concerted effort to promote new international varietals as an alternative to traditional sweet wines.

Royal’s winemaker, Peter Stern, is an international wine consultant with credits at Robert Mondavi who has also advised Israel’s Golan Heights Winery since its inception.

From all appearances, including his name and his pathfinding work in kosher wines, it would appear that Stern is Jewish. He is not.

“The kosher market,” said Stern, “is basically going through the same kind of evolution that you saw in the 1950s, when the consumer was not familiar with varietal wines.”

Baron Herzog, producing well over 100,000 cases a year, is arguably one of the few American wineries to really succeed with Chenin Blanc.

With aromas of peach and nectarine, this Baron Herzog wine — a Double Gold Sweepstakes winner at the 1998-99 West Coast Wine Competition — is made from prized Clarksburg-area grapes grown near the Sacramento River, where days are warm and nights can be refreshingly cool, thanks to delta breezes that blow in from San Francisco Bay.

Like Hagafen and Gan Eden, Royal targets a broad market: a quarter of Baron Herzog and Weinstock consumers are not Jewish.

Meanwhile, the story of the Gan Eden Winery, located amidst the apple orchards and small towns of Sonoma County’s Green Valley, reflects the religious odyssey of owner-winemaker Craig Winchell.
“So how many winery employees are there?” Winchell asked rhetorically. “Only one, myself!”
When he graduated from UC Davis with a degree in fermentation science, Winchell had no plans to produce kosher wines. He would, he thought, simply go to work in the mainstream wine industry.
But something else was happening in his life: he had embarked on a rediscovery of his Jewish roots and was becoming an Orthodox Jew.

What happened next was the marriage of two worlds: Winchell would make wine that was kosher and pursue a Jewish way of life. But from a distribution standpoint, he would target the broader market.
“The creation of this winery,” he explained, “was a direct result of my desire to live a Jewish life, rather than a desire to target the Jewish market.”

I found Gan Eden’s Cabernet full-flavored and delightfully robust, while its Late Harvest Monterey County Gewurtztraminer is full of luscious pineapple and grapefruit flavors.

The winery also makes a wonderful Black Muscat — the perfect companion to bittersweet chocolate — that has been featured at James Beard House “great chefs” dinners.

In 1999, Winchell produced 15,000 bottles of wine, which he said is pushing his limit for a one-man operation.

What makes all of these California varietals kosher is the fact that they are produced — that is, handled during production — by Sabbath-observant Jews. However, according to kosher winemaking standards, overall winemaking direction may come from non-Jews.

But that’s not the end of the story by any means. At kosher events, non-Jews may not be involved in serving kosher wine — a prohibition said to relate to a time when wine was used in pagan rituals.
How to get around this prohibition?

Drawing on an ancient Jewish formulation of boiling wine to alter its nature, kosher wine can be flash pasteurized by a process known in Hebrew as mevushal, thus permitting non-Jews to serve it at kosher functions. Herzog, Weinstock and Hagafen are all mevushal wines.

Flash pasteurization is a complex issue.

Some winemakers hold that the process can actually enhance a wine’s flavor, but others point to unpredictable changes to the wine’s sensory characteristics.

Gan Eden’s Winchell stays away from producing mevushal wines, although with a recent surplus of Chardonnay grapes, he introduced a new cuvee called “C’est Bouilli!” — French for “It’s Boiled!”
“I normally don’t make mevushal wine,” said Winchell, “and the lack of predictability is the principle reason. However, if done carefully, while it will always produce changes, they need not be detrimental changes.”

For example, it’s quite possible by making a wine mevushal to tone down one flavor characteristic and bring out another, as with Grenache over blackberry.

And a 1993 study conducted at UC Davis on pasteurization of young red wine found no significant effect on quality.

All of these issues aside, however, one thing is abundantly clear: significant progress has taken place in the kosher wine world.

Thanks to the trio of pathfinding winemakers, kosher California wines can now illuminate the finest table — and turn an ordinary meal into a banquet.

Kosher Boom


Kosher consumerism just went up a notch in Los Angeles, with a handful of new shops whose contemporary decor and top-quality products prove that the kosher eye and palate is as discriminating as any other. From imported chocolates to hot dogs that go pop, from Hawaiian fish to scones and tea, Los Angeles can now begin to take its proper place among the kosher capitals of the world. What follows is Part One, a rundown of what’s new in L.A. kosher food. Part Two will appear in next week’s Business section.

Like a Kid in a Candy Shop

Munchies Sweet Emporium, a candy shop and soda fountain, opened its doors last month on Pico, a couple blocks west of Robertson. The smell of fresh waffle cones and rich chocolate hangs lightly in the air, and the peaches-and-cream tile and walls are a subtle backdrop to the real decor: wall-to-wall candy. One side of the immaculate and spacious store is lined with 240 glossy bins dispensing nuts, dried fruit, gourmet coffees, and candies of all shapes and sizes – 3-inch jaw breakers, chocolate-covered everything, bubblegum baseballs, Sweet Tart miniature pacifiers and candy Legos, marzipan fruit shapes, and a full rainbow of jelly beans and gum drops.

Chaya and Gagy Shagalow, along with their partners, Dena and Steve Vojdany, have scoured the world for these candies, bringing them in from all over the country, as well as Italy, Mexico and Belgium.

“The community didn’t have anything like this, and we felt it could use it,” says Chaya, a registered nurse who spent much of her childhood in her parents’ pharmacy and soda fountain. Plus, she says, “we are social people, and we wanted a place where people could be creative, where we could treat our customers like guests.”

Dena lends her creative talent to custom-pack baskets, ceramic or crystal dishes, and novelty containers – pianos, baby shoes, oversize champagne flutes. The custom packages, as well as some prepacked trays, come in almost any size or price range, from a house gift for a Shabbos host to an elaborate gift basket. Munchies hopes also to supply weddings and Bar Mitzvahs with novelty party favors.

Behind the counter, Steve and Gagy – who brings with him eight years of restaurant experience – preside over the ice cream, made fresh on the premises in dairy and pareve varieties. On a frozen slab of granite, toppings are cut into the creamy gelato, adding an element of entertainment to a family outing. There are floats and shakes, hand-dipped caramel and English toffee apples, cappuccinos and a handful of tables and chairs outside at which to enjoy them.

Chaya hopes the place will become a hangout, which is why Munchies will be open till 11 p.m. weekdays and 2 a.m. Saturday nights.

“We wanted to create a store that was welcoming for kids and adults, at a price they could afford,” Gagy says. “We want to be a neighborhood hangout, a community spot.”

Judging from the row of minivans parked outside last Sunday, Munchies is already a sweet and savory destination.

Munchies Sweet Emporium at 8859 W. Pico Blvd. is under the rabbinic supervision of Kehilla Kosher, (310) 777-0221.

Live From New Yawk

It may be opening later this month smack in the middle of Pico, but there won’t be a bit of California to mar the truly New York experience of eating at this glatt kosher Nathan’s, the hot dog shrine of Coney Island. Tofu and sprouts, after all, don’t mix well with Philly steak sandwiches, fried chicken, grilled burgers, and of course, Nathan’s world-famous hot dogs – the official hot dog of Yankee Stadium, by the way.

“These hot dogs have to be grilled on a special grill that cooks them at three different temperatures, so it has the proper pop when you bite into it,” says Barry Sytner, who owns the fast food restaurant with Eugene Brennan.

Oh, and don’t get him started on the french fries. A specially bred potato will be shipped in directly from Maine, and they will be peeled, cut and fried on the premises – none of this frozen stuff for the Nathan’s franchise, which sends out surprise inspectors to ensure compliance with its many specifications.Sytner says New York transplants – whether recent like himself, or those who have been here for decades – have already been pounding on the still-locked door.

Nathan’s in L.A., under Kehilla Kosher supervision, will be the fourth kosher restaurant in the worldwide franchise, along with two in Israel and one in Brooklyn.

And Brooklyn won’t feel far from L.A. in this ’50s-style restaurant on Pico (the original home of Nagila Pizza); the famous Coney Island amusement park where the first Nathan’s opened in 1916 is painted and lit up on hand-carved wood that lines the walls.

Hot dog carts will be available for catering, and there will be Shabbos take out, too. And, says Sytner, New York hours for a New York restaurant – 11 to 11 weekdays, till 1 a.m. Saturday nights.Nathan’s is located at 9216 W. Pico Blvd. near Glenville, 310-273-0303.

Fishing For Compliments

If you thought the kosher seafood experience was limited to trout, halibut, salmon and the occasional ahi steak, visit Fishland on Olympic and Palm in Beverly Hills, where fresh New Zealand John Dory and loup de mer from France await the daring chef.

Simy and Philippe Levy, along with Simy’s brother, Felix Fhima, opened the gourmet store in July, expanding their downtown wholesale business to meet the retail needs of the Westside community. The French family supplies fish to restaurants, including some kosher establishments, throughout the area.”We had a lot of customers who came downtown and wanted their fish cut with our kosher knives,” says Simy, who runs the store. “We had so many requests to open a place on the Westside, so we did.”

Fishland sells non-kosher seafood as well, but don’t let the shrimp and mollusks turn you away. The kosher selection is kept on a separate counter, cleaned and cut with separate knives, and refrigerated separately, all under the supervision of Rabbi Moshe Benzaquen.

And Fishland, stocked to be a one-stop dinner shop, also carries a variety of other kosher gourmet items, such as pastas, French cheese, caviar and desserts.

Fishland is located at 9150 Olympic Blvd., 310-271-2553.

Haute Kosher


Chef Paul Prudhomme stepped up to the kosher challenge,creating an elegant couscous dish.


Combine ancient laws of kashrut with the finest chefs from Europeand the United States. Mix well. Stir in a couple of Israelimashgiachs and a liberal splash of French artistic temperament.Season to taste with Hebrew, English and Italian. What you end upwith is “Haute Cuisine Goes Kosher in Jerusalem,” a light,entertaining documentary that airs locally on KCET on Dec. 9 at 7:30p.m.

The movie is a behind-the-scenes look at a unique cross-culturalculinary event. In honor of Jerusalem’s 3,000th anniversary, 13 ofthe world’s most acclaimed chefs were invited to the ancient city.Shalom Kadosh, executive chef of Jerusalem’s Sheraton Plaza Hotel,was in charge of assembling the list of renowned culinary wizards,and to his surprise, every one of them accepted the invitation. Theirassignment was to cook a kosher meal for 300 guests at a benefit forEin Yael, an open-air museum. Leaving behind their own visions ofbuttery lobster dishes and recipes enhanced by pork fat and cream,they created a 12-course feast that strictly adhered to Jewishdietary laws. With the exception of Jean-Louis Palladin of Jean-Louisat Washington’s Watergate Hotel, all were newcomers to the rules ofkashrut.

It’s fun to watch as the chefs embark on a military-likeoccupation of the enormous kitchen, where each presides over his owneager mini-army of sous-chefs and kitchen aids, some of whom traveledfrom as far away as Orthodox Brooklyn for a chance to learn under amaster of gourmet cuisine, even if only for a day.

Beautifully captured here is the artistry and painstakingattention to detail that goes into high-end food preparation. Thereare also some nice offbeat moments, inevitable with this many cooksin a kitchen — a Jewish one at that. Dapper and corpulent Louisianachef Paul Prudhomme seems jazzed by the challenge of inventing acourse that even non-Cajun Jews can love. With typical Americancan-do optimism, he creates an elegant couscous dish, steering clearof items that will bump up against Jewish dietary law.

More amusing is the ongoing tango between some of the moreirascible French chefs and the vigilant rabbi in the kitchen. Theadaptation of European gastronomy to the rigors of kashrut leavessome of them cheerfully inspired, but others are less sanguine.”Kosher is the worst,” said Edmond Ehrlich, director of Laurent inParis. “You take a nice cut of meat, cover it in salt, then you washit in water like you wash your underwear. It’s great for underwear,but for meat?”

Directors Noemi Ben Natan Schory and Adi Frost chronicle thechefs’ tour of the Old City’s produce markets, their dinner at thehome of a wealthy Jewish connoisseur and their flurry of preparationsfor the big night, which is the climax of the entire trip. As the 300paying guests arrive in anticipation of this mother of all menus, thescene in the kitchen is a Babel-like study in expertly controlledchaos. One by one, courses are loaded onto waiters’ trays andlaunched into the dining room. By evening’s end, the chefs haveindividually dressed and turned out 4,200 plates. A feast such asthis one may happen only once every three millennia or so, but forkosher foodies, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.