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Israel according to Hollywood:
Click the BIG ARROW for the trailer from “Exodus” (1960)

The two greatest Jewish inventions of the 20th century are, to my mind at least, Hollywood and Israel. Jews founded Hollywood to help the world escape reality; theyfounded Israel to help Jews escape the world.

Yes, there were individual Jews whose genius shaped the past century — Freud, Marx, Einstein and, of course, Dylan — but Hollywood and Israel are two enterprises a great many Jews built collectively.

One big difference, of course, is that while Jewish enterprise created Hollywood, it wasn’t, like Israel, a Jewish enterprise.

But both these grand inventions have something very important in common: Jewish writers.

Jewish writers created the movies that defined Hollywood. And other Jewish writers, a world away, created the movement that defined Israel. These thoughts wandered through my head as I dipped in an out of a rare offering this week, an international conference in Los Angeles on Israeli literature. Held under the auspices of the relatively new UCLA Israel Studies Program, “History as Reflected in Israeli Literature” brought together several dozen of the world’s top scholars in a surprisingly rich field.

Actually, as the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua made clear in his keynote address Sunday evening, the importance of the literary imagination to Israel should surprise no one.

“Zionism was founded by writers,” he said.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a popular journalist and aspiring playwright.

“Herzl was a failed dramatist,” Yehoshua said. “Perhaps if he was a more successful dramatist….” His voice trailed off as the audience laughed, imagining Herzl forsaking his life’s mission for a three-play deal on the Ringstrasse. “We are perhaps one of his plays.”

But Herzl forsook plays and instead wrote books, bad fiction and good nonfiction, outlining his vision of a Jewish state. That tradition continued after Israel’s founding in 1948, though the quality of the fiction greatly improved. Those early works, as Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Yigal Schwartz said at one panel, mostly wrestled with the basic questions of identity.

“Most Hebrew literature dealt with trying to make a new nation through literature,” he told conferees. These works created, “the Zionist religion of Nationhood.”

But on their heels, in the 1950s, came novels challenging the hard-won status quo.

“The major subject of this literature is the disappointment with the state,” said professor Avner Holtzman of Tel Aviv University. “There wasn’t any writer who didn’t express disappointment.”

Holtzman pointed out that the early Soviet literature evinced the same kind of post-revolutionary letdown.

The difference was, of course, that the Soviets killed their disappointed novelists. Israel lauded hers. Another generation — Yehoshua’s — blossomed, and its literature was still more complex, combining political themes with the personal and historical. And as these Israeli writers gained fame, something extraordinary happened — Israelis continued to listen to them.

As professor Robert Alter pointed out in a presentation with Yehoshua, this attention marks a great divide between Israeli and American novelists. Israel has a tradition of novelists and writers engaged in the public square.

“How different this is from the American writer,” Alter said. “I think very few practicing American novelists today feel any impulse to comment on political matters, and even more crucially, if they did, if Phillip Roth did comment on American politics, nobody would pay attention to him.”

In fact, Roth denies that his book, “The Plot Against America,” is a direct critique of the Bush administration, despite the fact that many have read it as such.

When Yehoshua gave a press conference last summer alongside novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman calling for an end to the recent war against Hezbollah — Yehoshua supported it but believed it was going on too long — it made national headlines. When Yehoshua declared that in the Diaspora being Jewish “is a jacket you take on or off,” while in Israel it is “a skin,” the outcry made international headlines. (He repeated the charges Sunday night, with considerably less shock value.)

In fact, the importance of the artistic imagination to the Israeli endeavor should be abundantly clear to anyone who dips into L.A. culture these days. The Israel Film Festival is at the Laemmle theatres, featuring a slate of cutting-edge movies from Hollywood-on-HaYarkon. This May, a vast exchange is in the works bringing Tel Aviv fine artists to galleries in L.A. Musicians from David Broza to the entire Israel Philharmonic Orchestra have played to large audiences recently.

And last week’s literary conference was, according to professor David Myers of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, which co-sponsored the event, the first of its kind in Los Angeles.

In America, it’s fair to say, Hollywood’s writers have more power than novelists over the public political and cultural consciousness. But in Israel the lions of literature still have an impact, and that, Yehoshua said, is not by chance.

“The others,” he said, going back to the beginnings of that other Jewish invention, “the rabbis, the leaders of the community, they could not foresee what was happening, what will happen to the Jewish people. It was only by a certain imagination, an audacity, that these writers could understand what has to be done in order to avoid the catastrophe.”

“My feeling is that we continue this certain tradition of writers, this vision for Zionism of seeing clearly what is to be done,” he continued. “I don’t say we have seen always the right thing, that our analysis was always correct. But the fact is that this is a certain tradition of Zionism, that writers and intellectuals are important and the public is hearing us. Maybe they were thinking we were perhaps na?ve, perhaps stupid, but there is a place for the intellectual to say his words. In this sense I am always grateful to Israel for the way in which it never persecuted us, and always gave us attention.”

Would you expect anything else from a great Jewish invention?

The challenge of pluralistic day schools


More than 225 Jewish educators from pluralistic community day schools across the country convened in Los Angeles for four days of networking and brainstorming last month.

The 20th annual conference of Ravsak: Jewish Community Day School Network, held at the Biltmore Millennium Downtown, was the organization’s first conference in Los Angeles and its largest ever.

Ravsak — an acronym for the Hebrew meaning Jewish Community Day Schools Network — was founded 20 years ago with about 12 schools. By 1994 there were 27, and by this year there are 120, a reflection of the tremendous growth in day school attendance across the country.

The theme of the conference, underwritten in part by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, was “Everything to Everyone: The Challenges, Limits and Opportunities of Jewish Community Day School Education.”

The theme stemmed from the reality that as attendance at community day schools has mushroomed, the socioeconomic levels, cultural background, learning styles and Jewish affiliation of the students and families has become increasingly diverse.

While 20 years ago day school attendance was dominated by families that were already Jewishly committed and observant to varying degrees, that is no longer the case.

“Today we see families with new commitments, families whose commitment to the Jewish people is largely articulated through enrollment in Jewish day school, who are building their lives based on what the kids do in school,” said Marc Kramer, executive director of Ravsak, pointing out that a growing percentage of children have only one Jewish parent.

Some topics covered at the conference could have applied to any school — students’ sexual identity, mental health and learning differences, lay leadership, philanthropy and legal issues. Other issues pertained specifically to community day schools — how to create inclusive prayer atmospheres, forging an attachment to Israel and the Jewish people and successfully integrating sub-communities, such as the Orthodox, the Reform or the intermarried.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino delivered the opening keynote speech, challenging leaders to question their assumptions about community day schools.

Pardes, the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, folded its conference into the Ravsak conference, and the North American Association of Jewish High Schools recently merged with Ravsak, which had previously dealt mostly with kindergarten through eighth-grade schools.

Aside from the conference, Ravsak provides leadership training, consulting services and curricular and staffing initiatives for day schools, and recently opened a new Center for Jewish Day School Education, as a laboratory of ideas for teachers and administrators.

For more information visit www.ravsak.org or www.pardesdayschools.org.

Jewish Leaders Help LAUSD Tackle Diversity

Five Jewish leaders were among the 22 appointees to a new Human Relations Council for the LAUSD Board of Education. The council will advise and review policies and make recommendations to the Board of Education on matters related to human relations, diversity and equity.

Appointed to the board were: Dan Alba, L.A. regional director of Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that educates students and teachers about how to apply lessons of tolerance through understanding the Holocaust; Jenny Betz, project director of the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute, which runs cultural diversity and tolerance workshops for students and teachers; Rabbi Allen Freehling, executive director of the L.A. City Human Relations Commission and rabbi emeritus of University Synagogue in Brentwood; Beverly Lemay, program manager at the Museum of Tolerance, which hosts thousands of school children each year; and Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, executive director of Jewish World Watch, which raises awareness and funds to stop genocide throughout the world.

“In a community as diverse as Los Angeles, community leaders must have a role in developing policies that emphasize the importance of tolerance and respect of other cultures,” said School Board President Marlene Canter. “The Council provides a formal, ongoing forum for our community partners to voice their opinions and concerns.”

Hillel Pumps Up the College-Bound

Los Angeles Hillel Council’s March 18 “Get Into College Conference and College Fair” is geared toward helping Jewish students and their parents understand the importance of Jewish life and community in deciding which college to choose. Aside from general information about schools and admissions, the fair focuses on topics such as Jewish life on campus, how to deal with anti-Semitism, cults and anti-Israel rhetoric and a parents-only session on letting go and helping your student succeed.

The conference takes place March 18, 11:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles.

For more information visit www.getintocollegeconference.com.

Free Spirits Wanted

Alex Melamed
Shalhevet senior Alex Melamed was one of 102 student journalists nationwide — a male and female from each state — to win an Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholarship from Freedom Forum, a nonprofit dedicated to a free press. Along with a $1,000 scholarship to the college of his choice, Melamed will be flown to Washington, D.C., in March to receive the award and attend a journalism conference. Two of the 102 winners will be chosen for an additional $50,000 scholarship.

Melamed, who emigrated from Ukraine at age 6, worked his way up to being editor in chief of The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s newspaper.

Some of the topics he has written about include an examination of the specific mandates of Jewish journalism and a three-part series on Torah and evolution. As editor in chief, he has motivated young writers to push themselves to write complex articles.

For more information visit www.shalhevet.org or www.freedomforum.org.

Science Scholars Receive Awards at Milken

Six Milken Community High School students received Excellence in Science Awards from the American Technion Society Southern California Chapter. The awards are part of a collaboration between Milken and the American Technion Society meant to foster more interest and expertise in science while promoting closer ties to Israel and Technion, Israel’s leading science and technology university. In addition to the awards, professors and researchers from Technion have visited Milken science classes and the Technion website is available for use in researching the science projects.

The winners were: Alixandra Kriegsman, 10th grade, for “Indigo vs. Dycromine Dye — Which is More Colorfast?”; Abigail Zwick, 10th grade, for “Effect of Wearing a Swim Cap on Streamline Velocities”; Jonathan Batscha, ninth grade, for “Determining the pH of Various Soils Affected by the Simi Valley (2005) Fires”; Yael Cypers, ninth grade, for “Calculating the Salt Concentrations of Various Sidewalk Samples”; and Madison Friedman, ninth grade, and Daniel Reisfeld, ninth grade, for a study of increasing efficiency of photovoltaic cells.

GA taps into passion, will, power of the people


Perhaps it was the civilian, Karnit Goldwasser, who said it most clearly: “There are so many powerful and important people gathered together here. Together, we must raise up our voices.”

Goldwasser’s specific intent was to urge the thousands of Jewish leaders and a cadre of Israeli ministers present at the United Jewish Communities 75th annual General Assembly to keep up the pressure to rescue her husband, Ehud, who was kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists in July along with two other Israeli soldiers.

But in a larger sense, tapping into the power of the collective passion, will and resources of the Jewish establishment was at the heart of this year’s GA, which had as its highlight an address Tuesday by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The event concluded on Wednesday after four days at the downtown Los Angeles Convention Center.

The GA brings together federation leaders and representatives of just about every Jewish organization in North America and Israel for a combination trade show, policy conference and marathon pep rally. Officials said the event attracted 5,000 participants and volunteers — protected by a hypervigilant private security battalion and a phalanx of LAPD officers — making this the largest GA since the 2003 gathering in Jerusalem.

GA officials would not say how much the event cost, but The Los Angeles Federation estimated it expended about $200,000 in staff time and hard costs, money that leaders have been saving since they began planning the L.A. GA 13 years ago.

The mood was dark at many of the plenaries, which focused on the threats to Israel, the international fear of Islamic fundamentalism and the specter of a nuclear Iran.

Speakers from the prime minister on down, at numerous sessions and speeches, hammered home the point that Israel’s first and foremost security threat was a nuclear-armed Iran ruled by a president who has declared his intention to “wipe Israel off the map.”

“We in the intelligence community are willing to pay billions of dollars to learn what our enemies are thinking,” Israel’s Intelligence Minister Avi Dikter told an audience at a Tuesday panel with Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. “The president of Iran is putting it on the table free of charge.”

The GA’s theme, “Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny,” emphasized Israel’s security, politics and relationship with the Diaspora. Yet in addition to the spotlight on Israel, more than 150 organizational exhibitors and 60 sessions cut a wide swath through Jewish life, highlighting issues such as reaching out to family caregivers, raising young philanthropists and innovations in Jewish education.

Speaking at the opening plenary, Goldwasser’s anguished but unfathomably poised plea to Israel and the international community to keep attention on the abducted soldiers brought choked-up delegates in the enormous exhibition hall to their feet. It was a moment of emotion that speaks to why a GA is important: Being in a room with so many people who are so moved by the same thing ignites a passion and energy that reminds people that Jews belong to each other.

“It’s a remarkable ingathering of all of these people, where we have an opportunity to share ideas and talk and teach each other,” said Marvin Schotland, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation in Los Angeles. “I’m not sure there are too many moments of this magnitude where you can get a sense of Jewish peoplehood the way you do here.”

This year brought an unprecedented six Israeli Knesset members and six Cabinet ministers — including Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu — and dignitaries such as French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy and Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria.

The star power was also on hand with appearances by the likes of Mare Winningham, Jeff Goldblum and Jon Voight and Jewish musical favorites Debbie Friedman and Mike Burstyn. But what the conference was for was pumping up leaders for another year of raising both Jewish consciousness and philanthropic dollars. The networking over dinner and in organizational receptions and the casual contacts made on the perennially snaking line to the Starbucks in the Convention Center lobby were just as key to strengthening the Jewish network as the official program.

A highlight was the sold-out Monday night show at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with a Yiddish theater revue and selections from the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.

Before the war with Hezbollah this summer, the theme of the GA was “Be With the Stars,” a Hollywood-esque way of highlighting the community’s major players and programs, as well as looking to the future stars — the next generation of leaders.

But the upbeat star theme gave way to the more earnest “Together on the Frontline: One People, One Destiny,” focusing on Israel and international Jewry’s responsibility for and relationship with Israel.

“The program really touched on topics and issues that were on people’s minds. We focused on what people are thinking about, and we had overflow crowds,” said Glenn Rosenkrantz, director of media affairs at UJC.

The organization, which last year raised $3 billion among all the federations, has raised $350 million for Israel since the war this summer (which probably explains the presence of the 12 Israeli politicians).

Many participants interviewed said they were glad to have the chance to more deeply understand what feels like an existential crisis.

John Fishel, president of The Los Angeles Federation, said he understood and supported the decision to focus on Israel but regretted some of the compromises that had to be made.

“I guess I would have preferred more of a balance in terms of some of the domestic issues,” said Fishel, the conference’s host and go-to guy for all sorts of situations. “The Federation’s mandate is not only Israel or overseas projects, it is about local and domestic issues, whether that be public policy, service delivery or discussions about Jewish identity and innovations in Jewish education,” he said.

It also meant that sessions that had been scheduled to feature local Jewish organizations ended up being pushed aside.

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday 7

Bruins and Trojans unite in the name of Jewish art. For the first time ever, the Hillels of UCLA and USC collaborate to present coinciding art exhibitions. Titled “Makor/Source,” the two shows feature works by 23 contemporary Jewish artists reflecting their study of Jewish text. Each artist will show a different piece at each show.

Free. Opens Jan. 7 at UCLA Hillel. Opening reception and panel discussion Jan. 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m. Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles (310) 208-3081, ext. 125.

Opens Jan. 22 at USC Hillel. Opening reception Jan. 22, 4-6 p.m. 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135.

Sunday 8

It wouldn’t be a week in our Jewish community without the requisite cantorial concert. But Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) does it up big for theirs today. “MaTovu: A Musical Celebration Paying Tribute to the Works of Two Great Cantorial Masters” features cantors from across the country, plus Stephen Wise’s Nathan Lam and CBI’s Marcia Tilchin. They sing the liturgical music of renowned cantors Yossele Rosenblatt and Philip Moddel to benefit the Cantors Assembly and the Philip Moddel Scholarship Fund.

7:30-9 p.m. $18-$250. Chapman University Memorial Hall, One University Drive, Orange. R.S.V.P., (714) 730-9693.

Monday 9

Hearing John Lithgow’s voice in your head again? Must’ve already heard about Walt Disney Concert Hall’s special audio tour. Visitors don headphones to learn about the creation of the building, with Lithgow playing virtual tour guide. Architect Frank Gehry, L.A. Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota also chime in periodically with details about how it all came together.

10 a.m.-3 p.m. most days. Check Web site for schedule. $8-$10. 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 850-2000.

Tuesday 10

In conjunction with the release of art historian Peter Selz’s book, “Art of Engagement,” about politically motivated pieces by California artists, Jack Rutberg Fine Arts presents an exhibition of nearly 80 works from the book, including paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings.

Jan. 3-31. Free. 357 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 938-5222.

Wednesday 11

There are bad dates where maybe the guy chews with his mouth open, and then there are the really bad ones where you end up in jail without your cell phone. That’s the kind Courtney Fine is on in her new show, “ME2.” Follow the Jewish girl’s trials and tribulations over the course of a very lousy evening, at the Masquer’s Cabaret playhouse.

7:30 p.m. (Wed.), 9:30 p.m. (Sat.). $15. 8334 W. Third St., West Hollywood. (310) 590-7229.

Thursday 12

The Levantine Center and PEN USA co-host a conference this evening exploring the relationship between the Arab and Western worlds. “The Arab/Muslim Revolution: The Middle East and the West” features Islamic scholar Reza Aslan and historian Mark LeVine in conversation. But along with a heaping helping of political dialogue come live music by Mohammed Cahoua and Omar Fadel and an open bar reception to keep the mood convivial.

7:30 p.m. Free. Levantine Cultural Center, 5920 Blackwelder St., Culver City. R.S.V.P., (310) 559-5544.

Friday 13

Venture out this evening despite 13th superstitions to see L.A. Theatre Works’ latest show. “Top Girls” is the Obie-winning comedy by Caryl Churchill about feminism during England’s Thatcher years. The production will be recorded for the nationally syndicated radio theater series “The Play’s the Thing.”

Jan. 11-13 (8 p.m.), Jan. 14 (3 p.m.), Jan. 15 (4 p.m.). $25-$45. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 827-0889. www.latw.org.

L.A. Hosts Debate on Israel Economy


“It’s the economy, stupid,” was President Clinton’s campaign mantra, and the same lesson was hammered home June 5-7 to 25 Israeli diplomats at a three-day conference at the Beverly Hilton.

“Growing Israel’s economy must be the priority of every Israeli representative abroad, and let others worry about the peace process,” said Stanley Gold, considered the largest private investor in Israeli industry.

In the 21st century, it is trained intelligence that grows the economy. International competition will not be for land or oil, but for human capital, observed former Wall Street powerhouse Michael Milken, now chairman of the Milken Institute think tank.

Gold and Milken were among the few to address the sessions in English. For most other discussions, Israeli consul generals and economic attaches from five U.S. cities, the ambassador to Canada and high officials from Jerusalem brainstormed in Hebrew on how to turn good advice into practice.

Holding the meeting on the West Coast, rather than in traditional New York or Washington, D.C., was a breakthrough for Ehud Danoch and Zvi Vapni, the No. 1 and No. 2 men at the consulate general in Los Angeles, who lobbied for the venue and organized the conference.

The choice of Los Angeles spoke to the large concentration of top American and Israeli entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley and the rest of California, as well as the growing orientation of the world economy toward the Asian continent, Vapni said.

That direction, fueled by the astonishing growth of technological brainpower in China, India and other Asian tigers, was driven home by Milken.

In barely 25 years, he predicted, Asia’s output will make up 58 percent of the world economy, followed by 25 percent for North America and 12.5 percent for Europe.

Israel is generally well-positioned for the “human capital” era, as shown by its present standing in the Middle East.

With only 0.6 percent of the region’s land area and 5 percent of its population, Israel today accounts for 24 percent of the economy of the region, Milken said.

Israel’s chief strength lies in the “creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and product development” in the high-tech and biotechnology sectors, said Dr. Glenn Yago, director of capital studies for the Milken Institute.

National healthcare, for which Israelis pay one-tenth of the cost in America while enjoying longer life expectancy, would be one area in which Israeli managers could well advise their overseas colleagues, said Milken.

At the same time, Israel’s economic expansion is hampered by some pronounced weaknesses.

“Israel doesn’t market itself and its products, or it does so badly,” the diplomats were told bluntly by Gold, CEO of Shamrock Holdings, the largest private fund investing in Israel.

Israeli businessmen also are not aggressive enough, Gold said, a charge rarely leveled at the Jewish state.

“You should only do business with foreign companies which, in turn, invest in the Israeli economy, otherwise you are fools,” he said. “Tell an American defense industry you will only buy if it invests in a $100 million portfolio on the Tel Aviv stock exchange. It’s how business is done.”

In addition, Gold said, Israel “does a poor job of using people like me to talk to American investors, You should put together a pool of people like me to talk about Israel to American business groups.”

Danoch, the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, acknowledged that while marketing, promotion and advertising were not Israel’s strongest suit, business and government were working together to remedy the shortcomings.

It is also his job “to show that there is much more to Israel than scary headlines, to point out the achievements of our industries, culture and universities,” Danoch added.

Yossi Gal, deputy director for economic affairs in Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, who served as de facto program chairman, stressed the need for “synchronizing our economic and diplomatic efforts, in the sense that economic issues must be an integral part of every diplomatic exchange.”

Indeed, the conference itself, bringing together representatives of the often competitive ministries of foreign affairs, finance and trade and industry, served as an example to the hoped-for synchronicity and synergy in Israel’s efforts abroad.

The fact that this meeting among diverse ministerial interests was conducted without any apparent bureaucratic infighting and one-upmanship, noted one observer, augurs well for the future.

 

Young Adults Heed the Leadership Call


 

Heather Greenberg has long known that she wanted to give back. Greenberg, 36, remembers well how Jewish charities helped her family as she grew up. There was the scholarship provided by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in North Hollywood when her parents, recent émigrés from Canada, lacked the money to pay tuition for her older brothers. Later, the family was able to afford such things as JCC after-school care, a father-and-daughter program and Jewish sleep-away camp.

Greenberg, a second-grade teacher at Playa del Rey Elementary School, never forgot how the JCC’s generosity had changed her family’s life. She promised herself that one day she’d do the same for others. As the new co-chair of the Young Leadership Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, that’s exactly what she’s doing.

The stylish, blue-eyed, blonde educator joined hundreds of young Jewish leaders at the Beverly Hilton March 18-20 for the United Jewish Communities Western Leadership Conference. The mission was to inspire the assembled to sally forth into their respective communities and spread the word about federations’ good deeds. Hailing from California, Nevada, Minnesota and nine other western states, the 260 Jews, aged 25 to 45, attended lectures on how to become better leaders, went to Shabbat services together and discussed what it means to be Jewish. They left behind children, spouses and a relaxing weekend at home to try to make a difference.

Despite the laughs shared among old friends, lingering eye contact among some of the singles and the generally upbeat ambiance, conference participants took their duties seriously. After all, these young Jews have assumed the responsibility of helping to raise money from and the consciousness of fellow young Jews to feed poor Jewish children, house indigent, elderly Jews, and help Jewish immigrants find jobs in their newly adopted country.

“I think it’s important for Jews to help other Jews,” said Greenberg, explaining one of the reasons behind her work on behalf of Jewish charities.

For Greenberg and other participants at the conference, the challenge of exciting young Jews about giving to Jewish causes has never been greater.

Assimilation, intermarriage and increased competition from secular charities have loosened the ties of young Jews to their heritage. With less than one in four members of the MTV generation belonging to a synagogue, communal bonds that once led their parents and grandparents to give to Jewish charities have weakened considerably. Unless the nation’s federations can find a way to tap into the legions of young Jews who stand to inherit billions over the next 20 years, experts said, Jewish charities could struggle greatly.

To prevent that, federations have added or tweaked programs to make them more appealing to a generation of Jews who favor a more hands-on approach to giving. In recent years, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles launched the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund, a self-funded group of young entrepreneurs and professionals who have raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews.

The local federation also eliminated a money-losing young leadership program and replaced it with the Young Leadership Division, which places less of an emphasis on partying and more “on combining the social experience with substance, with the educational, with the spiritual, with something a little bit more meaningful to engage the next generation,” said Deborah Dragon, L.A. Federation spokeswoman.

Elsewhere, about 40 federations have created affinity groups catering mostly to young, high-tech workers in recent years.

Conference co-chair Leslie Sidell of Colorado said that the enthusiasm generated by the three-day event would inspire the young Jewish leaders “to go back into their communities and get more involved in the federation — and bring their friends.”

Jim Felton, a 41-year-old attorney and former co-chair of the Valley’s young leadership division, said he came to the event already motivated. For more than a decade, he and his wife have given to the L.A. Federation with the hope of making the world a little better. Felton gives the local philanthropy $7,500 per year, which he calls a small price to help “repair the world” as mandated by Judaism.

Stacy Kaplan of Newport Beach said she has attended 11 young leadership conferences over the years but never tires of them. She said she came away from the Beverly Hilton feeling energized, especially after hearing “West Wing” actor Joshua Molina’s talk about how he’s challenging other celebrities to speak up on behalf of Israel.

Like Kaplan, Yael Irom said she left the conference energized. She said she honed her leadership skills. Irom also realized that she must better educate herself about the L.A. Federation’s many beneficiary agencies both here and in Israel to excel in her new position as the Young Leadership Division’s co-chair.

“Our generation has a responsibility to step up for our people’s history, our present and our future,” she said. “The world is changing, and we need to take care of each other. By doing so, we will strengthen our community.”

For more information on the Federation’s Young Leadership Division, visit www.jewishla.org/html/younglead.htm.

 

Letters to the Editor


 

Jewish-Black Ties

The outrageous assertion that blacks and Jews have “passed through a period of hostility and animosity” and come together for “issues ranging from civil rights legislation to Israel” is absurd (“Jewish-Black Ties Loosen Over Years,” Jan. 14).

If it takes “a common thread to revive the relationship,” such as working to defeat David Duke’s run for political office, why does nothing similar happen against the left? The so-called coalition did not denounce black congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for her anti-Israel, anti-Jewish beliefs. It does not distance itself from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for their questionable attitudes about Jews.

The coalition does not condemn the NAACP for its racially inflammatory statements and divisiveness. When former NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis was removed for theft, he blamed the Jews. Lee Alcorn, president of the Dallas NAACP, stated his concern with black-Jewish coalitions because of what he called Jews’ preoccupation with money.

The assertion that anti-Semitism is not as strong among blacks as among mutual enemies of blacks and Jews is wrong. A 1996 Gallup survey reported that blacks were more likely than whites to blame liberal Jews for what is wrong with America. The Anti- Defamation League’s own surveys reveal that blacks have higher rates of anti-Semitic beliefs than whites.

A United Nations conference on racism held in South Africa had anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. Hundreds of prominent American blacks, including Jackson, attended to show their support.

Superficial public relations events such as speaking at Black-Jewish forums do not indicate anything beyond political calculation. Jews would be far wiser to form coalitions with the political right, not the intolerant political left.

Caroline Miranda
North Hollywood

Shawn Green

When Shawn Green arrives for spring training with his new team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, he will be leaving a piece of himself behind while at the same time, he will be taking along large portions of our L.A. Jewish pride. Such is the dilemma that Peter Dreier’s (“Goodbye Shawn Green,” Jan. 21) 8-year-old twin daughters are faced with; who are they to root for now?

To date, there have been 161 men of Jewish heritage to have played major league baseball. The White Sox and the Tigers have listed 17 and 16 respectively, while the Dodgers and Giants have fielded 15 each (those damned Yankees have only had six).

So it looks as if we may have to wait for another Jewish Dodger. But we Jews are good at waiting. Green isn’t the Messiah, but it may take almost as long for the likes of another Shawn Green to wear Dodger Blue. In the meantime … go Diamondbacks!

Jonathan Blank
Calabasas Hills

Birthright Exploitation

I am no supporter of the extreme aspects of Israel Solidarity Movement’s (ISM) agenda, but I am appalled by Gaby Wenig’s implicit suggestion that Jewish love for Israel should come with a political litmus test (“Do ISM Activists Exploit Birthright?” Jan. 21). Perhaps Wenig does not know that there are many Israelis (Jews and non-Jews alike) who have concerns about “the occupation,” that “pro-Palestinian” is not a synonym for “anti-Israel” and that all of us who “love Israel,” as Wenig understands Birthright’s aim, whether we are on the left or the right, have a wide range of views on how Israel can live up to its full potential for social, economic and political justice.

Despite the fact the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) does not appear among the list of Birthright funders on birthrightisrael.com, Western region associate director Allyson Taylor suggests that Birthright alumni who engage in political activism with which she disagrees should have to repay the cost of their trip. Does Taylor also think Aish HaTorah should send a collection agency after every Discovery alumnus who steps foot in a Reform or Conservative synagogue? Should college kids who flirt with Buddhism or Hinduism repay their parents for their bar and bat mitzvah expenses? Perhaps all the ex-AJCongress members in Los Angeles should simply bill the national office for the return of their pre-1999 contributions.

Shawn Landres
Los Angeles

On behalf of 4,000 Birthright Israel alumni from greater Los Angeles, we are responding to the article (“Do ISM Activists Exploit Birthright?” Jan. 21).

It would be extremely unfortunate if your article left the impression with your readers that ISM activists taking advantage of free Birthright Israel trips is a significant problem. In fact, Birthright Israel staff has only been able to find evidence of six people out of more than 70,000 participants who have done so.

Birthright Israel, which provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26, is one of the most powerful and successful Jewish continuity programs ever devised. As program alumni ourselves, we can confirm the findings of a recent Brandeis University study, Bbirthright Israel participants have a stronger and more sustained connection to Israel and the Jewish people than do their peers.

Thanks to the foresight and funding of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, our groundbreaking birthright Israel alumni association provides local alumni with opportunities to connect with each other and with the L.A. Jewish community. Information is available at www.socal.birthrightisrael.com.

We know Birthright Israel and its alumni association has been instrumental in our connection to Israel and the Jewish community. We would hate for the success of this important organization to be tarnished by a story that creates a controversy where there really isn’t one.

Kimberly Gordon, Joshua Kessler, Abtin Missaghi, Ben Schwartzman,
Members of the Leadership Board
Birthright Israel Alumni Association

 

Community Briefs


UCLA Hosts Conference on ItalianJews

When Guido Fink was growing up in Ferrara in the late 1930s,the northern Italian city had 1,000 Jews and a German synagogue — where hisgrandfather served as cantor — an Italian one, a Spanish one and a fourth ownedby a private family.

After a pogrom in the city on Nov. 15, 1943, the young boyand his mother went into hiding on a farm and survived the Holocaust, whichclaimed his father and 14 other relatives.

Today, Fink represents the Italian government as director ofthe Italian Cultural Institute, located in Westwood, during a leave of absenceas professor of English and American literature at the University of Florence.The animated scholar accepted a four-year assignment at the institute,partially because he missed UCLA, where he had spent a year in the 1960s, andpartially because “I asked myself what it means to be Jewish.”

He frequently drops in at Valley Beth Shalom, welcomes manyJewish patrons at the institute’s varied cultural events, and hopes to co-sponsor a program with the Israeli consulate.

To his considerable amazement, his son, Enrico, afterteaching astrophysics at Cornell, gave it all up and became a professionalklezmer musician. Currently, he is featured on the Italian stage in “Fiddler onthe Roof,” in which the dialogue is in Italian and the songs in Yiddish.

As an Italian Jew, “I am not an outsider,” said Guido Fink,”but when I see an anti-war rally in Italy and notice signs equating Israeliswith Nazis, it makes the situation difficult.”

Currently, he is readying for a scholarly conference onApril 4, 6 and 7 on “Acculturation and Its Discontents: The Jews of Italy fromEarly Modern to Modern Times.” Sponsored by UCLA, Clark Library and the ItalianCultural Institute, speakers from Europe, Israel and North America will examinethe “complex process of Jewish interaction with non-Jewish Italians,” focusingon the 16th to 19th centuries.

Advance registration is required and closes March 28. Forinformation on registration, fees and location, call (310) 206-8552. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

CAMERA Puts Anti-Israel Bias inFocus

“National Public Radio [NPR] has an Israel problem,” saidAndrea Levin, executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle EastReporting (CAMERA), to a crowd of 100 people at Sinai Temple on Sunday, March23. “While the network continually emphasizes what a superior, enlightened anddistinctive news source it is, in fact NPR is one of the most unremittinglyskewed, shoddy, and unresponsive outlets we’ve ever encountered.”

NPR was only one of the media outlets under fire at CAMERA’sannual Los Angeles conference, where various journalists and media experts fromaround the country addressed concerns and provided guidance for combatinganti-Israel bias.

Throughout the conference, speakers offered explanations forthe prevalence of skewed reporting.

“In most cases it’s probably not anti-Semitism. In mostcases it’s probably a tendency of the press to root for the perceivedunderdog,” said Dr. Alex Safian, adding that ignorance, successful Palestinianpropaganda and a lack of vigilance by the Israeli government toward fightingmedia bias, are also factors.

Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, blamedphysical intimidation.

“Journalists don’t have to fear that the Israeli governmentis going to punish them or kill them if they don’t print exactly what theIsraelis want to hear,” Jacoby said. “But that wasn’t true for journalistscovering the PLO in the 1980s and it’s not true for journalists covering thePLO now.”

Levin gave examples of the current work that CAMERAvolunteers and staff are doing to combat the problem, including writing lettersand Op-Eds; speaking out on radio and giving feedback on television toproducers, hosts and reporters; suggesting story ideas; and encouragingbalanced reports and challenging false reports.

 We are positive because we see progress as a possibility ofmore progress,” Levin said. — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer

Conservative Rabbinical Assembly Comes toL.A.

More than 300 Conservative rabbis from around the world willgather at the Sheraton Universal hotel next week for the annual RabbinicAssembly (RA)convention to explore such issues as the war and how it affectsIsrael, the message of Conservative Judaism and how God fits into therabbinate.

“The day to day rabbinate can be pretty highly stressful,and you need a few days with colleagues to discuss ideas, to talk about whatworks in your place and doesn’t, find out what works for others and to learnfrom each other and get strength from each other,” said Rabbi Steven Tucker ofRamat Zion in Northridge, who is chairing the convention. “I think it makes usbetter rabbis and ultimately better Jews.”

Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am will receive an awardfrom Israel Bonds, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at the University of Judaism,will be honored by the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Masorti movement inIsrael for distinguished service.

While the schedule includes some study sessions on humansexuality, there are no major sessions where the question of homosexuality willbe examined, despite the fact that the movement is currently engaged in ahigh-profile discussion over whether to ordain gay rabbis or perform same-sexcommitment ceremonies.

Tucker said that RA executive vice president Rabbi JoelMeyers believed that the question should remain within the private andscholarly realm of the law committee, where it is currently on the agenda andis expected to be resolved next year.

“We are not putting our heads in the sand. We know it’s abig issue and a hot-button issue,” Tucker said. “Our leadership has decidedthere is nothing effective we can do with it at the convention, so we’releaving it for the law committee to handle.”

Sessions and plenaries are open to registered rabbis only. Afair featuring Israeli vendors and publishers is open to the public, Wednesdayfrom 2-10 p.m. at the Universal Sheraton, 333 Universal Terrace, UniversalCity. For more information, call Shira Dicker at 917-403-3989. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor