Sholem Aleichem, Gogol Show Two Views of Shtetl Jews


Russians, Jews and literature scholars get excited about jubilee years, and for those who fit any of these categories, 2009 is a big year. One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a writer who would immortalize the Russian Jew in literature, Solomon Rabinovich (1859-1916) — better known by his literary persona, Sholem Aleichem — was born in the town of Pereyaslav, near Kyiv. This spring also marks the 200th birthday of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), who was born about 100 miles to the east of Kyiv, in the town of Sorochintsy. Gogol, too, helped to immortalize the Russian Jew in literature, but in a more problematic way: the Jews who crop up around the margins of his stories, most of them crafty market vendors, money-lenders and tavern keepers, are anti-Semitic stereotypes, an unsettling detail in the work of one of the greatest comic writers of modern literature.

Literary history rarely moves in a straight line. Gogol and Sholem Aleichem may have written in different languages and represented different cultures, but their lives, remembered together, offer a vivid picture of the interplay of Russian and Jewish cultural history, and their stories, read side by side, appear as if in conversation. Both writers were obsessed with the dangers of commerce and capital, a theme that renders them all the more current in 2009. Both hail from what is now Ukraine, and each came to be viewed as a literary ambassador from an ethnic group within Russian culture. Gogol knew Russian and Ukrainian, attended a Russian school, moved to Petersburg to become a writer and spent years traveling in Western Europe. Sholem Aleichem attended both a Jewish cheder and a Russian secondary school, a marker of assimilation in a Jewish family. He began writing in Russian and Hebrew, but found success in Yiddish. Like Gogol’s tales of Ukraine, which sounded quaint to the Russian elite, Sholem Aleichem exported tales of the Jewish Pale of Settlement to cosmopolitan readers via publications in Warsaw and Petersburg, and visits to the United States.

Best known in the United States for his Tevye character, who became a symbol of the Jewish departure from Eastern Europe thanks to the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Sholem Aleichem was canonized in the Soviet Union as the representative Yiddish writer, and an abridged six-volume Soviet edition of his works, in Russian translation, was as expected a collection in any Soviet Jewish household (and in many non-Jewish households) as the collected works of Lenin or Tolstoy.

Gogol, now best known for his later works, like “Dead Souls,” “The Overcoat” and “The Inspector General,” first became famous for his tales of provincial Ukraine, which he peopled with an amalgam of Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles and Gypsies. In his first successful story, “The Sorochintsy Fair” (1830), we marvel at how “a gypsy and peasant smacked hands then squealed from pain; how a drunken Jew slapped a woman on the backside; how vendors who had been arguing hurled profanities … and crayfish; how a Russian stroked his goatish beard with one hand, while with his other … “ In this story, a Jew buys and sells a demon’s coat, infecting an entire fair with evil. Gogol’s Jewish characters increase the sensation of a tale told from the margins of the Czarist Empire and often provide a moral lesson about overzealous trade.

Jewish stock characters later appear in Gogol’s epic novel, “Taras Bulba” (1835 and 1842), based loosely on Bohdan Chmielnicki’s Cossack uprising against Polish Magnates in 1648, an event in which thousands of Jews were killed. “‘Hang all the Jews!’ rang out from the crowd, ‘don’t let their Jewesses sew skirts out of our priests’ garments!’” In this story, a Jew, Yankel, escapes a pogrom in his shtetl but eagerly betrays his community by offering products and services to the Cossack warriors for the right price. “Taras saw that his protégé Yankel had already managed to erect a stall with an awning for himself and was selling flints, handfuls of gunpowder in paper cones, and other military items — even bread rolls and dumplings.”

Little surprise, given the stereotypes sprinkled throughout his work, that Gogol has been dismissed by Jewish readers, from the Russian historian Dubnow to the Soviet critic Mashinsky, as one of Russia’s many literary anti-Semites. But Sholem Aleichem chose to model much of his writing, and even his appearance, on Gogol. Ruth Wisse, in “The Modern Jewish Canon” (University of Chicago Press, 2003), has called Sholem Aleichem “the Jewish Gogol.” David Roskies, in “A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling” (Harvard University Press, 1995), reminds us, “Rabinovich kept a box marked ‘Gogol’ on his desk for work in progress, often quoted Gogol in private correspondence, and even wore his hair as Gogol did.” Had the two writers, with their dandyish bobs and whiskers, lived at the same time, they might have been mistaken for one another.

What Sholem Aleichem was borrowing from Gogol was a rural East European landscape that may have been dangerous, but could unite readers through the power of collective memory. He also learned from Gogol to soften this danger through laughter, and he often rewrites Gogol’s Jewish characters, correcting anti-Semitic stereotypes and narrating history from a Jewish perspective. Gogol’s heavily caricatured Jew tends to profit against all odds at Ukrainians’ expense, but Sholem Aleichem’s characters (like the author, who lost his inheritance in the Kiev Stock Exchange in 1890) are usually failures at trade, and their living conditions are squalid.

Sholem Aleichem devotes numerous stories and two full volumes to “Kasrilevka,” a fictional shtetl based, in part, on his childhood village, Voronka. The first, “Old-New Kasrilevka,” is a parodic Baedeker: “They turn out ‘A Guide to Moscow,’ ‘A Guide to Berlin,’ ‘A Guide to Paris,’ so why shouldn’t we have ‘A Guide to Kasrilevka?’ The guidebook includes seven sections, decreasing in appeal: “Transportation,” “Hotels,” “Restaurants,” “Liquor,” “Theater,” “Fires,” and “Bandits.” Eastern Europe was increasingly threatening to Jews, and Sholem Aleichem subtly expresses this by depicting the most despicable elements of the shtetl. Sholem Aleichem’s popular Menachem-Mendl stories (written between 1896-1913) find the title character traveling the world inventing get-rich-quick schemes. His adventures begin when he is given, in place of a promised dowry, a small sum of cash, two promissory notes and an illegitimate “draft” on bad credit (to be redeemed in Odessa). Menachem-Mendl’s wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl, remains at home in Kasrilevka, alternately scolding her husband for his bad investments and sending him money when his ventures fail. Gogolian characters occasionally appear in her shtetl. In one letter, she writes that a government inspector has arrived in town to ascertain what has become of certain sums of money meant for charity, an echo of Gogol’s “Inspector General,” whose anticipated arrival shakes a town to its core, unearthing the illegitimate finances of its provincial elite.

Sholem Aleichem’s 1900 “The Haunted Tailor” begins with a mock-biblical description of a community’s poverty:

And it came to pass that Tsippa-Beyla-Rayza was returning one summer day with her basket from the market, she threw down her bundle of garlic with a little parsley and potatoes that she had bought, and cried angrily, “This can all go to hell! Enough of thinking up what to cook for dinner. You have to have the head of a prime minister! Dumplings with beans and again dumplings with beans. May God not punish me for these words! But even Nekhame-Bruchkhe, who is destitute, miserable, a charity case, she has a goat!

For all their apparent misery, Sholem Aleichem’s hapless characters inspire the Yiddish reader to imagine a world that is not limited to the confines of the shtetl. This incitement to imagination looks something like the conversation, in Sholem Aleichem’s 1902 story set in Kasrilevka, “Seventy-Five Thousand,” between Yankev-Yosl and his wife, Ziporah, when the former has (erroneously) decided he has won a jackpot of 75,000 rubles:

“How much have we won?” she says, gazing right into my eyes, as if saying: “Aha! You’re lying, but you’re not gonna get away with it!”

“Gimme a for instance — how much do you figure we’ve won?”

“I have no idea,” she says. “Maybe a few hundred rubles?”

“Why not,” I say, “a few thousand rubles?”

“What do you mean by a few thousand?” she says. “Five? Six? Maybe as much as seven?”

“You can’t,” I say, “imagine more?”

(Translation by J. Neugroschel in “No Star Too Beautiful: A Treasury of Jewish Stories,” W. W. Norton & Company, 2004).

Sholem Aleichem wants his readers to imagine more, even if the ticket to get there proves to be one number off. His fiction, borrowed in part from Jewish literary sources and in part from Russian writers like Gogol, was, in its own way, revolutionary.

On May 15, 1916, when Sholem Aleichem was buried in the Mount Neboh Cemetery in Cypress Hills, Queens, his headstone was inscribed with his original epitaph, which ends with the following lines:

“And just as the public was

Laughing, chortling, and making merry

He suffered — this only God knows —

In secret, so that no one should see.

(Un davke demolt ven der oylem hot

gelakht, geklatsht, un fleg zikh freyen,

hot er gekrenkt — dos veys nor got —

besod, az keyner zol nit zeyen.)

The epitaph echoes Gogol’s famous “laughter through tears” passage from “Dead Souls,” which Sholem Aleichem used to keep, in a Yiddish translation, on his desk:

And for a long time still I am destined by a wondrous power to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, to view the whole of hugely rushing life, to view it through laughter visible to the world and tears invisible and unknown to it! (translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Everyman’s Library, 2004).

As a writer, Gogol struggled with his simultaneous terror of a changing world and desire to entertain his readers through comedy. According to Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997: what did I tell you about 2009?), Gogol’s world vision was as single-minded as Tolstoy’s was. Sholem Aleichem was not nearly so single-minded. Rather than worrying about the dangers of foreign influence on the Russian Empire, he worried about the dangers in Russia for Jews, its perennial foreigners. But he did share Gogol’s struggle between tradition and creativity. The fine line separating Yiddish literature as a means of inciting social change, and social change as a force destroying Yiddish, gave Sholem Aleichem the fear of loss that he would take with him, quite literally, to the grave.

Sholem Aleichem enclosed his epitaph in his Last Will and Testament, written a few months before his death. In the first of 10 points outlined in his will, the Yiddish writer specified that:

Wherever I die, I wish to be buried not among aristocrats, big shots, or wealthy people, but precisely among ordinary folk, workers, the real Jewish people, so that the gravestone which will be placed on my grave will beautify the simple graves around me, and the simple graves will beautify my grave, just as the simple, honest folk during my life beautified their folk-writer. (Translation by Zuckerman and Herbst in “Three Great Classic Writers of Modern Jewish Literature, V. II,” Joseph Simon Pangloss Press, 1994.)

With this final wish, Sholem Aleichem promises to remain near those readers whose spirit he sought to evoke through the shtetls of his fiction, and, of course, in a more subtle way, he also remains with the memory of Nikolai Gogol.

 

Amelia Glaser is assistant professor of Russian and comparative literature at UC San Diego. She is currently completing a book about rural commerce in Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish literature. She also translates poetry and prose from Russian and Yiddish; her translations include an anthology of Yiddish poetry, “Proletpen: America’s Rebel Yiddish Poets” (U. Wisconsin Press, 2005).

 

Elegy for a Dream


I came to America 30 years ago last month. I arrived in Los Angeles the night Elvis died. I was 16 years old, fresh out of a Swiss boarding school, about to
start my first year of college.

This was two years before the Islamic Revolution, yet I had left Iran willingly and without regret, certain that I would never go back except to visit. I did love the country, and most of its people. To this day, I think it’s the most beautiful place I have seen, and that its people, by and large, are among the smartest, most hospitable, most capable in the world.

But even in 1977, when the Shah was still firmly in power and his kingdom was, in the fateful words of President Carter, “an island of stability,” Iran was a place of great injustice and vast intolerance — a land of the mighty where the rich, the well-connected wielded nearly absolute power over the weak. And though I came from a well-to-do family, at a time when the Jews had thrived and prospered thanks to the Shah, I was acutely aware of the small and large cruelties — the devastating limitations imposed on the poor, the meek and women by religion and geography and thousand-year-old traditions.

The first two years in Los Angeles were a time of great loneliness for me: I had lost touch with my Iranian friends when I left for boarding school, and I lost my boarding school friends when I left for America. Back then, most Americans had not heard of Iran and couldn’t imagine what kind of place it was. When I told them it’s somewhere in the Middle East, near some Arab countries, and that we had oil, they asked, without malice or sarcasm, if I could belly-dance and if we had paved roads and cars or if we rode camels to work and school. When I told them that Iranians are not Arabs, that Iran is the old Persia, they looked at me suspiciously and asked why, then, had I claimed I was Iranian, and not Persian.

Still, there was something about being cut loose from the past, existing in a vacuum of tradition and identity so dissimilar to the rigid structure that would have stifled me in Iran, having possibilities I wouldn’t have dared contemplate as a woman or a Jew back there, that gave me a sense of exhilaration and optimism.

When the Shah fell in early ’79, and tens of thousands of other Iranians began to settle in Los Angeles, I thought I had been granted two blessings at once: I could live in the proximity of my Iranian family and friends, without having to submit to the inequities of Iranian society. I found it strange that other Iranian Jews, even women my age, lamented the fall of the Shah and their own subsequent exile with such great passion, that they spent months, even years, glued to American television and Farsi language radio, waiting for news of the coup they were sure the Shah, and later his son, would stage. I could understand the sense of loss and disorientation, the nostalgia for home and country that many of my fellow Iranian Jews suffered from in those days, but I didn’t see how any of us would want to return to the place we had been, in my mind at least, liberated from. How we could, in good conscience, pray to return to life in a dictatorship when we could live in a democratic country; how we could wish to be ruled by one man’s whims and wishes when we could opt for a set of laws that transcended the individual?

Once the Shah died and his crown prince assumed the role of “monarch in exile,” I watched with wonder as Iranians rallied around him in hopes that he would unseat the mullahs and bring them all back home. I had seen him — Crown Prince Reza — when I was a child in Iran. He was about my age. In official photographs and on the television news, he looked lost in his surroundings, uncomfortable in the French suits and military uniforms he was made to wear, uneasy before the grown men who bowed before him and kissed his hand, the jewel-clad women who were moved to tears by the honor of having permission to curtsy before him.

Three decades later, in the gatherings hosted by Iranian immigrants in Los Angeles, he was tall, graying, and still, to my mind, a bit lost. He spoke about his imminent return to Iran, how he was going to save the country and its people, rule as a constitutional monarch. To me, he sounded tentative — as if he were playing a role he had assumed for lack of another option, chasing a destiny that, try as he might, he knew he wasn’t going to catch. But all around me people sat glued to his words, praising his speeches, rushing to applaud.

I could understand the adoration most Jews had for him and his father: The Shah had been good to us. He had given us freedom and opportunity and a sense of safety we hadn’t known for more than 1,000 years of living in Shiite Iran. But he had also ruled as a tyrant who claimed he was God’s personal envoy on Earth, who insisted that his portrait be displayed in every house and business establishment in the country, that his anthem — not the national anthem, but the one created to worship him — be played in every movie theater before every showing of every film. That schoolchildren everywhere in the country begin their day with a prayer for his health and well-being. His appetite for power was endless; the consequences for disobeying were unthinkable. Is this, I wondered, what people were wishing to return to?

On Aug. 24, I was clearing out my junk e-mail when I came upon an e-mail sent by one of the many Iranian-American groups active on the Web. Perhaps because it was the anniversary of my arrival in the United States, because I was already amazed and stunned at the speed with which time had passed, I opened the e-mail. It was a grainy, black-and-white, home video shot by an unsteady hand and posted on You Tube. It showed images of Tehran on the morning of the Shah’s official coronation: Empty, barricaded streets; the Shah and his family inside a palace, walking down a velvet rug, up to a bejeweled throne where he placed a crown on his queen’s head, and another on his own. Afterward, thousands of people lined up behind barricades on the sides of the streets, an endless police motorcade, two carriages — one for the Shah and his queen, the other for the crown prince — pulled by white horses. It was an unreal sight — the young prince, so small that his feet, I imagined, didn’t reach the floor of the carriage, sitting behind the window with the solid gold frame, waving his little hand at his father’s subjects, traversing a street, a city, a country that, he has been told all his life, will one day be his.

Gangs of N.Y. — and L.A.


The gang violence that has recently wracked parts of Los Angeles compels me to ask this question: Where are all the Jewish gangs?

I’m not being cute.

There was a time in history when America’s worst gangs were Jewish. From 1880 through the dawn of Prohibition, New York’s Lower East Side was synonymous with thugs, thieves, gambling and prostitution. That part of our collective memory we’ve understandably underemphasized: Just what did Tevye the Milkman’s daughters have to do to survive in the Golden Land?

“Along with upright unionists like David Dubinsky and his ILGWU [International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union], there were shlammers [goons], like Gyp “The Blood” Horowitz, Kid Twist and “Dopey” Benny Fine, armed with lead pipes, chains, knucks and guns, who constituted the vast and bloody mercenary army of the labor wars,” Mike Bookman, the author of a 2000 novel of the period, “God’s Rat,” told me.

Indeed, as Albert Fried documents in “The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America” (Columbia, 1993), the Lower East Side of Yiddish theater, warm bialys, firebrand politics and hard-working immigrants was also rife with pimps, addicts and thugs — all Jewish.

The “demonically cruel” Dutch Schultz? His mother knew him as Arthur Flegenheimer.

And it wasn’t just New York. Jewish gangs were the terror of turn-of-the-century Cleveland, Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit, where Hastings Street, wrote Fried, “spawned a farrago of teenage Jewish street gangs.” The cops called it “Little Jerusalem.”

These days, to point out the obvious, Jewish gangs are not such a problem. Sure there’s an Israeli Ecstasy ring here and a Russian prostitution ring there, but you can walk the mean streets of Brentwood, Sherman Oaks or Pico-Robertson and not have to worry about crossing paths with some turf-protecting boychiks sporting blue-and-white do-rags and Hebrew bling.

Jewish kids who want to go gangsta have only one outlet: rap parodies on YouTube.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with other boys their age. Over the past month, gang violence between Latinos and blacks in the Harbor Gateway area resulted in the murder of 14-year-old Cheryl Green. Last Saturday, Latino gang members shot a 34-year-old black man in front of his daughters as he waited for them to meet a friend for a birthday sleepover.

“This is part of a tit-for-tat killing spree that has been going on for a decade,” said Joe Hicks, who, when he was executive director of the City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, spent a good part of his time in Harbor Gateway. “But something has definitely shifted into another gear that has gotten people pretty alarmed.”

Across the city, some 269 lives were cut short by gang-related violence in 2006.

The Green murder prompted an outpouring of community grief and outrage and a good amount of political posturing. It also focused attention on a report, prepared by Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice, that calls for a $1 billion “Marshall Plan” to improve the lives of kids vulnerable to gangs.

A billion may not seem like a lot — in Iraq, we’ve spent $323 billion and only succeeded in starting gang wars — but many observers want to, wisely, take a step back before rushing in with the checks.

“Harbor Gateway is a 2-mile area as desolate as you can find,” said Hicks, who is now co-director of Community Advocates. “You do need to bring additional services to the community. But if you build a basketball court or a Boys & Girls Club, the gang would immediately claim that. It would decide who’s able to play checkers or shoot hoops.”

Hicks’ experience, backed up by police, is that there are a limited number of really bad apples in any gang. When these “shot callers” were arrested and locked up in the mid-1990s, the situation improved, Hicks said.

“First, law enforcement has to get tough,” he said. “Lock up people for doing bad stuff. Second, convert peripheral gang members. Third, work on the younger generation with community development and activities.”

This struck me as sensible and straightforward, with this caveat: It’s not just gang culture that’s sick, it’s our culture.

When the L.A. Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez spent time with members of the 204th Street Gang, he found older men with steady jobs who commuted to gang bang.

“If it was about race, why are they killing each other?” he asked me. “Their primary identity is not their ethnicity, it is ‘us against the outsiders.’ It’s all about posturing and pride.” And their music and entertainment reaffirms their choice. “Mainstream culture glorifies criminality,” Rodriguez said.

Any solution or set of solutions is bound to fail if we as a society don’t consistently send a very simple message: gang behavior is bad.The era of Jewish gangs faded as most of the original gangsters aged and a new generation of Jewish youth found better outlets for their testosterone.

One crucial brake on their behavior? According to Fried, it was good old-fashioned shame. In 1912, as violence among Jewish gangs reached its peak, the Jewish community reacted with almost unanimous disgust.

“The Jewish community turned in on itself, confronting itself as never before,” Fried writes. He quotes the editor of a Yiddish newspaper, expressing the common outrage of the day: “The divine word, ‘I choose you among the people of the earth,’ ends up this way.”

Jewish gangsters who sought to elevate themselves by accruing wealth and inspiring fear found themselves objects of communal derision and disgust. Compare that reaction with today’s popular entertainment that too often idealizes and romanticizes gangsters.

“We have to find ways to erode the culture at root of urban America, the gangster hip-hop ethos,” Hicks said.

How to pay for Hicks’ beefed-up police and Rice’s “Marshall Plan”?What about a sin tax on black and Latino artists who partake in that glorification, and Jewish and non-Jewish agents, marketers, record labels and corporations who profit from their artistry?

OK, maybe a tax isn’t realistic. Then again, shame doesn’t seem to be working either.

With Friends Like These…


I didn’t show up to see Jimmy Carter sign any of his other 20 books, but I have a feeling none of those signings drew quite the crowd of the one Monday night in Pasadena.

At the other appearances, I bet there weren’t angry protestors from the Jewish Defense League waving signs saying: “WORST PRESIDENT EVER!” and counterdemonstrators — mostly from a group called “LA Jews for Peace” marching under signs saying “PEACE NOT APARTHEID!”

At the other signings, I bet a security guard didn’t have to ask three attractive dark-haired young women holding an Israeli flag to step back from the entrance to Vroman’s Bookstore, where the 39th president was inside signing books. I asked one of them what organization they represented.

“We’re our own group,” she said. “Call us Shirlee, Aviva and Michele United.”

Carter was scheduled to start signing copies of “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” (Simon and Schuster 2006) at 7 p.m. By 1 pm the store had sold every book and had passed out all 1,800 tickets. Ticketholders stomped their feet in the chilly night in a line that ran down Colorado, around the block and back up.

“It’s a big one,” said a cashier. “But we had more for Howard Stern.”

Sure, a lot of the people showed up for the celebrity factor — parents taking their young children to see a real president; many people holding any of the Carter oeuvre just to score an autograph, a “good Christmas gift,” said one elderly lady.

But the television news trucks, the young woman in kaffiyehs passing out flyers demanding a “Just Peace in Palestine,” the heated arguments by the magazine racks over who started the Six-Day War — the general circus-like atmosphere was solely due to the partisan passions the book has stirred.

“He’s right on the money,” said Bob, a middle-aged studio musician in a coat and tie waiting in line. “I think he’s being kind in calling it ‘apartheid’ and not ‘genocide.'”

I have a feeling the protestors — pro and con and just plain strange — will be following Carter for as long as the 82-year-old former president is out flacking “Palestine: Peace or Apartheid.”

Write a factually sloppy, unfairly partisan polemic about a complex and sensitive issue and you get just what you’d expect: controversy at every whistle stop, major face time with Larry King and a book that shoots up the best-seller list. By Tuesday there wasn’t a copy to be had at a single L.A. bookstore. It’s like “A Million Little Pieces” for the foreign policy set.

I read the book and found it remarkably shallow. Carter’s bottom line: Israel is to blame. America, urged on by the “Jewish lobby,” is the co-conspirator.

By now numerous intelligent, detailed critiques of the book are available — The Journal printed Alan Dershowitz’s dissection several weeks ago — and former friends and allies of Carter have distanced themselves from this book.

Professor Kenneth Stein resigned his post from the Carter Center last week. The book, he wrote, “is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments.”

On Monday, I phoned Los Angeles attorney Ed Sanders to get his reaction.

When Carter was President, Sanders was his liaison to the Jewish community. He flew seven missions to the Middle East. Sanders was with Carter at Camp David and was an official witness to the Camp David Accords.

“I bet I know what you’re calling about,” Sanders said.

He said he hadn’t read the book — he still can’t find a copy to buy — but he read an op-ed Carter published in The Los Angeles Times summarizing his arguments and has followed the controversy closely. And his reaction?

“I’m shocked and dismayed,” he said. “It’s unacceptable.”

Sanders can’t understand why Carter couldn’t at the very least present the Israeli argument for the barrier it has erected between the country proper and the Palestinian territories. “The wall is being erected because Israeli citizens were being murdered,” Sanders said.

He is flabbergasted that Carter could present the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as little more than a kindly old man, when it was Arafat’s duplicitous, kleptocratic rule that helped derail peace efforts and destabilize Palestinian society.

“Arafat couldn’t make a deal if his life depended on it,” Sanders said.

Sanders was the national president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee when he resigned to serve the president. Doesn’t that prove Carter’s point on the influence of the pro-Israel lobby or, as Carter now repeatedly refers to it, “the Jewish lobby?”

Sanders doesn’t see it that way: “There was never any restraint on a discussion of the facts.”

That discussion led to the Camp David Accords, an outstanding legacy of peace. But Carter evidently sees no difference between the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who came to Jerusalem to make peace in full recognition of Israel, and the leaders of Hamas who have at most offered Israel a cease-fire on the way to Armegeddon. Between Hamas and Egypt, Sanders said, “there is a difference.”

Dismay and disappointment are Sander’s gentlemanly, judicious way of saying the book is a huge missed opportunity. What’s so disappointing to me is that by the last thin chapter, Carter finally proposes the best possible course for Israel: a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s security and allows the Palestinian a viable state.

But one-sided diatribes don’t engender the kind of debate that can help bring that solution closer. Israel is far from perfect, and its policies in the West Bank and Gaza have, as the conservative Ha’aretz columnist Shmuel Rosner pointed out, amounted to apartheid. But Israel’s enemies are far from blameless in this tragic history, and in his book, Carter all but sanctifies their heinous methods and awful aims. A fair deal can’t begin from a false premise.

“This book,” Sanders said, “doesn’t help.”

KCRW’s annual Chanukah show lets the light go out


Ruth Seymour, general manager since 1978 of KCRW-FM 89.9, is best known to many listeners for her annual Chanukah program, “Philosophers, Fiddlers & Fools,” which will have its final airing on Dec. 15. But Seymour is not stepping down.

“I’m not retiring,” she says over the phone in her classic New York accent. “I’m retiring the show.”

The Chanukah show has been a staple in Los Angeles, which, before its first airing in 1978, had been missing this classic blend of Yiddishkeit: folk music, readings of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories, memorials to Holocaust victims, Second Avenue “hit parade” songs.

Much has been made of the humble beginnings of KCRW, a station created after World War II to train veterans for careers in radio, which as late as 1978 was located in a middle school in Santa Monica and famously had the oldest transmitter in the West. Seymour has transformed the station into an institution by creating erudite programs like “Bookworm,” an essential half-hour for any literary Los Angeleno; issues-oriented shows like “Which Way, L.A.?” and political debates, such as “Left, Right & Center.”

Her emphasis on literature and politics is fitting, since Seymour grew up in a home of left-wing Jewish intellectuals in the Bronx. She relates a story in which her mother, upon seeing her tending to the plants outside, asked, “Why are you gardening? You could be reading ‘War & Peace.'”

By now, “Philosophers” fans know the story of how Seymour’s college professor, Max Weinreich, told her that “Yiddish is magic. It will outlive history.”

What many may not know is that some years ago, she received a letter in her mailbox with those words written on the outside of the envelope as a teaser. She opened it and found it was from YIVO, the Yiddish institute that focuses on the study of Jewish culture and literature. Apparently, one of YIVO’s employees had lived in Los Angeles and heard Seymour tell the Weinreich story on the air.

Seymour has always contended that the show should be “ephemeral,” out of deference to the Holocaust victims.

“There wasn’t any way to bring them back,” she says, which is why she has never recorded any of her Chanukah programs.

She has often cited the words of Andre Schwarz-Bart, French author of “The Last of the Just,” who wrote that the Holocaust victims disappeared “like the smoke from the chimneys of Auschwitz.”

Although Holocaust survivors have always wanted to preserve the apparatus of and artwork related to the Holocaust, so as to document the severity of the genocide, Seymour sees radio as being inherently “transitory.”

“There just comes a moment in your life when it’s over. The sources dry up. Do I want to psychoanalyze it?” she asked, “No.”

She adds, “It had a prolonged life, a life of its own.” She said she is astonished that it “touched so many people.”

One person who touched her was Schwarz-Bart, who recently died at 78. He spent time in the concentration camps during the war and wrote “The Last of the Just,” which won France’s highest literary honor, the Prix Goncourt, in the late 1950s.

He “literally seems to have survived to write it,” she says, pointing out that he began writing right after the war, when he was in his twenties, and spent
years working on it in a Paris library, since his home did not have heat.

Not surprisingly, Seymour, who has always paid homage to Schwarz-Bart on her Chanukah show, will do so again in her final segment.

Another author whom she intends to acknowledge in her last show is the late Singer, the only Nobel Prize laureate who wrote primarily in Yiddish. She met Singer many times when she was living in New York.

Seymour’s then-husband, poet Jack Hirschman, who wooed her with a letter from Ernest Hemingway, introduced her to Singer. They would get together in a vegetarian restaurant and discuss astronomy and the kabbalah with Singer and his latest girlfriend, never his wife. Singer fancied concentration camp survivors for dates; interestingly, Seymour says that these young women had “dreams [that] would always be amazingly similar to his stories.”

Seymour says she was never a devotee of radio when she was young, even though she is a contemporary of Woody Allen and was raised in the “Radio Days” era of the late 1930s and 1940s. “I landed totally by accident.”

The accident occurred in 1961, when Hirschman was teaching at UCLA, and KPFK-FM 90.7 came calling, asking for tapes of his work. Seymour provided the Pacifica radio station with the tapes and shortly thereafter, was offered the job of heading up the station’s drama department.

More than a decade later, she joined KCRW.

Although she will stop broadcasting her marquee program, she says she will continue to host programs like “Politics of Culture,” and we will still hear her over the air during fundraising drives. As for “Philosophers,” she says, “It was never something that was conceived to go on for 28 years.”

“Philosophers, Fiddlers & Fools” will air for the final time on Friday, Dec. 15, from noon to 3 p.m. on KCRW, 89.9 FM.

Maestro’s mission is to restore banned composers’ music


After conducting a performance in Germany of the Cologne Opera in 1993, James Conlon turned on his car radio and was riveted by a symphonic poem awash in wave-like melodies. He was so mesmerized that he sat in his car with the motor running, long after he arrived home, to hear the announcer reveal the name of the lush work and its composer.

He learned that the piece was “Die Seejungfrau” (“The Mermaid”), and that the Austrian-Jewish composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky, had been a major figure in pre-World War II Europe. But then the Nazis banned his music, and Zemlinsky was forced to flee to the United States, where he fell into obscurity, suffered a series of strokes and ceased composing.

The story proved ear-opening for Conlon, the new music director of Los Angeles Opera.”I became passionate about this subject [of composers persecuted by Hitler],” he says in an interview in his second-floor office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “In the course of learning and studying about Zemlinsky, I became familiar with other names … and realized that there is a whole era of music about which we know very little.”

Conlon became a maestro with a mission: to help revive the music of composers banned (and often murdered) by the Nazis.

His crusade will continue with a new production of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht opera, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” Feb. 10-March 4 for the Los Angeles Opera. Also in March, Conlon will unveil a new L.A. Opera project, “Recovered Voices,” with two concerts of music by Zemlinsky and other banned composers.

One of them, Erwin Schulhoff, died of tuberculosis in the Wulzburg concentration camp, and Viktor Ullman wrote his last, defiant opera in Theriesienstadt — the “model” camp the Nazis created to deceive the International Red Cross — before being sent off to be gassed.

Weill was luckier, escaping Berlin by car just after the Nazis assumed power in 1933. The musician topped Hitler’s musical hit list because he was a popular Jewish composer and because his operas incorporated agitprop with the “entartete [degenerate] Musik” of jazz.

Nazi thugs disturbed performances of his “The Threepenny Opera,” also with text by dramatist Brecht. In 1930, Brown Shirts staged a riot during the premiere of “Mahagonny,” causing fistfights in the aisles that spread to the stage.

“Mahagonny” is sardonic opera, a parable of Weimar Germany on the brink of Nazi rule. It follows three fugitives who establish a town where everything is legal, so long as it can be paid for. This morally bankrupt city soon attracts a community of lowlifes, criminals, prostitutes and the occasional hapless proletarian.

Weill’s jazz-meets-neoclassical score punctuates scenes in which residents revel in an orgy; a glutton stuffs himself, then drops dead from a heart attack, and a lumberjack is executed for the town’s only crime — running out of cash.

Although “Threepenny” (and Weill) eventually became hits on Broadway, “Mahagonny” didn’t fare so well. This “towering masterpiece hasn’t entered the standard repertoire,” the Dallas Morning News noted in 2000 in a discussion at the time of Weill’s centenary celebration.

Conlon hopes to increase the profile of this social and political satire, which he believes resonates today.

“We see humanity in all its foibles,” he said of the opera which will be performed in an English translation of the German. “We see the rise and fall of a civilization in this tiny microcosm of a small town.”

At press time, Conlon had agreed to set his “Mahagonny” in another Sin City — Las Vegas — during a period that spans the entire 20th century. With opera officials, he cast Audra McDonald as Jenny, the prostitute; Patti LuPone as Mrs. Begbick, the madam; and hired as director John Doyle, winner of the 2006 Tony Award for his revival of the musical, “Sweeney Todd.” Conlon sees “Mahagonny” as a cross between opera and musical theater.

“In that cabaret style, there lies its genius,” he says.

Although “Recovered Voices” is part of a musical trend — a cause taken up by institutions such as the Jewish Museum of Vienna — Conlon is perhaps the most prominent artist to champion the repertoire.

“He is giving it a great profile,” says Bret Werb, a musicologist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Among the American conductors, he is really doing things,” says E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of banned composer Arnold Schoenberg. “He really wants to devote a big part of his time here in Los Angeles to this music.”

Conlon — named a top U.S. conductor by Opera News — says his motivations are multifold.

“The moral imperative is very simple,” he begins. “You cannot undo the injustice of these ruined lives, but you can undo the one thing that would have meant more to them than anything else, which is to play their music.”

His project isn’t meant to be just a memorial, however. “This music has to be of artistic importance, so I’m not remembering every person who ever put a pen to paper,” he says.

“Next there is the historical perspective. Because of the Nazi suppression, people fell off the map…. So we have written out history and made analyses of history from a musicological standpoint which is incomplete.”

So why was this music ultimately forgotten?

“After the war, you had a population that had been thinned out of its greatest talent,” Conlon says. “You do not have persons who have direct contact with that music or those composers, and you do not have people who had any particular sympathy for many of these victims.

“Arnold Schoenberg was one of the greatest geniuses who was lucky enough to have survived and come to America, where he had a forum for his ideas,” Conlon continues.Schoenberg’s atonal serial music took the classical world by storm.

“Composers whose music did not completely fall into that category got lost,” he said. “Then, with electronic music in the picture, there was no interest in those composers who had gotten lost in the shuffle in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.”

Arts in LA


DECEMBER

Sat., Dec. 9

“Jamaica, Farewell.” Jamaica Cultural Alliance benefit performance of the one-woman show, written and performed by Debra Ehrhardt, about her bold escape from revolution-torn Jamaica in the early 1980s. Post-performance reception with Jamaican specialties and an exhibit of Jamaican artist Bernard Hoyes’ work. 7:30 p.m. $35. The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. (323) 692-0423.

Filipino American Jazz Festival. Two-day festival features Filipino jazz vocal quintet Crescendo; pianist, conductor and arranger Toti Fuentes; vocalist Charmaine Clamor; and saxophonist Julius Tolentino, among others. Jazz-Phil. 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.; also Dec. 10, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. $25-$30. Catalina Bar and Grill, 6725 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 512-5543, ext. 2.

Sun., Dec. 10

“Laugh Is Hope Comedy Club” Aboard the Queen Mary. Comedy, fashion, silent auction and dancing fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Featuring comedian Steven E. Kimbrough. 7-11:30 p.m. $65. (909) 631-0100. www.laughishope.com.

Debbie Reynolds’ Show-Stopping Hits. Reynolds pairs with dance partner Jerry Antes in this musical revue. 3 p.m. $35-$57.50. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (800) 300-4345.

Mon., Dec. 11

Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Messiah” Sing-Along. Music Director Grant Gershon conducts the Master Chorale and the audience in a singalong to Haydn’s masterpiece, including the “Hallelujah Chorus.” 7:30 p.m. Also Dec. 18, 7:30 p.m. $19-$64. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (800) 787-5262.

Tue., Dec. 12

Matthew Bourne’s “Edward Scissorhands.” Adaptation of Tim Burton’s gothic fairytale motion picture. Dance at the Music Center with Center Theatre Group. 8 p.m. $35-$85. Through Dec. 31. Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. www.musiccenter.org/dance.

“Slava’s Snowshow.” This theatrical extravaganza, created by master clown Slava Polunin, melds the art of clowning with visual images and fantasy, culminating in a snowstorm that engulfs the audience. UCLA Live series. 8 p.m. $32-$68. Through Jan. 7. Royce Hall, UCLA campus, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. www.UCLALive.org.

Thu., Dec. 14.

Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter. The comedians, two of the stars and creators of the 2005 TV show “Stella,” appear together. 8 p.m. $22.50. Wiltern LG, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-1400.

Fri., Dec. 15.

Tyne Daly in Scenes From “Agamemnon.” Stephen Wadsworth directs a small cast performing significant scenes from the first play in the “Oresteia” trilogy and explores Aeschylus’ dramaturgy, literary identity, and preoccupations as artist and citizen. Villa Theater Lab. 8 p.m. Also Dec. 16, 8 p.m.; Dec. 16, 3 p.m. $17. Getty Villa Auditorium, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 440-7300.

Sat., Dec. 16.

Woody Allen and his New Orleans Jazz Band. Writer, actor, director and jazz clarinetist Allen performs with his jazz ensemble. 8 p.m. $25-$125. Royce Hall, UCLA Campus, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101.

“Gold Rush!” Interactive programs allows visitors to discover the myths and realities of the American gold rush. 30-minute programs, ongoing between 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Sat. and Sun. Free with museum admission ($3-$7.50). The Autry National Center’s Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. (323) 667-2000.

Thu., Dec. 21

Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s “Nutcracker.” More than 50 dancers from the Bolshoi Academy perform this family holiday classic to Tchaikovsky’s music. 7:30 p.m. Through Dec. 24. $15-$55. 300 East Green St., Pasadena. (213) 365-3500.

Fri., Dec. 22

Hoobastank. Alternative pop/rock group best known for their crossover hit “The Reason.” 7 p.m. $17-$20. The Key Club, 9039 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 274-5800.

JANUARY

Thu., Jan. 4

“Saul Bass: The Hollywood Connection.” Exhibition of the graphic designer’s work for the American film industry includes film posters, a montage of motion picture title sequences and an Oscar-nominated short documentary. Our California Series. Through April 1. Free. Related film screenings on Tuesday afternoons, through February. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. www.skirball.org.

Fri., Jan. 5

“Up Close and Personal.” Exhibition of Gilbert B. Weingourt’s candid photos of icons and public figures from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. 11 a.m.-midnight, daily through Feb. 15. Reception with the photographer Jan. 13, 6 p.m.-8 p.m. ArcLight Cinemas Galleries, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 464-1478.

Blues Traveler Concert. Hamonica Virtuoso John Popper performs with his blues and rock band, best known for their hit “Run Around.” 8 p.m. $25-$47.50. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (800) 300-4345.

Sat., Jan. 6.

Louis Malle’s “Black Moon” and “Lacombe Lucien.” Part of American Cinematheque’s “Overlooked and Underrated” series, showcasing films from the 1940s through the 1980s that received modest praise when released but have emerged as classics. Upcoming films include Jules Dassin’s “10:30 PM Summer,” Edward Dmytryk’s “Mirage” and Robert Mulligan’s “Baby, the Rain Must Fall,” among others. 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 4. $7-$10. Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 466-3456.

Art Garfunkel. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend performs his greatest hits and personal favorites, including “Mrs. Robinson” and “Sound of Silence.” 8 p.m. $32-$57.50. Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (800) 300-4345.

Melody of China and The Hsiao Hsi Yuan Puppet Theater. Director Hong Wang narrates an exploration of Chinese music played on traditional instruments. Also, southern Chinese traditional puppet theater, “budai that,” with stage movements and vocal styles adopted from Peking Opera. World City Series. 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Free. W.M. Keck Foundation Children’s Amphitheater, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3379. www.musiccenter.org

Tue., Jan. 9.

Justin Timberlake’s “Futuresex/LoveShow.” Accompanied by a 14-piece band and back-up dancers, Timberlake will perform in the round. Includes special guest Pink. 8 p.m. $56-$97.50. Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. www.hondacenter.com. Also Jan. 16 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (213) 480-3232.

Fri., Jan. 12

“Defiance.” Set in 1971, this second play in John Patrick Shanley’s trilogy that began with “Doubt!” explores race relations on a North Carolina military base. Through Feb. 18. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. (626) 356-7529.

Director Zwick excavates the bloody price of ‘Diamonds’


Edward Zwick, director of the new film, “Blood Diamond,” believes his Jewishness has played a role in his desire to make social issue movies.

“Glory” was about black soldiers fighting in the Civil War, “The Siege” about the threats of domestic terrorism, “Courage Under Fire” about the aftermath of the first Iraq War and “Last Samurai” about warrior societies. He first gained Hollywood status as the executive producer of the influential “thirtysomething” TV series about boomer rights-of-passage.

“Blood Diamond,” among other subjects, focuses on how the worldwide demand for diamonds allowed violent, inhumane rebels in the West African nation of Sierra Leone to fund their atrocities through a smuggling scheme.
“As a very young kid, at Passover my grandparents would bring in people from the world who needed a place to go,” recalled the Chicago-born Zwick, during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. “It doesn’t sound like a political act, but it turned out to be one – the idea you are part of something larger than yourself.

“Certainly, something central to what I understand about Judaism has to do with social conscience and being aware of the world one lives in,” continued the 54-year-old director.

He has a quick, concise way of answering questions in a soft voice that does not waste time: “That is something very important to me, and to find a way to get it into my work has always been central.

“And I’m also a child of 1960s,” he added. “To have gone to university in the late 1960s-early 1970s and be part of any number of moments of political history forged whatever consciousness I have.”

The action in “Blood Diamond” — which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou — occurs during the late 1990s, when Sierra Leone rebels attack the capital city and slaughter and maim civilians on a massive scale.

There are many fictional elements to the plot, in which DiCaprio plays a South African-“Rhodesian” diamond smuggler-arms supplier, Connelly a crusading reporter and Hounsou an innocent Sierra Leonean forced by rebels to work a diamond field. Zwick developed the story with screenwriter Charles Leavitt.

But Zwick based his grueling, terrifying depictions of the war on research into what actually happened. Among other things, Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front rebels forced kidnapped children to become killers. Its soldiers also intimidated civilians by amputating their limbs.

The film, in one of its most controversial elements, depicts a British diamond company that knowingly purchases smuggled stones. Zwick acknowledged, without making accusations, that it is modeled on De Beers, the British-based worldwide leader in the mining and supply of rough diamonds.

Sierra Leone is now at peace, achieved with the help of international intervention, and trying to recover from its strife. But its recent history makes for many harrowing scenes in “Blood Diamond.” The fact that the rebels sold diamonds to support their monstrous acts, relying on a worldwide “lust for bling,” might make some moviegoers wonder about their own unwitting complicity in all this.

It is an issue directly tied to the Jewish community. The diamond industry has traditionally employed many Jews in all its manufacturing and sales aspects. Here in Los Angeles, Jews — including many who are Orthodox — are well-represented as merchants in the downtown Jewelry District.

On its Web site, the Israeli Diamond Industry claims to manufacture two-thirds of all gem-quality diamonds in the world, and the World Diamond Congress held its annual meeting in Israel this year. The German-Jewish Oppenheimer family led De Beers to become the worldwide leader in the mining and sales of rough diamonds, although its patriarch reportedly converted to the Anglican Church in the 1930s. De Beers also has a worldwide retail operation, including a store on Rodeo Drive.

According to author Edward Jay Epstein, who wrote “The Rise and Fall of Diamonds,” Jews turned to diamonds as an asset during the Spanish Inquisition, because they could be easily concealed and instantly redeemed wherever they were forced to move. When they fled Lisbon and Antwerp, for instance, they moved to Amsterdam and established diamond-cutting factories.

“One of the great historical ironies is the fact Jews needed a currency for the Diaspora — something small, something that can be taken with them — and that led to roles within this industry,” Zwick said. But he also added that the “conflict diamond” problem “is more about an industry than a religion.”

Or is it?

“Yes, it’s a Jewish issue because [so many] of the diamond dealers in the world are Jewish,” said a Jewish Los Angeles diamond merchant, who asked not to be named for security reasons. “Think of how many people are employed in the diamond industry in Israel and how vital it is to that economy.”

Well ahead of “Blood Diamond’s” release, the diamond industry moved to address the problem of “blood diamonds” used by rebels in Sierra Leone, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other nations with insurgencies in the 1990s. The Congo still has problems. At the same time, it wants to protect the economies of African nations like Botswana, where legitimate trade in diamonds is an important means of jobs and growth.

The World Diamond Council was created in 2000, the same year that the diamond industry — along with governments involved throughout the diamond-business pipeline — set up a UN-mandated voluntary self-policing effort called the Kimberley Process to stop this trade. It was implemented in 2003. De Beers is a member of the council.

Among other Kimberley Process activities, African nations attest to warranties attesting that their exported rough diamonds are “conflict-free.” This was implemented in 2003 and the World Diamond Council said the flow of such diamonds has declined from 4 percent of the world market in the late 1990s to less than 1 percent today.

“It’s been now seven years since the Kimberley Process was created and the industry has made huge strides in this,” said Carson Glover, the World Diamond Council’s U.S. spokesperson. “We’ve gone from a small percent of world diamond supply to virtually no percent” [being of “conflict” origins].

Class Notes: Camp Ramah celebrates Golden Anniversary


About 800 people are expected at Camp Ramah in Ojai this weekend to celebrate 50 years of Conservative Jewish camping in Southern California.

All 14 of Camp Ramah’s past directors are being honored at the Dec. 3 gala, among them some of the top leaders of the Southern California Jewish community, and the late author Chaim Potok.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, was co-director of the first pilot summer in 1955 with 62 campers, and Rabbi David Lieber, president emeritus of the University of Judaism, directed the first official summer in 1956. Today Ramah in Ojai serves about 1,300 kids in several sessions over the summer.

“Camp creates in our minds and hearts and souls an ideal memory of ourselves and an ideal memory of the Jewish community that gives people a sense of hope and a sense of what is possible in the Jewish community,” current director Rabbi Daniel Greyber said.

For Greyber, that explains why so many former campers and directors go on to become leaders in the Jewish community, and why many campers uphold their summers in Ojai as models of spirituality and community.

Rather than celebrate the anniversary at a rubber chicken dressy affair, Ramah invited alumni and community members to camp Dec. 3 for a day of swimming, sports, art and camp activities. A memorabilia exhibit will be on display, and the ceremony and luncheon will take place in the Gindi Chadar Ochel (dining hall) and on Ramah’s famed hill.

The year-long festivities began with several Shabbat reunions at local synagogues and a dinner in Manhattan. At camp this summer, veteran alumni joined current campers to spend the day and sing camp songs that haven’t changed.

Among the other honorees are: Miriam Wise, a founder and teacher at the University of Judaism who co-directed with Pressman in 1955; the late Walter Ackerman, who directed for 10 of the early years; Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz, rabbi emeritus of Sinai Temple who directed 1963-73; Alvin Mars, education director for the Jewish Centers Association who directed Ramah from 1978-84, then went on to the UJ and then to direct the Brandeis-Bardin Institute; Rabbi Edward Feinstein, rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; and Brian Greene, director of Westside Jewish Community Center.

For information, call (310) 476-8571 or visit www.ramah.org.

Milken Students Grill Education Minister

Israel’s Minister of Education Yuli Tamir had her work cut out for her when she met with a group of 40 10th-graders at Milken Community High School Nov. 13.
The students, all of whom will spend four months in Israel starting in February, met with Tamir for a private Q-and-A following a general presentation to the ninth through 12th grades.

The students asked Tamir about the differences between American and Israeli teens, about funding university education, and about how the Israeli school system helps kids deal with the stress of living under the threat of suicide bombers, katyushas and kassam rockets.

But where they respectfully pressed Tamir — who has a doctorate in political philosophy from Oxford University — was on the issue of ethnic segregation in Israel’s public schools. The students, who had been briefed on some basic facts about the Israeli educational system prior to the speech, were deeply troubled by the separate schools for the religious, the non-religious and Israeli Arabs, and neighborhood schools that effectively segregate according to socioeconomic levels.

At least three students asked about the topic, unsatisfied with Tamir’s acknowledgement that indeed it was a problem, or by her assertion that Army acts as a great equalizer.

“It’s very difficult to undo what has been a basic fact of the Israeli educational system,” Tamir conceded. “We want the children of Israel to grow to respect the different ways of life and to understand that people live different lives. We want them to know we are all part of the structure of Israeli society.”

The 40 students are members of the Tiferet Israel Delegation, a new program that will take students to Israel from February to May. They will continue their Milken education at the Alexander Muss Institute for Education, where they will dorm, and do a special course in Jewish history, going out to the sites they learn about.

The heavily subsidized program replaces a program where 10th-graders would live with Israeli families for two months in the spring, and the hospitality would be reciprocated to an Israeli delegation at Milken.

The new program still pairs students with families, but is more structured and academically focused so students are well-supervised and up to speed when they come home.

In her talk to the school, Tamir discussed the importance of bringing American youth to Israel not just for their own benefit, but for the impact such exchanges have on Israeli kids.

“When our students have the opportunity to meet a delegation like the one you are sending, they find within themselves something they didn’t know was there — they find a hidden layer of their identity that with this encounter they have the ability to expose and to discuss and to reflect on.”

New Schools Chief Visits Kehillat Israel

New LAUSD Superintendent Admiral David Brewer attended family services at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades on Friday night, Nov. 17 — his first visit to a Los Angeles synagogue since he took over leadership of 1,130 schools serving 877,000 students.

Brewer spoke in the main sanctuary, and his speech was more inspirational than political as he wove in ideas of how he plans to work with communities and set high expectations.

“He’s very inspirational,” said Kehillat Israel member and LAUSD Board President Marlene Canter, who suggested Kehillat Israel when Brewer said he would like to visit faith communities in his first official week on the job. “His passion is for kids. He is doing this not because he needs the job, but because he cares so deeply about the kids.”

Following his talk in the main sanctuary, Brewer visited the youth service for 150 fourth- through sixth-graders. He talked to the kids about creating and sticking to goals, and had them pledge to read a book a week for the rest of their lives.

Jewish Time Machine: The 1982 General Assembly in Los Angeles


When it comes to issues making up the agenda during General Assemblies in Los Angeles, perhaps Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) was right when he wrote: “What has been will be, what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Los Angeles had surpassed Chicago as the country’s second largest Jewish population center by the mid-1950s, but it wasn’t until 1966 that what was then called the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJF), now United Jewish Communities, held its first GA here.One-thousand attended that GA, the CJF’s 35th, at the Ambassador Hotel, where, seven months later, Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated.

The main discussions focused on changing conditions in the Israeli immigration picture and Israel’s economy, as well as issues facing overseas Jewish communities.

The GA returned to Los Angeles in 1982. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since, but the challenges confronting the Jewish world then are strikingly similar to those in 2006:A war in Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Syria, the suffering of Ethiopian Jewry, cutbacks in federal and state funding of social services, grave concerns about American Jewish identity and low levels of affiliation and giving to Jewish causes.

(Although not everything’s the same- registration in 1982 cost $110 for out of town delegates and $50 for Los Angeles residents; this year it’s $525 and $275, respectively.)

At the same time, it was the CJF’s celebratory Golden Anniversary GA, or “GALA” as it was called, and it occurred during the period some consider to be a golden age of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, then led by president Osias Goren and executive vice president Ted Kanner.

A volunteer hospitality team of 700 Jewish Angelenos welcomed the 3,000 delegates, who were greeted on arrival by mariachis and a recreation of Farmers Market.

More than 500 marched from the Bonaventure to City Hall to call attention to imperiled Jewish communities around the world and to protest anti-Semitism in Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, the Soviet Union, Syria, Western Europe and elsewhere. Mayor Tom Bradley and law professor Irwin Cotler, who at the time was working to secure the freedom of imprisoned refusenik Anatoly Scharansky, spoke to the crowd. A conference session on the plight and rescue of Ethiopian Jews was found to be particularly moving.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino was scholar-in-residence, and spoke at two plenary sessions on the convention’s theme, “Federation’s Role and Responsibility in Ensuring the Commitment of the Next Generation.”

Schulweis said the “megastructure” of Jewish organizations and institutions is remote and alienating to the individual Jew struggling to maintain a rich Jewish spiritual identity. He maintained that the “post-Holocaust” generation is “less secular, less moved by the public agenda and institutions and more concerned with the spiritual, personal and internal dimensions of their lives.”

Prime Minister Menachem Begin was scheduled to address the Saturday night Golden Anniversary banquet. It was to be his first major speech to a U.S. audience since Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in “Operation Peace for Galilee” in June 1982. After the GA, he would fly to Washington to meet with President Ronald Reagan. Debate over the Lebanon War caused a great rift in Israel. This political turmoil, the loss of Israeli lives and the massacre greatly troubled Begin. The prime minister hesitated to leave Aliza, his wife of 36 years, who had been hospitalized for much of the previous year with respiratory problems. When her condition improved slightly, she convinced him to go. The main ballroom of the Bonaventure was packed with delegates, guests and officials such as Governor Jerry Brown and Mayor Tom Bradley.

Outside, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Secret Service and LAPD had their hands full with demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. LAPD had issued a permit to the Committee to Oppose the Begin Visit, a coalition of several pro-Palestinian groups and others. The New Jewish Agenda and the Jewish Defense Organization were also among the picketers.

But sadly, Begin’s appearance at the GA was not to be. Shortly before he was to speak, his beloved wife Aliza died in Jerusalem. He immediately flew back to Israel for her funeral.

Moshe Arens, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, stood in for Begin at the GA. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, he recounted some of “the scars we in Israel bear from the terrorists coming out of Lebanon,” and said that Israel’s operation had smashed the PLO infrastructure, thereby striking a blow for peace in the region. Nevertheless, he observed, Israel was “criticized, vilified, calumnied and judged” by the nations of the world and “we were subjected to snap judgments” by the media and its audiences.

Arens was critical of “those who counsel us to make concessions,” declaring that “the wages of weakness in the Middle East is destruction.” The ambassador also recounted other achievements of the war in Lebanon and each achievement was greeted with roars of applause: He noted that Lebanon was then rising from seven years of warfare and occupation and that a new page was turning “in the tragic history of that country. Hopefully, Lebanon will join the world democratic community and also be at peace with Israel.”

Perhaps what Kohelet is saying is that the significant, unresolved issues of one generation are left as a legacy to the next, to be reconsidered, reclaimed and reconciled.

— SJS

The Little Shul That Could — Highland Park’s Temple Beth Israel


Walk up the steep pathway and into the sanctuary of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock on any Shabbat morning. Congregants will jump up out of their wooden pews to greet you and introduce you to fellow worshippers, even if the service has begun. Chances are they’ll also honor you with an aliyah and invite you to join them for the potluck Kiddush luncheon that follows their traditional but egalitarian Conservative service.

“We’re Temple Beth Haimish,” said Henry Leventon, 76, immediate past president and 30-year member of this independent synagogue, which claims about 50 member families of all ages but which averages only 15 or so participants on a given Shabbat morning.

“We’ve managed to survive because we’re friendly and our dues are reasonable,” Leventon added.

But spend a little time with this collegial congregation, and it’s clear that its survival goes beyond ordinary friendliness to a fierce dedication to each other and to the institution.

At the High Holidays, for example, about 70 congregants come together, filling almost half of the 156-seat sanctuary. Some travel from as far away as Ventura and Orange counties. Others, from places such as New Mexico and North Carolina, whose parents or grandparents belonged to the temple, send annual contributions.

At the Yom Kippur Yizkor service, all 150 names on the memorial board are lit up and read aloud.

These historical ties are authentic. Temple members will proudly tell you that they believe they’re the oldest congregation in Los Angeles to continuously hold Shabbat and High Holiday services in their original building, a fact confirmed by Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

The longevity, in large part, can be attributed to a deep-seated spirit of volunteerism, especially among the nine men and women who comprise the board of directors. Indeed, the temple is almost entirely member run, with the exception of Cantor Ken Rothstein, hired to lead services every Shabbat morning, and retired Rabbi Lewis Bogage of Denver and Palm Springs, who officiates at High Holiday services.

Congregants do everything from delivering drashes on the weekly Torah portion to working on a major re-landscaping project for the 8,000-square-foot front yard to taking home the garbage after every Kiddush luncheon and holiday celebration, saving on waste disposal fees.

“It’s lay leadership at its best,” Bogage said.

This participatory style dates back to the congregation’s founding in 1923 when Esther Weinstein, newly relocated with her husband and young children from Boston to Highland Park, went searching for a Jewish community at a time when most Jews were clustered farther east, in Boyle Heights. Undaunted, she asked her postman for the addresses of local families with Jewish-sounding names and visited them. When enough families expressed interest in forming a synagogue, Weinstein called a meeting, convincing everyone that “di kinder darfn hobn a talmud toyre” (“the children need a religious school”).

Thus was born the Highland Park Hebrew School Association (which changed its name to Temple Beth Israel in 1946). The group began assembling in members’ homes and rented spaces. Finally, after years of vigorous debate among members, ground was broken on Aug. 17, 1930, for a permanent building on a plot of land purchased six years earlier, up on a hill on Monte Vista Avenue, between avenues 57 and 58.

The following month, the congregation held High Holiday services on that property. The building, according to the synagogue’s first yearbook, published in 1948, consisted of “just the frame, unadorned, with cheese-cloth for plaster, and rough boards for flooring, but it was a temple.”

By December of that year, the streamlined modern building, with its sanctuary rimmed with amber stained-glass windows featuring blue borders and blue Stars of David in white circles, was completed. It cost $4,077.88, leaving a balance of only $38.04 in the synagogue’s checking account and $17.57 in savings.

new temple building

“It was never a wealthy congregation in any sense of the word,” said Pauline Weinstein Ledeen, 96, the daughter of Esther Weinstein. But through the years members have generously donated their time and their skills.

The synagogue has undergone two renovations, both in the 1950s and both designed and supervised by temple member and interior architect Jerome Share. In the sanctuary, Share added a new ark, paneling and new wooden pews. He also created a new eternal light and a “lion of Judah” wire sculpture above the two sanctuary doors. Additionally, the project entailed remodeling the now outdated kitchen.

The synagogue, however, remains its original size of about 4,000 square feet. In addition to the sanctuary and large but basic kitchen, it includes a social hall, connected to the sanctuary by an accordion-pleated divider, two small bathrooms, a tiny office and a cloakroom that now serves mostly as a storage area.

Ledeen, a retired attorney and community advocate, grew up at Temple Beth Israel and still attends almost every Shabbat. She recalls the temple’s heyday, from the 1930s to the early 1960s, when membership numbered about 200 families, many of whom owned stores on nearby Figueroa Street. In addition to regular Shabbat and holiday services, the synagogue sponsored an active Hebrew school and sisterhood, as well as holiday celebrations and donor dinners.


In fact, in 1960, when Rabbi Eli Schochet was newly ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan and seeking a congregation in California, he found two openings: one at Temple Beth Israel, which he described on the Shomrei Torah Synagogue Web site as “an established functioning synagogue in an established Jewish community,” and one at Congregation Beth Kodesh in Canoga Park, which he said was “more pioneering venture than shul.” He selected the latter, which, having merged with Temple Beth Ami in 1994 to form Shomrei Torah Synagogue, is now firmly ensconced in West Hills.

Still, Temple Beth Israel perseveres, albeit on a shoestring budget compared to many shuls. Last year, the temple’s annual budget totaled $34,000, according to secretary-treasurer Ken Ofgang. It endures despite the fact that the ever-westward-moving Jewish population has now rendered it the “pioneering venture.” The challenge, according to current president and 10-year member Bill Fishman, is to develop programming to entice new members and yet maintain the present level of activity.

Already, in addition to Saturday morning and holiday services, the synagogue hosts an annual Chanukah party, which incorporates the lighting of a member-made PVC pipe chanukiyah on the front lawn; a Purim shpiel, which is perfected and enhanced every year, and a second-night seder, which is always an immediate sellout. Two years ago, a monthly Friday evening service, conducted by congregant Mark Strunin, was added to the mix.

However, the synagogue has no religious school — no one seems to know when the former one ended, though they say it was never a formal program, but rather congregant-led classes. There is also no formal b’nai mitzvah program, which is a major deterrent for families with young children. To begin addressing this issue, Ed Leibowitz, 10-year temple member and father of a 2-year-old son, is spearheading a monthly Sunday morning Parent and Me program, geared for 2- to 6-year-olds and taught by volunteer parents and older congregants. Leibowitz envisions the class, slated to begin this fall, as a way for children to learn about Jewish traditions and holidays through art projects, food and other fun activities.

Another challenge is the absence of a wheelchair accessible entrance, particularly problematic since the temple sits atop a hill, placed far back on the property. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the original architect, a young man whose name has become lost but whose vision lives on: he had previously designed only markets and believed a synagogue should be placed as close to God as possible.

“It’s great for lofty biblical reasons but awful for practicality,” said past president Leventon.

Board members hope eventually to remedy the situation, but just the cost of hiring a surveyor, a necessary first step, is prohibitive.

Finances remain tight. Some of the operating income comes from dues — $340 for a family, $200 for a single person and even less for a single senior — and from the annual High Holiday pitch, regularly given by Leventon and always targeted toward a specific cause. This year the Belfast-born Leventon, in his most persuasive Irish brogue, plans to ask for money to repair the temple’s five Torahs.

In addition, various grants, as well as occasional large donations, come in, enabling the synagogue always to meet its financial obligations.

“It’s one of those miracles,” said Ofgang, who lists insurance coverage as the synagogue’s major expense, followed by utility bills and salaries.

Over the past few years, the synagogue has engaged in some reorganization and renewal projects in an attempt to attract new faces. Four years ago, Fishman, the “most computerized” of the congregants, constructed a synagogue Web site as well as a database of members and other supporters.

Specifically for the High Holidays, Fishman sends out letters to all 240 people in the database, soliciting donations and offering $50 High Holiday tickets to nonmembers. He also advertises in the local community newspaper, the Boulevard Sentinel.

Two years ago, a major landscaping project was initiated, a “spiritual journey path” that is replacing the expansive overgrown and weed-ridden lawn with native shrubs and that links environmental stewardship with Jewish spirituality. It’s being accomplished with the assistance of temple member Jerry Schneider, long interested in sustainable landscaping, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California.

At the same time, an electric outdoor sign that had been sitting in pieces in the basement was rewired, repainted and replaced on the front lawn, proving to passersby that Temple Beth Israel is “still in business.”

For the long haul, congregants are hoping the eventual re-gentrification of the Highland Park and Eagle Rock communities will bring in new families and singles to this essentially non-Jewish neighborhood. In the meantime, the small band of self-described “participatory and scrappy” temple members, bound together by their love of Judaism and deep historical and personal bonds, keeps the synagogue afloat.

“This is almost the kind of Judaism that people’s grandfathers and grandmothers used to tell them about in Brooklyn or the Bronx,” said board member Leibowitz, “where money meant nothing and where participation meant everything.”

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.

Letters to the Editor


Rabbi Baron

Interesting that Rabbi David Baron said his invitation to Mel Gibson to speak at his temple on Yom Kippur was not a publicity stunt (“Three Groups Respond to Gibson’s Request for Meeting,” Aug. 11). Why then did I receive a form letter within two hours of sending the rabbi an e-mail expressing my aggravation at that very invitation? The form letter is addressed not to me, but “To Those Who Are Concerned About the Mel Gibson Invitation to Apologize.” Baron obviously hoped, and anticipated, that this handout to Gibson would bring a lot of attention; otherwise, why would he have had a form letter at the ready before there had yet been any response at all? And how was the invitation to Gibson made public in the first place? Baron wanted all the attention, which he got, without having to face the music, so he fled.

Jeff Weinstock
Encino

Ed Note: See Rabbi Baron’s op-ed column in this issue.

Star Power

Great article, but you may want to exercise a little more control over your cover art (“Star Power,” Aug. 26).

When did The Jewish Journal decide to “unilaterally” give back the West Bank and the Golan Heights?

It may be a subtle “mistake” in art direction, but the hash marks across the vibrant communities in the West Bank and the omission of the Golan are particularly insensitive as Israel continues its fight for it’s very existence. Recent events should have taught us all that the fight is not about “the territories.”

Hopefully your artist was being “creative” and not putting forth a political opinion that represents the editorial stance of The Jewish Journal.

Barry S. Weiss
Valley Village

RJC’s Israel Ads

I want to compliment the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) for their recent ads in The Jewish Journal (Aug. 18 and Aug. 25). The first correctly thanked President Bush for his stalwart support of Israel which was then under vicious attack by Iranian supplied Hezbollah terrorists.

The second pointed out that the Democratic Party has growing and influential leftist voices who not only rejected pro-Israel leader Sen. Joe Lieberman, but are increasingly hostile to bipartisan consensus in support of the Jewish state.Votes and polls do not lie. The vast majority of dissenters from congressional resolutions in support of Israel are Democrats. The majority of anti-Israel voices today on college campuses, in blogs and in our communities are left/liberal, not right/conservative. I have no doubt that American Jews will increasingly reward the GOP.

David Shacter
Los Angeles

The ad on your inside cover from The Republican Jewish Coalition disgusts me. Joe Lieberman was not defeated because of his support for Israel, but because of his continuing support of the most incompetent and corrupt president in the history of the United States.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party supported Lieberman. It was the voting public, fed up with the disastrous war in Iraq and Lieberman’s blind support for it, that led to his defeat.

The “radical left” has hardly taken over the Democratic Party, and Cindy Sheehan is not a spokesperson for party policy.

No Democratic president would stand by and allow Hezbollah rockets to rain down on Haifa. Nor would they have started a war with Iraq that has ended up strengthening Iran and weakening both the United States and Israel.

Finally, it is the Republican Party that envisions the United States as a Christian theocracy. I cannot understand how any Jew could proudly align themselves with these people.

Barry Wendell
North Hollywood

Bill Boyarsky

I was at the event where Bill Boyarsky and David Lauter spoke for the Woman’s Alliance for Israel Program (“Needed: Rational Discussion,” Aug. 18). However, Boyarsky is incorrect in his assumptions about us going after Lauter’s scalp.We wanted much more from Lauter. We wanted an explanation on why the Los Angeles Times has difficulty in using the word terrorist, instead of “militant.” Instead of giving us a logical answer, he bored us with his explanation of the “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” jive, and that the L.A. Times assumes that its readers can discern the difference.

We booed because we are not the radical “right-wing” DEBKA readers, as Boyarsky implied. This was a slap in the face to any Republicans that were in the audience. We booed because we are not stupid. We expected an intellectual dialogue, but we were hit with criticisms of the Bush regime, a “not my president” attitude, and the moral explanation that because reporters put themselves in the line of fire they do a good job.

Well, my son is in the army in Israel; he puts himself in the line of fire, and he has no problems distinguishing between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. And to top it off, to make comments about FOX — the one channel that does not make excuses for suicide bombers — and assume this as our only source of information was a slap in the face to the many activists who work hard daily, educating, discussing, working and fighting for Israel. I am one of those people who was insulted by the attacks on the right, the convoluted answers and the lack of respect that Boyarsky gave us that night and in his column.

This is the reason why I find the L.A. Times irrelevant in their reporting. They refuse to listen to more than 400 subscribers and former subscribers, and the stats on their readership should be a wake-up call, not an excuse to use their political bias to win arguments.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Associate Director
American Jewish Congress, Western Region

Israel P.R.

Are there any Jews in advertising? It’s a silly question, but given the pathetic state of Israeli public relations, one might wonder. Israel desperately needs a top-notch public relations campaign immediately, to reinforce the support of sympathetic Americans and win over those who are apathetic or ignorant regarding the Jewish state.

Remember the old ad campaign, “Come to Israel, come stay with friends…”? In those halcyon days, Israel just needed tourism; now, Israel needs renewed American commitment to its survival against the dedicated, dug-in Hezbollah and Hamas armies, who threaten its existence like a growing pack of wolves. America is Israel’s only reliable friend in the world, but it might not always be so.Most American Jews take Israel’s righteousness and survival for granted, but our stoic, fatal silence about Israeli greatness and appeal must end; Israel’s very survival may depend on it.

We know that Israel is the only multicultural nation in the Mideast, where all religions are respected (Muslims are elected to Parliament), where women are treated equally to men, and gays enjoy tolerance, but many Americans, and others, do not. Some great Jew, with the talent, influence and connections of, say, a Steven Spielberg or Rabbi Marvin Hier, or others of equal capability, must take the helm and reverse this public relations defeat.

Why is Hezbollah enjoying the laurels of victory for such a ruinous fiasco? Partially, it’s because they did win. Little Israel never before had to fight an army with such a death-wish commitment. What will happen when other young Arabs, anxious to die for their cause, join their ranks? How many rockets can Israeli cities endure before they become unlivable? The northern third of Israel is already a mess. But Hezbollah’s most important victory was in publicity. Israel has failed to make the case against Hezbollah tactics and for its own existence to America and the world! We must convince our fellow Americans that Hezbollah represents Arab terrorism and Israel is the front line against it. I would love to do it myself, and I’m anxious to be part of the team, but I’m just an anonymous high school teacher; all I can do is convince a person of stature to rise to the task now!

It will be a horrible irony if Israel loses in the court of public opinion, if Jews fail to make their case, the one field in which no one denies them proverbial brilliance. Some great Jew must pick up the phone, call the Israeli embassy, and offer their services to establish the team and organize the public relations effort. It is not hyperbole to suggest that this is a call of biblical proportion. All Jews know in their guts that young Israel is existentially threatened like never before.

The great Persian Empire has risen up and told the world its plan. We must rally our fellow Americans now.

We need a leader.

Rueben Gordon
North Hollywood

Truth in Media

Josef Goebbels, Nazi minister of information, astutely observed that, if you tell a big enough lie, long enough, people will believe it — for no alternative report is provided. American news media daily bombard us with the nonexistent expertise of journalists and consultants — who concur with the media’s editorial position. They state that it is the very existence of Israel and/or U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East that is the source of Islamist animus to the west. Rudimentary knowledge of history readily dispels such tripe.

The first U.S. interaction with Islamists occurred in 1805, when President Thomas Jefferson dispatched troops to Morocco to stop Barbary Pirate attacks on Americans (“The Pirate Coast” by Richard Zacks, 2006).

The Islamic Brotherhood, founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassa al-Banna, espouses global Muslim conquest, supports violence against civilians and is the philosophical father of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

This reality long pre-dates the existence of Israel or modern-day U.S. policy in the Middle East, but you will never learn that from our news media. Certainly the media can be a valuable check against the tyranny of the government, but who will protect us from the tyranny of the press?

Fred Korr
Los Angeles

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

Jewish Journal September 1, 2006

Jamie McCourt Proves She’s an Artful Dodger President


Bougainvillea and vines curl around a pergola at the Bel Air Hotel’s outdoor patio restaurant, a lunch spot for Westside powerbrokers. It’s 10:30 a.m., and powerbrokers are scarce at this hour, except for Jamie McCourt, vice chairman and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who is seated under a canopy at a private table. She smiles when asked what humanitarian work she and her husband, Frank, have done to earn the Scopus Award, an honor from the American Friends of Hebrew University, which they will receive in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in December.

“You don’t think saving the Dodgers is enough?” she quips.

Indeed, she is right, for the Dodgers, a legendary name in professional sports, a franchise once associated with excellence on the playing field, stability in the front office and a commitment to progressive causes, most notably the breaking of baseball’s so-called color barrier, fell on hard times during the Rupert Murdoch era.

Perhaps the beginning of the Dodgers’ decline dates back farther, to that moment in 1987 when longtime Dodger executive Al Campanis, given multiple opportunities by Ted Koppel to atone for his ignorance, nonetheless continued to deny the leadership qualities of African Americans on “Nightline.”

The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in 1988, but the architect of that team, Fred Claire, another longtime company man who had replaced Campanis as general manager, later made a number of unpopular trades, such as dispatching young pitching phenomenon Pedro Martinez for the forgettable Delino DeShields. Claire and manager Bill Russell were ultimately fired by Murdoch, whose cable apparatchiks inaugurated their tenure by trading slugger Mike Piazza, a future Hall of Famer, for five players who do not play any longer for the Dodgers.

Since 2004, when the McCourts purchased the team from News Corp, the Dodgers have had a mixed record. They won their division that first year, though they lost in the first round of the playoffs. By the next year, they had parted with clubhouse leader Paul LoDuca, most valuable player runner-up Adrian Beltre and local hero Shawn Green, three players who were critical to the team’s first win in a playoff game since 1988.

After a dismal season last year, which culminated in the firing of neophyte GM Paul DePodesta, the severing of ties with manager Jim Tracy and the hiring of their respective replacements, Ned Colletti and Grady Little, the team has rebounded surprisingly well. Although Eric Gagne, who is out for the season, is the only player who has been with the ball club for as many as three years, the Dodgers have jelled better than might have been expected.

Colletti spent an active winter acquiring a strong group of veterans, including Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and comeback player of the year candidate Nomar Garciaparra, who have combined with some productive rookies and holdovers like Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew to lead the team to a spot near the top of the National League West Division.

So, Jamie McCourt, an attractive, petite woman with blond hair and an easy smile, has every right to argue that in resurrecting the Dodgers she and her husband have performed a public service worthy of the Scopus Award.

McCourt, who as president of the Dodgers handles much of the club’s business side, as opposed to its baseball operations, once attended the Mount Scopus campus of Hebew University. A native of Baltimore, from the same neighborhood as filmmaker Barry Levinson, she is Jewish and has raised her four sons as Jews.
On this midmorning at the Bel Air Hotel, she wears a brown suede jacket over a white top, sporty attire that gives one the impression that she has just come from working out. In fact, she swims every day and typically climbs the stairs at Dodger Stadium instead of taking the elevator.

She may be remarkably slim, like one of the social X-rays in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but she is also athletic and looks like she might have been a coxswain on the college crew team. That is befitting a woman whose husband, Frank, rowed crew at Georgetown, where they met.

Like Levinson’s characters in his Baltimore-set movies, she speaks with a spirited yet soft voice, but she doesn’t accentuate her double O’s as Danny DeVito did when pronouncing words like “food” in Levinson’s “Tin Men.” Despite her Baltimore lineage, she says she has not seen “Diner,” Levinson’s iconic film about her hometown, because she feared that Levinson “wouldn’t get the diner right.”

McCourt’s father, an appliance discount king, worked near that diner, and she fears that her own memory and her father’s experiences have not been honored accurately.

She has, however, picked up on her father’s sloganeering, which included the priceless couplet, “Jack, you know, will save you dough.” She utters one-liners almost effortlessly.

When Danish pastries are brought to the table, McCourt cracks, “It’s all health food.”

When she recounts her first trip to Israel, in which she traveled around the country for several months on a bus, a mode of travel she abhors, she says, “That cured me of touring.”

When asked about her avid swimming regimen, she says, “There’s no talking to me if I haven’t gone swimming.”

If she is quick with a quip, she is no “screaming meanie,” as L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers refers to her.

“I never scream,” she says. “If you want to pick a nickname, at least pick one that’s true.”

Especially during the McCourts’ first year of ownership, the Times sports section for the most part depicted Jamie and Frank McCourt, the latter known by Simers as the parking lot attendant, as carpetbaggers who have little interest in or knowledge of Los Angeles, social climbers who lack the financial resources to run the team and public relations novices. More recently, Times columnist Bill Plaschke expressed mock distaste for their smooching in public.

Although McCourt and her husband have indeed kissed in public, the rest of the charges don’t appear so valid.

On the issue of funding, Jamie McCourt says that no solo purchaser in the history of Major League Baseball has spent as much money by himself in purchasing a team as her husband did in buying the Dodgers. Unlike Yankee honcho George Steinbrenner and owners of other teams, the McCourts purchased the Dodgers without partners, she says, a statement that is not completely accurate, in that News Corp was a “minor, noncontrolling partner” at the outset of the deal, according to the Boston Globe.

While the purchase price, anywhere from $421 million to $431 million based on reports, may be higher than that paid by any one individual for a baseball team, the McCourts borrowed heavily in order to finance the acquisition. The structure of the deal, in which the McCourts put up their South Boston real estate property as collateral and assumed significant debt, including a loan of more than $100 million from News Corp, led some to speculate that they were arbitrageurs looking to game the market and sell the property after a year or so.

Though such speculation may have been unfounded, there was no denying that the deal was highly leveraged. No less than Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and authority on baseball economics, has stated that Major League Baseball likely waived its debt percentage rule for the McCourts. That rule would have required the McCourts to have at least a 50 percent equity stake in the team at the time of purchase.

Now, more than two years after the purchase, the financing seems more sound. Earlier this year, the McCourts sold News Corp the family’s prized 24-acre waterfront property in the Seaport District of Boston. That sale reportedly satisfied all of their financial obligations to Murdoch’s company.

This past winter, the team also invested roughly $45 million, according to McCourt, in renovating the stadium, putting in new seats and restoring the original color palette to the famed venue that the New Yorker’s Roger Angell once called the “pastel conch.” The Dodgers also acquired numerous free agents during the off season to boost its payroll to a competitive level.

Nor have the McCourts shied away from personal expenditures. They purchased a home and the adjacent property in pricey Holmby Hills and send their youngest of four sons to the elite Harvard-Westlake private school.

In short, they do not look like they are on the verge of bankruptcy or about to leave town, particularly since McCourt says she loves Los Angeles and all its diversity: “There are so many immigrant populations. It’s sort of the way New York must have been once. It’s a place of opportunity. Every day you wake up, it’s ‘today’s the day I’m going to succeed.'”

Oozing optimism, McCourt and her husband have taken a leadership role in Los Angeles and in the Jewish community, joining the Temple of the Arts, where they were recently named founding members, as well as many civic organizations like the Leadership Council of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles.

She cares deeply about literacy and education, holding a bachelor’s from Georgetown, a law degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She also studied at Hebrew University for a semester of law school and at the Sorbonne while she was in college.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she says. “Everyone should have a fair shot.”

With the Dodgers’ Dream Foundation, she has helped award college scholarships named after Jackie Robinson to minority youth.

She has also reached out to women in the community. The highest ranking woman in Major League Baseball, McCourt says that women comprise 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base. “The female consumer,” she says, ruminating for a moment, “is critical.”

To tap into that critical base, the team has created the Dodgers WIN (Women’s Initiative & Network). Last year, the team held four events for women in the community. This year, there will be 11 events, McCourt says, where women and teenage girls can learn about the game and receive baseball clinics from players and coaches on the Dodgers.

She says that second baseman Kent, often characterized by the media as being gruff, is “an ardent supporter of our women’s initiative.” She adds, “If you have 150 women between 18 and 34 gawking at you, who could complain?”

Despite such good cheer, not all women have enjoyed a welcome in baseball. One woman in the Dodgers front office, Kim Ng, a vice president and assistant GM, was insulted a few years ago by Bill Singer, a former Dodger pitcher who was at the time a broadcaster for the New York Mets. More recently, a San Diego Padres employee was criticized by Keith Hernandez, also a Met broadcaster and a former National League MVP, for being in the dugout.

If the atmosphere for women in baseball remains less than optimal, McCourt still sees opportunity for prospective distaff employees. She has added several women to the Dodgers payroll, including chief financial officer Cristine Hurley and Camille Johnston, head of communications.

“You don’t have to just be a statistician,” she says.

You can even be an owner like McCourt, who wanted to write her thesis at MIT on buying a ball club or a new ballpark. With Wall Street the craze at the time, she had to settle for writing about “naked short selling,” but her interest in baseball goes back to her childhood, when she played shortstop in games in her neighborhood: “I’d come home when I was 7 years old and announce that I was buying a baseball team and a camp.”

Of course, that mirrors her husband’s interest. Frank McCourt’s grandfather owned a piece of the Boston Braves. As Jamie McCourt says, a love of baseball is “in his blood,” all of which runs counter to the skepticism of some critics who said that the McCourts, with their real estate background, would raze Dodger Stadium and build condos.

While the McCourts are showing that they care for baseball and Los Angeles, Boston has not completely left them.

Jamie McCourt says that she has to leave for lunch. Who is she meeting? Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is in town and whom she knew back in Beantown.

When asked if it’s a fundraiser for 2008, she flashes a smile that suggests more than she’s telling, and then she strolls out of the posh surroundings for her next engagement.

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.

 

A Harvest of Conflict


Developer Ralph Horowitz made no secret of his intense displeasure with the 350 mostly Latino farmers who squatted on his 14-acre parcel at 41st and Alameda streets in South Los Angeles. As he saw it, the farmers who cultivated avocados, squash, tomatoes and other produce on individual family plots without paying him were squatters who, in effect, stole from him.

Before Horowitz finally evicted the farmers and their supporters last week, he also had to endure celebrities railing against him and demonstrators showing up at his home — not to mention the expense of thousands of dollars in legal fees spent on enforcing his property rights.

But Horowitz hauled out the most explosive grievance at the 59th minute of the 11th hour in the standoff. Speaking to a Los Angeles Times reporter last week, Horowitz said he refused to reward a group that included people who had made anti-Semitic remarks about him.

“Even if they raised $100 million, this group could not buy this property,” Horowitz told NBC4 in a separate interview. “It’s not about money. It’s about I don’t like their cause and I don’t like their conduct. So there’s no price I would sell it to them for.”

Horowitz, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, also has talked of being infuriated by an Internet site that accused him of being part of a “Jewish Mafia” that controls Los Angeles.

The South Central Farmers group and supporters have emphatically denied engaging in anti-Jewish posturing, noting that many in their ranks are Jewish, including rabbis. They accuse Horowitz of playing the anti-Semitism card to divert criticism from him and to splinter an alliance of Westside Jews, environmentalists and South L.A. farmers that coalesced around saving the farm.

“I believe Horowitz thought he was getting a lot of bad press, and sometimes people believe that if you attack you can take the issue away from those people who are questioning what you’re doing,” said Dan Stormer, a civil rights attorney who’s representing the farmers. “The best defense is a good offense.”

Other observers say that Horowitz had plenty to be aggrieved about, and studies suggest that anti-Semitism is a real problem among Latinos. But evidence of actual anti-Semitism on the part of the farmers or leaders is slim or even nonexistent.

The recent battle over what many call the largest urban farm in the nation captured headlines around the world, pitting Horowitz against poor Latino farmers and do-gooder celebrities. With last week’s eviction looming, entertainers such as ’60s folk icon Joan Baez and actors Danny Glover, Martin Sheen and Laura Dern visited the farm site to show support. As pressure mounted and the bulldozers began rolling, many hoped Horowitz would buckle and sell the property, especially after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he helped cobble together a $16.3 million offer for the land — a bid that apparently met the asking price. (Some insiders say the complicated proposal would have demanded substantial good faith from Horowitz, such as a provision that would have required him to borrow $6 million against the property with the expectation of getting reimbursed within 18 months.)

In the end, though, Horowitz walked away from a deal that would have made him a media hero, one that would have allowed the farmers to continue growing their fruits and vegetables that, supporters say, some relied on for sustenance.

Why didn’t he sell? Horowitz told several media outlets that his anger toward farmers for squatting on his land and vilifying him had so alienated him that he wouldn’t sell to them for any price. He “disliked from the beginning,” he said, “the activists, the movie stars, the anarchists and the hard-nosed group.”

He also pointed out a land trust that offered to purchase the land had missed a deadline.

But what about the anti-Semitism bombshell — which is bound to reverberate through the Jewish community, while also raising questions about Horowitz’s timing and motives?

It’s not difficult to find implied and explicit anti-Semitism linked to the cause of the South Central farmers.

La Voz de Aztlan, a Web site that describes itself as “a totally independent news service,” offered that “Not many people are aware that Los Angeles has a powerful ‘Jewish Mafia’ that is in cahoots with the Los Angeles Police Department and many local elected politicians. … Through ‘backroom deals’ and collusion with certain Jewish L.A. City Council members, Ralph Horowitz was given ownership of the land and he has now placed an ‘eviction notice’ on the entrance to the farm.”

The AfroCubaWeb site linked to the La Voz story and in its summary added the word “sinister” in front of “Jewish land developer Ralph Horowitz.”

Such radical sites are widely dismissed as marginal and irrelevant, but a handful of arguably anti-Semitic posts also appeared on the leftie site la.indymedia.org. A poster who called himself “Farmboy” referred to “WHORE-witz”; “Susan” wrote: “There was a time in this country when Jews were also kept down. Do you remember that? It appears, Mr. Horowitz, that you’ve forgotten what prejudice is like. If it’s not about the money, then what is it about, Mr. Horowitz?”

Another poster submitted a picture of a Molotov cocktail and suggested it was time to use them.

Horowitz’s charges of anti-Semitism come at a time when Latino anti-Semitism in the United States has reached worrying levels. According to a 2005 Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey, 19 percent of American-born Latinos hold anti-Semitic beliefs, while 35 percent of foreign-born Latinos have such views. For Americans at large, the number for those with anti-Semitic views is 14 percent.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman has said Latino anti-Semitism stems from anti-Jewish teachings in the schools, churches and communities of Latin countries.

But is anti-Semitism the issue at the South L.A. farm? The local ADL branch has received no complaints alleging anti-Semitism on the part of the farmers or their supporters, said Alison Mayersohn, spokesperson for the ADL, Pacific Southwest Region.

The farmers and their allies explicitly disassociated themselves from anti-Semitism when word reached them that that Horowitz believed they had posted anti-Semitic comments on their Web site and/or linked to an anti-Semitic site. Both charges were untrue, and group leaders faxed a letter to Horowitz on June 9 — days before the eviction — to tell him that they condemned anti-Semitism.

“We have never engaged in such descriptions and would support you in speaking out against anti-Semitism,” the missive said. “In addition, many of the supporters of the South Central Farmers are Jewish.”

L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose Ninth District includes the urban farm, acknowledged that there have been ad homonym attacks on Horowitz, but she observed no anti-Semitism from anyone associated with the farm. Perry, who is African American and Jewish, has faced intense criticism herself for suggesting that the site could be used to generate local jobs and needed tax revenue.

Horowitz, apparently, could not be mollified. His enmity for the farmers and their supporters only grew after learning that anti-Semitic printouts from La Voz de Aztlan had circulated by unknown sources at L.A. City Hall. That Web site, which Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has called “venomous,” has no official or unofficial connection with the farmers.

Even so, the injection of anti-Semitism into the dispute by third parties apparently set Horowitz off. Rabbi Levi Cunin of Chabad of Malibu, who spoke with Horowitz by phone in a failed bid at bridging the gap between the two sides, said the developer expressed upset at being characterized as a stereotypical Jewish landlord.

In Cunin’s opinion, “it was a very complicated puzzle and [anti-Semitism] was just a part of it,” he said. Horowitz “was vilified strongly, and I think he felt very, very hurt by the way this was all dealt with.”

Farmer Alberto Tlatoa, 20, said Horowitz’s charges of anti-Semitism represented nothing less than the cynical attempt of a victimizer trying to portray himself as victim. Looking tired and dispirited two days after the forced eviction, he pointed to torn branches and twisted plants where his family’s three peach trees, squash and other fruits and vegetables once flourished.

“I want to call on him to look into his heart,” said Tlatoa, wearing a shirt bearing the message, “South Central Farmers Feeding Families.” “These are families just trying to survive, to feed their kids, to keep them away from gangs. That is not a crime.”

Stormer, the farmers’ attorney, said that he wouldn’t have represented them if he’d detected any anti-Semitism. Stormer says he will continue to pursue litigation to undo the eviction. His next appearance in court is scheduled for July 12, when he intends to challenge the city’s below-market sale of the property to Horowitz in 2003.

The tussle over the land dates back before 1986, when the city seized Horowitz’s land using the eminent domain process. Officials hoped to build a trash incinerator on the site, but community opposition derailed that project. After the 1992 riots, the city leased the land to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which began allowing people to cultivate the land. After a series of bruising court battles, Horowitz regained possession of his land in 2003 for about $5 million — a price well-below market level but close to what the city had paid him 17 years earlier. (As part of the deal, Horowitz agreed to donate 2.6 acres for a community soccer field.) Farmer supporters challenged the legality of the sale and continue to do so, characterizing it as a backroom sweetheart deal.

Insiders said Horowitz was initially open to working out a deal but lost interest after repeated attacks on his character. He also told several media outlets that he paid more than $25,000 per month to maintain the property but received not a penny from the squatting farmers.

Leaders of the farmers have recently come under scrutiny for alleged wrongdoing and intimidation. The L.A. Weekly reported allegations that the leaders evicted fellow farmers, even though they lacked legal authority, while also allegedly collecting “donations” from farmers. The leaders have denied the charges, saying those evicted had illegally subleased plots for personal gain.

Meanwhile, those sympathetic to Horowitz’s position have included Mark Williams, an African American board member of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. Williams accused “radical” farmer activists of both bad faith and race baiting over the history of the conflict. He said that it was his mother, activist Juanita Tate, who had originally helped broker a deal with the city for the farmers to use the land while it lay fallow, provided that the farmers would vacate when needed on 30 days notice.

That day arrived when the city agreed to return the land to Horowitz. Tate took the position that the farmers should abide by the agreement. In response, she was cast, said Williams, as “a black woman hostile to the new Latin majority in our community.”

Williams said that the attacks devastated Tate, the long-time executive director of Concerned Citizens, which community members founded in 1986 to block the proposed incinerator project. Tate died in 2004.

But resisting an eviction does not make the farmers racist or anti-Semitic, supporters said. In the weeks following the judge’s order to leave in late May, activists and celebrities built an encampment at the farm, including a kitchen, medic station and art space. A “sacred space” also appeared, which featured a menorah and other holy and spiritual relics, supporter Sarah Coffey said.

“The community that has been built here isn’t about race, religion or color,” she said. “It’s about sustainability and connectedness to the land.”

As last week’s eviction approached, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa amplified his effort to broker a solution that would have preserved the green space, which stands out in an industrial area — and in a city that is short on accessible urban parkland. Working with the Annenberg Foundation and Trust for Public Land, the mayor helped put together a deal that he thought would meet Horowitz’s asking price, said Darryl Ryan, the mayor’s press deputy.

Much to Villaraigosa’s chagrin, Horowitz torpedoed the deal, Ryan said.

“I think when it came down to it, Mr. Horowitz didn’t want to sell the land to the farmers,” he said. “Mr. Horowitz didn’t like the way they were treating him.”

Neither the mayor nor his staff members witnessed any anti-Semitism directed at Horowitz by the farmers or their supporters during their involvement, Ryan added.

The city has allocated a 7.8-acre site at 111th Street and Avalon Boulevard that would accommodate some 200 garden plots. Thirty displaced farmers already have begun cultivating the land. Some of the farmers remain dissatisfied with the substitute location for a variety of reasons. The city is looking for other potential garden sites as well.

Farm supporters hope beyond hope that somehow they will prevail in their struggle to regain the use of Horowitz’s property, although the odds appear dim at best.

As things stand, many of the avocado and peach trees have been cut down, along with the photogenic walnut tree in which actress Daryl Hannah had perched.

But has more been lost than an urban garden?

Horowitz’s “unfounded” charges of anti-Semitism have generated an anti-Jewish backlash among some Latinos, said Tezozomoc, an elected co-leader of the South L.A. farmers. The farmers, he said, feel angry about the developer’s besmirching them.

But others see continued good relations between the two ethnic groups.

“The dust-up over the garden is not going to have any serious impact on Latino-Jewish relations,” said David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates, Inc., an L.A.-based consulting group that focus on improving ties between the city’s diverse communities. “There are other more profound and deep-seated issues that could cause friction, but the garden isn’t one of them.”

 

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).

 

Unraveling the Red String


It’s just before midnight, and the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is bustling. Teenagers are hanging out on corners near the pharmacy and suited men and high-heeled women are walking from synagogue to synagogue to attend the lecture of their choice.

It’s the first night of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates when the Jews received the Torah, and it’s customary to stay up all night studying Jewish topics in what’s called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, which literally means a repair (as in tikkun olam). It’s a repair for the fact that the Israelites fell asleep the night before the Torah was given; they were not excited enough, so now Jews, throughout the centuries, have studied, sometimes in a private chevruta but often by listening to scholars speak.

Around this neighborhood — and the city — the standard lectures were being given on topics ranging from the Book of Ruth to Israel, but something off the beaten path was taking place on Robertson Boulevard in a lecture at Anshei Emet Synagogue. The subject was “Kabbalah and the Red String.”

Kabbalah is not often a topic studied by the Orthodox (who believe, according to tradition, that the mystical studies should only be done by scholars older than 40), and this was not necessarily a lecture one would expect to be delivered by Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, who is the head of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary and anti-cult center.

Jews for Judaism was founded 21 years ago “to keep Jews Jewish and defend the community from threats and missionaries.” Its primary purpose has been to train Jews to ward off traditional missionaries, such as Jews for Jesus (which its name seems to parody), messianic Jews, Mormons and Evangelical Christians.

But kabbalists?

At the late-night lecture addressed to some 40 men and women — seated separately on wood benches on the men’s side of the synagogue — Kravitz never mentioned any kabbalah institution by name. Well, not exactly. But add up the references to red string, Madonna, Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, expensive holy water and you can put it all together. The rabbi was alluding to the controversial practices of The Kabbalah Centre, whose L.A. base is on Robertson Boulevard.

“If Madonna can wear a T-shirt saying she’s a cult member, who am I to argue with her?” Kravitz said.

Kabbalah is a library of Jewish mystical writing initiated in the 12th and 13th centuries of the common era in the books of the Zohar. The Zohar tells you the mystical reasons of the commandments, and that when you follow these commandments, you hasten the bringing of the Messiah.

During the hourlong midnight lecture Kravitz discussed why the kabbalah being promulgated by celebrities at the Kabbalah Centre is not the real kabbalah of ancient Jewish mystics. He talked of what true mystical study really is and how religious Jews can benefit from it in their own spiritual practices.

He spoke of what it means to have spiritual kavanah, or intention, when you do something. Spiritual intention is good, he said, but intention without action is meaningless. Take charity for example. One can be meditating kabbalistically on charity, “but if there’s a person sitting opposite you starving to death, you’re commanded to actually feed them.”

Mystical thoughts can enhance spiritual practice, “but the action is always the main thing,” he said. “And without mentioning names, when people take the action out of it, they’re missing the purpose of why we do mitzvot and connecting to God.”

At the center, a common practice is to read letters and words repeatedly, including the Zohar, the original kabbalistic mystical text.

Kravitz earlier told The Journal in a phone interview that he didn’t want to focus on The Kabbalah Centre by name because “I’m not interested in giving them more publicity. It’s giving them credibility — they don’t belong in the paper — every time some star decides to do something with them, they deserve space in a Jewish paper?” he asked, referring to The Jewish Journal. “To me, they’re no different than Mormonism or Jews for Jesus or Scientology. They’re using the terminology to make themselves look Jewish, but they’re not part of it.”

This was not the first time Kravitz has delivered his lecture “Kabbalah and the Red String,” whose advance flyer included questions: “Why are people seeking answers to modern-day issues in an ancient Jewish wisdom? Why has kabbalah left so many disillusioned, angry and confused?”

In the last couple of years, he’s delivered the same talk at synagogues and institutions like the University of Judaism. But Kravitz’s open questioning of the center represents a shift in the notion of what constitutes today’s missionaries and today’s threats to Judaism.

“I don’t think cults have become less of a threat today; there are just different kinds of cults,” he said. “There are psychotherapy cults, freedom of mind cults…. People being pressured to volunteer and get their friends to join — if you’re told that you can’t benefit from the program, that may be a form of manipulation,” he said.

“I don’t need to call [The Kabbalah Centre] a cult. They don’t understand what a cult is. A cult is a group that uses deception and manipulation to keep members in its group.”

Rabbi Michael Berg, co-director of The Kabbalah Centre, was not available for comment as of press time. He has denied in the media that The Kabbalah Centre is a cult and rejects the idea that anyone is being brainwashed. In 2000, he told New Times, “One of the basic teachings of the center is, ‘Don’t accept a word that anyone tells you; you have to come to your own understanding and live with it.’ Unlike many other religious organizations, there’s no coercion. It’s the opposite of that. We’re very open that we need financial support to continue publishing books and running the organization, but there’s no push. It’s more like, ‘If you have a chance, please help us out.'”

Kravitz, of course, is far from being the first Jewish rabbi or academic scholar to denounce the center.

For example, in February, the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies hosted Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought, and chair of Hebrew University’s department of Jewish studies, to discuss “The History of Jewish Mysticism and West Coast Kabbalah.” Elior was much more direct than Kravitz. She said that The Kabbalah Centre is “part of the new age phenomenon, when ideas are for sale. The center would not be spending one day on this if they couldn’t sell it. Kabbalah was once a matter of defiance and freedom of creativity; nowadays it is www.kabbalah.com — not ‘dot-edu’ and not ‘dot-org’ — but commerce. The center is part of the new age, part of globalization. They are trying to couple spiritual grace with material success.”

“The Kabbalah Centres today have nothing to do with the Divine Plan for hidden meaning of the text or with any of that,” Elior said. “They are basically about selling books for people who don’t read them … or for people who believe that by having a red string or drinking holy water they are connecting to the mysteries of the world.”

But not all rabbis and scholars in the Jewish mainstream agree with Kravitz’s dire assessment.

Jody Myers, professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, is writing a book about the popularization of kabbalah in America. She doesn’t believe that there is any such thing as authentic kabbalah, and she points out that The Kabbalah Centre doesn’t claim to be part of the Jewish community. Myers says she neither condemns nor condones The Kabbalah Centre.

In terms of its fundraising, Myers says that The Kabbalah Centre needs to raise funds, as do all Jewish organizations; it’s just doing it differently.

“I think that the American Jewish community puts a lot of pressure on people to raise money. It costs an awful lot of money to be Jewish today,” she said. At The Kabbalah Centre, “there are no membership fees, there is no annual membership, they get money from selling stuff and charging for lectures and classes. And they get money asking people to donate to a good cause, which is them.”

The participants, she said “give their money freely; they feel very grateful for [the center] and they are getting something from them that they are not getting from somewhere else.”

In the past, The Kabbalah Centre has shrugged off its critics.

At one Shabbat service in 1997, which The Jewish Journal attended, center founder Philip Berg sermonized that rabbis who oppose the center “don’t want you to know the truth. They want you to live in chaos. They are the enemies of enlightenment.”

During the last two decades, Kravitz said that Jews for Judaism has worked with thousands of people — people targeted by missionaries and cults and their concerned family members — and in recent years, these have included people from the center. “The people that I’ve come into contact with clearly accuse The Kabbalah Centre of being very manipulative and being very deceptive with their promises,” he said.

What advice does Kravitz offer to those at risk of an unhealthy involvement?

“Always use critical thinking,” the rabbi said. “Always question. Don’t accept what people say because it sounds good at first.”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz will be teaching a countermissionary survival seminar Tuesday evenings through June 27 at 7:30 p.m. To register, call (310) 556-3344.

 

John Fishel


On Feb. 26, more than 150 volunteers gathered early at the headquarters of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for the annual Super Sunday megafundraiser. Having filled up on conversation, coffee and bagels, the enthusiastic, well-dressed men and women sat side-by-side at tables holding banks of telephones.

In 12 hours, 1,700 volunteers at three locations knew they had to raise almost 10 percent of The Federation’s entire annual campaign. Super Sunday can set the tone for the year. And with government funding shrinking, The Federation’s 22 aid agencies counted on this day as never before to help them meet the growing demand for their services. The Federation is a like a Jewish United Way; it acts as a single central source for donations, which it then distributes to various worthy causes. More specifically, The Federation supports Jews in need and programs that reflect on Jews here in Los Angeles, as well as around the world.

Before things kicked off, with so much at stake, the assembled got a final pep talk, but Federation President John Fishel, the man who holds possibly the single most important Jewish job in Los Angeles, didn’t deliver it. On this, the most important money-raising day for The L.A. Federation, where was Fishel?

Over the past 14 years, Fishel, a young-looking 57, has quietly, firmly and steadily led the Jewish philanthropic organization, determined to somehow unify the Southland’s geographically dispersed and largely unaffiliated Jewish community. In a city that prizes glitz and glamour, Fishel has shunned the spotlight, the backslapping and the glad-handing, preferring a low-key, almost professorial approach that places a premium on methodical problem solving. Whether attending the 50th anniversary party for the Westside Jewish Community Center, lobbying politicians to loosen the purse strings for Jewish nonprofits or taking a potential donor on a tour of Beit T’Shuvah, a Federation beneficiary agency that treats addiction partly through Jewish spirituality, Fishel routinely works six- or seven-day, 70-hour weeks.

“He’s the James Brown of the Jewish community, the hardest-working man in L.A. Jewry,” Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss said. “I see him everywhere.”

Although in some ways, Fishel is everywhere but nowhere. A bearded, slender man with a direct gaze, the shy Fishel seems to prefer keeping his own counsel. He sometimes materializes at events in his well-tailored suits and then slips away after talking to but a handful of folks.

Like Howard Hughes, The Federation president keeps his private self private. It is unlikely that many in the community know that the buttoned-down Fishel once sported long hair and promoted blues festivals in the early ’70s, or that he has never had a bar mitzvah.

Still, Fishel has left a notable mark in the Jewish world. He holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Michigan and once considered becoming an academic, and he has earned praise for his efforts on behalf of Jews abroad, especially in Israel. An internationalist in a largely domestic job, Fishel helped create the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership and has put the plight of Ethiopian Jews on the North American Jewish agenda.

Closer to home, his calm, analytical demeanor has allowed him to react effectively during crises, from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake to Hurricane Katrina. When others might panic, he coolly devises a plan of action for bringing far-flung members of the community together.

Fishel has fared less well on some of The Federation’s bread-and-butter everyday challenges. On his watch, several Jewish community centers have shut down and the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) has lost influence and standing (see stories on page 17). Most important, The Federation’s annual campaign, has grown sluggishly at a time when community needs have exploded.

So where was Fishel?

On this year’s Super Sunday, he was just where you’d expect: at The Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. In keeping with his low-key persona, though, Fishel stayed in the background, while others delivered inspiration to the volunteers.

Arriving at 7:30 a.m. — a full hour and a half before the fundraiser officially began — he greeted participants with a smile and expressions of thanks. Fishel spoke with Federation staff members to ensure that everything was under control. Then, he called potential donors and gave an interview to a KTLA reporter: “It’s wonderful to see people who live in different parts of the community, with different backgrounds and different ideologies, come together in a unified manner,” and chatted with bigwigs, including Councilman Weiss.

Fishel was just getting started. Around 11 a.m., he and a couple of Federation lay leaders left headquarters for the phone banks in the Valley. Later, he made his way to the Super Sunday fundraiser in the South Bay. That night, The Federation president returned to Wilshire Boulevard to mingle with the last shift of volunteers, mostly college students. He finally left The Federation to return to his Cheviot Hills home sometime after 10 p.m. — logging more than a 14-hour day.

This year’s Super Sunday raised about $4.4 million, about $100,000 less than last year, but still a solid financial foundation. And those involved included young and old, the religious and nonreligious, Israelis, Persians and Russians — an unprecedented rainbow of Southland Jews.

FEDERATION MATTERS

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is the central address for the local Jewish community, from helping to underwrite the cost of Jewish burials to subsidizing free groceries for the poor, The Federation is involved in myriad vital facets, big and small, of Los Angeles Jewish life.

“If we didn’t have The [L.A.] Federation, we would have to create it,” said Steven Windmueller, director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “Ultimately, a community needs an infrastructure for prioritizing, organizing, programming and crisis management.”

Federation initiatives include literacy programs for elementary and preschool students, a venture philanthropy fund that invests in fledgling businesses that benefit the Jewish community and, most recently, a program that coordinates services to Jewish children with developmental or severe learning disabilities.

The Federation most often makes its presence felt through 22 beneficiary agencies. Federation dollars help subsidize the SOVA Food Pantry Program for the hungry, pay for job training offered by Jewish Vocational Service and support the Jewish Free Loan Association, which offers Jewish couples interest-free loans of up to $10,000 for fertility treatments, among other programs.

“There are old people, children, homeless people, the disenfranchised and other people who constantly need help,” said Terry Bell, a former Federation chair who headed the search committee that recommended hiring Fishel. “We do extremely important things that people aren’t even aware of that wouldn’t get done without The Federation.”

The Federation’s reach goes well beyond Southern California. In times of crisis, The Federation has raised millions to help struggling communities around the world, most recently in Argentina. Federation allocations support everything from sending local college students to Israel to subsidizing Jewish day schools. Overseas, Federation dollars have helped support the renaissance of Jewish life in the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

In some ways, The L.A. Federation is flourishing as never before. The charity’s international programs are stronger than ever. Under Fishel, the organization has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to respond to emergencies both at home and abroad, despite the bureaucratic nature of the federation system. The Federation has raised millions for special campaigns for Israel, Soviet Jews and other causes, and has an endowment of $67 million.

Locally, KOREH L.A., a literacy program that is reaching more students than ever, has burnished the Jewish philanthropy’s reputation, introducing scores of volunteers and clients in need to The Federation and its mission. Moreover, at Fishel’s prodding, The Federation increased its annual allocations to the Bureau of Jewish Education by $1 million, funding scores of scholarships for Jewish day school students and capital improvement projects at their schools.

But The Federation’s annual campaign, its lifeblood, has grown anemically during the Fishel era. In particular, The Federation has been largely unable to reach Hollywood money or attract huge donations from affluent Jews not already involved. A shrinking and aging donor base poses a real threat to future giving. And there’s the looming challenge of appealing to younger Jews, a group more attracted to non-Jewish causes than past generations.

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WHO ARE YOU?

Federation supporters know surprisingly little about the person most responsible for The Federation’s current and future prospects.

Ask board members, even those who consider Fishel a friend, and a steady stream of generic adjectives tumbles out: “Kind,” “brilliant,” “committed,” “thoughtful” and “hard-working,” come up most frequently. A JDate profile would provide more than that.

What about anecdotes?

Bell, the former Federation chair, said she and her husband hosted Fishel; his wife, Karen, and their daughter, Jessica, for one week at their home, back when Fishel was undergoing a second round of interviews for his current job. The Fishels, Bell said, were “easy to feed, easy to be around,” she said. “They didn’t demand anything.”

And what about John Fishel? What’s he like?

He’s well-read and interested in “everything under the sun,” conversant about art, politics, food, music and wine, Bell said.

Another Federation board member said he once saw Fishel materialize late one Saturday night at a jazz club clad in a leather jacket. They exchanged pleasantries.

Who is John Fishel?

He’s someone who wants to reveal the answer to that question on only a need-to-know basis. Through The Federation’s spokeswoman, Fishel turned down a request to trail him for the day during Super Sunday or to spend a large block of time watching him in action. Nor would he agree to a lunch or dinner appointment. Near the end of a second recent formal interview — and after years of contact — Fishel opened up, a little.

He was born in Cleveland in 1948. His late father, Richard, owned a company that manufactured sweaters. His late mother, Adelee, stayed home to care for John and younger brother Jim. His family belonged to a local Reform synagogue, where Fishel was confirmed but never bar mitzvahed.

At a young age, Fishel decided that he wanted to venture into the larger world. Even then, other cultures fascinated him. He majored in anthropology at the University of Michigan and later began, but never completed, an anthropology master’s program there.

Leaving the university, Fishel parlayed his interest in blues and jazz into a turn as a music promoter in the early 1970s, partnering with his brother, Jim. John Fishel promoted shows featuring B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and went on to produce the famed Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He developed enough of a reputation that Rolling Stone once quoted him.

Tiring of the hectic life of a promoter, Fishel decided to become a social worker. Graduating from the University of Michigan in 1972 with a master’s in social work, he soon landed back in Cleveland as a caseworker in the Welfare Department. A year later, he headed to Africa for an extended backpacking adventure.

His Jewish journey began a few years later, when Fishel took a position doing community work for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. There, he began to consider issues of Jewish identity and, on his own, studied Judaism and Jewish history. In effect, he began applying his anthropological training to his own roots. Fishel soon became an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Two years after arriving in Philadelphia, he moved on to became director of the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which has helped Jewish and other immigrants coming to the United States for more than 100 years. Through his new job, Fishel developed a deepening appreciation for the plight of Jews around the world, especially those fleeing post-revolutionary Iran and the Soviet Union.

Years later, after becoming executive vice president of the Jewish Federation in Montreal, Fishel finally made his first trip behind the Iron Curtain. In 1986, he visited Moscow and Lithuania. He came armed with hard-to-obtain Judaica and blue jeans that he gave to local Jews. He also secretly met with Refuseniks, Jews denied permission to emigrate.

In Lithuania, Fishel joined a group of Refuseniks who, in a park near the capital city of Vilnius, placed homemade Jewish Stars, fashioned from cardboard, where Nazis had executed Jews.

“I was really scared,” Fishel said. “But you want to know something? I figured, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? They’ll detain me and then let me go. I’m an American citizen. Those guys were stuck there. They were truly courageous.”

THE GOOD; THE NOT SO GOOD

Fishel never visited Israel until after he turned 40, but he has since traveled to the Holy Land more than 50 times, spending time with prime ministers, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and fellow leaders in the Jewish communal world.

“I happen to believe that Israel is our Jewish state,” he said. “I think that the centrality of Israel as a focal point of Judaism and Jewish life historically and in contemporary times is very unique and very special.”

Fishel has played a major role in the successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, a 9-year-old program that fosters cooperation and connections between local Jews and Jews in Tel Aviv in education, health, culture and economics.

Under the multifaceted partnership, 18 Tel Aviv and 18 local schools have been “twinned,” sharing programming and lesson plans and frequently interacting via video conferencing and e-mail. In addition, curators from museums in Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, including the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have participated in institutional exchanges. Federation and other community leaders also successfully lobbied Israeli politicians to allow Tel Aviv to become the first Israeli city to issue municipal bonds (the proceeds funded a parking garage). The list goes on.

The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership is “a jewel and an unusually creative and innovative approach to relating to Israel in a new way,” said Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and the founding director of Hebrew Union College. “That is, as a partnership rather than the old liberal, colonial way of sending money to a benighted people.”

More than that, participating local residents have gained a greater appreciation of the larger Jewish world, their own Jewish identity and the importance of The Federation, experts said. The Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership later spawned the successful Federation-sponsored Los Angeles-Baltics Partnership.

The Tel Aviv program might never have been birthed without Fishel’s dedication. Originally, the Jewish Agency, which called on federations across the United States to fund regional development in Israel, wanted The L.A. Federation to link with either Galilee in the north or the Negev in the south. Fishel, with the support of the lay leadership, rejected those options. Instead, he chose Tel Aviv, a large metropolis more appealing to local Jews because of its accessibility, sophistication, cultural life and large pool of potential individual and institutional partners.

Fishel’s willingness to defy the Jewish Agency, the bedrock of the Jewish communal establishment, reflects his ability to think, in his words, “out of the box,” especially on international issues. The Federation president would again employ that out-of-the-box thinking for the Jews of Ethiopia (see sidebar) and for Argentina’s Jewish community.

In December 2001, Argentina’s economy crashed. Almost overnight, the country’s middle class was plunged into penury; families lost their life savings. The crisis hit the Jewish community hard, with an estimated one-third of Argentina’s Jews falling into poverty.

Diana Fiedotin, a member of The Federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee, viewed the economic collapse firsthand while visiting the country in February 2002, to attend a wedding.

After Fiedotin returned to the United States, she started the Lifeline to Argentina with local Rabbi Sherre Z. Hirsch of Sinai Temple. Fishel suggested that Fiedotin expand her fundraising to synagogues across the city. The Federation president put Fiedotin in touch with Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Fishel later made an unsolicited gesture that floored Fiedotin: The Federation would offer a matching grant of up to $1 million to Lifeline to Argentina. The campaign eventually reached that target and, thanks to Fishel and The Federation’s generosity, Lifeline contributed $2 million to alleviate the suffering.

“He’s always open to new ways of raising money and creative ways of bringing different elements of this community together,” Fiedotin said. “I never could have done this without John. I and the Jewish community of Argentina owe him.”

Fishel’s international efforts, dating back to his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, have won him widespread respect from colleagues, said Bob Aronson, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “We turn to him for advice and guidance,” he said.

Still, some in the community think Fishel focuses on overseas issues at the expense of a domestic agenda. Carmen H. Warschaw, a longtime Federation board member and former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party, said Fishel’s international emphasis meant less money for such important beneficiary agencies as Jewish Family Service and Jewish Vocational Service.

“There has to be more of a balance, with more of an emphasis on things in our front and backyards,” Warschaw said.

Fishel said he believes The Federation allocates its resources well to ensure that the nonprofit meets both local and international needs. He makes no apologies about helping Jews in need wherever they are.

“I’m very committed to the concept of Jewish people-hood,” Fishel said.

About 70 percent of every dollar the local Federation raises in its annual campaign supports domestic programs. Thirty percent goes for overseas programming and relief.

COOL IN A CRISIS

Fishel receives consistently high marks, even from detractors, for his ability to bring the community together in times of crisis.

Within 48 hours of the devastating Northridge Earthquake, The Federation president had overseen the production of a manual containing names and numbers of the agencies victims could call for counseling, health care, shelter and other services, said Irwin Field, a Federation Executive Committee member and past Federation chair.

“He was the one who really got everything rolling, made things happen and saw them through to the end,” said Field, who also chairs the board of L.A. Jewish Publications, publisher of The Jewish Journal. (The Journal is not affiliated with The Federation.)

At the same time, Fishel had to ascertain whether The Federation staff would have to leave the 6505 Wilshire headquarters because of earthquake damage. After experts concluded the structure had become unsafe, Fishel oversaw the evacuation and move into temporary quarters. He later helped raise $22 million to renovate and retrofit 6505, said Herb Gelfand, former Federation board chair.

After the 1999 shooting spree by a white supremicist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, Fishel quickly showed up on the scene. The Federation helped arrange counseling for traumatized victims and took measures to improve the center’s security.

Fishel recently again displayed his knack for quick response. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Fishel contacted Jewish federations and other agencies in Baton Rouge, La.; Jackson, Miss., and Houston to find out what evacuees fleeing to those cities needed. In just a few days, the L.A. Federation had raised $600,000 to help the Jewish and non-Jewish refugees.

The philanthropic group also brought local Jewish agencies together to provide therapy, job training and other services to homeless Katrina victims who made their way to the Southland. In addition, The Federation rented about a dozen trucks that transported clothing, canned food and other supplies collected by area synagogues to the Gulf Coast.

The Federation, at Fishel’s behest, also gave Hillel $20,000 to help underwrite the costs of sending students from USC and Cal State Northridge to the Gulf Coast to help with rebuilding efforts, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. The Federation’s generosity, he said, has improved its image among many Jewish college students, a demographic the philanthropic organization desperately wants to reach.

“John may be at his best when things are at their worst,” said Gelfand, the former Federation chair.

But some community leaders offer a more mixed assessment when it comes to issues not so clear-cut as providing emergency aid. One such complicated task is community building, which embodies the challenge of raising and distributing money, while simultaneously fostering Jewish identity.

The Boston Federation oversees two innovative adult Jewish education programs that have touched the lives of more than 2,700 area Jews and, in the process, strengthened ties to The Federation.

Me’ah (which means “100” in Hebrew) is a two-year, 100-hour intensive learning program that includes immersion in core Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible and rabbinics. More than 1,800 Bostonians have graduated from the course, which is heavily subsidized to maintain the low tuition price of $500 per person. The Boston Federation and Hebrew College also offer Ikkarim (“essence” in Hebrew), which provides Jewish education (and free child care during classes) for the parents of preschoolers.

“We want people to think it’s just as important to know Maimonides and love the Torah as it is to love Plato, Homer or Shakespeare,” said Barry Shrage, a leader of the effort and president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

The Boston Federation’s investment has probably already paid off. From 1995 to 2006, the annual campaign of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies increased by 57 percent to $34.2 million in a city of 200,000 Jews, growing at a significantly higher rate than the nation’s federations as a whole.

In contrast, a high-profile community-building effort in Los Angeles proved a bust.

In 2001, Fishel’s Federation lured Rabbi David Woznica to come West from New York City’s prestigious 92nd Street Y. In New York, Woznica oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures per year. More than 1,200 Jews regularly attended his High Holiday services. His travels and lectures around the world enhanced both his and the Y’s reputation.

In Los Angeles, Woznica was hired at a six-figure salary on the eve of Federation layoffs.

Then, critics said, The Federation never maximized Woznica’s talents by establishing forums for him to reach large numbers of Jews. So adrift was The Federation that it formed a special committee months after hiring Woznica to figure out how to best use him. The respected rabbi ended up becoming The Federation’s best-kept secret; he spent much of his time offering private tutorials to well-heeled donors and Federation executives. He left The Federation in 2004 for a rabbi’s position at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

“Fishel never really followed through,” said Pini Herman, a demographer and former Federation research coordinator who was laid off. “You would have thought that he would have paved the way for the success of a high-value personnel acquisition like Woznica, but he didn’t. Fishel left him kind of twisting in the wind.”

Woznica could not be reached for comment for this article. In the past, he has said he worked tirelessly at The Federation to help elevate the role of Judaism there and throughout the community.

Fishel responded that, in time, The Federation would have figured a better way to expand Woznica’s community visibility and impact.

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Fishel has the challenge of raising money in a wealthy but difficult market. Failing in this task literally would mean fewer free meals for the hungry, the elimination of job-training programs or even the shuttering of homeless shelters.

On a macro level, federations, including Los Angeles, are “very healthy institutions, when you include all their assets, including endowments,” said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco.

But there’s reason for concern. The nation’s federations raised a total of $859.5 million in their 2004 annual campaigns, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That’s up only 4 percent from 2000.

Time was, federations received the lion’s share of Jewish charitable giving. In a world with virulent anti-Semitism and constant threats to Israel, federations were seen as the protector and exemplar of Jewish values and interests.

That began to change, though, as Jews became more assimilated. Hospitals, symphonies and universities that once shunned Jews not only began to accept their money but appointed them to their boards. That mainstream acceptance led Jews to give less to federations and more to secular institutions. Suddenly, the federations’ pull on Jewish giving began to wane.

“If you used to ask somebody about their Jewish giving, they would tell you about a nonprofit that had the word Jewish or Israel in its title,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, which represents more than 1,000 Jewish family foundations. “Now, especially with younger donors, they talk about charities that reflect their Jewish values, which could be a gift to a local food pantry or an environmental organization, rather than to a Jewish organization.”

Over the past eight years, the number of Jewish family foundations has exploded, jumping from about 2,500 to 8,000. Those foundations, Charendoff said, control an estimated $30 billion in assets and give to a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to education. They have undoubtedly siphoned money away from federations, which some megadonors see as distant, unresponsive bureaucracies.

Another problem is that L.A.’s Jewish community is geographically dispersed, lacking the traditional powerful machers who enforce community giving elsewhere. Recently, competing Jewish institutions such as the Wiesenthal Center and the Skirball Cultural Center have appeared on the scene, further complicating things.

And surveys show that Californians, including Angelenos, give less per capita than Americans in many other places. They also volunteer less, said Donna Bojarsky, a Jewish Community Relations Committee board member and a Democratic Party public policy consultant who advises such celebrities as Richard Dreyfuss.

“L.A. is a particularly hard nut to crack,” she said.

Fishel’s Federation has made some noteworthy attempts at trying.

In response to donor demands for more control, The Federation helped create the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of Los Angeles. Over the past four years, this self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to start-up and existing nonprofits that benefit Jews, including the teen magazine, JVibe, and a Jewish Vocational Service program that targets Jewish Russian and Iranian immigrants for training as certified nurses.

Several Venture Philanthropy participants, each of whom has contributed at least $10,000, were first-time L.A. Federation donors, said Andrew Cushnir, vice president of planning for The Federation and staff head of the Venture Philanthropy Fund.

“John has been a major champion of the fund,” Cushnir said. “He has been more than willing to let the fund experiment, learn and grow.”

The Federation has also greatly improved outreach to young Jews — tomorrow’s big givers. The Federation replaced a money-losing leadership program with the apparently more successful Young Leadership Division, which, unlike its predecessor, places more emphasis on Jewish education and spirituality, although a social component still exists. The Federation also funds Taglit-birthright israel, the New Leaders Project and young leadership groups within its women’s, real estate and entertainment campaign divisions.

Federation-supported programs have touched the lives of thousands of young Jews, said Craig Prizant, The Federation’s executive vice president for financial resource development. That outreach has more than paid off, he added. “On a yearly basis, our young leadership initiatives are now raising about $5 million, or nearly 5 percent of our annual campaign.”

Not good enough, say critics. In 2005, The Federation’s annual campaign raised $47.3 million. (Overall, The Federation raised $55 million, when one-time gifts, special campaigns and other targeted giving are included.) Although last year’s annual campaign total represented a 6 percent increase over 2004, that’s only 2 percent more than the $46.4 million raised in 1990.

“I think at this point we ought to be around $60 million or $65 million,” said Leo Dozoretz, an ex-Federation board member and former president of the Valley Alliance, The Federation’s San Fernando Valley operation. “We’re the second largest community in the world behind New York. Los Angeles even has more Jews than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.”

Dozoretz doesn’t hold Fishel responsible for The Federation’s middling performance. A weak lay leadership, among other factors, has contributed, he said.

Others are less understanding. They point to Fishel’s lack of charisma, The Federation’s alleged indifferent treatment of donors who are not megarich and Fishel’s inability to entice Hollywood Jews and other potential megadonors.

Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel
Former President Bill Clinton meets John Fishel.

In Southern California, charisma counts. An actor, director or producer with a megawatt smile and engaging personality can get farther than an equally talented but bland counterpart. What’s true for Hollywood can also hold for the corporate and nonprofit worlds. That partly explains why a gregarious charmer like Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal center can so easily coax big donations out of supporters, said a former high-ranking L.A. Federation fundraising executive.

Fishel, by contrast, often fades into the background, appearing ill at ease at social gatherings. He lacks “star power,” said the fundraiser, who asked not to be identified.

Fishel’s low-key, no-nonsense manner might serve him well in a down-to-earth place such as Minneapolis or Milwaukee but is no asset in Southern California, the land of Botox and BMWs. “Look, people live next door to movie stars here. They want entertainment value,” the fundraiser said.

Fishel responded that he’d prefer being perceived as honest, ethical and committed, rather than as Mr. Personality.

Another former Federation fundraising executive said he thought the organization treated donors giving less than $25,000 with indifference. Sure, a $10,000 donor might get invited to a special dinner or to participate on a mission to Israel, but Federation officials, he said, make little effort to make that person feel special. That absence of a personal touch has turned off some givers, leading them to give elsewhere, the ex-fundraiser said.

“The attitude some donors have is that you come to me once a year, you get my money and you come back when you want more,” he said. “And, in between, I’m not really thought of a great deal.”

Fishel said The Federation tries to be accessible and engaged with the broadest base of donors, although, given the number of contributors, that can sometimes prove a challenge. Still, Fishel said, he personally calls or has the appropriate staff member phone all donors — and non-donors — who contact him for assistance.

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

Critics say that one of Fishel’s greatest failings has been his inability to tap into Hollywood. Imagine, they ask, how much bigger the annual campaign would be if such Jewish entertainment royalty as Barbra Streisand, David Geffen and Michael Eisner began writing million-dollar checks? Supporters counter that Hollywood is a narcissistic world unto itself, virtually deaf to appeals by anyone outside its small circle of players.

Some of the industry’s Jewish titans are “self-hating Jews,” said Lynn Pollock, a Federation board member and a former vice president at Paramount Pictures. Others have long identified more with “American Protestant” traditions, she said, rather than Jewish ones in their films and in their lives.

“How in the world is John supposed to accommodate these types of whimsical people, who are used to getting whatever they want and living in a kind of la-la land?” Pollock said.

Former Federation Chair Gelfand remembers his own brush with Jewish Hollywood and its unhappy ending. In the late 1980s, he persuaded two powerful entertainment executives to co-chair a major fundraising campaign for Soviet Jewry. The co-chairs — one a former studio head, the other a former talent agency bigwig — hoped to attract $10 million from their Jewish colleagues. After just three weeks, the pair resigned, having raised a grand total of zero dollars, Gelfand said.

Not everyone gives Fishel a pass. Movie producer Scott Einbinder said The Federation missed an opportunity to engage young, Jewish Hollywood when it unexpectedly pulled its sponsorship from Vodka Latka, a party/fundraiser he co-founded, which raised money for Jewish nonprofits. Vodka Latka also increased young Hollywood’s awareness about The Federation and funneled dozens of new members to the Jewish philanthropic organization, he said.

“Vodka Latka was definitely meant to be a bridge to The Federation, to show young Jews in the entertainment industry that The Federation could be more than an organization that just asks for money,” Einbinder said. “We wanted to help The Federation compete with sexier philanthropic organizations around L.A., organizations that are considered cooler and have more celebrities involved.”

After the 2002 event, which attracted more than 1,000 revelers to the Hollywood Palladium, The Federation bowed out. At the time, Federation executives said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time. Fishel suggested the event was terrific but on the verge of becoming stale. The Progressive Jewish Alliance now holds the Vodka Latka soiree.

In the entertainment business, as in some other industries in town, Fishel said, “there’s no clarity in terms of what makes them want to be engaged Jewishly.”

The same apparently goes for potential new donors among the megarich, said Bubis, the former Federation vice president who has such praise for Fishel’s international work. The Federation president, Bubis said, has failed to provide an overarching vision that would inspire those givers.

Last year, The Federation received no million-dollar gifts for its annual campaign. The organization has made going after large donors a bigger priority going forward, Federation executives said.

And there’s some good news on that front. Earlier this year, an anonymous donor made a $3 million unrestricted gift, sources confirmed.

So has Fishel done a good enough job making The Federation attractive to donors?

Fishel himself believes more needs to be done.

“When need outdistances the means to do all of the good things brought to The Federation for support, you always want to raise more,” he said.

Fishel took the helm of the L.A. Federation in 1992, during a period of great uncertainty. The Southland’s recession had taken a bite out of the annual campaign; the institution was in turmoil. Fishel righted The Federation’s finances through spending cuts and layoffs.

Besides restoring stability, he also worked on inclusiveness, several Federation leaders said. Over the years, Fishel reached out to Persian, Israeli and Russian Jews, said attorney David Nahai, a Federation board member.

Fishel has received mostly positive marks from Federation watchers, despite much dissatisfaction over the handling of the Jewish community centers and the Jewish Community Relations Committee. Tobin of the Institute for Jewish Community Research called him “one of the most thoughtful and really analytical executives in The Federation field.” UJC President and Chief Executive Howard M. Rieger called Fishel “one of the best we’ve got.”

The pressures of running The L.A. Federation have sometimes gotten to Fishel. A few years back, he briefly considered leaving The Federation after other Jewish organizations expressed an interest in him, including the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. These days, though, Fishel insisted that he couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve had 30-plus years working in Jewish communal life. I’ve had a lot of really amazing experiences meeting some extraordinary people here in this country and around the world, ” he said. “I love what I do.”

 

The Sinai Century


Every Sunday morning, on Valencia Street in downtown Los Angeles, the Welsh Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles holds services in a sloped brick house of worship with stained glass windows picturing Stars of David.

The stars are Jewish stars, and the church organ is the one used in the Jewish services of the building’s former occupants, members of Congregation Sinai, or as it is known today, Sinai Temple. Formed in 1906 by a group of young men in their 20s and 30s, the Conservative synagogue remained at 1153 Valencia St. until 1925, when the congregation sold the property to the Presbyterians.

Now, two buildings and a handful of cantors and rabbis later, Westwood’s Sinai Temple is celebrating its 100-year anniversary.

How do you celebrate 100 years of history?

Sinai Temple began the party in December, with a communitywide Mitzvah Day, and has held events throughout the year. The celebration will culminate in two events: this weekend’s program featuring scholar-in-residence Elie Wiesel, and a June musical performance at the Wilshire Theatre combined with an evening dinner/dance at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

Another way to celebrate 100 years is to start planning the next 100, according to David Wolpe, Sinai’s rabbi for the last nine of them. Wolpe suffers from no shortage of ideas: Eight years ago, he started Friday Night Live, a monthly musical service for 21-39-year-olds, which has been replicated at congregations around the world. And recently, he asserted in a speech and an essay that the entire Conservative movement, which is struggling and divided, ought to be renamed “Covenental Judaism” and thus redefined for the future. Under his leadership, the synagogue has embarked on a two-year, $36 million Sinai Centennial Campaign to expand the synagogue and its services. Some $14 million has been raised so far; donor levels are set from $10,000 to $5 million.

The money will be used to purchase additional property, renovate existing
facilities (including Sinai Akiba day school, which was founded in 1968 and
educates 600 students from kindergarten through eighth grade) and create an adult education center, a parenting place and a counseling center.

“I would like to create a model of synagogue that will be able to help other synagogues figure out how to do this right,” Wolpe told The Journal. Los Angeles is “the most important city in the world,” in terms of influence, he said, and that also applies to Jewish life and to creating innovative programs.

How do you sum up 100 years of history? That’s the task of historian Florie Brizel, who was hired by Sinai two years ago to write the history of the shul. She just completed “Sinai Temple: A Centennial History,” a narrative that runs more than 200 pages.

The young adult immigrants who established Sinai in 1906 — incorporating it in 1908 — just wanted a synagogue that wasn’t exactly Orthodox, but was definitely not Reform.

“It was in response to the choices that were available, which was Orthodox, which didn’t suit a lot of those pioneers, and the new German Reform, which just wasn’t enough,” said Brizel, co-author of “Words That Shook the World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events” (Prentice Hall Press, 2001). “For all intents and purposes, they wanted to be Orthodox, but not quite.”

There was mixed seating and an organ but traditional prayers.

In a way, the history of the temple and congregation is the history of Jewish Los Angeles, with the migration toward the Westside and the integration of diverse Jewish communities.

In 1925, the congregation moved to 3412 W. Fourth St., at the corner of New Hampshire Avenue, where it stayed for 35 years (the building is now used by the Korean Philadelphia Presbyterian church). In 1960, Sinai moved to its current location in Westwood, on Wilshire and Beverly Glen boulevards.

“That big move was about maintaining the congregation,” Brizel said. “Everyone was moving west from the Boyle Heights area. They wanted Beverly Hills. Young people were not staying in the congregation so they said, ‘We’re going to have to stay where our members are.'”

Over the years, there were many rabbis, beginning with Jacob Kohn. Other rabbis have included David Lieber and Jacob Pressman.

Some of Sinai’s leaders influenced the path of Conservative Judaism, including Lieber, who headed the University of Judaism. Sinai was known especially for its music, with cantors such as Carl Urstein, Meir Finkelstein and Lieb Glantz.

One event that radically changed Sinai — and Los Angeles — was the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the influx of Persian Jews to Los Angeles.

“Up until the Iranian revolution in 1979, Sinai was traditional Ashkenazi,” said temple historian Brizel, even though there’d already been a handful of Persian members.

Jimmy Delshad came to Los Angeles in 1960 with his brothers from Iran (via Israel), and when he became a citizen in 1972, he and his wife wanted to join a synagogue. At first they tried Sephardic Temple, but the services were more Ladino — from the Spanish-Jewish tradition — than close to the Persian services he was accustomed to, or the Israeli ones familiar to his wife. They joined Sinai, in the end, because they enjoyed the rabbi’s speeches.

The influx of Persian Jews to Sinai Temple was “organic,” Brizel said. “On Shabbat, everybody would go to the synagogue to find out who was here. It was the trading space for information,” she said, noting that traditionally, synagogues were always meeting houses and especially for Persians during the Iranian revolution.

Friday nights was when the American Jews would come to shul, but the Persians, who traditionally worshipped on Saturday morning, would come to the synagogue Friday night mainly to socialize and to reconnect. Many left Iran with just the clothes on their backs, so they appreciated the food at the shul’s Kiddush on Saturdays.

Near the beginning of the Persian influx, some longstanding members decided to cancel the Kiddush one week because they said they felt outnumbered by the amount of Iranians. But the move provoked an outcry with others in the shul responding that Jews don’t do that to other Jews and they had to have an open-arms policy. They reinstated the weekly post-prayer fete.

“It was a difficult adjustment, just like when any other new group comes in,” said Ed Kaminer, a dentist, lawyer and general contractor who was president of the temple from 1969-71. “Each group looks at them, ‘How dare they come into our shul?’ It wouldn’t matter if they were Russians, Romanians.”

Sinai’s longtime members, especially older ones, worried about having to give up customs and being supplanted.

“It takes a while,” Kaminer said. “The younger ones find it easier. It takes a generation or two.”

Added Brizel: “It took several rabbis chastising the congregation and it still takes some work. Some people left. It took years before the congregation really settled down and started to behave properly.”

She noted a “cultural disconnect.” For example, in Iran, Jews didn’t pay membership dues. It was more of a pay-as-you-go institution. Volunteerism was also a Western concept.

“My wife promoted volunteerism. She helped me figure out that volunteerism is a good thing to do,” Delshad said. The mentality in other countries is more “why do I have to do that?” he said.

Delshad also recalled a night, long ago, when he looked at the bimah and remarked on the men who stood up there beside the rabbi and the cantor.

“Who are they?” he asked his father-in-law.

The temple’s president and vice president, he was told.

“You don’t have to worry about it,” his father-in-law said, because you needed 20 years of service to the synagogue, you had to give a lot of money and Delshad was Persian.

“That will never happen in your lifetime,” his father-in-law told him. “This is an Ashkenazi shul,”

“Something cracked in my head that night [and I decided] I will change that attitude,” said Delshad, who was named Sinai’s man of the year in 1990.

It took Delshad, currently a Beverly Hills’ city councilman, 12 years — not 20 — but from 1999-2001 he became the first Persian Jew to serve as president of Sinai. Delshad, along with others, like Wolpe, have worked to integrate the Ashkenazim and Persians, whose numbers are split about 50-50 in the 1,900-member synagogue.

Today, the synagogue has other pressing challenges, some related to local matters — like whether his younger congregants can afford Westside real estate; others related to wider issues involving Judaism.

“We have all the problems of Westside Jews,” Wolpe said. He has recently spoken on such topics as the value of parents saying no to children — not because parents can’t, but because they won’t. He also spoke last month about the importance of treating hired help — which is mostly Latino — with respect, as Los Angeles’ Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, stood by his side.

“The biggest single problem is continued education and connection to Jewish life,” Wolpe said. “To raise kids who still feel passionately about Jewish life in America.”

The proposed new facilities and programs should help. Through the new parenting and the counseling centers, Wolpe hopes to inculcate Jewish values and modern psychology to newlyweds and parents. And he plans to maintain and build on Sinai’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning, its adult education center.

“Nobody 100 years ago could possibly have any idea what Jewish life would be like now. Just as we have no idea what it will be like in 100 years,” Wolpe said. “But I believe that powerful, active institutions make the difference.”

For more information on events at Sinai Temple, visit www.sinaitemple.org.

 

Pentecostal Revival Embraces Israel


In uncounted speeches before diverse audiences, Ehud Danoch, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, would never have expected such an enthusiastic reception.

Addressing 16,000 Pentecostal Christians in the jam-packed L.A. Sports Arena last week, Danoch pledged, as he has done time and again, that Israel would never give in to terrorism.

His listeners, a rainbow of races and ages, rose as one, raised their arms heavenward and shouted “Hallelujah,” while two dozen large shofars joined in the joyful noise unto the Lord.

A few minutes later, the scene repeated — when Danoch mentioned Israel’s upcoming 58th Independence Day celebration. Cheers even rung out from beyond the building, with an overflow audience of 4,000 in the adjoining L.A. Memorial Coliseum joining in as they watched on giant video monitors.

For Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, believed to number some 500 million to 600 million around the world, the exhilaration and exuberance of the reception was a trademark of their worship and faith, and a reaffirmation of their fervent support for Israel.

The all-day prayer service at the Sports Arena climaxed a weeklong celebration by 35,000 of the faithful from 113 countries, who had gathered for the Azusa Street Centennial and Revival in downtown Los Angeles. The numbers were impressive, though considerably less than the 100,000 predicted in advance publicity.

Pentecostals trace the official beginning of their “belief system” to April 1906, when William Seymour started preaching at a ramshackle building at 312 Azusa St. in what is now Little Tokyo.

The remarkable Seymour, the son of slaves, was contemptuously described by that era’s Los Angeles Times as “a one-eyed illiterate Negro preacher,” who attracted throngs of worshippers “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.”

Seymour’s basic doctrine remains the common bond among many independent Pentecostal and Charismatic groups and churches. They affirm that through baptism they receive the spiritual gifts of speaking in “unknown” tongues, prophesy, healing and performing of miracles, as an inheritance from Jesus’ first apostles.

An official pamphlet at the Centennial described the revival’s central message, as fostered by Seymour, as “receiving Holy Spirit Baptism with the accompanying initial evidence. Shouting, dancing, ‘falls under the power,’ weeping and prophetic testimony and speaking in tongues.”

While Seymour’s first followers were poor blacks, he soon attracted many white adherents, in the process forming the first inter-racial church in Los Angeles.

The common bond of the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the United States, Asia and Africa is the hunger for an emotional, spontaneous expression of faith, and a rejection of the formal, institutionalized worship of the old, established denominations.

The focus of the centennial celebration was on exuberant worship services and prayer. For these unshakeable believers in the literal truth of the Jewish and Christian bibles, a kinship to Jews and especially Israel is a given.

An almost constant refrain was the admonition that he “who blesses Israel will be blessed, and he who curses Israel will be cursed.”

A concrete indicator could be found in the vast exhibit at the L.A. Convention Center. Amid the booths selling Christian videos, books, T-shirts and $20 Virtuous Woman dolls, were stands offering Israeli-made shofars and tallitot, and banners urging shoppers to “pray for the Peace of Jerusalem. They Shall Prosper Who Love Thee.”

A news stand featured an Israel Today magazine, whose color cover featured, instead of the usual mayhem, a photo of a young Israeli solder leading a wizened Arab man across the street.

The staff of the Israel Ministry of Tourism assisted potential pilgrims who sought “to set foot on the land where Jesus trod,” and the effort to reach Christian travelers seems to be paying off. According to government statistics, of the 1.9 million tourists to Israel last year, 48 percent were Christians, with about a quarter of that number identified as “pilgrims.”

The official “Israel track” at the Centennial was organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), whose centerpiece consisted of the pageant “The Covenant,” performed twice daily by a 50-person cast of Christians who live in Israel.

In a remarkable feat of chronological compression, the two-hour show, in English and Hebrew, spanned 4,000 years of Jewish history, from Abraham and Moses through the Babylonian exile, the Inquisition and Holocaust, the birth of Israel and the present.

It is unlikely that any current Jewish community center or Israeli high school would dare to present so idealized and chauvinistic a drama, but the audience of white, black, Latino and Asian Christians from around the world loved it.

The emotional highlight came at the end. As the cast sang the opening bars of “Hatikvah,” the entire audience stood and sang the anthem, in Hebrew, with a fervor I haven’t experienced since the state’s struggle for independence in 1948.

Despite the unstinting support of Israel by evangelicals in the United States, Europe and Asia (the world’s largest Christian congregation, I was told, is in Seoul, South Korea with 750,000 members), many American Jews view the movement with skepticism. One factor is the conservative politics and social views of Pentecostals and other evangelical Christians, which are hardly in tune with a predominantly liberal Jewish community. There is also widespread suspicion that these Christians are fueled by the belief that at the end of days, when Jesus returns, all Jews will be converted, if not killed, in line with the “replacement theology” that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people.

Malcolm Hedding, the South-African born IJEC executive director, has obviously heard such reservations repeatedly and was at pains to dispel the “misconceptions,” as he put it. Pentecostals, he said, have no history of anti-Semitism and have always rejected replacement theology.

However, when asked about the presence of some messianic or Christian Jews at the meeting, Hedding said that he “would fight for their right” to accept Christianity. The issue of individual conversion is distinct from support for Israel.

“Our love for Israel follows God’s promise to his people and is based on the prophecies of the bible,” he said.

But if God promised the entire land of Israel to the Jews, do fundamentalists oppose abandoning Gaza or the West Bank? Hedding was asked.

“No, we do not meddle in Israel policies,” he responded. “It is up to the Israeli government to determine its boundaries.”

David Brog, who spent the last four years researching and writing his just -published book “Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State,” backed Hedding’s assertions from the perspective of a Jewish writer.

“We have a hard time accepting that with the growth of fundamentalism, many Christian churches have undergone an organic change in their attitude toward Jews, even more profound than the change in Catholic teaching brought about by Vatican II,” said Brog in a call from Washington.

“It would be a big mistake to reject a coalition with these Christians because we might differ, say, on abortion or gay marriage,” Brog added. “I worked for seven years as a counsel and chief of staff for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and learned about coalitions. You form a coalition to push the one issue you agree on.”

IJEC leaders and spokesmen seemed largely unfamiliar with the makeup and leadership of the Jewish community in Los Angeles. Although told that a number of Jewish religious and lay leaders would attend a special reception, the only Jews present were Simon Erem, an Israeli-American long active in interfaith activities, and Moshe Bar-Zvi, CEO of the Jerusalem Post, which recently launched a Christian edition of the newspaper.

One meeting did take place Friday morning at The Jewish Federation building on Wilshire Boulevard between Hedding and some 30 Jews, predominantly conservative and, except for philanthropist Newton Becker, not in the top leadership ranks.

Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he was particularly impressed by the work of Hedding and other Christian Zionists in defending Israel’s position in Europe and in fighting against the divestment by some American and British churches from companies doing business in Israel.

Allison Taylor, associate director of the American Jewish Congress’ Western region, said she wished that “Jews would be as pro-Zionist as Hedding and share his deep commitment to Israel.”

Barbara Yaroslavsky, one of the few liberal participants, said she welcomed the outreach to the Christian community, but needed to learn more about the relationship.

For his part, Consul General Danoch, after his talk to 16,000 at the Sports Arena, harbored no doubts.

“I really felt their warmth, friendship, and love for Israel,” he said. “We don’t often get that feeling in some other parts of the world.”

 

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

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The View From L.A.: Hoping for the Best


Los Angeles supporters of Israel’s political parties praised or mourned the results of the Knesset election, but even the winners weren’t entirely in a mood to celebrate.

Shimon Erem, a former high-ranking officer in the Israeli army, said he had planned to fly to Israel to cast his ballot for Kadima (Israel has no absentee voting). However, with pre-election predictions that the centrist party would gain around 40 seats, Erem felt his vote wouldn’t be needed.

Instead, Kadima got only 29 seats out of a total of 120, a showing he attributed to “faulty strategy due to overconfidence, to taking its support for granted.”

Dr. Yehuda Handelsman, a veteran leader of the local Israeli community, also backed Kadima, but had been more realistic.

“I think we did pretty well,” he said. “If Ariel Sharon had remained healthy and had led the party, I think we would have gotten 35-40 seats.”

As a new party, Kadima has not yet organized an American support group, but Handelsman predicted the establishment of such an organization in the next two years.

The Labor Party came in second with 19 seats and Bea Chenkin, regional executive director of Ameinu (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance), said she was satisfied.

“Considering that [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres jumped ship to join Kadima, we did as well as could be expected,” she said. “A lot of Israelis feel that the social problems of the country have been neglected, but now these issues are coming to the fore again.”

Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, said that the three religious parties had done a good job in mobilizing their base among the generally apathetic electorate.

“Shas, National Union-Religious Party and United Torah Judaism understood that there was a lot at stake for the observant community and managed to retain their strength, May said.

Even among the Orthodox parties, there are strong ethnic and ideological differences, noted Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Loyola Law School faculty member and an Orthodox leader.

At least one of the religious parties, most likely the less ideological United Torah Judaism, will join a Kadima-led coalition, Adlerstein predicted.

Robert Rechnitz, national vice chairman and Western regional president of American Friends of Likud, said he was “obviously disappointed” by the election results.

Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, had been the largest party in the sitting Knesset, but will have only 12 seats in the next one.

Rechnitz blamed the decline on Sharon’s absence at the top of the ticket and defections by many retired and Orthodox voters, who had been hurt by Netanyahu’s past economic policies, as well as by what he called a “vicious” campaign against Netanyahu in the Israeli media.

The leftist Meretz Party managed only five seats, to the dismay of Dr. Isaac Berman, a national board member of Meretz USA.

“Similar to the Democratic Party here, Meretz didn’t seem to have clear message and didn’t make the right kind of noise,” Berman said.

Views on the road ahead in the peace process varied from wait-and-see resignation to cautious optimism among several community leaders interviewed by The Journal.

Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, said the situation in Israel is so fluid that it is difficult to make predictions about how events will unfold. Given the internal and external challenges Israel faces, though, she said that now is a time for unity.

“This is a time when Israelis need to pull together and work together,” Rothstein said. “You have the potential polarization of the Israeli society on the left and right on the inside and the Hamas threat from the outside.

A more upbeat assessment came from Mark LeVine, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. He said that despite Olmert’s vow to draw Israel’s final borders unilaterally, a negotiated settlement could eventually emerge. Hamas, he said, despite its refusal to recognize Israel, is not opposed to cutting a deal. And because of its standing in the Arab street, the group has the credentials to do so.

“Assuming Hamas doesn’t engage in too much violence either against military targets or terrorism against civilians, I would assume that in the next couple years there’s going to be a repeat of the negotiations you had at Camp David in 2000 and in Taba,” said LeVine, who wrote the 2005 book, “Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil” (Oneworld). “They’re probably going to be using pretty much the same maps.”

A local Muslim leader weighed in with similarly cautious optimism.

“There’s a recognition by the bulk of the Israeli population that the Greater Israel Project is over,” said Nayyer Ali, past chair of the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council. “Unlike the mood in Israel in 2000 and before, we now have a consensus among Israelis that the end solution is a Palestinian state.”

Ali added that the rise of the terorrist Hamas group on the Palestinian side also should not be viewed as a fatal impediment to peace. Just as the Israeli left cannot make peace without the support of more conservative Israeli parties, Ali said, Palestinian leaders, absent Hamas, also could not make a binding agreement. Despite its vow never to recognize Israel, “like other ideological parties, I think Hamas will have to deal with reality now that it’s in power,” Ali said.

But Sabiah Khan, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California chapter, said she sees nothing but a stalemate ahead in at least the short term: Israel, on the one side, refuses to negotiate until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes its right to exist. The new Palestinian government, on the other hand, won’t engage Israel until the Jewish state ends its “occupation,” recognizes the national rights of the Palestinian people and renounces terror.

“Basically, we have two groups saying the same thing, that they’re not going to talk to each other [until the other side does something that it isn’t willing to do], Khan said. “Outside intervention from the U.S., Europe, the United Nations or Arab governments is needed.”

Some or all of those parties, she said, could break the impasse by encouraging a negotiated settlement based on international law and existing U.N. resolutions.

Regardless of last week’s voting results, the local Israeli consulate was in campaign party mode on Election Day. Consul General Ehud Danoch and his staff festooned the consulate’s Jerusalem Hall with small Israeli flags, and had spread out a generous supply of pita, hummus, techinah and cookies for more than 100 guests who jammed together to watch the results of the first exit polls.

Danoch drew on his own political background for a running commentary on the merging trends and shared the general astonishment at the success of the Pensioners Party, which came out of nowhere to gain seven seats.

 

Cowboy Cupid Bares His Horse Sense


The “woman business” is a heck of a lot like the horse business, says rancher-turned-matchmaker Ivan Thompson. You’ve got to treat them right to ensure obedience.

The politically incorrect but charismatic Thompson is the star of “Cowboy Del Amor,” the latest documentary by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Michele Ohayon, which opens today at the Nuart Theatre. With cinematic tongue planted firmly in check, she profiles this self-professed “cowboy cupid” as he lassos Mexican brides for older gringos who find American women too demanding.

It all began when the rancher sought his third (and now ex) wife from Mexico because he “couldn’t get to Afghanistan,” he says in the film. But she got “too Americanized” after being allowed her own car and cellphone.

“Pretty soon, she was the boss of the house — of my business, and that only left me the pissants and the tumbleweeds,” he laments.

So the horseman dumped wife No. 3 and in 1989, placed a personal ad in a remote Mexican town where he hoped the women might be tamer. He received 80 responses and realized he could rustle himself up a new career.

Filmmaker Ohayon’s career previously highlighted serious (and politically correct) subjects, such as oppressed Palestinians and homeless women. She won a 1997 Oscar nomination for “Colors Straight Up,” her profile of urban youth in the aftermath of the L.A. riots.

So why did she choose to profile the less-than-enlightened Thompson?

“I’ve always regarded this film as an exercise in tolerance, my own and others’,” she said in her Hollywood Hills home, which is decorated with modern art and Moroccan Jewish crafts. Sure, she said she wanted to “smack” Thompson for his sexist remarks, but she also found him to be honest, endearing and dedicated to his work peddling marriage.

“I hoped to show that if you disagree with someone, you don’t have to hate them,” she said. “Human beings are complex, and what I love to do in all my films is to break stereotypes, to show all sides of a story.”

Ohayon, now in her early 40s, learned that lesson early. In 1965, 5-year-old Michele watched Arab extremists torch her father’s Casablanca bookstore, the front for his illegal operation smuggling Moroccan Jews to Israel. In the family flat across the street, her parents barricaded the door as the mob searched the shop’s basement and discovered forbidden documents.

When the thugs came for the Ohayons, their Arab concierge pretended they no longer lived in the building. As the family fled to Israel that night, Michele noted that not all Arabs hate Jews. She made that point on camera in 1984 with her controversial Israeli feature, “Pressure,” about a doomed Jewish-Palestinian romance.

While working on a documentary about Palestinian artist Kamal Boulata that same year, she “clicked” with her future husband, Dutch Catholic cinematographer Theo Van de Sande, as Israeli soldiers held them at gunpoint under a military watchtower in Ramallah. When the officers demanded that they hand over their footage, Ohayon and Van de Sande exchanged a meaningful glance. The cinematographer calmly gave the soldiers footage of children playing that he had previously shot, per Ohayon’s instructions, to deceive them about the true content of the film.

Although she barely knew Van de Sande, she promptly gave up her budding career to live with him in Amsterdam, where she could not work or speak the language.

“I was this really tough, straightforward Israeli, and the Dutch are all but that, so Theo would get really hurt, and I’d have to learn to tone it down,” she said. Her experience led her to strongly identify with the Mexican women in “Cowboy” who impulsively abandon their culture for love.

She and Van de Sande solved their early problems, in part, by moving to the neutral turf of Los Angeles in 1987. Ohayon immediately began searching for a film project and found it upon reading an article on a relatively unknown subgroup of the homeless population: formerly affluent women ravaged by illness or divorce. Her ensuing documentary, “It Was a Wonderful Life,” is both intimate and searing. The same personal approach will grace her upcoming documentary, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” an unusual Holocaust story.

“Many filmmakers tend to be observational and removed, but Michele draws you into the hearts and minds of her subjects,” said Betsy A. McLane, author of 2005’s “A New History of Documentary Film.” “It makes sense that several of her documentaries have been optioned as feature films. In a way, she’s like a novelist, because she takes the time to select and develop her characters.”

Ohayon recognized another great character in Thompson when she first heard him speak on National Public Radio several years ago.

“He embodied the classic comic theme of a matchmaker who can’t manage his own love life,” she said with a laugh.

Eager to tackle lighter fare after her previous documentaries, she contacted Thompson and arranged to meet him in Texas with her digital camera in tow (later Van de Sande came aboard as cinematographer). There, the cowboy introduced her to Rick, 48, a truck driver seeking true love in a demure package.

Ohayon followed the men as they walked across the border; endured a bumpy, 11-hour ride to Torreon; placed an ad in the local newspaper; and screened prospects who called their shabby motel room (anyone heavier than 120 pounds was out).

Although critics praised the film on the festival circuit, Thompson’s matchmaking techniques sparked some debate.

“The success of the arrangement seems to depend less on true love and more on the women being skinny, attractive and content to be regularly intimate with an older American male of questionable virtue,” efilmcritic.com said.

Ohayon, too, was initially skeptical of Thompson’s tactics and said she often lashed out at his sexist remarks. But then she noted how carefully he screened his male clients. And that he found women — many of them middle class — who wanted to marry Americans for their perceived loyalty, not to obtain green cards. She saw Rick and Francis fall in love and filmed two weddings on camera.

Eventually, Ohayon developed great affection for Thompson and even grew to appreciate his horse analogy: “When you understand how much he loves horses, you see that’s the biggest compliment in the world.”

The film opens Feb. 10 at the Nuart in Los Angeles. Ohayon and Van de Sande will conduct Q-and-As Feb. 10-12 after the 5:10 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. screenings.

 

Spectator – Movie for ‘Rent’


More people can afford “Rent” this month, thanks to Revolution Studios. The production company brings a film version of the Jonathan Larson rock opera to movie theaters this week, directed by Chris Columbus and starring most of the original Broadway cast.

Set against the backdrop of New York’s East Village in the late 1980s, and based on Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme,” “Rent” tells the story of bohemian artist friends struggling with poverty, heartbreak, drug addiction and AIDS.

Perhaps because of its gritty, real themes and characters, the show has been credited with generating interest among younger generations in musical theater. “Rent” is currently the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history, with a fan base affectionately called “Rentheads.”

Notably absent from the film creation is show creator Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the play’s first preview. Larson’s sister, Julie, is the film’s co-producer, which should ease fans’ minds about the filmmakers’ desire to do justice to a show that has won both Pulitzer and Tony awards.

Indeed, the sound and feel of Broadway’s “Rent” are intact, even while the music assumes a slightly edgier rock core, and some dialogue is spoken rather than sung.

Jewish Rentheads can also rest easy, as the little nods and throwaway lines Larson wrote for Jewish character Mark Cohen are still there, too. Mark still mentions his bar mitzvah, and talks about learning to tango with Nanette Himmelfarb, the rabbi’s daughter at the Scarsdale Jewish Community Center.

The filmmakers also kept the part where Mark’s mom calls him on Christmas to wish him a happy holiday. That may sound strange, but actor Anthony Rapp, who reprises the role from Broadway, explained that Mark’s character was drawn from Larson’s own experience.

“I know that Jonathan did celebrate Christmas in their house, but I think they also had a menorah,” Rapp said.

This loyalty to Larson’s vision is a hallmark of the film.

“We’re here to serve Jonathan and the play,” said Tracie Thoms, who plays Joanne in the film. “And we’re here to serve all the fans who were touched and moved and saved by the play.”

“Rent” opens in theaters Nov. 23.

 

Letters


Though I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, I had barely heard the name Rabbi Eliezer Silver (z”tl) before my arrival in Cincinnati, OH a little over seven years ago. As I quickly became more acquainted with the life of this great leader, I was awed by the extent of his service to our people- Founder and President of the Vaad Hatzalah Rescue Committee (he helped save thousands during and after the Shoah), Founder and President of the Agudat Israel of America, President of the Vaad HaRabbanim of the U.S. and Canada (his determination to improve the religious standards of his day laid the foundation for the fine Jewish infrastructure we now enjoy in this country). There is much more to tell. At a certain point I stopped and asked myself, “Why hadn’t I known of this giant Jew before arriving here?”

And now the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School (CHDS), the school that Rabbi Eliezer Silver (zt”l) was instrumental in founding (then known as Chofetz Chaim) is reaching its 60th anniversary. In recognition of this significant milestone our school is once again turning to Rabbi Silver-this time for inspiration. A younger generation wants to know-his life, Torah insights, stories, historical vignettes-anything that will bring the memory of this great man back to life. If you or your family knew Rabbi Eliezer Silver in whatever capacity could you please forward your contact information to us-we’d love to hear what you have to say.

E-mail: rabbiesilver@juno.com
Phone: 513-351-7777
Fax: 513-351-7794
or Write to CHDS 2222 Losantiville Ave
Cincinnati, OH, 45237
c/o Rabbi B. Travis.

Thanks in advance for your help.

More Articles of Faith

I read your latest piece, and as usual I am always thankful we have such a high-quality newspaper in Los Angeles (“Read All About It,” Oct. 28), in many respects better than the L.A. Times.

Your article highlighted the demographics of an increasing unaffiliated community. Newspapers such as yours serve as a portal for this population. Reading The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles might be a person’s only means to identify as a Jew.

Would you consider increasing the religious content? I suggest a couple of things. First have a commentary on the attendant haftorah in addition to the Torah portion.

Second, we could be the first to also begin weekly articles from Ketuvim. With the plethora of classes one could take from your advertising pages, obviously your readership is receptive to further religious education.

If this resonates with readers and advertisers, you could expand this section further to include Reform, Conservative and Orthodox commentaries on the aforementioned. It would be interesting for laymen to see the interpretative differences among our great branches.

Finally if this works, you could start a rabbinic history section, including background information on historic rabbis of our past. There are some pretty interesting stories.

Bill Kabaker
via e-mail

Skinhead Shock

Adam Wills’ article on his visit to the German Phoenix Club Oktoberfest celebration (“Shocktoberfest,” Oct. 28) and the sudden, ominous feelings he described after noting that Nazi-loving skinheads had “entered the building” reminded me of the Bob Fosse film “Cabaret.” One of the scarier scenes in the film features Liza [Minelli] and friends visiting a beer garden in a small village, where a younger crowd transforms into Nazi-style garb while singing “Tommorrow Belongs to Me.” I would imagine Wills and his group felt extremely uneasy among a crowd that, as he described, wasn’t the warmest toward them. Oy! Some things never change.

Milt Cohen
Chatsworth

Hatikvah’s End

How sad to learn Hatikvah will soon be closed (“Fairfax Shop Feels The Squeeze,” Oct. 21). I fear the other mom-and-pop businesses in the area will also close and the entire area converted to strip malls. Although I currently live in Fort Collins, Colo., I grew up in the Los Angeles area and have fond memories of frequent visits to Fairfax to shop, eat and folk dance. It was possible to absorb Yiddishkayt through sight, sound and taste. As the only Jewish child on my suburban street, visiting Fairfax enabled me to experience an authentic Jewish neighborhood, had a very powerful influence on my sense of connectedness and community, and gave me great exposure to Jewish culture.

There’s a wonderful group of Jews in Fort Collins, but no physical community outside our synagogue, and even less Jewish culture. Whenever I visit Los Angeles I make it a point to spend some time on Fairfax, to recharge that spark of Yiddishkayt that tends to get buried as I go about my daily life. It is particularly important for me to bring my children there, and hopefully fan that same spark inside them. I lament this particular way to reinforce their Jewish identity will soon be lost forever.

Judy Petersen
Fort Collins, Colo.

The Interfaith Age

In your article on the movie “Prime” you quote from the study “Will Your Grandchilren Be Jewish?” (“What, Meryl Worry?” Oct. 28). The author of the study states that the likelihood of an intermarried Jewish parent having any Jewish descendants is close to nil.

This is contrary to my experience in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I lived until two years ago. In this very typical American city, a controversy has raged for more than a decade in the local Conservative synagogue as to the extent of participation in bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies by the non-Jewish parents. In other words, there are a considerable number of intermarried Jewish parents who are raising their children Jewish. Apparently, the non-Jewish parents want to have a part in this important ceremony. One of the worries of our Conservative shul was that the local Reform temple was more liberal in this area, and we might lose membership to them. The board of directors solemnly passed a resolution allowing the non-Jewish parent at a bar mitzvah ceremony to recite the prayer for our country in English. (What if a non-Jewish parent wanted to recite it in Hebrew?)

It seems to me that to a large segment of the general population, Jews are no longer considered pariahs. They look on Judaism as another sect among the many in our country. For better or for worse, we are living in an age when a marriage between a Baptist and a Jew is not much different from a marriage between a Baptist and an Episcopalian in the minds of much of our population; and the children of such a marriage might take up either faith.

Marshall Giller
Winnetka

A Simple Mistake

I was appalled to see the glaring misspelling on your kids page in this week’s issue (Oct. 28). When I showed the page to my 7-year-old son and asked him what was wrong with it, he immediately said that the Hebrew word lo (no) should be spelled with an aleph rather than a vav after the lamed. If something that basic (and visible) is missed by the Journal’s editors, it calls into question the accuracy of everything else within the paper. Please make sure you do not teach our children incorrect information.

Nedra Weinreich
West Hills

A big thank you to those who spotted the mistake on last week’s kids page. We deeply regret the error. On our next kids page, we will print the names of all the kids who detected it, and award a prize to the first to notify us at kids@jewishjournal.com.

 

The Circuit


Clothes That Care

The Family Violence Project of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) launched its first Clothesline Project exhibit in recognition of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The exhibit, on view at the Bell Family Gallery of The Jewish Federation at 6505 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, is co-sponsored by JFS, The Jewish Federation and the Gabe Kapler Foundation.

Colorful T-shirts hanging on a clothesline, once a symbol of domesticity, have become an unusual but powerful call to join the fight to end domestic violence. This exhibit is a collection of T-shirts, each designed by a survivor or child-witness of domestic violence, that tell the artists’ stories through pictures and words.

The opening reception on Oct. 10, attended by more than 100 people, featured Lisa Kapler, wife of Boston Red Sox player and Los Angeles native Gabe Kapler, who was also in attendance. Lisa Kapler grew up in Southern California and was abused by a violent boyfriend when she was a teenager.

“One of the strongest messages of the Clothesline Project is that this kind of brutality can happen to anyone, anywhere,” she said.

The Clothesline Project originated when 31 shirts were displayed on a village green in Hyannis, Mass., in October 1990. Since then, more than 7,000 women and children have created artwork exhibitions worldwide, with exhibits in 41 states and five countries.

The Clothesline Project exhibit will be open to the public until Dec. 31. Admission is free. For more information, contact Sherri Kadovitz at (323) 761-8800, ext. 1250 or visit

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, September 24

Easiest mitzvah opportunity of the week award goes to “One Night Only: A Concert for Autism Speaks” tonight at the Kodak. For the bargain price of $52 (and up), you get laughs and music care of Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Simon, respectively (or so we hope). And as you might’ve already guessed, your fun will also benefit the Autism Speaks organization, which raises funds for autism research and works to raise public awareness of the disorder.

8 p.m. $52-$502. Kodak Theatre, Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

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Paul Simon

Sunday, September 25

Just in time for the most guilt-inducing period of the year, otherwise known as the High Holidays, comes the book that offers guidance on that most-Jewish of all emotions. "The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt" is on the bookshelves, but for some personal assistance, head over to Dutton’s tonight to hear contributors like the Journal’s own Amy Klein and Lori Gottlieb read from their stories. Or don’t…. It’s not like they could use the support…. And they wouldn’t want you to go to any trouble.
 
2 p.m. Dutton’s Brentwood, 11975 San Vicente Blvd. (310) 476-6263.

“Entourage” lovers get another HBO show about the industry with tonight’s debut of the UK’s “Extras.” Ricky Gervais, creator and star of another Brit hit, “The Office,” has followed up that success with this comedy, in which he stars as a 40-year-old man who quits his job to pursue acting. A host of celebs have cameos, including Kate Winslet, who in one scene admits that she’s accepted a role in a Holocaust movie so she can finally win an Oscar.

10:30 p.m. (Eastern), 1:30 a.m. (Monday, Pacific). ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

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Ricky Gervais, standing, and Stephen Merchant.
Photo by Ray Burmiston/BBC

Monday, September 26

UCLA’s Freud Playhouse presents the musical, “Working,” a tribute to the work of everyday Americans that stars Ricki Lake, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimi and Steven Weber. People from parking lot attendants to corporate executives are celebrated.

8 p.m. $60. Macgowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.

Tuesday, September 27

Holocaust escapee and artist Eugene Berman’s figurative paintings always evoked nostalgia for the losses of history, and received a good amount of appreciation in Berman’s own time. In the face of more recent devastating events, new admirers of Berman’s works have recently emerged. An exhibition of his work, titled “High Drama: Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime,” is now open at the Long Beach Museum of Art, with various accompanying educational programs scheduled through October.

2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 439-2119.

Wednesday, September 28

Vladimir Levitansky clowns around for your amusement this evening. Known for his fusing of physical comedy, clowning, pantomime and poetry, the entertainer presents, “Fancy: A Clown’s Wondrous Journey Into the Absurd” through Oct. 19.

8 p.m. (Wednesdays). $18. Elephant Asylum Theatre, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 874-8216.

Thursday, September 29

It’s no-holds barred, no-limit hold ’em at Hollywood Park Casino tonight. Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters hosts a Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournament to benefit their efforts providing mentors to L.A. Jewish kids. Reserve your spot, show up and prepare to drop some cash.

5:30-10 p.m. 3883 W. Century Blvd., Inglewood. (323) 761-8675, ext. 30.

Friday, September 30

Tobey C. Moss Gallery presents “California Gold,” a group exhibit that focuses on So Cal artists of multiple media with an emphasis on the diversity of L.A. artists. Included are works by Peter Krasnow, who “reveals a search for a ‘life force’ within the source of the wood for his sculpture and the Torah’s teachings through his paintings,” according to Moss.

7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 933-5523. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

A Rhythmic Spin on Boyle Heights’ History


Choreographer Heidi Duckler drove around Boyle Heights one day, in search of her next project and “feeling that my heart was in this community.” Suddenly, she saw a building with a striking dome and “I just knew it had to be a synagogue,” she recalls.

Sure enough, Duckler had stumbled upon a community center called the Casa del Mexicano, a former synagogue from 1914 until 1930, when it became the property of the Mexican Consulate.

“This building has been used for so many things,” she says. “It’s a survivor that adapts to its community.”

Called “the reigning queen of site-specific dance performance” by the Los Angeles Times, Duckler brought her dancers to the Casa del Mexicano and began to develop “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge.” The latest project by Duckler’s Collage Dance Theatre and titled after the talmudic adage, the dance, which premieres in early October, explores the unique history of Boyle Heights, while addressing the more universal issues of immigration and demographic shifts in communities.

With more than 40 works in her 20-year-old company’s repertory, Duckler has been a prominent choreographic force in Los Angeles, which according to the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, houses more than 100 nonprofit dance companies. And while certainly smaller than what’s found in New York, the L.A. modern dance scene continues to grow. On a fairly regular basis, both local and visiting choreographers show their work at venues like Highways, Electric Lodge or at the cutting edge Redcat in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Upcoming performances range from the fifth annual SOLA Contemporary Dance Festival in Torrance Nov. 4-7 to the acclaimed Montreal-based modern troupe, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, at Royce Hall Oct. 7-8.

Opportunities to view Jewish-themed dance by contemporary choreographers, however, do not occur every day and, in the case of Duckler, “Narrow Bridge” represents the first time she has explored issues of Jewish identity.

“The idea behind this piece is that often, when there’s a constant flow of immigration, no one remembers the history of who came here first and how did they arrive there,” she says over coffee at a Brentwood cafe. “Also, it’s a tribute to Boyle Heights, which I find so colorful. There’s the Hispanic community and remnants of this Jewish community, and if you talk to the old timers who live there they all remember things differently.”

Though Duckler interviewed longtime Boyle Heights denizens, including residents of a nursing home and consulted various books, old maps and Jewish scholars, she could not find further clues to Casa’s history.

“We know that the building was originally supposed to be a church but no one knows how it became a synagogue,” she says. “It’s a real mystery.”

Performed earlier this summer as a work-in-progress, “Narrow Bridge” featured dancers who are initially dressed like Chasidim as they leap over each other’s backs, roll on the floor and perform the more classic gestures of Jewish prayer, like beating the chest and swaying while standing. Later, they add colorful Mexican belts that punctuated their dark outfits and they pay more attention to the rope bridge in the center of the room. Three dancers hurl themselves over to one side of the bridge. One dancer lingers behind. Another dancer hangs upside down from the bridge. Meanwhile, a dignified couple in traditional Mexican costume start to waltz.

The dance also features music by Robert Een that is performed by a Mariachi band and draws upon both Latin and klezmer influences, while the audience is encouraged to participate in a responsive reading. Duckler’s still not sure where the audience will sit.

“We haven’t finished exploring the building,” she says. “What’s key to the process is that the dancers come into the space and they start to get physical with it. I tell them to leap off the stage, test the strength of the balcony. The movement comes from integrating into the environment of the space.”

Duckler, who grew up in Portland, Ore., and did plenty of ballet as a child, eschewed the idea of a conventional dance career early on.

“Dance was my medium but I couldn’t relate to a lot of it,” she says of her college experiences as a student at Reed College and the University of Oregon. “I wasn’t into looking at myself in the mirror or performing in little black box theaters. That seemed so confining.”

Interested in pop culture and the work of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Duckler, who received a masters in dance from UCLA, knew she wanted to create the type of dance that forged a connection with the outside world. Her first work, “Laundromatinee,” took place at a Santa Monica Laundromat and dancers spun in dryers and dove into washing machines as they explored the plight of the housewife. The venues of her ensuing works have ranged from the Los Angeles River to an automotive repair shop to the Ambassador Hotel.

“My work is never about just lyrical abstraction,” Duckler says. “I’m always looking at a greater story, whether it’s psychological, cultural or political.”

Duckler maintains “it’s serendipitous” that she’s presently dealing with Jewish themes. Yet, “I’ve already explored my other identities, such as being a wife or artist,” she observes. “I guess it was time to deal with the Jewish one.”

Collage Dance Theatre performs “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge” Oct. 7-9 and 20-23 at the Casa del Mexicano, 2900 Calle Pedro Infante, Boyle Heights. Fri. and Sat. 7 and 9 p.m.; and Sun. at 7 p.m. Special benefit on Oct. 6. Tickets $25-$40. For information, visit www.collagedancetheatre.org.

 

Jewish Split Marks Armenian Genocide


 

In the cemetery of the 1,500-year-old Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem there rises a memorial to genocide — the Armenian genocide. This horror set the stage for the Jewish Holocaust, but as a human calamity, it also stands alone.

George Hintlian, a 58-year-old Armenian historian, grew up in the quarter. He’s interviewed hundreds of exiled survivors; two are left in the quarter, he said, the oldest, is a 100-year-old woman.

“My grandfather and uncle were killed in the genocide, and so were many other members of my family,” Hintlian said.

His friends include Hebrew University professors who attend the quarter’s genocide memorial ceremony each year. They’ll be hosting a memorial conference at the university later this month, but such attention is the exception rather than the rule.

Armenians “would expect a natural alliance [with Israelis and Jews], or at least empathy,” Hintlian said. “But in the end, a kind of indifference has set in.”

There’s always been a strong Jewish angle to the story of the Armenian genocide, whose 90th anniversary is commemorated this weekend. At the beginning, Jews numbered disproportionately among those who called attention to the atrocities, among those who tried to provoke the conscience of the world.

Then, in the nine decades after, Jewish intellectuals and scholars worked to expose and commemorate this brutal episode — out of a sense of decency, of historical accuracy and also with an understanding that genocides are not a Jewish phenomenon alone, and that the tragedy of a single people is a tragedy also for all humanity.

But there’s been another quite different strain of Jewish reaction to the Armenian genocide. American and Israeli Jews also have been prominent among those who refuse to define the slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians as genocide. They refuse to blame the Turkish regime of old for the crime — largely out of respect for Turkey’s long history of protecting Jews and out of deference to the current pro-Israel Turkish government.

Turkish governments for more than 80 years have denied that any genocide took place, claiming instead that a war was on and Armenians weren’t its only victims. This view holds that Turks weren’t responsible for Armenian suffering then and certainly are not now. In its public relations battle vs. Armenians, Turkey has had no greater ally than Israeli governments and elements of the U.S. Jewish establishment, notably the American Jewish Committee.

The official Israeli line, stated most authoritatively in 2001 by then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on the eve of a state visit to Turkey, is that what happened to the Armenians “is a matter for historians to decide.”

Peres didn’t stop there. Speaking to a Turkish newspaper, Peres said, “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations.”

Hebrew University professor emeritus Yehuda Bauer, Israel’s leading Holocaust scholar, minces no words: “Frankly, I’m pretty disgusted. I think that my government preferred economic and political relations with Turkey to the truth. I can understand why they did it, but I don’t agree with it.”

Witness to History

Henry Morganthau, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey through the first half of World War I, was an early, crucial witnesses to the Ottoman Turks’ slaughter of 1 million-1.5 million Armenians, and the permanent exile of approximately 1 million more from 1915 to 1916.

In a cable to the U.S. State Department, Morganthau wrote: “Deportation of and excesses against peaceful Armenians is increasing, and from harrowing reports of eyewitnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion.”

Morganthau, one of a few Jews then in U.S. government service, also wrote that the “persecution of Armenians is assuming unprecedented proportions. Reports from widely scattered districts indicate a systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and … arbitrary efforts, terrible tortures, wholesale expulsions and deportations from one end of the empire to the other, accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them.”

Years later, Prague-born Jewish author Franz Werfel immortalized the scattered, desperate Armenian acts of resistance against Ottoman marauders in his classic 1933 novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” Today, numerous Jewish Holocaust scholars, including Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt, Daniel Goldhagen, Raul Hilberg and Bauer, are among the most prominent voices calling for recognition of the Armenian genocide and Turkish historic responsibility for it.

The forces that carried out the killing included Kurds and Circassians, as well as Turks, Bauer said, but the decision-making leaders behind the onslaught were the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire.

“There’s no doubt about it whatsoever — it’s absolutely clear,” said Bauer, citing “thousands” of testimonials from U.S. consuls, missionaries, social workers, nurses, doctors and businessmen present at the time, as well as thousands more from Austrian and German officials who were there. The various sources tell “the same story, and they were completely independent of each other,” Bauer said.

Decades of Denial

A post-World War I Ottoman Turk government convicted and executed many perpetrators of the Armenian massacre, Bauer added, but the Turkish leadership that overthrew that post-war government, and every Turkish regime since, has denied the genocide.

“Many of these denials say, ‘Yes, there was terrible suffering on both sides, the Turkish vs. the Armenian, these things happen in war,'” Bauer said. “But that’s nonsense. This was a definite, planned attack on a civilian minority, and whatever Armenian resistance there was came in response to the imminent danger of mass murder.”

The Turkish version has sympathizers among university historians, including UCLA’s Stanford Shaw, University of Louisville’s Justin McCarthy and Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, but they are a distinct minority.

Israel’s reaction to the Armenian genocide has become an academic focus of Israeli Open University professor Yair Auron. His books include “The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide.” Israel’s Education Ministry blocked his 1990s attempt to introduce the Armenian genocide and other genocides into Israeli schools out of concern for “objectivity.”

Auron contends that the Israeli government’s abetting of Turkey’s denial is not only a “moral disgrace,” it also “hurts the legacy and heritage of the Holocaust. When we help a country deny the genocide of its predecessor, we also help the deniers of the Holocaust, because they watch what’s happening. They see that in this cynical world, if you invest persistent efforts in denial, then denial, to some extent at least, succeeds.”

But Jewish and Israeli silence is about more than a misguided attempt to preserve the Holocaust’s “uniqueness.” There’s also the pragmatic issue of Israel’s all-important military, economic and political relations with Turkey. Israeli Foreign Ministry sources, who insisted on anonymity, characterized the official Israeli approach to the Armenian genocide as “Practical, realpolitik”

Repeated requests to the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv for an interview went unanswered. But Turkey remains a major customer of Israel’s defense industries, and the two countries share considerable military and anti-terrorism expertise. Turkey also stands as a bulwark of moderate Islam in the Middle East, a vital regional site of U.S. and NATO military bases, as well as an ally of America and an enemy of Iran and Syria.

Then there’s Turkey’s historical treatment of Jews, beginning with the Spanish Inquisition more than 500 years ago, when it provided a safe haven for Jewish refugees fleeing murderous persecution.

Officially, Israel doesn’t use the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter of the Armenians, preferring the word “tragedy.”

In contrast to some 20 other countries, the United States also has never recognized the Armenian genocide. Congressional resolutions to that effect have repeatedly failed to pass, despite backing from Jewish congressmen such as Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Stephen Rothman (D-N.J.).

Israel and Jewish lobbyists in the United States have opposed these efforts. For its part, the American Jewish Committee has taken no official position on a proposed congressional resolution urging President Bush to use the term “Armenian genocide” in his own upcoming remarks related to the genocide’s 90th anniversary.

Barry Jacobs, director of strategic studies at the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office pointedly refused to agree or disagree with the judgment of Holocaust and genocide scholars on who was responsible for the slaughter of Armenians.

The L.A. Story

In Los Angeles, the Museum of Tolerance “has educated more people about the Armenian genocide than any other institution in America,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the affiliated Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The calamity is included in a map of 20th century genocides in the museum’s permanent exhibition, and the museum’s library has numerous books and videos discussing it, Cooper noted. He employs the term “Armenian genocide,” but he will not place responsibility for it on troops of the Ottoman Empire or on Turkish leaders, past or present.

Two years ago, a handful of young Armenian activists targeted the center in a six-day hunger strike, demanding greater representation of their people’s victimization. Talks between the Wiesenthal Center and Armenian community officials ended that dispute, Cooper said.

Summing up the center’s approach, Cooper said: “We try to take a stand that is true to history, but which is also true to our friends, and hopefully our Armenian and Turkish friends understand. That a genocide of the Armenian people took place is a fact, and that for hundreds of years, the Turkish people [aided Jews in danger], when Christian and Muslim nations did not is also a fact, and that Israel needs close relations with Turkey is also a fact. That’s not an easy triangulation, but it’s our responsibility to make it.”

Despite Turkish and Israeli lobbying against including any mention of the Armenian genocide, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., makes three mentions of the genocide in its permanent exhibit. One is Hitler’s infamous exhortation urging his invading troops to be merciless: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Armenian in Jerusalem

Armenian historian Hintlian takes Israeli school groups on tours of Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter. One stop is the memorial in the cemetery. It’s something he can do to keep the memory and lessons of that history alive.

Hintlian appreciates the support he gets from well-known Jewish Holocaust historians. Bauer and Auron will be among four Israelis traveling to the Armenian capital of Yerevan to participate in an academic conference on the genocide. Still, Hintlian is “distressed” at the overall Jewish response. It has regressed, he said, from Morganthau’s valiant example of 90 years ago.

“Armenians expect that Jews would have a natural sympathy for them,” the historian said. “We are two ancient nations with the same diaspora problems of survival. We’ve suffered the same kind of persecution. And fate decided that our two nations would both be victims of genocide in the last century.”

 

A Hard Rain


 

In the winter of 1861-1862, the skies in California let loose, unleashing torrents of water around the state. In Los Angeles, rain fell for 28 straight days, pushing the Los Angeles River higher and higher until a waist-high wall of water jumped its banks, ripping away everything in its path.

My great-great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, who was 19 at the time, got caught in the turgid waters. He had arrived from Bavaria three years earlier — part of a group of Jews who left their small town in Reckendorf — to work as a clerk in a dry-goods store owned by his two older cousins. The store was set in a row of shops in Bell’s Row, a two-story block-long commercial building on the southeast corner of Aliso and Los Angeles streets. The Row had long been the favored location for the pueblo’s sizable group of Jewish merchants. Many early settlers who would later play crucial roles in transforming the small town into a modern American city had their first stores there, including Isaiah and Samuel Hellman, Solomon Lazard, Philip Sichel, Wolf Kalisher, Henry Wartenberg and others.

The surging waters from the Los Angeles River rushed through the small downtown, carrying driftwood, mud and sand as it enveloped the row of shops. Hellman, who not long before had made his home in the store’s back room, rushed with his two cousins to salvage any goods they could. As the three men started to grab shoes, books, tobacco and other goods, the saturated adobe walls started to crumble and they were forced to flee.

When the floodwaters receded, Los Angeles had been transformed. The façade of the Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, which had stood sentinel in the Plaza for 40 years, melted away, its straw and mud bricks unable to withstand the water’s onslaught. The cascading river ripped out thousands of grapevines. Sand lay a foot thick over once-fertile orchards. Roads became so impassable that Los Angeles went without mail for five consecutive weeks.

The entire state suffered that year. From early November to the end of January, 37 inches of rain fell in San Francisco. Rain and melting snow turned the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys into an inland sea, 250-300 miles long and 20-60 miles wide. When the rain stopped, it made the news: “On Tuesday last the sun made its appearance,” The Los Angeles Star noted. “The phenomenon lasted several minutes and was witnessed by a great number of persons.”

The heavy rains were followed by two years of drought, years of sun and wind so relentless the grasses that covered the valleys and gentle hills running from Los Angeles to the ocean 20 miles away turned a brittle brown. Most of the cattle that roamed the hills began to die and travelers taking the stage from the port of San Pedro to Los Angeles saw hills heaped with decaying carcasses. The number of cows in the county dropped from 70,000 to 20,000.

Weather has always been an important determinant in Los Angeles’ history. The twin effects of floods and drought from 1861-1864 completely finished off whatever remained of the rancho way of life, where dons reigned over thousands of acres of land and huge herds of cattle. Many of the Spanish Californios were forced to sell their land to stay solvent, opening the way for the rise of the Yankee economy. The disasters also ruined many small businesses, including that of Hellman’s cousins. It changed the city’s architecture as businessmen replaced adobe buildings with brick structures.

But those living in Southern California regarded the disasters as aberrant and moved quickly to repair the damage. The Hellman cousins and other affected merchants relocated their businesses and learned an important lesson about frontier life: to succeed, one had to be flexible and change with the ever-evolving economy. Soon boosters began promoting the region as a place like no other, blessed by sun and fertile soil and ease of life. The rains hit hard again in 1884, when more than 38 inches caused widespread flooding, but by that time most of America thought of Los Angeles as a Mediterranean paradise. Trainloads of settlers poured in, lured by the promise of a golden life. By 1890, more than 50,000 people lived in the city.

By that time my great-great-grandfather had spent 31 years in Los Angeles and had watched it transform from a dusty pueblo where fewer than 300 people spoke English to a bustling city. As the city grew, he prospered, eventually becoming one of the region’s largest landowners and a major investor in the city’s water and gas companies. He was president of the Farmers and Merchants Bank for 45 years, lending funds to Harrison Gray Otis to buy the Los Angeles Times and to Henry Huntington to build the trolley cars that eventually crisscrossed Los Angeles. He helped build the city’s first temple, B’nai B’rith.

But from the time of the 1862 rains, he always kept a close eye on the weather, frequently noting it in his letters and diaries. He knew that living in Los Angeles meant floods and droughts and even earthquakes, but he didn’t let those threats defeat him. California had become his home and he refused to let nature push him away.

Frances Dinkelspiel has been delving into the history of Jews in California for the past few years as part of her biography of Isaias W. Hellman. A former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, Dinkelspiel’s freel-ance work has appeared in the New York Times, People, San Francisco Magazine and other venues. She can be reached at FDinkelspiel@yahoo.com.