Surviving a Survivor


It’s an age-old, common dilemma faced by adult children of aging parents: What is the right thing to do when those parents begin to lose their faculties? That theme is at the heart of “Surviving Mama,” by playwright Sonia Levitin, which opens Oct. 12 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.

“When you have an aging parent and you have to make a decision, it can’t just be a cookie-cutter decision,” Levitin said in an interview. “You have to take into account everything about that person — their early life, what they endured, their personality and how they are going to react. What’s going to be the next step for them? And people are very different. Almost everyone I talk to has an aging parent, and I hear many different stories — of sibling rivalries coming out, some parents going on their own, making a plan; others a little resistant.” 

Levitin’s play traces the life of Marlena, called Mama (Arva Rose as the older Marlena, Gina Manziello as her younger self), who, when we first meet her, is a feisty, independent woman of German-Jewish heritage in her mid-80s. She has almost set her apartment on fire and is displaying other signs of encroaching dementia. Her youngest daughter, Anne (Manziello, in a dual role) continually clashes with her middle daughter, Stella (Sharon Rosner), over whether to put Mama in a home, and it is clear Mama resists the idea with all her might.

Much of the action is shown in flashback, as we revisit significant events in Marlena’s life. The story reverts to Germany in 1923, when, at the age of 26, she exhibits the strength and resolve that will carry her through life by defying her autocratic father, learning a profession, and marrying the charming, flamboyant Gustav (Peter Lucas). Fifteen years later, with the advent of Nazism, Gustav flees to Cuba, and Marlena escapes to Switzerland with their three young daughters, where they are helped by a priest who enlists the aid of a Catholic family.

The following year, Marlena, the girls and Gustav reunite in America, and Gustav, who is a designer, goes into the shmatte business. But he is a womanizer, and Marlena endures an unhappy marriage.  

After Gustav dies, Marlena falls in love and has a short-lived relationship with another man as the dementia overtakes her.

Levitin based the work on her own late mother’s life, incorporating memories her mother related, as well as on her own recollections, some of which go back to her days as a young child in Nazi Germany.

“I remember that Hitler parade that I refer to in the play. It was very frightening.  I remember scattered things. I remember being in Switzerland.”

Levitin said she also remembers how impoverished she, her mother and her sisters were in Switzerland. “My mother wasn’t allowed to work because she wasn’t a citizen, and you had to be a citizen. She was willing to do anything, and she was absolutely destitute. She went to an agency that was supposed to help refugees, and they told her to go back to Germany. She did go to a rabbi, and he found families for her who were not Jewish but would take the children.” 

Once in America, Levitin’s mother, who had been raised in a beautiful home, with a nanny and maids, still struggled. “She had to work,” Levitin recalled, “and she had to work at very grimy jobs, cleaning other people’s houses, scrubbing the floor, after hours, in a restaurant. This is a woman who came from a well-to-do family.

“My mother’s experience has had an effect on my children, in that they understood her independence and her courage,” Levitin added.

Levitin recalls that just as the character of Anne, her counterpart in the script, is in denial about Marlena’s dementia, she herself could never acknowledge her mother’s mental deterioration. 

“Anne says in the play, ‘You know, I haven’t even said it to myself.’ And it was gradual, and the truth is, I never said it until this woman came over to assess her, the woman who ran the group home, who was lovely. She met my mother, and we talked. I remember it was outside on the lawn, and my mother went in for a sweater or something, and the woman said, ‘Well, she’s going to fit right in. They’re all demented.’ It was like the bottom had just dropped out. Yes, I knew, but I didn’t know. I had managed her; I really had.”

The character of Marlena as an old woman shares her life story with the viewer at key moments in the play, coming to the apron of the stage to address the audience directly. Those segments transition into flashbacks, and, for director Doug Kaback, they represent Marlena’s growing isolation.

“Her mind is drifting to the events of her past, and I think what she’s really analyzing and experiencing in a way, because we bring these events to life, is a sort of validation of the things that she did to save her children and herself, to hold on to a marriage that was proving very fateful and without passion. Her arc is to come to terms with that and to recognize that, even though she sometimes has a caustic character, she has tremendous love and value, and has accomplished really heroic things in her lifetime.”

But, Kaback added, she is burdened by a lifelong sense of guilt.

“She carries such a huge weight, and this terrible horror of what she experienced getting out of Nazi Germany, and the fact that so many loved ones remained, and that she couldn’t help them, and the tragedy of their early deaths, is something that she just can’t quite make whole for herself.  Consequently, she drifts more and more internally, into a world of loss, and she’s pulling back from life in a way.” 

Rose, who plays Marlena, believes that her character’s guilt over having left her contentious mother, Lucie (also played by Rose), in Germany as the Nazis were taking power is pivotal.

“It creates a deep sadness, a great defensiveness and a depression that is not uncommon in many Eastern European Jews,” Rose said. “We come to guilt easily. She didn’t just abandon her mother. She abandoned her mother knowing, in her gut, that she was abandoning her to something terrible. So, even though she begged her to leave, she knew that she could have done more, and that it was, to a certain degree, self-serving that she didn’t do more.”

Rose was particularly drawn to this material because of its ethnic underpinnings. “I’m very Jewish. Most of the theater that I do, that is of consequence and that matters to me, often has a Jewish theme. I am not just an actor. For the last 25 years, I’ve been a family therapist, and the combination of the family dynamics, the Jewishness of the plot and the characters, made it completely irresistible to me.”

Rose would like the play to transmit a sense of what she calls “the incredible bond between family members, particularly mothers and daughters.”

And Kaback hopes that “whatever station we’re at in life, we’re able to see in Marlena a reflection of ourselves, and a recognition that we, too, have to confront some very challenging and difficult questions as we grow older.”

As for what Levitin would like audiences to take from her play: “I want them to come away with a feeling of the fullness of life, the triumph of life and of people over all the things that can befall them. I want them to become encouraged by the show, and to say, ‘Wow! That was a woman who knew how to live.’ ”

 


“Surviving Mama”

Edgemar Center for the Arts, on the Main Stage

2437 Main St., Santa Monica, CA 90405

Oct. 12- Nov. 18

Fri. at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and and 8 pm, Sunday at 5 pm.

Tickets:  $34.99

RESERVATIONS: (310) 392-7327

ONLINE TICKETING: http://www.edgemarcenter.org/ 

Community Profile: Gerald Bubis


Gerald B. Bubis is 88, and he knows there are things he’ll never do again.

He’ll never travel to Israel again, for one, and after 46 trips, that’s a tough one to swallow. Then there’s the fact that this author and/or editor of 12 books and 200 articles on serving the Jewish community now has a tremor in his hand that prevents him from putting pen to paper. He also can’t drive anymore, and he can’t stand up long enough to wash dishes.

Despite all this, he’s not frail, and the clarity and wisdom he still possesses have provided him the blessing of being able to ponder how he wants to approach this late stage of life.

“I think of this more as a condition than as a stage,” Bubis said, sitting in an armchair in the living room of his Beverlywood condo. “This is the first time in your life you’re confronting the fact that this is really the end of the physical stage, and that’s different. Because there is this notion of it being Dec. 25 on the calendar, and it’s a matter of saying how will you spend that last week of your life.”

It’s a scenario the High Holy Days imposes on all worshippers, but for Bubis, as it is for many seniors, the question of what has filled his book of life and how it will close is not abstract, but an everyday reality.

He has made the decision that he will not allow himself room for regrets — neither about the past nor about what he can no longer do. Rather, he focuses on what he has accomplished and what he still can do. 

Bubis is the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and was an early and ardent advocate for peace with the Palestinians. He is recognized nationally as an elder statesman, both in the peace camp and in the world of Jewish professionals.

In his earlier years, Bubis, who is still a broad 6 feet tall, was probably called strapping. Now, his hearty eyebrows and booming voice both have taken on the qualities of old age, and he moves slowly, with a walker. His health issues are profound: He takes two dozen pills a day to deal with legs that barely work, heart trouble, high blood pressure and episodes of pain on one side of his face that are so debilitating the condition is referred to as suicidal neuralgia. He’s had three bouts with thyroid cancer, and a serious car accident in February exacerbated issues with his legs and left vision in one eye impaired.

But Bubis is well aware of the tendencies of his age cohort, so to a genuine query of, “How are you?” Bubis will begin his answer by setting himself a time limit to update the essentials, and he promises that he will then move on to more interesting conversation.

 “You can either sink into a morass of depression or feeling sorry for yourself, or you say it is what it is, it can’t be any different,” Bubis said. “The people I admire most are the people who confront their limits and cope with them in ways that say, I still have my life, and I still have my pleasures. I still have my challenges, and if one part of my body is diminished or extinguished or involves some kind of coping or adjusting, so be it. I can’t do anything about it, but what I will do about it is, I will say ‘hineni,’ here I am, and how do I go forward?”

Jerry and Ruby, his wife of 64 years, still go to concerts and lectures regularly; they get together with friends often, and they are close with their two children and three grandchildren. They study and socialize with a chavurah they have been part of for 35 years, and have been members of Valley Beth Shalom for decades, but their once weekly attendance has become more sporadic since the car accident.

And Jerry still works. He mentors and consults with Jewish professionals several times a week and reliably holds court at Pat’s on Pico, where the lunch waiters know to pack up half his salad at the outset and to bring him biscotti with the bill.

Because he can no longer write, he is considering looking for funding to hire someone to help him transcribe his words into articles.

He has volumes of anecdotes to share, and while he is careful about his listeners’ time and patience, it doesn’t take much goading for him to unleash dependably gripping stories about camping in Yosemite or personal encounters with King Hussein.

Bubis says he is at peace with where he is now, because he allows himself the satisfaction — but not the fiction — that his life has been lived well.

“To me, it’s a nourishing thing to know that this stage has grown from all those other stages. I have been lucky enough to go through all the stages there are — by way of love and marriage, children, professional fulfillment and accomplishment and recognition,” Bubis said.

That’s not to say it’s been perfect. He’s got an ego, and he can get angry, he said. He said he was for too long married to his work, and didn’t always give Ruby or the children the time he should have.  

“My regrets are of my failing as a father and as a mate in the early days of our marriage,” he said. Today he has a strong relationship with his son, David, who is vice president for development for Bet Tzedek Legal Services, and his daughter, Deena Libman, a development officer at the San Diego Jewish Federation. Both David and Deena were Bubis’ students in graduate school at HUC-JIR, and, like their father, both also were awarded honorary doctorates from HUC-JIR. 

Dwelling on what wasn’t accomplished is a sure road to unhappiness, Bubis advises.

“Making peace with what you have accomplished, and not judging yourself for what you didn’t accomplish, is to me a very important attribute, which I believe a lot of people never acquire, but rather they have this restless dissatisfaction, and maybe in some cases depression, about what they wished would have happened that didn’t happen,” Bubis said. “But you can only be what you are capable of being at the time that you are that.”

Jerry and Ruby built their life from modest beginnings.

Bubis grew up in Winnipeg, and his parents divorced when he was 11, after his father fled to the United States after being caught embezzling. Jerry, his mother and his sister moved to Minnesota, where they lived with his mother’s parents, Orthodox immigrants from Minsk. 

As a teenager, he split his time between the Talmud Torah at the Jewish community center and loitering around the streets, shoplifting and pulling pranks. He had a lot of anger, he admits, and says he once went at his mother with a butcher knife and tied his sister up in the closet.

But his maternal grandfather was a true role model. He was a quiet and kind small property owner who established a synagogue and Jewish free loan in Minnesota, and during the Depression he would secretly leave food and coal for his tenants.

“I’ve always had two birds on my shoulder — my father and my grandfather, and each influenced me in his own way,” Bubis said. “As a result of my father, I vowed that I would try to be a person with a good name. And as a result of my grandfather, I had a model of a person who had a good name.”

Bubis enlisted in the Army during World War II as a combat engineer and was trained to remove land mines. He was about to be deployed overseas when he was plucked from his unit and sent back to the camp in Oregon to train other soldiers. A few months later, his entire unit was killed in Italy.

With injured feet, Bubis was discharged with a disability pension that paid his way through college and social work school. Two months after he left the military, he met Ruby at a Manitoba-Minnesota Hillel event and was smitten immediately.

“Having the luck of having a mate, a partner, for so long is in itself an incredible gift, because we grew up together,” Bubis said, looking across the room, where Ruby sat on a loveseat that, like most of their furniture, is a family heirloom. “The love, for me, grows and grows, and it grows even as the nature of how we relate is different than when we were young. And, for me, having the luck of a person who is on the one hand always my supervisor and a goad for keeping me focused, and on the other hand has kept me from ballooning up about myself and puffery about myself, that to me has been a tremendous help.”

Ruby, also a social worker, helped resettle refugees after World War II and later helped settle Soviet Jews in Los Angeles. Jerry worked as a camp director and a Federation executive before he founded the School of Jewish Communal Service and then became a professor at HUC-JIR.

After his recent car accident, which left Bubis laid up for months, he was stunned at the love that began to flow from across the globe and from those close by — people stepped in with meals, rides and visits.

“This has just been a shower of love and support from places I never, ever would have expected — e-mails and calls from former students all over the world. And it has been a tremendous experience to have the equivalent of my hesped [eulogy] while I’m alive — the equivalent of what people will say at my funeral. To me that is remarkably lucky.”

It is the knowledge that he has affected so many people that gives him peace now. 

“You never know what time is going to be. I live as if there will be time to get to our grandson’s smicha [ordination], which will be in two years. My wife comes from a long-lived strain of people. I believe she could live until 100. I have no relatives who lived past 87, so I’ve already passed them. And I’m at peace with that. It doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in the future and wondering what will happen, but I really do feel peaceful.”

Through the looking glass with Friends of Sabeel


Covering a meeting of Friends of Sabeel is a strange experience. “Strange” as in walking through the looking glass and encountering a reverse universe on the other side.

While we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence, they are mourning six decades of the nakba, the Palestinian “catastrophe” of 1948.

Where we see resolute defenders of the Jewish people, they see cruel persecutors of a downtrodden minority.

We quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his support of Israel and friendship for the Jewish people. They cite him as saying that the oppressed must take their rights back from the oppressor.

A recent meeting at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena was hosted by the Southern California chapter of Friends of Sabeel, which supports the work and aims of the Nazareth-based Sabeel movement and the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.

According to the organization’s brochure, “Sabeel is an Arabic word which means ‘the way’ and recalls the Christians of first-century Palestine, who were called ‘the people of the way.'”

Founded by Palestinian Christian church leaders 18 years ago, Sabeel draws its support from predominantly Protestant churches and their congregants in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain and Scandinavian countries.

Sabeel is hardly a mass movement. According to Darrel Meyers, a retired Van Nuys Presbyterian minister and co-chair of the Southern California chapter, there are no dues-paying members, but about 300 names on his mailing list in Los Angeles and San Diego.

About 75 people, predominantly white and middle-aged Christians, with a smattering of Jews, attended the meeting in Pasadena.

Sabeel’s influence, however, seems to exceed its small number, partly through cooperation with some 50 like-minded organizations listed in its brochure, and partly through its persistent push for boycotts and divestment measures against Israel by mainline churches.

The primary speakers were two Jewish women, who addressed the audience with the passion and conviction of those who first had to throw off the shackles of ancestral beliefs before discovering the truth through long, painful struggle.

Judging from audience questions and suggestions, the speakers were preaching to the choir. As in most ideology-based groups, there seemed to be a considerable gap between the rather moderately phrased goals of the mission statement and the more militant attitudes of its followers.

Officially, Sabeel describes itself as a nonviolent “international peace movement initiated by Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land, who seek a just peace based on two states — Palestine and Israel, as defined by international law and existing United Nations resolutions.”

However, the two speakers, both self-avowed “anti-Zionists,” moved well beyond the two-state solution to advocate a single “democratic” country of Arabs and Jews, which would welcome back all “Palestinian refugees” who wish to return.

Anna Baltzer, the first speaker, is an animated, 28-year old woman, author of “Witness in Palestine — A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories,” and granddaughter of a refugee from the Holocaust.

She noted that American Christians may fear that their criticism of Israel would be labeled as anti-Semitism and urged her listeners to define themselves not as pro-Palestinian, but as pro-human rights.

In a mighty semantic leap, she told her Christian listeners that “Jesus lived under Roman occupation and now Palestinians still live under occupation.”

The second speaker, Marcy Winograd, is a public school teacher and co-founder of L.A. Jews for Peace, which claims a server list of about 100 names.

She explained her advocacy for a single Arab-Jewish state by saying, “We are not talking about ‘destroying’ Israel, but about a transformation to a one-state solution.”

Among Winograd’s targets is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, and she urged pressure on school boards to stop transporting students there on educational trips.

She claimed that the museum’s Holocaust exhibits are used for pro-Israel lobbying and demanded exhibit space for the Palestinian nakba.

The windup speaker was the Rev. Monica Styron, a Presbyterian minister from Sonoma, who announced plans for the upcoming seventh International Sabeel Conference, from Nov. 12 to 19, in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Ramle and Nazareth, with side trips to “decimated Arab villages.”

The theme of the conference is “Beyond Remembrance: Facing Challenges of the Future Sixty Years After the Nakba,” and Styron promised dialogues with Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Audience comments and suggestions were perhaps more revealing than the speeches, including the following sampling:

  • Establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Holy Land, on the model of post-apartheid South Africa.
  • Bring empty suitcases to work in support of an alleged plan by Palestinians in Lebanon to march on the Israeli border carrying suitcases.
  • “Israel and the Zionists don’t care what we say here. But they scream if we can apply political and economic pressure.”
  • “Tell the Israelis to choose peace over war and light over power.”
  • “I’m Jewish and have been an anti-Zionist for 40 years. There is increasing anti-Zionism in the Jewish community, especially in Southern California … Jewish youth, in particular, is open to enlightenment.”

The only exception to the litany of anti-Israel charges came from an elderly gentleman, born in Korea, who suggested that if people wanted to see what a real occupation was all about they should try living under Japanese domination.

When the man was gently upbraided for his heresy, he responded plaintively, “But I like the Jewish people.”

After the meeting, Baltzer, the initial speaker, sat down for a brief interview. On her business card, she lists herself as a “Teacher, Writer, Activist,” and her resume includes graduation from Columbia University, linguistic research in Turkey as a Fulbright Fellow and the Web site www.AnnaintheMiddleEast.com.

An intelligent, outgoing young woman, she said she had evolved over the past five years from protesting the “occupation” to anti-Zionism, shocked by Israeli human-rights violations.

She is busy as a full-time speaker at churches and on college campuses, and her May 1-14 calendar listed 13 speaking engagements, from Sacred Heart Church in Palm Desert to UCLA. Being Jewish is a definite advantage in her line of work, Baltzer said, making her a much more credible anti-Zionist than Palestinian speakers.

She has experienced little harassment for her controversial views, she said, though plenty of “offensive” e-mail, while mainstream Jews tend to label her as “naïve” or “brainwashed.”

At least while speaking to a Jewish reporter, she allowed that she could understand the “other” point of view, such as the Israeli fear of terrorism.

For expressing such soft-hearted sentiments, she said, “I have received criticism from the left.”

The fear of silence


Robert Geminder was six years old when he heard the dogs barking. He was hiding in a little pantry with his older brother, George. His mother, Bertl, would always tell them to be extra quiet, because you never knew when “the soldiers” would show up.

When the dogs got louder, he figured the German soldiers would soon open the pantry door and find him and his brother, crouching in the corner. He didn’t figure that his mother, with the help of his grandmother, Golde, would think of stacking firewood in front of the pantry to disguise the smell of the boys. But that’s what they did, and it worked. The dogs and their Nazi bosses left, and Robert and his brother could breathe again.

This was in 1941 in Stanislawow, Poland. Two years earlier, at the beginning of World War II, Robert was a 4-year-old living in a nice neighborhood in Bielsko in Southern Poland. In August of 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, Robert’s town was devastated by the blitzkrieg. His father, Mendel “Mano” Geminder, died of a heart attack while trying to barricade a living room window with a mattress. As the troops invaded, his grandfather was executed on the streets, leaving Robert, George, Bertl and Golde homeless and on the run.

They tried to flee to Russia but were turned back. Eventually, they ended up in Stanislawow, in one of 300 Jewish ghettos that the Germans had set up throughout countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania. Before the war, about 3 million Jews lived in Poland, the largest concentration of Jews in the world. It’s estimated that 97 percent of those Jews died.

To this day, Geminder can’t quite fathom how he ended up in the 3 percent that survived.

It helps, though, that this 72-year-old retired engineer and now schoolteacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District has a very sharp memory. As he shares story after story of his many escapes and close calls and plain old suffering (“I was hungry for six years,” he says), it’s clear that there were at least two reasons for his survival.

Extraordinary luck and an amazing mother.

One of his closest calls came on a winter day in 1942 when he was one of 20,000 Jews taken to a cemetery near Stanislawow. There, Jews were greeted by German snipers who shot them and pushed their bodies into mass graves. Geminder and his family were “lucky” enough to be among the first batch of Jews to arrive, which meant they were at the back when the shooting started. By the time the snipers got to them, after mowing down about 16,000 other Jews, it was dark and had started to snow, so the Germans took them back to their ghetto.

They survived there for a couple of years. On those rare times when the young Geminder was not hiding in closets, he remembers seeing “daily hangings and children being killed and thrown against walls.”

One day his mother heard a rumor that the entire ghetto was to be “liquidated.” Her rabbi told her to do whatever she could to “get the children out,” so she came up with an escape plan with the help of a girlfriend. The two women hid the boys under their skirts as they walked out of the ghetto walls, ostensibly to go to their “slave labor” jobs. They never came back. Geminder’s grandmother, the rabbi and everyone else never made it out.

For the next three years, until the end of the war, the Geminder clan — which by now also included Emil Brotfeld, a man who would later become Geminder’s stepfather — wandered throughout Poland living on their wits and courage and hoping only to stay alive.

As he sits now in his modest home in Rancho Palos Verdes, where he has lived for 42 years and where he and his wife Judy are active members of the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid, Geminder tells me he’s got “maybe a hundred” stories of how they just barely made it.

“One of those things goes wrong,” he says, “and I’m not here talking to you.”

But while he’s got many stories of survival, there’s one story in particular he keeps bringing up: On May 11, Geminder will don a graduation cap and walk with students less than half his age to receive his degree in education from Loyola Marymount University.

He’s especially proud of that story. But why would a man get a teaching degree 48 years after graduating from university with an engineering degree?

He can’t say for sure, but he thinks it has something to do with the fact that he loves talking to people, especially young students. For as long as he can remember, early May has been “his busy period,” when Jewish organizations from across the country recruit Holocaust survivors like Geminder to tell their stories in schools and other venues. So Geminder knows from talking in noisy classrooms, and what job could be better than schoolteacher for someone who loves to talk?

In fact, when you talk to Geminder, the theme of talking and making noise is never too far from his mind. What seems to haunt him most from his childhood as a “wandering survivor” is not the fear of hunger or the fear of death — but the fear of silence. It’s those hundreds of “shhhs” he would hear while spending most of that childhood hiding in silence.

He prayed that if he ever made it out alive, and had children of his own, that he would never be forced to keep them quiet. This is another way of saying that Geminder wasn’t too hard on his three children, who are now grown-up, when they got a little, say, rambunctious.

Sixty-six years after crouching in a pantry in forced silence, Robert Geminder, survivor and proud new graduate, defines his freedom as having no fear to make a little noise.



Last October, VideoJew Jay Firestone taped survivor Eva Brown’s story at her home in David Suissa’s Pico-Robertson hood.


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

Calendar Girls picks and clicks for May 3-9


SAT | MAY 3

(HOME + GARDEN)

Venice Beach is showcasing 30 of its unique homes and gardens for the public’s viewing pleasure. Benefiting the Neighborhood Youth Association’s Las Doradas ” target=”_blank”>http://www.venicegardentour.org.

(DANCE)

The last time we tried to include one of Heidi Duckler’s stunning site-specific dance performances, we had to yank it because the show sold out, then put it back in when another performance time was added, and take it out once again because that also sold out before we went to press. This time, the Collage Dance Theatre show, “A Guide to an Exhibitionist,” has wisely scheduled not two, but six show times. Set in an art gallery, the innovative work takes each audience member through a guided audio tour of framed live performers, completely reinventing the experience of viewing art. Hurry and get your tickets now, because the 7 p.m. show is sold out already! Sat. 6:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 8 p.m., 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. $25 (includes wine and cheese reception). Museum of Design, Art and Architecture, 8609 Washington Blvd., Culver City. (818) 784-8669. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.bigsunday.org.

SUN | MAY 4

(YOM HASHOAH)

” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’ alt=”Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi”>largest Holocaust Remembrance Day event, featuring guest speaker Rabbi David Wolpe. Garamendi, who has worked tirelessly to grant insurance reparations for Holocaust victims, survivors and their family members, will stand with others in remembrance at an event co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation, Jewish World Watch, the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and Second Generation. Sun. 1:45 p.m. Free. Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, Pan Pacific Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 280-5010.

(BENEFIT)

Oh, what a night it will be supporting Jewish education during a benefit concert featuring none other than the musical group that helped define American pop and rock in the ’60s — Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Join Faith and Jonathan Cookler, founding donors of New Community Jewish High School, during this gala event that features a kosher buffet and rockin’ concert. Dress in your finest attire and dance the night away to sizzling hits such as “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “Walk Like a Man.” Sun. 5 p.m. (dinner), 6:30 p.m. (program and concert). $100-$300. Orpheum Theatre, 842 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P, (818) 449-8900.

(DANCE)

Academic institutions are turning to the expressive power of Israeli dance to promote cross-cultural understanding when politics prove befuddling. Three of Israel’s most prolific contemporary choreographers — Idan Cohen, Niv Sheinfeld and Ronit Ziv — will highlight their modern interpretations of a traditional dance form as the culmination of a two-week residency at UCLA, the second phase of a performing arts cultural exchange program orchestrated by The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles twinning program. “Bridge Choreographic Dialogues: Live from Israel” features a symposium with the artists, a live dance concert and a folk-dancing frolic hosted by popular dance teacher David Dassa. Sun. noon-1:30 p.m. (symposium) 2-4 p.m. (concert) $12-$20 (includes concert and party). UCLA, Kaufman Hall, 120 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.debiderryberry.com.

(LECTURE)

Wilshire Boulevard Temple and State of Israel Bonds invites the community to listen and learn from Stephen M. Berk, a widely respected history professor at Union College in New York and a frequent guest in the media for his Middle East expertise. With an international reputation for his teachings, writings and research, Berk will deliver an engaging presentation addressing the challenges Israel faces on its 60th year of existence, “Israel at the Crossroads: Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and the Jewish State.” Sun. 5:30 p.m. Free. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus, Marcia Israel Chapel-Auditorium, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. requested, (213) 388-2401.

Street fight


The Brooklyn-born activist rose from his seat, walked slowly to the microphone, cleared his throat, and in front of a couple of hundred fellow activists assembled in an auditorium on a chilly Wednesday night, expressed his righteous indignation.

“We are tired of being used as stepping stones!” he bellowed to the delight of the crowd. “Enough is enough. It’s time for our voice to be heard!”

Was the man referring to the abuse of Israel at the United Nations?

Was he expressing outrage at how thousands of Jews displaced from their homes in Gaza two years ago have had their lives turned upside down, while bombs keep falling on Sderot?

What was this man so passionate about?

Actually, he was talking about the parking and traffic situation on Pico and Olympic boulevards.

He was fuming that he and other residents were not consulted before the city announced their plan to relieve the ever-worsening traffic on those boulevards.

You see, a few months ago, the city decided it was time to finally show some action on this particular problem. The plan that was announced in November by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Jack Weiss at an outdoor press conference in November had three phases, the first being the most controversial: restrict the parking on Pico and Olympic boulevards during the peak traffic hours.

For storefront merchants who depend on street traffic and who contribute plenty in taxes and fees, that was the last thing they needed.

Take Julien Bohbot, owner of Delice Bakery in Pico-Robertson, who was sitting next to me at the Wednesday town hall meeting. Most of his customers use street parking on Pico, and the 3-7 p.m. time period is his busiest. If the city makes parking illegal during that time, he can’t see how his business will survive.

The meeting was full of angry business owners and residents like Bohbot, and it was clear that the man who got up to speak, Jay Handal, was their hero.

Handal heads the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about his cause, I felt I was listening to Alan Dershowitz defending Israel.

A few days later, I decided to track him down at the Italian restaurant in Brentwood he has owned for 21 years, San Gennaro.

It turns out that Handal is not only upset at Villaraigosa and Weiss for the way they “ambushed” the neighborhoods with their press conference, he’s also upset at the local media, particularly the Los Angeles Times, for not giving enough voice to the neighborhoods’ grievances.

He does have kind words for councilman and former television host Bill Rosendhal, who arranged the town hall meeting and who is helping residents and small business merchants get their day in court.

Handal thinks it’ll be an uphill battle to stop the city’s plan, because, as he says, Villaraigosa and Weiss now have egg on their face, and it’s not easy for politicians to admit they’re wrong.

Are they wrong? Well, the fact that the Department of Transportation and a mayoral representative are now appearing at a series of town hall meetings to explain their plans and listen to people’s concerns is a sign that they could have handled it better in the first place.

But Handal also thinks their proposals are misguided. He thinks restricting parking won’t solve anything because it will encourage even more traffic on those boulevards, while hurting businesses — which in the end only lowers the city’s revenues. At the meeting, he got a rousing applause when he brought up the idea of starting with phase two — retiming of traffic lights — and leaving the street parking alone until more impact studies are done.

The real problem, he told me, is that the city of Santa Monica overdeveloped their business sector without a corresponding increase in housing. This has resulted in a huge increase in eastbound traffic on Pico and Olympic; and since Venice and Washington boulevards are underused, he thinks encouraging people to use those boulevards would be smarter.

But all those ideas are peanuts compared to what Handal dreams about for the future.

On Sunday, he told me about this dream, which he is working on with a group of activists, and which he believes will redefine the city of Los Angeles: High-speed, comfortable, pollution-free, magnetic-levitation monorails.

No kidding. He showed me plans. Instead of costing $7 billion like the city’s much-touted “Subway to the Sea,” and taking until the year 2030 to extend the current subway from Western to La Cienega, the monorail would cost $1.75 billion, go from the ocean to Union Station and could be completed in five years.

As he sees it, the monorail would rise majestically above Pico Boulevard (or any other major east-west artery) and would be a major tourist attraction. He talks about having fancy cafes in these monorails, first-class cabins with express service to downtown, convenient stops for shoppers and commuters, and, eventually, expanding the monorail to other parts of Los Angeles to reduce the congestion and get people to places like LAX without any hassles.

Handal is livid that these kind of creative ideas get so little attention. When I ask him why, he replies in his thick Brooklyn accent: “Just follow the money.” Powerful unions and big business, he says, have a vested interest in lucrative projects like $7 billion subways, and politicians hungry for election money listen to them.

But Handal is not deterred. His passion never ends.

Frankly, I don’t often meet people who go gaga over stuff like parking studies and the timing of traffic lights. But I confess, when I saw Handal get so passionate about the monorail idea and his vision for the city I love, it gave me a little thrill.

Maybe I’ll go to the next town hall meeting. Mr. Mayor, are you listening?

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

Jews still have big role in changing L.A. political scene


It was not so long ago that Los Angeles City Hall and the Los Angeles Unified School District school board were filled with Jewish elected officials. The first winning Jewish
candidate of the 20th century, Rosalind Wiener (later Wyman) was elected to the council in 1953. From then on, Jews translated their high degree of political interest, disproportionate turnout at the polls and generally progressive politics into remarkable electoral success.

At one point, as many as one-third of the City Council members were Jewish. During the height of the school busing controversy in the late 1970s, the leadership of the anti-busing movement, as well as the most active whites in favor of busing, were Jewish and fought each other over school board seats.

Today, Jews remain a key constituency in Los Angeles politics and generate plenty of strong candidates. The dramatic rise of Latinos in local politics, though, has carved out another niche for minority candidates that once largely belonged to African Americans.

On the City Council, three seats (Districts 8, 9 and 10) are likely to remain African American for at least a while longer and then may shift toward Latinos. Another four (Districts 1, 6, 7 and 14) are likely to be Latino seats. Of the remaining eight seats, Jewish candidates have good chances to be elected but are only certain to be elected in one, the 5th District.

Jewish candidates also have an excellent chance at citywide races for mayor, controller and city attorney. On the school board, the Westside and Valley seats and maybe one more are still fair pickings for Jewish candidates.

The City Council’s 5th District stretches from the Fairfax district to Bel Air and Westwood on the Westside and into the near portions of the San Fernando Valley. It was Wyman’s seat, and then it fell to Ed Edelman, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Feuer and now Jack Weiss.

The 5th District is roughly one-third Jewish in a city with a 6 percent Jewish population. It regularly turns out the highest number of voters in city elections. (As one measure in the recent city elections, there were 185 precincts in the 5th District, compared to only 59 in the working-class Eastside 1st District. The more registered voters, the more precincts.) It has the highest level of education among the voters of any L.A. City Council district.

It’s a very tough seat to win, because there are so many strong Jewish candidates in the area. Those who win it have a good chance to move up. Edelman and Yaroslavsky became L.A. County supervisors. Feuer was nearly elected city attorney in 2001 and just won a state Assembly seat. Weiss has just announced his candidacy for city attorney in 2009. His candidacy opens up the 5th District seat in the same year.

Term limits in Los Angeles create the usual game of musical chairs. Until last year, all the elected officials were limited to two terms. In November, Measure R scrambled things by adding a term for City Council members, while leaving the three citywide offices at two terms. So Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Controller Laura Chick and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo are all termed out in 2009.

City Council members who thought they would be termed out now have another term. Even with that extra council term, the citywide openings will draw some like Weiss to give up their seats to go for the gold. Chick is thinking of running for the 5th District seat, and the popular controller would be a strong candidate.

Weiss has collected the endorsements of two popular mayors, Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan. He is hoping to preempt major competition early on. A strong challenger would be Bob Hertzberg, who can draw on the Valley Jewish base, which outnumbers the Westside Jewish constituency.

The mayor’s endorsement may keep major Latino candidates out of the race, a relevant factor, given Delgadillo’s upset victory over Feuer, another 5th District City Council member with even more endorsements. Having endorsed Villaraigosa early in the mayoral campaign, Weiss earned that crucial mayoral support. Chick is closely allied with the mayor, having helped his campaign with tough investigations of former Mayor James Hahn and having formally endorsed him.

The school board elections offer another window into the changing Jewish role in Los Angeles. Jewish voters are immensely and intensely interested in public education, even when their children are grown or in private schools. As in the school busing controversy, Jews are on both sides of the power struggle between the school board and the mayor.

Marlene Canter, the school board president, has been the strongest critic of the mayor’s plan. David Tokofsky managed, sometimes narrowly, to hold onto his Eastside seat against Latino challengers but finally stepped down this year to be replaced by a mayor-endorsed Latina, Yolie Aguilar. At the same time, the mayor’s potential control of the school board likely comes down to a Jewish candidate endorsed by the mayor in the Valley’s 3rd District.

Incumbent Jon Lauritzen is being supported by the teachers union and is under heavy challenge from Tamar Galatzan, who is supported by the mayor’s reform coalition. Before joining the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, where she is a deputy city attorney, Galatzan was Western states associate counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. In the primary election, Galatzan outpolled the incumbent, 44 percent to 40 percent, setting up a tight race in the runoff.

So why are Jews on both sides of the school debate? Jews have long ties to the school board and to the teachers union. But on the other side, there is a long tradition of supporting reform in all its varieties, and Jewish voters provide the city’s most reliable bloc of pro-reform voting.

Valley Jews especially were friendly to Riordan, who has strongly backed Villaraigosa’s moves on education. And warm views of Villaraigosa himself, who has long cultivated the Jewish community, add to the mix. If Galatzan is elected, Villaraigosa will have his school board majority.

So as the rise of Latinos has moderately edged out the role of Jews in one way, the linkage to Villaraigosa (for Weiss, Chick and Galatzan) has brought Jews another advantage in a way akin to the Bradley alliance. This is, of course, typical of Los Angeles politics in that nobody makes it on their own anyway, but only in alliance with other groups.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

Iranian Jews struggle with segregation, presumption and assimilation


A little historical anecdote tells much about the transition of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles over a 25-year span, from strangers to integral — though distinctive — members of the larger Jewish community.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, following Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution, the first sizeable wave of Iranian Jews arrived in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

Many chose the conveniently located Sinai Temple in Westwood, a prominent Conservative synagogue, as their Shabbat gathering place.

Soon their large, extended families, speaking Persian, socialized in the lobby on Friday evenings, ate oneg Shabbat cookies, and attended services the following morning.

Ashkenazi old-timers started grumbling about “free rides” for the newcomers, quite unaware that to the Iranians, paying membership dues to a synagogue was a foreign concept and that it was considered a blessing for guests to take home some cookies and candy after a bar mitzvah or wedding.

Things actually came to the point where a new Sinai Temple president “solved” the cookie problem by canceling oneg Shabbat refreshments after Friday evening services altogether.

Eventually, cooler and more perceptive heads prevailed as both sides came to understand each other’s background and customs.

Today, Sinai Temple is a model of “integration,” with Iranians representing about half of the membership, some 40 percent of the board of directors and even a president emeritus.

There is no demographic study of the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, although its size is generally given as 30,000, including the American-born children of the original immigrants.

This figure is well below the 100,000 in Israel but ahead of New York City’s 12,000 — the only other large concentration in the United States — and bigger than the some 25,000 Jews remaining in Iran itself.

In a thumbnail overview, Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation, describes his constituency as economically “extremely successful,” though, despite urban legend, there are poor Iranians, especially in the San Fernando Valley and the Pico-Robertson area.

However, the poor are not publicly visible, mainly because they are generally kept afloat through an extended and extremely tight-knit family structure, one of the hallmarks of the community.

One such family network is the Nazarian clan, in which the accomplishments and wealth of individual brothers, sons, daughters, in-laws, nephews and cousins combine to make the overall family clout and assets bigger than the sum of its parts.

The Journal recently met with the family patriarch, Izak Parviz Nazarian, and his daughter, Dora Kadisha, to listen to an up-to-date version of the Horatio Alger story.

Nazarian was born in Tehran 77 years ago into an impoverished family and went to work at an early age after his father died when Parviz was 5.

In 1948, he arrived in Israel three days after the country declared its independence and immediately joined a tank brigade, was seriously injured in a mine explosion and spent five months in a hospital.

After the war, he bought a truck for construction work, but soon advanced from driver to contractor. Over the next 30 years, he launched a remarkable entrepreneurial career, shuttling between Israel and Iran, and establishing joint enterprises in construction equipment, electronics and sheet metal production.

At the same time, he took an active role in the Tehran Jewish community, campaigned for women’s rights, aided Jewish refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, and helped Israeli diplomats escape the country when the Islamic Revolution broke out.

In June 1979, Nazarian and his wife, Pouran, along with their three daughters and one son left Iran for good and settled in Los Angeles.

“We were attracted by the climate, which is similar to Tehran’s, and we were readily accepted by the Jewish community, which wasn’t the case in other American cities,” Nazarian said.

Arriving in the new country and city, Nazarian hit the ground running.

He took over, expanded and still chairs Stadco, a leading producer of high-precision tooling and parts for the aerospace industry. In 1985, he founded Omninet to develop the first satellite-based data communication system, and when Omninet merged with Qualcomm in San Diego, Nazarian became a major stockholder in the pioneering cellphone company.

Currently, Nazarian chairs Omninet Capital, a diversified investment firm in the fields of private equity, real estate and venture capital.

As a community activist and philanthropist, he helped organize the secret emigration of Soviet Jews through Armenia to Israel. He co-founded the Magbit Foundation, which has provided $6.5 million to more than 5,000 students in Israel. He is a supporter of Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University, Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The total wealth of Nazarian and his extended family, which includes his brother, Younes Nazarian, and son-in-law, Neil Kadisha, is estimated at between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.

Currently, Nazarian is focusing much of his considerable energy on the Citizen Empowerment Center in Israel, which seeks to educate the country’s citizens toward the goal of adopting a more functional electoral system.

Holidays are celebrated by the entire clan, with Parviz and Pouran Nazarian hosting around 50 family members for Passover seders, and 25 for Shabbat, including 10 grandchildren.

The Nazarian family tends to be very private and, for the most part, has avoided the media spotlight afforded some of this city’s prominent families. Nevertheless, some scrutiny is impossible to forgo.

According to a recent front-page report in the Los Angeles Times, son-in-law Neil Kadisha has been ordered to pay $100 million in damages following a four-year civil trial in which the judge ruled that Kadisha, as a trustee for a young widow, had taken large sums from her account.

Kadisha has asked for a new trial and a spokesperson said he was eager to refute the charges in public as soon as he is legally able to do so.

In their occupations, Iranian Jews are full participants in the business and professional life of this city, and they support the work of established American Jewish organizations.

My December visit with ‘lady’


“Agha isn’t here,” Khanum says as soon as I walk in through the door. “I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

Agha is her husband — dead for 35 years and buried in Iran — but she speaks about him as if he were just out running an errand.

“No point waiting around for him,” she tells me with characteristic bluntness. “Go home and do something useful.”

We’re in her room on the third floor of the Ocean Towers Convalescent Home in Santa Monica. Khanum has lived here for nearly 10 years, ever since she broke her hip and had to have it replaced by a young Iranian doctor who called all his female patients “Khanum” (Lady), because they were old, and he meant to show respect — and because this way, he didn’t have to remember their names.

Depending on whom you ask, Khanum is somewhere between 97 and 104 years old. She has bad eyes and trouble walking — what with the hip replacement and all — and she gets tired easily, but she’s otherwise in fine health.

She needs constant care, which she resents wholeheartedly and refuses often. Her mind is in good shape most of the time, but lately her short-term memory has been lapsing for hours at a time. When this happens, she can tell you about all the people she knew and places she had been to in her 20s and 30s, but she won’t recall when she last ate, or what day it is, or what the person she’s been talking to has just said.

She becomes young again, a new bride in her husband’s house, unwavering in her love and her loyalty to him.

“I’m not here to see Agha,” I tell her. “I’ve come to see you.”

I realize she has confused me with one of the many callers who used to knock at her door day or night in Tehran in the years before her husband died. They never called ahead of time, or asked permission to visit, because they knew they would not be welcome: they were either selling something, asking for money, collecting a bribe or hoping to enlist her husband’s support in some decades’ old feud with a family member.

I kiss her on both cheeks and ask how she’s doing.

“Why do you want to know?” she responds, still suspicious.

To my embarrassment, I feel relieved that Khanum hasn’t recognized me yet, that she doesn’t remember how long it has been since my last visit. So we sit — Khanum in her wheelchair, I on the edge of her hospital bed — for a while without speaking. The small television that hangs from the ceiling is tuned to one of the many Farsi-language satellite stations based in Los Angeles. Persian music blares from someone’s radio next door.

It’s only 6 p.m., but the December sky has been dark for nearly an hour.

“No self-respecting woman would be out on the street so late at night,” Khanum chides me.

Ocean Towers is one of many establishments of its kind in Santa Monica — a gray, seven-story box of a building with cement walls and a flat roof, situated, for practical reasons, within a 10-block radius of St. John’s Hospital.

We’re only 12 blocks away from Third Street Promenade with its trendy shops and overly aggressive street performers, but we might as well be in Tehran: There are three Iranian restaurants within walking distance of this building, three grocery stores, an Iranian kosher butcher shop. There is an Iranian bakery around the corner, two hair salons and an electronics store that promises — in big, bold letters painted on the windows — to crush any competitor’s price anywhere.

On the third floor, all the residents are Iranian. So are some of the doctors and nurses, the nutrition experts and physical therapists. The arrangement seems to be as much by design as by coincidence, but it suits everyone just fine. Most of the residents here know each other from the years in Iran — before the revolution forced them out of the country and sent them to a place where youth and beauty are revered above wisdom and tradition; where children are allowed to disobey their parents, or dishonor them by marrying out of their faith, or divorcing their spouses or entrust the care of their elders to strangers in bright purple uniforms who come and go every eight hours.

The visitors, too, know most of the patients. They come often, and bring Iranian food and magazines and candy. They arrive early and leave late, sometimes staying all day with a spouse or a parent because they can’t bear the guilt of what they have done to their loved ones, because they remember what it was like back in Iran, how the elderly were cared for at home, how they used to look down on people in the West — the way they tossed their parents away when they were of no more use, locked them up in nursing homes and forgot where they had put the key.

Dinner is at 5:30 p.m., and after that the latest hold-outs go home. The nurses’ shift changes, and dusk settles onto the bare hallways and narrow beds with plastic mattresses. Then the ghosts come out.

“Do you miss Agha?” I ask Khanum.

When I first started writing, I sat with Khanum for hours at a time, asking questions. I was 21 and on leave of absence from law school. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I knew some stories from Iran, and had begun to write them. They were scattered pieces of people’s lives, bits of conversations I had overheard through the years, rumors that had been whispered too many times and taken on a reality that may or may not have been deserved.

Almost all the stories, however, were about my own family: we were — still are — unusually open, among Iranian Jews, about our past. Others are more guarded, more aware of the consequences of revealing themselves in a society built as much on appearances as on facts, a society where truth will, far from setting you free, most likely close a thousand doors and come back to haunt you for good.

Larry Sherry, former Dodger pitcher and World Series MVP, 71


Larry Sherry, former pitcher for the L.A. Dodgers, who was named MVP of the 1959 World Series, died on Dec. 17 at 71. He had cancer.The Mission Viejo resident had been diagnosed with the illness roughly 12 years ago, said his older brother, Norm, who also played for the Dodgers.

The two of them became the first Jewish pitching and catching tandem in the major leagues in 1960, following Larry’s record-breaking performance in 1959 when he saved two games and won two others, becoming the first pitcher in major league history to figure in all four of his team’s wins in the World Series.

According to Norm, Larry was born with clubbed feet at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. To realign his feet, doctors broke his bones and gave the young Sherry shoes “with steel” in them Later, Larry switched to “high-top orthotic shoes with metal” and continued to wear orthotics his whole life.

He never ran well, which may have been why he became a pitcher, speculated Norm, from his home in San Diego. The Sherrys grew up by Orange Grove Avenue, a block away from Fairfax High School, from which all the Sherrys, including oldest brother, Stanley, and George, the third brother, graduated. All but Stanley played professional baseball.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Dodgers had three Jews on the team, Sandy Koufax, known as Super Jew; Larry Sherry, known as Rude Jew, and Norm Sherry, the Jolly Jew. Larry Sherry earned his nickname because “he was mean; he would knock you down,” Norm said.

Although he threw hard, in the low-90s, Larry Sherry became a star after he developed a slider in Venezuela over the winter before the 1959 season. He used that pitch to great effect in his major league career, which lasted a decade and ended in 1968 with the California Angels.He later served as a pitching coach for the Angels, minor league pitching coordinator for the Dodgers and private baseball instructor in Arcadia.

Sherry’s wife of 47 years, Sally, died three years ago.

He is survived by a daughter, Suzanne; son, Scott; five granddaughters, and all three of his brothers.Donations may be made in Larry Sherry’s memory to Mission Hospital Foundation — Oncology Department, 27700 Medical Center Road, Mission Viejo, CA 92691-6426.

— Robert David Jaffee, Contributing Writer

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

Dr. Walter Appleman died Nov. 23. he is survived by his five children; and two grandchildren. Hillside Mortuary

Harry Danhi died Dec. 8 at 75. He is survived by his children, Sharon (Robert) Aigner, Karen (Brian) Freedman and David; grandson, Jake; and brother Sol. Sholom Chapels

Mollie Levy Feinstein died Nov. 29 at 96. She is survived by her niece, Marlene Abrams; sister-in-law Ruth Levy; and friend, Morrie Bernstein.

Shirley Gordon died Nov. 25 at 69. She is survived by her husband, Irving; sons Michael and Robert; and sisters, Cecilia Mestman and Edith Rose. Sholom Chapels

Ishak Hakim died Nov. 22 at 75. He is survived by his son, Moshe. Sholom Chapels

Marjorie Kitnick died Aug. 30 at 82. She is survived by her sons, Barry, Steven, Dean and David. Sholom Chapels.

Sidney Lipson died Nov. 16 at 85. He is survived by his son, Steve; daughter, Stacy Santoro; and granddaughter, Allyson. Sholom Chapels

Daniel Levine died Dec. 1 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Shirley. Sholom Chapels

Paul Miller died Dec. 3 at 81. He is survived by his brother, Herb. Sholom Chapels

Robert West died Nov. 20 at 62. He is survived by his wife, Roberta. Sholom Chapels

In addition to the members of the L.A. Jewish community who have died recently, we’d also like to remember some of the men and women from our larger Jewish family who we lost in 2006. Although they are gone, their legacies will continue through their movies, television shows, plays, music, books, art and good works:

Yitzhak Ben Aharon, founder of the Israeli Labor Party, died May 19 at 99.

Yossi Banai, Israeli singer and actor, died May 11 at 74.

Ted Berkman, author and scriptwriter (“Bedtime for Bonzo”) died May 12 at 92.

Jay Bernstein, publicist and executive producer (“Mike Hammer”) died April 30 at 69.

Andrea Brett Morrison Bronfman, philanthropist and wife of billionaire Charles Bronfman (Birthright Israel), died Jan. 23 at 60.

Red Buttons (born Aaron Chwatt), 87, comedian (No. 71 on Comedy Central’s list of “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time”) and Academy Award-winning actor for “Sayonara,” died July 13 at 87.

Betty Comden (born Elizabeth Cohen), Award-wining lyricist who collaborated with longtime partner Adolph Green on numerous Broadway musicals, including “Applause” and “The Will Rogers Follies,” and movie musicals, such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Band Wagon” and “On the Town,” died Nov. 23 at 89.

Shoshana Damari, “Queen of Israeli song,” died Feb. 14 at 83.

Betty Friedan, feminist, writer (“The Feminine Mystique”) and co-founder of the National Organization for Women, died Feb. 4 at 85.

Milton Himmelfarb, essayist and sociographer, died Jan 4 at 87.

Stanley Kunitz, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U.S. poet laureate, died May 14 at 100.

Alan M. Levin, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker (“The New Immigrants”), died Feb. 13 at 79.

“Grandpa” Al Lewis (born Al Meister), actor (“The Munsters”) and political candidate, died Feb. 3 at 82.

Yuval Ne’eman, physicist and founder of the Israel Space Agency, died April 26 at 80.

Pnina Salzman, Israeli pianist known as the “First Lady of Piano,” died Dec. 16 at 84.

Adrienne Shelly (born Adrienne Levine), screenwriter (“I’ll Take You There”), director (“Waitress”) and actress (“Trust”), died Nov. 1 at 40

Aaron Spelling, TV writer, actor and Guiness World Record-holding mega-producer (“Charlie’s Angels,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Dynasty,” “Charmed” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “7th Heaven” “Love Boat,” “Hotel”), died June 23 at 83.

Paul Spiegel, 68, chairman of the Central Council of German Jews, died April 30 at 68.

Yoram Hassid: The Man in the Middle


Yoram Hassid
Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

For the past 20 years, Yoram Hassid, a 60-something financially successful general contractor, has been quietly helping scores of local Jews — in particular Iranian Jews — avoid the courtrooms, acting as an unpaid mediator in disputes over everything from multimillion dollar real estate deals to challenging family conflicts.

“I’m not a storyteller, I’m only here to help solve people’s problems,” replies a humble Hassid when asked how many people he has aided or how much money he has had his clients donate to international Jewish charities in lieu of receiving fees for his services.

Hassid started as a mediator in the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s committee to help the community resolve business troubles outside of the court system, but now volunteers his mediation services alone. After the death of the committee’s chairman, Davood Ghodsian, Hassid and other committee volunteers a few years ago formed the Arbitration and Mediation Committee, an independent mediation group based in Beverly Hills.

Hassid said that he primarily handles cases of misunderstandings between the parties, rather than intentional fraud, because in the latter, one of the parties is unlikely to agree to attend mediation sessions.

“I’ve had success in resolving 80 percent of the cases that have come to me, where I was able to convince both parties to accept a mutual settlement,” Hassid said.

But he refuses to take all the credit for his successes, and he said local rabbis, community leaders and even attorneys have been instrumental in referring cases to him and providing support during mediation sessions.

“He knows the ‘bazaar mentality’ from Iran and is able to speak with people with that in mind,” said Noah P., an L.A. area real estate broker and former Hassid client, who did not want to give his name for business reasons.

“Getting the money was not important to me, but I will forever be grateful to him because of the fact that he voluntarily came forward to help me and spent a substantial amount of time on my case when others were not able to do so”.

“Mr. Hassid has been very instrumental in resolving several tough cases which others have not been able to conclude,” said Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills. “His activities are a blessing for many who might otherwise land in the court system and we are grateful for his help.”

The American litigation process was initially an unfamiliar concept to Iranian Jews, who for centuries in Iran resolved business disputes with the aid of elders in their communities. In Iran, their cases were heard by community leaders, and all parties were persuaded to find a fair compromise, since Jews often did not have recourse of going to the country’s Muslim-dominated courts.

While Hassid has never had any formal legal education, four of his six children are now attorneys.

“The first thing he has is an incredible ability to go inside the heads of both the parties and understand their perspectives; this is not a gift that everyone has,” said Hassid’s daughter, Yifat, a Century City attorney. “He also has an uncanny ability to skip through all the great nonsense and force the parties to get to the heart of matter with the goal of finding a solution.”

The Arbitration and Mediation Committee can be reached at (310) 860-1826.

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)


It’s one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There’s a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool,elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don’t really feel their presence.

I’m talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico — commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini — has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you’ll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad — a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building — and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it’s an easy answer: Chabad doesn’t make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on “giving you” a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there isn’t a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He’s a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn’t just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles — with an emphasis on the Westside — but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He’s like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn’t faze him. He thinks there’s a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there’s a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I’ve rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn’t heard of “Schwartzie”; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it’s a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat “dinner for 30 strangers” at Schwartzie and Olivia’s (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer’s Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don’t get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over “profoundly important” issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko’s on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There’s no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It’s the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I’m guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

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

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.”

Mayor implores people of faith to fight homelessness


“Local communities have to provide services and supportive housing. We can’t be a city that grows in one part and leaves people destitute in another,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a crowd of more than 300 at Leo Baeck Temple on Sunday.

Teachings from the Torah, as well as triumphs on the football field, set the tone for a conference on homelessness, which also included County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Ed Edelman, retired county supervisor and special representative for homeless initiatives for the City of Santa Monica; L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl; and a panel of agency leaders, ready to enlist the conference participants in a wide range of activities.

“Homelessness is curable and we must cure it,” Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen said in his welcoming remarks. “Jews know too well the experience of being strangers and outsiders. We have lived in countless places where there were no homes for us.”

More than 90,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, about 15,000 of them in downtown’s skid row.

“Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being America’s homeless capital,” the mayor said, adding that the city is also home to 262,500 millionaires.

The mayor emphasized that homelessness is pervasive throughout the county.

“We have 15 council districts and 87 neighborhood councils, and at the end of the day we have to articulate a common vision…. Every neighborhood has the responsibility to bear the challenge of homelessness,” Villaraigosa said, citing studies showing that contrary to residents’ fears, property values do not fall, nor does crime increase when supportive housing is provided for the previously homeless.

Rosendahl cited a recent survey that had found scores of homeless people in West Los Angeles as well as Venice. Yaroslavky, emphasized that religious communities, which share a vision and passion for social justice can play a key role.

“The county has allocated $100 million for homelessness,” he said. “At one point that was as unlikely as UCLA beating USC in football. For the first time in my career, the political landscape is right for tackling this issue.”

A panel of directors of programs that provide services for the homeless provided the audience with specific programs that could use their services.

Adlai Wertman, the CEO of Chrysalis, which finds jobs for as many as 2,000 homeless people each year, left a career on Wall Street to work with the homeless.

“Why?” he asks. “First and foremost because I’m a Jew. I’m a wannabe rabbi. I spend four or five hours a week studying Torah; it was hard for me to read about the duty of taking care of the poor and the hungry without taking action.”

The New Direction Choir, composed of previously homeless veterans who’ve worked with the New Directions orgainzaton, had earlier provided concrete evidence through song and testimonies to the successes of their programs.

“I am a member of this congregation,” said Toni Reinis, executive director of the New Directions. “So I have to cite something. Our tradition teaches us that the recognition of injustice is not sufficient. Awareness must be followed by action. Real tzedakah is only committed through our acts of righteousness.”

Reinis urged members of the audience to stop by the Veteran’s Village Diner on the grounds of the Veteran’s Administration in West Los Angeles, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.

Joel Roberts, the CEO of PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, introduced Mary Erickson of Imagine LA, a group whose goal is to help every faith-based community in Los Angeles to “adopt” one of the city’s 8,000 homeless families for a two year period.

The conference was spearheaded by Ralph Fertig, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. Fertig, who has long been active in the struggle for human and civil rights, joined Leo Baeck two years ago because of its tradition of social justice programming. The ex-Freedom Rider and civil rights lawyer approached the temple’s rabbis in the hope of engaging the congregation in issues of homelessness.

“We decided a conference would be the perfect opportunity to get our members’ sleeves rolled up,” said Rabbi Leah Lewis, who was also a key organizer.

“We though this could be a launching pad for more involvement.”

After the presentations, Edelman and Fertig urged everyone to sign up as volunteers. Their exhortations were echoed by Lewis in her concluding remarks.

“The Chanukah season is our time to re-dedicate ourselves to stand up for what is right,” she said. “The Macabees were not deterred by the enormity of their task. Like the Macabees, we move forward one step at a time. For us at Leo Baeck, partnering with all these agencies is our congregational first step.”

“There is no community or city or region in the country that has dealt successfully with homelessness without the full participation from religious communities of all faiths standing up for community responsibility,” said Torie Osborn, Villaraigosa’s senior adviser on homelessness.

“I’m especially delighted about the religious community coming together with the city and county,” Chasen said as the congregants moved to an adjoining room where tables were covered with snacks, literature and sign-up sheets.

“The remarkable thing is that both Mayor Villaraigosa and Supervisor Yaroslavsky came,” he said. “The city and the county have not always worked together on homelessness. It’s a great sign of successes to come.”

Silver Jews Singer Polishes Up Dirty Past


What kind of precious metal is shiny, hard as a rock and sings the Shema?

A Silver Jew of course!

David Berman, lead singer, songwriter and head-miner of the alt-rock group the Silver Jews is finding out that the depression of his musical past has been rejuvenated by of all things, hope for his musical future.

Although Berman has always been the primary songwriter, singer and guitar-player of the Silver Jews, a man capable of turning out truthful, yet sometimes painfully depressing love songs to an eager cult audience, he has often been overshadowed in the media by the bigger, blacker shadow of his friend and musical colleague, Stephen Malkmus.

After battling drug addiction, which gave birth to a deep belief in Judaism and moved him to discover a love for playing live on stage, Berman is now stepping into the spotlight with a renewed interest in whatever kind of trouble he can muster up and whatever kind of silver he can make shine.

David Berman was born into a secular Jewish family in Williamsburg, Va., and lived there, until the age of 7, when his parents divorced. In the years before he landed in college in 1985, he split his time between living with his dad in Texas and his mom in Ohio. While in college, he met up with two random guys while carpooling to see an out-of-town band. The passenger on that fateful ride was Malkmus, who would later gain worldwide fame as the singer of Pavement. But while Malkmus was the darling of all the record execs in the early ’90s, another group had surfaced with Malkmus as a member, using an obvious pseudonym. Yes, that band was the Silver Jews. And no, the band was never meant to be just a “side project” for Malkmus, it has always been Berman’s baby, although recently, Berman has learned to take more control over the artistic decisions than he used to.

“Steve and I were always very competitive as far as music was concerned,” Berman remembers. “When Pavement happened, I just sat back and watched. It might’ve been easy for me to join that band, but in all of my life plans, none of them ever involved being a sideman for someone else. I guess my ego just never saw things that way.”

Malkmus, along with scores of other musicians, participated in the making of the first four Silver Jews albums, but all the songs were written by Berman, even though he wasn’t as deeply engrossed in determining the final product of those as he was for his fifth offering, “Tanglewood Numbers.”

“On this last record, I just decided that after the recording process, I would just take off and force myself to make the decisions instead of just sitting on the couch nodding my head going, ‘Yeah, that’s good,'” Berman recalls. “I made this record more about me.”

Taking control of the album’s musical process was one in a line of decisions that have changed Berman’s perspective. Berman had little interest in taking responsibility for his life until two years ago, when he suffered a meltdown from purposefully overdosing on Zanax and wound up in a psychiatric ward. After much encouragement fro
m his wife and mother, Berman checked himself into rehab for drug addition.

“It took a lot of energy to be a drug addict,” he says. “It was work to get drugs every day. I got to a point in my life where I wouldn’t do anything that required a lot of trouble. The idea of going on tour was something I would have never considered before, because touring is a lot of potential trouble, and I tried to put myself in environments where I would feel safe. In my own little small crack house of my Nashville community, it felt safe and everything else had become too much trouble.”

Interestingly enough, his determination to rehabilitate brought about an unforeseen twist, a renewed interest in his faith.

“In the rehab unit, you couldn’t leave the facility except for this one loophole, which allowed you to go to church or temple if you wanted to,” he says. “So what started out as a ploy on my part to see the countryside by letting them transport me to a conservative synagogue once a week, turned out to mean more to me than I expected.”

This shift in Berman’s priorities was engaging, especially when you learn that the Silver Jews were not named as a tribute to the Jewish people.

“That’s part of the irony of the whole experience of turning to Judaism for me was that the name had always helped us ensure our obscurity in the music industry, and sometimes I’d thought the name was a burden, because it seemed so serious,” Berman adds. “But now it’s become an incredible blessing that I accidentally gave myself, something that became fruitful to me.”

Berman’s new comfort with himself has transformed into an ease with playing live shows. “Yup, the 40 shows of this current tour are my first 40 shows ever,” Berman says with a laugh.

Israel Donations Stimulate — and Don’t Hurt — Local Fundraising


Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon has left the Jewish state spiritually and financially drained. The overall cost of the conflict, including the amount spent on the war and business losses in northern Israel, exceeds $7 billion, according to The Israel Project, a nonprofit, pro-Israeli advocacy group.

Responding to Israel’s plight, American Jews have sent tens of millions of dollars to the beleaguered country, much of it through Jewish charities, including Jewish federations across the country. Given that Israel’s needs remain vast, undoubtedly the upcoming High Holiday season will see rabbis across the Southland encouraging congregants to open their hearts — and their pocketbooks — to the Jewish homeland.

But will Israel’s needs trump those of local synagogues and Jewish nonprofits? Will the charitable dollars flowing to Israel during the giving season mean less support for maintenance of Southland temples and for the social services that Jews traditionally support, such as Jewish day schools or food and psychological counseling for the needy?

An informal survey of rabbis and agency executives suggests that they remain optimistic that donors this year will not hold back. They will find a way to help both the Holy Land and causes closer to home.

For synagogues, the stakes appear especially high. That’s because fundraising during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can generate the largest portion of a year’s total fundraising. With a large, semicaptive audience, it is not uncommon for rabbis or temple presidents to make three or four appeals during holiday services. The season’s emphasis on teshuvah (repentance); tefillah (prayer); and tzedekah (righteous) giving, helps Jews understand the importance of contributing and puts them in the right frame of mind to do so, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which has 285 members.

Rabbi David Eliezre of the Chabad synagogue, Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen in Orange County, feels confident that the act of giving only begets more generosity.

“People with a charitable heart will reach a little deeper in their pockets this year,” he said.

Similarly, Rabbi Don Goor, senior rabbi of Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills, said he is hopeful his synagogue will raise as much for its own operations this year as last. In a reflection of the appeal’s importance, which accounts for more than 50 percent of Temple Judea’s annual fundraising, Goor will make the pitch himself at services, while another rabbi will make an appeal for Israel. Goor said that his sermon will address how centrifugal forces, including America’s rugged individualism, have pulled the Jewish community to “the outside, while the synagogue pulls Jews back to the core of Judaism.”

Goor said he has little concern that charitable giving to Israel will dilute the synagogue campaign. Last year, he said, congregants gave generously to victims of Hurricane Katrina but still managed to keep up their temple giving.

University Synagogue in Brentwood, with 60 full- and part-time employees and a planned renovation, relies on holiday fundraising for a “significant” portion of its operating budget, said senior Rabbi Morley Feinstein. That’s why its president will make a pitch for synagogue donations on Rosh Hashanah, while a separate appeal for Israel will be made on Yom Kippur.

Feinstein said he is hopeful that temple members will come through, even though they have already contributed tens of thousands of dollars to various Israel emergency campaigns.

“Our people are known as compassionate, and our children are compassionate,” Feinstein said. “Our compassion has to enter our checkbooks so that we help those in need.”

Like synagogues, local Jewish philanthropies often build fundraising campaigns around the High Holidays, although to a lesser extent. The picture here seems a bit murkier.

Because Jews “get that warm, fuzzy feeling of Judaism” during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) steps up its fundraising in the last three months of the year, said Mark Meltzer, the organization’s executive director. Typically, the nonprofit takes in about one-third of its donations from October through December, he said.

However, Meltzer worries that charitable dollars now earmarked for Israel could impact JFLA fundraising and cause the nonprofit to miss its 2006 targets. If that happens, he said, Free Loan would have less money available for interest-free loans for university students or Jewish couples seeking fertility treatments or Jewish campers.

“For the donor who wants to make an impact both locally and internationally, it’s going to stretch their pocketbook,” Meltzer said.

To coincide with the High Holidays, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger recently kicked off its campaign “Corners of Our Fields,” a reference to the biblical practice of leaving corners of a field untouched for the poor to harvest. For a variety of reasons, though, Mazon can’t predict how this year’s holiday drive will fare, said Jeremy Deutchman, Mazon’s director of communications and development. Deutchman said at least two rabbis he tried to enlist to talk up Mazon told him they plan instead to focus their holiday sermons on Israel this year.

Mazon funds food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens locally, as well as nationally and internationally. The nonprofit, Deutchman said, has seen demand for its contributions jump in recent years because of the squeeze on America’s middle class.

By contrast, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has seen an increase in contributions, including from new donors in recent months, because the Jewish philanthropic organization set up one of the major Israel emergency campaigns, according to Craig Prizant, executive vice president of financial resource development. The Federation now has the chance to “convert” crisis-fund donors into regular givers, Prizant said. It hopes to do so by making first-timers aware of all the ways the organization supports the Jewish state — and then ask for a donation at a later date.

The success of the L.A. Federation’s Israel in Crisis fund, which has raised $15 million so far, appears to have had little or no impact on The Federation’s annual campaign, Prizant said. He projects this year’s campaign to hit $50 million, a 5 percent jump over last year.

There are those who would like to keep discussions of money out of the sacred days. At least one Southland rabbi, Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades, thinks Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should not be synonymous with fundraising. She said her temple makes, at most, a quiet solicitation during the High Holidays and holds its two major fundraising events at other times during the year.

“We try to keep the sanctity of the High Holidays without having it be so commercialized,” she said.

Welcome to the Hood — My Pico-Robertson


Earlier this year, publisher and activist David Suissa moved from his old neighborhood near the Beverly Center to a home in the Pico-Robertson area. His new column will explore the nooks and crannies of his new neighborhood.

I’ve been living in the Pico-Robertson area for a month now, and I must say I’m a little dizzy. I put my new Volvo SUV on “drive” and it goes straight to Nagila Pizza.

I’mon a first-name basis with a Hispanic-looking guy called Freddie, who I think works there because he’s always offering to clean my table, while I am trying to teach my kids to do the same. I assume that within a month, several of my kids’ teeth will be cracked from the 25-cent cement balls they sell at Nagila, which I hear turn into bubblegum if you have a jackhammer handy. Anyhow, there’s this great children’s dentist who lives in the neighborhood and whose name is — I’m not making this up — Dr. Hirt.

I hear he’s a member of Young Israel of Century City, which had a blockbuster summer because it’s known to have the best air conditioning system among all the shuls of the Pico strip. I was there on my first Shabbat for mincha, and yes, you could definitely hang meat in that sanctuary; the temperature was somewhere between crisp and icy cold — the perfect counterpoint to Rabbi Elazar Muskin’s sizzling sermon on the importance of not wasting precious time in our very short lives.

Besides the powerful air conditioning, I’ve been enjoying those little Shabbos bulletins that often lay like fallen leaves on empty chairs. On a recent Friday night at Aish (two blocks from my new house), one little item — inserted between Shalom Bayis Roundtable for Women and Sefarim Dedication Opportunity — caught my eye: “MISTAKEN HAT-ENTITY: There are many black hats hanging on the hat rack on Shabbos that look very similar to each other. Please make sure that the one you are taking is your own.”

This is Talmudic-quality housekeeping.

One thing I’ve noticed in the Hood is an unusual interest in dry cleaners. I’ve counted about six that are within a few blocks of my house. At night, one of them reminds me of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas; it’s really well lit. I hear that the owner is Persian, and that the cleaner store opposite his is owned by his brother. I got this juicy tidbit at my new neighbors’, the Castiels (where I was invited for Shabbat dinner), and I can’t wait to check it out. Let’s face it, two Persian brothers duking it out over Martinizing and fluff and fold? If it’s true, that’s a whole column right there. I wonder whom the mother roots for?

Speaking of mothers, this is the neighborhood that invented the Perfectly Coiffed Frum Supermom. They’re easy to spot. They have good posture, they’re quite perky and they have complete control over their kids. If one of their kids crosses the line, they will use words like “unacceptable” and “not OK.” On their coffee tables, you will find books like “The Organized Student” or “Creating the Perfect Kosher Kitchen.” Incidentally, they were quite ecstatic that a Jew moved to the neighborhood (as opposed to a non-Jew). I think that’s why they keep bringing challah to my door.

Of all the stores I’ve visited so far, there’s a special place in my heart for Needles ‘n’ Tees (personalized gifts & clothing for men, women & children). This, my friends, is a hole in the wall. My initial encounter with the owner (who has been there 35 years) did not go well, as I used his store to carry on a cellphone conversation in French with my mother. Since he had no idea at the time that I would, within the half hour, empty most of his shelves of these really cool Jewish educational games that would help me impress the Perfectly Coiffed Supermoms and get super play dates for my kids, he asked me to leave his premises. We’re now on very good terms.

As I write this at 7 a.m. over an Americano at the local Starbucks, I realize how much I miss my old Urth Caffé on Melrose Avenue. What is it about the pull of neighborhoods? Can’t I just drive those extra five or 10 minutes to get to my old coffee joint? I suppose I could, but then again I wouldn’t be loyal to my new Hood.

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

New Options Emerge After Long Beach Shuls Shift


Long Beach has had a significant and stable Jewish population for decades, so it might seem unusual for a synagogue to make major changes in the way it serves its membership and the community. In recent months, however, individuals and families in the area have been reevaluating their choices as a new option for affiliation has surfaced.

This past April, two Conservative synagogues, Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach and Temple Beth Zion-Sinai in Lakewood, were making plans to merge, an idea that had been discussed off and on for many years.

According to Beth Shalom President Bruce Greenberg, Beth Zion-Sinai requested that the two synagogues move forward and put the merger to a vote. While the membership at Beth Shalom voted almost unanimously for the merger, Beth Zion-Sinai did not reach the required two-thirds vote.

The failed merger ended amicably, according to Stan Yellin, president of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, but it also took his congregation in a new and innovative direction: The membership decided to become a progressive, or nondenominational, synagogue.

Along with the transition came a name change; now called Congregation Shir Chadash, it hired a new rabbi, Howard Laibson, several months ago. Ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1981, Laibson had been at the helm of Temple Israel of Long Beach for 17 years. His move to Shir Chadash means leading the congregation in its pursuit of change.

“We are about to embark upon a new, challenging and exciting enterprise,” Laibson said in a message to his new congregation. “We will maintain and build anew the deep commitments to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people that are hallmarks of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai. We’re going to do so in a most unusual manner, by embracing Jewish diversity and by eschewing denominational labels. The hope is that many new families will become members of our synagogue, and they are likely to bring all sorts of traditions and practices with them. We want all Jews to feel at home here. So ours will be neither a Reform nor a Conservative congregation.”

Nationally, this kind of shift toward nondenominational Jewish institutions is on the rise.

“We are seeing a nationwide movement to do away with denominations,” said Deborah Goldfarb, executive director of the Jewish Federation in Long Beach. Goldfarb describes this development as a response to new nondenominational ways some Jews are seeking to connect to Judaism — embracing the notion of “I’m just Jewish.”

“It is a positive move for synagogues to reexamine their places in the community and how they appeal to their constituents,” Goldfarb said.

Beth Shalom President Bruce Greenberg says that although his congregation initially was disappointed that the merger did not go through, they are confident about future growth.

“Our temple continues as a full member of the Conservative movement,” Greenberg said. “We are making great progress and looking forward now to being the only Conservative shul and with the only conservative Torah School in the greater Long Beach area.”

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat of Beth Shalom is optimistic as well.

“We are continuing to move forward in a positive direction,” Grinblat said. “We remain a Conservative, egalitarian synagogue and are very pleased with our growth in membership. In just this past year we have welcomed at least 25 new member families.”

Following the departure of Laibson, Temple Israel of Long Beach also is undergoing change. They are in the midst of a search for a new head rabbi, and a number of members followed Laibson to the new nondenominational Shir Chadash.
However, even with the migration, Temple Israel’s membership remains relatively unchanged, with approximately 500 member families. Sharon Amster Brown, director of education at Temple Israel’s Torah Center said student enrollment also has stayed consistent.

All this movement may be a reflection of the fluidity of a dynamic, changing Jewish population in the area and the differing ways in which families wish to observe. Jessie Butler, a Long Beach resident for 44 years and past president of the Jewish Community Center, has observed the shifts.

“I’ve seen changes in the demographic of our senior population, and I’ve watched the numbers of young people and teenagers go up and down numerous times over the years,” Butler said. “Currently we have many young families joining the JCC and a waiting list at our nursery schools. I think that’s a positive sign.”

Don’t Hide From Outreach — It Will Find You!


I don’t know where I got the idea or who put it in my head originally, but during my whole childhood the idea was clear: Orthodox Jews were “weird.” Really weird. Of course as a kid my definition of “weird” ran closer to anyone who was the slightest bit different from me rather than someone you would actually see in a circus freak show. Still, while most things as a kid were not clear, save for baseball, one thing was: stay away from the Orthodox Jews. Which made sense.

I mean since Orthodox Jews were not of this earth, I should steer clear of them.

Which I did. In fact I took this idea so to heart that I managed to stay away — far away — from Orthodox Jews for the first 30 years of my life. Until the Orthodox Jews came after me.

It started innocently enough. My then-girlfriend, now wife of 12 years, and I were dating, and during one dinner we were discussing whether we were really compatible. Everything checked out. We had similar views on most things. As a throwaway we checked in on religion. We both knew the other was Jewish, but we discovered that although we were both born Jewish, we both knew “zip-a-dee doo-dah” about Judaism. All that Reform Jewish Sunday school didn’t teach us anything about our heritage. So, we decided to try and find a class in Los Angeles on Judaism and learn something together.

We really did not know if such a class existed in Los Angeles (so disconnected from all things Jewish were we back in the day). Our only lead was an article I had read in the L.A. Times about a program called 20something at some place called Aish HaTorah. We decided that we’d go there and see if they could steer us in the direction of a class. We had no idea it was an Orthodox organization. We had no idea the organization focused on kiruv (outreach). Boy, were we in for a surprise.

The rabbi we met there was amazing, but still Orthodox, so that gave him two and a half strikes against him. Sure he was intellectual, kind, happy and smart, but come on — he was Orthodox. Soon, his true colors came out: He started doing something really weird. He started inviting people from the class over to his house for dinner. I mean who in Los Angeles invites strangers to their house for dinner? At first, we were glad he didn’t choose us, but then we started to resent him for not choosing us. You know — it was like a bad party. You didn’t want to go, but at least you wanted to be invited!

Finally, he did invite us. We were insulted it took so long, so we accepted. He told us to meet him at the shul around 5:30 p.m. on Friday evening. Like fools we thought this was just a neutral meeting point. When we got there we saw his real reason for telling us that time and place: There were Friday night services going on. That’s right — he had tricked us into going to synagogue! I felt betrayed. Even my father had never stooped to such levels to get me to go to services. At least he was always straight forward.

“Shut up and get in the car. We’re going to synagogue!” he’d say.
At the rabbi’s home, we met his family. His wife and kids were nice, but again — they were Orthodox. During dinner, however, they seemed very normal (for weird people) and Debbie and I really enjoyed ourselves. In fact we thought these Friday night “dinner parties” were great ideas. It was also amazing not to have any music playing while we ate because it encouraged conversation. And what conversation we had. Talking about the Almighty and His role in the world and the Torah. By the end of the evening we felt, well, elevated. This was so different than the feeling we got when we had dinner with our non-Jewish or Jewish, but secular, friends. There, the conversation usually went to new lows of gossip or worse. It was quite a contrast.

But then, on cue, the rabbi and his wife did something really weird. I guess they just couldn’t help themselves. It was their nature. They actually suggested that we stay at their house for the night.

It doesn’t get much weirder.

I mean why in a gazillion years would we want to spend the night at their house?

Did they think we were homeless street people who needed shelter for the night?

Hello! We have apartments! You know, like normal, nonweird people?

Of course when we got back to my apartment, we realized that we had locked both sets of our keys to our apartments inside and could not get them until the morning when the manager arrived. In short, we were stuck. We sheepishly went back to the rabbi’s house with our tails between our legs and told him our lament.

He smiled and said, “You should have just accepted the invitation when we made it instead of going through all that!”

Pretty funny for a weird guy.

We quickly realized that these dinner parties on Friday nights were actually religious in nature. That was OK. We were there for the conversation and the food (his wife is an amazing cook). But soon it got to be a little much. I mean how could these people do this every single week? Why would you? So after a while of “doing Shabbat” we decided to take a break for a couple of weeks. One day I came home from work and there was a message on my machine from the rabbi. He said, “Where are you and Debbie? I haven’t seen you for a while? Please call me.”

I was furious. What, was he taking attendance? Was he tracking our coming and going? Who was this guy? I immediately called Debbie and told her of the intrusive call. I told her I’m going to call him and give him a piece of my mind. I’ll teach that weirdo.

I called him.

“Rabbi? This is Ross,” I said very curtly.

He didn’t notice my rude tone.

“Ross!” he said. “It’s so nice to hear from you.”

“Yeah,” I continued. “Look, I’m really upset about your message. I mean what, are your tracking us? Do you take attendance? This is really intrusive.”

“Oh,” he said sounding saddened. “I’m so sorry. It’s not that at all. It’s just that I really like you and Debbie and I miss you when you’re not around.”

I was shocked by his caring. I was also ashamed at my behavior.

“Hold on,” I said. “I’ll get Ross.”

I hung up the phone after our conversation (which included yet another invitation to a Friday night dinner party) and just sat there stunned.
“This guy really cares about us,” I thought to myself.

I mean no one cares about anyone in Los Angeles, but this guy really cared about us. The thought was overwhelming. Suddenly this man and his wife were no longer “weird.” They were actually something special to us. They were our friends.

Slowly, our view of Orthodox Jews started to change. Oh, sure, there were still some “weird” things that they did, like the seders that never ended and wherein you don’t eat until 11:30 p.m. — if you’re lucky — but we were more open to seeing what these strange practices were all about. And even though they ran contrary to our own childhood experiences where the seder at my house, for example, ran about an hour and we all watched TV after the festive meal, we were more willing to overlook the differences and started focusing on finding truth.

And we found truth. Among those weird Orthodox Jews that we are now proudly a part of. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot of love, devotion and patience from our newfound friends — the rabbi (who eventually officiated at our Orthodox wedding) and his wife. And it took a lot of time. But they never gave up on us.

Ross Hirschmann is a former civil litigator. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.

Posters by Czech Students Bring Back Lost ‘Neighbors’


” TARGET=”_blank”>Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust should be exhibiting the art work of Czech children trying to rediscover their Jewish compatriots in the exhibition, “Neighbors Who Disappeared.”

The show, which opened Aug. 20 and runs through the end of September, was put together by Susan Boyer of the Czech Torah Network and Rachel Jagoda, executive director of the museum, who has made it one of her goals to seek out “the other.” She has presented exhibitions on the Cambodian genocide and the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust, as well as a recent lecture by a 101-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who, along with many of his co-religionists, spent time in Nazi concentration camps.

The “Neighbors” exhibition combines non-Jewish and Jewish narratives by featuring posters designed by non-Jewish kids from Czech junior high and high schools, who researched the history of their towns and found out about the plight of Jews, some of whom actually attended their very schools. Each poster in the first half of the exhibition, many of which have an earth-tone background, shows a map at the top which indicates the Czech town that was researched and includes a collage of archived photographs, diary entries, diagrams and other mixed-media forms.

Typically, the students who created the poster provide quotes about how the project has transformed them. In some cases, students reveal their ignorance prior to becoming enlightened about World War II and the Holocaust. One writes, “Today’s generation, without any knowledge what it is all about, only laughs at it.”

However, the students from Ostrava, an eastern Czech town, overcome this failing and are grateful to get in touch with Jan Mayer, who is shown as a 6-year-old in 1931, wearing a Maccabee shirt with a Star of David on it. The littlest child in the Jewish gymnasium, Mayer, who in the black-and-white photograph scratches his upper lip, later survived Terezin; Auschwitz, where he encountered Dr. Mengele; Birkenau; and the death march.

A recent photo shows the octogenarian with his wife. He tells the Czech students that he made it through the Holocaust due to “a lot of luck,” but the students write that he is a man of fortitude.

The second half of the exhibition is a tribute to the Czech children who died in the Holocaust. One colorful poster, with lots of yellow and pink, displays entries from a short-lived magazine, published in 1940 and 1941 by young Czech Jews, called Klepy, or gossip. There are cartoons and other illustrations, such as a superimposed image of a smiling boy who kicks a soccer ball.

But the light-hearted title of the publication and the frivolous images can not leaven the severity of a poem, titled “Reflections — Statements.” An unknown child poet writes, “We have only one life, one small fragment of eternity, and we have this in order to fight the world.”

The last poster is by the students of Varnsdorf High School and is dedicated to one of their alumni, the Czech painter Frantisek Peter Kien. Kien, who was deputy head of the art room at Terezin, may very well have taught art to the children whose work was found after the Holocaust and is now exhibited at venues like the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

In this poster, we see a number of remarkable drawings by Kien, including a self-portrait of the young artist, whose thick but tiny gob of a moustache ironically makes him resemble Hitler. We also see a print of an elongated, silhouetted man in a top hat, sitting next to a woman of the night. The image, done in a kind of diabolical green and red, is evocative of the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and references Maupassant.

If there is a possible flaw to the poster, it is that we see none of Kien’s art documenting the inhumanity of the Terezin camp, even though such work is noted in the text. Perhaps the students wanted to show that in spite of the dehumanizing nature of Terezin, painters like Kien and the young Jewish children were still able to enter the imaginative realm, to dream and to produce art that outlasted the hatred of the Nazis.

“Neighbors Who Disappeared” runs through the end of September at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.

When Faiths Jam


At the Southern California Islamic Center last Saturday night, only Shawn Landres dared utter a four-letter word. That word was, “kumbaya.”

Yes, the evening brought together about 150 Jews, Muslims and Christians for a night of prayer and music at the center, which had never before hosted such a gathering.

And yes, it began with a drum circle.

But if the faithful had one thing in common, underneath their kippahs and collars and hijabs, it was that not one of them wanted this night confused with those circa-1970-“Free to Be You and Me” warm and cuddly attempts at interfaith dialogue. No, this was Faith Jam 2006.

And the biggest difference between those previous attempts at ethno-religious harmony and this one? This one seemed to work.

Musician and community organizer Craig Taubman had wanted such an event to be part of the weeklong “Let My People Sing” celebration. The Passover-themed musical happenings took place in synagogues and community centers throughout L.A. An interfaith component, he told me, fit the theme: “Passover is about liberation, and we’re enslaved by our hatreds.”

Organizing took finesse. Taubman tapped Landres, director of research at Synagogue 3000, to use his ample interfaith Rolodex. He brought on 16 Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups as co-sponsors, including Abraham’s Vision, IKAR, Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

The Islamic Center came on board enthusiastically, according to its religious director, Jihad Turk. But there were conditions: grape juice, not wine, for Havdalah; no dancing; appropriate dress; and no overt mention from the Christians of Jesus as God or the messiah. The center vetted the gospel choir’s songs, and in the program its name, The Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church Choir, became COR A.M.E.

Another concern was overloading the event with Jews, a drawback of interfaith dialogues past. Landres compiled three R.S.V.P. lists and cut off the Jewish respondents in order to ensure equivalent amounts of Muslims and Christians. By 8 p.m. the place was full, the drumming had stopped, and Turk quieted the crowd with the traditional, piercing Muslim call to prayer.

The evening had three acts. First came ritual. Taubman and Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, another co-sponsor, lit the traditional Havdalah candle, woven together from three wicks.

“This night and nights like this are so long overdue,” Rabbi Levy said. “Tonight we pray to come together to celebrate our differences and treasure our oneness.” (The rabbi also happens to be my wife, but no person of any faith seemed to hold that against her.)

The Rev. Wilma Jakobsen of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena gave a brief sermon, urging the audience members to work within their faith traditions to help the poor and oppressed.

Then Turk invited everyone to shed their shoes and join the center’s men and women for the traditional evening prayers, or isha, men shoulder to shoulder in front, women behind them. “We hope to get a better understanding of who the Other is,” Turk said.

Several Jews migrated over to the prayer room and lined up as the prayer leader led the worship. It was the full-on experience — standing, kneeling, bowing — just what you see on the evening news but with, yes, some Jews and Christians sprinkled in. I mentioned to a woman standing nearby that the young man leading the prayers, Abdelwahab Ben Youcef, was almost unnaturally handsome.

“Oh, he’s an actor,” she said. “He played one of the Palestinian terrorists in ‘Munich.'”

After the ritual came the main program: the music. The Christ Our Redeemer gospel choir lit up the room, followed by Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim recording artist and head of the co-sponsoring Progressive Muslim Union. Then came the Yuval Ron Ensemble, whose Middle Eastern music, with its organic blending of Muslim and Jewish roots, enthralled the crowd (their CD table did brisk sales) and MC Rai, a Tunisian-born Muslim hip-hop artist. Two comedians, the Jewish Beth Lapidus and the Muslim Maz Jobrani provided comedy breaks.

And afterward came the mingling.

Why was this night different from all other attempts at interfaith dialogue?

First, the crowd skewed young. Because the agenda was largely musical, the night brought out young Jews and Muslims, the demographic that wanted a fun night out, not a lecture.

Second, the ritual wasn’t dumbed down. People who knew their stuff conducted Havdalah and the Muslim evening prayer, without abridgment or reinterpretation. I asked Landres why that was — and that’s when he said the word.

“We’re not doing ‘Kumbaya’ where we all get together and hug,” he said. “This is the way a new generation does dialogue.”

What Landres seemed to mean was: There was no dialogue. We didn’t have to sit in a circle and look into the Other’s eyes and tell him how we feel. No one led a pointless discussion about Mideast peace — as if we have any say in it.

“It’s just breaking the ice,” Turk told me, “and music goes beyond words.”

Actually, I noticed only a modest amount of real mixing. Most people hung with their own, enjoying the music, baklava, mint tea and enhanced bottled water beverage. The reviews were positive.

Islamic Center members Nadim and Gita Itani — he’s Lebanese, she’s Iranian — pronounced it good.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Nadim, a 30-something architect. “And it’s about time.”

The apparent success of the enterprise gave him hope.

“It’s foundational,” he said. “Singing beside a Jew as we close the Sabbath, that’s when you get goose bumps.”

A young Palestinian American who only wanted to give his name as Muhammed — “I work in the entertainment industry,” he explained — said the Havdalah ritual he witnessed touched him, too.

“We have to all get together,” he said. “People who are opposed to this kind of night, they shouldn’t even be in this country.”

Now that kind of intolerance? It’s a beautiful thing.

 

I Want You to Want Me


So there he was at my door: I knew he was short because his profile said he was 5-foot-5, and yet I’d still pictured those emerald eyes and floppy hair on a frame that was more…well, just more. And speaking of hair, his picture hadn’t included it in the close-up, but I’d envisioned a shock of thick hair, not a shaved head that may or may not have been camouflaging a receding/nonexistent hairline.

The whole picture was wholly unlike the one I’d put together. In our month of talking, phone tagging, setting dates and canceling them (the normal course for a blind date in Los Angeles), I’d written an entire storybook of Jay: he had a mellifluous, soothing voice as he read me from his favorite novel. You can tell a lot about a person from his voice — actually, I’m hoping dating sites will have users put up MP3 audio clips (“Hello, this is Bachelor No. 1”). Jay’s voice said he was laid back, sensitive, easy-going.

Except that he wasn’t. Over the first hour, Jay revealed that he was a traffic-cursing, coffee-drinking, client-hating, Type-A (Addictive) personality. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld might have said, except that, God Almighty, don’t you think I should be with someone more … chill? Soothing? And tall?

This isn’t one of those stories about how some guy isn’t who I thought he was. (Essentially all nascent relationships are about reality competing with fantasy: eventually you’re going to have to decide whether you can accept who the person really is and relinquish the image of what you want him or her to be.) It’s not even one of those morality fables whose lesson is that I’m just way too picky.

Because here’s the thing: Even though Jay wasn’t who I had imagined him to be, or what I wanted for myself in a mate, I wanted him anyway. I wanted him anyway. Despite the fact that he wore a sweatshirt (gray hoodie, circa 1995), completely ignored what kind of food I wanted to eat, ate with his hands (not finger food), and wiped his mouth on sleeve of said sweatshirt.

There I was, leaning forward in my chair, trying to keep my back straight, napkin in my lap, food swallowed before talking (just because he had bad manners didn’t mean that I should) I laughed at his jokes, made a few of my own (but not too many). In my head there was a series of negotiations under way, like someone reasoning a bad real estate purchase.

“Well, he’s not that short, really, and he does read books, and he said that he’s working toward inner peace…”

In other words, I was trying. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Except that it wasn’t that I was trying to have a good time; I was trying to make Jay like me. I was trying to make Jay like me even though I had no clue about how I felt about him. OK, I had some clues, but I ignored them, doing the same song and dance I’d been doing since high school. Back then I was so entertaining I’d wish I were out with myself! Now, two decades later, I’ve learned to sit back and let things happen, but my heart was playing the same old Sally Field tune: I hope you like me. I hope you really like me.

It wasn’t just Jay. Before him it was an obnoxious Ivy-educated lawyer, then a rich illiterate businessman, a non-Jewish surfer, a semi-employed actor I met in a cafe. I don’t even date actors, and still I’m wondering why he hasn’t called me.

My girlfriends tell me similar stories all the time: How they went out with a guy, they are hoping he will call — actually, they have to get off the phone because that may be him on call waiting — how he said this and did that on the date and what do I think it means? And the whole subtext of the analysis is trying to figure out how he felt.

“Did you like him?” I ask. Indeed they do, surely they did, they think they did, well, they might have, although, come to think of it, they weren’t sure about whether they were attracted to him, and wasn’t it a little weird that everyone is out to get him, and also what was up with that way he spoke to the waiter?

What is wrong with us? What is wrong with our egos that we need to be liked by every Chaim, Yaacov and Yankel who takes us out on a date? Sometimes it seems like all the women in America are reading these insipid magazines and self-help books, sitting forward in our chairs, laughing at his jokes, waiting for his call, wanting him to want us even though we’re not so sure we want him.

I know, I know. The proper feminist, Take-Back-The-Night, Eve Ensler response is to not care, to empower myself, to have some self-respect and not be so shallow as to base my entire well-being on what a total stranger thinks of me. Look, I’m not a particularly insecure person. At least, I wasn’t before I started dating. But you try meeting a dozen strangers a month and see how impervious you can be. Doesn’t everyone essentially want to be liked? To be loved?

A day or two goes by and Jay and I trade tepid e-mails. In the end he will not call me, but by that point it won’t matter. That’s because I will meet someone else at a Friday night dinner who is: a bit old, a tad crotchety, a possible commitment-phobe — but sweet nonetheless. So I will give him my number, we will go out and, yes, once again, I will wait for him to call.

 

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.

 

Remembering Tibor


As Shavuot approaches, I can’t help but remember the afternoon of the first day of Shavuot two years ago when my neighborsand I stood outside our homes and wondered whether terrorists had struck again, as the sound of sirens permeated the air and an army of helicopters circled the smoke-filled sky above the Fairfax area. We soon learned that a small airplane had crashed into an apartment building, killing the four people on board, as well as one apartment resident, 78-year-old Holocaust survivor, Tibor Reis.

Since that day, I have thought a lot about Tibor and learned much about this kind and humble man. Tibor had been studying at his beloved shul, Young Israel of Los Angeles, until 2 a.m. on the first night of Shavuot. Before attending services early the next morning, he changed his regular routine and went to the mikvah, the ritual bath. (This act would take on a much greater significance after his death because his body was too charred to perform taharah — the ritual pre-burial washing.)

Tibor had been a member of Young Israel for more than 30 years. During that time, he had never recited the haftorah. He always deferred, saying they should give the honor to someone more worthy. At the synagogue that morning, the gabbai told him that no one was more deserving and so, on the last day of his life, Tibor had the last aliyah and chanted the haftorah for the first time. The haftorah described an esoteric view of Heaven with such verses as: “The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.”

After shul, he had planned to go to a friend’s house for lunch, however he made the fateful decision to go home and get some much-needed rest. At 4 p.m., as he slept, the plane plummeted into the building. Everything in his apartment was destroyed by the fire — with the exception of his tallit and his kittel. He was buried in Israel, wearing those garments.

Tibor was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in the city of Komoren, on the Hungarian-Czechoslovakian border. He was liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp, where he helped his father survive. His mother and two brothers perished, while two other brothers, one now living in New York, the other in Israel, survived.

After the war, while living in Komoren under a very oppressive regime, Tibor was caught helping Jews escape to Austria, and was put into a Russian prison for three years. Although he was tortured, he never revealed the names of those working with him.

He was finally freed after brilliantly pleading his case before a judge. After his acquittal, a kind non-Jewish stranger helped him escape to West Berlin. He eventually made his way to America, and lived in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. He lived alone and had never married; his shul was the center of his life.

Young Israel’s Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz found special significance in Tibor’s Hebrew name, Moshe Yehuda. He said King David, who was a member of the Yehuda Tribe, also died on Shavuot; and that Moshe, who gave us the Torah on Shavuot, was considered our most humble Jew. Tibor was a serious scholar who studied every day; he spoke six languages. Young Israel is in the process of creating a library in Tibor’s memory.

Tibor took the bus downtown every day, where he repaired watches in the jewelry district. He had modest means but always gave tzedakah and tried to help others. He visited homebound people in the neighborhood on a regular basis and often sent money to his brothers and their families.

Tibor enjoyed cooking for himself and told everyone at the shul what he prepared for Shabbat, or about a great soup he made. He frequently shopped on Fairfax Avenue, and was somewhat of an institution to everyone. He walked all over and loved to schmooze along the way. People often helped carry his packages or gave him a ride home.

Those familiar with Tibor’s death ask the same question: Why did this good and decent man, who survived concentration camps and a Russian prison, die in such a horrible, violent manner? Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to this cruelest of ironies.

However, we can honor Tibor’s memory by making a special effort to reach out to those who are alone; and during Yizkor this Shavuot, we can take an extra moment to think of Tibor, as well as those who died who have no one to remember them.

Despite innumerable hardships, Tibor maintained a positive outlook and accomplished many things during his lifetime. Nothing exemplifies this more profoundly than the touching scene that took place after his memorial service at Young Israel before his body was sent to Israel for burial.

As the casket was carried down the street to his apartment building and the awaiting hearse, the sidewalks on both sides of the street were lined with an eclectic mix of Fairfax area residents. Many people cried as they stood quietly and respectfully, honoring Tibor one last time.

Rest in peace Tibor.

To contribute to the library, make checks payable to: Young Israel of L.A.-Tibor Reis Library Fund, 660 N. Spaulding Ave., L.A., CA 90036.

Gloria Baran develops social action and community service programs for children, including a variety of tzedakah projects for Camp Ramah.

 

Young Adults Heed the Leadership Call


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

New Rabbi Hopes More Families Enjoy Sun, Surf, Shabbat at PJC


On Saturday morning in Venice Beach, among the scores of shirtless rollerbladers and bearded aging beach hippies, you are likely to see some conservatively dressed people strolling purposefully past the henna tattoos stands, the Indian deity beachside galleries and the stores selling pleather mini dresses. They don’t stop to get massages or to buy incense from one of the many eclectic merchants that give Venice Beach its beatnik charm. Instead, they turn into "The Shul on the Beach" — a cheery yellow building, where their yarmulkes and long skirts are not out of place.

The Pacific Jewish Center (PJC) has been a Venice beach landmark for the past 60 years. Always a Traditional or Orthodox congregation, PJC has been on the fringes of the larger Orthodox centers in Pico-Robertson and Hancock Park — and a few miles too far west for some. It is a shul where the tightknit, traditionally Orthodox congregation would daven alongside the backpacking travelers who wandered in from the beach, against an aural backdrop of the crashing waves, making the community somewhat different to the staid Ashkenazi norm in other shuls.

But PJC is now taking bold steps to become a more mainstream synagogue and to establish itself as a community of choice among people already living in Santa Monica and those moving to Los Angeles. It has just hired Rabbi Ben Geiger (the former assistant rabbi of Beth Jacob in Irvine) to be PJC’s first full-time rabbi, and PJC members are hoping that the appointment will be a membership booster shot for the 50-family shul and make it more connected to the larger community.

According to Steve Sass, head of the Jewish Historical Society of Los Angeles, PJC was started in the 1940s when two Jewish merchants decided to remove the wall between a butcher shop and another Jewish business to start a synagogue. That was during the heyday of Venice Jewry, when there were at least four other shuls in Venice, including another two on the boardwalk. Back then, PJC was known as the Bay Cities Synagogue, and it was populated by many retired garment workers and union activists who moved to Venice from New York and Chicago, making Venice the "Miami Beach" of the West. But in the 1960s, the city of Los Angeles embarked on a project of urban renewal in Venice, and many of the bungalows and small cottages where the retirees lived were torn down, displacing the residents. Shuls in Venice suffered; many of them had pledged their assets to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which had rights to the properties if the shuls could no longer get a minyan. As the minyanim dwindled, the JNF took over and sold the properties. PJC was saved in the mid-1970s by a bagel club started by Maury Rosen, who attracted residents to the premises with bagels to make it appear as if there was a regular minyan there. At the time, the roof of PJC was so in need of repair that congregants had to wear galoshes when they visited after it rained.

It was around the same time that a group of congregants left the Venice Conservative synagogue Mishkon Tephilo in search of a more traditionally Orthodox service. The group was lead by Rabbi Daniel Lapin and film critic Michael Medved, who decided to revive the ailing Shul on the Beach. This charismatic duo started attracting many people to PJC’s services, and the community grew. Barbra Streisand had the bar mitzvah of her son, Jason Gould, there; the shul sponsored regular classes attended by hundreds of people; and a day school was started to serve the needs of the community. It was a community that prided itself on its commitment to Torah learning and its generous hospitality. It welcomed newcomers in from off the beach, set them up with meals for Shabbat and would then invite them to attend the classes.

But the thriving community split in the early 1990s. A new school board moved the day school closer to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where it became the Ohr Eliyahu school, a decision that was very unpopular with the Traditional members of the synagogue. The move also posed a challenge to Lapin’s authority; some people left the shul to start their own minyan, others stayed in deference to Lapin’s community vision. Lapin and Medved eventually left Venice and moved to Washington state where they both became radio personalities who espoused a conservative vision.

Back in Venice, Lapin’s brother, Rabbi David Lapin, took over the leadership of the now-smaller community (albeit not full time), and Rabbi Avi Pogrow became his assistant rabbi. The shul continued its commitment to hospitality (any stranger walking into PJC generally gets at least three Shabbat-meal offers to choose from), and while the shul was renovated to make its Old World charm clean, bright and modern, it had difficulty in enticing much of the new set of Santa Monica’s urban professionals to join the community and fulfill its growth potential. It also failed to become the shul of choice for other religious Jews; the community had no eruv (boundary that enables Jews to carry on Shabbat), which meant that parents of young children could not take them to shul. Meanwhile, many parents of older children found housing costs in Santa Monica and Venice too prohibitive and wanted to live in larger communities where their children could be closer to their schools and friends.

Recently, David Lapin took an educational post in Washington, D.C., and Pogrow decided to look elsewhere for a rabbinic position, leaving the door open for a new rabbi. A search committee was established, and although the shul had differences of opinion as to what the new rabbi should be — some wanted the rabbi to be more modern; others more traditionally ultra-Orthodox — after a year, the shul decided to employ Geiger, a graduate of both Yeshiva University Los Angeles and the ultra-orthodox Ner Israel Rabbinic School in Baltimore, Md.

"I stand more to the right than to the left of Orthodoxy," said the 28-year-old Geiger, who has his first official Shabbat in the community this week. "By choosing me they chose a religious direction, but overall, those things tend to be less relevant than people feeling that they have a place in the shul and are connected to the shul."

The shul has high expectations of Geiger. In addition to all the regular rabbinic duties of leading services and teaching classes, they would like him to build the eruv, create programs that will make PJC more a part of the greater Orthodox community, expand the community’s National Council of Synagogue Youth chapter and capitalize on the potential for growth and draw new members to the shul.

"Geiger is young and energetic and he comes from a halachic standpoint that is acceptable or preferable to people who have been here for a while" said Michal Geller, who headed the rabbi search committee. "From an age and demographic perspective, he is an L.A. boy, which is helpful for a tie back into the mainstream Jewish community, and hopefully we can get some longevity out of him."

A Growing Presence


It has taken roughly three decades for L.A.’s community of Russian-speaking Jews to steadily, if incrementally, gain a foothold in Jewish American and mainstream American life.

"In the Russian Jewish community, you didn’t have, until the early ’90s, any organization," said Miriam Prum Hess, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ vice president for Planning and Allocations. "Now that this community has made it as one of our wonderful success stories."

One sign that Los Angeles’ immigrant-heavy Russian Jewish community has "made it" as a rising philanthropic force in the larger Jewish community is this month’s Russian Dinner Gala, co-sponsored by The Federation and the American Russian Medical and Dental Association — headed by Dr. Ludmila Bess and Alex Gershman. The Jewish entities will join forces to host the first large-scale community-wide effort ever staged by this city’s Russian-speaking Jewish community.

Also crucial in the staging of this milestone fundraiser is the Association of Soviet Jewish Emigres (ASJE), a Federation affiliate that gets ample support from West Hollywood. Smack in the middle of the "Little Moscow" section of West Hollywood, the ASJE is housed within a nondescript office building along a busy stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard — conveniently located across the street from Plummer Park, long a social and recreational hub for local Russian Jewry.

Every day, from the ASJE’s humble, two-desk office, the mostly underclass Russian Jewish immigrant population in the area seek help in navigating through the bureaucracy to obtain SSI checks, get welfare assistance, install utilities, pay parking tickets and face other diurnal affairs that can be challenging for anyone with a poor command of the English language.

The ASJE, which also helps immigrants acquire donated furniture through its Furniture Division, will play an instrumental role in putting together the event, in particular via the participation of Helen Levin, executive director of ASJE, and her husband, Eugene Levin, publisher of the venerable local Russian-language newspapers Panorama and Friday Express.

From the early 1970s to mid-1990s, Los Angeles — like other major cities in the United States and Israel — became the constant recipient of Jewish refugees fleeing Communist Russia. Coinciding with the fall of communism, Russian Jewish immigration reached its peak in 1992, when the largest wave of immigration of about 2,800 settled in Los Angeles, according to the Hebrew immigrant Aid Society. There are now about 402,000 Americans of Russian ancestry; 72,000 Russian-born persons reside in California, 70-80 percent of whom are Jewish, according to Pini Herman, of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, who compiled numbers from the 2000 Census and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

By the mid-1990s, L.A.’s Russian-speaking Jewish community fanned out from its West Hollywood/Fairfax District epicenter. They now constitute pockets of the San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Bel Air, and with their population growth over the past decade has come an increase in upward mobility, assimilation and involvement in Jewish affairs and the political process.

The history of Los Angeles’ Russian Jewish philanthropy is much shorter. Observers say it does not in truth extend much before early 2002, when a pair of parlor meetings — held by Michael and Vera Landver, and by Dr. Leonid and Natalia Glozman — raised $70,000 for Friends of Israeli Defense Force, and $20,000 for The Federation’s Jews in Crisis campaign, respectively. In May, a Russian Jewish demonstration of solidarity for Israel was organized by Eugene Levin.

The Jan. 16 Sheraton Universal Hotel gala will honor nine prominent L.A. individuals and entities crucial in supporting L.A.’s Jews from the former Soviet Union will be honored: Philip Blazer, president of Blazer Communications; Vladimir Davidovich; Dr. Samuel Fain; Si Frumkin, chairman of Southern California Council for Soviet Jews; Michael Landver; Kira Macagon; the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles; Sid Sheinberg; and County of Los Angeles Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

The evening’s goal will be to raise money for the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, (formerly Ichilov Hospital), a Federation Jews in Crisis Fund charity which aids victims of terror from the ongoing Intifada in Israel.

"In Russia," Hess said, "the only concept of volunteerism is the Communist Party, which Jews tended to run away from."

"It’s very hard to think about community as a whole if you can not help your own family," said Maya Segal, director of The Federation’s Refugee Resettlement and Acculturation Program. Segal added that it will take several generations to see a shift of mentality from a land where no freedoms prevailed to one of total abandon; from an atheistic society to a country that embraces religious freedom.

The Levins and Segal know firsthand the plight of the Russian Jewish immigrant. Helen and Eugene Levin came to Los Angeles 15 years ago with their 7-year-old daughter. Segal came to America from Russia 13 years ago and has seen the steady, if sluggish, evolution and assimilation of Los Angeles’ Russian-speaking Jews — both within the Jewish community and mainstream American society.

Eugene Levin believes that in the coming decade, Russian Jewish involvement and clout will continue to grow.

"Before it was more a relationship like big brother and small brother," he said. "Russians were mostly takers but now they’re givers. Things are changing. This event is an example of that."

For information on the gala, call (323) 761-8226. To contact the ASJE, call (323) 969-0919.

This Year in Orange County


Next year in Jerusalem.” We spoke these words at the end of our Passover seders, as we always do. But this year, we winced as we recited the familiar formula. Today, the ancient Jewish desire for a homeland is colliding with the modern Arab desire to deny the Jews a homeland in a battle that features suicide bombers, F-15s and automatic weapons.

So we hedge. I hear it in shul after services on Saturday morning. I hear it hanging around the nosh table at Jewish events and standing around the playground waiting to pick the kids up from day school. I hear myself saying it at home: “We were hoping to go to Israel this summer, but the way things are now….”

Next year in Jerusalem. This year, maybe Hawaii.

Our lack of enthusiasm is understandable. It’s not as though tourists are immune to the suffering: 9-month-old Avia Malka, whose family was visiting from South Africa, was murdered in Netanya by a Palestinian terrorist on March 9.

And we’re not just frustrated tourists: we’re horrified onlookers. Ambulances with Hebrew letters, bathing the surrounding carnage in red strobe lights, fill our TV screens. Soldiers weep — my God, those kids are soldiers? — as their comrades are carried off. There’s no use rationalizing that an average person in Israel is less likely to be killed (unless he’s behind the wheel) than an average person in Los Angeles: we don’t suffer through a parade of horrifying visuals from Los Angeles each night on the news.

Next year in Jerusalem. This year, safe at home.

As if the actual tragedy of attacks on pregnant mothers and infants weren’t bad enough, we’re regularly insulted by the coverage of the atrocities in the mainstream press. The names of Tracy Wilkinson and Mary Curtius, who cover Israel for the Los Angeles Times, are rarely uttered by O.C. Jews without an accompanying epithet. The Register runs hot and cold, depending on whose wire coverage they pick up for the day: Reuters, bad; The New York Times, good, or, anyway, not as bad.

Indeed, while the events in Israel seem to leave O.C. Jews with a deer-in-the-headlights helplessness, the coverage of those events drives us to an uncontrolled rage. Can you say “CNN” without a sneer?

Has your previous disdain of the Fox News Network turned into a giddy crush on Bill O’Reilly? As Americans, we demand objective reporting; as Jews, we know biased, slanted coverage of Israel when we see it.

Next year in Jerusalem. This year, in front of the computer, pecking out letters to the editor.

OK, we may feel we have some influence on the press. But can we possibly have any effect on the main event, the ongoing nightmare in Israel?

As a community, definitely. Our combined efforts have started to bear fruit in the attitudes of our neighbors and the actions of our president. As the death toll mounts, though, it is easy to feel despair, to decide that nothing I can do as an individual can possibly make a difference. It is in those low moments that I remind myself that I cannot stand by and watch as vicious and evil thugs, taught from birth to hate and trained from childhood to kill, take the lives of Jewish children.

Make no mistake: it is the children they are targeting. Near Tekoa, two 13-year-old boys were abducted and beaten to death as they hiked in the hills. On the Ben Yehuda Street mall, no victim was over the age of 21. At the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv, teenage girls formed the majority of the victims. The list is sickeningly long.

So I can’t sit still. Neither could Susan Glass, president of the Orange County chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Glass, who is also active locally in the Federation and Jewish Family Service, participated in a Federation Solidarity Mission to Israel in December. Although this was her sixth trip to the country, Glass saw the tragedies there as a call to action. “I felt I had to go,” she told me.

Like others who have visited during the year-and-a-half Palestinian campaign of terror, Glass was received with warmth and gratitude by Israelis who don’t always enjoy a reputation for either. “They know it’s not easy” for Americans to visit during this time, she said. “Seeing how much they appreciate our visit, you get solid evidence that the visit is important to them.”

Important to them, yes, but also important for us. There has been a Jewish state throughout my lifetime: will there be one for my grandchildren? And what will I tell those grandchildren when they ask me what I did to make a difference when Israel’s existence was at stake, when Jewish blood was being spilled?

Next year in Jerusalem. This year, on the phone, at the keyboard, standing at rallies, calling congressmen, e-mailing senators, writing letters, organizing, speaking, demonstrating … and yes, perhaps, for the sake of my future grandchildren, if only for a week or two: This year in Jerusalem.



E. Scott Menter is an Orange County businessman and writer.

Rallying


Number of Jews who live in Toulouse, France: 23,000.

Number of Jews who live in Los Angeles, Calif.: 550,000.

Number of Jews who attended a pro-Israel rally last week in Toulouse: 5,000.

Number of Jews who attended a pro-Israel rally last week in Los Angeles: 2,000.

I got a phone call on Monday. “Why can’t we do any better than Toulouse?” asked an accountant who attended the rally at the Federal Building the day before. “What is the matter with this community?”

It’s a common refrain. “You simply can’t get people off their butts in this town,” a community activist complained to me. At a meeting of the Council of Israeli Communities (CIC) in Tarzana, one woman on the verge of tears asked, “What does it take to wake people up?”

The second intifada has produced two mass rallies. The first, organized last July largely by The Jewish Federation, was meant to pack two blocks of Wilshire Boulevard, but the turnout was around 3,000.

The crowd at last Sunday’s rally, organized at an even more dire moment by the grass-roots association StandWithUs, was about 2,000.

The people who do come out to wave the flag tend to be the same from rally to rally. Israel’s Orthodox supporters have shown up in large numbers, as have many in the Persian community, and those who work or volunteer significantly in the Jewish organizational world.

But thousands more, from the Valleys, the Westside, the Hollywood Hills, were elsewhere. Many Israeli emigrants attended; many more did not.

Not showing up for rallies is not just a Jewish phenomenon. All community organizers complain about the difficulty of mobilizing the masses in a city that lacks good public transportation, a central square, cheap parking. When the Police Commission voted on Tuesday against a second season for Chief Bernard Parks, where was the march on downtown from his many vocal supporters? According to KPCC, one angry woman showed up at City Hall. Urban sprawl dampens urban activism.

But sub-urban activism — that still takes place in Los Angeles. People are upset, but the “Big Rally” is perceived as too blunt and unwieldy a tool for self-expression.

Many Jews want to show support for Israel without signing up to all of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies. There is deep disagreement here, as there is in Israel, over the level of collective punishment Israel is wielding and over Sharon’s political agenda. Organizers in Paris and Toulouse said they would have attracted more Jews if the rallies had just opposed the anti-Semitic attacks in those cities, and not supported Israeli policies.

Even those who do support Sharon’s policies didn’t turn out en masse Sunday. Jews of all political stripes have simply found other means of showing support:

  • A major Hollywood agent — the kind of agent whom stars thank by name, along with God, from the Oscar podium — has called an emergency meeting with a leader of the American Jewish Committee, just so his fellow Industry colleagues can learn more about what’s happening, and perhaps do something. Another agent hurried together a meeting this week between Industry friends and representatives of the Seeds of Peace program.
  • At Sinai Temple last Shabbat, congregants raised $700,000 in 25 minutes for Israeli victims of terror, an amount matched on the spot by the Persian Jewish philanthropy Magbit (see story p. 10).
  • The Jewish Federation has launched a $10 million fundraisng appeal for Israel, part of a national $200 million effort.
  • Groups like American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Americans for Peace Now and Zionist Organization of America are getting more and more, “What can I do?” phone calls, are organizing events and engaging in e-mail actions.
  • At pulpits throughout the region, rabbis are urging their congregants toward actions and donations. The Board of Rabbis, in a show of solidarity,just sent a group of 13 area rabbis to Israel.
  • Jewish leaders have met privately with editorial boards at the Los Angeles Times and The Daily News to express concern over instances of biased coverage and inflammatory cartoons. Meanwhile, those papers are deluged, as is this one, with Letters to the Editor and Op-Ed pieces from people anxious to speak out.
  • Grass-roots groups, like StandWithUs and medialine.com (see story p. 15), have sprung up to provide more outlets for communal expression. A prime example is the CIC, which took the lead in organizing the Israel Festival on Sunday, April 21, at Woodley Park.

In years past, the Festival has been just that, a chance to celebrate Israel, meet people, have fun. This year the size of the crowd will also be a measure of communal support (see story p. 11). It doesn’t matter who or what you support in Israel, organizer Morrie Avidan told me, “We will all be there together.”

See you there.

From L.A. to Germany


Dr. Dagmar Weiler, whose Bridge of Understanding program sponsors tours to Germany for American Jewish students and young professionals, wants to make one point perfectly clear:

“What we are offering are not memorial trips to the past but a chance for first-hand encounters with today’s Germany, warts and all,” she says.

Such face-to-face meetings are vital, she believes, as a reality check for both Germans and American Jews, who wrestle, often obsessively, with the Nazi era and its legacy.

Bridge of Understanding was launched in 1993 by the Office of German-American Cooperation at the German Foreign Ministry, and Weiler has been the project’s director almost from the beginning.

But for a faint German accent, the perky Weiler comes across at times as more American than the Americans. She received her doctorate in U.S. history from Washington State University, with a focus on the labor movement in the South, is up on the latest slang and loves baseball.

A typical Bridge tour, largely underwritten by the German government, lasts three weeks and consists of some 20 people with similar interests. The initial trips were for college students affiliated with Hillel, but now are tailor-made for young Jewish legislators, journalists, rabbis and rabbinical students and professional community workers.

Bridge, with a $500,000 annual budget, generally organizes six such tours during the year.

Although the trips concentrate on contemporary Germany, with its Jewish communities and large foreign minorities, the past cannot be ignored entirely. There are usually visits to the memorial sites at the Dachau or Sachsenhausen concentration camps, with talks by survivors.

So far, participants in the program have come mainly from the East Coast, and Weiler says that the main purpose of her current trip was to establish ties with West Coast institutions.

Weiler met with leaders of Mazon, a hunger-fighting organization, and the Board of Rabbis, but her main host was Dr. Steven Windmueller, director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Windmueller views the Bridge program as a likely test run for many of his students who plan careers with international Jewish communal organizations, such as the Joint Distribution Committee and the American Jewish Committee.

“The Jewish world is getting smaller,” he observes, and Germany in particular, with the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe, “is not just the story of the past, but also of the future.”

Additional information on Bridge of Understanding,headquartered in Munich, is available on its Web sitewww.bridge-understanding.de or by e-mail to info@bridge-understanding.de .

+