A conversational Yiddish class is held every Monday at the Workmen’s Circle, where about 15 students, most of them age 80 and older, gather. Photo by Tess Cutler

No talking in class! (Unless it’s in Yiddish)


On any given Monday afternoon, the most likely place to find Ben Silver is the Yiddish conversation class at the SoCal Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, a Jewish cultural and social justice organization near Robertson and Pico boulevards. He’s easy to spot: At 97, he’s usually the oldest student in the room.

At one recent class, Silver was the first to arrive, wearing a “World War II Veteran” baseball cap and carrying a bag of snacks to share with the class. Silver said he grew up speaking Yiddish, but, after years of not using it, “I lost the language.” That is, until a few years ago, when he first found out about the conversational class.

“There was a yearning in me to go back to my roots and to learn all of the goodness that I learned from my family,” he told the Journal. “This brings back a beautiful time in my life.”

Silver sits in a room with a long wooden table at the center and a green chalkboard at the side. He’s one of about 15 students, most of them age 80 or older whose childhood memories of Yiddish have faded over years and assimilation. The weekly 75-minute sessions, taught by Hadasa Cytrynowicz, 82, become a time capsule, with bookcases of dog-eared Yiddish classics lining the walls.

Cytrynowicz fled Poland with her parents in 1939 when Germany invaded their small town. Later, she lived in the Soviet Union, a German displacement camp, a newly formed Israel, Brazil (where she was the first professor at Sao Paulo University to teach Yiddish), and now Los Angeles. She told the Journal that she’s always felt like an outsider. “But I’m at home in the classroom,” she added.

It’s a “home” for her students, as well.

“My parents were both Yiddish speakers, especially when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about, which I think was very common,” said Irving Lehrer. Born in 1938, he noted, “I’m probably one of the youngest students in this class.”

Ruth Judkowitz, who serves in the volunteer position of “chairmentsch” at Workmen’s Circle, often brings along an accordion for when the class breaks out into Yiddish folksong.

“I’m just here, keeping the doors open,” she said. Judkowitz first heard about the Arbeter Ring in 1990, when she joined the Yiddish chorus (which no longer exists) and has since devoted much of her time to the nonprofit.

“We’ve all become friends because we’re just happy to speak Yiddish and be with each other,” she said.

Workmen’s Circle started in 1900 as a mutual aid society in New York, helping Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe adapt to American society. It operated summer camps, ran credit unions, published books, offered medical services and bought tracts of land for cemeteries. Today, it runs social justice and cultural events and schools throughout the New York metropolitan area and in large cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit and San Francisco.

In Los Angeles, the Circle occupies a modest building, with a splay of overgrown weeds taking over the sidewalk. But inside is a treasure trove. Sure, the fixtures are outdated and the walls could use a fresh coat of paint. Yet this simple edifice is a portal, a snapshot into Los Angeles’ once thriving Yiddishkeit community.

The Yiddish class has an informal layout, open to all Yiddish levels, spurring more discussion than one might expect from a typical language class. For one exercise, Cytrynowicz calls out Yiddish words that students, in turn, use in a sentence.

Chutzpah,” Cytrynowicz called out.

Silver was first to respond, “Ikh hob dos nisht,” meaning, “I don’t have that.” To which, a woman immediately wise-cracked, “He has a lot of chutzpah saying that.”

“There’s a lot of humor that goes on. We learn and make jokes. It’s just a good time,” said Judkowitz.

There’s a robust back-and-forth between teacher and students. Often, current events are discussed in Yinglish, a Yiddish-English hybrid. When a student speaks too much English, Cytrynowicz is quick to reprimand, “Yiddish! Yiddish!”

Speaking Yiddish is not the only reminder of the past. Days after President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, many in the class found the order an eerie example of history being repeated.

Some discussed the ban with outrage, recalling the MS St. Louis, the shifl (boat) that was turned away by the U.S. in 1939, a decision that bore tragic results when those passengers were sent back to Europe — many to their deaths. “I was a kinder (kid) then,” a woman remembered.

It’s strange to hear about World War II in Yiddish. It’s always the elephant in the room, the reason for the extinction of this language, this voice. When someone mentioned the Third Reich, a student uttered under her breath, “Yimakh shemo” — May his name be erased — turning the room from a Yiddish class to a yahrzeit candle, a flame of something ancient, through their resurrected language, a lost world remembered.

Hebrew Word of the Week: sliHah


A major concept of the High Holy Days is forgiveness. What do we do when we forgive? The English word “forgive” (German vergeben) meant “give wholeheartedly, grant, allow; remit (a debt completely), pardon (an offense); give up (with no grudge)” and “give in marriage (graciously).” 

The Hebrew salaH “forgive, be indulgent toward” is perhaps related to Semitic root s-l-y “toss aside, shake off, make light, forget about (a grudge, sin)”* and perhaps s-l-l “lift up, pave, cover smoothly,” which is semantically similar to kipper “cover; atone” and nasa’ “lift up, remove (sin).” 

Other derived words: God is known as sallaH “ready to forgive” (Psalms 86:5) and eloah sliHot “God of forgivings” (Nehemiah 9:17 and High Holy Days prayer book); salHan/solHan “forgiver”; salHani “forgiving”; saliaH “forgivable; fit for pardoning”; and sliHot “penitential prayers.”  

*Compare the tashlich ritual to “cast away (sins)”; Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad: ishlikhu binTilah, “cast it away, forget it (at the ritual hand-washing).”


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

GOP platform committee approves new Israel language


The Republican Party’s Platform Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved proposed language that drops any reference to the party’s longstanding support for the two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the 2016 platform.

“We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier,” the platform’s language on Israel, introduced by GOP delegate Alan Clemmons, reads. “Support for Israel is an expression of Americanism, and it is the responsibility of our government to advance policies that reflect Americans’ strong desire for a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel.”

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The National Jewish Democratic Council derided the Republican platform as an effort to make Israel a wedge issue in the 2016 presidential election. ”When it comes to Republican rhetoric on Israel, they can’t even find themselves to be inline with the rhetoric of the prime minister of Israel when it comes to a two state solution,” the NJDC said in a statement. “But as the GOP platform over compensates to the right on Israel, the Republican nominee still has a less than impressive pro-Israel record. As they antagonize the Jewish left and the Jewish right at the same time, Trump and the GOP have quite an unproductive marriage — at least for our community.”

J Street called the language “dangerous and irresponsible,” which would “embolden the Israeli settler movement and those who wish to annex the West Bank” and “weaken Palestinian moderates and strengthen extremists advocating violence.”

The pro-peace and leftist group also objected to the language designating the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. “Though J Street opposes the BDS Movement and recognizes that some of its members and supporters have expressed anti-Semitic attitudes and policies, we also believe that this language is far too broad and would unfairly brand many people as anti-Semites, simply because they endorse economic pressure to end the occupation,” J Street said in a statement on Tuesday.

Read the full text of the approved Israel language below:

Our Unequivocal Support for Israel and Jerusalem

“Like the United States of America, the modern state of Israel is a country born from the aspiration for freedom, and standing out among the nations as a beacon of democracy and humanity. Beyond our mutual strategic interests, Israel is likewise an exceptional country that shares our most essential values. It is the only country in the Middle East where freedom of speech and freedom of religion are found. Therefore, support for Israel is an expression of Americanism, and it is the responsibility of our government to advance policies that reflect Americans’ strong desire for a relationship with no daylight between America and Israel.

“We recognize Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state, and call for the American embassy to be moved there in fulfillment of U.S. law. We reaffirm America’s commitment to Israel’s security and will ensure that Israel maintains a qualitative military edge over any and all adversaries. We support Israel’s right and obligation to defend itself against terror attacks upon its people, and against alternative forms of warfare being waged upon it legally, economically, culturally and otherwise.We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier, and specifically recognize that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (“BDS”) is anti-Semitic in nature and seeks to destroy Israel.

“Therefore, we call for effective legislation to thwart actions that are intended to limit commercial relations with Israel, or persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories, in a discriminatory manner. The U.S. seeks to assist in the establishment of comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, to be negotiated among those living in the region. We oppose any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or otherterms, and call for the immediate termination of all U.S. funding of any entity that attempts to do so. Our party is proud to stand with Israel now and always.”

A little coffee and a lot of talk


A handful of people sit around a table in a café in downtown Jerusalem – their espressos and lattes in front of them. They are chatting in Spanish – every few minutes laughter bubbles up from the table.

It looks like a group of friends meeting for coffee after work. But it is a meeting of Talk Café – a drop-in language learning program that aims to get people talking in whatever language they wish to speak more fluently – Hebrew, Arabic, English, French, Spanish and German are all offered in Jerusalem.

“Talk Café is a way we found to allow people who know a language, either because they’ve lived in a country to know it from home, to improve in an informal way in a social setting,” Moshe Beigel, the founder of Talk Café told The Media Line. “It gives people the ability to talk without making a fool of themselves.”

Students pay $13 per class to Café Talk, as well as order at least a cup of coffee in the restaurant. The drop-in idea is to accommodate busy schedules, Beigel says. The restaurants benefit as well from customers in the slow periods of the late morning or early evening.

Each class starts with a sheet of vocabulary words about a certain topic. A recent Arabic class, for example, offered driving words including intersection and roundabout. Missing were the curse words that most Israelis already know in Arabic.

The “moderator” S., who asked not to use his name because he works for other NGO’s, is a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem, and has a BA and an MA from US universities. He says he enjoys helping students achieve more fluency in Arabic.

“To be honest, it’s exciting,” he told The Media Line. “I’ve always been fond of languages and once you learn the language you learn the culture. I am lucky to have a job to be able to facilitate learning about language and culture.” 

In Israel, while all Jewish students are supposed to study at least one year of Arabic, most do not learn much more than the alphabet. Some Israelis also see Arabic as the “language of the enemy” and prefer not to study it. While the Arabic group at Talk Café is usually small, it brings together people who would not usually meet, says founder Beigel.

“We’ve had American Muslims who know Arabic from the Qur’an but don’t speak it, coming to the class with a full hijab (a scarf covering their hair),” he said. “And we had someone who worked in Israeli intelligence, and someone else who is a settler (lives in the West Bank). They all sat down, had a plate of soup, and spoke Arabic together.

In the Spanish group, one woman is brushing up her Spanish for a job interview. In the German class, one woman is on her way to visit her daughter who lives in Berlin, and wants to be able to speak to her grandchildren.

It is, however, Hebrew, that has the most demand, with at least seven classes a week – three in Jerusalem and four in the West Bank community of Efrat, heavily populated by English speakers. Many of the students are immigrants to Israel from North America, and while the Israeli government will fund and pay for an “ulpan” or intensive Hebrew language course, many student say they have trouble speaking, even if they understand Hebrew well.

“Talk Cafe is not intimidating and that is the key for me,” Renee Atlas-Cohen, a lawyer and tour guide who moved to Israel from Chicago 14 years ago told The Media Line. “No one calls on you, subjects are fluid and therefore usually interesting. For a few hours after Talk Café I feel more confident speaking Hebrew and that is huge for me.”

The teachers, who are called moderators, say their biggest challenge is how to involve students with different language levels. Talk Café is not for beginners, and not for someone already fluent, but there is a large gap between someone who can speak a few sentences in Hebrew, and someone who speaks well, and just needs a little confidence.

“I teach Hebrew in other places as well and most places they teach grammar but students don’t get a chance to talk,” Talia Huss, a graduate student who teaches both Hebrew and Spanish at Talk Café told The Media Line. “It is a challenge to keep conversation at a level that is not too easy, but that involves everyone in the conversation.”

Beigel says that Talk Café was born of his own experience.

“I moved to Israel from England 35 years ago,” he said. “In English I sounded quite intelligent, but in Hebrew I sounded like a fool. The idea of Talk Café is that people can stop sounding like fools.”

Can’t or won’t learn Hebrew?


Novelist Dara Horn recently asked, “Why don’t more American Jews learn Hebrew?” Her answer: “The reason American Jews don’t learn Hebrew is because they think they can’t.”

Horn believes that this failure stems from a lack of confidence. Even Horn, who tells us in this recent article that she grew up familiar with Hebrew words and that she was one of those rare, truly engaged students in the supplemental Hebrew schooling of her youth, was convinced that she “could never actually learn Hebrew” as a real language. In her mind, fluent Hebrew was something only Israelis or Orthodox Jews were capable of achieving. And so, even though she spent her teens and 20s reading Hebrew literature, it wasn’t until the age of 32 (a number which, by a lovely coincidence, is rendered in Hebrew by the word for “heart”) that she dared plunge directly, at an international writers conference in Israel, into the world of spoken Hebrew without the perpetual crutch of English translation.

It’s an inspiring story, but I respectfully suggest that she’s wrong about her premise. It’s not that American Jews think they can’t learn Hebrew, but that they actively won’t. After all, American Jews are hardly known for their lack of confidence, certainly when it comes to intellectual pursuits. We are surrounded by American Jews who learn languages and expect their children to learn languages: Spanish, Mandarin, JavaScript. And, as Horn notes, we now live with apps and iPads and streaming video on demand. A language is easier to learn and enjoy than at any time in human history.

The stubborn American-Jewish refusal — even by many Jews who are active in Jewish life, and who mouth Hebrew words as sounds week after week in synagogue — to treat Hebrew as a language that can be learned, spoken and used is nothing short of bizarre.

What we see in this is not an absence, then, of confidence or resources. It is a presence: the active pressure of the American-Jewish psyche. American-Jewish identity is based on feeling outside, on the threshold knocking at the door but never quite entering. Knocking at the door of Jewish identity, knocking at the door of American identity. To enter fully would be to lose one’s identity and become something different, unthinkable for most American Jews. For them, the front stoop has become home.

The reasons for this mainly have to do with the historical and psychological nature of the mass migration from Eastern Europe a century ago, and the new Jewish identity that those immigrants and their children invented for themselves in the United States. Even today, this odd, ironclad commitment to ambivalence — to that eternal door-knocking — takes myriad forms in American Jewish life and behavior. The point here for our purposes, though, is that learning Hebrew for most American Jews is psychologically impossible. (A similar dynamic applies, as it happens, to learning Yiddish.)

Where you do find American Jews who are more emotionally capable of learning Hebrew are among populations that are distant from the Eastern European mass migration and the American Jewish mainstream it produced, for example, Orthodox Jews, converts, Soviet immigrants, Mizrahi Jews, etc.

But for most American Jews, Hebrew must remain somewhat obscure, talismanic, at best liturgical, but never transparent or normal. If those Jews ever stopped knocking and instead opened the door themselves and stepped inside — well, there is no telling what they might find.

Michael Weingrad is associate professor at Portland State University. He is the author of “American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States” (Syracuse University Press, 2011).

This article was originally published at jewishstudies.washington.edu and appears here with permission. 

Ben Yehuda’s nightmare


In Israel, every crappy situation can be turned into an opportunity.  A gunman on the loose in central Tel Aviv allows me to spend several extra hours at home with my three kids, only one of whom demands to return immediately to the U.S., where the shootings in our neighborhood are typically of a drug-related nature–and we made sure to stay on good terms with those guys.  When my friend Rafi fell asleep in the middle of a sentence (mine), I could have taken offense or helped myself to the homemade kubeh his Iraqi mother supplied him with for the week.  Instead, I looked forward to the discussion I planned to initiate when he woke up, about the recent advances in neuroscience that have led to the ability to turn off our nightmares like a light switch, but at the cost of simultaneously snuffing out our dreams. 

“Mr. Levy fell asleep,” I said when Rafi’s eyes opened.  A new immigrant to Israel with limited Hebrew, I knew the word for dream, but not nightmare. 

“Did you fall asleep too?” Rafi asked.

“I didn’t fall asleep,” I said, the conjugation of that tricky Hebrew verb nearly complete. 

So we had a grammar lesson instead of a science one, my thoughts of the day thwarted by the unavailability of a dictionary in the room.  I tried to convince myself that was simply a lateral move, and hoped that Rafi would stop accommodating his other friend Inbal’s Reverse Sleep Disorder schedule–which compelled her to stay awake at night and conk out during the day–and start paying more attention to mine.  But Inbal is a Sabra, and speaks in complete sentences.  On Rafi’s birthday she wrote him a card, while I gave him chocolates.     

When we lived in Virginia and my youngest son was in first grade, his teacher taught the class a poem which, had the gist of it been, We may have different colored skin, but inside we’re all the same, would have been bad enough.  But that wasn’t the gist; those were the actual words.  Until that bright idea, my son had never noticed different colored skin.  Now, suddenly, Adin’s friend Hector’s arms were decidedly brown.  I cursed all bad poetry that day, and when my own words fell short while stuttering something to Adin about the benefits of public school but the superfluity of first grade, I cursed those too.  

Last week I went to Jerusalem to visit an artist friend who is so absorbed by images, he can’t walk two steps without stopping to study something. (For most Jerusalemites, it usually takes three.)  After contemplating a nut that had fallen from a tree next to an ancient tomb on Alfasi Street, Ilan asked if I wanted to see his portfolio of furniture that he designed while studying at Bezalel.  What a question!

A new immigrant to Israel with limited Hebrew, I was looking forward to sitting in complete silence and letting my eyes feast on what I could not find the language to praise.  Encouraged by the widening of my pupils, Ilan spent the next half hour describing the structural frames of his chairs, the grain patterns on his coffee tables that folded into stools, the steam box he used to create waves in the wood for his kick-ass bookshelves.  Or something along those lines.  I can’t say for sure.  I was having a bad Hebrew day.

And then he grew quiet, and closed the portfolio.

“The last piece I designed was for a friend who replaced me when I was called up for reserve duty and couldn’t come in,” he said.  “It was during the Second Lebanon War.”

“And what did you make?”

“A prosthetic leg.”

It is known that Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, yelled at his wife when he overheard her crooning a Russian lullaby to their infant son.  “The Hebrew language can live only if we revive the nation,” he wrote in 1881, a statement I couldn’t agree with more.

Lucky for me, a new immigrant to Israel with minimal Hebrew, the people of this land are a restful, resourceful bunch, prone to extralingual communication and improvisation.  Give them a dead language, and they will write a dictionary to resurrect it.  Put them in a pickle, and they will fight their way out of it until they have discovered how to convert a table into a chair, a piece of metal into a leg that can later run marathons, which Ilan’s friend does every year.

There are some situations that require the aid of a dictionary, and some words that can’t be found in one.  Ilan and I went for a walk then, stopping outside a photography store that featured a blown up, black and white portrait of a Jewish family from Poland, where Ilan’s great-grandfather, a rabbi, perished for refusing to vacate his synagogue before it was set on fire.   

“Tistakli,” Ilan said.  Look.

Honing Hebrew hilariously


Even the most ardent supporters of Israel might wish at times that its inhabitants had chosen an easier language … like, say, English.

However, because the linguistic choice of our common ancestors appears irreversible, two Israeli expats have come up with the idea of applying English phrases as memory cues to make Hebrew words stick in their minds. The result is a slim, richly illustrated and frequently funny pocket book by Yael Breuer and Eyal Shavit titled “Hilarious Hebrew” and billed as “the fun and fast way to learn the language.”

For instance, a cartoon shows a mountain climber and his unhappy dog getting soaked in the rain, with the man exclaiming, “OH, HELL. We forgot the TENT.” Below is the linguistic link: “The Hebrew word for ‘TENT’ is … OHEL.” The final word is spelled out in both English and Hebrew letters.

Another example is a freezing driver in an icicle-encrusted car, who notes, “It’s COLD in my CAR.” This is followed by, “The Hebrew word for ‘COLD’ is … KAR.”

Sometimes, the authors have to stretch for a connection: “The fastest car in the world belongs to BARACK Obama. It goes like lightning,” accompanied by a drawing of the smiling president clutching the wheel of a car. Beneath is the explanation, “The Hebrew word for ‘LIGHTNING’ is BAH’RAK.”

The originator of “Hilarious Hebrew” is Breuer, born in the Israeli university town of Rehovot and a former tank instructor in the country’s army. She now lives in Brighton, the popular seaside resort on the English Channel, and teaches modern Hebrew, coordinates events for youth programs and freelances as a journalist.

She soon shared her bilingual wordplay ideas with her friend Shavit, a pop-rock singer and guitarist, as well as a fellow Brighton-based Israeli, originally from Kibbutz Kfar Szold.

Although Brighton is hardly a major center of Israeli expats, there are about 100 of them, according to Breuer. They meet monthly in a Brighton pub for “Hebrew-only” get-togethers.

Breuer and Shavit started exchanging ideas and sentences and, in a few months, accumulated several hundred examples. They decided to turn their hobby into a book, and enlisted Aubrey Smith (also of Brighton) to do the illustrations, formed their own publishing company and, after two years, put the book on the market.

Describing the authors’ collaborative process, Breuer said, “Both of us come up with ideas, but I think Eyal’s are funnier than mine. Mine tend to be straight and simple, whereas his are quirkier.”

The first to test the efficacy of the authors’ teaching method was Smith, a gentile Brit, who absorbed many Hebrew words while doing the illustrations for the book.

“Hilarious Hebrew” is divided into sections under such rubrics as “Holidays,” “Family & Friends,” “On the Job,” “How Are You Feeling” and so forth. Also included is a listing of Hebrew letters and vowels and their English equivalents.

Breuer said she is perhaps proudest of the comment from a student she had tutored 22 years earlier and had recently met again. “She recited the English phrases I had given her two decades earlier to link them to Hebrew words, and she said they were still completely ingrained in her brain,” Breuer said.

“Hilarious Hebrew” is distributed in the United States by Gefen Publishing House.

The book is available through ” target=”_blank”>www.hilarioushebrew.com

Hebrew word of the week: abba, imma


In many languages, the words for father and mother — being the first words a baby utters — are quite similar, and they include the labial consonants b, p, m; or dental d, t, n; as papa, dad, (Czech) tata, mam(m)a, mommy, nanny; similar words are used in Chinese, French, Italian, Persian, Turkish (in which anne means “mother”), Yiddish and more.* 

The Hebrew words abba and imma end with an Aramaic suffix, to indicate a vocative form (used when calling someone, as in English, Mom! Dad!) The Hebrew cognates are av for “father,” and em for “mother.”

*So are the word “baby” and other “baby words”: bubba, puppet, mama (“breast, baby food” in other languages; including  mammal, which is a “breast-feeding animal”).


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Pope, Netanyahu spar over Jesus’ native language [VIDEO]


Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded words on Monday over the language spoken by Jesus two millennia ago.

“Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,” Netanyahu told Francis, at a public meeting in Jerusalem in which the Israeli leader cited a strong connection between Judaism and Christianity.

“Aramaic,” the pope interjected.

“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu shot back.

Like many things in the Middle East, where the pope is on the last leg of a three-day visit, modern-day discourse about Jesus is complicated and often political.

A Jew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the Roman-ruled region of Judea, now the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He grew up in Nazareth and ministered in Galilee, both in northern Israel, and died in Jerusalem, a city revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and to which Israelis and Palestinians lay claim.

Palestinians sometimes describe Jesus as a Palestinian. Israelis object to that.

Israeli linguistics professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann told Reuters that both Netanyahu, son of a distinguished Jewish historian, and the pope, the spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, had a point.

“Jesus was a native Aramaic speaker,” he said about the largely defunct Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. “But he would have also known Hebrew because there were extant religious writings in Hebrew.”

Zuckermann said that during Jesus' time, Hebrew was spoken by the lower classes – “the kind of people he ministered to.”

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Louise Ireland

Yiddish: The enduring language


Among the many ways the Jewish people have sought to honor the Six Million, perhaps none is so life-affirming as the revival of interest in Yiddish, the mother tongue of the vast majority of the men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Yet as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett observes in the opening pages of “Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture,” a collection of scholarly essays edited by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren and Hannah S. Pressman (Wayne State University Press: $34.95), the academic study of Yiddish is a fraught subject precisely because it is loaded with memories of suffering and loss.

“To study Yiddish is, it could be said, never neutral…because languages are by their very nature highly charged phenomena even after the best efforts to purge them of their politics,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett explains. “Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Yiddish studies, in which the language becomes a proxy for its absent speakers.”

“Choosing Yiddish” is not an exercise in nostalgia or pop culture, and its contributors consciously distance themselves from the “kitchen Yiddish” of family usage. Rather, it is an academic colloquy on how Yiddish is studied in colleges and universities as a living language. “Early in the twenty-first century, Yiddish increasingly functions as an important form and forum of exchange in the marketplace of ideas,” the editors insist, “and the revived study of Yiddish language and culture represents one of the most innovative shifts in the academy today.”

One cannot think about Yiddish, of course, without recalling its murdered readers, writers and speakers. Shiri Goren, for example, contributes a kind of literary eulogy on the life and work of David Vogel, a native Yiddish speaker who made a principled decision to publish only in Hebrew but left behind an unpublished Yiddish manuscript when he was arrested in France and sent to Auschwitz — “a testimonial narrative,” writes Goren, “created on the verge of catastrophe.”  For Goren, the choice of language is full of meaning.

“Crucially for a writer whose existence was synonymous with in-betweenness, Yiddish also metaphorically functioned here as a mediator between German and Hebrew,” explains Goren, “serving as a medium that allowed Vogel enough distance for distinct artistic creation.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, Yiddish found a foothold in America. “Before World War I, no other city in the world hosted a larger Yiddish-speaking intellectual community than New York,” Tony Michels writes in an essay titled “The Lower East Side Meets Greenwich Village.”  And Jeffrey Shandler, in “Prelude to ‘Yiddish Goes Pop,’” points out that the academic study of Yiddish is now such a sober enterprise that “it is a challenge (but also a delight) for scholars today to engage, sometimes to rediscover, Yiddish as vulgar,” by which he means the “raucous Jewish lore” that can still be found in books ranging from Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” to Michael Wex’s “Born to Kvetch.”

The Yiddish scholars whose work is collected here refused to characterize Yiddish as a dead language, but they are painfully aware that it lives only in the margins of the contemporary Jewish world. “Small pockets exist where Yiddish is still spoken as an everyday language, both in the Haredi/Black Hat Orthodox communities and among a few hundred other Jews dedicated to keeping Yiddish alive,” acknowledges Sarah Bunin Benor. “Yet, for most American Jews, Yiddish is a ‘postvernacular language,’ a source of nostalgia, crystallized in the form of jokes, tshatshkes (keepsakes), refrigerator magnets, and festivals.”

Indeed, one notable and highly significant fact about “Choosing Yiddish” is that not a single word of Yiddish is reproduced in Hebrew characters (as opposed to English transliteration) except in photographic plates.  This is clearly a conscious choice, because it allows non-Yiddish-speakers like me to fully understand the argument that is being conducted among scholars, but it also reminds us that we are locked out of the more intimate conversation that can only be conducted in what was my grandparents’ language, but not my own. Thus are we reminded that one goal of the contributors to “Choosing Yiddish” is to lure non-Yiddish speakers back into the mamaloshen.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in May under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Valley congregation debuts Russian-language program


Congregation Beth Meier will debut a religious school program in Russian for children ages 6 to 8 at its Studio City campus starting Sept. 9. Citing a limited number of local Russian-language programs for elementary students, Rabbi Aaron Benson said the Sunday morning classes at the Conservative synagogue will help students build their Russian-language skills while learning about Judaism and Jewish culture.

The Russian-language class will mirror the English- and Hebrew-language Jewish studies classes at Beth Meier, with “Jewish studies taught in Russian, with the topics presented used as a means by which [students] would improve their [Russian] vocabulary and grammar skills,” Benson said.

Educator Anastasia Smirnova will teach the new class.

“We know families who have expressed that the options for their children to continue the study of the Russian language formally become fewer and fewer as their kids get past preschool age — and certainly to be able to do so in a Jewish environment there are hardly any programs like that at all,” Benson said.

Of Beth Meier’s approximately 100 member families, about a dozen are Russian-speaking, according to Benson, who hopes the new program will appeal to the Russian Jewish communities of the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and elsewhere.

Demographer Pini Herman, research coordinator for the 1997 L.A. Jewish population survey, said that there were 24,500 Jews from Russia and the Former Soviet Union in Los Angeles at the time of the survey. However, he estimates that number is likely lower today.

“I would imagine that it is smaller now as it was an aging population probably with a rather modest birthrate,” Herman said.

If the Beth Meier program takes off, Benson hopes to add a class for 9- to 10-year-olds in 2013.

“We’re very interested to hear feedback and suggestions, and really make the program something that will be a meaningful addition to Jewish life in Los Angeles,” he said.

For more information, call (818) 769-0515 or visit bethmeier.org.

Walker refuses to authorize Hebrew ‘Color Purple’


The author of the “Color Purple” refused to authorize a Hebrew translation of her prize-winning work, citing what she called Israel’s “Apartheid state.”

In a June 9 letter to Yedioth Books, Alice Walker said she would not allow the publication of the book into Hebrew because “Israel is guilty of apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people, both inside Israel and also in the Occupied Territories.”

In her letter, posted Sunday by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel on its website, Walker supported the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and offered her hope that the BDS movement “will have enough of an impact on Israeli civilian society to change the situation.”

It was not clear when Yedioth Books, an imprint of the daily Yedioth Achronoth newspaper, made the request, or whether Walker could in fact stop translation of the book. At least one version of the book has already appeared in Hebrew translation, in the 1980s.

Walker said Israelis policies were “worse” than the segregation she suffered as an American youth and said South Africans had told her it was worse than Apartheid.

The Color Purple, which won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was adapted into a movie in 1985 directed by Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

The novel and the film, which was nominated for 11 Oscars, treat racism in the American south in the first part of the 20th century and sexism among blacks.

Walker has intensified her anti-Israel activism in recent years, traveling to the Gaza Strip to advocate on behalf of the Palestinians.

Hebrew Bible published In Eskimo language


After a 34-year translation project, the Hebrew Bible and New Testament were published for the first time this week in an Eskimo language.

A group of Inuit Christians in the Canadian territory Nunavut completed the task of translating the texts into the local Inuktitut, according to Haaretz.

Plant and animal names were among the biggest difficulties and often the word “tree” was used for them. In some cases, English words such as “camel” were used. One surprising difficulty was the complete absence of a term for “peace” in Inuktitut. That forced the translators to use complete sentences to get the idea across to readers.

There are approximately 50,000 Inuits in Canada.

The translation project was funded by the Canadian Bible Society and the Anglican Church at a cost of $ 1.7 million. The translation will be launched in a ceremony at the igloo-shaped St. Jude’s Anglican Cathedral in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital on June 3.

Madoff’s Redemption


If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Israel: A work in progress


From the birth of the Zionist movement more than a century ago through its 60 years as a Jewish state, Israel has come of age amid a vastly changing world: two world wars, the technological revolution and economic globalization with all its attendant challenges.

The creation of Israel is a paradigm for the way people without sovereignty embrace and transform their history through freedom. That ongoing struggle of humans trying to find their place in the universe unfolds over time, but it requires a place.

Israel also represents a unique laboratory — and not just for defining itself for its residents but also for addressing global crises. Every problem on this planet is refracted and amplified here: Having resettled and grown in the land, how can we conserve its environment? Can we halt our addiction to oil and achieve energy independence? If we level the field in information and technology, can we overcome the limitations of size and space and become a player on the global stage? If Israel can answer questions like these, it will achieve a secure position among nations and obtain its peace.

As President Shimon Peres said, the objective of this 60th anniversary year should be to bring Israel to the world and the world to Israel. Our experiment, through shifting events and the failures and challenges they bring, is one that results in the covenant renewed. And looking back through the decades from our founding, we can find four lessons that resonate globally. They also inform 21st century hopes for our survival, based on the merging of ancient truths with the ever-present task of national renewal. These are lessons that will sustain all global communities from the chaos of our times:

Lesson 1: Diasporas need homelands.

Today, the United Nations reports that more than 300 million people in this world live in Diaspora communities that struggle to maintain homeland ties. The Rwandans, the Armenians, the Guatemalans and, yes, the Palestinians long for their place among the nations. For many nations, Diaspora remittances are sometimes far greater than foreign direct investment, portfolio flows and foreign aid combined. The contributions of Israel’s Diaspora and its transformation through the creation of the State of Israel have been a lesson well studied by others.

Lesson 2: Nations need security.

Imminent threats, beginning before the Holocaust, informed not only the Zionist movement but also the Jewish concept of state defense. No nation can survive while its people live in exile.

The captive Hebrews in Babylon lamented, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” In revolting against its history, Israel rejected centuries of subjugation and developed a national defense based on the doctrine that homeland building can tolerate many risks for peace — but never the catastrophic risks that unite senseless hatred with regional imperialism.

This is what links the Eichman trial to Entebbe to Osirak to last fall’s strike against the Syrian reactor facility. Yet the world has seen genocide spread to Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. The lesson of homeland security is ignored at great peril.

Lesson 3: Language and cultural revival are key.

Jewish cultural identity — expressed through art, music and, most important, through the revival of Hebrew from its strict liturgical usage to an official state language — has been key to our national renewal and rebirth. Where else in the world has a language no one spoke, but which was common to all, emerged as a national language?

Like archaeological discovery and conservation of cultural capital, the protection of language is essential for national cultures throughout the world. While not promoting linguistic exclusivity (Israel, after all, has three official languages), the protection of communal language promotes a multilingual access and a cultural infrastructure, encourages the safekeeping of minority languages and culture and their ultimate restoration as part of our international heritage.

Lesson 4: Unity exists in diversity.

From the microcosm of Israel’s rebirth as a modern nation, this is perhaps the most profound lesson for a global future. Israel’s Jewish-majority population can boast more than 120 nations of origin, along with significant local minorities of Palestinian, Druze and Bedouin Arabs. As a result, Israel is one of the most diverse countries in the world.

Integrating this pastiche into a democratic republic that protects and celebrates diversity through unity remains a remarkable achievement. It is also becoming a common challenge for nations around the world.

Absorption is the means to achieving true national self-interest. It puts the emphasis on integration, rather than on full assimilation and the triumphalism of a majority. In Israel, frankly, there is no majority — not Ashkenazim, not Sephardim, not political, not religious. It is our challenge to grow from the particular to the universal without comprising the richness and uniqueness of diversity.

Ultimately, these lessons underscore the celebration of Israel’s rebirth. Let us reaffirm our particular attributes as a nation by reaffirming our universal values. That was the lesson of the prophets.

These lessons and inspiration place Israel, a small country, on the global stage in a unique way. They offer enormous advantages in global trade and provide the basis for both military power and peace incentives. They provide the basic formula for an open society, global ties and national security. They enable Israel to renew and repair both itself and an endangered world in troubled times.

Glenn Yago is director of capital studies at the Milken Institute.


300 ways to make it a multi-cultural seder



In this silent video excerpt from the book/dvd/cd combo ‘300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions’ Marla Berkowitz explains new signs for Matzoh and Passover and then asks the Four Questions in American Sign Language (ASL).

Fu san ede a neti disi de difrenti fu tra neti?


That means, “Why is this night different from all other nights,” in Sranan.

But what’s Sranan, you ask? Sranan is the primary language spoken in South America’s Suriname, which has one of the oldest Jewish populations on the American continent. Is is also spoken in Aruba, Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles — with a total of 426,400 speakers today.

Who knows if anyone there is really saying the Mah Nishtana there or in those countries, but that’s what’s so delightful about Murray Spiegel and Rickey Stein’s new book, “300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions: From Zulu to Abkhaz (Spiegel & Stein). Subtitled, “An Extraordinary Survey of the World’s Languages Through the Prism of the Haggaddah” each page lists the Four questions in its original language — sometimes which must be transliterated to the English alphabet, a note about the translator, and a note about the language — how many speakers, its ranking in the world, a pronunciation key and a picture of the place. The song can be heard on the accompanying CD as well.

“From my earliest childhood memories, I know I’ve always loved Passover. It was a joyous tiem when the entire extended family came together, from guests whose names I never embered from farway towns, to my favorite cousins,” Spiegel writes in the introduction. When he later began making his own seders in graduate school, he started adding recordings of people doing odd version fo the Four questions, like Ladino, Spanish and a Hebrew Donald Duck.”

Stein was fascinated with languages too, inspired by his Russian grandfather who had known a number of languages and dialects, having worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Company across Europe before he’d emigrated to the United States. In 1972 he attended a seder where people said the Four Questions in Foreign languages. “What a great idea,” I thought. “Everyone enjoyed doing or hearing the questions done this way.”

Who wouldn’t enjoy hearing the Four Questions said in a completely foreign language – not Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and French, which are foreign but not as strange as Mapudungun, a language spoken by 300,000 primarily in Chile, and also Argentina; or in Yorbuba, which is also called Yooba and Yariba, one of the four official languages of Nigeria. There’s also nonsensical languages such as our very own Valley Girl and Pig Latin.

Why is this night different from all other (seder) nights? Because we’re hearing a different version of the Four Questions.


For more information, visit http://www.whyisthisnight.com/

Hollywood gets lessons in the nuances of Hebrew


Some time ago, I was invited to a dinner here in Israel attended by a delegation of film people from Los Angeles. During the meal, one successful documentary director asked me a question: Could I think of any Hebrew words that have no equivalent in English?

An excellent question, and even though I was sure there were many such words, the only two I could think of actually do have English equivalents, except that in Hebrew — or maybe it would be more accurate to say “in Israeli” — they carry completely different values.

The first is balagan, which came into Hebrew from Yiddish.

Balagan means “total chaos.” But this word is unique, because contrary to the implied negative value the concept has in other languages, the subtext of balagan is positive. True, that positiveness is not overt — a bit like a proud parent trying to hide a smile from his mischief-making son — but it is completely there. But chaos for a society that is itself full of balagan is nothing less than proof of vitality and passion. In a place where people push and shove in line, where children insist on drawing on walls and not on paper, where a briefcase holds stained income tax reports lying between a pastrami sandwich and a piece of graph paper with the beginnings of a poem on it, that’s where you’ll find human liberty, the liberty that both Yiddish and Hebrew have always held sacred.

The second word that came to mind was dugree, a word taken from Arabic that means “direct, honest talk.” Just like chaos, directness is a valued attribute in Israeli society. So dugree people will always tell you that you’ve gotten fat, that your wife is ugly, that the film you made is so-so, and — come to think of it — they never did manage to get through any of your books. They don’t do it because they have a need to enlighten you, but because for them saying anything else would be hypocritical. Of course, they know they could just smile and save you from some of that honesty, but then they wouldn’t be completely dugree. And so, genuinely dugree people will call you two hours after you’ve said goodbye and add that in all the excitement, they forgot to mention that your son seems underdeveloped for his age and your skin looks terrible.

If the concept of balagan only slightly aroused the intellectual curiosity of the visitors from Los Angeles, the concept of dugree managed to get their full attention. They tried to think of a time when someone came up to them after a screening with a negative comment and couldn’t. “Maybe your movies were simply great,” one of the Israeli hosts said, trying to pay an extremely non-dugree compliment.

“No,” said the director, “that’s not it. It’s just that in L.A., when a film isn’t good, your colleagues come over and say things like, ‘It was so brave of you to do this film,’ or ‘I really liked the dog.'”

“And if the film is really terrible?” I asked. “If someone suffered through every frame of it?”

“Oh,” said a producer. “In that case, chances are he’ll come over wearing a big, toothy smile and say, ‘Good for you.'”

In the taxi on the way back from dinner, I pictured the toothy smiles of all the people who said how much they loved my book during that fabulous book tour on the West Coast in 2001.

Now, when I think about it, many of them did tell me how brave I was to write that book, and there’d been a tall, thin woman from Berkeley who shook my hand warmly and said that she really loved the dog. In retrospect — to be dugree with myself — that should have made me suspicious right then because there was no dog in the book.

On a more positive note, it may have taken me six years, but I did finally get it. Good for me.

Etgar Keret is the author of “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God,” “The Nimrod Flipout” and “Missing Kissinger.”

More options available locally for people who want to learn Hebrew


As tourists flock this year to the Israel to celebrate the Jewish State’s 60th anniversary, they may find themselves thumbing through Hebrew phrasebooks to order at a restaurant, to haggle in a shuck or to figure out how to get back to the hotel.

And while interest in learning modern Hebrew is expected to bloom in advance of such trips, Hebrew instructors say there is more to learning the language than simply studying vocabulary and grammar. In addition to learning to read (and write) in cursive Hebrew and without vowels, there’s the mastery of idiomatic expressions and understanding cultural nuances. And let’s not forget that telltale American accent.

In addition to tourism, reasons for wanting to learn the language can be as diverse as the names on the Hebrew class rosters. For some it’s a deep-seated expression of Jewish pride, while others see it as a practical first step toward making aliyah — immigrating — to Israel.

Also known as Israeli Hebrew, new Hebrew or standard Hebrew, the spoken language of modern Hebrew was revived during the 19th-century movement to establish a homeland for the Jewish people and won out in a tug-of-war with Yiddish. The modern interpretation of the biblical language uses Sephardic pronunciation as well as borrowed American, European and Arabic terms.

Yona Sabar, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at UCLA, says that the Jewish community should focus more attention on greater Hebrew literacy, because it has the greatest potential to unify diverse Jewish communities.

“Hebrew should be on the agenda,” he said.

While Jews represent the majority of students taking Hebrew at the university level, non-Jewish Asian, Arab, black and Latino students have been known to take a year or two to meet their language requirement. Some do it as a change of pace, while others are focused on adding a skill for professional development. Today’s university Hebrew students include professors and graduate students studying the language for academic reasons, as well as a minority of Christians and Muslims who want to learn the language to better understand Israel.

Rivka Dori, director of Hebrew studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion/Los Angeles and an instructor at USC, says she has one student who recently joined her class because he signed to play with Tel Aviv’s Maccabi Elite basketball team.

Among the Jews who take Dori’s class, she says, some are seeking to truly expand their knowledge and connect with their roots. “The others think it’s going to be an easy grade, and they discover two weeks into the semester that it’s not the case,” she said.

In continuing adult education programs, the majority of learners want to pick up Hebrew to communicate with friends or colleagues, read Israeli publications or use the language while on vacation in Israel. Some are converts who are enthusiastic about their Jewish identity, while others are seeking to make aliyah in the coming years and want to be ready to integrate themselves into Israeli society when they arrive.

Still others are the children of Israeli American parents who want to take their language skills beyond the basic conversational level.

And while some non-Jews attend modern Hebrew classes after studying biblical Hebrew, another segment of the non-Jewish community has developed an interest in the language because of contact with Israeli American friends.

Based on experience, Yair Nardi no longer assumes people in Los Angeles don’t speak or understand a little Hebrew. The Calabasas Hebrew High teacher and tutor says that non-Jewish friends of Israeli Americans frequently pick up phrases over time, and that there’s no telling who can understand what he’s saying when he uses Hebrew in public.

Once when he was at a mall, he remarked in Hebrew to his son about how a woman’s dog was ugly.

“She turned around and said, ‘It’s not an ugly dog and it’s not nice what you said,'” Nardi recalled. “You really have to watch it.”

Nardi believes we are living at a unique time, because more non-Jews are learning and using modern Hebrew than at any other point in history.

As far as how long it will take for a novice learner to begin speaking the language, teachers say most students can expect to know rudimentary phrases within a few months. Anything more depends on a variety of factors, including previous exposure to the language, the age of the student and time devoted to study.

Undergraduate and graduate university programs typically meet five hours each week with the addition of a language lab, while continuing education efforts like the American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education or the Israel Aliyah Center/Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles’ Hebrew Ulpan for Adults meet once a week for about two to three hours.

Most adult modern Hebrew programs today conduct classes using an immersion — or ulpan — method, in which Hebrew is the only language spoken after the first or second class.

“The brain has to think in Hebrew,” said Ziva Plattner, who has taught at the Hebrew Ulpan for Adults for eight years “It’s like building a building. You have to start from a foundation and work up.”

The point of the system is to acquire vocabulary quickly and learn to use it without consciously thinking about conjugation or rules like subject-verb agreement.

“What’s important is to remember how it is used in the language within the pattern they are learning and then they transfer this knowledge to other sentences and they construct the vocabulary,” said Liora Alkalay, Hebrew coordinator at the Whizin Center for Continuing Education. “And gradually, after a year, most of our students are speaking Hebrew quite learnedly.”

HUC-JIR’s Rivka refers to the method as “language elegance.”

“Grammar is a nasty word in the field. It’s not a way to study language,” she said. “You can study about a language, but not internalize any of it. So you can know about a language, including the linguistic aspects, but still not have any functionality in the language. What Hebrew educators are trying to do is teach students to be functional in the language.”

Class sizes in an ulpan setting are kept purposefully small, typically about six to 10 students, to ensure greater interaction between teacher and students.

No matter how you say it


Below are several ways to say “Happy New Year.” Match the expression to the language it comes from and dazzle your family with your knowledge. Here’s a hint: No. 9 is I


1) Afrikaans                a) Boldog Ooy Ayvet
2) Chinese                  b) Bonne Annee
3) French                   c) Felice anno nuovo
4) Hawaiian                 d) Feliz Ano Nuevo
5) Hebrew                   e) Gelukkige nuwe jaar
6) Hungarian                f) Godt Nyttar
7) Italian                  g) Hauoli Makahiki Hou
8) Norwegian                h) L'Shanah Tovah
9) Russian                  i) S Novim Godom
10) Spanish                 j) Xin Nian Kuai Le

The correct answers are at the bottom oh the page — scroll down!

Off The Page

There is an expression in the theater: “The show must go on.” Now that the Broadway stagehands are no longer on strike, the show is going on — thank goodness. But what is it a stagehand does? The new book, “How Does the Show Go On?” by Thomas Schumacher with Jeff Kurtti (Disney Enterprises, Inc., $19.95), gives kids an inside look at what happens behind the curtain of some of the biggest musicals on Broadway.

Schumacher, the producer of the Tony-winning “The Lion King,” organizes the chapters as a “How-To” guide to the theater. The Overture talks about the different kinds of shows and theaters; Act One gives insight into on-stage and off-stage happenings and includes a Playbill from “The Lion King”; Act Two features an interview with Henry Hodges, who played young Michael Banks in “Mary Poppins,” and talks about what it is like to be a performer; the last section, Encore, includes a rehearsal script from “Tarzan,” in case you want to try your hand at putting on your own show.

The pictures alone make this a great read for anyone who loves the theater — either from the stage or from the house (read the book and you’ll learn what that term means).

The Jewish Journal is giving away one copy of “How Does the Show Go On?” Just send an e-mail to kids@jewishjournal.com with your name, age, school and either 1) What it is you love most about the theater, or 2) What your favorite musical or play is and why. We’ll select one person, and the winning essay will run on our Jan. 25 yeLAdim page (so please use spell-check). Deadline is Jan. 15. Good luck and happy writing!

Holidays NOT on the Calendar

In addition to the Jan. 22 celebration of Tu B’Shevat (the new year for trees; more of that in next week’s Jewish Journal), there are a few television events taking place in January that, although observed by many in the United States, aren’t quite big enough to make it on the calendar.

  • Tournament of Roses Parade — On Jan. 1, millions will gather around their TVs, and thousands will gather on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, to watch this New Year’s Day ritual that’s been going on annually since 1890. The parade was originally created to rub the beautiful Southern California weather (and flowers) in the face of East Coasters and Midwesterners who have to deal with winter snow. FYI: It has only rained once during the parade — a downpour in 2006.
  • “American Idol” Returns — On Tuesday, Jan. 15 and Wednesday, Jan. 16, Ryan, Simon, Paula and Randy are back for a seventh season of one of the most-watched shows on TV. While the best singers are few and far between, for two nights America gets to enjoy some of the worst (which probably makes for more entertaining television). Who will be the next Carrie or Kelly, and who will be the next William Hung? Stay tuned!

Answers: 1e, 2j, 3b, 4g, 5e, 6a, 7c, 8f, 9i, 10d

Shmuel of Arabia


It must have been quite a scene in that little courthouse in Jerusalem. Rav Qapah, a Yemenite Jew who sat on the Jerusalem Beit Din (court of law), was hearing a case involving a commercial dispute between a Jew and an Arab.

At one point, the beit din heard testimony from an Arab judge who was serving as a witness. Rav Qapah asked his first question in Arabic. The Arab judge did not answer. Rav Qapah asked again. The Arab judge just sat there, speechless.

Rav Qapah wondered if the Arab judge could not understand his Arabic. After a long pause, the Arab judge said no, that was not the problem. He was speechless because, as the story goes, Rav Qapah’s Arabic was so pure, so perfect, so luminous, the stunned Arab judge thought he was hearing the voice of the prophet Muhammad himself — from a Jew, no less.

That was many years ago. Today, here in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, Rav Shmuel Miller cracks up when he tells that story. He’s got a whole bunch of them, stories that speak to the ancient connection between Jews and the Arab language.

In fact, Rav Miller has more than stories. He’s an expert in Arabic. He can learn Torah in Arabic, and often does. In the pristine shul that he built in his backyard, he teaches his sons and others how to study Jewish texts in Arabic. If it were up to him, there’d be many more Jews learning Arabic.

It’s not obvious why this Jewish man would have a passion for a language that today is too often associated with suicide bombers and radical Islamists. Here is a French Orthodox rabbi who has studied at the top yeshivas in Europe; an expert in Talmud, philosophy and mysticism; a lover of Jews, Torah and the Hebrew language; a sofer who writes mezuzahs and Torah scrolls in perfect Hebrew calligraphy; and yet, when the subject of Arabic comes up, his eyes light up like he’s one of the kids at the Munchies candy store on Saturday night.

I know the emotional arguments. I’ve been hearing them for years from my parents, aunts, uncles and their friends who grew up in Morocco. They have nostalgia for the past. They love Arabic music, and they’re crazy about the language. It’s a little like my Ashkenazic friends who wax about the joys of Yiddish. There are words in the Judeo-Arab dialect spoken by my parents that light up the heart like no word in French or English can.

I remember this one word I was particularly fond of: “Shlemto.” If one of her kids would do something wrong, my mother would use that word to convey that “I really love this kid, but I really wish he wouldn’t do that, but at the same time, I want everyone to know how much I still love him even when he does something that really annoys me.”

That’s with one word. There are many others.

In the Morocco that I remember, Arabic was the daily language of emotion.

But what about for Rav Miller, a rabbi who was born and raised in France? His first language is French, then Hebrew. Where does his mad love for Arabic come from?

If you see him, you get some clues. There’s a regal, Lawrence of Arabia quality to him. Short beard. Piercing eyes. Always upright. He looks like he’d fit right in with the romantic mystics of the Middle Ages.

But beyond that, after hanging out with him for the better part of a year since I moved to the hood, and seeing him give classes at my place on everything from the patriarchs to Spinoza, I have a simpler explanation for his Arabian passions.

He loves Arabic because he loves Judaism.

Take his love affair with Maimonides. He wanted to read “The Guide to the Perplexed” in the language in which it was written, so he studied it in Arabic. He says this gave him a deeper, “more palpable” understanding of Jewish ideas. For example, the word in Arabic that Maimonides uses for the Hebrew daat (knowledge) is eidrak, which refers to a knowledge that you “apprehend” or “take in.” It is a union between the modrak, the one who understands, and the modrik, the one who is understood. Whereas the Hebrew daat denotes something external and impersonal, the Arab eidrak defines a knowledge that is more personal and contemplative, one that ultimately becomes part of you.

Similarly, by studying Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s Kuzari in the original Arabic, Rav Miller got a more subtle take on the problematic notion that Jews are the “chosen people.” Looked at superficially, the idea of being “chosen” can easily offend other groups by suggesting racial superiority. In Arabic, however, the notion of the Hebrew segula (chosen) is more layered. The Arab term khassuss speaks to a one-to-one intimacy with God. In the original Arabic text of Rabbi Halevi, Jews are more likely to be the “particular, singular, private” people, rather than the more blunt “chosen” people. It’s about intimacy, not superiority.

How’s that for a disconnect? The language of Osama bin Laden and Hamas can teach the Jews some important subtleties about their own faith.

That does take a little getting used to.

Maybe that’s why Rav Miller has no illusions about Arabic classes ever catching on in the Jewish world. Of course, that won’t stop him from continuing to give his own classes to his inner circle, and from spending long nights poring through ancient Arab texts written by Jewish sages.

One thing he won’t do is talk about politics. That’s not his trip. He did make a slip the other day, however, when he made an offhand remark wondering what it would be like if Jewish leaders started talking to Arab leaders in Arabic.

I have no idea if that would help the peace process, but I am sure of one thing: More than a few Arabs would be left speechless.:::::::::::::::::

Language institute helping Ladino revival


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A few Persian phrases that could come in handy, enshallah


These are expressions that might be used in conversation with Persian Jews:

Salaam — Hello

Khodahafes — Goodbye

Kaheshmekonam — Please

Befarmeyeet — Welcome (as a greeting)

Haleh shoma chetoreh? — How are you?

Moteshakeram (alt. Merci) — Thank you

Khoshal shodam — Happy to meet you

Bezan beh choob — Knock on wood

Kaheshmekonam — Please

Saleh no mobarak — Happy New Year (this can be used for Rosh Hashanah, the American New Year or the Persian New Year)

Enshallah — God-willing (normally used in the context that one hopes something will happen)

When Ashkenazi and Persian worlds collide — community healing begins at shul


In March of 2001 I delivered the sermon abbreviated and reprinted here. Having been the rabbi at Sinai Temple for four years, it seemed time to straightforwardly address the tensions between the Persian and Ashkenazi communities.

Since that time, by dint of committees, school parents and children and genuine efforts, Sinai has managed to forge a largely integrated community.

In a comment not reproduced, I spoke about Esther’s transformation in the Purim story as a model for us. We have been transforming the synagogue to a beit knesset — a house of gathering for all Jews, a transformation which makes us proud.

I want to begin with two thought experiments. First, imagine your grandparents built a synagogue. Your parents grew up there and so did you. You knew the place and
loved it.

One day, a huge population of people with the same religion but a different culture and language joined. Suddenly you felt an alien in your own home. How would you feel?

Now imagine that tomorrow a catastrophe occurs and all the American Jews have to flee. Where do we go? We go to Israel.

As American Jews lacking the time, organization or inclination to build our own synagogues, we join existing ones in Israel. We bring, of course, our own language, our own customs, our own outlooks, and it’s not long before we hear our Israeli brothers and sisters say, “You know, this would be a good place if it weren’t for all those American Jews.”

We say to them, “But hey, we’re Jews, too.”

To which they answer, “You’re not our kind of Jews. You don’t speak our language, you don’t know our customs — you invaded our synagogue.”

If you can put yourself in the place of both groups in that thought experiment, then you know what has gone on over the past 20 years at Sinai Temple. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a big part of it. Both groups have felt aggrieved, and as a result, they have done what aggrieved people often do, which is to dig in.

And they have not given the time, the effort or, perhaps, the emotional sympathy to understand how the other side feels.

So I want to speak very frankly to both sides about how we should be and what we should do.

First of all, let’s recognize that there are differences. Sometimes these differences are painful. For example, Ashkenazim don’t like to hear from Persians that our families are a mess. But it’s true.

It’s not true of every American Jewish family, God knows, but I have to tell you, my father grew up in a house of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, and they were all together all the time.

We have no family in this city. And that’s true of almost every third-generation American I know. So when a Persian family says to an Ashkenazic family, “Look, we want our family around us. We’re afraid of losing the family structure we have. We don’t want our families to end up like American families,” we may be defensive, but they’re not wrong.

The Persian community may not be able to avoid the disintegrating family, but who can blame them for trying? Are there problems in Persian families?

Absolutely; I hear them in my office. Are there wonderful Ashkenazic families?

Yes, many. But one way of not being defensive is seeing ourselves realistically, too. And realistically, for all the blessings of America, this country has not been a blessing for the extended family.

On the other hand, to our Persian members: You must also realize that when you speak Farsi in this synagogue, this is what you are saying to your Ashkenazic fellow synagogue members, to your fellow Jews: “I do not care whether you understand my words. You are not invited to join this conversation, and that’s why, in part, I’m speaking a language you don’t understand.”

That may not be what you intend, but it is the inevitable message.

Some of these conversations are conducted by people who do not speak English.

That I understand. But if you do speak English and choose not to use English when there are other English speakers around you, it is a way of saying, “I don’t care if you understand me.” That is painful, it is exclusionary, and it is a shame.

To our Ashkenazic brothers and sisters: Some of the most disturbing, prejudiced and even racist remarks I have heard in the past several years have been directed against the Persian community by the Ashkenazic community. Every time I hear about how they do business, I think “That is what people say about Jews.”

How they do business. Now if you say to me, well there are members of the Persian community who are prejudiced, too, I have no quarrel with you. I’m sure you are right, but you know what? I can only change my own soul. I cannot change someone else’s. So before you begin to accuse others, ask yourself what you believe and what you know about others who are not like you.

In order for us to be a community — not an “us” and a “them” — we have to recognize certain things. The Ashkenazic side has to realize that this synagogue will never be the synagogue that it was 40 years ago. It is not going to happen.

It has changed, and if that gives you pause and gives you pain, I understand it, but the same thing is true of this country and of this world. To our Persian members, this was founded as an Ashkenazic synagogue, as you know, and the basic rites are true to that tradition. I am delighted you chose to join us, and presumably you did so because you want this kind of synagogue. There are mores and customs that will be different from the synagogues of your origin, and we ask you to support us in those.

When two communities merge, there is enough pain to go around. Nobody gets everything they want. It is not only called a synagogue. It is called life. Here is the crucial point: When I say I want one community, I mean it so much I am ready to tell you this: If you or your children or your grandchildren are not prepared to marry a member of the other community, then you do not belong in this synagogue.

Betty Neymark: Second Career From a Second Language


Betty Neymark

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

“Why isn’t Temple Judea doing something like this?” Betty Neymark’s daughter, Nancy, asked her more than 19 years ago, referring to an English as a second language program at a nearby church. That was all the push Neymark needed.

She and her daughter, along with friend and reading specialist Evelyn Stecher, promptly began a program at their Reform synagogue in Tarzana.

On the first day of registration in January 1990, Neymark thought no one would show up. Instead, she encountered a line of people stretching past the Temple’s driveway. Fifty students registered, and Temple Judea’s all-volunteer ESL program was born.

Today that program boasts 150 students, 25 volunteer teachers and five administrators, including Neymark. While her daughter has begun a new career and Stecher has moved away, Neymark remains.

“I just love it. I meet wonderful people. It enhances my life,” said Neymark, who previously worked as a human resources administrator in two school districts.

Those “wonderful people” include the students, primarily from the former Soviet Union, Iran and South America. Most are 50 or older, and they are both Jewish and not. Many are new immigrants. A few have lived here as long as 20 years.

Neymark also has great affection for the teachers, who range in age from 21 to 89. Only two are new this year, and 18 of them have been with program 10 years or more.

The classes are small, with four to seven students. They meet for two hours twice a week, from September to June. In addition to English, students learn about American culture.

“Students come in with no English and then are able to function in society and make their lives better,” said Neymark, noting that many go on to become citizens and to vote.

Temple Judea provides the classroom space. The program is free; students pay only for their textbooks. Donations and a corporate grant cover other expenses.

“I call myself a coordinator,” said Neymark, a 47-year temple member who won’t reveal her age. She registers new students, evaluating their English proficiency and placing them in one of six homogeneous classes, ranging from beginning to conversational English. She also arranges for new teachers to receive 12 hours of training each fall.

Additionally, she publishes a newsletter twice a year for the teachers, holds two faculty meetings a year and organizes the annual faculty party.

Neymark is reluctant to take credit for program’s accomplishments.

“It runs itself,” she said, emphasizing that it’s a team effort. She also refers to her husband, who does all her computer work, as her “secret weapon.”

Hilda Fogelson, a retired Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who has taught in the program for 16 years, said, “Betty is very organized and very professional. That’s why the program is so successful.”

Neymark feels a responsibility to continue to support Temple Judea and the Jewish community.

“I’m not going to fade away any sooner than I have to,” she said.

Left Coast peacemakers mourn 9/11 in many languages


Five years and 3,000 miles from the site of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the mournful strains of calls to prayer in Hebrew and Arabic open the Islamic Center of Southern California’s fourth annual commemoration of the attacks of Sept. 11.

 
The audience, dressed in saris, suits, skirts or slacks, bareheaded, or wearing head scarves, kippahs, kufis or turbans, gathered to pray together and to honor three religious leaders, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, who were to receive Peace Awards for their continuing work toward interfaith understanding.

 
One of the recipients, Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica, told the group how terror had come close to his life.

 
Last July, he and his wife were awakened by a call from their teenage daughter to assure them that she was all right. She was in London and had gotten off a bus moments before it turned the corner and exploded.

 
Now a year later, the rabbi urged a recommitment to truly care for one another’s children, by walking together toward healing and understanding.

 
“If we can truly change the way we are with one another, we will create a world in which no one would consider dying for Judaism, Islam or any other religion and killing others in the process,” he said.

 
Comess-Daniels urged ongoing dialogue, a cause at the heart of the organizations that sponsored the Peace Award, the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council and the Interreligious Council of Southern California.

 
Jihad Turk, the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center, also presented Peace Awards to the Rev. Dr. Gwynne Guilbord of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Dr. Hassan Hathout of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

 
In the keynote address, Dr. Maher Hathout, chairman of the Islamic Center, denounced extremists’ twisted theology of death and destruction, while urging vigilance in the preservation of democracy — the protection of civil liberties and the Constitution.

 
“It would be sad if we save the buildings and lose the soul,” he said.
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, rabbi emeritus of Temple Kol Tikvah, offered the first prayer. “To stand in the ruins of New York or Beirut, or the desolated areas of Palestine is to know that what doesn’t happen in the Middle East is happening here. We are talking to each other.”

 
The service continued with prayers from a Buddhist, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Sikh and a Baha’i, and concluded with a musical offering from representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

 
As the group adjourned for cheese, crackers, fruit and baklava, Turk explained that this memorial service is part of the Islamic Center’s mission.

 
“Muslim Americans are on the front line in the war against terror in that we are charged with making sure that our institutions do not become dens of hate speech and extremist rhetoric nor recruiting grounds for extremists, terrorists or anyone who would want to do this country harm,” he said.

 
As Turk was about to enter the prayer room, he was approached by Suzanne Rubin, a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple; they had traveled together in March on an Abrahamic pilgrimage, visiting sacred sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

 
She invited him and his family to a break fast after Yom Kippur.

 
“That’s during Ramadan, so we’ll be breaking fast as well,” he replied. “That should work.”

Thrown For A Loop


“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

Brain-Busting Doc, Eight Letters


The cult status of The New York Times Crossword puzzle is the subject of “Wordplay,” an uneven but entertaining documentary by director Patrick Creadon about the people who design the fiendishly difficult crossword puzzles for The Times and the gifted eccentrics who devote their lives to puzzle solving and who compete against each other with all the fury and devotion of Olympic athletes.

Before we go further in discussing “Wordplay,” there is one question that needs to be dealt with, in the context of this publication: Is the Times crossword somehow a Jewish thing? The short answer is, well, yes and no.

Although the Gray Lady, as some media critics dub The Times, is published in one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, “Wordplay” does not convey the sense that there is any Jewish preponderance among the crossword-puzzle community. Judging from the range of competitors in the 2005 national annual crossword in Stamford, Ct. documented in the film, both the enthusiasts and the winners are reassuringly rainbow.

Champions of the annual event have included both men and women, including the winsome Ellen Ripstein, a self-described “48-year-old nerd girl” who looks like your sixth-grade math teacher and who can solve a Friday Times crossword puzzle in two minutes flat, give or take a couple of seconds. (Advice to movie goers: If you have any ego investment in your ability to do The Times crossword, you would be better off seeing “X-Men: The Last Stand.”)

If there is nothing intrinsically Jewish about the crossword puzzle, then, there may be something deeply Jewish about the way some Jews respond to this arcane verbal puzzle. As the proverbial People of the Book, there is a vein of Jewish culture about verbal ability and problem solving. The extremely compressed sentences of the Babylonian Talmud might be described as a kind of puzzle to be decoded as much as read.

Maybe The Times crossword is Jewish friendly because my family has been addicted to this obnoxious word game for at least three generations.

My grandfather, largely self-educated and boastful about being a reader of Proust, insisted on doing it in pen, the macho way where there is no turning back. My mother uses pencil, and my father used a pen. I used pencil before the electronic version arrived, usually leaving at least one hole in the newsprint where I erased one time too many. In a family that has not handed over a great deal in Jewish oral tradition, the notion of the Sunday crossword puzzle, accompanied by slabs of Nova lox and very strong coffee, and maybe some choral music on the radio, became its own kind of tradition.

There is perhaps another aspect about The Times puzzle, which may relate to some Jewish people, and a great many other people as well, and that is wit and humor. The Times crossword is both funny as well as a teasing. The people who solve it must have not only a great stock of general knowledge and unusual English words, but also a sense of fun.

More to the point, perhaps, The Times crossword, more than any other word puzzle, takes full advantage of ambiguity, particularly employing words with multiple meanings. Take “jar,” as a random example. Is it a noun or a verb? Is the solution “amphora” or “disrupt”?

Puzzle solvers must also know beforehand not to be misled by easy clues. If the crossword offers an obvious giveaway for a word that fits into the space provided, you can be assured that is the wrong answer.

One of the strongest moments of the movie shows a discussion between a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a 20-year-old student who is a contender for the national championship. The two wonder whether computers could ever be programmed to solve The Times crossword — the student says no, that computers cannot handle the ambiguity inherent in the wordplay because they lack the ability to judge different scenarios of meaning for a single word in order to choose the one that has best chance of fitting into an elegant geometric pattern with other carefully chosen words.

In other words, Times crossword puzzles are a subset of language as an enormous puzzle. And, although crossword puzzles cannot be described as literature, a good crossword can be a mind-expanding exploration of the many weird offshoots contained within the big tent of the English language, probably the most compendious language, in the number of words, in the world.

As a film, “Wordplay” follows a very conventional form. The filmmaker interviews the top contestants in each of their homes or daily environments — Ripstein is shown in a diner — and follows them on their breathless way into the competition, with the thrill, the agony and the like. So conventional is “Wordplay’s” form and direction that at times we think we are watching outtakes of a Christopher Guest movie like “Best in Show.”

One particularly strong sequence, however, shows a kind of symmetry between a man constructing a crossword puzzle and a group of people — including comedian Jon Stewart, former President Bill Clinton, film maker Ken Burns and indy rockers the Indigo Girls — all solving the same clue, each in his or her own fashion. Another strong moment is when the filmmakers provide a large-scale diagram that shows how quickly the competing crossword masters fill out the page.

All of them seemed a little stumped at a clue asking for a “novelistic quality,” with the bizarre answer of “Zolaesque,” in honor of Emile Zola, the French realist writer. This is the kind of clue that generates hate mail to Times puzzlemaker Will Shortz (“you are sick, sick, sick!”) from puzzle devotees.

Like many similar documentaries, “Wordplay” is an inquiry into a community of gifted people with a strong drive to make themselves champions, even if they are drab and underachieving in the other areas of life. Even people who have no attraction to crossword puzzles may find themselves involved with the notion of a society that uncovers the subtle genius of otherwise unremarkable people. And certain Jewish people may feel a hankering for the escape of spending a leisurely morning, with music and food, in the company of the world’s most maddening and enchanting word puzzle.

 

Dr. Freud at 150


“Why,” Sigmund Freud once asked rhetorically, “did it [psychoanalysis] have to wait for an absolutely irreligious Jew?”

Why indeed?

Freud was born in Freiberg, in the Austrian empire, on May 6, 1856, 150 years ago this weekend. Three years after his birth, his family moved to Vienna. There, the reaction of Freud’s personality to the mix of cultural, political and scientific forces was such that — we may state in hindsight — psychoanalysis could not have been created by anyone else in any other time or place.

Already for 1,000 years, in the Islamic and Christian worlds, medicine had been a Jewish profession par excellence. In late 19th century Vienna, as well, a vastly disproportionate number of doctors were Jews, and they were contributing mightily to the explosive development of modern medical science.

But the Austrian political climate was souring. A few decades of liberalism (in the European sense of individual freedom) were followed by a reactionary wave of Austro-Germanic nationalism and anti-Jewish politicking.

In the new age of medical specializations, the prejudiced academic powers that be were channeling Jewish medical students away from the prestigious mainstream fields, like internal medicine and surgery, into marginalized specialities: dermatology, ophthalmology — and psychiatry.

Yet if some Jewish doctors were being pushed into psychiatry, many others were voluntarily drawn to it. For the Jews of late 19th century Vienna were facing mental pressures different from any in past Jewish history.

For centuries, Diaspora Jewish physicians and philosophers, such as Maimonides, had written on the means of attaining spiritual well-being, often in a sea of hostile humanity. Their compass was the age-old Jewish religious and cultural values.

Now, however, Jews were being set adrift in an era of modernity that they themselves were doing so much to create. Nowhere more so than in Vienna, as the 20th century approached — where Josef Popper-Lynkeus and Ludwig Wittgenstein were developing their radical philosophies of science and technology, and Arnold Schoenberg would soon experiment with daringly atonal music.

Little wonder that the pioneering psychiatrist-anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, author of “Man of Genius,” attributed the apparently high rates of insanity among his fellow Jews to “intellectual overactivity.”

Such was the atmosphere in which Freud found himself. No longer a Jew in the religious sense but of the rationalist tradition of Judaism (“free from many prejudices which restrict others in the use of their intellect,” as he put it), Freud first made important, if unrevolutionary, contributions to our understanding of aphasia (major speech impairment due to physical trauma or stroke).

By the 1890s, however, Freud became intrigued by more cryptic language disturbances as signs of neurotic conflicts caused by hypothesized unconscious forces: slips of the tongue in wakefulness, and the largely imagistic and apparently nonsensical — but in fact symbol-laden — “language” of dreams at night.

Freud famously called dreams “the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious.” And his own dreams and their analysis revealed to him a whirl of conflicts around his Jewish identity.

Thus to cite just one of many examples, Freud dreamt that he sat almost in tears beside a fountain at the Porta Romana in Italy. The children had to be moved to safety, and a boy who was but wasn’t Freud’s son said to him in farewell the nonsensical “auf ungeseres,” instead of the usual “auf wiedersehen.”

Among a labyrinth of free-associations the next morning, Freud recalled his actual viewing of the Porta Romana (the gateway to Rome and, by implication, the Roman Catholic Church) during a recent visit to Siena, where the Jewish director of a mental hospital had been forced to resign. Returning to Vienna, Freud had attended a play on the Jewish question called, “The New Ghetto.”

Freud linked the dream fountain to the refrain, “By the waters of Babylon … yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” The seemingly nonsensical farewell, “auf ungeseres,” derived from the German word for unleavened bread and a Hebrew word for imposed suffering. Clearly, the life as a Jew in fin-de-si?cle Vienna was one of exile, with professional barriers and social burdens imposed on him and his children.

Such encumbrances could be relieved in a day with a splash of baptismal water and assimilation into Austria’s Roman Catholic majority. But Freud would have none of that.

“I considered myself German intellectually, until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitism. Since that time, I prefer to call myself a Jew,” he defiantly declared. “A Jew ought not to get himself baptized — it is essentially dishonest.”

If Freud’s view of dreams had been limited to analyzing them for various personal and cultural conflicts — some of which are lurking below the level of consciousness — it would have been a significant but unrevolutionary contribution to psychology.

But to repeat Lombroso’s term, the “intellectual overactivity” characteristic of so many modern Jews was part and parcel of Freud’s genius. Thus he went on to develop his psychoanalytic model with its Oedipus and Electra sexual complexes, supposedly laid down in early childhood, and continuing to dominate the unconscious id of the adult mind.

The libido, Freud theorized, ultimately supplies the driving force behind all dreams. A task of civilization was to channel such forces to higher goals. This, too, was part of the millennia of Jewish tradition.

“In his inner being, the Jew, the true Jew, feels only one eternal guide, one lawgiver, one law,” Freud proudly declared. “That is morality.”

Such radical theories faced a long uphill battle against the conservative medical establishment. But, as Freud told his B’nai B’rith lodge brothers, “As a Jew, I was prepared to join the opposition and to do without agreement with the ‘compact majority.'”

The psychoanalytic theory ultimately did gain much acceptance. It was Freud’s international reputation that allowed him to flee Vienna after the genocidal Nazis took control of Austria in 1938.

When Freud died in London two years later, he was more of an exile than even he would ever have dreamt when first developing his model of the mind. But disciples of his were in the Land of Zion — pursuing a Jewish dream that would become reality.

Dr. Frank Heynick’s most recent book is “Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga” (KTAV, 2002), in which Sigmund Freud plays a prominent role.

 

PASSOVER: You Say Charoses and I Say Charoset


I was so excited when a publishing house in New York accepted my children’s book for publication. Geared to preschoolers, it’s a short piece that recounts the steps of the Passover seder in simple, upbeat verse.

What I didn’t realize was that the work would need to be translated.

It’s not that the manuscript was in a foreign language. Or that they wanted to print it in another country. I had written the piece in “Secular” and the publisher wanted it in “Traditional.” So, in order to use words with which their young readership would be familiar, the publisher changed “plagues” to “makos,” “Jerusalem” to “Yerushalayim” and “God” to “Hashem.”

That left me with a new problem: By substituting words more familiar to Orthodox Jews, we’d be inserting terms that would fail to resonate with Conservative and Reform Jews — whom I’d also hoped would be interested in the book. And that meant I’d be further narrowing an already limited audience.

In my attempt to keep the piece as universal as possible, I found myself trying to avoid using these lost-in-translation words altogether. I was pretty impressed with myself when I managed to get God/Hashem out of the picture — even if it was a piece about a religious holiday. Thus, “Once we were slaves and now we are free/The way God intended all people to be” became “Once we were slaves and now we are free/The way it is meant for all people to be.”

That wasn’t so difficult. But removing plagues/makos proved trickier. There aren’t too many synonyms for plague. I thought about “punishment,” but ultimately I just mentioned spilling out 10 drops of wine and left it at that.

Other words simply could not be avoided. So “charoset” became “charoses,” “Elijah” became “Eliyahu” and “Egypt” became “Mitzrayim.” Lucky for me, “maror” is spelled the same way in both languages, even though one group places the accent on the second syllable, and the other on the first.

Just as I grew frustrated revising her “Traditional” words, I’m sure my editor got tired of correcting my secular terminology. She had to tell me, for instance, that “prayer” would not be a familiar term — “tefilah” or “davening” would be preferable. At least I didn’t have to worry about Shabbat/Shabbos.

I considered asking the publisher about printing two versions of the same book — one in “Traditional” and another in “Secular.” But then I remembered we’re supposed to be One People.

So why is it that we don’t seem to speak the same language?

Maybe there should be some kind of multidenominational commission appointed to negotiate and standardize pronunciation among the various stripes of Jews. They could publish a stylebook of sorts — one which specifies the officially sanctioned version of these troublesome words.

Maybe it would even get us talking to one another. And maybe then we’d feel a little more like One People.

As for my book, it’s still going forward with a planned release date of next Passover/Pesach. I’ve tried to make it as appealing to all constituencies as possible, but I hope, in the effort, I haven’t made it appealing to none.

That would be a real shame/shanda.

A Definite Maybe


As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa swirled through both Washington and Los Angeles this year, a media darling wherever he went,

I contemplated a core mystery: Can Los Angeles’ schools be fixed by a man who loves to be loved, who with his union allies opposed education reform and whose wife is an educator with no presence in the fight for reform?

The surprising answer is maybe — if his current independent streak holds.

It is typical these days in speeches by the bustling, well-spoken Villaraigosa to hear a quick civics lesson from him about the profound troubles in public schools and the way these troubles harm the viability of Los Angeles.

He asks, “How could we do worse?”

He should know. He dropped out of troubled Roosevelt High School, then eventually persevered to earn a law degree. It wasn’t easy. Infamously, he failed the California Bar Exam several times. But before you snicker, remember that a disastrous school system saddled him with enormous academic deficits — yet he refused to be its victim.

Now, like mayors in Chicago, Detroit, New York and Cleveland, Villaraigosa wants the power to run the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) of 727,000 students, encompassing several cities and two dozen unincorporated communities.

Some are asking why anybody would want to run a district I dubbed, “Los Angeles Mummified” — a name that resonated for many. The better question is, can the schools be helped by a man who, despite his youthful travails, spent his adulthood on precisely the wrong side of the education wars?

As a state legislator, Villaraigosa joined California’s consistently anti-progressive “liberal” legislators to oppose Proposition 227, the ballot measure that ended the disastrous experiment known as “bilingual education.”

What if Villaraigosa’s views — that English immersion would hurt students — had prevailed?

Luckily, clear-eyed California voters ignored the nearly unanimous opposition from politicians. Today, English-language reading and writing skills are improving dramatically among Latino children.

Nor can Villaraigosa take credit for the tough subject matter “content standards” imposed on California’s whiny school districts by Sacramento. Those standards were embraced by the State Board of Education under a surprisingly fearless Gov. Gray Davis, despite claims by the Legislature’s powerful Latino Caucus — of which Villaraigosa was a member — that the standards were just too hard. Under the standards, designed to halt widespread dumbing-down by teachers, California students are clearly improving.

These and other fundamental reforms, fought by teachers unions which are the mayor’s longtime allies, are producing a quiet miracle. After two decades of decline that left California near the bottom among the 50 states, public schools are improving.

Today, L.A. Unified is cited by serious reformers as an example of how a troubled urban district can help its teachers turn things around. LAUSD has miles to go. But in many innercity grade schools, where Superintendent Roy Romer has focused tremendous effort, test scores are approaching levels more typical of the suburbs.

That’s huge. Low-income, minority students are starting to succeed. This, even though roughly 50 percent of L.A. students arrive speaking Spanish or another language (by comparison, only about 16 percent of students in New York City schools arrive speaking a language other than English.)

This turnaround happened in the wake of years — even decades — during which the unions and political groups (with which Villaraigosa was allied) blamed low achievement on insurmountable social ills, particularly poverty, that nobody could fix. The unions fought basic reading reforms, insisting students should work “at their own pace.”

They were tragically wrong, and many Los Angeles teens were left functionally illiterate. Today, with reading reforms now firmly in place, children are enjoying big leaps in reading ability, despite the hardships of poverty. Belatedly, some union leaders — and many teachers — understand and appreciate the importance of these reading reforms. Other union honchos are merely simmering over their political defeats, all too ready to make new missteps in the mission of teacher job protection or, laughably, in the name of helping students.

If he takes over the schools — a very big if — Villaraigosa’s biggest challenge will be to come to grips with how wrong he and his friends were. Although Villaraigosa has criticized Romer, the truth is that Romer, the former Democratic governor of Colorado, stood up to his own natural allies. In his former life, Romer was staunchly pro-union as a politician.

Romer’s efforts in Los Angeles, along with those of former school board President Caprice Young and no-nonsense current board member Mike Lansing, are among the reasons I rarely call the place L.A. Mummified anymore.

Yet Villaraigosa has taken Romer to task for, among other things, failing to stem the dropout rate. On this count, Villaraigosa’s lack of experience in the education wars really shows.

The semi-illiterate dropouts common today were little kids 10 years ago, subjected to endless fads enacted under former school board presidents, such as Jackie Goldberg, and past superintendents, such as Sid Thompson.

Romer tried to undo much of that, by getting teachers to focus heavily on solid, basic skills. In an ironic twist, now-state Assemblywoman Goldberg’s name recently surfaced as a possible replacement for Romer when he retires. Goldberg has spent much of her time in Sacramento fighting to weaken reforms in reading, English immersion, math, science, testing and content standards that Romer has championed.

With such struggles still facing the schools, Villaraigosa’s own weak history in this field doesn’t inspire confidence. What inspires confidence, however, is the manner in which the mayor has proved himself independent of City Hall unions and thus of his past as a labor organizer.

Likewise, he parted company with the powerful Los Angeles Teachers Union in this week’s special election, endorsing a different candidate than the union in the Tuesday primary for an open school-board seat.

If a leader with Villaraigosa’s energy can learn from his mistakes and maintain the independent quality that has helped make him a media darling, he can be a positive force for improving L.A. schools — whether he wins the power to call the shots or not.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at