A night for the soul


Have you ever heard words of Torah that made you really uncomfortable? Where you almost started to squirm, not because you were bored, but because you were rattled?

This happened recently when I had a “Torah in the Hood” salon at my place for about 20 Jewish singles.

The class was connected to Purim, and it was billed as “A mystical journey into a mysterious holiday.” The speaker was the Chasidic mystic and philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman, author of “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?” which on its back cover has a raving blurb from a fellow mystic named Bob Dylan.

Little did we know during the polite chatting over Moroccan tea that we were about to be ambushed by the rabbi’s provocative riffs on the human soul.

With the glow of candles reflecting softly on his long white beard, Rabbi Friedman didn’t waste any time. He started by telling us that the struggle in Judaism is not to find the truth — because we already know it. The struggle is to realize we know it, and then make it compatible with our reality.

Argument is part of the noise that makes us forget we already know the truth. When we get drunk on Purim so that we can’t tell the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman,” it is to show us that beyond the state of knowing and reason — when our minds are plastered — our souls are intact and sober, and they know the truth.

The body might be drunk, but the soul is our designated thinker — it never stops knowing the difference between Mordechai and Haman, between right and wrong, between holy and unholy.

Rabbi Friedman was talking about the human soul as if it had a mind of its own, a very confident mind.

The soul doesn’t need argument or reason to make its point. It knows that this is wrong because it is wrong, and this is right because it is right. The soul doesn’t need to explain why you should go to the gym or visit the sick or control your anger or resist gossip or be Jewish. It is our Godly instinct. It just knows. It just is.

It was a little disconcerting to hear something as nebulous and intangible as a soul being talked about like a human asset at our disposal. But the notion that we could mine — even emulate — this asset was exciting.

According to the rabbi, we suffer from inner conflict, in part, because we don’t allow ourselves to enter the state of “soulful knowing.” Our rational minds are taught to process everything — to challenge, to argue, to debate, to struggle, as if those acts themselves had some overarching truth. In the process of all this processing, our egos become the heroes. We become self-conscious instead of soul-conscious.

When we’re not in touch with our souls, we’re also confused about our roles. Our egos make us worship uniqueness. But the Torah values roles above uniqueness. When we praise the Woman of Valor on Friday night, we don’t praise her for being unique; we praise her for being trustworthy, respectful, resourceful and compassionate. We praise her knowing soul.

In this mode of living, there is little room for tortured debate, agonizing dilemmas or self-absorbed obsessions. The struggle becomes to lower the noise level in our minds, nourish our souls with Godliness and then allow our soulfulness to permeate our reality.

In short, the rabbi was telling 20 well-educated Jews to put their minds in the service of their souls. But wait, the real discomfort in our Torah salon was still to come, and it started when someone brought up a perennial hot topic in the singles world: Looking for a soulmate.

Rabbi Friedman explained that the biggest obstacle in romantic relationships is what he calls the “third thing.” This third thing is the all-consuming question one asks of potential soulmates: Are they fulfilling our needs?

We are in love with our needs and, because love is blind, we are blinded by them. We’re in love with love, status, security, sex, laughter, companionship, intellectual stimulation, spiritual inspiration or whatever else we might need at any point in time. When we meet someone, we don’t see a real person; we see a potential need-filler.

But need-filling is not the same thing as soul-filling. Needs are noisy and shifty, while souls are quiet and eternal. When we care about each other’s needs at the expense of each other’s souls, we become needmates, not soulmates.

As the rabbi reminded us, our needs can play tricks on us. They can come and go and change without notice, and then what? Who is left facing us? Who is that person we are having dinner with?

In his soft, almost whispering voice, Rabbi Friedman suggested another way. Perhaps the path to true love is to lower the noise level in our minds and bring only one thing to the table: the desire to learn who the other person is, so we can touch their souls.

Romantic unions that are born in this fashion are not flashy, but they create real soulmates.

By now, after 90 minutes of this spiritual jazz session, Rabbi Friedman had challenged us to look at our minds and souls in a different way, and he turned our views on love and soulmates upside down. Not bad for a night’s work.

What’s more, he didn’t let us off the hook by using obscure language that no one understands. As far as esoteric messages go, his words were remarkably clear. Maybe that’s why they shook us up — and also drained us.

The reaction was not polite enthusiasm. It was more like, “What was that?” People left slowly and silently, as if something deep and quiet inside of them had been touched.

Their souls, perhaps?

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

Don’t hold your breath on plans for baby


Nothing is more exciting than finding out that you’re having a baby. The moment I found out I was expecting, I began making grand plans. I read the books, spoke to pregnant friends and questioned all the new mommies I knew. Then I made some big decisions.

Disposable diapers were clogging the landfills — I would use cloth. Baby foods had preservatives — I would puree my own. Cavities begin before teeth appear — no bottles in bed.

There would be no junk food, no TV, no yelling, no spanking, no spoiling, no bribing. I would provide only classical music and educational toys. I would never use food for reward or punishment. My baby would never use a pacifier or learn to suck his thumb. The list went on and on, and then our precious son was born.

Shortly after we came home, our son started an interesting habit. When upset, he would cry very hard, turn blue around the lips and make no sound. Then the bluish color would spread until he hysterically gasped for air and turned pink again. I got somewhat used to this routine until he progressed to the point of passing out.

“He’s a breath holder,” the pediatrician said calmly.

“The books said nothing about breath holders,” I wailed.

“It’s not very common, but it happens,” he said. “Don’t worry. He’ll start breathing again as soon as he passes out. Just don’t blow in his face.”

“What?”

“They used to say that if you blow in the baby’s face, he’ll catch his breath,” the pediatrician said. “But it really doesn’t work; it just makes him madder.”

He paused right before administering the vaccination.

“When I give him his shot, he’ll probably start crying,” the pediatrician said as he stabbed the needle into my baby’s thigh.

Sure enough, the crying began, the lips went blue, the face grew ashen and my baby passed out. It happened again with another shot in the other thigh.

As I packed up the diaper bag, sniffling back my own tears, the pediatrician warned me: “Don’t let him manipulate you, or he’ll use breath-holding to get what wants. He’ll grow out of it eventually. See you next month.”

From that moment on, my grand promises were cast aside. Attempting to avoid crying and fainting episodes, I broke my own rules. I kept pacifiers everywhere and shoved one in his mouth at the smallest whimper. When he tired of pacifiers, I taught him how to suck his thumb. When he wanted up, I picked him up.

Diaper changing was a particularly tricky time. He’d be happy and bubbly for the first 30 seconds or so, but if it took any longer than that, he would become frustrated at being on his back and begin to cry. Since I could change disposable more quickly than cloth, I fired the diaper service. Once I had crossed the diaper line, it was easy to give in on anything.

I developed a do-what-works attitude. Why be so rigid? Jar food was just fine. In fact, he ate so much that I switched from organic to whatever was on sale. I used generic wipes on his tender tush.
One time, I found the dog licking his face after a messy spaghetti meal. My son loved it. From then on, I sat him on the kitchen floor and let the dog clean him up after he ate. A mother must find clever ways to make her job easier.

As the doctor predicted, the breath-holding eventually subsided. By the time my second son came along, my child-rearing methods had evolved considerably.

Potty training? M”&”Ms for a tinkle in the toilet. Television? How did we grow up without videos? Spanking? Watch your toddler dash into oncoming traffic and then tell me you never spank. Yelling? Ever seen a cheesecake after 10 minutes in the microwave? Bribery? Try taking two toddlers to the market and see how long it takes before you say: “If you’re good, mommy will buy you….”

That breath-holding baby is now 16 years old. A few thousand dollars in orthodontia fixed the overbite that the thumb caused. He regularly uses the potty without expecting M”&”Ms. The last time he had a shot, he hardly let out a peep.

The only time he holds his breath is when he’s swimming, and the bribery item of choice has progressed from cookies to car keys. He does, however, still eat his way through the grocery store.

So, have your baby, make your plans, set your limits, follow your rules. And when things don’t go the way you expected and the mess is just too big and you feel like crying until you pass out, do what I did — put the baby on the floor and let the dog clean up.

Collegians do the ‘Write Thing’ at GA


College students are not only attending the General Assembly, they are
covering it as well.

This will be the 17th year that a select group of Jewish collegians, as
members of the Do the Write Thing team, will have its own prestigious place
in the General Assembly.

For this 40-member cadre, most of whom staff their campus Jewish and/or
secular newspapers, the GA will be more than a place to learn about and
participate in organized Jewish life. They will also have the opportunity to
sharpen their journalistic skills while deepening their understanding of
what the community does — and how it does it.

Do the Write Thing is sponsored by The Jewish Agency and the Hagshama
department of the World Zionist Organization, with some sessions coordinated
by the American Jewish Press Association.

Hagshama translates to “fulfillment,” explains New York-based fulfillment’
and find a personal connection and engagement with the Jewish state is
through programs such as this,” he says. “It also helps these students to
be better equipped to make Israel’s case on campuses.”

The GA, he adds, “is a great place for these students to meet Jewish
leaders, and to establish friendships with each other.”

In addition to being at major GA plenaries and sessions, DTWT participants
will attend press conferences with visiting dignitaries and hear, in
sessions exclusively for them, from such eminent people as Gary Rosenblatt,
publisher and editor of The Jewish Week (New York), and Rob Eshman, editor
of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, about “Covering Israel in
the American Jewish Press.” Meetings with Israeli journalists and workshops
with members of the American Jewish Press Association also are on the
agenda.

For many DTWT alumni, participation proved to be a step toward a
professional career. Gil Hoffman and Miriam Saviv are on the staff of the
Jerusalem Post. Dan Schifrin is director of literacy programs at the
National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and Marita Gringaus was press
officer at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. Rustin Silverstein,
who served as press secretary for Rep. Tim Roemer of Indiana, was also a
producer at “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”

“Do the Write Thing,” Silverstein says, “helped me understand the craft of
writing from a Jewish perspective.”

As a result of a visit during last year’s DTWT program at the Toronto GA by
Laura Kam, director of the Washington-based Media Fellows Program of The
Israel Project, participants learned about the project’s fellowship program.

“Several students applied, and two were chosen, ” Kam reports. “They proved
to be excellent media fellows,” she says. “They were sincere students who
were intent upon pursuing Israel advocacy.”

“I hope to make more connections this year through Do the Write Thing,” Kam
says.

Keren Douek, assistant editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light, says DTWT
confirmed for her that writing for and about the smaller, more specific and
personally relevant Jewish world, was an intriguing concept. “There is
nothing like it,” she says.

Full circle


My daughter, the animal lover, has a father who isn’t. A hamster is the biggest pet I’ve gotten talked into so far. It lives in her room, and basically I wouldn’t even know
it was there except for one thing — it’s nocturnal.

All night long I could hear Ruby the hamster running in its wheel. The endless spinning and squeaking was driving me crazy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

I marched into my daughter’s room, bypassing her and heading straight for the tiny workout nut. I was ready to snatch it and its blasted wheel out of the cage, when something made me stop. I stood transfixed at the sight of Ruby exercising, and it hit me how much the two of us have in common. That hamster is living my life, I thought, running, running, running in endless circles, and not really getting anywhere.

I granted a stay of execution.

For all of the benefits running in circles affords a hamster, there are no positive implications when we use the expression “running in circles” to describe our own lives. With all we have to do, it often feels that all we are doing is keeping up. The opportunity to move ahead somehow eludes us.

Ironically, this time of year is all about going in circles. But unlike the stressful, unconstructive feeling of running in circles that we experience in our weekday routine, the circles of these holidays have a definite purpose and a positive message. Both Sukkot and Simchat Torah are characterized by communal hakafot, or going around in circles.

On Sukkot, we hold the arba minim (the four species) and proceed in a circle around the Torah, thereby proclaiming its centrality and holiness in Jewish life. On Simchat Torah, we remove all of the Torahs to the periphery of the circle, and march around an empty center.

What is the purpose of an empty center? To quote Rabbi Solovetchik (zt”l), “The answer is that the center is not empty. God is symbolically there. When nobody is there, Someone is there. There is no place bereft of His presence. The encircling Sifrei Torah pay homage to their Divine Author, acknowledging that the purpose of Torah is to direct us to God.”
Whether we are circling the Torah or circling God, there are two mathematical facts about circles that have great theological implications.

The first is that all points on the circle are equidistant from the center.

When we march in the hakafot, we are demonstrating that the Torah belongs to all of us, equally, and that we all have equal access to God.

There is a beautiful Midrash about the arba minim that illustrates this idea. Consider the etrog, or citron. It has a good taste and a good fragrance, symbolizing the Jews who possess scholarship and good deeds.

The lulav, or date palm branch, has a good taste, but no fragrance. It symbolizes Jews who possess scholarship, but few good deeds.

The hadassim, or myrtle, have a pleasant aroma but a bland taste. It represents the Jews who perform good deeds but are ignoramuses.

And finally, the aravot, or willow, have no pleasant smell or taste, standing for those among us who, sadly, have no redeeming features whatsoever.

Only the etrog is “perfect,” but one cannot recite the blessing on the etrog alone. It must be held tightly together with the other three species in order to fulfill the mitzvah. God wants us to stand together. No one has to be excluded from His Presence. You can be a Moses, an Abraham, a Rabbi Akiva or an ignoramus who isn’t even a very nice person. As long as you stand in that circle, you have the same access to God and His Torah as anyone else.

The second mathematical fact about circles is that the starting point and the ending point are one in the same. When we march in a circle we keep returning to where we started, as opposed to marching in a line where we would move away from the beginning point. The whole of Judaism is predicated on this concept — that our history is not far behind us in some distant past, but that our heroes and heroines, and all of our collective experiences, are very real to us today.

We look to Jacob to learn how to survive an oppressive exile, and Joseph shows us how to deal with success in exile. Queen Esther ably demonstrates how to outsmart a manipulative, deadly enemy. Rashi is not some scribbles on a page, but he is our best friend when we study the Chumash or Talmud, patiently helping us make sense of it all.

We don’t “commemorate” the destruction of our Temple; we sit low to the ground and mourn the loss as if it happened in our own generation. We sit at a seder every Passover with the goal of feeling as if we ourselves left Egypt, not some group of slaves thousands of years ago. We have a State of Israel today because even after 1,900 years of exile, we felt inextricably connected to that land. Like a circle, we never move too far away from where we started.

Physically, moving in circles like Ruby the hamster is a frustrating experience. In short, it gets us nowhere. But philosophically, participating in hakafot, can bring us to a new place. A place where we reconfirm that God and His Torah are at the center of our lives; where we rekindle that sense of unity and equality among all Jews; and where we reawaken the past, and immerse in the lives and events that have sustained us as a people for thousands of years.

In short, it brings us full circle.

Chag sameach.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

The Ultimate Enigma


Zot chukat haTorah begins this week’s parsha, telling us that the subject of the Red Heifer is the chok of the Torah. A chok is a law that is simply incomprehensible. It makes no sense to us whatsoever.

When I tell you that a person who had become ritually defiled by close contact with a human corpse could purify himself by counting seven days, and on days three and seven have the ashes of a red heifer sprinkled on him, you’ll understand what I mean.

There is logic to honoring one’s parents. There is a rationale for not stealing or murdering. But for purification in a ruddy, bovine shower, why would God ask such a thing of us?

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know. But neither did King Solomon, the wisest of men. It seems that this is part of the definition of a chok, that its raison d’etre remains a mystery.

There are many chukim that defy a logical explanation — keeping kosher, not wearing a garment made of wool and linen and yes, ritual impurity. We can’t ask the question, “Why do we observe them?” The only correct answer is that we observe these mitzvot because God told us to — period.

But because Judaism does not subscribe to blind faith, we must follow up with a second question. Not why, but what. What benefit is there to us by observing this law? How does keeping this commandment make our life richer, infuse our existence with a greater sense of purpose, expand our understanding of the truths of this world?

When we ask “what” regarding the laws governing the Red Heifer, we will understand why this mitzvah is singled out as the paradigmatic chok, the mother of all chukim, if you will. We will also see how intensely relevant an incomprehensible set of laws that haven’t been practiced in thousands of years can be.

Spiritual impurity, tumah, is brought about by different circumstances. For example, one becomes impure, tamay, from close contact with a dead animal. One also becomes tamay if he/she contracts tzaraas, the spiritual equivalent of leprosy. These forms of tumah can be removed simply by immersing in a mikvah, a ritual bath. However, if a person comes in close contact with a human being who has passed away, the level of impurity is much more severe, and the purification process becomes much more involved, requiring mikvah immersion and the Red Heifer concoction.

The difference in the severity of the tumah can be found in the source, or the impetus, of the impurity. Emotionally and psychologically, what does a person experience when they see a dead animal or a body racked by disease? They experience a sense of revulsion and disgust at the decaying organism. They may be sickened and repelled by the diseased tissue overtaking what was once a strong and healthy body. When we chance upon a squirrel that has been run over in the street, we don’t mourn the squirrel. We are grossed out from the blood and the guts, and we just want to get away from it.

Contrast that to the experience of the death of a human being. True, a corpse is not pleasant to behold, but that is not the focus of our emotional/psychological experience. It is so much more. It is the realization that in all of the universe, the deceased was unique. The person had individual talents, a singular purpose no longer to be fulfilled.

Inside every human being lies unlimited potential, and death means that it is lost forever. This most severe form of impurity stems from the recognition that every life has infinite value; that every person truly is an entire world.

The story is told that the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, paid a visit to Anwar Sadat shortly before the Yom Kippur War and advised him not to go to war with Israel. Sadat responded by handing him a copy of the publication, Maariv. The cover had a picture of a young man in uniform who was killed and was being mourned by an entire nation. Sadat said that such a people won’t endure a long war if to them, each dead person is important and precious.

As I write this, myself and fellow Jews all over the world, are praying and beseeching God for the safe return of another young man in uniform, Gilad Shalit. To us, he is not just another soldier. He is a unique and precious individual whose loss, God forbid, would be the paradigm of that which doesn’t make sense. Zot chukat haTorah. That a precious life can just be snuffed out is the most illogical and unintelligible chok of the Torah.

Through the parsha of the Red Heifer, we learn to value not just life, but every life. That is why we don’t lump all victims of terror together, but each one has a picture and a name, because each one represents an unimaginable loss. That is why every Shabbat, we pray for the return of the Israeli MIAs. Not to care about the fate of each and every one of them is incomprehensible to us. Yes Sadat, you were right. Every individual is precious and important to us, and every loss a sickening tragedy.

But you were wrong, too. Appreciating the worth of each individual has not weakened us. It is what has given us the strength to keep going. Death may never make sense to us, but the greatness and grandeur of life does. And as incomprehensible as it may seem to you, we choose life.

We hope and pray that very soon, the rest of the world will, too.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

 

Sderot’s Kids Living in Fear


Eleven-year-old Shir Lazmi says she loves going to school. Why? Because she’s not really allowed to go anywhere else.

That’s because Shir lives in Sderot, where months of intense rocket fire by Palestinians from the nearby Gaza Strip have all but confined schoolchildren like her to the few places where they have both adult supervision and close proximity to a room with a reinforced roof, strong enough to keep a Kassam rocket from breaking through.

“I’m less scared in school,” Shir says after a Bible competition marking the last week of the school year. “I can’t go out with friends. I can’t go to the pool anymore. But I can see my friends here at school.”

Years of Kassam rocket fire at Sderot have shattered the sense of normalcy in this desert town. The fire has become so intense in recent weeks — often three or four rockets a day — that daily life here has come to a virtual standstill. Real estate values in town have plummeted, businesses have closed, people are moving away and nearly everyone says they live in constant fear of sudden death from above.

Sderot’s schools have been particularly hard-hit, and not just by the Kassams that have fallen on kindergartens, classrooms and schoolyards. The schools also have been trying to cope with the challenges of maintaining the routine of education in a place that has become a veritable war zone — all the while trying to convey a sense of normalcy for Sderot’s children.

With summer vacation starting, many parents say they don’t know what they’re going to do with their kids all summer.

“Our job at school, that we’re trying to accomplish within all of this, is to maintain routine,” says Dina Hori, principal of Sderot’s Torani Madani elementary school. “You have to project security, community, the sense that everything is OK.”

Like most of Sderot’s schools, Torani Madani is sponsored and administered by AMIT, the Orthodox Zionist educational organization.

Hori confesses that it’s hard to project normalcy when the Red Dawn emergency system goes off and the kids have no more than a few seconds to rush into reinforced-roof classrooms before a rocket lands somewhere in town with a loud boom.

The children have learned to huddle under their desks and put their hands over their heads, in a scene reminiscent of the 1950s United States. The difference is that the feared Soviet nuclear attack against the Americans never came, while in Sderot, the rockets are raining down.

Just two weeks ago, a rocket hit AMIT’s yeshiva high school in town. Nobody was injured.

But the damage in Sderot has been far more than physical: The rockets have terrorized an entire city and, in the process, transformed life here.

“Everyone gets scared,” Shir says. “Sometimes I cry. I went to the psychologist together with my mother. They taught us how to deal with the Kassams. They told us when we’re afraid to count to three and take three deep breaths.”

Teachers at Hori’s elementary school often whip out guitars and try to get the kids singing after an attack, in a bid to distract them and revive their spirits.

Nevertheless, many students appear to be developing psychological problems, insisting on sleeping near their parents at night, experiencing frequent bouts of panic and easily bursting into tears.

The long-term psychological effects of the attacks, which have been a presence here since 2001 but have intensified since Israel’s Gaza Strip withdrawal last year, remain unknown.

“The nation of Israel is sick with a spiritual sickness,” laments Rabbi Yoel Bar-Chen, who teaches in one of Sderot’s centrist Orthodox schools. “The nation of Israel does not respond. It does not fight. When they fire upon us, we must respond.”

“This is the worst lesson to the kids: defeatism,” Bar-Chen says. “They learn that we’re weak. It’s a very deep wound that can’t be measured with simple psychology.”

Perhaps most difficult, teachers and students say, is that families are moving away. That means that those who remain are losing their friends, too.

“My best friend is moving to Rosh Ha’Ayin. I’m very sad he’s leaving. I blame only the Arabs,” Ben Harari, 11, says. “Even my uncles are scared to visit us.”

School officials here estimate that the student population has fallen by at least 15 percent over the past year. Some parents have sent their children to live with relatives in safer cities. Others have pulled their kids out of school and insisted on keeping them home. A few have moved away — even though there are practically no home-buyers to replace them.

“Life here has been completely overturned,” says Arie Maimon, representative of the AMIT network of schools in Sderot. On Sunday, Maimon met with a representative from the prime minister’s office to explain that Sderot schools need additional funding for reinforcing roofs and walls against rockets, additional psychological counseling for students and teachers and more field trips out of town.

But no amount of funding will stop the rocket attacks, he says.

“Money doesn’t solve everything,” Maimon says. “You sit here like a duck in a shooting gallery and wait for a miracle. That’s all.”

Since the rocket attacks intensified, Ben says he hasn’t been allowed to stay home alone, play outside or wander around on his own. Once, he says, when the Red Dawn siren sounded at 3:30 a.m., he tripped down the stairs and hurt himself trying to rush to his home’s safe room.

Still, children in town say they don’t want to leave.

“I don’t want to leave because my friends are here,” Shir says. “I love my house. I love my school. I love everything in Sderot.”

 

Wandering Jew – The Hit Parade


Here it is: 5,000 years after Moses wandered the Sinai, his people have finally found a home in Reseda, no less, at the Jewish Home for the Aging, the largest continuing residential care facility for the elderly in the Western United States. Yet while these Jews are no longer wandering, they are today wondering when the big simchah begins.

“We’re so excited!” says Mimi Kolmer. “We’ve been waiting for this all year!” In her mid-70s, she is one of close to 1,000 residents here at Eisenberg Village, most past their 90th birthday, and here they are today, watching guys in their 30s and 40s playing softball.

“What’s this about?” I ask Doug Gellerman, and he tells me this is the Spring Classic Event sponsored by the Synagogue Softball League.

“The league consists of 32 teams,” he says, “made up of 620 guys from temples all over the San Fernando Valley and West L.A. Four years ago we decided to give something back to our Jewish community, and each year it’s gotten bigger. We raise money for the home and bring our families so the kids and elders experience each other.”

Gellerman points to a kid about 10 years old talking with an old guy on a bench: “It’s a mitzvah for the kids to learn about giving back.”

“Is this your grandfather?” I ask the kid.

“Yeah,” he says. “He’s telling me about when he was a kid, but he can’t remember. He thinks maybe he has old-timer’s disease.”

“It’s Alzheimer’s, not old-timers,” Gramps says. “Maybe you have young-timers disease?”

Then he grabs his grandson and kisses him hard on the cheek.

Next event is senior softball, and I watch a bunch of elders swatting a whiffle ball with a big plastic bat, with pitching and fielding handled by the kids. The pitcher, who looks like he’s ready for his bar mitzvah, throws Morton Symans a soft pitch, and he misses.

“Hey kid!” yells Symans, who’s 85 years old. “I might be a senior citizen but don’t throw me no soft pitch! The road ahead of you is not the road that I’m on. It’s not a soft road. So toughen up!”

The kid shrugs, winds up, throws with all he’s got, and Symans slams the ball over everyone’s heads.

“Smart kid,” Symans says. “He’ll do just fine.”

Hilda Foodman, 72 years old and a self-proclaimed tomboy, is up next.

“I’ll tell you a wonderful story that happened to me,” she says, “but you must promise not to tell.”

“Hilda,” her friend interrupts, “you’re telling a reporter!”

“Oy!” says Hilda, and grabbing the bat, hits everything pitched her way.

Up next in a “Be Cool” T-shirt is Shelly Balzac. At 78, he walks with a cane but he swats a long one.

“Any relation to the writer?” I ask.

“Balzac was married in the Ukraine,” he says, “and my parents were from Kiev.”

“So that makes Balzac…”

“Dead.”

A kibitzer. Everyone here is a kibitzer.

Next event is the talent show. First up is Bill Mednick. A youthful 82, he wails, “Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger….”

Well, for most residents, the hearing isn’t what it used to be, so the PA is set very, very loud. Good-natured Ida Greenbaum, the accompanying pianist, is like a city bus in that she tends to slow down and speed up unexpectedly, which obligates Bill to turn to her pleading, “Where are you?”

Bill concludes, and master of ceremonies Ellis (“Not the Island!”) Simon introduces Muriel Tuckman. She finishes to loud applause but not as loud as her singing: “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see…someone to watch over me….”

“And who would that be, dear?” I ask. “George Bush?”

“That louse,” says Simon, and everyone agrees.

“When I was in the Marines,” he says, “a G.I. called me ‘a dirty Jew’ so I kicked his ass.”

Simon now asks us to show some love for “The Bird Lady” — and up steps Mildred Cadish, wearing a long, red feather boa. Looking like a bird, she takes the mike, puckers her lips and makes so many high-pitched squeals, some of the residents begin sprouting feathers. “I’ve been chirping 79 years,” she announces to great applause.

Muriel is a hard act to follow, but here’s Howard Hersh, 85, marauding his way through “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Amazingly, each note Howard sings is in a different key.

Give it up now for Lee Miro, who while disavowing any relationship to the surrealist painter, nonetheless presents a surrealistic performance sitting in her wheelchair and belting out in an operatic voice, “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

“We thank you all for being with us today,” she tells the appreciative crowd, while Adam, a lad of 14, takes the stage and juggles oranges. He tosses one under his leg, and the room roars.

“Maybe he’ll wind up a produce man at Ralphs,” says Mimi Kolmer, who then asks me what temple I’m from.

I tell her Shirley Temple and she smiles.

“This is the most outstanding place,” she says. “I have lots of friends. And everyone has a smile or a greeting. I’m very lucky.”

But not as lucky as those of us now being pummeled by Al Heyman, “singing” a little ditty that was popular around the time Noah built his ark. “Because, you come to me, with naught save love, and hold my hand and lift mine eyes above….”

As Al hits his last note, I can hear corneal implants shatter.

“Every time he sings,” Simon tells the crowd, “my hernia kills me. Next week he’ll sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and your head will explode!”

The talent show now ends with Simon himself singing “My Way.”

“If it wasn’t for Frank Sinatra,” he says, “I would have been famous!”

Someone yells, “Ellis, was your family rich or poor?” And without missing a beat, Simon tells the room “You know, my family was so poor, if I hadn’t been a boy, I’d have had nothing to play with.”

Gellerman now hands out checks totaling $3,300, money raised by the softball teams to be used by the home for the residents. Before he leaves, Gellerman asks Ellis to “return the money.”

Jewish humor.

On my way out, as I head for my nearest Beltone dealer, I run into Symans, the guy who told the kid to toughen up.

“Old people are like Don Quixote,” he says. “They think they’re still independent but they wind up tilting at windmills. I accept what I have and who I am — so I try to help others adjust.”

And then suddenly, from the PA, comes one last announcement, the one proclamation that bridges all senior politics, religion and age: “Bingo will begin in the library in 15 minutes!”

“Gotta run,” Symans says. “Zey gezunt!”

yeLAdim


Mighty Glad to See You!

It was great seeing so many of you at the Israel Independence Day Festival on May 7 (we hope you enjoyed the fans). Be sure to check out our yeLAdim page on June 30, as we will be printing many of the essays you wrote for our 20th anniversary!

Kein v’ Lo:

Parental Spying?

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about people listening to other people’s phone calls, and some people say parents need to check what their kids are doing online and who they are chatting with — because not everyone on the Internet is telling the truth. Should parents be allowed to do that?

The Kein Side:

  • A lot of kids don’t talk to their parents, and the parents want to make sure their kids are safe from drugs, alcohol, bullies and other things that can hurt them.
  • It is your parents’ house, and you have to live by their rules — when you have your own house, you can have your own rules.

The Lo Side:

  • Parents need to trust their kids — otherwise how will the kids ever learn to be responsible for themselves?
  • It is invasion of privacy to listen to their phone calls and look at someone’s things when they aren’t there.

We want to know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com, with the subject line: Parents.

We’ll publish your opinions on a future yeLAdim page.

Pages & Picks

This month’s pick is the very cute “Kvetchy Boy” by Anne-Maire Baila Asner — the latest from Matzah Ball Books.

Kvetchy Boy joins his friends Noshy Boy, Shluffy Girl, Klutzy Boy and Shmutzy Girl in bringing Yiddish expressions to young Jews (don’t worry, each book includes a glossary of words) and teaching everyone about being a better person:

Even at his birthday party, Kvetchy Boy kvetched and kvetched.

“This ice cream made my cake soggy. I hate soggy cake,” said Kvetchy Boy.

“But Kvetchy Boy,” said Noshy Boy, who loves to eat. “The cake tastes even better that way.”

Kvetchy Boy didn’t agree.

If you haven’t seen your favorite Yiddish expression yet, don’t worry — there are more books on the way, including some for grown-ups like “Mrs. Mitzvah” and “Bubby” and “Zaida Kvelly.” You can even buy T-shirts with the different characters on them!

For more information, visit

Top 10 Things to Do Before the Change


No matter where you are in the menopause transition, it’s never too late (or early) to get your health act together to ensure the next 40 or so years are as terrific as or better than the first were. Here are 10 things you can do right now.

1. Choose the right health-care provider

Perimenopause is the perfect time to find a health-care provider you can trust to help you manage any serious medical problems, should they arise in the future. Ask your friends for recommendations or check out the NAMS list of credentialed Menopause Practitioners (

Perfectly Imperfect


Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.

But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?

This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.

It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.

The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

 

Kids Learn Burial Rites From Barney


Their bagels sliced, toasted and slathered with cream cheese, the parents and students of the fourth- and fifth-grade classes at Santa Monica’s Sha’arei Am turn toward Rabbi Jeff Marx as he welcomes them to Family Education Day.

His introduction is interrupted by Lori Daitch, the director of education. The suddenly somber rabbi informs the group that he has just learned that Barney, a congregant, whose real name is Bernard Dinotzuris, has just collapsed in the sanctuary.

With much giggling, and a touch of consternation, the group enters the sanctuary where the purple plush 3-foot-tall Dinotzuris is sprawled near the pulpit.

“What should I do?” the rabbi asks, appropriately concerned.

A call to 911 leads to the swift arrival of a “paramedic,” in vest and plastic firefighter’s hat. He takes a good look at the patient, does a bit of CPR and announces that Bernard is most certainly and irretrievably dead.

This is, in fact, the fourth time Bernard has passed away. For the past four years, Marx has conducted this discussion on the Jewish rites and rituals surrounding death. The participating parents have all been informed of the contents of the session in advance. For the students, depending on the efficacy of the sibling grapevine, it is more or less a surprise.

“What do we now? ” the rabbi asks.

The kids boisterously offer solutions, ranging from a toss in the Dumpster to cremation.

“Well,” Marx says. “As it happens, Bernard had written me a letter saying he wants to be buried.”

When someone dies, the rabbi explains, mortuaries take care of the body. Jason Schwartz, a teacher, who was just the paramedic, now returns as the “Man From the Mortuary.” Carefully lifting Bernard onto a book cart transformed into a gurney, he efficiently wheels him away.

The giggling has stopped; kids who had been jostling and fidgeting have found seats near their parents.

It’s an impressive transformation.

With Bernard on his way to the mortuary, the rabbi fields questions on Jewish burial rituals and beliefs on tattoos, cremation, embalming, organ donation and much more.

Everyone knows that a speedy burial is important, and the discussion ends as the students and parents, accompanied by teachers Schwartz and Jennifer Flam, head for the Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary.

“I’ve wanted to do a program on death for a long time,” Marx says on the way to the cemetery. “It’s good for the kids, but lots of parents haven’t had much experience dealing with questions of death and dying either. My congregation is the sandwich generation, caring for both their children and their parents. This is education about the real world,” he said.

The real world, but in fuzzy purple and green.

“Our first problem was to figure out what we would do for a body,” he says. “We hit on Barney as the perfect solution — he was no longer an object of attachment for fourth and fifth graders, but they were completely familiar with him.”

Michael and Elaine Sachs attended the first burial of Barney in 2003 with their older daughter Rebecca. Six months later, Elaine Sachs, 41, suffered an aortic aneurysm while on a Girl Scout camping trip with Rebecca, and could not be resuscitated.

Michael Sachs remembers that he had initially thought that a program on death wasn’t really important for people in their 40s.

“But, in fact,” he now says, “I learned things I assumed I wouldn’t need to think about for many years. I thought the program dealt with potentially distressing material in a nonthreatening, matter-of-fact fashion,” he said.

“Even under the shock and duress, the fact that we’d gone through that program, made the process somewhat more manageable and less difficult,” he says. “As a part of Jewish education and life experience, I now feel that it’s almost essential.”

Even when the experience does not become as immediately and painfully relevant as it did for the Sachs family, programs such as these help children understand that death and dying is an open topic for discussion.

“It’s always helpful to children to give them experiences of seeing death as a normal part of life,” said Natalie Levine, program director of Family Service of Santa Monica, a division of Vista del Mar Child and Family.

“Children in the fourth and fifth grade don’t yet think abstractly, so this emphasis on the concrete steps taken when someone dies helps them manage their emotions,” she added.

When the cars full of kids from the Santa Monica Synagogue pull up at Hillside’s Chapel, Jill Glasband, the mortuary’s director of community outreach is waiting.

She gives a tour of the premises, including the casket selection room, as well as displays of shrouds and caskets and urns for cremation.

In the chapel, with Bernard Dinotzuris settled into a simple pine casket, the rabbi delivers a eulogy. Students, enlisted as pallbearers, carry the casket to the hearse. They proceed to the far end of the cemetery, where the rabbi leads a brief graveside service.

This year, Hillside has prepared a marker for the grave, so with a quick flash forward, the group moves a few feet and a year into the future for an unveiling of Bernard Dinotzuris’ gravestone.

All services concluded, the group disperses. As they look at gravestones, noting the life spans of grandparents as well as young children, everyone seems engrossed in quiet conversations — ones that will no doubt continue.

 

Avoid an Oops in Shooting Your Video


Little Rachel takes her first steps — but your camcorder battery dies before you get the shot.

Your family reunion includes Grandma Shirley, whom you haven’t seen in 15 years and, frankly, may never see again. You interview her on video, but when you sit down later to watch it, the sound is so bad you can’t understand a single word.

At my brother’s bar mitzvah, a family member showed up late with the video equipment, set up the camera and forgot to push record.

Whether you’re trying to capture a wedding, b’nai mitzvah or 50th anniversary celebration, the day will come and go whether you’re ready for it or not. Unless you’re prepared, the opportunity to capture family history can easily slip through your fingers.

Losing such precious moments can be depressing. But with a little advance planning, attention to detail and some practice, you can shoot home videos your family will kvell about for years to come. Here are some tips:

1. Don’t forget to push record. Once you push “record,” confirm that you are recording. Every video camera features a recording indicator, typically located in the viewfinder or the view screen. As you get ready to focus on your subject, the first thing you should do is look in the viewfinder or on the screen and note whether the recording indicator is on.

2. Charge your batteries. This is one of the most common mistakes. The battery that came with your video camera will not last longer than one hour. In addition, after a few years, rechargeable batteries don’t hold their charge well. Even buy an extra battery pack or two, charge them and have them on hand in case your primary battery loses its charge.

3. Focus on sound. Bad sound is often the biggest killer of home videos. Are you only using the standard built-in microphone? Be conscious of its limited range. If you’re recording someone nearby, try to get as close to the person as possible. If you’re at a gala event and someone is using a microphone, try to get close to the electronic amplification speaker.

4. Stabilize your shot. All modern video camcorders have a stabilization option. Turning this option on will improve your shots tremendously. I require my professional videographers, who shoot everything from wedding videos to commercials, to turn this option on.

5. Use both hands. Shaky camera work can give friends and family headaches. Do not hold the camera in one hand, stretching your arm out in front of you. Instead, hold the camcorder with both hands, and hold the camera against your body. For even greater stabilization, lean your back against a wall.

6. Forget the zoom. Don’t use the zoom. Instead of constantly zooming in for closeups and then zooming out for wider shots, try holding the camera against your body, framing your shot like a still photograph. To get closer to the image, simply walk closer, using your body as a large stabilization weight. To get a wider shot, simply walk backward — but be careful.

7. Look in two places at once. This is a more advanced move. Learn to keep one eye watching your camcorder’s viewfinder or screen and the other eye looking outside the field of the screen to see what person or object may soon be coming into your frame. This allows you to anticipate and prepare your camera move.

8. Learn from your mistakes. Take some time out a few days before an event and shoot some practice footage. Spend a few minutes reviewing a short piece of it, and note how you could improve.

Also, don’t save the camera for special events. Keep practicing your video skills by recording everyday family moments. After all, you don’t want to be scrambling for footage 10 years from now, when you want to create a video montage of your child to show during a bar or bat mitzvah.

David Notowitz is owner of Notowitz Productions, a video production company that specializes in corporate videos, weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. His Web site is

Pupils Vote Yes on Democratic School


Under a classroom’s fluorescent lights, students and teachers scramble to find seats. An important “Parliament session” is under way as together, they hammer out a plan for allocating the school’s activities budget.

The scene is the Hadera Democratic School in Israel, where students take an equal role in deciding not only how and what to study but how the school is run.

As they debate how to spend the $27,000 activities budget, one student writes in neat letters at the top of the blackboard, “order of speakers.” A debate soon breaks out over how much money to spend on the school’s music department, and whether it’s worth purchasing additional acoustic equipment.

Next, the drama teacher asks for additional funds to allow students to see professional theater productions.

One by one, everyone in the room is heard. After much wrangling, a budget is produced for the school year.

The Hadera Democratic School, which receives funding from both public and private sources, was the first of its kind in Israel. Since its founding in 1987 in this city about 60 kilometers north of Tel Aviv, 23 other schools have opened around the country based on its model of democratic education, in which student participation and choice is emphasized.

With its relatively large number of democratic schools, Israel is considered a groundbreaker and leader in the field internationally.

There is growing interest in alternative schools in Israel, where the public school system is mired in a crisis born of poor teaching and disciplinary problems. The Hadera Democratic School has 350 students, with hundreds more on a waiting list.

Most of the students are secular and come from a variety of economic backgrounds. Scholarships help students from poorer families pay the annual tuition of approximately $1,200.

Among the school’s most famous alumni is Gal Fridman, the windsurfer who won Israel’s first Olympic gold medal in 2004.

Based on the idea that children are naturally curious and want to learn, the democratic schools focus on respecting the individual. There is close teacher-student interaction, and teachers — called “educators” by the students — mentor 15 students, in addition to their classroom duties.

With their elders’ help, students guide their own education. The goal is to instill in children the notion that they’re responsible for their choices.

There are no required classes, no grades or required tests. Staff and students are treated as equals and share in school decisions, sitting on a variety of committees that range from the school parliament to a teacher selection committee and a field trip committee.

Teachers say the committees are a key part of the education, teaching students how to analyze situations and make choices: “All these things they normally never have a chance to do,” said Aviva Golan, one of the teachers.

On the field trip committee, for example, it’s the students who hire the bus, organize the food and choose where to go.

Golan, who taught in a traditional school before coming to the Hadera Democratic School, no longer believes in conventional education.

“It’s bankrupt, and I believe children only learn from choice, not when they’re forced,” she said.

At traditional schools, she said, “I saw how I fought with kids instead of teaching them — the whole time telling them to be quiet. I believe kids need to move and play. It’s where the real things happen for them.”

The school itself hums with activity. Everywhere, students — from preschoolers to high school seniors — seem to be on the move. One girl reads a novel on a wooden bench. There are children juggling in the courtyard, while others bounce on pogo sticks.

On break, a group of boys plays soccer in the long sandy field in the center of the campus’ brightly painted buildings. Other students work in the computer lab, housed underground in a concrete bomb shelter.

Mike Moss, 17, came to the school as a disgruntled 11-year-old who was bored and restless in his regular school. He soon felt stimulated in the Hadera school and became active in the music and drama departments.

“I feel I would not be doing half the things I am doing here — preparing for matriculation, the music, the friendships — if I had stayed at regular school,” he said.

However, the Hadera school isn’t for everyone, Moss explained. He said students at the school need self-discipline and open minds.

Chen Shoham, 17, said the school has taught her to take responsibility for her education and her life.

“It’s about freedom as an individual and freedom of choice,” she said. “I do what I want and what I need to do. I’m responsible for my life.”

Shoham sits on the budget committee and helps oversee the budget requests each class submits.

“I’ve learned about priorities,” she said.

Traditional subjects such as math, English and history are taught, but it’s up to the students to decide if they’ll take them. Those who want to can study for the high school matriculation exam, which they need to pass with the highest possible marks to get into college.

The school’s principal, Rami Abramovich, said the students do well on the matriculation exam, but the school doesn’t keep data on how many students pass, because it doesn’t consider the matriculation exam a proper measure of whether a student has been educated well.

Students at the school speak of the value of learning outside of class — from philosophical conversations about the meaning of life to playing in a jazz band.

In contrast to the mainstream Israeli school system, there’s hardly any violence at the Hadera Democratic School.

“It’s because kids don’t feel the need to rebel against anything,” Shoham said.

Parents say they’re relieved to have found a setting where their children can thrive academically and socially.

“We think that regular public schools limit children,” said Hadass Gertman, a performance artist whose 8-year-old daughter attends the Hadera Democratic School. “We heard of children going through very bad experiences in public school, and we wanted her to enjoy learning, to enjoy school.”

Sitting outside the small, detached concrete building where he teaches 4- to 6-year-olds, Ron Vangrick spoke of being drawn to the job after growing disappointed with the mainstream educational framework.

“Education is going through a deep crisis because of a lack of relevance of what were once traditional goals,” such as treating others with respect, he said.

He believes that the unique atmosphere at the Hadera Democratic School contributes to the learning process.

“There’s a feeling of home here,” he explained. “It’s a relatively small place. There’s an atmosphere of living within a tribe. Kids of different ages are together and interact with respect and warmth. There is a feeling of childhood that is very powerful here.”

Abramovich, the principal, said the school works because it allows children to discover their own strengths. There’s learning in everything, he said — from the geometry of passing the ball on the soccer field to the negotiations behind staging a school play.

“Every child has his path and rhythm,” he stressed. “It’s a matter of finding it.”

 

A Dying Language Comes to Life


“Gut morgn.”

Teacher Hannah Pollin greeted the group assembled in a large circle around her. Her nine high school students, armed with a page of interview questions and tape recorders, sat interspersed among 13 senior citizens at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. They formed groups of two or three, impatiently awaiting last-minute instructions.

“Ir volt redn nor af Yidish,” she reminded them.

But the admonition to speak only Yiddish was unnecessary as the students, from New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, turned on their tape recorders and began firing off questions to their eager partners, native Yiddish speakers whom they were meeting for the first time.

“Vos makh stu?” they asked. “Fun vanen kumt ir?” “How are you?” and “Where are you from?”

Pollin’s class at New Community Jewish High School, an elective for 10th-, 11th- and 12th- graders, is possibly the only full-year, for-credit high school Yiddish language class currently being taught in the United States. Pollin, 23, also teaches Yiddish to the sixth-grade class at Shalhevet Middle School. Last fall she taught an elective Yiddish class to sixth- and seventh-graders at Sinai Akiba Academy, which she plans to continue in the spring.

The classes are part of a three-year pilot program funded by a $130,000 grant from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Person’s Foundation. It was the idea of Aaron Paley, founder, and Dan Opatoshu, a board member, of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization founded in 1995 to preserve and transmit Yiddish language and culture.

To the students and seniors at the Jewish Home that Friday, those abstract goals had the immediate impact of building a bridge across generations.

The Yiddish words flew — sometimes fluently, sometimes haltingly and occasionally “shreklich” or awful as the seniors reached for a word long forgotten or the students for a word they had not yet learned. They raised their voices, gesturing with their hands as they spoke.

“Vi heist ir?” asked senior Ami Kurzweil, 17.

He learned his partner’s name was Rose Levin. Now 100, she revealed that she spent the first 12 years of her life in Smargon, a shtetl near Vilna, Lithuania, then after World War I immigrated to the United States via Japan.

Across the room, 12th-grader Ari Tuvia, 17, talked with Mildred Cadish, who admitted to being no older than 79. Born in New York City, Cadish told Tuvia how she grew up speaking Yiddish and how she used to read “Der Forverts,” the Yiddish newspaper.

“I understand 110 percent,” she said. “It is the most beautiful language in the world.”

Tuvia understood better than most first- semester language students — he was raised listening to his Romanian grandmother and father speaking the language.

But most of the students, who have been studying Yiddish for only one semester, are still confined to asking questions or describing events in the present tense. They want to learn the language their grandparents used to speak — the 1,000-year-old language spoken by Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe — and preserve the heritage of the Jewish people.

“We should value this language for the adventure it takes us on,” said junior Zack Sher, 16, who hopes to spend a month this summer studying at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Vilna, Lithuania.

That morning, Sher learned the history of Sylvia Gottlieb, 89, originally named Shalamus, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and grew up speaking Yiddish to her Ukrainian-born parents.

“You can go all over the world and find someone who speaks Yiddish,” she told him.

But today that’s less true. The 11 million Yiddish speakers that existed worldwide prior to World War II have diminished to only 1.85 million, according to sociolinguist Dr. Joshua A. Fishman, a visiting professor at Stanford University. Fishman categorizes them into two groups: elderly Jews, for whom Yiddish is the mother tongue, and members of ultra-Orthodox communities who use Yiddish as a daily language.

Pollin approaches Yiddish as a living language and brought her students, even as novice learners, to the Eisenberg campus of Jewish Home for the Aging to experience talking with native speakers.

“The most important goal is to form a relationship,” she said.

Pollin herself, who helped found the first undergraduate Yiddish major at Columbia University, significantly improved her speaking skills when she spent a year in Lithuania on a Fulbright scholarship, doing oral histories of Jews living there. And, in fact, her high school students will be writing histories of the people they interviewed, based on their tape-recorded conversations.

As the students began preparing to leave the Jewish Home, the seniors asked, “When are you coming back? Can we chip in for the bus to bring you here?” They exchanged phone numbers and “zayt gezunts,” hoping to meet again soon.

“It’s good to talk Yiddish,” observed Sara Litmanovich, 81, who was liberated from a concentration camp at age 16, the sole survivor of a large family. “It gives me varemkayt [warmth] and makes me feel again like I have mishpockhe [family].”

 

Wandering Jew – Music to My Ears


“In syngagyng a sangasongue … ” — James Joyce, “Finnegans Wake.”

Singing in synagogue is something I wish I were better at doing or at least less embarrassed about doing full-throated. At the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, the congregation doesn’t have that problem. They have David Coury.

A voice expert known for coaching singers and nonsingers, and working with deaf and autistic students and contestants for TV shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “American Idol,” Coury is unique and considered “revolutionary.”

When I heard about his “So You Always Wanted to Sing!” seminar, I knew it was time to put my mouth where my … or my money where my … whatever. Who isn’t a wannabe chazan from way back?

The Sunday afternoon workshop was held at the Howard Fine Acting Studios on Las Palmas Avenue, off a stretch of Sunset Boulevard east of Highland Avenue near Buckbuster (“Less Than $1 Many Items Sell For”) and the Hollywood Center Motel (“Electrical Heat”), which looks like an abandoned set from “L.A. Confidential.”

A few dozen singees sat nervously in the studio theater. Lee Miller, television director and president of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, introduced Coury. The syagogue bills itself as “L.A.’s original entertainment congregation.”

“Isn’t there another shul like this in New York or Branson?” I asked.

Miller shook his head.

“We’re it,” he said. Coury chanted “Kol Nidre” last fall with Synagogue for the Performing Arts’ cantor, Judy Fox, and, Miller said, “a lotta jaws dropped.”

I was skeptical at first, hearing how Coury’s accompanist on piano had just got the day off from studio work “with Natalie Cole.” Coury had that hipster headset and two bottles of Sparkletts at the ready, high energy that got me wondering: How will I know if he’s the real laryngo-glottal guru? This is Hollywood, after all. If you can fake it here you can fake it anywhere, right?

“How brave you are,” Coury butters up the attendees — each paid $75, which goes to Synagogue for the Performing Arts. The teacher is trim and dark in black sweatshirt, khaki slacks, sneakers.

“It’s a long road from the shower to the stage,” he says, rolling up his sleeves and diving right in. “I like to just get to things,” he tells us. “There’s no revving up.”

A fellow named Sky is the first actor ready for his voice-up.

Our music man’s method? It’s all about the mask.

“That’s where you sing from,” Coury says, gripping his face as we model him. But wait. What? No up from the diaphragm and below bellowing?

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” explains Coury. “A cave has resonance and an ant hole depth. You’ve got to use your mouth.”

Alternately praised and nudged, each vocalist eventually expresses more than he or she thought they ever could. Whatever their issue, Coury calms them into laughter or steers them back to the mask. Soon they’re singing “Moon River” like Mandy Patinkin or “People” like Barbra Streisand, bounding off stage to high-fives or applause.

OK, not like Streisand, obviously. But it is amazing to observe. Coury has no tricks or even a warm-up technique.

He can explain “pre-frontal rostrum medial cortex” like a speech therapist, but something else is at work, too. When Serena forgets her lyric and goes off into just sounds, Coury is laudatory toward her. “She has reached Yummyville,” he says, “where it feels good, and there are no nerves anymore.”

“Willingness and desire are everything,” he teaches. “So the challenge is just the nerves. Put yourself in my hands and meet me halfway.”

And darned if it doesn’t happen right before our ears.

A good listener with a wicked laugh, Coury stops one singer as soon as she starts.

“Favorite food, Denise?” he asks.

“Clam Chowder,” she replies, smiling.

“See how we light up when we talk about food?” he says with a laugh. “Singing and speaking are very oral. Singing equals speaking equals singing … the voice should be musical, symphonic.”

Powerful medicine.

“You can’t fake a blush,” he says to a woman named Stephanie. “You’ve had a transformation.”

Already full of fabulous pipes, Stephanie wants a “a fuller belt.”

In moments, Coury releases her “Tiger Song” from “Les Miz” out into the wilds of Sunset Boulevard somewhere. Teary-eyed, she thanks him.

And I know it may sound silly, but he’s got us all belting words like “I” and “you” over and over. No kidding. Love should be sung as “lahhv,” you know, and pronounced as in “va va voom.” The expert lets us in on the ins and outs of “eees” and “ooos” and how “eh” is a vowel, but they don’t teach you that.”

Well, that’s one way to praise Yahweh. But how does he get us to do it?

“You must risk three things,” Coury says. “Sounding weird, looking bad and being disliked.”

Um, do we have to? Why?

“Because the world worships the original. Take these tools and risk it.”

The tools are learned through little inspirationals, like the one he gives a lusty singer named Shelley, who gets up and growls, “Rock me, baby, like my back ain’t got no bone.”

Coury wants more.

“Be like a dog to a steak,” he tells the loungey bombshell. “Bite into it. Not with your voice, with your mouth.”

And for guys like Phil, afraid he can only drone a tone deaf “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Coury teaches: “There’s no such thing as fearless. There’s being afraid and doing it anyway — that’s being extraordinary.”

So after hiding out fearfully as long as possible, I climb on stage. After a taste of Perry Como (“Just in Time,” a song I want to sing at my wedding), I’m convinced I’m no crooner.

But with the coach’s encouragement, I go for something even higher, recalled from the car radio while driving Sunset Boulevard to get here. It’s a ballad from a lame top-40 band, Foreigner. “I’ve been waaaaiting for a girl like you, to come into my liiife….”

I tell him I had my tonsils out when I was 10, but Coury takes no lip.

“Listening to yourself is not going to allow the magic,” he says. “Looking directionally at me will bring it. Use the human in the room. You’ll find your humanity immediately at play.”

Suddenly something comes out that I’ve never felt, not even while alone with the windows up and stereo blaring. I’m exhilarated. Euphoric.

He shakes my hand and I bounce off stage, hearing his final instructions to all of us:

“Dare to be heard. In this world of communication, you have to speak out to be heard. You can literally touch somebody with your voice. Who knows who’s there? And that’s magic.

“Do! Sing! Big! Not big voice, big mouth. It’s not the singing; it’s the learning. Your voice is greater than any song you’ve ever sung, if you’re working on your voice. So keep your yapper open.”

Sound advice. What else did I learn?

Singers should keep their eyes open and it’s quite all right to lick your lips. Pronouncing is what gives life. And when you run out of breath? Breathe. Listen for me next Friday night and Shabbat shalom, Los Angeles.

Synagogue for the Performing Arts has another seminar, “Journey Into Self-Discovery,” taught by Howard Fine, Feb. 17-19. For more information call (310) 472-3500 or go to www. SFTPA.com.

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller for “Weekend America,” heard on public radio stations every Saturday, including KPCC-FM 89.3 in Los Angeles.

 

Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew


Betty Friedan was, like most ordinary mortals, a mass of contradictions.

She was loud and sometimes imperious, yet she could be charming, funny, gentle, kind and winsome. A public persona, at times her ego needed massaging, but she remained surprisingly unassuming and unpretentious.

Though she exuded self-confidence, her vulnerabilities were right out there for all to see. She could fix her eyes and set her jaw in a ‘take no prisoners’ position, but she could also listen to opposite views, change her mind, and soften at the distress of others.

Friedan, who died last weekend at age 85 at her home in Washington, D.C., was both universal woman and particular Jew. The word Jewish does not appear at all in “The Feminine Mystique,” her seminal work, yet every heartbeat was a Jewish one. Once, in her 50s, after fame, fortune and independence had filled her life, she asked one favor of friends — to find her a nice Jewish husband.

She wrote about the drudgery and mindlessness of family work, yet her family was the sustained love of her life. She was totally invested in her children and longed for grandchildren well before they came.

This complicated, complex woman changed all of our lives, even those who never read “The Feminine Mystique” or never heard of NOW, the National Organization for Women.

She spawned perhaps the most profound social revolution of the last few centuries without a drop of blood being shed. She will go down in history as one of the great change agents of modern history; and for us, she will be a continuing source of Jewish pride, characterized in our own history books as one of the contributions we made to the world.

How and why was her impact so great? For that matter, how was it that she changed my own life as a Jewish feminist — for I came from a very different place in the 1960s, from a community that offered women great satisfaction and sense of value in their roles as wives and mothers?

Her book seemed to be anti-family, anti-men. Though her chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available” carried some truths, mostly she managed to put down so many of the great women I knew, full-time homemakers and mothers. Moreover, as the women’s movement got off the ground in the ’60s, building on her book’s steam, it quickly became more radicalized. The rhetoric of family as locus of abuse and man as exploiter grew more shrill. I’d have none of that!

Yet along with the excesses of early feminism was the underlying idea Betty Friedan offered the world: gender equality. This meant much more than the women’s vote. It meant equal access, equal talent and brains, equal dignity of women — and all of it a matter of justice.

For me, she did not adequately answer the question of equal careers and who would make lunch for hungry toddlers, prepare for Shabbat dinner with guests or meet the school bus each afternoon. She could not, because someone had to do the drudgework that accompanied the peaks and joys of raising children and running a Jewish household — and society was not yet organized to split these roles. But once she implanted in our minds and hearts the idea of equality of genders, once she posited this as ethics rather than as a battle between the sexes, each of us would try to work out the details in our own lives.

More than that, she opened the door to broader application of the idea of equal access and dignity to other spheres of life. In 1963, I made no connection between feminism and Jewish religious life, the imbalances in traditional Judaism created by gendered religious roles, the prevailing limitations on women studying Talmud or even the real disabilities in Jewish divorce.

But others did. These were a handful of Jewish women of the 1960s, women of Ezrat Nashim, women of other denominations who were writing about or modeling the new values, women who mediated secular feminism into Jewish feminism. Once these pioneering Jewish feminists established the connections, I could apply them to my own community — not out of a sense of abuse for I still felt none, but out of a sense of ethics, of meeting the original biblical paradigm — male and female created as equals in the image of God.

Friedan taught us several other important lessons. Not content to rest with the mighty power of her pen, she understood the covenantal nature of organizational life: For a job to be done and the work to continue, one needed more than an idea, more than cohorts. One needed organizational structures that would allow others to find an address and to take up the work. Friedan went on to found or co-found NOW, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company. She co-organized the first protest march and the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. In 1969, though already beleaguered by opposition to feminism, she was unafraid to publicly take on the abortion issue, founding NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League.

These organizational models and her writings spawned hundreds of others. A spate of books and periodicals followed hers, and many hundreds of independent feminist organizations were created on these shores and far distant ones. Thus, her work in the world was multiplied in the arenas of politics, domestic life, religion, economics, education and all of the professions. It was, I believe, more than some of her sisters in the movement would acknowledge in later years.

As for her Jewishness, Friedan wore it proudly. In 1975, Rabbi Isaac Trainin and I invited her to join a New York Federation Task force, then called Jewish Women in a Changing Society. She joined in an instant, as if she’d just been waiting for the Jewish community to invite her in.

At her first meeting, she spoke of how Jewish values of justice had influenced her feminism, indeed her entire outlook on life. Later, we would learn that being a smart, Jewish girl growing up in Peoria, Ill., would shape her sensitivities as an outsider and sharpen her abilities to engage confrontation, both of which helped her in the early feminist battles.

She also was concerned specifically about the Jewish family. Once, in the early 1980s, as she, Susan Weidman Schneider and I shared a panel in Chicago on “Feminism and the Jewish Family.” I quipped that I was a slow learner for I had read “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 while pregnant with my second child but went on to have three more children. (In the book, she caricatures the woman with a vision of five children). Friends though we were by then, she took considerable umbrage at my comment for she disliked being associated with a decline in the Jewish birth rate.

She saw Jewish feminism as a logical extension of secular feminism; the same rubrics applied: access and education; the need for ‘outside’ or public roles as well as inside ones defined as women’s primary space; freedom to control one’s destiny in marriage and divorce.

In those years, the Task Force held conferences on the agunah (the problem of women who have trouble obtaining a Jewish divorce), on infertility, on the Jewish family. Though peripherally involved in those conferences, she remained curious and interested in their outcomes.

Friedan’s greatness also lay in her ability to rethink matters. In publishing “The Second Stage,” she recognized that she had gone too far in “The Feminine Mystique” in denigrating women’s roles in the home. She wrote of transcending the false polarization between feminism and family, between men and women. She addressed the realities of work in the home and the satisfactions of women who chose that as their primary role. She was criticized by some of her more radical counterparts for selling out the original vision, but then, as earlier, she held her ground.

She once acknowledged that some of her writing in “Second Stage” was influenced by her contact with Jewish women of the federation world who successfully put together family and service and who made sequential choices in their lives regarding family and career.

Jewish history is full of flawed models, sometimes more powerful because of their flaws, and certainly more accessible. Betty was straight as a narrow, totally transparent, nothing behind a veil. What you saw was what you got, including anger or bruised ego. But that made the love, the caring, the creative mind, the generous spirit and the passion for justice all the more precious.

Blu Greenberg is founding president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and founding chair of One Voice: Jewish Women for Israel.

 

How Green Is My Shul?


For 75-year-old Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, it was the need to re-landscape that steered the synagogue in an ecological direction. The status quo was 8,000 square feet of unwatered, weed-ridden and rarely mowed grass, along with three palm trees, two citrus trees and a 20-foot-high cactus.

One initial plan to “go green” was all too literal. A congregant in the 40-person, unaffiliated Conservative shul suggested replacing the lawn with pebbles and painting them green.

But temple member Jerry Schneider, long interested in sustainable landscaping, prevailed with a plan to retain the trees, while also planting water-conserving native shrubs that require little irrigation and upkeep.

Congregation Brith Shalom in Bellaire, Texas: Jonathan Kleinman, left, and Jarrett Taxman collect recycling
At Congregation Brith Shalom in Bellaire, Texas, seventh-grader Jonathan Kleinman, left, and sixth-grader Jarrett Taxman collects recycling.

It was an effort perfectly in keeping with the evolving concept of Tu b’Shevat.

The holiday, whose name literally translates as the “15th day of the month of Shevat,” begins at sundown on Feb. 12. It’s known as the New Year of the Trees. A minor holiday with no prescribed mitzvot, it is often celebrated by planting trees locally or in Israel or by participating in a kabbalist-inspired seder.

But more recently, it has become a Jewish Earth Day, raising congregants’ spiritual consciousness, while concentrating on the physical benefits of installing energy-efficient lightbulbs; planting native, sustainable landscaping, and setting up recycling bins.

At Temple Beth Israel, the planting project, which is being done in phases with funding and physical assistance from a Jewish environmental group, has transformed congregants’ preconceived notions of drab native plants.

“We’re bringing a message that you can reap all the benefits of low-maintenance, low-water [landscape] and still get beauty — blossoms, colors, textures and smells,” Schneider said.

Different forms of what happened at Beth Israel are being replicated at synagogues all over, with projects taking place indoors and out. The connection of these efforts both to Tu b’Shevat and to a deep and traditional Jewish respect for nature is being increasingly acknowledged and promulgated.

When Rabbi Leah Lewis conducts the Tu b’Shevat seder at Leo Baeck Temple this year, congregants will learn about the special qualities of figs, olives and walnuts. They will also learn about the Jewish mandate to be stewards of the earth and, new this year, the congregational mandate to be stewards of their own synagogue.

“People are ready for it,” said Lewis, explaining that in only four months, the Reform temple with 710 families has created a 10-member Green Team and scheduled an environmental audit to evaluate energy-saving opportunities.

The effort to make synagogues eco-friendly, or green, can perhaps be traced back to November 1978, when Rabbi Everett Gendler, the father of Jewish environmentalism, climbed on the icy roof of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., to install solar panels to fuel the ner tamid, or eternal light, in the temple’s sanctuary.

“We plugged it almost directly into the sun,” said Gendler, now the temple’s rabbi emeritus.

Gendler claimed that the idea came to him one autumn day, when he realized that the ner tamid, when it was fueled by olive oil, a renewable resource, was truly perpetual. But powered by electricity, with its sometimes finite and questionable sources, the flame had lost some connection with its symbolism.

While synagogues did not immediately follow Gendler’s example, in the years following, a number of individual congregations began addressing environmental concerns. Most notable was Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Kensington, Md., which has been at the environmental forefront since 1989. Early on, it formed its own Green Shalom Committee to integrate environmental precepts into its physical structure and spiritual practices.

But ecological efforts by the organized Jewish community were sparse until after the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, also known as Earth Summit, convened in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The following year, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) was created to educate the Jewish community and mobilize it to carry out a Jewish response to pressing environmental issues, such as pollution, energy conservation, climate change and biological diversity.

Over the years, COEJL has organized campaigns that reach outward, such as initiatives to protect endangered species and to protect forests. Recently, however, it has embarked on a project closer to home. Greening Synagogues, in conjunction with GreenFaith, New Jersey’s interfaith environmental coalition, launched its pilot program in fall 2004 with four New Jersey synagogues.

At Agudath Israel in Caldwell, one of the participating synagogues, the number of environmental activists has mushroomed from three or four to 45 committed Green Team members, according to Program Director Randi Brokman.

The Conservative synagogue is planning to rebuild its entire facility, breaking ground next June and incorporating many energy-saving plans. In the meantime, the membership, consisting of 900 families, has managed to reduce disposable waste by 30 percent to 50 percent, primarily through recycling and reducing the use of paper and plastic goods.

“We have put environmental issues more in the consciousness of congregants,” Brokman said. “That’s the goal.”

That’s COEJL’s initial goal also. “But ultimately, we want this to filter down into homes,” said Barbara Lerman-Golomb, COEJL’s associate executive director. “We want this to become second nature to anyone involved in the project, to feel that it’s the ethical, moral and Jewish thing to do.”

That’s also the goal for CoejlSC, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California, an independent affiliate of the COEJL. Founded in 1999, CoejlSC began its own Green Sanctuaries program around 2001, in conjunction with the Interfaith Environmental Council and 16 pilot congregations, more than half of them Jewish.

Stewardship of the environment, advocated by many Jewish texts, stems from the concept of bal taschit, which cautions against waste. This first appears in Deuteronomy 20:19, which prohibits the destruction of fruit trees in wartime.

But for many synagogues, greening is not just about fulfilling a spiritual mandate. Depending on size and building usage, a synagogue can save from $10,000 to $40,000 in energy costs through conservation practices, said Lee Wallach, co-founder of CoejlSC.

“The $40,000 is extreme, but that’s what Sinai Temple [in Westwood] is on the road to saving — without installing solar,” Wallach said. “That’s just changing out lightbulbs; installing energy-saving products, such as window tinting, and regulating electricity use.”

The first step is usually creating a Green Team, but that generally doesn’t happen unless one person — congregant, clergy or staff person — is ecologically passionate. At Congregation B’rith Shalom, a Conservative synagogue with 400 families in Bellaire, Texas, religious school principal Joy Rosenberg began raising the congregation’s consciousness when she arrived two years ago.

With the clergy and congregation’s support, she launched a paper recycling program last fall, contracting with a recycling company and eliciting the support of the 125 religious school students in preschool through 12th grade. In the first two months, the synagogue collected 6,649 pounds of paper.

At Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, Idaho, it is Rabbi Dan Fink who “nags” his 190-family Reform congregation into ecological awareness.

Under the leadership of Fink, who co-authored “Let the Earth Teach You Torah” (Shomrei Adamah, 1992), Ahavath Beth Israel took recycling to an extreme. Needing to move to a larger site, it recycled its 108-year-old Moorish-style landmark shul, hoisting the 60-ton building on to a truck in October 2003 and moving it three miles to the new location.

In addition to preserving the building and its materials, Fink said, congregants re-engineered the entire infrastructure “so we now have much more energy-efficient heating, cooling and lighting.”

Ecological accountability has also been in the forefront of Temple Israel of Hollywood’s plans for its $20 million-plus campus expansion and renovation. The synagogue is selecting an architect who will be charged with incorporating such sustainable elements as natural lighting, solar heating panels and the right kind of insulation.

“This is a high value for us,” said John Rosove, senior rabbi.

Environmental activism is most commonly associated with politically liberal congregations. For most Orthodox synagogues, environmental activism is comparatively new. Canfei Nesharim (the wings of eagles), the first and perhaps only Orthodox environmental organization, was launched on Tu b’Shevat 2003.

While still at the concept stage, according to Executive Director Evonne Marzouk, the volunteer organization is dedicated to educating Orthodox Jews about protecting the environment from a halachic, or legal, perspective and recently published “Compendium of Sources in Halacha and the Environment,” available on Canfei Nesharim’s Web site.

Among Orthodox congregations reacting favorably to Canfei Nesharim’s message is B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles, which is moving discussion about environmental issues from back to front burner, said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky.

“While Canfei Nesharim’s emphasis is on study, I would like B’nai David’s emphasis to be on action,” said Kanefsky, who is especially concerned about the impact of “carbon footprints,” referring to the effect that human activities have on the environment, measured in units of carbon dioxide.

Within traditional sources, perhaps the most compelling argument for preserving the environment, quoted by Marzouk and others, is a Midrash in Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:13). It talks of how when God first created human beings, He showed them around the Garden of Eden and then warned, “Take care not to corrupt and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.”

Here are the Web sites of some Jewish environmental organizations:

www.coejl.org
www.coejlsc.org
www.canfeinesharim.org
www.uscj.org/pacsw

 

My Jewish King Kong


It’s a sunny winter day and a friend and I fear for our lives as my husband, Ron Magid, screeches our oversized Chrysler east down Sunset Boulevard. We’re speeding toward the ArcLight Cinemas and a press screening of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.”

The usually amiable Ron swears at traffic, and when we arrive an hour early, he leaves our pal, Freeman, and me in the dust.

“He’s running ahead, like a little kid,” Freeman muses as we breathlessly catch up, only to find the cinema’s massive glass doors locked.

It’s not surprising that my husband is the first in line at one of the earliest “Kong” press screenings. He’s loved the giant simian since he first watched the 1933 classic film on TV when he was 7. And not just because the giant ape kicked dinosaur a–, trashed Manhattan and chewed up both island natives and a native New Yorker.

“Kong in his own realm was king of the jungle, just like a little kid is king in his own imagination,” Ron recalls as we stand in the sunshine. But he was dethroned when he was captured, and tormented in the urban jungle of Manhattan. Ron relates because he was picked on in the urban jungle of school.

“I felt pigeonholed as a nerd who liked monsters and hated sports,” he says.

As a child, Ron didn’t understand that there also was something distinctly Jewish about his bond with monsters and Kong.

Jews have also been reviled and accused of unspeakable crimes, such as murdering babies for their blood. Ron reminds me that while Bela Lugosi’s Dracula does kill for blood, the vampire considers this predilection (and his immortality) a curse. “To be dead, to be truly dead — that would be glorious,” he says in the 1931 film.

In the here and now, it’s a revenge of the nerds for 44-year-old Ron, as for so many other film geeks who grew up to help shape popular culture. He’s considered a top journalist on special effects and genre movies; Premiere hired him to write about why the original Kong is still king.

Not that Ron has anything against the new film or its director Peter Jackson. A few years ago, he personally bonded with the noted director, a fellow “Kong” enthusiast, after a Writers Guild screening of Jackson’s epic “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.” Jackson looked exhausted when viewers rushed him after the Q-and-A. But he brightened when my husband shook his hand, recalling how Ron and a friend had restored a 2 1/2-foot-long stegosaurus puppet from the original “Kong.” Jackson had later purchased the puppet for a rumored $250,000.

Back at the ArcLight for the press screening, we wait more than 20 minutes before the cinema’s doors finally swing open and we snag the best seats in the house. Before long, a regiment of movie journalists surround Ron, because he co-authored (with Phil Savenick) the documentaries that are included on Jackson’s restored DVD versions of 1933’s “Kong.”

“I just geeked out,” Chris Gore, the founder and former editor of Film Threat magazine, gushes about the documentary featurettes. “I thought I knew everything about ‘King Kong,’ because I’ve been reading about it since I was a kid, but I was wrong.”

Clearly in his element, Ron promptly regales this mini-throng with tales about the original movie. He recounts how the 1933 film’s producer and director were themselves intrepid explorers who shot documentaries in distant lands. A fellow explorer inspired them to make the giant ape flick when he captured a Komodo dragon and brought it back, Kong-style, to New York, where it languished and died in captivity in the Bronx Zoo.

The original Kong may appear to be an uberbeast, but he was in reality an 18-inch-tall stop-motion puppet — a fact the studio kept secret to ensure viewers were properly terrified.

Despite special effects that are crude by today’s standards, the original Kong arguably reigns supreme because of his “performance,” which renders him an iconic tragic hero. Animator Willis O’Brien was somehow able to channel his personal angst into the character. His unstable wife — who had attempted suicide twice in the 1920s — suffered from cancer and tuberculosis as well as ongoing mental illness during the production. (Soon after the release of “Kong,” she fatally shot the couple’s two children at her Westwood apartment.)

At this point, the ArcLight conversation turns to movie child murderers, such as Peter Lorre’s creepy character in 1930s “M,” as everyone munches oversized buckets of popcorn.

“Ron finds monsters like Kong comforting because the real-life ones are far worse,” says Freeman, offering some freelance psychotherapy between bites.

But he’s on to something. Ron was shaken, as a child, to learn of the pogroms endured by his Polish and Latvian grandmothers; one had witnessed her mother being pushed down the stairs. And he happened to learn about the Holocaust, at Sinai Temple’s religious school, around the time he first saw “Kong” at age 7.

“I had a bit of a persecution complex to begin with and then I found out that being Jewish would make me even more of a target,” he says. Just as Jewish artists created Superman during the Shoah, Ron wished for a Kong-like superhero to stomp out anti-Semites (as well as the schoolyard bullies).

Kong, like many classic monsters, was “unloved and misunderstood,” Ron adds. His blue eyes tear up as he describes Frankenstein’s monster as “an abused child.”

Frankenstein was the first model kit he built, at age 5; two years later came Kong, who was bigger, more intricate and expensive ($1.49 instead of $.99 at a hobby shop on Pico Boulevard). After completing the figure, he scoured the TV Guide for a screening of the film, which helped spur him to meticulously research monster movies and moviemaking. He’d pull a book from under his covers at bedtime, and read with the help of light filtering into his dark bedroom from the hall. At the same time he was parlaying his allowance into what would become a prodigious collection of horror and science fiction memorabilia.

His therapy was his obsession; his obsession became his outlet; his outlet became his professional art and craft. How Jewish is that?

Ron is happy that the new “Kong” is getting Oscar consideration. And he drinks up the good notices for the DVDs of the 1933 version.

Nothing, though, will change him from the boy who loved to collect monsters.

Freeman, a movie poster and prop dealer, wants to know how Ron got his “Kong” props: spears, drums and shields as well as fellow simians from “Planet of the Apes” (Zira and Cornelius figures stand in our bedroom).

Ron replies that he bought them for bupkis two decades ago from propmasters at Culver Studios, who were about to throw them in the trash. Ron will never part with them, nor the luridly colorful press-book cover of 1933’s Kong rampaging across Manhattan, which dominates our dining room.

Ron is sure he’ll like the Jackson film, but for him, nothing will dethrone the original.

“The hat trick of that movie is that the filmmakers don’t do the clichéd things to make the character beloved to the audience,” he says as the theater lights dim. “He rages, has no regard for humanity, and every character despises him, even Fay Wray. The only people who love the original Kong are the audience members.”

And Ron perhaps most of all.

The 1933 “King Kong Two-Disc Special Edition” DVD and the “Collector’s Edition” are available in stores.

 

Iranian Muslims Brush Up on Shoah


The Simon Wiesenthal Center hosted more than two-dozen representatives from local Iranian Muslim news outlets this month to provide them with information about the Holocaust that they can, in turn, use to educate their readers, listeners and viewers.

“We are looking to introduce the Iranian media to the Wiesenthal Center and to respond to the hatred of Jews in Iran,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean, said in remarks to the group. “We want you to expose the lies and hatred coming from the Iranian government.”

Cooper was referring to recent statements by Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian leader has implied that the Holocaust is a myth; on another occasion he asserted that Israel should be obliterated and that a homeland for Jews could be located instead in Europe or America.

Ahmadinejad’s comments have recently energized the Southern California-based Persian-language media to support Israel publicly and to speak out against anti-Semetic remarks made by Iranian government officials for the first time in the 26 years since the Islamic revolution. A pro-Israel rally in Westwood drew nearly 2,000 Iranians from various religions last November.

At the weekend gathering, Iranian journalists talked of a duty to learn more about the Holocaust so they could properly relay the full extent of Nazi atrocities to their audiences.

“It is our responsibility to give people in the Iranian community the correct information about this issue,” said Parviz Kardan, a Persian-language media personality and host of the radio program “A Spoonful of Sugar” on KIRN 670 AM. “We must be a window for young Iranians everywhere to show history in the proper light.”

Those in attendance were given an electronic card with the name and photograph of a child who lived during the era of the Holocaust. At the end of the tour, they discovered what happened to that child.

“I was aware of the Holocaust, but not to the extent of what I learned from this visit,” said Assadollah Morovati, owner of Radio Sedaye Iran (KRSI), a Persian-language satellite-radio station based in Beverly Hills that broadcasts news into Iran and worldwide. “In Iran we have a dictator like Hitler who is behaving like him and speaking like him.”

The journalists’ tour guide was Holocaust survivor Peter Daniels, who had his own perspective on Ahmadinejad.

“We’ve dealt with Holocaust deniers for years,” Daniels said. “The president of Iran is not anything new. It’s a way for them to be heard and get attention. I try not to take it personally.”

In a question-and-answer period following the tour, Cooper noted that Ahmadinejad’s statements may be an attempt to divert attention from Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. But he urged the Iranian media representatives to respond to them nevertheless.

“The average American thinks the president of Iran speaks for all Iranians,” Cooper told them. “They don’t know the region well, so you need to have a core message.” He also urged them to reach out to U.S. elected officials “to voice your concern for the safety of your friends and family in Iran.”

Local Iranian Jewish leaders George Haroonian and Bijan Khalli were involved in setting up the Museum of Tolerance event. They said they felt a responsibility as Jews to inform their non-Jewish Iranian compatriots about the truth of the Holocaust.

“Forgetfulness about the Holocaust is like committing a crime,” Haroonian told the crowd of Iranian journalists in Persian. The Iranian government is “trying to teach hatred for Jews. We hope this tour will be a step to awaken the Iranian people.”

 

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting


 

When attorney David Karp reminisces about his time in the Cub and Boy Scouts, the good memories come flooding back. He remembers taking long nature hikes, making close friends and fashioning a pinewood derby car from a block of wood, four nails and four wheels. The Scouts, he said, taught him how to work well with others, play fairly and know right from wrong — qualities that have served him well as an adult.

After the birth of his son, Samuel, in 1990, Karp decided that he would one day introduce the boy to the joys of scouting. But Karp wanted to touch more lives than just Samuel’s. Through the Western Los Angeles County Council Jewish Committee on Scouting of the Boy Scouts of America, he has found a way successfully to combine his two great loves: scouting and Judaism, both of which shape his ideas, values and conduct. In the process, Karp, a Reform Jew, has done more than perhaps anyone in Southern California to bring local Orthodox Jews into the world of scouting.

“Once I accepted that I wanted to make a place for Jews in scouting, it was only a matter of time before I decided we had to be inclusive of all Jews,” said Karp, who headed the Council Jewish Committee from 2002 to 2004 and remains treasurer.

Under his direction, Karp said he and other council members helped oversee the creation of a Boy Scout troop and later a Cub Scout pack at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Subsequently, Karp’s efforts have helped lay the foundation for other shuls to form scouting units.

“David Karp made it possible for us to have this program,” said attorney Yacov Greiff, scoutmaster of Troop 613 at Shaarey Zedek. “Aside from personal kindness and modesty, exemplary menschlichkeit and tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish community, he deserves particular recognition for going out of his way to reach across sectarian lines.”

Karp also helped make it possible for Orthodox Jews to participate in the Kinnus weekend, an annual committee-sponsored event that attracts hundreds of Jewish scouts and their families from the Southland and beyond. At the suggestion of several religious Jews, Karp and others approved the serving of strictly Kosher meals, offered Orthodox Shabbat services and set up an eruv, or boundary, which permits the carrying of supplies and other goods during the Sabbath. The result: Orthodox Jews now account for more than half of Kinnus, participants, up from zero in 2001.

“David’s been instrumental in uniting the three Jewish denominations into one identity as Jewish scouts,” said Jeff Feuer, cubmaster of an Orthodox pack sponsored by Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “In my personal opinion, it’s best if we work together and understand and learn to celebrate our differences.”

As a professional mediator, bringing together Jews under the banner of the Scouts has come naturally to him.

“I suppose I’m a facilitator,” said Karp, who is now a Boy Scouts of America district chairman for the East Valley. “I like to find common ground.”

 

David Karp

MORE MENSCHES


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

Qumran Offers Look at Legacy of Scrolls


Descending eastward from the rolling hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the sapphire-colored Dead Sea appears like a jewel set in the dusty brown Judean Desert. As you breathe in the thundering stillness, it’s easy to imagine why the ancient Essenes chose this place for their spiritual refuge.

When they lived here some 2,000 years ago, the Essenes led a highly ritualized life along the sea’s northern shores, 40 miles east of Jerusalem.

You can learn more about them and the fascinating legacy they created — the Dead Sea Scrolls — at Qumran National Park. This well-kept archaeological site preserves the center of Essene activity.

An introductory audiovisual program describes the Essenes’ way of life, which the Romans destroyed in the year 68 C.E., during the great Jewish revolt. These Jews were mostly male ascetics, dedicated to spirituality, who fled Jerusalem.

They created a largely self-reliant, communal settlement amid picturesque limestone hillside cliffs. Their structures included stone assembly halls, a main dining room for ceremonial meals, a kitchen, laundry room, watchtower, stable and pottery workshop.

Archaeologists believe the Essenes were highly concerned with maintaining their ritual purity and bathed at least twice a day. An aqueduct system caught water from the hills above and channeled it into an elaborate series of mikvahs, or ritual baths.

In the 200 years they lived at Qumran, Essene scribes also dedicated themselves to copying biblical texts in a scriptorium, or writing room, with desks and inkstands.

The biblical texts were discovered by a young Bedouin shepherd in 1947. When an errant goat disappeared into a cave, the boy tossed a rock inside, and was surprised to hear the rock hit something. As he continued searching, he discovered clay pots that had protected seven ancient scrolls for centuries.

When the film concludes, the screen lifts and you are directed toward a darkened hallway, where replicas of the implements of the Essenes’ daily routine are displayed. From there, it’s a short walk to the ruins, where you can see remnants of the mikvahs, as well as the aqueduct and other finds, in addition to a view of the historic cave.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest biblical documents ever found, often are described as the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century. They date to a time that spawned Christianity and laid the foundations for modern Judaism.

The scrolls include books from the Torah, the Apocrypha and the sect’s own works. Some of these are on permanent exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

They are stored in the iconic white domed Shrine of the Book, which resembles the lid of the type of clay jar in which the scrolls were found. As you walk into the exhibit, you enter a dark hallway that resembles a cave.

The parched climate of the Dead Sea helped preserve the scrolls and items rarely found by archaeologists: wooden combs, leather sandals, linen fabric and ropes made from palm leaves and rushes.

Most of the scrolls discovered at Qumran were made of a lightly tanned animal skin. A small percentage were written on papyrus. To prevent their further deterioration, the exhibit was specifically designed with low lighting and controlled humidity and temperature.

The scrolls are stored in darkened cases that are illuminated with the press of a button. The beautifully penned texts reflect portions from every book of the Bible, except the scroll of Esther, as well as the entire book of Isaiah. And some reveal the beliefs and customs of the Jews at Qumran, such as monogamy and prohibitions against divorce and celibacy.

The scrolls and thousands of fragments later discovered in the same area have been mired in controversy since 1954, when four scrolls were advertised for sale in The Wall Street Journal. They were subsequently purchased for Israel, but only a select group of European and American scholars were chosen to reconstruct and publish the texts. The 1984 publication of an article about one scroll discovered years earlier ignited a lengthy battle over long delays in publication and freedom of access for other scholars.

In 1991, independent scholars broke protocol and released computer-generated reconstructions of some fragments. The Huntington Library in San Marino later allowed access to its photographic copies. The Biblical Archaeological Review printed complete photographs of the unpublished fragments without disclosing the source.

You can view the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum (phone: 02 670-8811) and the ruins of the Essene settlement at Qumran National Park (02 994-2235). Call for updated hours and admission charges. For more information, contact the Dead Sea Information Center at

Skip Beaten Path for Zipline Adventure


High above Kiryat Shemona, the Bekaa Valley to our left and the Golan Heights straight ahead, my wife and kids jumped from a cliff and sailed hundreds of feet on a zipline.

Waiting to leap were two young Orthodox men. The first pushed off, his payot flapping in the wind as he held on to his harness with one hand and his kippah with the other. After thinking for a moment, his friend stuffed his kippah in his pocket and jumped, both hands firmly on his harness.

Ziplining with the Orthodox. Digging for Maccabean relics with archaeologists. Off-roading on the Golan. We planned our family trip to Israel on the theory that our kids would learn more if they were happy and engaged than if they were bored and bedraggled.

Our strategy paid off. If you ask Jacob, 10, about the Lebanese border, he’ll tell you about ziplining and tobogganing — and about the Hezbollah flags he saw nearby. If you ask Mollie, 12, about the 1948 War of Independence, she’ll tell you about her visit to the bullet factory hidden under a kibbutz laundry room.

Grown-ups have asked Mollie and Jacob about our trip and often get right to the point — “Was Israel scary?” The fact that our kids can answer that Israel is a place of fun, not fear, while demonstrating an understanding of some of Israel’s security dilemmas, gives us great satisfaction.

Our kids declared during our trip that while tiny Israel may look like “nothing” on a world map, “there’s a whole lot of something inside.”

It’s important to take your kids to Israel. If the best route to American Jewish kids’ hearts and minds is the fun route, then here are some adventures slightly off the beaten path you can pursue with your family:

How to Keep Your Love Alive


I’m smiling a lot these days because I’ve recently fallen in love. Starting over at 56 years young, it’s unlikely that I’ll experience a golden anniversary, but I’d really, truly like to enjoy and adore one special person for the rest of my hopefully long, healthy life.

With the divorce rate in this country still shockingly high, I wondered how it’s possible to stay in love for many, many years.

But then there are the examples of:

Joan and Harry Gould, married 51 years;

Ruth and Herb Forer, married 55 years;

Janet and Jake Farber, also married 55 years;

Millie and Mike Hersch, married for 58 years;

and Marjorie and Rabbi Jacob Pressman, married for 63 years.

There is much that we “young” folks can learn from these devoted partners who have succeeded at keeping love alive, year after year after year.

Couples who have created a partnership and life together consistently talk of the effort involved. Yes, some relationships seem easier than others, but all say it takes time, energy and a true willingness to face whatever comes along on their journey together.

“It’s a lot of give and take, just like in business,” Jake Farber said. “If you don’t have that, you won’t have a lasting marriage.”

“I think you have to be patient and flexible,” Janet Farber said. “Compromise is so important. One time you give in a little bit, and the next time the other person gives in. Everyone has times where someone in the family is having problems, or there are emotional difficulties, but you try to communicate and get through the hard times.”

Rabbi Jacob Pressman has counseled many couples over the years, some of whom, he said, have “stayed together miraculously. I notice that as the years go by and they stick it out, the differences begin to melt away and they begin to be more like each other and grow closer. And they have a mature love. They’ve gotten over some of the pettiness of some of the differences in life. Now their lives are more the same and the controversies are minimized.”

This shared commitment to face challenges and keep communicating through difficult times seems to be such a critical aspect of keeping love alive. In his book “Becoming Partners” psychotherapist Carl Rogers writes about threads of permanence and enrichment in relationships. One element he explores is dedication — not to a marriage contract, but to a continuing process that the partnership goes through. “The commitment is individual, but the constant, difficult, risky work is of necessity work that is done together,” he writes.

The Forers, both 75, met when they were 16, and got married when they were 20 years old. The constant work that Rogers writes about is familiar to Herb Forer.

“There’s no perfect person,” he said. “We all come into our relationships with our own warts and shortcomings and our own strengths. On any given day in a marriage, anybody could say, ‘What do I need this for?’ But then you realize the things that bother you are silly. You have so much more in common and so much fun together, and those difficult days pass.”

And the Forers’ know about difficult days. Their relationship was severely tested when they lost their first child at 10 months old. Herb and Ruth were both 25 at the time, but the tragic loss led to a conscious decision about how they would live as a couple.

“We vowed that we’d work together to fulfill the type of life we wanted — to not blame each other, not find fault, or let unimportant things upset us,” Herb Forer said. “We agreed to discuss things openly and communicate. And we decided to focus on the real priorities in our life and our common goals, rather than using the strains in life to separate us.”

Along with common interests and commitments, couples who create a successful life together seem to really support each other’s individuality and growth. Rogers writes, “When each partner is making progress toward becoming increasingly his or her own self, the partnership becomes more enriching.”

Joan and Harry Gould, who are both psychologists, agree. “Keeping yourself vital and interested in the world is the primary thing,” said Harry Gould, who is 81. “You can’t just look to the other person to keep you inspired. If both people are thinking about their own lives and development, it enhances the relationship.”

Joan Gould appreciates the fact that both her husband and their relationship are constantly changing. “I discover new things about Harry that I never knew before. It would be boring otherwise. He is a different person at 80 than he was at 40 or 50. He’s changing and I’m changing. Consequently the relationship changes and grows,” she said.

Rabbi Pressman sees his marriage to Marjorie as a constant source of stimulation and fun. “We’ve always entertained each other,” he said. “We’re both rather clever and bright, and we admire that in each other, so there’s a freshness about our lives almost all the time. We laugh together at the same things. And we surprise each other so there’s ever a new personality and yet the same personality. We didn’t have any mid-life crisis; we’re still juveniles.”

“When my husband retired and it was the first time he could take a weekend off, I’d arrange a weekend away,” Marjorie Pressman said. “Sometimes I’d surprise him. I’d just tell him what to pack and we’d go down the coast and stay at a hotel and just have a good time together. We’ve been really blessed. I don’t think either of us expected to live this long but here we are. He just turned 86…. I’m a little younger.”

Looking back with amazement at the many years they’ve shared seems a common theme for these couples.

“Being married this long came as a surprise to me,” Millie Hersch said. “When we were first married, I worried about what I’d talk to him about and figured it wouldn’t last very long. But the years have just gone by.”

When a love lasts for many, many years and people grow old together, there seems to be a shift in what is most important within that partnership.

“It’s a lot better for us in retirement, when there are minimal pressures on us, and we just face life together as a team,” Herb Forer said. “We don’t take ourselves seriously. We take what we do seriously, but not ourselves. We listen to each other and try to anticipate each other’s needs and try to make each other as comfortable as we can and do for each other. We’re just having fun.”

But having a relationship that lasts many years can also mean facing difficult challenges, and making adjustments with age.

“The aging is a whole new time of life,” Harry Gould said. “We haven’t been each others’ physical and psychological and mental helpers before. There’s a sense of becoming a parent to each other at times. That’s new. Some people get frightened of the changes they go through as they age, and it might cause them to pull away and withdraw in their marriage. But it’s so important to talk about your feelings. Talk about how this new time of life is for you. Talk, talk, talk. Share yourself.”

Besides the challenges of aging together along a shared path, these couples have all discovered new ways of loving.

“The senior caring about each other is different than courtship and honeymoon. We take care of each other at this point, not out of duty, but out of a profound love,” Rabbi Pressman said.

I’m inspired and moved by these stories of heartfelt, lifelong devotion. Whether you are renewing an existing relationship or starting a new journey in love as I am, these couples can give us hope that someday we, too, will look back in celebration over many years of keeping a precious love alive.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

A Local Witness to Darfur Tragedy


John Fishel has seen hell, and he wants to share his impressions with the Jewish community.

The president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles recently visited refugee camps in the African country of Chad to bear witness to the pain and suffering of more than 250,000 victims of genocide from neighboring Sudan. During the five-day, mid-October trip, Fishel, along with four other American Jewish leaders, watched doctors, relief workers and others help the refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region begin the long, difficult process of putting shattered lives back together.

Fishel said he was stuck by the physical isolation of the refugee camps and the refugees’ abject poverty. Fishel also wondered where all the grown men were. The answer: Many had fallen victim to the atrocities. And then there were the children. Fishel, a social worker by training, said he worries about the long-term effects on children who witness all the murder, rape and destruction wrought by a Sudanese government-backed militia known as the Janjaweed.

A primary goal of the trip was to lay the groundwork for Fishel and his colleagues to speak out loudly to their constituents. Fishel was accompanied by Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS); Rabbi Rick Jacobs of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.; Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas; and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

In an Oct. 27 teleconference call with community leaders who went to Africa, Fishel said he plans to raise awareness in the local Jewish community: “Having had this first-hand experience to visit the region and see the work on the ground, I’d like to go out and meet with opinion leaders in our community and give them my personal impressions about what’s going on and why it’s our obligation to get involved.”

Coming on the heels of Asia’s devastating tsunami and the Gulf Coast’s Hurricane Katrina, Fishel said he realizes many Jews, like other Americans, might feel tapped out and suffer from donor fatigue. Still, Fishel said, the historical experience of the Jews makes them likely to respond to humanitarian appeals once they learn about the horrors in Sudan.

“As a people who were victims of the worst genocide of the 20th century, the Holocaust, we do have an obligation to speak out when we see a genocide happening anywhere in the world,” Fishel said.

A more assertive response from the U.S. government also would help, Messinger said. She urged Jews and Jewish groups to lobby the government to increase humanitarian aid and also to better support African Union troops who are trying to restore order in Darfur. Messinger’s organization, the AJWS, which sponsored the trip, dedicates itself to alleviating poverty, hunger and disease around the world.

“Genocide is only stopped when people are indignant, organized at the grass-roots level and urging government to intervene,” she said.

AJWS has raised and distributed $700,000 for projects in Darfur and Chad, with much of the money going to support international relief agencies. In addition to the refugees in Chad, nearly 2 million displaced persons remain in Sudan. Refugees in both countries need better medical care, more food and assistance in the reunification of their families.

“The bottom line is … the Jewish community needs to do more,” Jacobs said.

 

Kids Page


Back to the Beach

Just because we’re back in school doesn’t mean we can’t think about the beach. If you want to go into the new Jewish year with another mitzvah under our belt, here is a fun opportunity:

Coastal Cleanup on Sept. 17

Help clean the Coastal Park area at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, as well as the Point Fermin Marine Life Refuge, from 9 a.m. to noon. After the cleanup, stay for refreshments during an open house at the Salinas de San Pedro salt marsh (noon-2 p.m.). Learn more about this unique habitat by using binoculars and microscopes to observe live animals. This is a free activity.

Groups please call the education staff at (310) 548-7562 ext. 217 to reserve and arrange for parking.

 

Task at Hand


In the essay “The World as I See It,” Albert Einstein wrote: “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

I understand tikkun olam, the repairing and healing of our world, as the central calling of our people. All of the prayer, teaching, outreach, pastoral work and congregational activities that I help facilitate lead me back to the notion that they are somehow helping to add the necessary energy into our global cosmos, which can facilitate the advent of a new and better time for all people. And I know that each of us is working, in our own way, to help better the world.

But how do we know what to do, when to do it and how much energy to apply to any given task? We are all so busy, so overscheduled that we need to prioritize the ways in which we help others, ways in which we give back to the world. All of us need the reminder that Einstein found in his life. I know that I struggle with balancing my time among the needs of my local community, my larger Jewish and American communities, Israel and the rest of the world. I learned from the Torah this week, however, that my balancing act might actually not be appropriate.

This Shabbat, we begin Bamidbar. Two verses near the end of the parsha, speaking about the roles of the Levites, say, “But thus do unto them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach unto the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in, and appoint every one to his service and to his burden. But, they shall not go in to see the holy things, as they are being covered, lest they die” (Numbers 4:19-20). It is clear that the work of the Tabernacle was incredibly holy and invariably dangerous, as both the Torah and subsequent mishnaic writings tell us. However, one midrash from Bamidbar Rabbah expounds on the unique dangers facing the Levites:

Rabbi Eleazar Ben Pedat said, in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra: The sanctity of the ark caused the people to be struck down by it, and all would run away preferring, at all costs, to take some other vessel — the table, the candlestick and the altars. The ark would thereby be slighted and the Holy One Blessed Be would be angry with them: let Aaron and his sons come along and give each one their task and burden so that they will not be able to transfer from one service to another and from one burden to another.

In Bamidbar Rabbah, Rabbi Samuel Bar Nachman said: Heaven forbid that the sons of Aaron should leave the ark and run to the table and candlestick. On the contrary, they were ready to give their lives for the ark…. Rather, they knew that whoever carried the ark merited greater reward. All would then leave the table and candlestick and come running to the ark, in order to reap a greater reward. As a result, quarrels would arise and each one would claim the right to carry the ark, thereby slighting the other appurtenances. Let Aaron and his sons come along and give each one their task and burden….

To me, the opposing rabbinic views here illustrate the great struggle in doing tikkun olam. Many of us want to do the work of local healing, which is perhaps not that exciting or glorifying, as incredible and necessary as it is. Yet, if the chance comes along to be part of a larger effort, one that might bring recognition, greater reward and is exciting, we might take that chance, leaving the ordinary, but as important, work to someone else. Conversely, there are those of us who shy away from the larger efforts, seeing them as too burdensome, cumbersome or overwhelming, choosing instead to stay focused on the needs of our local community.

There are dangers in all of these choices, dangers that the midrash helps us to sort out. The work of local efforts, namely homeless shelters, soup kitchens, clothing drives and volunteering in a number of capacities, can’t be dropped when the chance to work on a larger campaign presents itself. And, the larger campaigns, such as ending the genocide in Darfur, making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, fighting our government as they strip social services from the poorest and neediest in our country and ending poverty and hunger in the world, cannot be shied away from because they are too daunting or overwhelming. We need to be battling on all fronts, each one of us taking the task that we are best suited to fulfill.

That does not mean that we cannot sometimes interchange our tasks and do different things, but rather, we must always be certain that someone is working on both the smaller and the larger tasks of tikkun olam. As Pirke Avot teaches, “The day is short, the work is long … it is not up to us to complete the task, but neither are we ever free to desist from trying.”

This midrash helped me to focus my attention and not juggle everything; I hope that it can do the same for you. May God bless our hands as we work in all corners of our community, nation and world to bring about a world of peace, humanity, justice, food and love for all beings.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. Learn more about PJTC at

The Digital Lives of Kids: What Parents Need to Know


Chapter 1: A Real, Live IM Chat

Have you noticed more and more lately that your child is engrossed in a constant, beeping dialogue with her computer? Does she brag about a buddy list with hundreds of names, most of which you’ve never heard before? Does she protectively minimize or shield the screen any time you walk by or quickly type in POS (parent over shoulder)? If you’re wondering what all the secrecy is about, come join me in an instant message — I mean, IM — conversation with my 14-year-old daughter, Emma.

drmogel: Sup, Em? [Translation: What’s up, Emma?]

iluvjohnnyD: NO!!! uh, mom, u DON’T put capital letters for names or places…that’s just so…loser-ish. u can do all-caps to make a point, but otherwise, just don’t.

Note her tone of superiority and impatience. Although this tone is not unfamiliar, it is not her characteristic style of communication with me. It is, I will soon learn, the emboldened attitude of instant message interactions.

iluvjohnnyD: try again

drmogel: sup em?

iluvjohnnyD: nmu?

drmogel: nmu?

I know that nmu [“nothing much, you?”] follows ‘sup’ as Exodus follows Genesis.

iluvjohnnyD: NO!!!! why would u ask me how i was when u just said “sup”? that’s repetitive. u want to just say “nm”

I thought cyberspace was as unrestricted as the Wild West, but there are, apparently, many conventions — strict ones at that — that govern communication here.

drmogel: hey em what should parents know about their kids im life?

iluvjohnnyD: it’s IM, mom. it’s the best way to keep in touch with ppl [people] and it’s a better babysitter than the TV.

drmogel: what about kids saying mean things about other kids?

IluvjohnnyD: u have to accept that when u are online people are talking about u behind ur back but we don’t mainly use the internet to dis people.

drmogel: Judaism teaches us about the dangers of gossip. remember the story of the pillow and the feathers, isn’t IM’ing a gigantic duvet?

iluvjohnnyD: idk [I don’t know]. what are u talking about?? all that money towards religious school and i’m still lost.

drmogel: LASHON HARA! The evil tongue. It’s the story of a boy who loved to gossip. The rabbi asked him to bring his pillow to the top of the mountain, cut it open and let the feathers fly in the wind. Then the rabbi said, “Now gather all the feathers and put them back in the pillow. When the boy cried out, “But I won’t be able to find them!” the rabbi said, “It’s the same with gossip. You can never take back your words.”

iluvjohnnyD: whatever. mom, teenagers are supposed to gossip. it’s our job!

drmogel: tell the readers about making connections with friends you meet at a bar mitzvah. that seems cool.

iluvjohnnyD: hahaha u have no right to say *that seems cool* ur 53. and about the bar mitzvahs? I LOVE being able to instantly [hence the title ‘INSTANT message’] IM someone who lives far away. For example at ben’s bar mitzvah in Indianapolis I met some kids and five minutes after I got home I was asking them if it was still snowing there. It’s nice to be able to have such an easy connection to someone less accessible than a next-door neighbor.

drmogel: talk to parents worried about cyberpredators.

iluvjohnnyD: all right, Parents Worried About Cyberpredators…PWAC! here’s what happens…ur innocent little 11 year old sarah wants a boyfriend (gasp) and so she starts talking to some hairy 47-year-old she met in the SoccerFanz chat room or whatever…but he says his name is ryan and he is blonde and cute and has a six pack … pulls her in, right? just WARN HER not to do this. and NEVER to make plans to meet people. it’s just stupid.

drmogel: what about the buddy list names popping up when you are supposed to be doing homework?

iluvjohnnyD: hehe…. um … then u stop doing ur homework for a minute…. idk some kids can control it. some get too involved.

drmogel: doesn’t it interrupt your concentration?

iluvjohnnyD: yes. too bad. g2g [got to go].

Chapter 2: Why You Should Not Worry

Talking to strangers, being rude to friends and family, wasting acres of time, eschewing capitalization and proper punctuation. Why let your child do this?

Because these kids spend long hours in school and in adult-supervised after- school activities. Because they work hard, possibly harder than any kids in history. Because they are generally polite to adults and are required to follow a lot of rules all day long, every day. And because the new SAT requires a tightly written five-paragraph essay: intro, three deft points and a snappy wrap-up.

Our children’s lives are not like ours were. They’re not free to hang out at the corner drugstore or on the stoop or in a vacant lot. They have little privacy or downtime. They are scrutinized, measured and cloistered. But teenagers need to communicate and connect and express themselves freely. They need privacy and risk. They even need to make a few cheap mistakes before they go off to college. The Internet and instant messages provide rich opportunities for them to do all these things.

If you’re curious about the content of these messages and Web sites, go to LiveJournal.com, a Web log (blog) so popular that it currently has more than 2.5 million active users and gets 23,000 postings an hour. It is mostly popular with teenage girls, and yes, it features plenty of sad, provocative communities (been_abused, 2sexy4u). But if you leave your prejudices at the door you can find a world unique, unifying and thrilling in its diversity.

Try it. Be a cultural anthropologist. Type the word Jewish in the “interest” box on the LiveJournal home page and you will get a list of 195 communities. Most are lively and challenging; some are wacky. For example:

Japs and We Love It!

Chk4Life (Camp Hess Kramer alums)

JewishVegans

GroovyZionistJews

GainsvilleJews

emoJews

In our paranoid, fragmented world we all need community. In our wildly competitive, nervous world we need to express ourselves. Online communities are one way to belong. And IMing is an opportunity for warm, casual connection with friends from camp, a boy you met at a dance or even your parent in the next room.

Chapter 3: Why You Should Worry.

Still want to worry some? Here’s what you should worry about.

1. Distraction. Note how Emma equivocated above when I asked her about IMing during homework. (IluvjohnnyD: hehe….um… then you stop doing your homework for a minute…) The primary danger to young teens online is not cyberpredators, although lonely, socially isolated kids are at risk. The greatest hazard is that your child won’t finish her homework in a timely fashion.

Although our children may be masters of multitasking, the steady blip, blip, blip (hey em, sup?) of instant messages from pinacolada15 or mybootay or any of the other friends and acquaintances on their buddy lists may be far more alluring than completing a book report. These interruptions can create pseudo-attention deficit disorder even in children not predisposed to it. So consider you own child’s disposition and decide how much he or she can handle. Some kids can work with music and phone calls and the intrusion of instant messages, and others can’t. You provide the parameters.

2. Catching a virus. When they download music, they get viruses. Even if they tell you they know for sure the source is safe, it isn’t. If the family computers are plagued by viruses, a likely culprit is Kazaa (or another free music file-sharing service). You may need to institute appropriate consequences.

3. Overexposure to inappropriate images. These sexual, violent or hateful images can never be erased from the hard drive of your child’s mind. The adolescent prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, which means that their judgment is not yet as discriminating as yours. Even if they can convincingly argue that they’re mature enough to monitor themselves or to handle anything they see, don’t believe them.

Cyberfreedom is a privilege, not an entitlement. You would not let your kids drive without a license, so even though I’m advocating online freedom and even some risk, it needs to be titrated in doses appropriate to your child’s demonstrated level of maturity and good judgment in other areas. Does he meet his homework and test preparation obligations independently, without your prompting him? Is she responsible about her about health, hygiene and chores? What do his teachers say about him? Are your children respectful to adults and compassionate toward their peers?

Listen to your gut. How would your 13-year-old react to a pornographic image or to footage of an Islamic terrorist beheading a hostage? Everything is accessible on the Web. So until your children are ready to roam freely, use a filter even if they tell you that no one else’s parents do and that they absolutely cannot do their homework without unfettered access to the Internet.

4. Cyberaddiction. There is no question that cruising the Internet and chatting endlessly to one’s buddies can become addictive to some kids. Without adult intervention, some (not all) children may neglect other activities that are generally considered to be useful to the well-rounded human being — for example, reading for pleasure, playing outdoors and visiting with friends in person. If your child spends two hours a day at the computer on non-homework-related pursuits, that may be too much. If he has a computer in his room you’ll have to make regular check-ins to assess this.

Chapter 4: Educate Thyself

Everyone loves to scare parents about the dangers of the Internet. It’s juicy newspaper copy. But as with so many aspects of parenting, there is no clear-cut way to navigate the hazards. If we say yes to everything, we risk putting our children in harm’s way. If we say no, we risk depriving them.

The real danger of the Internet lies not in what’s available out there, but in being uninformed. Educate yourself, so when your child says she’s ready for access, you can allow it — while still maintaining some oversight. And don’t forget to ask her to show you her favorite sites. I am a great fan of homestarrunner.com, introduced to me by my daughters. You may learn things about her and our planet that will entertain you, educate and impress you. In the words of the late Lubovitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Do not fear the Internet, it will knit the world together.”

 

Dive Into Home Swim Lessons


One of the biggest dangers for children during summer is drowning. Some people think enclosing a pool with a fence or covering it with a pool cover will render the area safe, but fences are accidentally left open and covers can be left off.

The only real solution is to teach children water safety and swimming, and the time before summer hits is the best to teach kids to swim. But you don’t necessarily need a school or private teacher.

4 months to 24 months

The age we recommend introducing children to swimming is 4 months old. At this age, babies are not really swimming, but they can move underwater and learn not to be afraid of the water.

Until the age of 2, it’s hard for a child to pick up his/her head and breath while swimming. What you should teach an infant to do is — after falling in the water — how to turn around and swim to the side of the pool. Even though, it is hard for them to climb up at this age, they can get to the side of the pool and cry for help.

The way we work with babies is by counting one, two, three, blowing air on their face — so they will close their eyes and mouth by reflex action — and then we take them underwater. After the baby is comfortable in the water and under the water, we start working on kicking. Hold their legs and move them up and down to get the baby used to the motion.

Next we let a baby sit on the side of the pool, hold them, count to three and put the child under the water for two seconds. By that point the baby should be kicking. If not, repeat the above steps over again. It is important to stay very calm with your baby and do everything slowly so the baby will feel comfortable and secure.

Ages 2 and Up

Older than 2, there are a few different ways to teach swimming.

1) Throw the kid into the water.

While this is the old way and could be very traumatic, it actually works 70 percent of the time. The other 30 percent, the child becomes very traumatized, and typically it is then very hard to acclimate them to the water after that experience. I don’t recommend this method. Even though it is fast, the dangers are greater than the rewards.

2) Learning with floaties.

This is an easy technique to teach, but could be very dangerous. Since the child learns to rely on the floaties, if your child ends up in the water alone he/she won’t be able to swim. This method is fast, but the transition to swimming without them could take very long. The way to do it with Floaties is to teach the kids to kick with straight legs over the water and to make long strokes with outstretched arms while their face is in the water.

3) Teach kids to swim without floaties from the beginning.

(Please note: children need to be held and supervised closely at all times in the water until they know how to swim. It is OK to use floaties when the kids are just playing in the water.)

First stage: Teach the child to put his/her face in the water. Then teach the child to kick while holding the edge of the pool or steps. From there, teach your child how to do long strokes with hands while sitting on the steps. After mastering these skills, move to the second stage.

Second stage: Stand two feet away from the steps and tell your child to put his/her face in the water, push and swim to you. Slowly, take another (and another) step back so your child can swim to you. Be aware that this takes time. You have to go through the basic steps over and over again before you let your child try on his/her own. In practice, we hold the child by the hips, letting him or her practice arm strokes and kicking.

Usually, if the child is not afraid to put their face in the water, we can teach him or her to swim in six to 12 lessons of 30 minutes each. It could take you a little longer.

Gal and Galia Yardeni are sports teachers with bachelor’s degrees in sports education from Wingate University in Israel. They own and operate a swim school in Los Angeles and specialize in early childhood development. Galia Yardeni was an Israeli swim champion. She teaches kids through fun and games. For more information, call (310) 739-7257.

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Families Find Magic in ‘Miracles’ Musical


Lexie Aaron stands center stage. The 13-year-old girl sings out in a strong, pure voice, “Miracles happen ev’ry day … open your eyes.”

The song is the opening number of “Everyday Miracles,” an original musical about four Hebrew school students who travel back in time to interact with their biblical heroes. But what makes this production so unique is that children with special needs get to emote alongside their typically developing counterparts.

Lexie struggles with autism and lacks the social language that comes easily to most children in her age group. But “when she sings and other people respond, it’s a source of joy for her,” said Hillary Aaron, Lexie’s mother.

The program brought together 20 children between 7 and 15 earlier this year to act out Bible stories and learn the fundamentals of stage performance. Although a few of the kids are nonverbal, and many face challenges ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to autism, each has discovered their own talents.

“Everybody gets a moment to shine,” said Elaine Hall Katz, creative director of The Miracle Project, an after-school theater program partly funded through the Jewish Community Foundation.

Excitement about the upcoming June 15 performance at the Odyssey Theatre was building during a recent rehearsal on the theater’s stage. Music therapist Karen Howard, assisted by budding directors Rachelle Friedman and Aaron Feinstein, taught the young actors how to use long scarves to simulate the parting of the Red Sea. A boy who months earlier had refused to do anything but spin in circles was belting out his lines like a veteran. The small crisis that arose when one child clung to a prop baton was gently defused by a staffer who coaxed him to get with the program: “You want to come and pick out what scarf you like?”

The adults in attendance couldn’t stop talking about the previous Sunday, when a large portion of the show was videotaped. Both parents and staffers found it miraculous how well these children focused, took direction and coped with technical delays.

“Sunday was like a piece of heaven,” said Linda Schorin, mother of 11-year-old Steven Felder.

Steven’s Sunday triumph was particularly gratifying because not long ago he used to hide under stage mats, refusing to be photographed. But volunteer videographer Kevin McDermott, a special education teacher for 17 years before starting a children’s acting school, knew enough to be patient. Over the course of many weeks, he demonstrated the workings of the camera to the boy. By Sunday, Steven had no problem being filmed while sporting a fake beard and playing a solo part. McDermott was not surprised. “I think he likes the fact that I respect his space,” he said.

Schorin, an artist, lauds Miracle Project staff: “I’ve been so impressed by the level of creative talent, but also the great warmth and caring for children who are unique,” she said. She loves knowing her son is part of an artistic endeavor whose goal is “not only accommodating your kid but celebrating your kid.”

Creative director Katz, a veteran Hollywood acting coach and founder of the Kids on Stage ensemble, is also the mother of a boy with special needs. While attending a special-education workshop at the Zimmer Children’s Museum, she became convinced that children like hers needed a creative outlet compatible with their Jewish upbringing. Within days of a grant application deadline, she sent a proposal to the Jewish Community Foundation.

“I literally asked God for help and wrote the application in one day,” Katz said.

She received a $40,000 grant from the foundation in October 2004, but future activities of The Miracle Project will depend on locating new funding sources because the Jewish Community Foundation grant is nonrenewable. So far the grant has allowed her to handpick a core staff of special education experts and theater professionals.

A circle of dedicated volunteers has also played a key role in the organization, which include several parents, a professional teen actress, an anthropology student and a nanny. Cantor Steven Puzarne, who founded the synagogue musical renewal organization Breeyah, contributed an original score to the project.

Katz has offered training to staffers, as well as to the typically developing kids in the program, helping them learn to interact comfortably with youngsters who sometimes have trouble with mainstream behavioral cues.

Some of the children in the project, like shy 7-year-old Shachar Cohen, are here simply because they like acting. The fact that typical children also participate helps stave off the sense of isolation that special-needs families often experience. Even siblings of children with special needs are glad to step out of the shadow of their more needy sisters and brothers.

Thirteen-year-old Rachel Wolf, who appears on stage with her younger brother, Danny, has boosted her self-confidence with a major role. Because Danny’s speech is limited and cerebral palsy confines him to a wheelchair, mother Michelle first assumed that he couldn’t join the cast. But he’s thriving in what his mother calls a “roll-on part,” and relishes his few lines: “Go, go, go Goliath!” and a hearty “amen.”

The Miracle Project has also become a family affair for Ami, Ezra and Noam Fields-Meyer. Ami, 11, and Noam, 7, attend Pressman Academy. But 9-year-old Ezra, who is home-schooled because of his autism, sometimes feels left out. In father Tom’s words, “This is the only organized activity that all three of our kids do together.”

Each gets the chance to show off his abilities with Ami, who plays Elijah the Prophet.

Tom’s wife, Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, lends to The Miracle Project her own Jewish perspective. Once a month, during a Wednesday evening rehearsal, she leads a Torah study session geared to parents of children with special needs. One week’s discussion centered on Jacob wrestling the angel, an apt image for the parent who struggles at night with his or her child’s diagnosis. At Passover, she introduced the haggadah’s four sons as a way to come to terms with the labels society imposes on “these difficult, magnificent children.”

Fields-Meyer’s approach, part of her own project Ozreinu, Hebrew for “our help,” is deliberately “multidenominational, multidiagnostic.” Parents with a wide range of Judaic knowledge and involvement attest to the value of her message that special needs families have a place within Judaism.

Linda Schorin, for one, is grateful that The Miracle Project paves the way for “coming together in creative community, coming together in spiritual community.”

For Katz, the creative director, the project has a strongly Jewish and mystical outlook. To enhance the spiritual element within each session, she begins and ends every evening with a prayer. As the children cluster around, she says, “May we be blessed.” Then, on cue, the kids all shout, “I’m a miracle!”

The Miracle Project performance of “Everyday Miracles” will be June 15, 5:15 p.m., at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. $20 (adults), $15 (children). For more information, call Miracle Project Executive Director Debra Phillipes Black at (310) 963-2240 or e-mail Elaine Hall Katz at coache813@aol.com.

 

Time to Leave Your Mitzrayim


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We learn in the haggadah, “B’chol dor v’dor, chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mi’mitzrayim” — “In every generation it is one’s duty to regard himself as though he personally had come out of Egypt.”

In effect, I had a rather personal and literal fulfillment of that teaching almost 60 years ago.

During World War II, at 18 years old, I was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. It was my lot to be stationed in the headquarters of a Quartermaster outfit in the China-Burma-India Theater of War. Our base was in Assam, India, just below Tibet, and bordering on China and Burma. Our task was to supply the truck convoys that traversed the Burma Road as well as the cargo planes that “flew the hump” ferrying supplies over the Himalayas into China.

During my first Pesach in India, I went to a seder sponsored by what was then called the Jewish Welfare Board. Held somewhere in the jungle area, it was attended by several hundred Jewish personnel.

After the defeat of both Germany and Japan, my company had to stay behind at our post for several months for administrative work. When the order came to leave — in the middle of April 1946 — I was able to get to a seder at the beautiful synagogue that then existed in Calcutta, which I had visited upon my arrival in India almost two years earlier.

During chol ha’moed Pesach — the intervening days of the holiday — I was able to board a troop ship for the long journey home. We went from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) and through the Suez Canal, before heading out to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. After going through the Suez Canal, our ship made stops at Port Said and Alexandria, Egypt. I can still recall the shipwrecks in the ports as well as the young kids in small boats begging for coins.

So there I was — a Jewish Israelite, in “bondage” to the military, leaving Egypt, during Pesach, on my way home to the “freedom” of civilian life.

The haggadah teaches that Ben Zoma had the occasion to quote the Scriptures “L’ma’an tizkor et yom tzaitcha mi’eretz mitzrayim kol y’may chayecha” — “That you shall remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 16:3). Indeed, I would. I was going home. I was safe. I would be free!

It should be noted that, often times, the Hebrew root of the word Mitzrayim, matzar, which means a narrow strait or a limited boundary, is interpreted to apply to our personal lives in terms of the struggle to be free of our own “enslavements.” We can be in “bondage” to personal trials, obsessions, habits, compulsions, narrow opinions, prejudiced attitudes, grudges and family disputes — all of which prevent us from realizing our fulfillment in life and the joy of knowing who we are and what we represent.

We are challenged to overcome our personal “mitzrayims” — to find the resiliency and strength of will within ourselves to break though the wall of circumstance. Indeed, faith creates heroism, and there is the mystique of human nature — the ability to transcend pain and fear and to transform weakness into strength. Is that not the collective history of our people? And is that not the essential lesson of Pesach?

May the Almighty in His redemptive mercy enable each of us to find our way to freedom from whatever “enslavements” we have so that we can more readily serve Him and bring glory to His Holy Name.

Mervin B. Tomsky is rabbi emeritus, Burbank Temple Emanu El and past president of the Rabbinical Assembly, Western States Region

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