11 observations on life and living

1. We just want someone to listen to us.

My mother broke her hip, she’s in rehab, she wants to get out but, imprisoned, she needs someone to listen to her story. I’m providing that service.

That’s what we all want. Someone we don’t have to be our best self with. Someone we can reveal our inadequacies and frustrations to. Someone who will patiently listen and won’t give us unwanted advice. We usually don’t want any advice, we just want to be heard. A great listener possesses the key to friendship. Someone who listens will have more friends than any world-beater. People are complicated and flawed. Don’t berate them for opening up, embrace them.

2. Don’t do all the talking.

That doesn’t mean in one or another conversation you can’t dominate, but if you can’t ask how the other person is doing, if you can’t interact in a way that evidences you’re listening, you may think you’re winning, but you’re not. Life is about giving. If you’re always taking, it’s going to get very lonely.

3. Business books are b.s.

Because even if the advice is good, it’s not particularized to you. I’m not saying you can’t gain insight, but the people you’re reading about don’t resemble you, and too often the writers are doing it to make money and burnish their careers as opposed to genuinely trying to help you. Sure, it’s great to identify with what a writer says, but don’t overinvest; you’ve got to find your own path.

4. You can’t tell people what to do.

They’ve got to find out for themselves. When you’re listening to them, it’s about being heard, as stated above; it’s not about you dropping pearls of wisdom that they can follow. Furthermore, if you do manage to help them out once, they’re still gonna be flummoxed soon. Life is about experience. It’s a long ride we’ve all got to take. You’ve got to find your own way. It’s great if you can find a mentor, but I’ve never encountered one. But the main point is people don’t really want advice, no matter how much they say they do. Tell them the truth and you’ll be in trouble — they’ll start explaining why you’re wrong. It’s human nature.

5. Don’t evidence weakness.

I know this sounds contradictory, but my main point is don’t always be the person who got the raw deal, who the world is against. Life is tough for everybody. Sure, complain. But be joyful sometimes, too. Otherwise, everybody’s gonna run from you.

6. Life is not always up. 

If you haven’t experienced downs, you haven’t taken any risk or you’re so rich you’ve never engaged. Life is about losses even more than victories. Lick your wounds, but then lift yourself back up, however slowly, and get back in the game. Learn from what happened, but do your best not to be burdened by it.

7. Everybody’s got an interior life.

When they reveal it to you, you bond. Most people don’t feel safe enough to tell you their truth. But when they do, it’s a magic moment for both of you, the teller feels exhilarated and alive, finally able to relax in his skin, and the listener starts to tingle, stunned that the teller trusts him that much.

8. It’s not what you own, but who you are.

But you don’t realize this until you’re close to 60. The young kids have little wisdom and all the strength and synapses. The old people have all the wisdom, but failing bodies. So you’ve got young people doing stupid things, not realizing how long life truly is, and you’ve got old people driving around in the sports cars they can finally afford. It would be better if the young people had wisdom and Ferraris, that they could truly enjoy, when they’re truly meaningful, and the oldsters could drive Priuses and Fusions yet have no aches and pains.

9. No one remembers history. 

They’re doomed to repeat it. It’s the way of the world, the same way people repeat the same relationship until they finally wake up and realize their choices are bad, what they think they want is actually no good for them.

10. Trustworthiness is more important than excitement.

11. We want people we can count on. 

Who will take us to the hospital. Who will go out of their way to help us just because they’re our friend. We all know these special people, who live to serve, despite being neither rich nor famous, they’re our society’s secret savers. If you don’t have one of these people in your life, someone not related to you, start looking, now. And once again, you get them by giving more than taking.

Bob Lefsetz is the author of the e-mail newsletter The Lefsetz Letter, where this column originally appeared.

Life lessons from the trenches of cancer survival

On my neck there’s a large, upside-down L-shaped scar. One leg of the L runs from my right shoulder blade upward to just below my right ear; the other leg takes a 90-degree turn, following the jaw line to my chin. The right side of my neck — the inside of the L — looks as if it’s had glands, cartilage and muscle scooped out, leaving a tough, bumpy, uneven cavity. After the surgery, a friend joked that I should put Silly Putty on my neck.

No Silly Putty, no cosmetic surgery. My neck has remained exactly as it was after the operation. It’s a souvenir of squamous cell carcinoma — cancer — which started in the right tonsil and metastasized to the lymph nodes, diagnosed and treated 15 years ago.

The day I was told that I had throat cancer, I was furious. There was no logic to it. I’d never smoked, didn’t drink, hadn’t eaten red meat in more than 25 years. So why me?

There was only one way to deal with my fury. I went out and had a real hot dog with sauerkraut. Much better than those meat-free — and taste-free — soy dogs I’d eaten for so long. With each bite, I looked up at the heavens and shook my fist: There! Take that!

In fact, it’s that semidefiant attitude that helped me get through the punishing treatment: massive amounts of throat radiation followed by a radical neck dissection.

Bernie Siegel — the oncologist whose tapes I’d listen to in the car while going back and forth to the hospital — says that one should be a “good-bad patient”: question everything and demand honesty and clear explanations from health-care professionals.

But, Siegel stresses, once you decide on a treatment, stick with it.

Here’s something that helped me: Although I was optimistic, I didn’t see treatment as an attempt to “beat” cancer. Right from the beginning I thought of cancer as my teacher, an experience I was going to learn from.

What did I learn? For one thing, when you accept help from others — which was hard for me — it not only makes you feel better, it also makes the person helping you feel better. When I started treatment, my older son, Rafi, was just finishing his freshman year at an Ivy League school. He took a year off to help me. He didn’t think of it this way at the time, but when he looks back on it now, he says that he cherishes that year.

After I was diagnosed, I was called and visited by many well-meaning people who suggested alternative treatments: from special diets to fasting to massive doses of vitamins. I listened politely and then plunged full bore into the most up-to-date medical treatment available. Oh, I used some unconventional techniques to complement treatment, but not as a substitute for Western medicine.

While going through radiation treatment, I meditated every day. This involved breath control and visualization until I’d reach a state of self-hypnosis. While in a trance, I’d imagine a kind of Pac-Man figure entering my body and eating my cancer cells.

Did it help? Who knows? It felt good, and that’s what counts. Meditation — or prayer or yoga — certainly can’t hurt, so long as it’s not used in place of standard treatment.

While you’re going through treatment, be easy on yourself. If you want to be alone, then be alone. If you don’t want to talk to anyone, then don’t. Recognize your limits, and don’t let anyone talk you out of them. If, however, you want to interact with family and friends, then by all means do so. And when you’re tired, kick them out. Be strict about this.

The medical facility where I received treatment is one of the most prestigious in the world, but some staff members had a lousy bedside manner. One resident — I thought of him as Dr. Worst-Case-Scenario — would always give me his gloomiest predictions.

I never let it affect me. The way I look at it, the job of any medical facility is to provide the most skilled, cutting-edge treatment, and that’s it. But that’s more than enough. If you need happy talk and hand-holding, that’s what family and friends are for.

How can you find the right medical center for you? Ask others in your area who have gone through similar treatment. Talk to your family physician. Consult magazines that rate hospitals and treatment centers. One source is the annual issue of U.S. News & World Report that lists each medical specialty and ranks facilities throughout the country. You can access last year’s rankings via its Web site or at your local library.

Some years back, Norman Cousins wrote about the healing power of laughter. It worked for me. Forget subtle humor. You want the fall-on-the-floor-bust-a-gut-roaring kind: early Woody Allen movies or Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. There are times, though, when other types of movies work, too. During the worst moment of treatment, my pain was eased by watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers glide across the dance floor.

Make no mistake: Cancer — and its treatment — can be horrendous. I wasn’t able to eat, I had no energy. Every day I was faced with my own mortality. But that helped me put priorities in place: seize the day and all that.

Once I recuperated from treatment, I made my own bucket list. After having lived what I felt had been a self-indulgent life, I was now determined to try something different. So I worked for the Shoah Foundation, which assures that Holocaust survivors’ testimonies become a permanent record.

I joined groups that explore life; reconnected with friends and family; published many articles — and a book — on topics close to my heart; volunteered as a writing coach for inner-city kids. And I’ve been a mentor for others going through cancer treatment, sharing what I learned, trying to make a difficult journey a little easier.

Nowadays when I look at my neck — at the scar, bumps and cavities — I feel nothing but gratitude: It’s a reminder of the treatment that saved my life.

And it’s a reminder that having gotten cancer in the first place also saved my life.

Settle down

When it comes to dating, even Tobey Maguire is interested in the concept of settling.

Now, I have no idea about Spidey’s love life — last I heard he was with Lois Lane, wait, no, that’s Superman, not Spider-Man, and this just in — the real Maguire is married and expecting his second child.

But I don’t want to talk about his personal life, I want to talk about his professional one.

Maguire has just signed on to develop a feature film from essayist and occasional Jewish Journal columnist Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”

In a 5,500-word piece published in March in the Atlantic Monthly, Gottlieb, a 40-year-old single mother who chose to have a baby on her own asked a poignant question: “Is it better to be alone, or to settle?”

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Gottlieb quickly answers her own question:

“My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year.”

Gottlieb’s stance caused quite a brouhaha on the blogosphere (read: rantosphere), where people called her everything from “immature” to “desperate” to “tragic” to “crazy,” labeling her a narcissist, anti-feminist, crackpot journalist. She has also been told “she needs a shrink, pronto.”

Gottlieb tells me she was a bit taken aback by the harsh reaction, but said that in addition to the 700 letters of support she also received, a number of rabbis have used her piece in their sermons. (She even spoke last month at Sinai Temple.)

I’m not surprised by the rabbis’ support. Gottlieb’s message is something I’ve heard many, many times before. Since the beginning of my illustrious dating career at age 19 (for marriage purposes!), rabbis, educators, teachers and other religious married people have been telling me the same thing: Find someone with shared values, someone you respect, someone you can build a life with. A good husband, a good father, a good partner.

Nothing new here.

In traditional Jewish communities, the notion of “Hollywood Love,” of “Love at First Sight,” of a “Love of Everlasting Passion,” has long been viewed as a myth. The problem in those communities is not whether or not to believe Hollywood love myth, it’s whether to believe love and attraction should play any part at all in the choice of a mate.

That was the message I got, anyway.

When I was in my early 20s, I went to dozens of weddings (to this day, the words “bridal shower” make me break out in hives). The ceremonies were solemn and the parties leibadik (festive), and the “salmon-chicken-or-prime rib” menus were delectable, if indiscernible, but to me it seemed like something essential was lacking: love. Back then, in my world, it seemed people settled too easily. They married — young — to have a partner, to not be alone, to fit into the community, to have kids, to be part of what Gottlieb calls “a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring nonprofit business.”

If one could chart my own “why isn’t she married?” trajectory (and believe me, there are many who do) it might be the result of this kind of advice: I’ve seen too many loveless marriages hastily entered into for anything but love.

Now, of course, Gottlieb isn’t advocating marrying a man who repulses you or puts you to sleep every time he answers the question, “How was your day, dear?”

But it would seem that once you enter the slippery slope of settling, it would be hard to know when to stop. What exactly is the right thing to compromise on? If he is a nice guy, but he goes on and on at dinner parties until you hope someone will drop a plate of hot soup on his lap, is that settling?

See, the other side of the “too picky” see-saw is the “not selective enough” category. Most (married) people who watch their friends/children/congregants date are not familiar with this second category until it’s too late. For example, if a single person regales a married person about her date, saying, “he made me pick up the tab and then just hopped in a cab home!” the married friend will reply, “Well, maybe he’s just low on cash this week and got an emergency call, and you should really give him another chance.”

No, the message to Jewish singles is and always has been Gottlieb’s message: Why can’t you all just settle down?

Now that I’m in my 30s, I wonder if there is something in between musical chairs (grabbing the last man standing) and “The Notebook” (holding out for perfection).

And I suppose that is the beauty of a different kind of Judaism, one that mingles with the mainstream world — even Hollywood, believe it or not. Yes, there should be sparks and chemistry and love and happiness and laughter — together with shared values, common goals and mutual interests.

Because if I’ve learned anything from 15 years (!!!) of dating, it’s that whether you run into a marriage with someone you don’t love, or you hold out for a hero who never comes, either way, you’ll end up all alone.

Could You Help Me Find My Uncle?

Dear President Ahmadinejad:

Allow me to introduce myself to you. My name is Robert Stevens, and I am a 27-year-old child of Holocaust survivors. The purpose of my letter is not to criticize you for being anti-Semitic or for wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the earth or for making an international statement defaming the legitimacy of the Holocaust by calling it a myth. Instead, I just wanted to share with you a little glimpse into my life and actually ask you for some advice.

This past Saturday evening, before I left my apartment with my fiancee to celebrate a friend’s birthday party in New York City, I remembered that it coincidentally was also my uncle’s birthday — my father’s brother. My uncle’s name is Boroch Jeszyja Miedzinski. Indeed, it is certainly a Jewish name. His first name, Boroch, means “blessed” in Hebrew, and Jeszyja, which is another form of the name Josiah, means “fire of God,” also in Hebrew.

I really wanted to reach out to my uncle to wish him a happy birthday, but I didn’t have his phone number or his address. If I did, I’d certainly call him or visit him, and certainly I would have mailed him a card. To be honest, I am embarrassed to admit this, but I actually don’t know where he really is now, and perhaps you could help me find him.

I tried looking up his address throughout the United States, Israel, Poland, Germany, Russia, France, England and other countries in Europe, but I just couldn’t find his address or phone number. Various organizations wrote me informing me that they never even heard of him. I used the Google search engine to try and find him or something about him but to no avail.

My father died 10 years ago and, unfortunately, he hadn’t seen his brother in many years, so he also didn’t leave me with any contact information for his brother.

Thankfully, because you have pointed out to the world that the Holocaust is a myth — that the Nazis could not have killed him because such killings were just Zionist propaganda to get world support for Israel — you have renewed my hope that he may still be alive, and that I can find him.

I guess I can admit that I feel a little silly, too. I mean, I used to think that perhaps the Nazis killed him, but if the Holocaust never happened, he must be alive, or he’s just a myth that existed to bring about sympathy for Jews. My father, however, was pretty darn convincing when he told me that I reminded him of his brother because we both had the same squint and intense look in our eyes.

Before I give up, though, I do have the following information, which perhaps a man of your power and influence could use to help me find him.

My uncle was born on Jan. 28, 1931, in Lodz, Poland, to my grandfather and grandmother, Pinkus and Tauba Miedzinski. He was the youngest of four children, with my father, David, the eldest.

I have a copy of a photograph of him that I can send to you, if you think it will aid your search. The photograph was taken presumably by the Germans or the Judenrat, and was affixed to a Lodz Ghetto ID card. I know this because you can see that the corner of the photo was stamped with “Litzmanstadt.” If you weren’t already aware, Litzmanstadt was the name Germans gave to Lodz when they took it over and formed a ghetto for the Jews.

The remaining information I have for you about my uncle is that sometime after his bar mitzvah, when he was 13 years old, he was presented with a train ticket — perhaps as a bar mitzvah present from nice German soldiers — to catch a ride out of the Lodz Ghetto.

His travel information, which is the only information I have about him, might be the missing link to help you locate him for me. The Germans, as you know, were great record keepers.

According to a chronicle kept by Jews of Lodz, June 26 was also apparently a popular day for travel for the youths of Lodz. Of the 912 total people who had the same train tickets as my uncle, the majority were teens and younger children.

The German records state that my uncle was last seen boarding the Cattle Car Express, Transport No. 867 under Record No. 611. One-way ticket, Lodz Ghetto to Gan Eden — or what historians whom you might consider misguided refer to as the Chelmno extermination camp.

President Ahmadinejad, any assistance you could offer in helping to locate my uncle would be appreciated. I would love to meet him. He just turned 75.

I’m definitely going to bust his chops for being an actor in this silly Holocaust charade. In the meantime, for his birthday, I will resort to lighting a candle for him next to the only photo I have of him, taken when he was just a little boy in the Lodz Ghetto. The birthday candle, which I lit this past Saturday night, on Jan. 28, is actually what Jews call a yahrtzeit candle.

And when the flame of the yahrtzeit candle glows brightly, it symbolizes an eternal fire from God that will always and forever burn, representing the sacred souls of my beloved uncle and all my other 6 million Jewish ancestors and declaring that despite any of your endeavors, their memory will be for a blessing, not a myth.

Kind Regards,
Robert Stevens
Courtesy New Jersey Jewish News.

Robert Stevens resides in New Jersey. He dedicates this letter in honor of his parents. He can be reached at: rstevens27@gmail.com

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.


The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac

Aries (March 21-April 20)

Notable Jewish Aries: Howard Cosell

It’s OK to be in a rut, just sit down, crack open a beer and kick your feet up on the ottoman, but don’t get too comfortable there. When you notice yourself stagnating this week, remember this: as an Aries, you need variety. Your life is best when it looks like the all-you-can-eat salad bar at the Sizzler. Sure, you have your regular salad stuff, but you’ve also got some odd pseudo-Mexican snack foods, frozen yogurt, clam chowder and eight kinds of medically contraindicated salad dressings. Right now, you are eyeballing the salad bar of life without a clue what you want, all of which is making you edgy. This one is so easy. Just pick an activity and dig in. You can always go back for seconds. 


Taurus (April 21-May 20)

Notable Jewish Taurus:
Joey Ramone


Single Taurus: Get ready. Love is in the stars for you this week. I’m not talking about some blah dinner with a guy from JDate. I’m talking about that magical, dynamic, magnetic connection that only happens once in awhile (and often ends in disaster, but let’s take things one week at a time). For now, get waxed, clean your apartment, wash the car, have your hair blown-out and enjoy the romantic ride. The weekend will be especially potent in the “sensual” arena. On a family note, beware that the value of a possession may cause some strife. Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in material things, after all, you’re going to be starring in your own romantic comedy and with any luck it won’t be as cloying and predictable as “Must Love Dogs.”


Gemini (May 21 — June 20)

Notable Jewish Gemini: Yasmine Bleeth

I could give you a lot of mumbo jumbo about your solar eighth house of finances being affected this week by planets visiting Capricorn, but Gemini bores easily so just take this in: if you have been needing a bank loan, home refinance or student loan, this is your week. I know, Smarty Pants Twins don’t fancy comparing boring loan rates and such, but why not use your quick mind for something other than shouting out the answers to “Jeopardy” questions? As for work, this is the week that crazy co-worker seems to go off her medication. Just ignore her, because once you react, the mishegoss can be traced right back to you.


Cancer (June 21-July 20)

Notable Jewish Cancer:
Neil Simon

When it comes to horoscopes and Cancers, there’s one major catch: you don’t like advice and you bristle at being told what to do. Fortunately, all I have to say this week is DO NOTHING. That’s right — avoid impetuous decisions, last minute trips and dicey business schemes. Don’t even go to the mall to return that tin of popcorn the size of Bill Maher’s head or digital travel clock you can’t figure out how to use. Stay home. Do laundry. Stick to a safe routine after running around socializing so much. Toward the end of the week, remember that if you control the cash in the family, you control the family, and very few people enjoy this if Oprah is to be believed. Trust and love is what Cancer has all around right now. So that’s your mantra. Say it: trust and love.


Leo (July 21 — August 21)

Notable Jewish Leo:
Debra Messing

Driving Leos, start your engines. Oh, what’s that? They won’t start. I don’t get it. You took your vehicle to the Jiffy Lube three years ago, what could be the problem? You know all that stuff they tell you to do — besides the oil change you asked for — that you ignored? Well, this is the week to take care of it. No more riding around with warning lights on, or pretending not to notice the fluid dripping under your tires. This is a time for preventive maintenance. As for your own health, if you want to drop a bad habit, this is the perfect time. Maybe you don’t need six packets of Splenda in your coffee or that fourth glass of wine or that sixth macaroon. Drop a bad habit like you used to drop those oil change reminders — right in the trash.


Virgo (August 22-September 22)

Notable Jewish Virgo:
Amy Irving

Some group environments are peaceful, say, yoga class. Others are stressful, say, a distant cousin’s bar mitzvah that’s in some horrible far away suburb and features stale rolls and even stiffer conversation. Here’s the thing, this week means any group activity is likely to bring you chaos. You may feel overly sensitive, or the unswerving need to throw a chair, Bobby Knight-style, into a crowd of people. Find your inner Phil Jackson and be diplomatic. What’s the pay-off for all that restraint? You may witness something extraordinary this week, something only an attentive Virgo would appreciate. Keep your eyes open, and your throwing hand closed.


Libra (September 23-October 22)

Notable Jewish Libra:
Barbara Walters

Occasionally, your family has so many feuds Richard Dawson would plotz. These are just minor skirmishes, a political discussion that went sour, a call unreturned, an invitation “lost in the mail.” For Libra, this is the week to reconcile with family members. Coincidentally, the stars also say it’s a perfect time to entertain in your home. So there you go, get out your Swiffer, pop some pre-made crab cakes in the oven, light a nice holiday candle someone gave you at the office and make the place comfortable. Once your home looks nice, it’s time to make nice and invite over any relatives you’ve alienated. On the work front, more responsibility may come your way this week. Don’t get all, “That’s not my job.” Just do what you do best, find a solution that suits everyone


Scorpio (October 23-November 22)

Notable Jewish Scorpio:
Winona Ryder

You want your partner or spouse to be happy, but does it have to reach perkiness proportions the likes of which are generally reserved for beauty pageants and morning news shows? This week, the enthusiasm level of someone close to you is downright exhausting, especially in your worn-down state. Here’s the thing, recalibrating someone else’s perk-o-meter is impossible and rude, so let it be. Speaking of rude, this is a time for Scorpio to embrace all forms of etiquette. I’m talking about thank-you notes, turning off your cell phone at the movies and speaking to everyone with respect. Friday the 13 happens to be a magical day for you. Dream big. Ask everyone you know their favorite travel destinations and stories and await inspiration.


Sagittarius (November 23-December 20)

Notable Jewish Sagittarius: Mandy Patinkin

There are times when your mind seems to function faster, like you’ve just upgraded your cerebral PC and the graphics are so sharp you can’t believe it. This week — there’s just no other way to say it — your thoughts are going to be intense, dude. You will have no trouble influencing people with your ideas and impressing them with your projects. Though your brain is both tenacious and focused right now, beware of one thing: Sagittarius is a great conversationalist, but don’t let it slip into gossip. Oh, and that domineering person in your life … could it be a mother figure? Anyway, you will have to stand up to her midweek. Luckily, your mind is so clear now, it will be no trouble “setting a boundary” rather than being a brat.


Capricorn (December 21-January 19)

Notable Jewish Capricorn: Howard Stern

You seem to embrace control more than Janet Jackson. Okay, that was a really old song lyric reference, but you know what I mean. On Tuesday, you will have to relinquish control with the service people in your life, be it the dry cleaner, maid, waitress or even doctor. Let people do their jobs and understand that chaos will creep it from time to time. Know that next week will run more smoothly. On a positive note, this week will bring a one-on-one interaction you won’t forget. Competition or cooperation will arise this week in a big way, but which one depends on you and the situation. After all, there’s a time to sing “Kumbaya” and a time to throw an elbow when the ref isn’t looking.


Aquarius (January 20-February 18)

Notable Jewish Aquarius:
Judy Blume

It’s usually annoying when folks throw around phrases like “Go big or go home,” but what can I say? You are going big this week. Big energy. Big changes. You know those times when you just want to stick to your routine, wear your favorite old jeans, watch your usual TV shows, drive the same routes and call the same friends? This isn’t one of those weeks. You are open to any and all new experiences. Oh, and single Aquarians should be happy with that new “something something” you’ve got going. Even if it’s just a mild flirtation, attraction and desire are strong this week. If an ex comes into the picture, crop him or her right out.


Pisces (February 19-March 20)

Notable Jewish Pisces:
Philip Roth

Don’t dole out warmth and affection like they give out slices of frozen pizza samples at Costco. I’m saying, don’t just create convenient bite-sized pieces of genuine humanity and place them on a platter for any passer-by to taste. This week, save your goodwill for the inner circle, the people in your daily life who have earned your trust. Speaking of those people, do you ever notice you interrupt a lot? Hear me out. Sure, it’s a cultural thing, talking, debating, leaping into furious discussion, but I encourage you to listen closely this week. You don’t even have to agree, just nod and smile. People love that.

A Line Drive Down Jewish History

“Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports,” by Jeffrey Gurock (Indiana University Press, $29.95).

In an oft-repeated anecdote dating back to the early 1910s, Rabbi Solomon Schechter, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, told Louis Finkelstein, then a young rabbinical student, “Remember, unless you play baseball, you will never get to be a rabbi in America.”

Finkelstein went on to have an illustrious career, eventually heading the seminary, and never learned much about American sports. But Schechter’s advice reflected a sensibility that knowledge of sports would help rabbis relate to young congregants, that sprinkling sermons with sports metaphors would engage their parents.

Yeshiva University professor Jeffrey Gurock tells this story in his new book, “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports.” This is not the usual book about Jews and sports — it’s not an album of Jewish sports figures and their accomplishments. Gurock, a historian and avid sportsman, uses sports as a lens for viewing American Jewish history. He shows how athletics have played out in Jewish life — how, through sports, generations of immigrants and their descendants became acculturated, accepted into the mainstream and even embraced.

“The right to play on a team — what did we say as kids, the chance to be ‘chosen in’ — is among the surest signs of an individual’s or group’s acceptance in a society,” Gurock writes.

He also chronicles how sports have been a source of conflict between generations and between religious and secular values. With its own obligations, rules, traditions and sacred time, sports, as Gurock explains, can be seen as a competing religion. Since the game clock is often out of sync with the clock and calendar of Jewish life, some have feared that interest and participation in athletics could lead to religious nonobservance.

“The athleticism valued in the world of sports was not honored in the 19th century shtetl. Reverence and concern for the head, for the intellect, far more than the cultivation of the body, was where these Jews’ emphasis lay,” he writes.

On the Lower East Side where many immigrants settled, clashes arose between parents and youth, who learned the values of sports and physical fitness in settlement houses and also honed their skills on the streets. The older generation’s attitude toward the gym, as the author quotes Irving Howe, was “suspicion of the physical, fear of hurt, anxiety over the sheer ‘pointlessness’ of play: All this went deep into the recesses of the Jewish psyche.”

Gurock goes on to describe how rabbis and Jewish leaders sought to attract Jews to religious institutions by creating gym facilities within — “shuls with pools.” The hope was that “those who initially came to a shul’s gym to play might be convinced to repair to its sanctuary to pray.” Questions then arose about how synagogues and community centers would deal with the use of their facilities on Shabbat.

In an interview, Gurock, a New York City-area resident, says that this is a book he has been thinking about for almost his entire adult life and spent the last five years working on. His passion for the subject is clear.

Gurock is a good storyteller, and within these pages he unfolds many true tales that may be surprising for readers. Sports metaphors come up often in his prose; when he describes two Orthodox worlds clashing, he speaks of one contingent as retreating to a clearly marked sideline.

“They could build it, but almost no one came,” he writes of efforts in 1897 to establish a new rabbinical school.

He writes extensively about yeshiva high school basketball, and how issues were resolved about which schools had teams, who they played against and how religious studies and sports activities coexisted.

The author or editor of 13 previous books, Gurock describes the introduction of cheerleaders to the yeshiva basketball scene in 1951 (the first squad, at Ramaz, wore longish skirts, which by 1954 had gotten shorter) and their ultimate disbanding by all the schools by 1991. The cheerleaders’ role in Gurock’s narrative has less to do with their gymnastic prowess and original songs, than questions of modesty and differing outlooks among the leaders of Orthodox day schools.

He analyzes more recent sports stories like the basketball career of Tamir Goodman, the Baltimore yeshiva basketball player who was recruited in 1999 to play on a college team with the understanding that he would not play ball on Shabbat; and the 1996 decision of the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School League (the name had been changed from “Jewish” to “Yeshiva”) to refuse to allow the Conservative Schechter schools to play in their league.

The book also has autobiographical threads. Gurock has been an athlete all his life, playing a variety of sports as a kid. At City College, he played on the lacrosse team.

When I tried to reach him at home one evening, he was coaching basketball at Yeshiva University. In fact, he has served there as assistant men’s basketball coach for the last 25 years. Whenever he visits other universities to lecture, he tries to also go to basketball practice and meet the coaches. These days he’s a runner, and although he spent Marathon Sunday this year giving a talk in Syracuse, he has run the New York City Marathon 12 times. Having just turned 56, he figures that since age 40 he has run 23,000 miles. In two years, when he expects to reach 25,000 miles — the distance around the world — he’s planning a big celebration, inviting all his running partners.

“Like most highly dedicated sports people of my generation, I value competition to the core of my being and am blessed, as a middle-aged man, to be battling still for playing position,” he writes.

Sports are in his genes: His father, Jack Gurock, was an amateur wrestler who — fearing his immigrant parents’ disapproval of the sport — adopted the name Jack Austin for his competitions. A photo of him along with his 1936 wrestling team at the 92nd Street Y appears on the book jacket. As an adult, the author’s father played handball and softball. His mother was proud of her claim that as a girl in the Bronx, she played handball with Hank Greenberg.

For Gurock, playing sports brings him close to God.

“My marathon experience has a certain spiritual dimension,” he says. “When you run a marathon, you are testing yourself, your own personal limits, your ability to run 26 miles. You need something to motivate you. To feel that God is pushing you along makes me feel closer to the Almighty.”

He adds, “Before every marathon, I say a prayer that God should be with me.”


Clearing the Air About Allergies

Scary statistic to contemplate: About 10 to 15 percent of kids suffer from allergies, and the rate has been rising steadily for the past 20 years. Though no one knows why allergies are skyrocketing, we do know what causes them. Allergies are an immunological “overreaction” to a substance that enters the body through airborne particles such as pollen, skin contact, or ingested foods. Though this may sound quite simple, allergies are notoriously tricky to diagnose. The symptoms are remarkably diverse, varied in degree, and easy to confuse with other ailments.

1. If your child has cold symptoms that seem to drag on forever, allergies may be the real culprit. Does your child get endless but fever-free head colds — complete with sniffling, sneezing, itchy nose, watery eyes, and noisy mouth-breathing? Could be that she’s suffering from perennial allergic rhinitis, the body’s unhappy response to such year-round allergens as dust mites and animal dander.

How to handle: Talk to your pediatrician about whether your child should be evaluated by an allergist/immunologist; a skin test can identify what triggers your child’s symptoms. Once the results are in, you can work on minimizing the presence of the offending triggers. But unless you plan to lock your child in a mold-free closet for the rest of his life, complete elimination isn’t always possible. Over-the-counter oral antihistamines and decongestants can help, but they can be sedating. Ask your doctor whether the prescription drug Claritin, a nonsedating antihistamine, is an option; it’s approved for use by children age 6 and older.

2. If your child experiences these same symptoms, but they always strike in spring or summertime, you’re probably dealing with seasonal allergic rhinitis. Sometimes inaccurately called hay fever, this kind of allergy can actually be triggered by an array of pollens that become airborne as plants bloom. Need further help diagnosing your child? Look for this give-away, says Dr. June Engel, a biochemist and author of “The Complete Allergy Book”: Since your child’s nose will be itching like crazy, he may well do what’s known as “the allergic salute” — he’ll rub the palm of his hand upward against the tip of his nose to relieve the itching.

How to handle: Electric bills be damned: You may want to shut the windows and run air-conditioning during the height of the season to minimize pollen entering your home, says Dr. Francis V. Adams, pulmonary specialist and assistant professor of clinical medicine at New York University Medical School. Check with your pediatrician for advice on which antihistamines to try, and keep in mind that this medication actually prevents symptoms rather than cures them, so use them at the first hint of seasonal rhinitis.

3. Wheezing, coughing, tightness of the chest, and shortness of breath are usually hallmarks of asthma, an allergic condition in which the bronchial tubes narrow and the lungs become congested due to inflammation. Triggers may be anything from dust mites to mold to animal dander to cigarette smoke. Complicating matters still more, exercise has been known to bring on episodes, and in about 80 percent of cases, a viral infection will kick off the reaction. Typically, a child with asthma will experience his first symptoms before age 3.

How to handle: If your child wheezes or you have any other reason to suspect asthma, contact your pediatrician right away.

Obviously, you’ll want to keep your child away from the specific allergens and irritants as much as possible (warning: this may mean finding the family pet a new home). Beyond that, your child should have a bronchodilator spray available to be used whenever he feels wheezy and take an anti-inflammatory drug on a regular basis to keep his airways open. If your child ever seems to be struggling for breath and his medication doesn’t bring relief, bring him to the emergency room immediately.

4. When raised red patches crop up on your child’s skin, you’re probably dealing with hives. Hives can be an allergic reaction, commonly to an insect sting or food (peanuts, for instance).

How to handle: Of course, avoiding your child’s triggers is the best defense. But if your child is afflicted, be on the lookout for those cases of hives that can turn deadly: “If your kid brushes up against a tree and gets only a hive or two, it’s nothing to be concerned about; treat the itchiness with an over-the-counter oral antihistamine such as Benadryl,” says Dr. Jack Becker, chief of the allergy section at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. “But if all of a sudden he feels funny — that’s how a child will typically describe the sensation — has trouble breathing and is breaking out in hives all over, that’s extremely serious.”

This can progress to a potentially deadly condition known as anaphylactic shock, in which the tongue and throat swell up, cutting off the child’s air supply. If your child ever does show these symptoms, call for an ambulance immediately.

The deadly stage of the reaction might not hit until 10 hours later — when you mistakenly think everything’s back to normal. Also, get a Medic Alert bracelet or some other kind of identification that will let emergency workers know what the problem is in case you’re not present.

Beth Levine is a writer whose essays have appeared in Redbook, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, the Chicago Tribune, USA Weekend and Newsday.


Listen Well


A number of years ago we spent a family weekend in Palm Springs. I asked my kids what they wanted to do. First mistake: Never ask your kids what they want to do on vacation. It’s guaranteed to be something you can’t do.

My daughters answered, “Let’s go ice skating.”

I looked at them and said, “I don’t know how to ice skate.”

They looked at me incredulously and said, “That isn’t a problem, just learn.”

With such an answer I couldn’t refuse their request.

As I was trying to keep my balance on the ice and not break any bones, an old lady screamed from the side of the ring: “Hey mister, you really don’t know how to skate.”

What a brilliant lady, I thought.

But then she screamed instructions: “Bend your knees more.”

She didn’t let up. Suddenly she screamed, “What is wrong with you, can’t you hear me?”

I suddenly stopped, ran into the wall and looked right into her eyes, begging for compassion, and said, “Lady, it’s hard trying to learn how to do this at my age.”

She looked at me without any compassion and said, “You should be ashamed giving such an answer. I was a teacher for 50 years. The one thing I know is that you can learn anything in life if you do two things: One, put your mind to it, and two, listen well.”

Those words of advice are essential as one learns this week’s Torah portion.

From the very opening word in this week’s parsha one realizes concentration is crucial if one is to achieve any understanding. The medieval commentator, Rashi, wondered why the Torah opened this portion with the words, “And these are the laws,” and not simply, “These are the laws.” He answers that whenever a portion of the Torah begins with the expression, “these,” it signals a discontinuity with whatever preceded it. But whenever the wording “And these” appears, it connects the present discussion with the previous one. The discussion of Revelation at Sinai from last week’s reading, notes Rashi, connects with this week’s Torah reading. Just like the Ten Commandments took place at Sinai, so, too, this portion devoted to civil laws was also taught at Sinai.

This, however, is most perplexing, for where else was Torah taught if not at Sinai? The late 20th century rabbinic thinker, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his masterful work, Pahad Yitzhak, suggests that the connection between the two Torah portions addresses popular confusion. If you ask people what comprises a religious duty, they answer: praying, fasting etc…. But if you would ask, if giving food to the poor or assisting one’s fellow man is a religious duty, they will say: “That is morality not religion.” They have a distorted view, argues Hutner, that religion contains only ritual laws, but laws that concern our interaction with others are not of religious consequence.

It was this very point that led the 19th century commentator on Rashi, the Be’er Yitzhak, to note that revelation at Sinai involved a tremendous miracle. Rashi had commented that when God revealed the Ten Commandments, it occurred in two stages. The first stage was something man can’t imitate. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said all of the Ten Commandments in one utterance.” God said each of the commandments at the very same moment. But then there was stage two: “He went back and repeated each and every commandment by itself.”

The Be’er Yitzhak wonders why God had to reveal the commandments in such a fashion. He answers that God said all of the commandments together so that no one should think that any one commandment is more important than any other. You might think that the ritual laws, which are Nos. 1-4, are more important since they are listed first. Of course custom requires that we list items and something has to be No. 1 followed by No. 2, etc…. The message, however, is that all commandments, whether they deal with God and man, or man and his interaction with his fellow man, are equal in God’s eyes.

Not long ago I met with a young man who is in the music business. In an almost confessional fashion he told me, “Rabbi, I am not that religious.”

I answered him, “I don’t know if you are religious or not, but please don’t get the word ‘religion’ and the word ‘observance’ confused.”

He was shocked, and asked what I meant.

I said that just because one is observant and keeps all of the ritual laws, that doesn’t make one a religious human being. A religious person is one who observes both the ritual and moral laws. Ritual observance alone doesn’t make one a religious individual.

When the woman at the ice rink said to me, “Remember, listen well for when you do you really can achieve anything,” she was, in effect, summarizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim: Listen to the words of Torah and you can achieve a just society.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.


The Mickey Rule

My brother Mickey works with teens and adults as a mental health counselor. Mickey began his counseling career while he was a teenager. Like many talented people who begin their careers with a significant bang, he gave me advice on teenage dating that was so profound, so far-reaching, that only in my 40s, as a divorced man, did I realize its importance.

Had I diligently followed what I call, "The Mickey Rule," my life and certainly my postdivorce dating would have taken a different path. When I was in my tender teen years, Mickey said, "Do you want to be happy? Then don’t sleep with anyone crazier than you."

For those separated or newly divorced, truer words were never spoken. For many of my friends, and even me, the crazy time of divorce attracts those equally crazy or worse.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that states: "If you are going through a convulsive experience, you ought to be open to those with equally or more compelling issues." Whatever happened to: "Put your own mask on first, then, tighten the straps before you try to assist others"?

Still, way too many of us violate the Mickey Rule. Following my separation, I began dating someone who initially met four criteria her predecessor lacked, and so happy was I at getting those four met, I forgot about the other 20 criteria that also mattered. 1) She was an out-of-stater, and only in my world on my per-incident invitation. 2) She had a quality I so admire in a woman: a lot of interest in me. 3) She possessed an attitude toward sexuality I had previously only seen on Animal Planet. 4) She was cute. I mean really cute.

What I didn’t initially realize was that she was also certifiably nuts. Not eccentric, not wacky. I’m talking her own, personal DSM-IV classification. She probably thought "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" was a documentary.

Her out-of-town status gave her time to straighten up for my short visits. Her profound interest in me masked a pathological unwillingness to attend to her own needs. Her libido, well, that would later prove to not be worth the cost of entry. If she had been local, her tenure in my life would have lasted about as long as your average JDate drive-by coffee meeting. But she lasted longer. In fact, the break up took longer than the actual relationship. I was low-hanging fruit in this experience, but I was a volunteer in the orchard.

Why do we go for insane people?

There are many answers, and in the name of service, let me offer some tips. First a disclaimer: I have been divorced for almost nine years. Today, I am in a loving relationship with a woman who is my peer, my passion and one of my heroes. I had several postdivorce relationships (you know the score, first you get appointed, and then you get disappointed) and I enjoy a great collaborative relationship with my former spouse, whom I respect. I am a lucky man. Now, let’s return to our regular programming.

We go for crazy people because we don’t understand our criteria in a partner. I think women are generally clearer on what they are looking for than us men. Some guys like an organic approach to defining wants (e.g., "I’ll learn on the job"). Others just pick a single quality and hone in on that item. Once, following a relationship with an esthetician, I temporarily only picked JDate women with great eyebrows. I wouldn’t recommend that one as criteria. I could see it leading to the "Crazy Person’s Full Employment Act."

We attract where we are at. You see it in spades among folks searching for a financial/emotional/spiritual rescue. Instead of attracting someone to rescue them, they seem to only pull in people who also need rescuing. So, before you look at a person, look in the mirror. Ask yourself if their tsuris is drowning out your ability to deal with your own stuff. Or what is it about you that really attracts them?

We often don’t understand the risks of physical chemistry. Physical chemistry is like Botox — a little of it smoothes wrinkles and a lot of it paralyzes you. Don’t get me wrong, I admire physical beauty (hell, my partner is downright yummy) and I understand why supermodels get paid big bucks. But physical chem ain’t enough, not even here in Los Angeles. Here’s a little test to see if you are misaligned on the importance of physical beauty: Close your eyes and listen to the object of your affection talk for a minimum of two paragraphs. If their personal stock price drops while your eyes are closed, you may have a problem.

Chemistry is not correlated with human goodness. Remind yourself often that you can have great chem with some very wrong people. But remember, it’s not your job to judge your exes. That’s the responsibility of the criminal justice system.

If you think being in a relationship with a crazy person is bad, wait till you break up with them. Welcome to "bunny boiling." The key to avoiding a category-five hurricane is to do something I once failed to do: effective pre-breakup planning. Remember to remove all personal possessions from their home before the announcement. The key is denying the loon a huge number of opportunities to hijack the normal exchange of personal possessions and turn it into a series of bad Tennessee Williams dramas.

Applying the Mickey Rule. Is there hope once you embrace the Mickey Rule? Despite the mourning that we all go through after one of these experiences, most everyone winds up being loved better than they were before.

For me, it was simply a matter of becoming the person I wanted to attract. I did it a little later in life, but nevertheless, just in time.

Thanks, Mick.

Sam Shmikler is a writer living in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at sam@shmikler.com.

Is Tomato Sauce a Vegetable?

"I hate this healthy food. It’s tasteless and disgusting," says Gabe, my 17-year-old son.

He’s protesting the culinary revolution taking place in our kitchen. The white rice that is now brown, the white bread that is now whole wheat and the Cheetos that have morphed into Lite Cheddar Puffs.

But the most egregious of the new foods, in Gabe’s view, are the soy meatballs, which, breaking every rule for developing a trustworthy parent-child relationship, I try to pass off as turkey, hiding them under a pile of spaghetti.

He takes a bite and runs to the sink, where he spits out the offending mouthful.

"What is this?" he demands. "Why can’t we have normal foods?"

Yes, normal foods. To Gabe, who has never eaten a fruit or vegetable in his life, unless you count tomato sauce and onions, these are french fries, bagels, sodas and pizzas. Foods that have contributed, the surgeon general says, to tripling the number of overweight adolescents over the last two decades to 14 percent of all 13- to 19-year-olds.

My husband Larry and I don’t want to add to these statistics. Nor do we want to contribute to the $238 billion already spent annually, according to the American Obesity Association, for weight-related conditions.

It’s a tough "re-education" process. But one not unfamiliar to Judaism, which gives us the concept of shmirat haguf, the obligation to guard one’s physical health. As Maimonides says, "One must avoid that which harms the body and accustom oneself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger." Or, as we used to say in the ’60s: "You are what you eat."

The laws of kashrut assist in fulfilling this obligation, not, as some people assume, by ensuring that the foods we consume are hygienically safe but rather by elevating the act of eating to a spiritual realm. And even those of us who don’t keep strictly kosher (though we vegetarians are practically there), as Jews, ideally, we have a reverence for life and an awareness of pure and impure foods.

"You shall not eat anything abhorrent," the Torah (Deuteronomy 14:3) tells us. And while the Torah is referring to camels, rabbits, badgers and pigs, I would today include foods that that are high in fat and sugar and low in nutritional value. Foods that have been injected with hormones and antibiotics or treated with pesticides. Foods with a shelf life longer than the average life span.

"The more you can eat foods in their original state and the less they are messed with, the better," my friend Debby says. "But try telling that to any red-blooded American adolescent."

We get mixed messages in the United States, the land of overabundance and overindulgence, where, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 100 million Americans are overweight. Yet another 32.9 million Americans, including 11.7 million children, live below the poverty line, often facing barren cupboards at the end of the month when paychecks and Food Stamps run dry.

But this is the United States, where the abhorrent has become the obscene; where food is grabbed, gobbled and guzzled on the run; where single servings are super-sized; and where advertisers hawk green and purple ketchup, neon blue "funky" fries and pizza that magically (read chemically) changes colors.

Judaism gives us no mixed messages, however. Judaism teaches us, unequivocally, that the act of eating is holy: that we must be thankful for our food, that we must be reverent toward life, and that we must feed the hungry.

But to complicate matters, Judaism also gives us, save for the fast days, no occasion in which we don’t eat. In fact, Judaism practically mandates specific holiday foods. What is Shabbat, for example, without noodle kugel? Or Chanukah without latkes, Purim without hamentashen or Shavuot without blintzes? And try making a low-fat, healthier version of these favorites, as I did with noodle kugel.

"No offense, Mom," says Danny, 13, "but this isn’t very good."

Nevertheless, Larry and I continue to battle our kids’ propensity for junk food, reinforced by peer pressure and scores of food-related advertisements, all with unhealthy messages, that bombard them on a daily basis. And we receive no shortage of well-intentioned advice.

"Eat more protein," my pediatrician recommends.

"Eat five or six mini meals a day," a nutritionist advises.

"Eat carrots," my grandmother used to say.

But there are no easy answers — only temptations, good intentions, bad eating days and difficult choices. And those days when drive-though fast food is the best we parents can manage.

And, of course, there is the issue of balance.

"Why does everything have to be healthy, healthy, healthy?" asks Jeremy, 15. "Why don’t you ever have a double scoop of ice cream and a caramel Frappuccino? Live it up and be happy."

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

Letting Go of Marlene

Four years ago, Marlene Adler Marks called me to ask for advice. At the time we had known each other for several years, but we
were not close friends.

After she called me, we embarked on one of the most profound journeys: I shared from my experiences in life and she shared her Judaism. (I had come to my Jewish study late in life.) We often debated. We laughed a lot. We both worked hard with the notion of acceptance. We spent a great deal of time discussing the nature of a power greater than ourselves. I call this power God. We talked about God both in and out of Jewish tradition. Although for me, and I suspect for Marlene, there was no “out” of Jewish tradition.

In December 2000, when she was diagnosed with cancer, it seemed to throw all the things we discussed into a weirdly ominous perspective. As the disease took over, I became one of the honored friends there with her through the living-close-to-death process. When I held Marlene’s hand and the hand of her close friends in a circle as she took her last breath, it was one of the most powerful moments in my life.

I have missed Marlene this year. I missed her when we — her friends and family — gathered in her sukkah. I missed being able to rant about all the drinking on Purim. I missed her Passover seder.

I have missed talking to Marlene. I have missed our discussions on Saturday morning walking to and from Torah study at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades. Although, I must admit, I still talk as I walk. I miss our discussions about the Torah portions. I miss being able to share my Jewish learning with her. I took Hebrew classes with the b’nai mitzvah class at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I was just doing it to learn Hebrew. She probably would have argued with me for not going through the whole process.

I miss that I couldn’t talk to her about my participation in a Sabbath with Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, who is well known for his work with addiction. That was my first Orthodox Sabbath, walking among several synagogues for services, meals and lectures in the La Brea and Beverly area on Friday evening and all day Saturday. (It was retreat sponsored by Young Israel of Venice and Young Israel of Hancock Park.) It was very far out of my realm of experience.

I missed being able to discuss my neurotic anguish over receiving a volunteer award from Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. I understand the “rewards” of volunteering not the “awards.” I know Marlene would have had a good laugh over that one.

I would have loved to talk to her about how I have, in a sense, started to collect rabbis, much in the way that she did; in my case it’s women rabbis. I suppose I’m still working out my relationships with those strong authority figures in my life — my mother, Sylvia, and her sisters, Aunt Helen and Aunt Rose (see Marlene’s column “We’re Talking Chopped Liver,” from May 23, 1997). They’re all gone now, and I have replaced them with three wise women — Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Sheryl Lewart and Rabbi Karen Fox. I’m not going to share which is my mother and which is my aunt, but I would have with Marlene.

I had never thought it was correct Judaism to participate at more than one synagogue, that it was somehow disloyal. But Marlene taught me to push my narrow vision of the Jewish envelope.

And, of course, I miss discussing politics. We would have had discussions about the Middle East, Israel, the war in Iraq, the nature of the Bush presidency and now our zany, troubling gubernatorial recall.

We are in the month of Elul, and I’m taking inventory of my year. Much of the year for me was about how I dealt with my grief; it was about the process of letting go. I was powerless over Marlene’s death. Yet I do believe that there is a power greater than I, and I’ve made a decision to let God help me with my grief.

Two days before Marlene died, I stayed at her house. The disease at that point was causing her a great deal of discomfort. When we spoke in the morning (a Monday), she was trying to decide if she was up to writing her column. She wanted to write a Rosh Hashanah column. I suggested that it would still be Rosh Hashanah the following week and maybe she could take the week off. It turned out she was too uncomfortable to write, and by Wednesday morning she walked into the hospital only to live another 35 hours.

The night before Marlene died, I was holding her hand at 3 a.m. She was unconscious. I was trying to sleep in the hospital chair. Suddenly, I felt this energy from her surge through my hand into my body. I was jolted awake. I felt energized, and not knowing what else to do I took out my sketchbook and began to draw a picture of Marlene.

This month, a year after Marlene’s death, her energy is still ever-present. For me, this process of looking at the past year and cleaning house has somehow opened my heart up to idea of letting go. And now I feel that the energy from somebody I came to love is not lost.

There is no question in my mind that this is how God works.

Rona Frances is an artist/architectural space planner living in West Los Angeles.


Two summers ago, I was staying with an old Cornell buddy in Manhattan – we’ll call him Andrew – who was in a state of despair over his personal life. Andrew – a thoughtful, introverted individual – never quite felt comfortable in large social situations. Even during the height of hedonism (college), I remember how he would eschew the party scene to pull workaholic all-nighters.

But on this sunny August afternoon in 1999, Andrew was more miserable and depressed than a 29-year-old had the right to be. He had gotten mixed up with a fellow teacher at the small elementary school for kids with special needs where he worked and was now trying to extricate himself from this doomed affair. She would not stop hectoring him at home, and work became a hotbed of uninvited drama.

Andrew asked me for advice but soon regretted it, because my prescription for happiness was a bitter pill. I suggested that he needed to be more proactive in his soulmate search: singles functions, parties, maybe open a JDate account. He balked at that notion, as clearly it was not his style. I said, “Look, I’m not nuts about it either, but no man ever found a girlfriend by spending the weekend in the dark, curled up in a fetal position on the floor, like a scene out of ‘Trainspotting.'”

Among those activities that Andrew would no doubt have rejected is Aish HaTorah’s Speed Dating. Two years ago, you couldn’t anticipate a sillier concept than this round-robin-style mixer boasting seven dates in 70 minutes (save for the idea of a deadlocked election decided by a Florida recount). Yet Speed Dating has become nothing less than a smash since its 1999 debut, now regularly staged by Aish in cities all over the globe, including London, New York, Sydney, Kiev, Toronto, and, of course, Los Angeles, where it all began.

Now add another feather to Aish’s shtreimel: SpeedDating.com, the newly launched Web site that transposes the concept to the Internet.

Here’s how it works: For $60 per year, members complete a profile complete with uploaded photo, then check the site regularly for SpeedDating.com events. Players have seven minutes to chat online with each virtual “date.” After round seven, they receive e-mails with match results. If both participants test positive, e-mails are exchanged.

Based out of Aish HaTorah’s Jerusalem offices, SpeedDating.com may be a long cry from the days of meeting your mate at a sock hop. But as gimmicky as it sounds, stranger things have happened on the road to finding one’s beshert.

Take Andrew. Something from our conversation must have stuck, because by the time I visited him again earlier this year, Andrew was gushing about the new woman he met… online. As it turns out, Andrew had posted a profile at a dating Web site, from which he received exactly one response – from a 26-year-old Chicago-based attorney planning on moving back to New York. Before they knew it, a casual e-mail exchange had escalated to photos, then visits. I myself started receiving uncharacteristic e-mails from Andrew gushing over his new girlfriend in a way that I had never seen him gush before in our decade-plus friendship. Before Andrew flew out to Chicago in May to help his new girlfriend move, I told him that their trip from the Windy City to the Big Apple would be the ultimate test: After being sardined in a U-Haul for many hours and hundreds of miles, they would know if they could go the distance, relationship-wise. They passed with flying colors.

And to say that they hit it off is to say the least: Andrew proposed in October. As I continue with singles functions and the occasional online date, I savor the larger irony that Andrew – so vehemently opposed to finding love online – may now have to repeat that story of how they met for all of eternity to friends, family, future progeny. It goes to show: Nobody ever really knows from which seemingly crazy avenue, blind alley – or information superhighway – one’s soul connection might emerge.

Dear Deborah

Dear Deborah,

My girlfriend of three months, some friends, one of her employees and I went out to dinner the other night. This employee is a friend of my girlfriend’s, and they socialize frequently. The problem I have with this employee-friend is that sheis competitive and always publicly puts down my girlfriend, whodoesn’t seem to notice or care. When I point it out, she dismisses it and says that the employee-friend has a good heart, is loyal andindispensable to her business. My girlfriend has asked me to keep my opinions about her friend to myself, and she thinks I am simply jealous of their closeness. I do not think this is true at all. I don’t feel jealous; I just don’t like this woman, because she doesn’ttreat my girlfriend right — as an employee or as a friend.

I have kept my mouth shut, but I think that the employee-friend went overboard the other night. While my girlfriend went to the ladies’ room, I believe that her so-called friend hit on me. She touched my leg, said that it was too bad I was “taken,” and asked me to have a drink with her some time. I was speechless and just brushed off the comment.

My dilemma is whether or not to tell my girlfriend. On the one hand, she’s asked me not to discuss this woman, and I am afraid of losing my girlfriend. On the other hand, I feel protective of her and believe that she ought to know the truth.Please advise.


Dear H.,

What is with the gag rule? If you are afraid oflosing your girlfriend by telling her what happened with heremployee-friend, then be certain that in order to continue thisrelationship, you are signing up for a future bound by the fear ofspeaking your mind — and always feeling more dispensable than heremployee.

Is that OK with you? Because whether or not shelikes you, if you do not like who you become when you are with her,the relationship won’t fly far.

Trauma Revisited

Dear Deborah,

A friend, “Mary,” who lives far from me, asked ifI would befriend a widow friend of hers, “Sue,” who was moving to anapartment right in the area I live in; she was alone now and lonely.Mary asked me to show Sue various areas so that she could drive tothem for shopping, doctor visits, et al. I agreed to do so.

But meeting Sue brought back a flood of unpleasantmemories for me. I was horrified to see that she looked virtuallylike a twin to this unpleasant, obnoxious, mentally ill neighbor Ihad when I lived back East 15 years ago.

Out of the goodness of my heart, I showed Suearound, and she was grateful. Now, she keeps calling me, asking me tojoin her for lunch or a movie, and I have to keep making excuses thatI am busy and have little time. But she is persistent and doesn’twant to take “no” for an answer.

Now, Deborah, I really want to make a clean break.Although she is a nice woman, I can’t face looking at her and thememories of that awful neighbor. Can you suggest how I can handlethis so that I can make a graceful, clean break?


Dear X.,

The ideal, of course, is to realize that as achild, you did not understand the concept of mental illness, so theneighbor was perceived as “obnoxious” or even evil. To be able toextract the trauma from the memory by donning adult lenses mightneutralize the memory and free you to form a new friendship withSue.

But, of course, life is usually not so simple. Ifyou can’t do it, you can’t do it. So why not tell her the truth?Either she’ll be hurt or she won’t. Anyway, after hearing yourreasons for not wanting to befriend her, she herself may lose hereagerness for your company.

Kosher Bind

Dear Deborah,

I have been married eight years to a wonderfulman. We have a 4-year-old daughter and had hoped to have anotherchild soon. What is stopping me is that my husband has been graduallybecoming more and more religious and demanding that I go there withhim.

When we got together, we were at the same level ofobservance and belief. Now, he wants our home to be kosher and tobecome Sabbath-observant. I had always enjoyed the traditions of ourreligion; however, I don’t believe these changes would be true tomyself. I don’t mind kosher so much, but the Shabbat observance woulddrive me crazy. I don’t believe I could do it.

I am sick with worry about what will become of us,but my husband is becoming more and more inflexible about his beliefsand about what I should become if I “really loved him.” Pleasehelp.


Dear S.,

Sounds like your marriage is about to take itsfirst and, with hope, not its last trip to the abyss. Some people maycomfortably take on observance for the sake of another with orwithout the requisite belief system. For example, you stated that youwouldn’t mind being kosher for the sake of holding on to your”wonderful” husband.

If, however, you take on practices that will makeyou resentful, then your marriage will eventually suffer from abuildup of bitterness — a great killer of marital contentment. It iscrucial that the two of you resolve this now, and that you both knowthat you stand at the abyss. Understand what not resolving this willmean. And get the necessary help to arrive at a resolution, whetherit’s with a mutually agreed upon rabbi or a therapist.

Forcing another into any behavior may constitute ashort-term win; however, for a marriage to go the distance, bothspouses must feel that the compromises aren’t always coming from thesame side of the mechitza.

Deborah Berger-Reiss is a West Los Angelespsychotherapist. All letters toDear Deborahrequire a name, address and telephone number for purposes ofverification. Names will, of course, be withheld upon request. Ourreaders should know that when names are used in a letter, they arefictitious.

Dear Deborah welcomes your letters. Responses canbe given only in the newspaper. Send letters to Deborah Berger-Reiss,1800 S. Robertson Blvd., Ste. 927, Los Angeles, CA 90035. You canalso send E-mail: deborahb@primenet.com

Dear Deborah

Untitled, by Rose Mandel, 1947. Photofrom Catalogue of Pacific Dreams (Armand Hammer Museum 1995)

Middle-Aged Marriage

Dear Deborah,

Why is it so much more difficult to recover fromour middle-age marital difficulties than it was when we were in our20s? We used to be able to bounce back so quickly, and now, 22 yearslater, we seem to brood for weeks before we forget about it and moveon.


Dear Confused,

A long-term marriage can be like a 20-car pileup– especially if the difficulties are not resolved and just glossedover and “forgotten.” An unresolved dispute sits in the middle of themarital path, waiting to be hit by the next one, and so forth. If, onthe other hand, you resolve most of your disagreements as they arise,the marriage grows stronger by the year, and the road is clear for asmooth marital journey.

The Creep Factor

Dear Deborah,

My girlfriend is dating a creep. He is smart,charming and handsome, and I enjoyed meeting him and had no problemwith him at all. In fact, I liked him.

Then another, very reliable and trustworthy friendand I were chatting about our mutual girlfriend having a newboyfriend. When I mentioned his name, my friend paled and started totell me horror stories about him. She had been in the same socialcircle as the “creep” and his ex-wife. There were stories of lies,cheating and financial irresponsibility that were serious.

My friend has now been dating this man for about 21/2 months and seems to be getting serious about him. Do I tell herand risk losing a friend? Do I attempt to protect her and tell herthe truth? This is so upsetting because I am invited to socializewith them and I dread being around them, knowing what I know. What todo?

Confused Pal

Dear Pal,

Sticky one. First of all, what you heard is notnecessarily the whole truth. Your “reliable, trustworthy” friend mayhave heard only the ex-wife’s side of things or possibly has an ax togrind. So, as you make your decision, bear in mind the danger ofacting upon secondhand information. Is it possible to discreetlycheck another source?

Second, there is always the risk, no matter howjudicious your approach, that you might blow the friendship bytelling her.

But does that mean you shouldn’t tell her? Notnecessarily. Especially if you believe that she is naïve enoughor in love enough to be blinded to his faults. Is she so far gonethat you could toe-tag her? If so, perhaps you ought consider thatthe risk of your friend getting badly burned is worth the potentialloss of friendship. If you lose the friendship and the boyfriend endsup being true to his tag, she’ll be knocking on your door soonenough.

Anyway, since, as it stands, you don’t want tosocialize with the new boyfriend for his alleged “creep” qualities,the loss may be inevitable either way.

Should you decide to talk to your friend, she willask for details, and you must scrupulously say nothing other thanthat the talk had not been specific. All this will, of course, throwher into a state, so be prepared.

You could end up a hero or a friendless gossip.It’s your call. In any case, in the name of friendship, you are goingwell out of your way to arrive at the right decision. May thatknowledge give you peace in whatever decision you make.

Overprotective Mom?

Dear Deborah,

I’ve been married for three years and have a2-year-old daughter. Sometimes, I drop my daughter off at my in-laws’house for baby-sitting. Recently, while I was over their house, myhusband’s mother was changing my daughter’s soiled diaper.”Peeee-yoooo,” she said. “Wow! You really made a smell! Peeee-yoooo.”She was smiling when she said it, but I was horrified. I told herthat I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to make such a bigdeal about a soiled diaper and make my daughter feel bad. My husbandtold me later that I was micro-managing the way his mother was takingcare of our daughter. He said that the diaper episode was not a bigdeal and that I was making too big an issue out of it.

About a month later, when my daughter was at theirhouse again, some neighbors came over. My daughter got scared and hidher head. “Oh, she is sooo shy,” my mother-in-law said. She keptsaying it over and over. I started getting mad but didn’t sayanything.

Am I being too picky about the way mymother-in-law talks to my daughter? She is a nice lady most of thetime and does treat my daughter with a lot of love. I don’t know howto react.

New Mom

Dear New Mom,

From generation to generation, parentingtechniques change, and, of course, each parent believes that his orher own methods to be the best. But, really, occasional visits toloving grandparents whose behaviors do not agree with your own arenot likely to hurt your child. After all, their techniques producedthe child who grew up to be a good enough man for you tomarry.

Throughout her life, your child will meet up withall manner of people, and, if at home, you are instilling in herself-esteem and good values, her sense of self will prevail, and shewill eventually learn how to navigate smoothly through people’sdifferences. *

Deborah Berger-Reiss is a West Los Angelespsychotherapist.

All letters to DearDeborah require a name, address andtelephone number for purposes of verification. Names will, of course,be withheld upon request. Our readers should know that when names areused in a letter, they are fictitious.

Dear Deborah welcomes your letters. Responses canbe given only in the newspaper. Send letters to Deborah Berger-Reiss,1800 S. Robertson Blvd., Ste. 927, Los Angeles, CA 90035. You canalso send E-mail: deborahb@primenet.com