Public Reactions Are Strong to A Personal Journey


Los Angeles photographer Naomi Solomon capped off her informal summer presentation series “Settlers: A Photographic Journey of the Life and Disengagement of the Jews Living in Gaza” at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills last week, drawing more than 150 people.

Her evocative slide-show was a culmination of her personal explorations of life in Judea, Samaria and Gaza that began with her initial visit in 2002 to the mixed secular-religious Judean outpost, Ma’aleh Rechavam, and continued through the Gaza disengagement of August 2005.

After months of post-production since her return to Los Angeles, Solomon created a show of 100 select photos, which she has presented largely to Orthodox synagogues in the L.A. area. However, she says her mission to portray the diversity, humanity and culture of settlers and settlement life through her photographs is far from complete.

“My focus now is to branch out of local synagogues,” Solomon told the Jewish Journal in a telephone interview.

Predicting a particularly strong anti-Zionist sentiment on campuses this year, she plans to secure speaking engagements at universities, as well as at Reform and Conservative synagogues. Synagogues of all streams, however, have sometimes been reluctant to host her, as they fear that her presentation is too “political,” a fear that Solomon attributes, in part, to her provocative title.

While in her presentation Solomon makes clear her stance against unilateral withdrawals, she asserts that her aim is to “share her experience” rather than her political opinions.

“My goal is to unravel a human story within a political tornado,” she said.
Her photographs range from romantic scenes of settlers building homes, tilling land, playing guitar and surfing on the Gaza coast, to the more emotion-packed scenes of settlers protesting and soldiers evacuating settlers and demolishing their homes.

Solomon cannot say with any certainty that the recent war in Lebanon has drawn more interest in her work, although she believes her presentation is already changing perceptions. At the end of the recent show at Nessah, which climaxed with the image of the gates of Gaza closing, many congregants were tearful and the hall was silent. She related that on several occasions audience members came up to her afterward and retracted their support for the disengagement.

Your Inner Joseph


Each of us lives a spiritual journey. One of greatest tasks in life is to know our journey, to understand its contours and what it demands of us. The Torah teaches us these journeys, these paths into our center.

As Genesis ends this week with Vayechi, Jacob pronounces blessings for his sons, often using word play with their names. It seems that the names their mothers chose for them (all but Benjamin, who was named by Jacob) set a destiny for them; their names, in turn, created their lives. From this we might learn that each of us has an inner name that identifies our spiritual journey.

Understanding our inner lives in terms of narratives and themes of a sacred text is often referred to as archetypal psychology. The major characters and moments are not just historical (or ahistorical, according to some), they are signs for us, as well, maps to our inner lives. As we study the characters and themes of Genesis carefully, especially as they are elucidated in the rabbinic and mystical commentaries, we are alerted to the tensions, themes and potentials of our own inner lives.

The spiritual assumption is that Torah and our own souls emanate from the same origin, from the Soul of the Universe. Our souls and Torah share the same essence, but are in different forms. Torah is what links us to the Holy One. Torah contains our narratives. And from studying Torah, we begin to see our own narratives peering out at us.

One of my favorite narratives is that of Esau, older brother of Jacob and putative inheritor of his father, Isaac. But his mother, Rebecca, has received word from God that Jacob is to inherit, not Esau. Unbeknownst to Esau, forces are in motion to deprive him of that which was his.

Or was it his?

The narrative seems to be telling us that some things to which we have a right or a claim are not truly ours. Esau seems to know this when he comes in from the field, utterly exhausted. He sells the birthright for a bowl of stew. One tradition says he was exhausted trying to be something he wasn’t — the kind of person who would inherit his father’s world. He didn’t despise the birthright per se, but rather he hated his own fraudulence, trying to be something he was not.

Jacob, the trickster, set the world right. Esau, in a moment of truth, gave it to his brother. And, like many of us, he forgot the clarity in that moment of truth, only to gain it again as an older man, when he truly forgave Jacob. When he forgave Jacob, one might say, he truly became himself.

Take the story of Joseph, who is sold off as a slave after drawing the wrath of his brothers. Joseph rises to prominence in the house of Potiphar, only to fall to scandal after spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He sits in an Egyptian prison, certainly bemoaning his fate.

As he sits in prison, he thinks and considers. His brothers hated him because he was his father’s favorite. He was his father’s favorite because he was the first born of his mother Rachel, whom his father dearly loved, and who died birthing Joseph’s only full brother, Benjamin. Being his father’s favorite, he thought himself special, above others. He put on airs.

Of course his brothers hated him; of course his father favored him. Deep human forces were put into action by his father Jacob having to marry Leah, who bore those half-brothers of his, who always resented his being the favorite. Deep human forces were put into action by the death of his mother, placing his father in unbalanced grief. Perhaps as he sat in prison, Joseph realized the tragedy of it all; tragedy mixed with human frailty.

Perhaps Joseph now remembered himself back to his old games in the house of Potiphar, unconsciously (or not) flirting with Mrs. Potiphar. Joseph came to know himself in that prison. Later in life, he would engineer reconciliation with his brothers, breathtaking in its pathos and elegance.

As we read that story, some of us who may be feeling sorry for ourselves will come to know the tragedy of it all, and our part in the tragedy. And perhaps instead of ruminating on hatred and revenge, we dream up the possibilities for healing.

We have our Esau moments, our Joseph moments (and moments of the rest of matriarchs, patriarchs and other characters in Genesis).

If we don’t know that inner narrative, the name of our journey, our own lives are often a mystery to us, and we are mysterious to others. Life is mystery, but one that we should explore and come to know.

The study of Torah, especially through the archetypal approach as is suggested in the midrashic and mystical sources, helps us to understand our own narrative, to come to know our own inner name, to engage the mystery of being.

We learn to live — wisely, deeply and well.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and serves as provost and professor of liturgy and ethics at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

 

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.

 

Where India Meets Neil Simon


Michael Schlitt sees a definite connection between his type of Jewishness and his reasons for directing a Neil Simon play in India. Being drawn to India and all things Eastern is Jewish, he says. And so is asking a million questions about everything.

“Basically, my work is very Jewish, even if it’s not about something Jewish,” declares the 44-year-old actor, writer, director and founding member of the Actors’ Gang theater company, now based in Culver City. “I’ve always been a searcher, the wheels in my head always spinning. A rabbi once told me that’s as Jewish as it gets.”

Schlitt spent the past five years transforming a midlife crisis, a professionally disastrous trip to India, and his burning and failed ambition to make a movie about that disaster into a one-man show called, “Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure.” A play about a film about a play, Schiltt’s work premieres Friday at EdgeFest, the annual Los Angeles festival dedicated to new and experimental theater. His play’s script reads like a page of Talmud, with the central event of the India adventure framed by commentary about the trip itself, the filming of the trip and the questions that inevitably arise from the failure “to create a masterpiece.”

“If someone told me to see some one-man show about a guy’s attempt to make a movie about his trip to India, I’d probably say ‘No thanks,'” says Schlitt over coffee at a Culver City Starbucks. “But on the other hand, there’s a real hook to the show. Neil Simon in India is bound to pique curiosity.”

Directed by Nancy Keystone, who’s also married to Schlitt, the play, at its core, addresses the painful realization that certain youthful dreams will never materialize, “that moment you understand you’re never going to make ‘Citizen Kane,'” Schlitt says. “Rarely is the journey what you think it’s going to be.”

In 1999, a producer of questionable repute invited Schlitt to direct a production in India of Simon’s “They’re Playing Our Song.” In the throes of a midlife crisis, Schlitt, who detests this play, ignored his intuition and accepted the offer to put together a production ASAP and tour it in three Indian cities. His rationale: He’d make a movie about whatever happened because that’s been his dream, even though he despises the movie business.

“All my life there had been this strange tension between working in the theater and working in film. I mean I live in Los Angeles, the film capital of the world,” he writes in the script.

“The whole prospect was so shady,” Schlitt recalls. “I thought I would just bring the cameras and I would have this great film, some kind of cross between ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘Salaam Bombay.’ Instead, I wound up butting my head against the wall for years.”

Unable to complete his film, Schlitt finally listened to the advice of a filmmaker friend and returned to the theater.

“You could say it was the path of least resistance, but it’s where I needed to be,” he says. “I know the theater and that feels great.”

“What I love about Mike’s play is that it’s blazingly honest,” says Keystone, whose directing credits led her to be named as one of 2005’s “Faces to Watch” in the L.A. Times. “He exposes everything, including some unpleasant aspects of himself, and I have a lot of admiration for him.”

Describing himself as “a laid-back neurotic,” which he attributes to growing up first in New York and later in Berkeley, Schlitt says his Jewish education ended after nursery school and until recently, “never thought of myself as Jewish.” Raised by his mother, who once aspired to be an actress, Schlitt also credits his father, who wrote for the 1960s TV show, “The Monkees,” as a considerable artistic influence.

“He was the kind of Jewish father who got me reading Kierkegaard at age 4,” he says.

As a theater major at UCLA, Schlitt met the future famous actor Tim Robbins. And they and other fellow students formed the Actors’ Gang in 1981, a company that rose to prominence in the L.A. theater scene for its often provocative, avant-garde productions.

“We were this group of guys who all hung out together,” he says of the Gang’s origins. “There was a lot of testosterone but we all had this great passion for the theater.”

Standing in as leader of the Gang when Robbins left for a life in New York with actress Susan Sarandon, Schlitt worked on some 40 productions. This included directing the American premiere of George Tabori’s “Mein Kampf,” an adaptation of Gogol’s “The Inspector General” and performing his critically acclaimed solo show, “Drive, He Said.” In 2000, Schlitt essentially parted from the Gang, a move he’d rather not discuss in great detail. It did, however, have something to do with the midlife crisis that led to his current show. “For 16 years, I was the company’s resident Solomon,” he says. “It was time to step away.”

Though Schlitt says he hasn’t completely given up on finally making his movie, the play he wound up with instead “has definitely gotten the monkey off my back. I have fed myself artistically,” he says. “And if it’s between the artistic or the commercial path, I know which one I’d choose.”

“Mike’s Incredible Indian Adventure” runs Oct. 7-23, 9:15 p.m. at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tickets are $15 or $8 with EdgeFest Passport. For more information, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.edgeoftheworld.org.

 

Israel Needs Hope for Survival


Nearly 60 years ago, out of the ashes of the Holocaust, thousands of Jews came with not much more than the shirts on their backs to a land recognizable only as a collective and distant memory. There they found other Jews who had been there for several years, working to forge a new destiny for a people long beleaguered by suffering and hardship that culminated in the mass slaughter of roughly 30 percent of our entire population.

On May 14, 1948 (Iyar 5 on the Jewish calendar), after a journey begun nearly 1,900 years before, the Jews managed to find their way home. It had indeed been a long journey, one that involved an ancient and holy promise of a return to Eretz Yisrael, our ancient homeland.

For the first time in nearly two millennia, Jews had something we had lacked during the whole of the Diaspora — hope. Hope for a better life for us and for our children, and hope for survival of our faith and of our people, something that seemed impossible just a few years before.

Throughout our history, the world has not let us rest, and this certainly did not change upon the founding of the modern State of Israel. From the moment it was established, Israelis have been forced perpetually to defend the Jewish state from a multitude of adversaries, whether conventional armies, terrorist groups or a culture of incitement and hatred that spans the globe. These threats against Israel, much like the threats against the Jewish people throughout the centuries, have come about not because of anything we have done but because of who we are and what we represent.

Israel is a microcosm of the Jewish existence. On one hand, our nation is a model of freedom, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law in an otherwise enslaved, intolerant, totalitarian and lawless region of the globe. Given a chance, this could serve as a model for the rest of the Middle East.

On the other hand, we still have many challenges to overcome. For the last three and a half years, Israel has been the target of a relentless campaign of terror and murder. Simple day-to-day activities — a bus ride, a trip to the supermarket, a night out at a cafe — have become cause for great anxiety among Israelis.

Nearly 1,000 innocent civilians have been tragically murdered, causing great pain throughout the nation. Anti-Semitism, masked as anti-Zionism, has become legitimate in many circles in Europe and even here in the United States — not to mention the Arab and Muslim worlds. On top of all that, we have witnessed an international propaganda campaign designed to undermine our legitimacy.

Israel is a democracy and a strong one at that. But we are also a democracy facing terrible dilemmas, trying to walk the thin line between defending our citizens on the one hand and defending morality and the rule of law on the other.

It is a difficult task. But just like we have done throughout our history, we shall emerge from these challenges wiser, stronger and with a better sense of ourselves and of our role in the world.

This year on Yom HaAtzmaut, we are celebrating not just our independence. We celebrate our survival, our prosperity and our accomplishments in the face of extraordinary adversity.

Despite the efforts to destroy us, we have not only survived but have transcended our own expectations. Despite living in a virtual war zone, Israel has managed to maintain its democracy.

We maintained and even enhanced civil rights for all, including more than 1 million Israeli Arabs. We have become a global leader in engineering, computer science, agriculture, medicine and biotechnology. And, most importantly, we have strengthened our resolve to one day achieve a just and lasting peace with those who would destroy us.

It is on this day that we reflect on the uniqueness of Israel. For centuries, the Jewish people had no territory, no land to call our own. We had only a book, a faith and a collective history.

Since then, as always, we Jews are still striving to find a sense of normalcy in an abnormal place. But through it all, we have not forgotten, nor will we forget, that our destiny as a people is to make the world more human.

This is the hope that fuels our identity and our pride in the State of Israel. It is a hope that is built upon the collective memory of nearly 2,000 years. It is our hope to live in freedom in our land — the land of hope, the land of peace the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Escape to Shanghai Saved Refugee’s Life


At a time when the world shunned them, an estimated 20,000 Jewish refugees from Russia, Germany, Austria and elsewhere made their way to Shanghai before World War II. Jews in this forgotten corner of the world survived on donations from the Joint Distribution Committee, whose financial support paid for three meals a day, then two and then one.

As difficult as life was for Shanghai’s Jews, it was certainly better than the alternative, said Michael Berenbaum, director of the University of Judaism’s Sigi Ziering Institute, which explores the religious and ethical implications of the Holocaust. The Jews in China "didn’t know the language and were impoverished," he said. "But comparatively speaking, they were free. The people they left behind died."

By the late 1940s, Shanghai’s Jews had largely immigrated to the United States and Israel, closing a little-known chapter in Jewish history. Most of them have since succumbed to old age and illness, taking their memories to the grave.

In San Juan Capistrano though, 80-year-old Kurt Wunderlich remembers. The spirited, retired music shop owner — "I like the Beatles and Stones, but most of the stuff today is crap" — recently described his wartime experiences to a visitor at his modest but comfortable Orange County home.

Wunderlich, a diminutive man with a strong, direct gaze, escaped from Germany in 1939 with his lawyer father, Felix. They fled soon after the Nazis sent his father to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin for one week for the crime of being Jewish. The elder Wunderlich was released only after promising to leave Germany within six months.

But where to go? Almost no countries, including the United States, wanted Jewish refugees. China was an exception. So Wunderlich and his father were among the 459 Jews who chartered a ship built for 200 and sailed on an arduous, nine-week journey to Shanghai. The Nazis permitted each passenger to leave with only one suitcase and $4.

Wunderlich’s mother, Margarete, had planned to meet up with her son and husband within months. She never made it. Through a German friend, Wunderlich later heard that she had died in the death camps or poisoned herself before boarding a train bound for them. No one is really sure.

In Shanghai, the bewildered 14-year-old and his father settled in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods, teeming with 5,000 other refugees. They lived in abandoned schoolhouses, 120 to a room. Wunderlich said he endured those grim conditions for nine years.

Shanghai’s Jews, as best they could, though, tried to recreate the rich cultural lives they had left behind.

"Jews opened operas, nightclubs, restaurants," Wunderlich said. "There were clubs. There was soccer. We found things to do."

But life was by no means carefree. Violence and danger lurked.

Wunderlich remembers a young friend who used to bicycle around Shanghai. A truckload of Japanese soldiers grabbed the boy and his bike; he was never seen alive again. Another time, a Japanese soldier put a gun to Wunderlich’s head for violating the prohibition against gambling. Instead of killing him, the drunken soldier punched him in the back.

In 1943, American bombs destroyed a Japanese radio station in Wunderlich’s neighborhood, killing 17 Jews and wounding 53 others. He remembers pulling limp bodies from the rubble. Around the same time, Wunderlich said he contracted dysentery and nearly died after losing 20 pounds from his already skinny 100-pound frame.

A couple years later, chaos descended on Shanghai, when the Japanese evacuated the city after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan that ended World War II. For three days, Chinese looters ravaged the city, stealing everything they could, Wunderlich said.

"Nobody wanted to stay there one day longer than necessary," he said.

But stay he did. In 1948, Wunderlich and his father finally emigrated and arrived in San Francisco, where the younger Wunderlich met his future wife, Jane. The couple, who married in 1950, later moved to Houston and then Mexico City, before making their way to Southern California. The Wunderlichs had three children. His wife did in 1994.

Today, Wunderlich lives a relatively quiet life. He remarried in 2001, wedding Nenita, a Filipina he met on the Internet, who is in her 40s. He lives on dividends from mutual funds, a monthly Social Security check of $836 and reparations from the German government.

Looking back, he finds it difficult to believe that he survived when so many others perished.

"I’m not a religious person, but I think God has looked out for me," he said.

Star Struck


Lately, more people than ever have been staring at my chest. But it’s not what you think. They are looking at a necklace hanging from my neck.

When my boyfriend, Josh, handed me a red paper mâche-wrapped little box for my birthday this year, I never would have guessed it was a piece of Judaica. But sure enough, inside the box was a sparkly silver and crystal Jewish star dangling from a chain. Unlike any other I had seen, the star was about one-fifth-inch thick and had hearts cut out along the sides. The face shimmered with a collection of tightly packed clear crystals. I quickly put it on and have seldom taken it off since.

A secular, nonpracticing Jew, Josh does not wear Judaica. Purchasing the necklace for me was therefore as selfless a gift as he could have given. The necklace, he said, represented his support for me working in the Jewish community, and his respect for my willingness to move to a different state in order to continue doing so.

For me, the necklace has become a simultaneous expression of romantic love and religious identity — a synergy I have never before experienced. I am excited to put it on each day.

I used to believe that wearing a religious symbol implied an unconditional endorsement, like sticking a sports team logo or candidate’s bumper sticker on your car. Since a large part of my personal relationship with Judaism occurs internally — in my head and my heart — how, I wondered, could I wear a symbol around my neck that publicly announces my religion to everyone else?

Wearing the necklace habitually has been an enlightening exercise; because of it, I have stumbled across many new perspectives. It has also led people to make incorrect assumptions about me — that I am an Orthodox or traditionally observant Jew, that I am a staunch supporter of Israeli military actions or that I keep strictly kosher. Though pieces of each of the above hold true in the nonsuperlative sense, there are caveats and loopholes to each. Assumptions are dangerous things for anybody to make, but I would be ignorant not to at least recognize that wearing this symbol will lead many people to make them about me.

Wearing a Star of David has also helped me to work on caring less about what other people think of me and not needing external approval as regularly. I do not wish to hide or deny my religious identity, but symbolically wearing it daily on my chest signals me loudly as "other" and potentially as a target for hatred.

When I hesitate about wearing the star, however, I think back to a not-too-distant atrocity — the Holocaust. Whatever anti-Semitism and resulting paranoia we may be experiencing in this country today, we still possess the freedom to express our religious and cultural identities. There is a big difference between the threat of oppressive violence and the reality of it. While it is only a threat and freedom continues, we have the right, perhaps the obligation, to express our heritage and ourselves.

In a generation from now, I wonder, what will this star around my neck mean to me? What will it mean to the Jewish people? As with most symbols, its meaning will likely change over time.

Gershom Scholem, one of the greatest kabbalistic scholars of this century, wrote in the "Encyclopedia Judaica" that historically, the Star of David has had a proliferation of meanings, many of which have been mystical.

In the 17th century, he writes, alchemists called the Magen David the "shield of David" and they believed the opposing triangles to be an alchemical symbol for the union between the diametrically opposed elements of water and fire. At that same time, kabbalists were calling it the "shield of the [Messiah], the son of David."

Also, according to Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch in "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols" (Jason Aronson, 1995) the Star of David’s geometric symmetry has led "anthropologists [to] claim that the triangle pointing downward represents female sexuality, and the triangle pointing upward, male sexuality; thus, their combination symbolizes unity and harmony."

Interestingly, the Star of David has only taken on the symbolic representation of Jewish identity and the collective Jewish peoplehood in the last 200 years. Before then it had been, among other things, "the insignia of individual families or communities." In fact, according to Frankel and Teutsch, Theodor Herzl chose it as the symbol for the State of Israel because it was widely considered to be a secular symbol.

I have begun to develop my own interpretation of the Star of David. As I wear it today, the open space at the center represents the answers I have yet to find — the cultural, personal and religious identity I am still forging. The balanced and opposing triangles symbolize my struggle between personal reflection and public promotion.

In the past year I have gone from being single, living in Boston and editing a magazine that speaks to a generation of young adult Jews, to being one-half of a two-person whole, living in New York and traveling as an individual writer on a spiritual and religious journey. When I look at it, the star around my neck reminds me of the many ways in which my personal identities have been modified.

As time moves on and I assume new roles yet again, I am sure new symbolic meaning will continue to unfold.


Jodi Werner is the assistant director of Publications for the Jewish Theological Seminary and former editor of GenerationJ.com. Reprinted From GenerationJ.com, a service of Jewish Family & Life!

Coming of Age on a Basketball Court


Eight years ago, public relations guru Dan Klores received a distressing telephone call from Steve Satin, his childhood friend from Brooklyn’s 2nd Street Park. In high school, Satin had been popular, co-captain of the basketball team and, presumably, bound for medical school.

But his life had unraveled during years of addiction to cocaine and heroin, Satin told Klores. Although he eventually got sober, his 5-year-old son died of leukemia, his second marriage failed and he found himself homeless and wandering the streets with a suitcase in 1995. Finally he took refuge in the Port Authority bus terminal, where he spent nights moving from bench to bench so as not to draw police attention. Three months later, he did draw their attention, for writing bad checks; he was about to be arrested, he told his old friend.

"So he came to see me and it was pretty shocking," said Klores, whose tender documentary, "The Boys of 2nd Street Park," revolves around Satin and their Jewish basketball-playing gang. "He hardly had any teeth in his mouth, his nose was bashed in, he wore a suit that looked like he hadn’t worn it in 20 years … he just looked like a beaten-down man."

Klores got Satin an attorney, a dentist, an apartment and a job driving a taxi, but he, too, felt beaten down. Around 1980, he had given up his first love, writing, for public relations, eventually landing clients such as Jennifer Lopez and Donald Trump.

"But I never really liked it," he said from his Long Island beach home. "In spite of my success, PR never gave me the feeling of satisfaction I’d had writing a book or a magazine piece."

For 20 years, he hadn’t used his creativity to express himself, and he felt "trapped" and "frustrated."

As Klores pondered how to solve his dilemma, his thoughts turned to Satin and the other boys with whom he had shot hoops in Brighton Beach. He decided to make a film not about his rich and powerful clients, but about the friends of his youth.

"I knew this could be a good story because so many different things had happened to people," said the soft-spoken Klores, sounding more like an introvert than a schmoozer. "You have a group of guys, and one is homeless, one wins a $45 million lottery, two lose their children and one lives without electricity or running water in Woodstock, N.Y."

According to Satin, now a chemical engineer, the film works because Klores did the interviews.

"We opened up to him because we trusted him," he said. "Dan may not physically be in the movie, but it’s really his story, too. He has the same background and he was there with us, part of it."

Like the other "boys," 53-year-old Klores grew up in a one-bedroom apartment, 30 yards from the "L," sharing a bedroom with his brother while his parents slept on a convertible couch in the living room. The 2nd Street Park provided a refuge from the cramped quarters and from the tedium of religious school: "Even on the High Holidays we’d sneak away and shoot hoops in our sports jackets," he said.

Klores’ working-class parents, meanwhile, had ambitious plans for their eldest son. "The mantra was, ‘All we want for you is to do better than us,’ which is one of the things I reacted against," he said. The perceived Jewish pressure to excel did just the opposite; by the 10th grade Klores had become fiercely rebellious.

"I was the perfect candidate for the counterculture," he said. "I was alienated and angry and all of a sudden everyone was alienated and angry."

Klores said he failed classes, cut school and began using drugs at age 17. With Satin and some of the other "boys," he grew his hair long, spent weekends at an upstate New York farm and took road trips in a VW van.

The change came in 1973: "I woke up one day and I said, ‘Whoa, wait a second,’" he recalled. Klores quit drugs, finished school and landed his first real job, at 29, writing political ads for $100 a week plus a bottle of Scotch. He went on to write a book on the popular culture of college basketball and to freelance for publications such as New York magazine; he switched to PR for a more steady paycheck around 1980.

Since founding Dan Klores Associates in 1991, his assignments have included representing Sean "Puffy" Combs after his infamous arrest and Rudolph Giuliani during his prickly divorce. Eventually, his past caught up with him.

Around the time Satin phoned in 1995, Klores was diagnosed with hepatitis C, contracted as a result of his youthful drug use, he said. He began an excruciating, year-long regimen of drug therapy that at the end, left him bedridden with pneumonia. It was that brush with mortality — plus Satin’s haunting story — that helped push the now-healthy Klores to pursue more fulfilling work.

To make "Boys," he turned to another park friend, Ron Berger, a prominent advertising executive with ample production experience. The co-directors put up their own money for the summer 2001 shoot, when Klores traveled to nine states to interview 25 subjects, ultimately narrowing the major characters down to six.

"While we were editing the film, Dan would be dealing with his high-profile clients and taking calls from Giuliani," Berger said. "Meanwhile, I would be dealing with my high-profile corporate clients. But then at the end of the day we’d be in this small editing room, working on stories from our childhood and making them come to life, which was so fulfilling."

Satin said telling his story on camera was "cathartic and healing."

For Klores, who’s now working on his second documentary, the process was also transforming.

"What’s amazing for me is how the movie has resonated with people all over the country," he said of his film festival experience. "At the outset, the movie appears to be about Brooklyn and basketball but then it becomes something much more universal. A lot of people of our generation have taken a parallel kind of journey…. The film is about a particular generation as told through the lives of six boys turning to men."

"Boys" airs on Showtime Sept. 28.

The Frozen Chosen


Although my rabbinic colleagues will always go the extra mile to serve their communities, I believe I actually cover the most miles in my commute: Every other month or so, I start my journey at 4:30 a.m. in the North Valley and end it some 10 hours later in a small airport in Juneau, Ala. Outside the gate, a member of the Juneau Jewish Community (JJC) smiles and waves to me — a weekend of serving the Frozen Chosen begins.

Through many years of rabbinic traveling and teaching, I’ve been blessed to serve congregations from Long Island to Maui and from Canada to Australia. I’ve prayed in shuls from Transylvania to Argentina, and I’ve discovered that in all the world Juneau’s community is unique. The fusion of Alaskan life and Jewish tradition never ceases to amaze me.

The JJC presently has about 40 core households and no permanent building. We often pray in local senior centers, churches or members’ homes.

I began learning about Alaskan customs during my first Shabbat morning service in spring of 2001. I sat in a cozy, rustic living room, and as I prepared to sing an opening nigun, I looked around the crowded room and realized I was surrounded by a circle of smiling faces and wiggling toes — I was the only one wearing shoes. I then noticed the mountain of rubber shoes and winter boots piled near the door.

"It’s always snowy, slushy or just plain muddy in Juneau," the president said. "We don’t wear shoes in our houses."

So I quickly added my black dress heels to the pile, and now know how to lead home-based services in stocking feet.

Jews initially arrived in Alaska in the mid-19th century as whalers and traders. Eventually, Jews began to settle in the territory, teaching their traditions and learning about native ways. Over time, Jews married natives and Jewish family names are not uncommon among native peoples. An unexpected name emerged among the natives of a Northwestern tribe, which resides in the area around Bethel. The tribe is known as the Yupiks, and numerous marriages have occurred between Yupiks and Jews. The offspring actually call themselves "Jew-piks," proud of each culture and welcome in Bethel’s small Jewish community.

Of course, Juneau is Alaska’s capital; this year, when the legislative session began, the Jewish population swelled, because four Jewish legislators and their families joined the JJC. Juneau is a very political little town, and many JJC members serve the government in some capacity. Before one of my last visits, one of the members unexpectedly arranged for me to open a session at the state House of Representatives. Although I was ambivalent at first, because of church-state issues, I realized that my participation was important to the Jewish community.

"A rabbi hasn’t opened a session in years," they told me, "and most legislators have never even heard of a female rabbi."

With some hesitation, I accepted the honor, viewing it as a unique opportunity to teach and to offer a context for making the decisions of governing. Careful to avoid explicit reference to God and phrases such as "let us pray," I offered these words to open the legislative session on Jan. 27:

"In ancient days, the sages of the Talmud — who compiled Jewish law and lore — taught that ‘every deliberation conducted for the sake of heaven will … have lasting value.’ As it is said in the ancient tongue: Kol machloket she’he l’shem shamayim, sofah l’hitkayem. (Pirke Avot 5:19)

"May your deliberations, in these honorable halls, truly be for the sake of heaven. May your discussions genuinely be for the sake of the men and women who depend on you, as well as the innocent children and the wild creatures whose care is entrusted to you. Through your debates, may you honestly pursue the best interests of those who dwell in the cities, towns, villages and untamed places of this great state. May you also fulfill your sacred obligation to protect this precious land itself.

"May you continue to be a privileged partner with the Eternal Holy Source of Life to protect and promote the well-being of those you serve — and may all your deliberations truly be of lasting value. Cain y’hi ratzon, so may it be."

While remarkable opportunities like addressing the House make serving in Juneau exciting, unexpected daily activities and conversations make it unforgettable. In the winter, it was amazing to sing "Shechecheyanu" as congregants and I stood beside an iceberg that had frozen in Mendenhall Lake in front of Mendenhall Glacier. An equally memorable moment occurred on an earlier visit, as I discussed a bar mitzvah project with a 12-year-old Alaskan student; he wanted to make a shofar.

"Great," I said, "what kind of horn will you use?"

He replied "Dahl sheep — they’re all over."

"And how will you get the horn?" I asked.

"Well," he said matter-of-factly, "Dad and I will go hunting."

Only in Alaska, I laughed to myself, feeling, again that the commute is always worthwhile.


Sheryl Nosan is rabbi of Temple Beth Torah of the San Fernando Valley in Granada Hills. She will be returning to Alaska on May 30.

Captains of Destiny


This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, finds us studying the Book of Exodus for the first time this year. Probing the text, I began to think about the Hebrew word tevah (ark) that is found only twice in the Torah — in parshat Noah and in this one.

As Rabbi James Mirel once wrote: "There is an important link between these two mythic tales. In the story of Noah, God uses the ark to rescue all the animals, including the human species. In this instance, Moses, who is to become the vehicle for the redemption of the Jewish people, is kept alive by means of an ark."

"Both narratives depict the ark as being surrounded by potentially destructive waters. In the case of Noah, the waters of the flood, which covers the entire earth, and in this case, the river into which Pharaoh commands that all Hebrew male infants be thrown," Mirel said.

"From this parallel, we can learn that we, too, should consider the ways in which each of us can find a tevah by which to navigate the threatening waters that surround us in order to reach safety and redemption," he added.

I submit that there is another way to cite this rare Hebrew word in order to make a somewhat different point. Namely, are we to merely drift through life — mirroring Noah, who was able to survive during the flood, and Moses, who, we find on his way to being given an opportunity to live in the lap of luxury as Pharaoh’s adopted nephew — or is something else required of us?

It is my belief that God and Judaism’s prophets and sages demand that we not just rock along, dependent on the currents of life to move us from birth to death, but that we place a tiller into the waters of life, grab the helm and steer a course, which will provide us with personal fulfillment and satisfaction while responding to the needs of others who seek — and deserve — our assistance.

Here’s how we can avoid being dashed upon the rocks of despair, becoming stuck in the narrows of bias and prejudice or finding ourselves trapped in the shallows of limited thought and action.

Within this context, here’s the ultimate question which Shemot forces upon us: "Are we willing to risk everything to be the captains of our own destiny, or are we merely content letting circumstances and other people determine the course of our lives?"

If we are activists, we constantly take charge and even — on occasion — attempt to go upstream and thereby willingly confront one mighty challenge after another.

If we are pacifists, we are delighted to easily and simply follow the currents of the headwaters — even if this means that we must always allow others to decide the direction we’ll go … solely dependent on the winds of their opinion which then propel us from place to place. Under these circumstances, it is they and never we who will determine what our eventual goals might be.

Sam Rayburn, the late speaker of the House of Representatives, often instructed his younger colleagues "to get along just go along." If all a person desires is ease and comfort, that may be good advice. However, if someone decides that the demands and benefits of life require that we must occasionally take a chance, such an individual elects not to be under the thumb of others, but to set off on a self-selected course.

I am convinced that our lives are far more exciting and rewarding when we take charge of our own situations, set our sights on distant shores and then battle our way to reach them.

You see, just as so very little is written in this and in subsequent parshot about the first 80 of the 120 years allotted to Moses, we ought not to think too much about our origins, or where we find ourselves at any given moment. Instead, we need to concentrate on what we wish to achieve, to think about what demanding choices are ours, and to concentrate on the benefits that will be ours and others when we exert ourselves as proactive decision-makers and doers.

After all, as Vancouver’s Rabbi Philip Bregman has taught us: "By speeding through the description of Moses’ early and middle years, the Torah is making the statement that beginnings are less important than endings in life.

"In other words, a human being’s worth is not determined by where that individual came from but what that person ultimately accomplished," Bregman said. "This message has tremendous relevance for us today. Too often we spend our time dwelling on the past instead of focusing on our ultimate goal in life. What really counts is where our experiences lead us and what we have learned along the way."

"This week’s parsha encourages us to ask ourselves tough questions about where our own personal journey is leading," Bregman added. "Are we still growing and learning? What is that we seek? Are we moving in the right direction toward a worthwhile destination? Are we basking in the sun of a previous generation’s accomplishments, or are we endeavoring to make our own mark in the world"?

I wish you Godspeed and a bon voyage as you answer those profound questions and then act upon them in the most creative, dynamic and productive ways possible.