LIFE Movie Review


LIFE is the type of movie that gives you faith in Hollywood.  The term “popcorn flick” is generally derogatory and expecting good acting from one is usually a pipe dream.  LIFE, however, takes that stereotype and turns it on its head.

Daniel Espinosa directs an excellent cast led by Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson.  Together, they prove a suspenseful alien movie may be well made and fun.

Often, these movies create character backstories with the express purpose of generating sympathy before killing off a character.  What LIFE does well is keep this device from becoming overly manipulative.  The story is clearly not in the character’s backgrounds, but the action on screen.  By keeping the backstory simple, it doesn’t detract from the real reason for buying a ticket: two hours of entertainment.

Casting Jake Gyllenhaal was a coups for LIFE, giving it indie film credibility to help elevate it from becoming “just” another alien movie.  Gyllenhaal garnered an Oscar nomination for his role in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and is known for selecting roles in interesting projects.

Ryan Reynolds, too, earned new respect with last year’s success of DEADPOOL, a character he worked to bring to the big screen for years.

Hiroyuki Sanada has won two awards from the Japanese Academy, the equivalent of the American Oscars.

In short, this cast served as more than place holders that absolutely anyone could have filled, as is frequently the case in this genre.  LIFE managed to transition from being a [derogatory] “popcorn flick” to a genuinely good suspense movie.  Perhaps, in fact, to the surprise of all involved.

For more about LIFE, take a look below:

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Reeling in the summer


This summer brings an eclectic group of films to local screens, many featuring specifically Jewish protagonists and covering such disparate subjects as a fundamentalist revolution, a revolutionary TV programmer, the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, religiosity and coming of age in the 1950s.

“Septembers of Shiraz” 

Australian director Wayne Blair explores the devastating effect of the Iranian revolution on a secular Jewish family during the early 1980s in “Septembers of Shiraz,” adapted from the award-winning book of the same title by Dalia Sofer. As the film depicts, after the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the rage and resentment of the Iranian underclass was directed against the wealthy, the Jews, the intellectuals and anyone who had been in any way connected to the Shah’s family. When the mob and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, Islamic fundamentalism became the law of the land, and with it came repression, torture, executions and capricious arrests. Those who felt persecuted under the Shah had now taken power, and started to mimic and even surpass the tyranny of their predecessor.

Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody (“The Pianist”) stars as Isaac Amin, a prosperous gemologist and jewelry merchant who is arrested without warning on vague charges of spying for Israel. While in prison, he is physically and emotionally tortured, and it becomes obvious that his interrogator, who himself had been tortured when the Shah held power, is envious of Isaac’s privileged life and enraged that Isaac accepted the social and political structure of the previous regime.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s wife, Farnez (Salma Hayek), a strong, assertive woman, tries in vain to get him released as she watches her entire life disintegrate. Her house is stripped of valuables, employees of her husband start stealing the jewels from his business, and she is powerless to stop what is happening. Among the thieves is the son of her housekeeper, Habibeh (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a Muslim woman who is loyal to the family but starts to believe some of the charges made by the revolutionaries against the former elites.

After turning over his life’s savings, Isaac is released, but he and his family must flee the country, leaving behind everything they still possess, if they are to have any hope of survival.

Blair said one reason he was drawn to the story was that, at its core, it deals with the importance of family. “Family is close to my heart. [During] my own upbringing, I traveled a great deal with my immediate family, as my father was in the military. When he retired and we settled in our hometown, I was around my mother and father’s extended family even more. That meant the world to me.” 

And, producer Alan Siegel predicted, “Audiences will sit at the edge of their seats. It’s a thrilling roller-coaster ride that also has a deep meaning for today.” 

“Septembers of Shiraz” opens June 24.

“Tikkun”

“Tikkun” explores issues of determinism, Orthodoxy and sexual repression. According to Israeli filmmaker Avishai Sivan, who is quoted in the media notes, the word “tikkun” means “improvement” in everyday Hebrew, but on a deeper level, “tikkun” has a more metaphysical meaning. Sivan says belief in reincarnation can be found in Judaism, and the term “refers to a soul returning to the living world in order to rectify an unresolved issue from its past life.”

The film takes place in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, and it focuses on Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), a brilliant yeshiva student who is so devout that he fasts to repent for dropping his prayer boxes. One night, the sexually repressed young man is tempted to masturbate in the bathtub when he collapses, hitting his head against the back of the tub. The paramedics can’t revive him and pronounce him dead, but his father (Khalifa Natour) frantically tries to resuscitate him, and, mysteriously, Haim-Aaron comes back to life. However, he is completely changed. Unable to sleep at night, he takes to wandering the streets and falling asleep during the day in yeshiva class. He begins to tentatively explore the secular world and even accompanies an acquaintance to a brothel, though he can’t bring himself to have sex with the prostitute whom he has just paid. He also announces that he will no longer eat meat, an insult to his father, who is a kosher butcher in a slaughterhouse.

Shot in black-and-white, the movie begins to verge on the surreal as the father comes to fear he has thwarted destiny by reviving his son. 

“Tikkun” is tentatively scheduled to open in Los Angeles June 17.

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”

Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon in “Indignation”

Another Jewish boy from the East is the central character in “Indignation,” based on Philip Roth’s 2008 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. The movie depicts college life in the 1950s and centers on Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), son of a kosher butcher shop owner in Newark, N.J. Marcus escapes the Korean War draft by means of a scholarship courtesy of his synagogue to Winesburg College, a small school in Ohio.

While Marcus is happy to be free from his smothering father, he is uninterested in college social life or in forming close friendships, preferring to focus on his studies. However, the independent-minded Marcus encounters some new, unexpected experiences, including anti-Semitism and an infuriating requirement to attend weekly chapel. He also experiences his first sexual encounter, along with his first love.

Writer, producer and film company executive James Schamus (he earned an Oscar nomination for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) makes his directorial debut with this film. Schamus is quoted in the production notes as saying, “It was a real limbo time after World War II. The sexual revolution was yet to come, anti-communism and the Blacklist were in the news, and teenage culture, as we know it, was just around the corner. Meanwhile there’s another massive war going overseas. Our characters are really struggling to find themselves in that landscape.”

Variety’s chief international film critic, Peter Debruge, praised the movie, writing in his review at Sundance earlier this year, “ ‘Indignation’ unfolds at a certain distance, both in maturity and time: Schamus may not have lived the era, the way Roth did, but he channels the ’50s still-conservative mentality convincingly enough, hitting the novel’s tragic final note ever so delicately, devastating those drawn in by Marcus and his dreams.”

Roth, who attended the premiere of “Indignation” at Sundance, called it “the most faithful adaptation” of one of his works he’s seen.

“Indignation” opens July 29.

“The Tenth Man”

“The Tenth Man,” directed by Daniel Burman, tells the story of a man’s return to his observant Jewish roots. Ariel (Alan Sabbagh) has been living in New York and enjoying a successful career as an economist but has distanced himself from his background. He returns to the Jewish section of Buenos Aires, Argentina, known as El Once, where he was raised, in part to introduce his father, Usher (played by himself), and the rest of his family, to his fiancée, a dancer who is supposed to follow him to Buenos Aires after she completes an audition. 

During his visit, Ariel gets pulled into helping at his father’s market and performing certain duties for his father’s charitable Jewish foundation. While Ariel keeps trying to meet with him, Usher remains elusive and constantly involved in aid projects. The situation brings back Ariel’s feelings of being neglected as a child when his father attended to his charitable activities. 

While Ariel remembers wanting more of his father’s attention when he was a child, Ariel also finds himself brought back emotionally to the way of life of his formative years.

As Ariel draws closer to his heritage and to the community he left behind, he also draws closer to Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), an Orthodox, silent and beguiling woman who works for Usher’s foundation.

Burman explains in the media notes how he and Usher, a real person heading a real foundation, met for the first time. The two were on a pilgrimage to visit the graves of Sadikin, Jewish mystics of the 17th and 18th centuries who, according to legend, had a direct connection to God. Burman says there was something about Usher that he found fascinating.

“This feeling only grew when I learned more about his kingdom, his army of volunteers, that mysterious world of people giving without a special satisfaction beyond something provided by the fact of doing what needs to be done, as part of a particular logic of aid. In the foundation, the others who are being helped are not an undifferentiated mass that needs just anything. The help there is about the uniqueness of each individual. In order to give somebody exactly what he needs, there has to be an intention to understand why he needs this and nothing else. That world captivated me.” 

“The Tenth Man” opens in August, exact release date TBA.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer“

Burghart Klauner in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer”

Argentina is also a major element in “The People vs. Fritz Bauer,” a docudrama about German-Jewish prosecutor Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klauner), who is credited with locating Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of arranging the deportation of vast numbers of Jews to death camps before he became a fugitive after the war.

The film opens in 1957, when Bauer has returned to Germany from Denmark and Sweden after World War II and makes it his mission to expose and prosecute former Nazi officials, many of whom are now prospering in business or holding positions in the German government. But members of the current government block Bauer’s efforts at every turn, either because they don’t want their past Nazi activities exposed or don’t want to relive Germany’s crimes.

One day, Bauer receives a letter from Argentina written by the father of a girl who is dating Eichmann’s son. The letter reveals that Eichmann is living incognito in Buenos Aires.

Bauer is passionately anxious to have Eichmann extradited and put on trial in Germany,  but his goals are again thwarted by German authorities who are former National Socialists. So Bauer is forced to enlist the aid of the Israeli Mossad, an act tantamount to treason and punishable by imprisonment.

After verifying Eichmann’s identity, the Mossad does capture him, but Bauer’s desire to have him tried in Germany is overridden by those at the highest levels of government in Israel, the United States and Germany, so Eichmann is prosecuted and hanged in Israel.

It was only after Bauer’s death in 1968 that his part in finding Eichmann was revealed.

“The People vs. Fritz Bauer” opens Aug. 19.

Also of interest: 

“Agnus Dei” (The Innocents) is a French-Polish movie directed by Anne Fontaine (“How I Killed My Father”) that tells the almost-unknown story of Madeleine Pauliac, a French doctor who took care of concentration camp survivors in Warsaw right after World War II. When a nun shows up to her clinic and begs for her help at a convent, Pauliac discovers several pregnant nuns, one of whom is about to give birth. A nonbeliever herself, Pauliac finds the nuns becoming more and more dependent on her in the tragic aftermath of war. Opens July 1.

“The Kind Words” is an Israeli film about a woman and her two brothers who get a shock after their mother dies and they learn that she had been having a long-term affair with an Algerian. Fearing their real father may have been a Muslim, the three travel from Israel to Paris and Marseilles to seek out the truth.  Opens July 1. 

“Life, Animated” is a documentary about Owen Suskind, an autistic boy who never spoke until he learned to engage with the world by continually watching Disney films, such as “The Lion King.” The films inspired him to empathize and identify with characters outside of himself. Opens July 8.

“Café Society,” Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy, is about a young man from the Bronx who tries to succeed in the glamorous world of Hollywood during the 1930s. Opens July 15. 

Oh so sorry


I’m sorry I haven’t eaten more hot dogs. 

Saturday is Selichot, the time when the whole Jewish world sings with Connie Francis, “I’m sorry,” and vows to do better next time. Many of us are focused on the wrongs we’ve done to others, or even to God. 

This year, however, as I contemplate in yet a new way the impact of lung cancer, there’s no one to whom I owe apology more than myself. 

Yes, many of my apologies go to me. I should have eaten more hot dogs, with mustard and sauerkraut. And even more hush puppies, which in Jewish delis are hot dogs wrapped in potato knish, served best (if not only) in New York. 

I know what you’re thinking: you were only watching your health. But if you want a hot dog and never give yourself a hot dog, what are you accomplishing? Fear of food is, I think, a crime against the soul, the shutting down of the appetite by which we show our confidence in being alive. 

For years I refused to eat popcorn at the movies. I was a college student and deemed myself too good for plebeian food. That year, a New York theater started popping its kernels and brewing its own coffee to sell with the latest Belmondo film. Popcorn brought great enjoyment to my next James Bond movie. Sean Connery is such a hunk, and I apologized profusely to myself for having missed out on the great all-American experience — albeit without butter. 

If I’m going to keep the appetite going, I have to respond to where the taste buds tingle. 

Since I received a lung cancer diagnosis, I’ve been macrobiotic, lived on smoothies, Chinese herbs, Ensure shakes. But even before I was fanatic. I ate pasta with broccoli. Broccoli, with Vitamin C, may reduce breast cancer. I never smoked cigarettes, which is linked to 85 percent of lung cancers. 

Today, when it might help, my body is in overdose. I avoid any food colored green. I’m no doctor, but any one of these regimens destroys appetite in all its meanings faster than a hot dog now and again. It’s the luck of the draw. Eat a hot dog or not, you can get cancer anyway. Might as well live. 

And although early on I cut out sugar and dairy, ice cream is now my dinner of choice. 

I begrudge myself nothing. If you don’t express your appetite, what comes next? Soon you won’t have any. A friend will ask if you want to eat by the ocean, and you won’t know. Soon enough, you miss the summer sunset, and the blooming begonia, and the loveliness of a child’s smile. It takes will to live. 

More hot dogs. More fun. 

Lung cancer taught me that what we do today is fun. Tomorrow the bill comes due. Develop taste. Don’t be a snob. Don’t live in regret. Don’t worry about where your cancer is going to come from. When you have to know, you will. 

One year, when I was new to Selichot, I sent around a list. I knew what I had done to everyone. They, of course, had long ago forgiven me. But it’s different to pardon myself. 

At the base of the apologies I owe myself, is a youth spent trying to stay in control. I thought I had it covered. I didn’t know anything. 

S’lach lanu. Forgive us. Forgive me for thinking I had anything under control. 

That’s not the only amends I owe myself. I’m sorry I kept slipcovers on the living room couch for more than a decade. I regret that it took me years to decide to paint the kitchen, and less than a month to get the job done. 

I underestimated the pleasure that comes from pleasure; that playing the piano badly is not a crime against humanity; that nothing beats the joy of making up my own mind and paying my own way. 

I’m sorry, but I’m not guilty. I’m sorry for the false truths accepted and fun cut short without thought. I’m aware of hours spent trying to explain myself — what a waste. Years spent pursuing trivial goals — why? I was definite about ideas I knew nothing about. 

So much gets squeezed on to a hot dog.

My Unataneh Tokef moments


On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and Yom Kippur, it is sealed; who shall live, who shall die.  But repentance, prayer and charity avert the severity of the decree.  If you apply a literal reading to this most famous of High Holiday prayers, you cannot help but conclude that it is medieval gobbledygook.  Our destinies for the next year are predetermined by God, but repentance, prayer and acts of charity will somehow mitigate that predetermined destiny.  What does that mean?  If someone dies, would a few more ducats in a Tzedakah box have allowed that person to live another year?  Would a few more times at Shul reciting some prayer by rote have altered the outcome?

Ours is a tradition that begs for interpretation.  And for this prayer to be meaningful to me, I needed to put a spin on it, which is almost directly contrary to its literal meaning.  I have learned from humanistic, rational and compassionate teachers to interpret the prayer as an acknowledgement of the inevitability of death; that every living creature must at some point die.  And if human mortality becomes a foundational element of the prayer, then the emphasis on repentance, prayer and charity become the choices you make with the finite time that you may have on this planet.

Perhaps our choices should include more acts of caring for those less fortunate; let’s call that Tzedakah.  Maybe we should be more forgiving of others and of ourselves and sincerely work at making ourselves into a better people; let’s call that one Teshuvah.  Finally, if we take some time, perhaps each week, to acknowledge the orderliness of creation and of a creator that has taught humanity morality, compassion and justice; let’s call that one Tefillah.  Now there’s an interpretation of what is otherwise a problematic prayer in which I can believe.

And yet, I have also literally experienced moments of life and death, triumph and tragedy all on Rosh Hashanah. 

Who shall die:  It was Rosh Hashanah 1990 and I flew in from Los Angeles to New York to spend the holiday with my father and brother.  My father cooked the dinner for the first night, which was attended by my father, my brother, a co-worker of my brother’s.  After dinner, Dad made a point of saying that since he had done the cooking; he was retiring to the den to relax, while we did the clean-up.  The three of us schmoozed while we cleaned the dishes and put away the food.  After we were done, I went downstairs to the den to check on my father.  I discovered him lying on the floor unconscious; I quickly made a 911 call and waited outside for the ambulance to arrive while my brother held my father.  He regained consciousness by the time the paramedics arrived; Dad argued with both the paramedics and us about not wanting to go to the hospital.  I pleaded with my father to no avail.  Finally, I phoned his twin brother to see whether someone of his own age and experiences could better persuade him to take care of himself than his sons.  Fortunately my uncle was hosting his own son, a physician, who explained to my dad that losing consciousness was a result of lack of oxygen to the brain and that someone had to figure out what the cause of that might be.  After that explanation, Dad allowed us to drive him to the emergency room.  The hospital wanted to keep him overnight for observation, but had no rooms available.  Dad had no desire to spend the night on a gurney bed in the ER.  We let him come home only after we extracted a promise from him to go back the next morning.  That was only the beginning of a very long and difficult evening as my father fell and collapsed multiple times with my brother reviving him each time. 

The reason that my dad was vehemently opposed to going to the hospital is that he witnessed his spouse, my mother (z’l) go into the hospital for cancer treatment eight years prior and never emerge.  My dad knew something was seriously wrong and where this all was heading.  By the way, I never did make it to Shul that Rosh Hashanah as I spent the entire holiday in the hospital with my dad.  My father died in that same hospital 54 days later, never having left the hospital during that time period.

Who shall live:  Fast forward to Rosh Hashanah 1997.  My wife Brenda was pregnant with our second child, who was due to be born five days after Rosh Hashanah by a C Section, which was scheduled two weeks earlier than the actual due date.  Rosh Hashanah began that year on a Wednesday evening and Brenda wanted to prepare a festive holiday dinner for the family.  I argued with her to no avail that Hashem would give her a pass this year.  So she went off to to purchase a huge roast beef.

In the course of dinner preparation, I received a phone call at work from Brenda indicating that she was not feeling too well.  I asked whether she had called her obstetrician, which she had.  Brenda was instructed to drink a half glass of wine and relax.  I, of course, was anything but relaxed as I rushed home from work to join my wife.  By the time I came home, she was still not feeling too great.  However we had a soon to be 2 ½ year older sister in the house and no one to watch her while we went to the hospital.  So I had to call a friend of mine who was sitting down to Rosh Hashanah dinner with his own family and ask him to leave his family dinner to pick up my daughter and take care of her.  While we waited for him to arrive, I wrapped up the roast beef and put two slices of cheese on some bread for my dinner to eat on the drive to the hospital.

We arrived at the hospital about the same time as the obstetrician who was the only non-Jew in a medical practice group which except for her consisted of all Jews.  The first words that I spoke to the obstetrician were expressions of gratitude that she was not of the Jewish faith.  The doctor examined Brenda and quickly came to the conclusion that if the birth were vaginal, she would be sending Brenda home because labor had not progressed far enough.  She also mentioned that given that Brenda was going to give birth by C Section in a few days and that both doctor and patient were already at the hospital that she was willing to perform the C Section that night if Brenda wanted it.  I remembered seeing two obstetricians in the operating room for my older daughter, Judy’s birth, because a C Section is still surgery.  I asked the doctor about who would be assisting her in the operation.  Maria said that she had called the least religious in her practice group, but he still was in no mood to interrupt his own Rosh Hashanah.  Maria said that a surgical resident would be more than adequate assistance. 

Next I did what any guy would do at this time, which was shut up and let my wife decide what she wanted to do.  She opted for having the baby that night.  I had a kippa on under my surgical garb and witnessed the birth of our daughter Lindsay at 10:44 PM on the first night of Rosh Hashanah.  With a sense of circularity, our daughter Lindsay was named for the same person who collapsed on Rosh Hashanah seven years earlier, my father, Leonard (z’l).

Despite my view that Unataneh Tokef is a bunch of medieval gobbledygook, I have witnessed during the days of awe and judgment, life’s highest highs and lowest lows.  Most of life is lived somewhere in between great triumph and horrible tragedy.  The birth of my child and the death of my father are in my thoughts each and every Rosh Hashanah, making every High Holiday since those events somewhat anti-climactic.  

However, if I am going to live, I still want to make my life have some meaning and value.  In that regard, Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedukkah can certainly help improve the quality of my life and that is what I will focus on for each Rosh Hashanah going forward.  I will still take my Rabbis’ teachings over those of medieval Jews.  L'shanah tovah 

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 in Southern Israel on hold during Gaza situation


Two weeks ago, Noami Cohen and Uzi Madar had a traditional engagement party for Jews from Arab countries called a “hina.” They dressed in colorful costumes, danced and partied with 120 of their friends. They were looking forward to their wedding and were expecting 500 guests.

But one day before the wedding scheduled to be held at the Agamim hall in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, Israel killed Hamas military commander Ahmed Al-Jabari. Soon afterwards, rockets began landing throughout the south of Israel. The phone started ringing – was the wedding on or not?

“The Israeli Home Front Command (in charge during conflict) said we could go ahead with the wedding but we could only have up to 100 people,” Naomi, 23, told The Media Line. “I’m getting married once in my life, and I don’t want to make it smaller or be afraid during it.”

So Naomi and Uzi postponed the wedding. They went on Facebook and made dozens of phone calls. Relatives from Tunisia and France who had come for the wedding turned around and went home. The hall, the flowers, the DJ, and the honeymoon in the southern resort town of Eilat were all cancelled.

“I just couldn’t stop crying,” Naomi said. “I just feel so bad. Now, I have to start planning all over again. I waited for this so long, and then, boom, it’s just gone.”

Her fiancé Uzi, 27, who works for the army, said he watched the clock on Thursday night.

“Right now I was supposed to be breaking the glass, (a traditional Jewish custom to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD),” he remembers thinking. “It’s very depressing. We planned this for a whole year and then we couldn’t do it.”

Hundreds of weddings and other celebrations have been cancelled all over the south Israel – the region of the country most frequently targeted by Hamas rockets. Throughout the rest of the country, even when events have been held as scheduled, guests who live in the southern area have cancelled, afraid to be out driving when a missile hits.

“Everything has been cancelled since Thursday,” Shalom Gibli, the owner of the Agamim wedding hall, told The Media Line. “Usually we make people happy, and it’s always happy here, but now it isn’t. I told most of my workers to stay home.”

Agamim has two halls – one that can seat 1000 guests, and the other 500. Both are normally full every night, he says, and sometimes during the day as well for circumcision parties or other events. Gibli estimates he has already lost almost $200,000 in income. He says that even though legally he can charge Naomi and Uzi one-third of what they should have paid, his conscience won’t let him take any money.

But even without the wedding hall, Naomi and Uzi are already out thousands of dollars.

“We have to make new invitations, and we had already cooked a lot for the special Sabbath meals after the wedding,” Naomi said. “We will have to pay a cancellation charge on the honeymoon. We can’t get the DJ we booked so we’ll have to take someone more expensive. I cried for six hours on Thursday.”

Naomi lives in Moshav Zimrat, a small farming community just a few miles from the Gaza Strip. She says she hears the booms of rockets sent from Gaza exploding daily as well as Israel’s return air strikes.

“I don’t remember being as scared in my whole life as I was this past week,” she said. “I had to leave the house after being inside for almost a week – I was going crazy.”

She said her two-year-old niece is terrified every time the warning siren goes off. She freezes and is unable to move. Naomi says she lives in an old house and there is no reinforced room as is required in newer homes. She and her family go to an inside room when they hear the sirens.

Naomi says she’s tired of living with uncertainty, and Israel must strike hard against Hamas in Gaza.

“We’ve been living like this for too long,” she told The Media Line. “We have to deter them once and for all. We should cut off electricity and food. This is our country.”

She and Uzi have not yet set a new wedding date. She says she couldn’t bear to cancel a second time and will wait until the fighting ends before she gets married.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sept. 29 – Oct. 5, 2012


[SAT SEPT 29]

MUSEUM DAY LIVE!

Smithsonian magazine hosts a free day at participating museums, including the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Grammy Museum, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Autry National Center. Zimmer Children’s Museum, which is closed on Saturdays, will be open for Museum Day on Sunday, Sept. 30. Sat. Free (registration required, ticket information on Web site). Various times, locations. smithsonianmag.com/museumday.


[SUN SEPT 30]

 SUKKOT PICNIC

Join the Israeli Leadership Council, MATI and Mitchabrim — organizations dedicated to strengthening the Israeli-American community — at this folksy Sukkot festival. Arts and crafts, Israeli folk dancing, sukkah decorating, kids’ activities and more make it a can’t-miss event for the entire family. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Free. Warner Center Park, 5800 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 466-6454. jewishla.org.

11TH ANNUAL WEST HOLLYWOOD BOOK FAIR

West Hollywood’s celebration of the written word features more than 220 authors and artists. Speakers include “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch (“Girl Walks Into a Bar”) and comedy writer David Misch (“Funny: The Book”); Journal columnist Bill Boyarsky (“Inventing L.A.”); political commentators Robert Scheer (“The Great American Stickup”) and Nancy L. Cohen (“Delirium”); novelists David Brin (“Existence”), Seth Greenland (“The Angry Buddhist”), Tod Goldberg (“Living Dead Girl”), Gregg Hurwitz (“The Survivor”), Stephen Jay Schwartz (“Beat”) and Jerry Stahl (“Pain Killers”); and children’s writers Amy Goldman Koss (“Side Effects”) and Eugene Yelchin (“Breaking Stalin’s Nose”). Attend writer’s workshops, poetry readings and performances, and peruse more than 75 exhibitor booths featuring publishers, booksellers and writing groups. Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free (includes admission, shuttle and parking). West Hollywood Library and West Hollywood Park, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood. westhollywoodbookfair.org.


[MON OCT 1]

“VOICES UNITED”

Comedian Sarah Silverman joins actor Russell Brand and singer-songwriters Catie Curtis and Mary Gauthier in headlining this Americans United concert in support of church-state separation. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $25 (standing room), $50 (rear orchestra), $100 (front orchestra). El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. au.org/voices-united-la-tickets.


[TUE OCT 2]

MAC MILLER

YouTube clips of the Pittsburgh native effortlessly freestyling are viral classics, and his records — including debut album “Blue Slide Park” — showcase Miller’s knack for lacing his rhymes with humor. The 20-year-old rapper makes a stop in Los Angeles as part of his Macadelic Tour. Hip-hop act Travis Porter and rapper YG also perform. Tue. 8 p.m. $30-$35. Nokia Theatre, L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, Los Angeles. (213) 763-6030. nokiatheatrelalive.com.


[THU OCT 4]

“IS ALTRUISM A WONDER DRUG?”

David Levinson, Big Sunday executive director and author of “Everybody Helps, Everybody Wins,” joins bioethicist Stephen Post (“The Hidden Gifts of Helping”) and Stanford University School of Medicine neurosurgery professor James Doty in a discussion about the latest in medical science and altruism. They draw on recent studies that found that frequent volunteering among older adults led to reduced risk of an early death, and that nonvolunteers were more likely than volunteers to experience a major illness. Moderated by Lisa Aliferis, editor of KQED health policy and public health blog “State of Health.” Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, 5750 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. zocalopublicsquare.org.

“RECOVERED VOICES”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon’s concert series restores two generations of composers that were wiped off the map by the Third Reich. Tonight’s chamber music concert features performances of lost works by Austrian composers Alexander von Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Schreker; and Czech composer and pianist Erwin Schulhoff. Pacific Trio and friends accompany Conlon. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $37-$65. Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. thebroadstage.com.

 

“UNAUTHORIZED: THE HARVEY WEINSTEIN PROJECT”

Documentarian Barry Avrich’s latest film offers an unflinching portrait of Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films. Avrich turns to Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, John Irving and others to examine the influence that Weinstein holds in Hollywood. A post-screening Q-and-A with Avrich follows. Thu. 7:30 p.m. $10 (general), $7 (LACMA members, seniors, students). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000. lacma.org.

High Holy Days: Who will live, who will die?


You don’t have to be a Jewish scholar to note a glaring difference between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Jan. 1, the secular New Year.

The former is solemn while the latter is boisterous. And one reason for Rosh Hashanah’s solemnity is the central question that it confronts: “Who will live and who will die [in the coming year]?”

The High Holy Days liturgy is meant to force us to confront our mortality. And that is not a particularly jovial subject.

Is this a good thing? 

I think it is. As Samuel Johnson put it a long time ago, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”

The fact is that knowing we will die is one of the most beneficial realizations we can have.

First, death forces us to value time. If we never died, why would we do anything we didn’t absolutely have to do?

Why read a book today when you know that you can just as easily put off reading it for a year, or for that matter, a hundred years? 

Knowing that our time is limited forces us use it more productively. Years ago, a Swiss lawyer, after being told that he had incurable cancer, wrote a book during his last year of life. Among the first things he decided to do was to stop watching television.

Well before I read about that book, at a young age, I remember thinking that, in terms of using time wisely, it would be a good thing to live as if one had a terminal illness.


For the fact is that we all do have a terminal condition — life itself.

Rosh Hashanah asks us — no, it demands of us — that we lead our lives knowing we can die any day. Because nearly every one of us would lead our lives differently if we were told we had a year to live. 

Second, death confers wisdom.

Knowing that we will die gives us wisdom: Death puts things into perspective.

Knowing that we will die clarifies what is important and what is trivial. It is one reason that human beings have always associated age with wisdom. 

The usual explanation for associating age with wisdom is the longer one lives, the more wisdom one accumulates through increased life experiences. But I believe something else is at least as much at work here. And that is that the older one gets, the closer to death one gets. If people could expect to live, let us say, 500 years, I am not sure that 80-year-olds would have as much wisdom as they do today.

As people get old, they are more likely to believe in God. This is often dismissed as a function of their fear of death. But I submit it is not fear of death nearly as much as it is the reality of death that makes older people more likely to believe in God.

When you stare death in the face, you get a lot a more clarity about life. And one of those clarity realizations is that if there is no God, this whole thing called life has been no more than a charade: We make believe things matter, but they really don’t. 

The same holds true with belief in an afterlife. When people are young and think they will live forever, the idea of an afterlife can seem both irrational and unimportant. But when you confront death, it becomes far more difficult — not just emotionally, but intellectually — to say, “This life is all there is.”

Another proof of how much death clarifies what is important is the funeral.

It is well worth paying attention to eulogies. If you do, you will notice that much of what we deem to be of major significance is virtually never even mentioned in any of the eulogies for the deceased.

For example, many parents (Jewish ones most certainly) deem what college their children get into to be the most important goal of their child’s life. Virtually everything is dedicated to that goal — getting into the best preschool, the best elementary school, the best junior high and high school, getting the best grades, and spending whatever it takes.

But have you ever heard any eulogy mention — even in passing — what college the deceased attended? Has any rabbi, priest, minister, spouse, child or friend of the deceased ever said anything like, “We will miss Sam, who, you will recall, attended Harvard”?

Eulogies — the ultimate confrontation with death — force us to talk about what is truly important: “We will miss Sam. Sam was a wonderful husband, a devoted father, a loyal and giving friend. He loved life. He had a happy disposition. He was an honest man, etc., etc.”

Finally, death increases our love of just about everything in life.

Death forces us to value the quotidian. Those diagnosed with a terminal illness value sunsets and flowers and rain showers and people more than they did before their diagnosis.

So, for all these reasons Rosh Hashanah focuses on our mortality. That is why, ironically, while the theme resonates far more with the old, it is the young who most need it. Because the sooner people appreciate their mortality, the sooner they will value what is truly important: goodness, sunsets, people — and, yes, God and religion.

Who will die this coming year? Maybe you and maybe me. 

What is certain is that confronting the question will make for a better year.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 970 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarprCollins, 2012).

Calendar Picks and Clicks: Sep. 15-21, 2012


SAT SEPT 15

“With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story”
The feature-length documentary explores the life of the 89-year-old, comic-book legend, co-creator of the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man and the Hulk. Directed by Terry Douglas, Nikki Frakes and William Lawrence Hess, “With Great Power” highlights Lee’s Depression-era upbringing, his early years at Timely Comics, his military service during World War II, the dawn of Marvel Comics and more. Narrated by Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber), the doc features interviews with Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes. A Q-and-A with the filmmakers follows the screening. Sat. 7-9 p.m. $10. Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St., downtown. (213) 617-1033. downtownindependent.com.


SUN SEPT 16

High Holiday Food Drive 2012
SOVA needs your help. This Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles program, which provides free groceries and an array of support services to more than 12,000 individuals each month, is collecting canned beans, meat, tuna, dry milk, pasta, noodles, rice, dry soup, peanut butter, toiletries and other items. Drop-off locations include the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles as well as participating synagogues and day schools. Sun. Through Sept. 26. The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (818) 988-7682, Ext. 116, to find drop-off locations in your area. jewishla.org, jfsla.org/sova.


TUE SEPT 18

Matisyahu
The Grammy nominee appears live in support of his latest record, “Spark Seeker.” Like its predecessors, the new album — Matisyahu’s fourth — features a blend of reggae, hip-hop, beat boxing and spiritual lyrics, but also showcases traditional ancient sounds and electro beats. Expect to hear lead single “Sunshine” as well as other new tracks, and older material off of albums “Light” and “Youth,” during tonight’s performance. Opening bands include reggae-rock ensembles Dirty Heads and Pacific Dub. Tue. 6:30 p.m. $27.50. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (800) 745-3000. livenation.com.


WED SEPT 19

“Sarin Zakan & Eshel Ben-Jacob: Bacteria Art and Eco-Fashion”
Israeli fashion designer Sarin Zakan, who creates eco-couture clothing that blends science and art, makes her U.S. debut at the Pacific Design Center. Zakan’s work — including collars and dresses — features patterns formed by bacteria. Her pieces will be displayed alongside the work of her mentor, Tel Aviv University physics professor Eshel Ben-Jacob, who is called the godfather of bacterial art patterns. Wed. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free. Through Nov. 9, Mon.-Fri. Pacific Design Center, 8867 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 657-0800. pacificdesigncenter.com.


THU SEPT 20

Mitch Albom 
The best-selling author of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” sits down with Rabbi David Wolpe to discuss his new book, “The Time Keeper.” Albom’s novel follows the inventor of the world’s first clock, Father Time, who, after being punished for trying to measure God’s greatest gift, is given a chance to redeem himself by teaching two people — a teenage girl about to give up on life and a wealthy old businessman who wants to live forever — the true meaning of time. Admission includes a copy of the book. Thu. 8 p.m. $20 (Sinai members), $25 (general). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3243. sinaitemple.org


FRI SEPT 21

Martin Amis and Matthew Weiner
Matthew Weiner, the marvel behind “Mad Men,” appears in conversation with Martin Amis, a master of ironic prose (“Money: A Suicide Note”). A postwar British writer of fiction, nonfiction, short stories, essays and reviews, his new novel, “Lionel Asbo: State of England,” follows the problematic relationship between a thuggish and lottery-winning English uncle and his nephew. Though experts in different mediums, Weiner and Amis share a fascination with the lives of the privileged in their respective works. Fri. 7:30 p.m. $20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 855-0005. writersblocpresents.com.

“Abraham”
French singer-songwriter and actor Michel Jonasz embodies Abraham, his cantor grandfather, in this one-man show. Set before his death, the play follows Abraham as he recalls his deepest memories — his childhood, escaping from Poland, meeting his wife, his deportation to concentration camps, and the joys and sorrows of existence. In French with projected English translations. Fri. 7:45 p.m. Through Sept. 22. $50 (general seating), $75 (premium). Theatre Raymond Kabbaz, 10361 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 286-0553. theatreraymond-kabbaz.com.

The Torah of our lives: On writing the next chapter


“Boomers [people born between 1946 and 1964] are the first generation in human history … to reasonably anticipate living well and wholesomely into their 80s and 90s, if not beyond,” sociologist Steven Cohen writes. “But not only are Jews (as others) living longer, they are living in an age of meaning-seeking, with the interest and wherewithal to make living a life of meaning an ultimate and reasonably obtainable objective for any point in their lives.”

I just turned 62; I’m a boomer. My grandparents experienced their lifetimes in three major life stages: childhood, midlife and old age. (The idea of adolescence as a distinct period between childhood and adulthood didn’t develop until early in the last century.) For my parents, there was childhood, adolescence, adulthood and then retirement (to Florida) at 65 and the beginning of old age. For me, it will be different.

There is a lot being written about a new life stage between maturity and old age. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her book “The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50,” writes: “The arc of life and learning is continually being expanded and redefined. … [N]ot only are people living longer and thus facing interesting questions related to how to compose their lives, but also that what I am calling the Third Chapter represents a significant and new developmental period in our culture. … This is a chapter in life, then, when the traditional norms, rules and rituals of our careers seem less encompassing and restrictive; when many women and men seem to be embracing new challenges and searching for greater meaning in life.”

One of the places that Jewish boomers are going in search of this “greater meaning in life” is the synagogue. Along with families with young children, they are the next largest group coming to synagogue, whether or not they are actually joining. Boomers are our adult learners; they populate many of our worship services and they come to their rabbis and synagogues for help dealing with their aging parents. At the same time that they are responsible for elderly parents, many still have older children at home or who have recently returned because of the difficulties of this economy. How can they navigate these competing claims? What does it really mean to honor one’s mother and father? How does one parent an adult child? What ought to be the role of grandparents?

We boomers are in the process of composing and reinventing our lives as we realize that time means something different when there is less of it ahead than behind. What will be our legacy? How can we continue to create lives of meaning and purpose when we can no longer define ourselves primarily in terms of our careers or even our families? What would constitute meaningful volunteer work and a chance to give back? Where might there be the opportunity to mentor a younger generation, to share professional and life wisdom? What kind of travel offers the opportunity to do service as well as experience a different culture? What kinds of intentional communities might offer attractive alternatives to living alone in our homes? And what kinds of spiritual resources does our tradition have to offer us as we write this new chapter of our lives?

It turns out that Judaism has a great deal to teach about aging wisely, particularly about the spiritual practices of forgiveness and gratitude that seem to be so central to the work of this stage of our lives. Judaism teaches that God is present in every moment; we acknowledge God’s presence by blessing, ritual and ceremony. Traditional Jewish life cycle rituals of brit milah, bar mitzvah, marriage, and illness and death might have been sufficient for my grandfather’s life, but they don’t acknowledge the reality of my life experience. We first learned this in the early ’70s when the Jewish feminist movement challenged us to think about the Torah of our lives and acknowledge the divinity present in all of our experiences. While one could certainly argue that there are many other rituals that our tradition offers connected to other moments of transition, such as affixing a mezuzah when moving into a new home or expressing gratitude for surviving an illness (Birkhat ha-Gomel), the claim that all of our experiences are Jewish experiences and therefore deserve to be acknowledged through ritual suggests that we turn to creating new rituals to help us think about this new chapter as well.

What are those moments? They include retirement, moving out of the homes where we raised our children, becoming a grandparent, giving up our cars, major birthdays, reaffirmation of marriage vows, and even choosing whether to begin a new relationship when a beloved spouse no longer recognizes us because of advanced Alzheimer’s.

As USC anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff taught, there is danger in creating new ritual. It needs to feel authentic and convincing by somehow echoing the power of more familiar ritual and linking us to the cosmic narrative of our people reflected in Torah. We need to touch not only the Torah of our own lives; these new rituals must also connect us to the Torah of tradition.

The norms, rules and rituals of this stage haven’t yet been written; we are writing them together as we compose this next chapter of our lives enriched by the insights of Jewish tradition. I look forward to a challenging and engaging conversation.

Survivor: Albert Rosa


Albert Rosa spied his older sister Luna across the chain-link fence. He remembered her as beautiful, with big, blue eyes and long, dark hair. Now she was skinny and filthy, her head shaved. “It broke my heart,” he said. Albert had been at Auschwitz only three weeks and had given up two days’ rations to persuade a bunkmate to trade uniforms and work details so he could see his sister. She was digging, supervised by female guards with guns, whips and German shepherds. He stood by the fence and got her attention. “Do you know anything about my children?” she asked him. “My husband? Mommy and Daddy?” A guard quickly appeared and clubbed Luna on the head. She fell, as blood gushed. The guard continued beating her.

Albert tried to rip the chain link apart, yelling the only words he knew in German, “Work faster, God-damned Jew.” The guard unleashed the German shepherd, commanding the dog to kill. As the dog charged his throat, Albert, a boxer in his native Greece, hit the dog with all his strength. They fought. Albert was mauled and, in his words, “left for three-quarters dead.” Still, he was ordered back to work. He later saw two women pulling a wooden cart. They picked up Luna’s body and threw it on top, “like trash,” Albert said.

Albert was born Jan. 25, 1925, in Salonika, Greece, to Ephraim, a hardware store owner, and Regina. The youngest of eight children in an observant and comfortable family, he excelled at swimming, soccer and boxing.

The situation for Salonika’s 56,000 Jews changed in April 1941, after Germany invaded Greece. Albert could no longer attend school, and his father’s business was confiscated. The persecution increased in February 1943, when the Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and relocate to ghettos.

A month later, in the early morning, Albert’s family and others were loaded into military trucks and then crammed into cattle cars, which over 10 days and nights transported them to Auschwitz. Albert spent the journey resting on a neighbor’s dead body. “We weren’t human anymore,” he said.

Arriving at Auschwitz, wearing only underwear and no shoes, Albert felt he had been put “in a deep freeze.” He was given number 110362 and a blanket and sent to a barracks with his older brothers Daniel and David. The next day, Albert was issued a uniform and sent to work in the coalmines, where he dug with a pick and shovel from sunup to sundown.

Later, after his sister’s murder, Albert was assigned to dig a pipe hole. At one point, seeing an open kitchen door, he grabbed a few potatoes. A guard saw him and started to shoot, but the gun jammed, so the guard began beating him with its butt, almost killing him. Albert’s brother Daniel, 6 feet tall and also a boxer, saw what was happening and, in Albert’s words, “came like a wild animal.” He knocked the guard out and choked him to death. Several guards intervened, cracking Daniel’s head and taking him away.  That evening at the nightly hanging, which other prisoners were forced to watch, Albert saw his brother Daniel on the gallows. “Daniel, I will survive, and I will avenge you,” he said.

In autumn 1943, months after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Albert and a large group of Greek Jews who spoke neither Polish nor Yiddish were transported to Warsaw to bury the dead, whose decomposing bodies were piled up in bunkers. At the end of the almost yearlong assignment, they were commanded to blow up the ghetto.

Afterward, Albert was part of a forced march from Warsaw to Dachau. He remembers that the group panicked when they reached a wide river, too deep to wade across. Soldiers stood on a small bridge, firing at them with machine guns as they tried to swim to safety.

Albert reached Dachau and was quickly transferred to Kaufering, a subcamp. One day, in January 1945, hearing they would be killed, he and seven prisoners escaped. Two were killed immediately, and Albert, running through the forest as fast as he could, said he “left part of my face and arms on the branches.” Eventually they reached a farmhouse, where, ravenous, they ate from the pigs’ trough. And when the elderly farmer, a one-legged German civilian, began shooting at them, they dove into a pile of fertilizer. American soldiers soon liberated them. They gave Albert a uniform, and he joined the Americans, doing medic runs as bullets rained down around him. For his service, he was awarded a Purple Heart.

After the war ended, in May 1945, Albert spent six months at the Feldafing displaced persons camp in Bavaria and another six months hunting down Nazis. In spring 1946, he joined the Irgun, the underground Jewish resistance group, recruiting refugees to help build Palestine. He also met his future wife, Betty Rosensweig, at the Riedenburg DP camp in Salzburg, Austria.  Soon after, he was imprisoned by the British in Cyprus for smuggling arms into Palestine, but managed to escape.

Albert and Betty married on Aug. 26, 1948, making their way to Denver in late 1949. Albert found a job as a janitor in an upholstery factory and worked his way up to factory manager. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1959. Here, Albert worked as an upholsterer and then, with a partner, ran a market and deli on Venice Beach for 20 years.

Albert’s daughter Regina was born in 1949,  son Andrew in 1953, and second daughter Yvette in 1964. Betty died in 1997. He has one granddaughter.

For 55 years, Albert didn’t talk about the Holocaust. But after seeing “Schindler’s List,” his daughters and son encouraged him to speak out, which he now does frequently.

“I want the schoolchildren to know that life wasn’t always so easy. When I was their age, I was starving,” he said.

In praise of falsehood


What is it with people telling the truth all the time? I don’t mean under oath, or even in response to a question that has been posed to them; I mean when they just come out of the blue and dish out a nice, hefty portion of truth because they love you too much to lie to you.

For years, the first thing I heard from some of my favorite aunts upon greeting them was, “You look awful.”

They said this no matter how hard I had tried to fix myself up, or how good I thought I looked when I came through the door.

“I’m telling you the truth because I love you,” they added. “You’re too thin, you must be working too hard, you should eat more, wear some makeup, cut your hair or something.”

I was wearing makeup. I didn’t think I looked so bad.

“Well, you’re wrong. And anyone who tells you otherwise is lying to you. You really shouldn’t let your husband see you like this.”

How can you get mad at someone who’s telling you the truth for your own good? And besides, these ladies were older than I. Among Iranians, few transgressions are as grave as talking back to an older person, especially a family member. To say you disagree with them is bad enough, but there’s no way you can tell them to mind their own business and be able to hold your head up in the family afterward. So I tolerated the love talk for about a decade, then heeded the advice of my husband. He grew up in England, where he was taught not just respect, but also diplomacy.

“I appreciate your concern,” he suggested I tell these honest, loving people, “but what you tell me makes me feel bad.”

That might have worked for Diana. For me, it was a nonstarter.

“I’d rather you felt bad and fixed yourself up, than felt good and looked bad,” my loving elders said. 

That finally stopped when I became old enough that to look good, all I have to do is maintain a pulse. Nowadays, I feel pretty safe at “hello,” but it’s anyone’s guess what happens from then on. Truth telling, it seems, has become a national pastime, with all that reality garbage constantly on television, all those celebrities bearing their hearts out for Dr. Drew, and every middle-aged, unemployed man and woman signing up with some online university for a degree in marriage and family therapy, then graduating with honors and charging the world with their professional wisdom.

I had an hour of this last Saturday when I went to a Shabbat luncheon at a family member’s house. I arrived at 1:30 wearing heels and makeup and — tell me this isn’t making an effort — a red dress. It was a large gathering, and I didn’t know most of the guests, so I managed to get in a good three minutes without being told I was late or I looked awful or I had offended someone by failing to “convince” my kids to come with me, but then I got overly confident and made the mistake of approaching a cousin. She’s the effusive type and always full of compliments. She saw me and declared, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, “Now this is a good color for you!”

In case you’re too self-confident to grasp the nuance, the implication there is that whatever else I’ve worn over my lifetime was not a good color. This same cousin had told me, a week after my older son’s bar mitzvah, that the dress I wore to the party made me look “dead.”

“And your hair looks good, too,” she now added. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t like it before.”

Before what? I’ve had the same hair since I was 22 and had it cut to within an inch of my scalp.

“I hope you don’t mind my telling you this. I don’t like to lie.”

Me neither. So I left the cousin and went outside into 100-degree heat, hoping to find shelter among people who didn’t love me and didn’t feel compelled to tell the truth. I had spent five minutes making small talk with a stranger before a woman I barely knew came up and asked, without the smallest bit of preface, “How do you rate your books?”

How do I rate them?

“I mean, what do you think of them?”

I think they’re terrible — badly written and pointless — and so do the publishers and critics and the buyers, of course. 

“I ask because my daughter read one of them and didn’t like it. I hope you don’t mind my being honest.”

Among Iranians, the polite response to such honesty is to thank the person and acknowledge their feelings. Anything else would be considered rude, tag you as a shrew and ruin your children’s chances at marriage.

OK, so maybe strangers’ truths aren’t any better than friends’ truths, I thought, and went back inside, sat down with my Orthodox cousin’s five kids, all under the age of 6, each brighter and more beautiful and charming than the rest. A few minutes later another cousin, a newly minted marriage and family therapist, joined us. We talked about how cute these children were, how quickly they grow up. I said something about missing my younger son who just moved out of the house to go to college. I thought that was rather innocuous, but it seems Antioch University disagrees. My cousin boiled with outrage.

“Let him go!” she yelled like Moses at the Pharaoh. “You’re castrating the child!”

Really? Castrating?

“That’s the trouble with Iranian men: They’re all castrated by their mothers.”

I looked around at the dozens of castrated men and all the castrating women in the room. I considered telling my cousin that I had studied all about castration in Psych 101 a thousand years ago at UCLA, and that there’s a slight difference between loving a child and wanting to own him, but that would have been rude of me; it would have hurt her feelings, meant that I was an ingrate and a shrew. It’s a “Catch-22” I think anyone in a caring, close-knit community has experienced and I, at least, have no idea how to solve it or where to find the right balance. I can’t blame people, because I think they mean well, so I’ve decided the fault lies with the truth itself. I therefore recommend the following prayer before and after each social gathering:

Dear God, give us this day our daily dose of denial. Keep us safe from love, truth and honesty. Lead us out of the light and into the darkness; let us remain ignorant of our failings, unpopularity and good colors. If possible, impose some minimal requirements for becoming a marriage and family therapist. And whatever you did with my hair this past Saturday … keep that up until further notice from my cousin.

Religion’s power in the face of death


Contemporary Bible scholars tend to look at religion as the object of study rather than the source of inspiration, or so we might conclude from their writings.  But something quite different can happen when they are confronted with the kind of life experiences for which religion has always served as a balm.

A fascinating example can be found in the latest book by Harvard professor James L. Kugel, “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief” (Free Press: $26.00).  Kugel is best known for his books about the origins and uses of religious texts, including “The God of Old” and “How to Read the Bible.” When he was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, Kugel was reminded of the lines of Psalm 102 — “O my God, do not take me halfway through life” — and he imagined that the Psalmist must have been similarly stricken.

“You would think that a Bible professor would, in the circumstances I have described, seek comfort in these and other words from Scripture,” he writes. “But to be absolutely truthful, although I know much of the book of Psalms by heart, these were not the words that I kept thinking of after the doctors’ diagnosis. Instead, what ran through my mind was mostly poetry in English, poems I had learned a long time ago – some of them fairly corny.”

Happily, Kugel regained his health, and now he offers a meditation on how our perceptions and of religion can change when we confront the imminence of death.  He describes how the “background music” of daily life — “the music of infinite time and possibilities” — seemed to suddenly stop when he heard his diagnosis, and he muses on the smallness of life as symbolized by the sight of a freshly-dug grave: “Can a whole human being fit in there, a whole human life? Yes. No problem.”

Kugel frankly asks why human beings are (and always have been) so fascinated by religion — a question that is at the core of his life’s work — but he argues that some of the modern scientific theories about the origins and workings of the religious imagination fail to see the forest for the trees. “They all seem to be saying: once we understand the neuroscience and evolutionary biology that explain how this delusion got going in the first place, then we can start to come to our senses and reorder our lives,” he writes of books like “The God Delusion.”  “But that really is to miss the point…. After all is said and done, it may come down to a choice between seeing something through a wavy lens…and not seeing at all. Faced with such a choice, I’ll take seeing anytime.”

To explain the elusive concepts that he is struggling to express, Kugel resorts to a whole library of sources, texts, and points of reference, ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the architecture of medieval cathedrals to pop music and gospel music, from the Homer to Augustine to Rilke.  Kugel argues that religion can be a way of seeking “a different reality, more powerful and truer than the one we live in every day…a vision of things that is altogether different from our usual one” — an idea that is hardly revolutionary but one that takes on both complexity and resonance in Kugel’s work.

And yet, even though Kugel refuses to simplify what he has to say and always drills deeply into the texts that he ponders, he is also willing and able to share moments of startling clarity.  “Why do we expect the world to be a fair place?” he asks. “In fact, your own little tragedy is inscribed next to so many big ones on the front page of every newspaper (teenage soldier cut down for trying to keep the peace; pilgrims blown to smithereens by a suicide bomber) that in no time at all it is just one more instance in an endless litany of unfairnesses — why should anyone ever expect life to be any different?”

Then, too, he is willing to humanize and personalize the human beings who wrote and read the ancient texts that continue to serve as the touchstones of religion in the modern world. “It is easy now for religion’s deniers to dismiss the way of seeing associated with ancient religions as a benighted patchwork of superstitions and wishful thinking, one that is now happily being disproved and scientifically explained,” he writes. “But my own belief – and the continued theme of this book – is that people two thousand or five thousand years ago were not any stupider than we are today, and that they certainly knew when their own innocent children were dying, whether from disease or famine or apparently nothing at all.”

“In the Valley of the Shadow” is a curious blend of scholarship and confession.  Kugel’s mastery of the texts and traditions is richly displayed yet again, but somehow it all seems much more consequential when framed by an account of his own passage through that often-invoked “valley of the shadow of death.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

The Next (Jewish) Miss America?


Loren Galler Rabinowitz is not an overachiever. Not to say that she hasn’t achieved more during her 24 years than most accomplish in a lifetime; however, none of it came without expectations. Galler Rabinowitz has felt the pressure to succeed her whole life and has borne it well. You’d be hard pressed to find a more driven or dedicated individual, but no amount of drive can easily explain how a fiercely intellectual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard ended up on stage in spangles with a tiara on her head and the title of Miss Massachusetts.

Galler Rabinowitz was born in Brookline, Mass., into a family of physicians. As a child, she accompanied her mother on trips to her clinic in Barbados, where she worked with underprivileged children. “I’ve been involved with medical research my whole life,” said Galler Rabinowitz, who, by the age of 14, was helping write grant requests and caring for people at the clinic. 

Galler Rabinowitz has a particularly strong relationship with her mother, a major role model in her life. It was through her mother’s influence that Galler Rabinowitz would find her first passion. “My mom was a ballerina, and when I was small, she took me ice skating. It became something we did together.” It was on one of her childhood trips to the rink that Galler Rabinowitz was discovered by an Olympic skating coach and put on the track toward stardom.

Paired with skater David Mitchell, Galler Rabinowitz soon rose through the ranks of U.S ice dancers. She and Mitchell won the bronze medal at the 2004 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “I so desperately loved skating. It was my singular focus for 10 years,” Galler Rabinowitz said in a recent phone interview. However, her Olympic dreams were star-crossed: A shoulder injury to Mitchell sidelined the pair for the 2005 season, and they never recovered their previous chemistry. To make matters worse, Galler Rabinowitz was about to lose someone who had been her inspiration for years.

When she was just a child, Eva Vogel had been rounded up in a Nazi sweep with her family and put on a train to the Belzec concentration camp. Vogel’s father, wanting to spare her the horrible fate that awaited her, pushed Eva out the small window of the train so that she would have a chance at freedom. Eva managed to find a sympathetic Christian family to take her in. With her blond hair and green eyes, Vogel spent the rest of World War II as Katrina, an assumed identity. After the war was over, she married Henry Galler and eventually made her way to America, where she, Henry, and their daughter, Janina, settled in New Orleans.  Years later, Janina Galler would marry Burton Rabinowitz, and among their children would be a talented young ice dancer named Loren.

Loren’s grandmother Eva was her idol. She’d dedicated her post-Holocaust life to traveling around to schools with her husband and preaching against racism and bigotry. Galler Rabinowitz is effusive in her praise of her grandmother. “One of my most cherished memories is spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother. Every time I make her famous matzah ball soup, I feel closer to her, like I’m bringing part of her with me.”

In August 2005, like some cruel joke from above, Hurricane Katrina, bearing the same name that had once saved Eva Galler’s life, crashed into the city of New Orleans. Their home damaged, Eva and Henry were forced to move to Texas, but Eva couldn’t stand the strain. A few short months later, she was dead.

With her skating career over and her beloved grandmother gone, Galler Rabinowitz was forced to consider a new direction in life. She took a trip to Israel to help care for a sick relative. It was her first experience in the Holy Land. “I’d never been there before and wanted to see it. It was really important for me to connect with where I came from and to get a sense of where I needed to go,” Galler Rabinowitz said wistfully. “I had the best time ever.  Having the ability to eat falafel four times a day after years of being on a skater’s diet was definitely something I took advantage of.”

When Africa Comes to Israel


There is a new threat to Israel, although the people raising it are entirely innocent. The threat is represented by a growing population of African refugees, mainly escapees from the hellish dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, who are pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel and settling in some of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in Tel Aviv. They’re now coming at the rate of more than 1,000 each month, according to recent government statements.

In summer 2006, when the presence of these new immigrants first gained public notice, the State Attorney’s office numbered them at fewer than 200. Then, they were strictly a humanitarian concern. And this continues to be so: The people from Darfur and Southern Sudan have fled annihilation; those from Eritrea fled war, lifetime military conscription and persecution. A substantial proportion of refugees from both places were tortured along the way, many of the women have been gang raped by their Sinai Bedouin guides, and all the refugees dodged brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of Egyptian border guards.

The African migration through Sinai to Israel began in 2005 with tiny numbers of Sudanese leaving Cairo, where they had been hounded by police, denied the right to work and treated with ruthless contempt by racist Egyptians. After a police massacre at the end of that year of at least 30 and as many as 200 Sudanese refugees outside the United Nations’ compound in Cairo, the routes through Sinai to the Israeli border began heating up.  

The first arrivals were held in an Israeli prison for a year, or more. But Supreme Court challenges and pressure from the U.N. and the media got them out in 2006. They began moving to Eilat, to sympathetic kibbutzim, and to South Tel Aviv. The cell-phone grapevine between Israel and Cairo told of a relatively great life here.

Soon, the Eritreans started coming, too, and the numbers of African refugees entering Israel each month grew from dozens to hundreds. 

Three years ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from American Jewry because of the worldwide concern over Darfur, granted temporary residency — which means the right to work and to receive Israeli social benefits — to the roughly 500 Darfurians in Israel at the time. Since then, about 2,000 more Darfur refugees have arrived, and they have not been given temporary residency. And, now, even Darfurians from among those original 500 say the Interior Ministry is refusing to renew their temporary residency, according to attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who represents many of them.

Israel’s leading activist on the refugees’ behalf, Sigal Rozen, former director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that 19,000 refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, 8,000 from Sudan and another 4,000 or so from various other, mainly African, countries. As these numbers continue to increase, they also signal a danger, potentially an existential one to this country, whose entire population is 7.5 million and whose size is roughly that of New Jersey.

“The flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa [is] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a July cabinet meeting.

Officially, the Africans are called “infiltrators,” a misleading term because not only do they not hide from Israeli troops after crossing the border, they give themselves up eagerly. They are taken to Saharonim holding facility in the Negev, then released, usually within days, with a bus ticket to Beer Sheva. Afterward they usually head for Tel Aviv and settle wherever they find work.

A refugee family from Eritrea with their Israeli neighbors — Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan.

None of them has been linked to terrorism or any kind of security offense, according to Deputy State Attorney Yochi Gnessin and William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most are young men who live together in rented apartments, several to a room, and they take on whatever work is available, “doing the rough, dirty work that no normal person would do, for whatever money they can get,” said Dror Krispi, who runs an all-night snack bar in Hatikva Quarter, where many refugees have settled. Most commonly, they work as garbage collectors, gardeners, packers in outdoor fruit-and-vegetable markets, house cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in the Tel Aviv area and as menial staff in the hotels of Eilat.

Yet in those poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and other cities where they’ve settled by the thousands, they have set off a wave of xenophobia. The backlash, once confined to nonviolent expressions, now appears to be heating up. In early December, a gang of teenagers in South Tel Aviv reportedly attacked some refugees, and an apartment building in Ashdod, where several refugees live, was torched, although it has not been determined who committed the arson or why.

Meanwhile, the asylum-seekers continue to come over the Egyptian border into Israel. To use Ehud Barak’s phrase from the bad old days of the Intifada, Israel proper (not counting the occupied territories) is a “villa in the jungle” — a democratic, relatively tolerant, prosperous country in the middle of the impoverished, repressive, sprawling Third World. To quote Netanyahu from late November, it is also “the only developed country that you can reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”

Also since November, Israeli bulldozers have been building a security fence along the 150-mile border with Egypt. It is expected to take two and a half years to complete, said Udi Shani, director-general of the Defense Ministry, at a recent Knesset hearing. Construction of a detention camp is planned in the Negev desert, near the Egyptian border, to house up to 10,000 refugees. Netanyahu has given assurances that they will receive “humane” treatment; the Prime Minister’s Office’s official English-language term for the camp is “open housing center.” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, however, has noted that a camp meant to keep people in cannot at the same time be “open.” The refugees are to be prohibited from working.

The government’s hope is to find foreign countries to take the refugees in, reportedly with financial inducements. But U.N. representative Tall calls this plan “a non-starter.”

“Other countries are already dealing with much larger numbers of refugees, they don’t want to take in Israel’s, too,” Tall said. In early December, he said, some 150 Southern Sudanese refugees were flown back home, with their consent, via an unnamed third country, joining a similar number who repatriated last year to Southern Sudan, which is in the process of gaining independence.

But even though 300 refugees are gone, at least that many new ones are coming across the border from Egypt every week.

Jewish community stresses feelings at its peril


We shouldn’t be the least bit surprised that American Jewry is in trouble. We have been overemphasizing what feels good at the expense of what does good for the Jewish people for quite some time.

Allow me to explain.

Many Jewish organizations have taken to pursuing political agendas that at best are distantly, and usually not at all, connected to Jewish concerns. For example, B’nai B’rith International has taken positions on immigration reform and Latin American free trade. The National Council of Jewish Women has spoken out on the earned income tax credit and the line item veto. The ADL has taken stances on same-sex marriage, immigration and reproductive rights. And the Reform movement’s URJ biennial advocated for “righteous, healthy eating,” health care reform and statehood for Washington, D.C.

While I certainly understand the desire to repair the world, spending time and energy on these issues doesn’t help us to create more committed Jews. If a group of law school students devoted years to charitable endeavors, their efforts, while highly laudable, would in no way advance their study of jurisprudence. To be effective attorneys, they must still concentrate on law. To be effective Jews and effective Jewish organizations, we have to concentrate on specifically Jewish matters.

Some might argue that we can both advocate for political positions and inspire Jews to be more committed. That’s just not happening. A multitude of studies demonstrates how non-Orthodox Jews are becoming less and less involved in Jewish life. Very simply, too many Jews are becoming citizens of the world at the expense of being committed citizens of their Jewish community.

We also hurt ourselves in the pursuit of equality in the Jewish community. How could equality be a bad thing? When it gets in the way of placing the brightest, most talented individuals on our boards and in our organizations. It should not matter whether an organization or a board is populated by a majority of female, male, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, gay or straight Jews. Our organizations deserve to be filled with the very best individuals we can find. The Jewish world shorts itself every time it places equality ahead of quality.

Most of us don’t make business decisions in this way, so why do we think such an approach makes sense in our Jewish work? It might feel good to seek balance, but the greater Jewish good suffers as a result.

It is painful to note that an increasing number of American Jews favor Palestinian causes over support of the Jewish state. Here is yet another example of feelings winning out over common sense. Many of us understandably but sometimes wrongly tend to sympathize with the weaker of two opposing parties. After all, why would the stronger group appear to need our support? Presumably it is able to easily protect itself.

Yet strength and weakness have no relationship to right and wrong. How we instinctively feel about two parties tells us nothing about their moral quality. A weaker group that intentionally targets civilians is morally inferior to a far more powerful nation that institutionally attempts to target terrorists.

Of course there are faults to be found with Israel’s conduct. But Israel’s enemies are nowhere near Israel morally with regard to freedom of speech and religious practice, treatment of women and of gays, or waging war with moral constraints.

As it relates to the programs we create, our support for the State of Israel, those we choose to guide our organizations and myriad other matters, our Jewish communities must start acting more on the basis of what does good rather than what feels good. We must get more into the Jew-building business and not spend as much time in the feel-good business.

The irony is that as we do, at least as it relates to the vitality of our Jewish communities, we ultimately will have more to feel good about.

(Joel Alperson is a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities—now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He lives in Omaha, Neb. His views do not necessarily represent those of the organization.)

The Eulogizer: Bible scholar, businessman-FBI informant, online journalism pioneer


The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories, and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”eulogizer@jta.org” title=”eulogizer@jta.org”}. Read previous columns here.

Noted Israeli Bible scholar

Professor Shemaryahu Talmon, a Holocaust survivor who became a noted Israeli Bible scholar with a worldwide reputation, died Dec. 15 at 90.

Talmon, a native of Germany, was the sole member of his family to survive the Shoah. Following World War II, he became head of the education system in the Jewish refugee camps in Cyprus before coming to Israel.

Talmon’s achievements included the prestigious Israel Prize in Bible study. His research combined text criticism and the place of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Jewish canon. His work revealed a deep sensitivity for the Bible’s literary character and the social reality reflected in it.

He said people today must deal with the Bible in our own time, that Israeli society was an integral part of an extensive cultural network in the Near East, and that Jewish beliefs were influenced by its neighbors.

Talmon was the Judah L. Magnes emeritus professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and he taught and held positions elsewhere in Israel, Europe and the United States. He published scores of academic papers. Talmon also participated in Christian-Jewish dialogue among biblical scholars and was a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to which he donated a collection of 10,000 volumes in the areas of Bible studies.

The Eulogizer was surprised to find no obituaries of Talmon in any major media, Hebrew or English.

California businessman who helped in FBI sting

Marvin Levin, a real estate developer who wore a wire in his cowboy boots during a major FBI anti-corruption sting of California’s state government in the 1980s, died Nov. 19 at 76.

In the wake of the FBI investigation, several lawmakers, state leaders, legislative staffers and a lobbyist were charged, and the hard feelings have yet to subside. Some of the reader comments (later removed) on a newspaper article recounting Levin’s life and death were scorching.

Levin was an invaluable informant in the sting, which ended in 1988 when investigators raided offices in the state Capitol. Levin’s boot-borne tape recorder had taped dozens of meetings with politicians and legislative staffers. The sheriff and undersheriff of Yolo County, California, also were convicted after they attempted to extort money from Levin for a re-election campaign.

Levin told The Los Angeles Times in 1988 that he was motivated to end Sacramento corruption because he had experienced it firsthand and “somebody had to.” All he received for his efforts were $1,800 to cover expenses, including a paint job for his 1978 Buick and the cowboy boots purchased at the behest of the FBI because they didn’t think he was “flashy enough.” But the activity cost him dearly; his wife said he had three heart attacks.

Levin was one of three children of Jewish refugees from Russia. His father was a storekeeper. He moved to Florida nine years ago.

Online journalism pioneer, website builder

Mary Jane “M.J.” Bear, a journalist and Internet pioneer who built websites around the world, died Dec. 17 at 48.

Bear, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, worked for TV and radio stations. At National Public Radio she became a vice president. She also worked for Online, Radio Free Europe in Prague and Microsoft, in Vienna, Austria. She launched websites for Microsoft in Greece, Poland, Israel and Turkey, as well as TV programming in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.

During her illness from leukemia, Bear created a website on Caring Bridge, which provides free and private websites “that connect people experiencing a significant health challenge to family and friends.” The site is now filled with touching tributes from friends and family.

Bear took an active role in Jewish communities in every city in which she lived, and was a founding board member of the Online News Association, which is establishing an endowment fund in her name for young journalists.

The city of lights at its darkest hour


Adolf Hitler may have been bloody in tooth and claw, but he was enough of an aesthete to understand that Paris was the center of gravity for European culture. On the only visit he made to the city during World War II, he went sightseeing like any other tourist, then or now. Still, the open-mindedness that made Paris so appealing to artists, writers and intellectuals from around the world inspired only contempt in the führer.

“Does the spiritual health of the French people matter to you?” he remarked to architect Albert Speer. “Let’s let them degenerate. All the better for us.”

The story is told by Alan Riding, author of the best-selling “Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans” and former cultural correspondent for The New York Times, in “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris” (Knopf, $28.95), a remarkable cultural history of the City of Lights at its darkest hour. He paints a vivid portrait of the famous figures who found themselves in Paris when the army of Nazi Germany marched under the Arc de Triomphe, and he asks tough questions about what they did and did not do.

“How, I wondered, had artists and intellectuals addressed the city’s worst political moment of the twentieth century?” Riding muses. “Did working under the occupation automatically mean collaboration? Should any writer be sanctioned for the ‘crime’ of an opinion? Do gifted painters, musicians or actors have a duty to provide ethical leadership?”

So Riding puts a whole generation of public intellectuals in the dock and holds them accountable for their words and deeds. “During the occupation, we had two choices: collaborate or resist,” Jean-Paul Sartre said many years after the war, but Riding points out that Sartre was engaging in a self-serving oversimplification. “In truth,” Riding writes, “the options — and dilemmas — faced by individual artists were far more varied, as Sartre himself demonstrated.”

Some artists and intellectuals managed to escape from Nazi-occupied France. Marc Chagall, for example, was one of the beneficiaries of a remarkable American named Vivian Fry, who courageously pried him out of police custody by warning that the collaborationist government of France “would be gravely embarrassed” by the arrest of “one of the world’s greatest painters.” Others tried to but failed — Walter Benjamin famously ended his own life with an overdose of morphine after he was refused entry into Spain. Samuel Beckett actually returned to Paris, “reportedly saying he preferred ‘France at war to Ireland at peace,’ ” and P.G. Wodehouse, interned as an enemy alien, later agreed to participate in propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Remarkably, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, both Jewish, chose to stay in Paris and managed to survive the occupation, perhaps because Stein wrote a preface for a collection of speeches by the collaborationist French leader Pétain in which she compared him to George Washington.

Riding points out how treacherous it could be for artists who remained behind, whether by choice or by necessity. Maurice Chevalier, for example, agreed to sing for French prisoners of war in a camp near Berlin but declined an invitation to do the same in a German theater. The Nazi press ran photographs of his performance without identifying his audience, and, as a result, “he learned he had been sentenced to death by a special tribunal of de Gaulle’s provisional French government in Algiers.” Fearing both the Gestapo and the French resistance, he went into hiding for the rest of the war.

By contrast, we learn that “the dashing young conductor Herbert von Karajan,” whom Riding describes as “a member of the Nazi Party since 1933,” became an “instant celebrity” in Paris when he presented a program of Wagner operas at the Paris Opera during “a trip sponsored by Hitler himself.” One performance was reserved for Wehrmacht officers, but the other one was open to the public — and it sold out, too. “Madame, what you have done for Isolde,” French writer Jean Cocteau wrote in a revealing fan letter, “was such a marvel that I lack the courage to remain silent.”

Indeed, there are precious few examples of heroic conduct by intellectuals in Riding’s account. Andrè Malraux, for example, “had come to personify the intellectual engagé in the ’30s, but declined to join the resistance until 1944 and “spent much of the war in a quiet corner of the Côte d’Azur.” Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir remained “Left Bank celebrities” whose photos appeared in the Nazi-controlled newspapers, and the occupation did not prevent them (as well as Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus, among others) from attending all-night parties where the only risk was a curfew violation.

Riding does not overlook the less-famous intellectuals who engaged more courageously in the struggle against Nazi Germany. “Many writers chose to sting with words, some did so with armed resistance, a few gave their lives for their beliefs,” he acknowledges. “When the liberation came, the world of letters had its heroes and martyrs, too.” But he concedes that “cultural resistance had a limited reach,” and he quotes the remark of one French writer who dismissed the efforts of the more timid resisters: “Poets who wrote a quatrain about Hitler for a confidential sheet — called clandestine — under a pseudonym believe sincerely that they have saved France.”

“And the Show Went On” is a challenging book in more than one sense.  It’s a work of intellectual history in its purest form, and Riding is as much concerned with ideas and values as with events, deeds and personalities. He refuses to idealize or demonize any of the artists and writers whom he ponders in its pages; rather, he allows us to see a certain fog of war that affects civilians as well as soldiers and casts them in an uncertain light.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at

Could Hungarian anti-Semitism get out of control?


The rise of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party has ratcheted up debate about anti-Semitism in this country and focused attention on the seeming paradoxes of Jewish life here.

On the one hand, a recent article in Germany’s Der Spiegel described Budapest as “Europe’s capital of anti-Semitism,” where Jews are “being openly intimidated” and making plans to leave the country.

On the other, Hungary is home to a flourishing and multifaceted Jewish life that finds vigorous public expression in religious, cultural and even culinary ways, and also enjoys high-profile government recognition.

I saw this myself at Chanukah when I munched on latkes at a Friday night oneg Shabbat, sampled doughnuts at a sit-down dinner for Holocaust survivors, joined 20-somethings at a riotous klezmer/hip-hop gig, and just missed witnessing the foreign minister, Budapest’s mayor and other VIPs help light a big menorah set up in the center of town.

While anti-Semitism remains a serious concern in this central European country, Budapest-based Jewish writer Adam LeBor wrote in the Economist, the Der Spiegel article was a one-sided screed that portrayed the Jewish experience in Hungary “solely through the warped prism of anti-Semitism rather than its much more complex, and healthy, reality.”

A timely and important new book puts contemporary Hungarian anti-Semitism into perspective. Based on studies carried out since the early 1990s, “The Stranger at Hand: Antisemitic Prejudices in Post-Communist Hungary” is the most comprehensive analysis to date of the scope and impact of the phenomenon. It’s just too bad that its $131 price tag will put it out of reach of many potential readers.

Written by Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at Budapest’s Central European University who has devoted decades to tracking both the development of anti-Semitism and the development of Jewish life and identity here, the book presents a highly complex and sometimes contradictory picture.

A large part of Hungarian society, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is convinced that anti-Semitism has increased in Hungary since the fall of communism, Kovacs writes.

“What is said on the street, written in newspapers, and heard on the radio can and does give rise to concern,” he writes. “Are the fears legitimate?”

The answer, he told JTA in an interview, is a mix of yes, no and maybe.

Jobbik, with its anti-Semitic rhetoric and virulently anti-Roma, or Gypsy, political platform, won nearly 17 percent of the vote in April elections and entered Parliament as Hungary’s third-largest party. But recent evidence shows that it has been losing support amid divisive internal squabbles, and newly imposed legal measures have clamped down hard on its once-feared paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard.

Still, Jobbik did not emerge from thin air, and Kovacs’s book traces the evolution of several anti-Semitic trends against a shifting background of political and social change.

He identifies three main types of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The first is “classic” anti-Jewish prejudice, based on social and religious stereotypes that date back centuries and were kept alive, if suppressed, under communism. The second occurs when anti-Semitism becomes a sort of “language and culture” that fosters a general anti-Semitic worldview. The third is political anti-Semitism, “where political activists discover that they can mobilize certain social groups by using anti-Semitic slogans to achieve their own goals.”

Kovacs’ research shows the recent growth in anti-Semitism to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Surveys show that 10 to 15 percent of Hungarians are hard-core anti-Semites, while another 25 percent nurtures anti-Jewish prejudices to some degree.

Contrary to popular perception, Kovacs said, these figures “have increased to some extent but not dramatically over the past 17 years.”

What is different and much more alarming, according to Kovacs, is how the type and expression of anti-Semitism is changing within that proportion. For one thing, the percentage of political anti-Semites has grown. These political anti-Semites, he said, are “more urban, better educated and relatively younger” than they tended to be in the past.

Jobbik’s key leaders, for example, are youthful, clean cut, and media and Internet-savvy—factors that helped enhance their appeal ahead of the April vote.

Related to this is the way hate speech among the general public has been emboldened by the open use of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric by extreme right public figures. Kovacs calls this a “dangerous dynamic.”

He said young people in particular frequently seem to lose their inhibitions, and their use of slurs against Jews and Roma often goes unchecked by parents, teachers and other authority figures.

“We know that people are much more cautious in expressing their prejudices if they think that it is not legitimate,” Kovacs said. “But when they realize that so-called important people use this language openly, they feel they can use it as well. This is what we feel now in Budapest.”

What follows is unclear. So far, Jobbik’s anti-Jewish rhetoric seems aimed at creating a body of like-minded followers rather than serving as a rallying cry for concrete political action against Jews, according to Kovacs.

But could the extreme right eventually elevate political anti-Semitism into a force with significant mainstream influence?

Kovacs thinks it’s unlikely, but ultimately, he writes in his book, it will depend on how Hungary’s mainstream cultural and political leaders react to any attempts to “transform the prejudice that once affected the margins of Hungarian society into a language, culture and ideology.”

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” “Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere),” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)

Appeals court turns down wrongly accused spy’s lawsuit


A Jewish civilian employee of the U.S. Army wrongly accused of spying for Israel was turned down in his second attempt to sue the federal government.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Tuesday declined to overturn a lower court decision that dismissed David Tenenbaum’s lawsuit.

The judges agreed that Tenenbaum was subject to a high level of scrutiny and intrusion in his family’s life due to the investigation, and that Tenenbaum’s Orthodox lifestyle in part brought about the investigation, according to the Detroit Free Press. However, the judges said the issues already had been litigated.

A 2008 Department of Defense investigation concluded that David Tenenbaum, now 52, had his security clearance privileges revoked inappropriately more than a decade ago because of his Jewish faith and the perception of a dual loyalty to the United States and Israel.

During a 1997 polygraph test administered by the Army, Tenenbaum said anti-Jewish epithets were shouted at him. He said the next day his computer was gone and his name erased from the e-mail system at the Tank Automotive and Armaments Command, the military facility in Warren, Mich., where he worked.

After a yearlong FBI investigation, the U.S. Justice Department in 2008 determined that there was no basis to prosecute Tenenbaum.

Op-Ed: Risk aversion is risky business


“Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?” Robin Marantz Henig asked in The New York Times Magazine (“The Post-Adolescent, Pre-Adult, Not-Quite-Decided Life Stage,” Aug. 22). Lori Gottlieb urged reluctant single women to “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” in The Atlantic Monthly (March 2008), later a book. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett advised revising priorities in “Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career” (2002).

What provokes these personal questions and their subtext of alarm?

Successive studies show more Americans aged 25 to 34 are unmarried than married, Justin Wolfers reported in a New York Times Op-Ed (Oct. 13).

Postponements may reflect delays in assuming adulthood itself. In 1960, when parents of today’s young adults were young, 77 percent of American women and 65 percent of men younger than 30 accomplished five sociological milestones of adulthood—“completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child”—Henig writes. Today, fewer than half of women and one-third of men match that fully adult profile. Instead, American young adults go back to school, compete for unpaid internships, Teach for America or serve in the Peace Corps.

Delayed family formation has special resonance for American Jews and the communities in which they live, I found in my interview-based study of American Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s funded by the Avi Chai foundation. A third of American Jewish women and more than half of men aged 25 to 34 are unmarried.

Marriage and children are “simply not talked about,” said a recently married social entrepreneur, who noted that “I will turn 33 this summer and I have a whole bunch of friends who still aren’t even dating the person they’re going to marry, let alone getting married.”

Even more startling: “We’re very afraid to talk about these issues with each other” because “people worry about seeming judgmental.”

My respondents were uneasy about giving up opportunities before defining one’s own path. A female rabbi in her 30s said people like her should “Pace yourself and get married when you’re ready,” cultivating “a great network of friends and to date and meet people, and to go hiking and backpacking and cook, and all these things that I enjoy.”

Many said adults should achieve self-understanding—colloquially “find themselves”—before committing to sustained relationships. A young male rabbi, like many in his cohort, said there is little or no “peer pressure to get married” in college, and we feel we have “permission to take some time to find out who we are before we lock ourselves into a life partner.”

Serious dating and marriage carried the connotation of narrowing options.

Many note the influence of education, occupational achievement, contraception, cohabitation and economic conditions. But fear of risking romantic mistakes also plays an important role. Gottlieb critiqued evaluating dates as commodities, demanding perfection, rather than giving people and relationships a chance.

In my interviews, single women in their 30s explained “deal breakers,” including prior marriage or young children. Singles revised lists of desirable qualities, so they wouldn’t “waste time” on individuals who don’t measure up.

Large networks of singles make singlehood normative. An artist in her late 30s criticized, “Everything in America is about choice. That’s what Americans are used to, whether it’s food or shul or online dating.”

In contrast, the artist said, “Israelis tend to gravitate towards forming families. It’s very important.”

Indeed, sociologist Sergio Della Pergola showed that hiloni (irreligious) Israelis say ideal family size is three to four children per family, and Israelis have one more child on average (2.7) than American families (1.7).

Many interviewees urged care in choosing life partners and parenthood. Some linked postponement to parental divorce. But others said delays also can generate disappointment, especially for women.

When men marry in their 30s and 40s, they often choose younger women (and sometimes non-Jewish women), leaving women their age with fewer choices.

Statistics since the 1980s show Jewish women with advanced degrees expect two or more children, but have fewer. Despite reproductive medicine and more single mothers by choice, later marriage or non-marriage is often correlated with unwanted infertility.

“Lord knows I would like nothing better than to have had children by this point,” said a 38-year old woman, “but I don’t.”

Mahon Hadar co-founder Rabbi Ethan Tucker provided perspective. In Israel studying for rabbinical ordination, he and his wife had their second child at age 31 and felt like “laggards” because others their age had three or four.

Back in New York, they found that “None of our friends even had one kid, and many were not married.” The typical “alpha” marriage story was marriage in the late 20s or early 30s followed by years of waiting before starting a family.

“If you wait until you have found yourself before you take on responsibilities,” he said, “you find a different self than if you have responsibilities.”

The lived Jewishness of young American Jews has been transformed by sweeping postponement of marriage and childbearing, which often delay Jewish connections, as well as personal goals.

However, this postponement is seldom researched or discussed. The issues are sensitive, but avoiding them helps no one. The willingness to open a conversation is yet another risk worth taking.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is chair of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University, where she is the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life and also co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. She is the author of seven books.

The Eulogizer: Soldier who found Hitler’s will, Southern lawmaker, Israeli English broadcaster


The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”eulogizer@jta.org” title=”eulogizer@jta.org”}. Find previous editions of The Eulogizer here.

American soldier who found Hitler’s will
Arnold Weiss
, a German-born U.S. counterintelligence officer in World War II who found Hitler’s last will and testament, died Dec. 7 at 86.

In December 1945, Weiss and his counterintelligence team tracked down a Nazi military aide who was stationed at Hitler’s bunker during his final days but had left as a courier with an important envelope shortly before Hitler killed himself. The aide, Wilhelm Zander, took Weiss to a farm on the outskirts of Munich, where he had hidden the envelope at the bottom of a dry well. Inside the package was a document headed “Mein privates Testament,” signed by Hitler the day before he died, as well as the marriage certificate of Hitler and Eva Braun.

Toward the end of the war, even before finding Hitler’s will, Weiss said he and his team left Nazi prison guards at the gates of refugee settlements for “additional debriefing.” Weiss claimed never to know what happened to the German soldiers.

Weiss was placed into a Jewish orphanage as a child in Germany in the early days of Hitler’s reign. He was hoisted once to a lamppost and flogged by Hitler Youth members.

“You lived from day to day and tried to roll with the punches,” Weiss said.

“While generally being a pretty miserable place, the orphanage wasn’t all bad. You always had someone you could play with and talk to. You had companionship. The beatings were unpleasant, but you learned to cope.”

Weiss fled Germany after his bar mitzvah and made his way to the United States. He ended up in Milwaukee after a foster family failed to meet him in Chicago.

Weiss, a lawyer by training, lived and worked for decades in the Washington, D.C., area, as a senior official in U.S. financial agencies and then in a private investment firm that funded international development projects. He told his law school alumni association that his work in that field was fueled by the destruction he saw in Europe during World War II:

“I think it’s the war that changed me more than anything else. I decided I wanted to build rather than destroy. In Belgium, Luxemburg, France, Germany … there was so much destruction. I knew there was a better way of doing things.”

Pioneering female lawmaker in South Carolina
Harriet Keyserling
, a self-proclaimed “New York Jewish liberal” who became a political force in South Carolina for decades, died Dec. 10 at 88.

Keyserling was a “feisty Democrat” who went against the status quo “as a liberal Yankee in the world of good-old-boy conservative Southerners.” Among other accomplishments, her efforts led to a statewide recycling program, a state energy office and the shuttering of a landfill that accepted radioactive waste from across the United States.

Her son, Billy, who took over her seat in the Legislature and is now the mayor of Beaufort, S.C., said his mother defeated the Legislature’s practice of all-night filibusters by keeping a journal that recorded just how legislators wasted time.

“I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of great leaders in my public and private life, but not one have I respected more than Harriet Keyserling,” said former Soth Carolina Gov. Dick Riley.

Keyserling, a graduate of all-female Barnard College in New York City, moved to tiny Beaufort from New York after marrying Herbert Keyserling, a Jewish, Southern, small-town doctor. The women of the small Jewish community there took her in, taught Sunday school together and put on synagogue suppers.

“I believe we had a more direct and energetic approach, probably considered aggressive at the time, to the projects we undertook,” she wrote in her 1998 autobiography, “Against the Tide: One Woman’s Political Struggle,” in which she also describes her life and her husband’s as Jews in the South in an era of anti-Jewish prejudice and the Ku Klux Klan.

Her hometown paper said Keyserling attempted to re-create the intellectual stimulation of New York in her adopted hometown by co-founding a concert series, and by hosting Saturday-evening dinners with “sophisticated conversation by Harriet and her guests.”

Bud Ferillo, a Columbia, S.C., public relations executive and longtime Democratic political worker, referred to Keyserling as his “Jewish mother.”

Israel Radio English broadcaster
Anita Davis Avital
, one of Israel Radio’s original English language broadcasters and a mentor to several generations of women, died in October at 86.

A native of London, Davis was working in Yugoslavia in 1947 for the United Nations when she met a convoy of Jewish orphans on their way to Israel. Upon her return to Britain, she became involved with aliyah groups and made her way to the newly declared State of Israel shortly afterward.

After a stint working at the Iranian embassy, Davis Avital became one of the first employees of Israel’s nascent English-language shortwave radio service, originally called Kol Zion Lagola, the Voice of Zion to the Diaspora. The station later joined the government broadcasting authority with domestic programming, as well.

Sara Manobla, herself a veteran of English-language broadcasting in Israel, described Davis Avital in a lovely tribute as “a prominent and engaging figure in Anglo circles in Jerusalem of the 1950s and ’60s.”

Chevra kadisha revival noted
The New York Times notes the renewed interest in chevra kadisha groups and practices, with links to organizations and synagogues active in promoting traditional Jewish burial practices.

U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke

The passing of diplomat Richard Holbrooke is being covered extensively in the media. JTA’s coverage makes extensive references to Holbrooke’s Jewishness.

Palestinian firefighters denied entry into Israel for tribute


Three Palestinian firefighters were refused entry into Israel for a ceremony honoring Palestinian firemen who helped battle the Carmel blaze.

Only seven of the 10 firemen were to be allowed in for the ceremony that was scheduled to take place Sunday afternoon in the Druze village of Usfiya. The ceremony was canceled.

The Israel Defense Forces said the denial of entry for the three firemen was a bureaucratic error. The list of names did not include the firemen’s ID numbers, the IDF said, and that it did not receive the list in time. The army told Haaretz that it is working to get the correct permits and that the ceremony would be rescheduled, Haaretz reported.

Israeli-Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi called the incident “not just a march of folly or a theater of the absurd but stupidity and the normative lordly attitude of the occupation regime.”

In a statement, the Palestinian Authority said that “It’s not clear how the same firefighters who got permits to go out and help snuff the fire now are now refused permits to their honoring ceremony.”

“We did this despite the occupation because it was our humane duty,” the PA statement added. “We knew the occupation would still be here after our assistance.”

The Palestinian firefighters were honored over the weekend by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Our neighbors faced a tragedy and it was our duty to do our humanitarian work toward our neighbors to protect the environment and human life,” Abbas said during the ceremony in his office in Ramallah.

The Eulogizer: World War II pilot, basketball writer, Carmel fire victim


The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories, and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at {encode=”eulogizer@jta.org” title=”eulogizer@jta.org”}.

Decorated Czech World War Two pilot who flew for RAF
Jan Wiener
, a decorated veteran of a Czech bombing unit attached to the RAF during World War II, died in Prague on November 24 at 90.

Wiener, a native of Hamburg, fled Hitler’s Germany for Prague, but had to escape again after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. He made it to Britain after racing through Yugoslavia and Italy, and joined the Royal Air Force’s No. 311 Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron.

A Prague newspaper offered the most detailed account of Wiener’s early life and flight, including a dramatic retelling of how Wiener’s parents committed suicide rather than risk capture: “The father swept the pawns from the (chess)board and told his son: ‘Tonight I am going to kill myself. … Tomorrow they will be here. They will shave our heads. We will stand naked in front of them. They will humiliate us and in the end they will kill us. So I want to use my only freedom—to choose the way I die.’ That evening, Jan was summoned to the master bedroom, where Julius and Margaret Wiener lay dressed in their Sunday best. ‘We have already taken the pills,’ father told son. ‘Let’s hold hands.’”

Wiener’s life was celebrated in two films, including “Fighter,” an award-winning documentary by Amir Bar-Lev that featured the intense emotions released as Wiener and a companion retraced his journey across Europe.

Sportswriter who covered the Philadelphia 76ers
Phil Jasner
, a longtime newspaperman who covered the Philadelphia 76ers for the “Philadelphia Daily News” since 1981, died December 3 at age 68.

Friend and collaegue Rich Hoffmann described Jasner as “an old-fashioned reporter who grew to be the most important basketball voice in a basketball city, known for both his fairness and his decency.” Hoffmann said Jasner not only had phone numbers for the famous, such as Wilt Chamberlain, he also had “the phone number of the guy who would get you to the guy you needed. He kept all of them in a stack of index cards held together by a rubber band.”

The team Jasner covered remembered him fondly: “He loved to talk about basketball, off the record, just talk hoops. How many guys who had Stage 4 cancer would continue on like he did? He just loved it. He loved basketball. It was his outlet. We argued sometimes, had great debates. But he was fair and he was a character. Philadelphia basketball people are interesting people, and he was one of them,” said Sixers General Manager Ed Stefanski.

Jasner is in five halls of fame: the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (http://www.phillyjewishsports.com/inductions/463.html), Overbrook High School Hall of Fame, Temple University School of Communications and Theater’s Hall of Fame, and Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

Rabbi who taught in Winnipeg, Denver in Israeli forest fire
Another of the many victims of the Carmel forest fire was Rabbi Uriel Malka, an Israeli Prison Service trainee chaplain, who had worked at Orthodox day schools in Winnipeg and Denver.

Columnist Rabbi Levi Brackman described Malka as “a Torah scholar and the epitome of a guy who would not sweat the small stuff. He somehow always saw the positive in every situation.”

Here’s a short video of Malka blowing shofar this past Rosh Hashana.

Malka, who died on the doomed bus of Prison Service cadets, said in a final SMS message: “I am on my way to rescue Jews. We’ll be in touch.” A memorial website for Malka, a native of Yavneh, Israel, already filled with tributes, photographs, videos, and more, can be found here (http://uriel-malka.com/en/).

Op-Ed: Fire’s devastation can lead to positive change


It is hard to explain just how devastated Israelis are by the Carmel fire. But it is easier to explain how that devastation can become a positive force for positive change, right now, in Israel.

The fire consumed at least 42 lives, thousands of forested acres and millions of shekels in property. With the assistance of a dozen foreign nations, the beleaguered firefighters finally got the resources they needed to battle a blaze that consumed more than its obvious victims. What may have perished in the fire is Israel’s sense of self-reliance, and the confidence of ordinary people that they can rely on their government and society to meet their needs.

Just as the Second Lebanon War provoked questions about Israel’s readiness to withstand a bombing campaign, the Carmel fire illuminates issues that have been too readily subsumed in the endless attention to the conflict. We at the New Israel Fund are painfully aware that Israel is often seen two-dimensionally, even by its own government. It is of course a priority for Israel to pursue peace and security, but an exclusive focus on these issues skews attention and resources away from an equally critical task.

We, the organization that founded and funded Israel’s civil society and that works every day on intractable social issues, know what that task is. It is building a society founded on equity and social justice, where every person has the opportunity to live a decent life, and building the infrastructure and the institutions that provide this opportunity to all. It is security, yes, but in a sense that extends far beyond fighter planes and a separation fence. What Israel discovered last week is that while it prides itself on its strength, it is in some ways far, far too weak.

There wasn’t the proper equipment for fighting fires, and the supply of fire-retardant chemicals was exhausted even before the Carmel ignited. Just a few weeks ago, when the 40-story Shalom Tower in Tel Aviv was burning, it turned out that the Tel Aviv Fire Department does not have a hook-and-ladder truck that extends beyond 10 stories. Israel sits on an earthquake fault and has done little to plan for that eventuality, while in a drought-stricken region water and development policies are enmeshed in money interests and politics, not in sustainable growth.

For too long, under successive governments, Israeli society has polarized between the center and the periphery, the Jews and the Arabs, the religious and the secular, the haves and the have-nots. The current government, paying attention to the demands of its political coalition, is channeling even more money into stipends for non-working yeshiva students and radical settler incursions into Palestinian neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem. But every government has been held hostage to the demands of specific constituencies, the inequalities persist, and now poverty in Israel is more widespread than in any of the 30 European Union nations. Income inequality in Israel is second only to the United States among developed nations, and Israeli schools, public lands and infrastructure are deteriorating quickly.

This situation can and must change. The Carmel fire may have been Israel’s Katrina, but we and many people like us will insist on a faster recovery than New Orleans experienced. We know the real strength of Israel is not only in its military but in its people—the thousands of ordinary people we work with every day.

The day the fire started, grass-roots organizations of the North began mobilizing. A day after it ended, our Haifa office was already gearing up with our grantees and partners for the huge tasks of long-term recovery. We will work to ensure that there is compensation for the victims and the homeless, and that it is distributed fairly. Environmental groups are too infrequently consulted in Israel; we will make sure they are at the table when the future of the Carmel Forest is considered.

The fire re-ignited anti-Arab invective in some segments of society; our longstanding leadership of Arab and Jewish groups in the North will substantiate efforts to eradicate racism and build a truly shared society.

Israel’s beautiful Carmel Forest is burnt and black. Its people’s faith in their government is shaken. But Israel does have a civil society, which means that there is a force that enables ordinary people to change their circumstances, even if they are not wealthy or politically connected. Civil society empowers and ennobles and, yes, sometimes enrages the powers-that-be.

Now is the time for ordinary Israelis to insist on leadership that is accountable and fair, and on a society that plans for peace and prosperity, not just for defense and war. It is time for all of us, Israeli and American, to see Israel in all its dimensions, in all its needs and in all its possibilities.

Chanukah Events


Wed. Dec 1

First night

American Hasidic singer Lipa, Jewish rock band Pardes and Lenny Solomon perform at the Chabad of the Valley’s Chanukah celebration. Wed. 5-9 p.m. Free. Universal Studios City Walk, 100 Universal Hollywood Drive, San Fernando Valley. (818) 758-1818. chabadofthevalley.org.

Spend the first night of Chanukah on the Santa Monica Promenade for a candelighting with congregation Beth Shir Shalom. Wed. 4:30 p.m. Free. 3rd St. Promenade, Santa Monica (meet in front of Banana Republic). (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.

Thu. Dec 2

Second night

The Los Angeles Jewish Chamber of Commerce and the Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles co-host a Chanukah Mixer, featuring Wolfgang Puck cuisine and live musical entertainment. Thu. 5:30 p.m. $10 (members, advance), $20 (general, advance), $25 (general, door). Club Nokia VIP Room, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown. lajewishchamber.com.

Fri. Dec. 3

Third night

Celebrate Chanukah and Shabbat at Beth Shir Shlaom. Bring your own dinner and chanukiah. Fri. 5:30 p.m.-dinner ($10 donation per family, call for reservations). 6 p.m.-family Shabbat, 7:30 p.m.-Chanukah Shabbat Celebration. Beth Shir Shalom 1827 California Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.

Sat. Dec. 4

Fourth night

Young professionals (ages 21-39) “Hannukah Hop” at three different houses in Santa Monica for an evening of food and drink. 7 p.m. $12 (members), $18 (guests). For more information, visit atidla.com.

Sababa in the Valley: Crazy Chanukah Party features DJs spinning top 40, house beats and Israeli music. People who bring a toy for children of Chai-Lifeline receive a $5 discount at the door. Sat. 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m. $15 (before 11 p.m.), $20 (after 11 p.m.). Club Aura, 12215 Ventura Blvd. (second floor), Studio City. sababaparties.com.

Sun. Dec. 5

Fifth night

A Chanukah concert for kids features The Hollow Trees, The Living Sisters, The SIJCC Shabbat Band, The Silver Lake Chorus and Lucky Diaz. Other activities include food-creating contests Iron Chef Latke and Brisket Making. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. $10-$15 (adults free). Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 663-2255. sijcc.net.

Musicians Peter Himmelman and The Witcher Brothers perform at Down Home Hanukkah Celebration. The family-friendly event also includes woodworking and quilting demos and circus acts. Sun. 11 a.m. $10 (general), $7 (seniors and full-time students), free (members and children under 12). Skirball Cultural Center 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon speaks on behalf of the Israeli government, following a Chanukah celebration with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. Sun. 5:30-7:30 p.m. $10. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 390-7172. a4j.myevent.com/3/rsvp.htm.

Make eco-friendly menorahs using recycled materials during a Humanistic Judaism celebration. Sun. 10 a.m.-noon. Free. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (818) 518-7867. humanisticjudaismla.org.

A Chanukah-inspired scholarship benefit concert features performers Netanel Hershtik, Nati Bar Am and Herschel Fox. Sun. 7 p.m. $25 (friend), $36 (patron), $54 (donor), $108 (benefactor). Beth Jacob Congregation, 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-1911. bethjacob.org.

Comedian Robert Cait performs at the Chabad of West Orange County’s annual Chanukah Latkes and Laughter party, which includes sushi and salad bar. Sun. 6:30 p.m. $14 (adults, advance), $6 (child, advance). $18 (adult, door), $8 (child, door). Chabad of West Orange County, 5052 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach. (714) 846-2285. chabadhb.com.

Tue. Dec. 7

Sixth night

Dance, eat and sing the afternoon away a Board of Rabbis of Southern California/the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ second annual Chanukah celebration. Tue. noon-1 p.m. Free. City Hall Rotunda, 200 N. Spring St., Los Angeles. RSVP no later than Friday, Dec. 3 to {encode=”barri.worth@lacity.org” title=”barri.worth@lacity.org”}. (323) 761-8600.

Wed. Dec. 8

Seventh night

Celebrate the last night of Chanukah with Temple Etz Chaim. Kindergarten through second grade students perform. Wed. 6:30 p.m. Free. Janss Marketplace, 275 North Moorpark Road, 
Thousand Oaks (meet by the fire pit located near the Mann Movie Theatres). (805) 497-689. templeetzchaim.org.

If you would like to add your Chanukah event to our listings, please email {encode=”ryant@jewishjournal.com” title=”ryant@jewishjournal.com”}.

Glitterati no match for ‘This Lovely Life’


May I make a suggestion for a great Chanukah or Christmas gift? Or recommend a selection for your book club? Or offer a proposal for making time disappear during your next long and painful airline experience?

“This Lovely Life,” by Vicki Forman.

I read two-thirds of it during a fancy and fabulous dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel two weeks ago, came home and finished it that night, read it again the next day, and now it’s on the nightstand next to my bed, where I keep reading passages from it.

I was at the annual Literary Awards Festival for PEN Center USA. It was a beautiful affair produced by Jamie Wolf and packed with famous people and designer gowns and party favor bags that weighed a ton. I was sitting between a very charming television writer named Dawn Prestwich and a very thin event organizer named (this can only happen in L.A.) Cat. By the time the speeches began, I had already secured a promise from Ms. Prestwich to come talk to my students at USC, answered Cat’s questions about how I was related to all the other Nahais in Los Angeles and skimmed the souvenir book a couple of times. When the obligatory welcome speech began, I started to dig through the party bag in search of a distraction.

There were books. And more books. And pamphlets about books — which is all very good and exciting for someone like me, but I didn’t want to look like the crazy lady at the ball who sits alone and reads while everyone else is having a glorious time, so I put the books back in the bag and tried to listen to the speech. The speaker may have been nominated for an Academy Award or two, but he’s not what one might call a Great Communicator. So I sneaked another look at the books, glanced at the synopsis on the back of “This Lovely Life” and decided I didn’t have the stomach for it. I looked through the souvenir book a third time and discovered that “This Lovely Life” was the evening’s winner of the Creative Nonfiction award. That could mean it’s a great book, I thought, or it could mean (no offense to the judges, but they do have to read a great many books) it’s short and easy to get through. I tried to laugh at the speaker’s jokes. I read the first line of “This Lovely Life.”

“I learned about grief during this time,” Vicki Forman writes in the opening sentence of this startling memoir about raising a child with catastrophic disabilities.

Who needs this? you ask. But read that line again and you’ll find there’s something intensely seductive about those words, the strength with which they’re uttered, the hair-raising honesty of the voice that speaks them. Eight years ago, Vicki Forman was a young mother with a loving husband and a healthy 3-year-old. She was pregnant with twins — a boy and a girl. They were born too soon, each weighing barely more than a pound. The parents assumed the babies would be born dead or die soon after birth. They didn’t.

“This Lovely Life” is as much a page turner as any Dan Brown novel, and a whole lot smarter as well; as much a tear-jerker as any “Kite Runner,” but a thousand times more sophisticated; as much a study of the American psyche, the American family, American society, as “The Corrections” or “Freedom” or any other of Jonathan Franzen’s door stoppers. What it isn’t —really, truly, isn’t — is depressing. There are more twists and turns here than in any mystery or thriller, more cliffhangers than in any Hollywood production, but there’s none of the canned “inspiration” of the kinds of stories you read in People, none of the “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger / make lemonade out of lemons / it’s not a disability, it’s a challenge” bravado that we seem to admire so much in this country. There’s just the constant, unwavering beat of a mother’s brave but broken heart, the astonishing candor of a parent who doesn’t fear the judgment of others because she knows what she has done and why. There’s the terrible but indispensable realization that the only way to overcome life’s cruelty is to accept it, that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to embrace him as much because of, as in spite of, his shortcomings.

I can’t tell you much about what happened during the rest of the PEN event that night. I remember David Kipen was as charming as ever when he spoke about his new bookstore — Libros Schmibros — in Boyle Heights, that M.G. Lord does a superb “Lucille Ball, Science Writer” cameo, that Vicki Forman looks like a pixie with a kind heart and a fierce resolve. And I can tell you that reading “This Lovely Life” will be a transformative experience for anyone smart enough to pick it up, even if she does end up looking like the crazy lady at the ball.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Dr. David Leo Lieber z”l: To know him was a privilege


A big part of my adult life has involved trying to live up to what Dr. David Leo Lieber expected of me. Trying to emulate his wisdom, his learning, his kindness, knowing all the while that it would be impossible.

It is told in the Book of Kings that the prophet Elijah announced to his disciples that his life would soon be at an end. His principal disciple, Elisha, asked his mentor to bequeath to him a double portion of prophecy. According to Jewish law, a first-born son inherits double the portion of the other sons, so Elisha asked his teacher, Elijah, to grant him double the spiritual portion of the other disciples.

In so many ways, I feel that I was given that double portion by David Lieber. I don’t say this as a matter of hubris but rather as a matter of my good fortune. For 30 years, I worked side by side with him. What a remarkable privilege that was. To be in his presence each day, to listen to him, to learn from him, to love him.

David Lieber was part of a generation of rabbis who were raised in Orthodox homes in which observance was taken for granted but rarely explained. In some ways, his was a religiously rebellious generation. They tended to appreciate Judaism more for its wisdom and values than for its ritual requirements.

Having said this, however, I cannot imagine anyone who was more profoundly spiritual than David Lieber. His spirituality did not have any of the external manifestations that are more common today. Rather, it was apparent in his quiet acceptance of God’s plan for him and for the world.

There are so many things I will remember about David Lieber that I could never hope to recount them all. I quote him often, and I smile whenever I use what I consider to be a “Lieberism.”

One of his favorite sayings was, “You can always tell someone to go to hell later.” Any of us who are prone to occasional flashes of anger can benefit from that bit of wisdom. Lieber used to claim that he borrowed this one from Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Another phrase he used often actually comes from the Talmud: “Sof ha-kavod lavo.” It’s a little difficult to translate into English. It is similar to “All good things come to those who wait.” But it really says that good things come to those who work hard and don’t try to force things before their proper time.

His most insightful saying is pure, original David Lieber. He often observed to me that human beings can “foresee” things but they cannot “fore-feel” them. In other words, we can often use our intellect to figure out what the future will bring, but we really don’t know how we are going to feel about something until it actually happens to us.

Whatever words of wisdom Lieber had for others, he certainly applied them to himself. He accepted whatever life had to offer, and he was one of those rare individuals who followed the rabbinic dictate: “We are required to bless God’s name when bad things happen, just as we so willingly bless His name when we enjoy the good.”

For years, David Lieber struggled with serious illness. It was not easy for him, but he did so without complaint and with true gratitude for the many productive years that were granted to him.

We all admired Dr. Lieber for his achievements, but that’s not why we loved him. We loved him for who he was as a person and the special position he occupied in each of our lives.

Even the most cynical among us yearns to believe that there is real goodness in this world, but often it’s a challenge to accept. We read about such terrible things, and we regularly encounter people who shake our faith in humanity.

But every so often, if we are very fortunate, we find a person who reminds us that human beings are truly formed in the image of God. We find someone of such extraordinary goodness that we say to ourselves, “This must be what God had in mind when He created the world.”

To know David Lieber was to know kindness. To know David Lieber was to know wisdom. To know David Lieber was to experience a quiet, steadfast faith in God and in the divine potential of all human beings.

And so we loved him. We loved him for who he was. And we loved him for seeing the good in us.

Dr. Robert Wexler is president of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) in Los Angeles.



Dr. David Leo Lieber, rabbi, scholar and president emeritus of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) died Dec. 15 at 83 after a lengthy battle with a lung ailment.

“Rabbi David Lieber was a dear friend,” said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom. “In every one of his conversations, there was a compassionate and caring soul. He leaves a remarkable legacy, not only in the public arena, in his scholarship and leadership, but in the personal relationship that he had with everyone — colleagues, congregants, students and contributors.”

Born in Poland, Lieber came to the United States at the age of 2. In 1944, he graduated magna cum laude from the College of the City of New York and earned a degree in Hebrew literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS).

In 1948, he was ordained at JTS. He earned his doctorate in Hebrew literature from JTS in 1951. In addition, he completed a master’s and all but dissertation from Columbia University. He pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Washington and at UCLA.

At JTS, Lieber studied under Talmudist Saul Lieberman, Jewish Bible scholar H.L. Ginsberg and philosopher Mordecai Kaplan, whose groundbreaking vision led to the creation of the University of Judaism, which was renamed American Jewish University last year after a merger with Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.

Following retirement in 1993, after 29 years as AJU president, Lieber continued to teach. He also began focusing on a project he had first proposed in 1969, a new commentary on the Torah. The resulting “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary” sought to provide laity with a contemporary interpretation of the text and a commentary that embraced both tradition and change, ancient teachings and modern scholarship.

As a young man, Lieber was a leader of Shomer Hadati, the religious Zionist movement that is now B’nai Akiva. An early pioneer in the establishment of the Ramah camps, he was also the founding head counselor in the first of the camps in Wisconsin, a director in Maine and the founding director in California. Furthermore, Lieber was the founding director of Mador, the national training camp for Ramah counselors.

A former spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles (1950-1954), Lieber served as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, and as university chaplain for the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at both the University of Washington (1954-1955) and Harvard University (1955-1956).

In 1956, when Lieber was appointed dean of students of the nine-year-old University of Judaism, the college was a Hebrew teachers institute, which also offered adult education classes, art exhibits and drama programs. The institution, today replete with an undergraduate college, graduate programs, seminary, think tanks and a large library on a 25-acre campus in Bel Air, was developed with Lieber’s help.

In recognition of his work, Lieber was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters degree, honoris causa, by the Hebrew Union College in 1982 and the Torch of Learning award by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1984. Between 1996 and 1998, he served as the first West Coast president of the International Rabbinical Assembly.

Over the years, Lieber has authored some 50 articles, which appeared in a variety of journals.

Lieber is survived by his wife, Esther; sons, Michael and Danny; daughters, Susie and Debbie; and 11 grandchildren.

A service was held Dec. 18 at American Jewish University. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to the university’s Ostrow Library at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air, CA 90077.

We felt so safe there


Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like mortality is in the air.

“We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors,” retired school bus driver Linda Pogacnik, 63, told a Los Angeles Times reporter about her Sylmar home, crying uncontrollably. “We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t like thinking of 63 as old. I also don’t like thinking that “we felt so safe there” is as relevant to me as it is to a mobile home community destroyed by the Sayre fire. Does that mean I’m in denial?

A couple of days before the fires began, at 10 in the morning, you would have found me in my office on the floor beneath my desk, holding on to it for a surprisingly long three minutes during the regionwide drill meant to prepare us for a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Afterward, my colleagues and I spent a half hour calmly trying to understand what it would be like to sleep in parks for two weeks along with thousands of our neighbors, and to experience 10,000 aftershocks during the year that followed, and to live in a city without electricity or transportation or any of the other urban services we usually don’t think about depending on.

The evening of the day of the drill, I went to my book club. The book this month was “The Teammates,” by David Halberstam, the story of Red Sox veterans Dom DiMaggio, 84, and Johnny Pesky, 82, driving down from Massachusetts to visit their dying teammate, Ted Williams, for the last time. We book club members, men in our 50s and 60s, usually love a rousing conversation about the text at hand, but that night the conversation was about politics, food, the fine points of Yiddish curse words — anything but the Halberstam book. Afterward, on e-mail, we acknowledged the reason why: our discomfort at confronting our own forthcoming decrepitude and demise.

The week before, I had lunch with a college friend, a baby boomer like me, who’s been battling a chronic disease since its onset at age 30. Some years since then have been bad; others, more endurable. Right now, he’s doing OK.

I asked him how he had come to handle the fragility of his well-being and the uncertainty that his illness has plagued him with. His answer: “Everything is a percentage. You have an X percent chance of a recurrence over the next Y years. You have a Z percent chance of being alive from today until whenever. The percentages are never zero and never a hundred. And when they’re lopsided, you never know what side of them you’ll be on. It’s all about the odds.” He paused, had a sip of espresso, and went on. “It’s all about the odds for everyone, isn’t it? Being sick just makes you realize it more.”

A week later, while the wildfires raged, I went to Thousand Oaks to give a talk along with

Poetry and Taxis


“So much of a writer’s life consists of assumed suffering, rhetorical suffering, that I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me that I had cancer of the prostate. Suddenly there was in the air a rich sense of crisis, real crisis, yet one that also contained echoes of ideas like the crisis of language, the crisis of literature, or of personality. It seemed to me that my existence, whatever I thought, felt or did, had taken on a kind of meter, as in poetry or in taxis.”

So begins Anatole Broyard’s book, “Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death,” a book published posthumously after Broyard died in 1990 from advanced prostate cancer.

I cannot imagine feeling elation when facing cancer, but Broyard’s point haunts me: When we lose sight of death, we let life slip away. When we think we have forever, days fade into weeks and months. Didn’t we just finish Pesach? How is Rosh Hashanah already here again? Another year has slipped away.

Ask yourself, “Was my year lived with poetry?” Or must we wait (hope?) for illness and death to awaken us from a living sleep?

Parshat Vayeilech begins, “Moshe went and spoke these words to all of Israel. He said to them, ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come in, for Adonai has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan'” (Deuteronomy 31:1-2).

Rashi says Moshe knew he only had hours to live: “Today my days and years are complete; on this day I was born, and on this day, I will die.”

Based on the Zohar, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar teaches that holy people can sense their impending death; they can tell when their souls are leaving their bodies and “visiting” their eventual resting place in the world above.

Knowing that he will die today, what does Moshe do with the last moments of his life? Does he buy a fast camel and feel the wind in his hair? Does he have a fling? No. Moshe goes and speaks to Israel. He tells them God will be with them as they enter the land. He tells them, “Be strong and courageous” (Deuteronomy 31:6), and he summons Joshua in front of all of Israel and tells him the same (Deuteronomy 31:7). Moshe works to place Joshua firmly as his successor knowing his death approaches, knowing they also will need another leader.

The parsha begins, “Moshe went,” and because the Torah does not specify, commentators ask: “Where did Moshe go?”

Nachmanidies answers by picturing Moshe going to the tent of each Israelite to honor them, “like someone who wishes to take leave of his friend and comes to ask permission of him.”

Seforno says he went to comfort Israel about his impending death, so that the joy of the covenant, which they had just entered into with God, would not be diminished. Ever his people’s shepherd, Moshe tends to his flock, comforts them and seeks to lift their spirits, even as the final hours and minutes of his life slip away.

What I find most instructive about all of these stories is that faced with the end of his life, Moshe does what he has always done; he continues to lead the people. Death does not change him because his life has been well lived.

Rosh Hashanah is here again. Was your year lived well? What would you do if, God forbid, you knew you only had a year, or a month, or a week, or a day to live? Would it change you?

After Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death,” his disciples asked him, “Does one know the day he will die?”

Rabbi Eliezer replied, “All the more reason to repent today, lest one die tomorrow” (Shabbat 153a).

Repent today. Change today.

Broyard concluded the opening essay of his book by describing how “[t]he British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott began an autobiography that he never finished. The first paragraph simply says, ‘I died.’ In the fifth paragraph he writes, ‘Let me see. What was happening when I died? My prayer had been answered. I was alive when I died. That was all I had asked for and I had got it.’ Though he never finished his book, he gave the best reason in the world for writing one, and that’s why I want to write mine — to make sure I’ll be alive when I die.”

Broyard was a writer. Moshe was a leader. Both died living.

Do not wait for illness or death to come. Live with meter, as in poetry or in taxis.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.