Lisa Loeb lights up the Skirball Cultural Center


A year after writing her first Chanukah song, Lisa Loeb returns to the Skirball Cultural Center to help celebrate the season. 

The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter takes the stage at 1 p.m. Dec. 13 for a family-friendly set as part of the Skirball’s Chanukah Family Festival and will perform again at 3:15 p.m. during the festival’s finale, sharing the stage with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. The festival itself runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The event and the venue are ideal, Loeb said, for introducing young concert-goers to a musical experience in which they can participate. The sets will be short, which Loeb — the mother of a 3- and 6-year-old — said parents should appreciate.

“It will be a spirited time for families to get to see a show and participate,” Loeb said. “The theater there is just beautiful. I feel kids and grownups are able to focus and be engaged in a concert. I also feel like it’s so important for kids to be able to come to the center and engage and connect.” 

For both sets, Loeb will perform “Light,” the Chanukah song she wrote with Cliff Goldmacher, as well as a couple of holiday favorites such as “The Dreidel Song” and “Sevivon Sov Sov Sov.” Loeb said she can envision a day when she creates an album from all Jewish holidays, but such an endeavor would require her to study and locate the spiritual essence in all those celebrations.

“It would be a great challenge,” Loeb said. “With the song ‘Light,’ I was trying to find the meaning and the metaphor of Chanukah through the classic story, and the miracle of the light and the oil. I would like to be able to find that metaphor for all of the holidays that I can express in a way that I think is relatable. Not something that’s a joke, something that has a lot of heart.”

In her search for meaning and metaphor within Chanukah, Loeb studied with Rabbi Mordecai Finley at Ohr HaTorah. She immersed herself in research after someone floated the ideaof writing a short information book on the subject of Chanukah that people could purchase. Loeb never completed the book, but she enhanced her already-considerable holiday knowledge.

“I read a lot of different books about the history of Chanukah and some technical books written by rabbis, and I started learning about some of the specific things about the holiday, a couple of things that I tried to incorporate into the song,” said Loeb, who celebrated her bat mitzvah and belonged to Temple Emanu-El while growing up in Dallas. “It’s not one of the more important Jewish holidays, but it was one that we celebrated. It was a little tough to find as many things as I could about it.”

Featuring guest vocalist Renee Stahl, “Light” is a sprightly, up-tempo number. “Let the light shine,” Loeb sings. “When you think it’s almost gone, there is still hope.”

“Light” was released shortly after the Skirball held its 2014 Chanukah festival. After hearing the song, Jen Maxcy, who heads the family programming department, began laying the groundwork for Loeb to join the festivities this year.

“We read about how she was looking for some really deeper meaning in the holiday and also [to] convey a more universal theme, and she was talking about hope,” Maxcy said. “That’s exactly how we approach Chanukah here at the Skirball. The holiday is about courage and resilience and hope and light.”

Within Loeb’s family — which includes her husband, Roey Hershkovitz, and children Lyla Rose Loeb Hershkovitz, 6, and Emet Kuli Loeb Hershkovitz, 3 — Chanukah traditions are plentiful. Candles are lit and the menorah glows in the window. Gifts are exchanged and latkes are devoured. 

“Last year, we celebrated with a huge group of cousins at a big party that had a very competitive game of dreidel,” she said.  

Hearing Loeb talk of dreidel matches and participating in her niece’s bat mitzvah — no, she didn’t sing — may surprise Gen Xers who remember the Ivy League-educated Loeb from her indie-rocking days with the band Nine Stories. In 1994, Loeb’s single with Nine Stories, “Stay (I Missed You),” was released on the soundtrack of the film “Reality Bites.” The number subsequently rocketed the then-unknown Dallas native to the top of the charts before she had even signed a recording contract.

“Tails,” her debut album, was released in 1995, followed by the Grammy-nominated “Firecracker” in 1997. Loeb, recognizable for her signature cat-eye glasses, later carved out a niche in children’s music, releasing several CDs and books. Her latest album — “Nursery Rhyme Parade!” — features more than 30 classic nursery rhymes and songs, and Loeb’s next project will also be a children’s album.  

Loeb has done TV acting and voiceover work, as well. She was part of the Food Network show “Dweezil and Lisa” in 2004 with former boyfriend Dweezil Zappa, and documented her efforts to try to find true love — hopefully with a Jewish partner — on the E! series “No. 1 Single.” 

She entered the world of philanthropy through the creation of the Camp Lisa Foundation, which sends underprivileged children to summer camp. The foundation and her album “Camp Lisa” served as the inspiration for the new musical “Camp Kappawanna,” featuring music and lyrics by Loeb, which had its New York premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company this past March.

Loeb is also constantly developing new ideas and designs for her eyewear line. The specs have become such a signature part of her appearance that she says even her own family does not recognize her if she is not wearing glasses.

To escape public recognition, maybe she could leave them behind? 

“Exactly,” Loeb said. “Clark Kent.”

For information about the Chanukah Family Festival at the Skirball Cultural Center, click here

Cedars-Sinai through a doctor’s lens


For four decades, endocrinologist Dr. Roger Lerner walked the halls of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center solely to attend to patients. But when he bought a first-generation iPhone six years ago, he began to see his hospital surroundings in an entirely different way. 

That’s when he began snapping photos of the buildings on campus, offering a unique look at a hospital through an artistic lens. His carefully composed images show light reflected and refracted through windows and against walls, creating sensitive explorations of the surrounding space.

Thousands of photos later, his work is being shown in “…Light, Interrupted,” an exhibition at Sulkin/Secant Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica running through the end of September. (An earlier show, “Roger Lerner: Form in Light,” took place in August at Couturier Gallery in Hancock Park.)

We met one evening at the hospital’s north tower on a terrace overlooking Gracie Allen Drive, and he held up his iPhone 6 to show me a picture he’d taken the previous evening.

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This article was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Lisa Loeb’s new Chanukah song “Light”


Singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb has just released an original Chanukah song called “Light.” Telling the inspiring story of hope in the darkness, the song captures the essence of the metaphor of Chanukah that no matter how little there is left there is always hope. “I realized there aren't enough Chanukah songs this time of year, and I think that everyone has to find their light.” 

The flavors of Thanksgivukkah


Organizers of the Thanksgivukkah Festival, a local celebration of the once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, figured the Pico Union Project in central Los Angeles would be the ideal place to party. 

The building, much like the holiday, is a bit of a mash-up. Once home to one of the oldest synagogues in the city, it later became a Welsh Presbyterian church; its stained glass windows are inlaid with Stars of David as well as with names of Christian congregants. 

Representing communities as diverse as the building’s history, 500 people — Jews and non-Jews — turned out on Nov. 29 to eat, dance, play and avoid the consumer chaos known as Black Friday. “Light, Liberty and Latkes” was the motto of the day. 

“What better way to celebrate religious freedom, the freedom that the Maccabees fought for from the Greeks, the freedom that our American ancestors fought for?” said Craig Taubman, musician and producer of Sinai Temple’s “Friday Night Live” program. 

Taubman bought the historic brick building on Valencia Street in December 2012 to create a multifaith community arts center. Four different faith groups currently share the sanctuary, which is also used to hold performances and community events, he said.

The idea for the festival was hatched by Deborah Gitell, who coined and copyrighted the term “Thanksgivukkah” with her sister-in-law Dana. Based on popular online response and sales from Thansgivukkah-themed gifts, the Gitells knew there was plenty of excitement surrounding this unusual date. (The first day of Chanukah and Thanksgiving won’t coincide again for 77,000 years.) Ralph Resnick, head of rituals at Sinai Temple, introduced Deborah Gitell to Taubman, who agreed to host the festival.

Jeffrey Braer, a film producer from Culver City, was one of many who braved the rain to attend. He stood outside between food trucks and carnival games with his wife, Rebecca, a teacher, and children Emily, 5 and Jasmine, 3 months. 

“It’s a really wonderful experience, kind of a blending of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, of new traditions and old traditions,” Braer said. At home, the family celebrated differently this year and made sweet potato latkes and pecan pie rugelach to commemorate Thanksgivukkah.

At the festival, food was a major point of celebration. Aside from traditional Jewish dishes from Canter’s Truck and The Kosher Palate, the Dog Haus offered what it called the Thanksgivukkah Dog — a smoked turkey sausage, cooked with cranberries and sweet potatoes, and topped with latke-like Tater Tots in a bun. Bibi’s Bakery featured pumpkin-filled doughnuts, a festive take on traditional Sephardic holiday treats. Korean barbecue and Mexican food were available as well. 

Children and adults enjoyed eclectic performances throughout the day, including Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz, a mariachi group and gospel music. Jaclyn Beck, who sang some liturgy music with IKAR’s Hazzan Hillel Tigay, said she felt the festival represented a “Jewish renaissance” in the Pico-Union area, a community that hasn’t had a prominent Jewish presence since the 1920s. 

Next to a petting zoo and pony ride, children spray-painted designs on a pew under the supervision of Pico-Union graffiti artist/activist Mario Cruz, also known as Fenix Lax, 23. He was one of the many neighborhood residents and non-Jews at the Thanksgivukkah Festival. 

“I think it’s so dope that we can have so much culture here, so many people from different backgrounds. … I wanted to do it here because this is my community,” he said.

Although Thanksgivukkah won’t come again for eons, Deborah Gitell believes the sentiment of the combined holiday can live on. 

“This time of year, when everyone is in a Black Friday shopping frenzy, maybe there is a moment that we can stop and really think about being grateful for the freedom that we have in this country, and the rededication of community that Chanukah is certainly about.”

In rural Uganda: Let there be light


We take light for granted. But in the Torah’s opening chapter of Bereshit, it was God’s first gift.

It seems fitting, then, that when a local synagogue committed itself to helping an impoverished village in rural Uganda, the first gift would be to turn on the lights — to give the gift of solar-powered electricity. With light, doctors can deliver babies with more than just candlelight late into the night; people can see one another and plan activities in the long evening and night hours. Indoor classrooms in schools can be lit, so students can learn more easily.

The project began a couple of years ago, when the spiritual community of IKAR first conceived of founding its first nursery school for its congregation. Rabbi Sharon Brous and IKAR executive director Melissa Balaban saw an opportunity to do more than just offer one more educational program in Los Angeles; they wanted to instill a sense of connection to a larger world in the “DNA of the preschool,” as Balaban put it. They knew it would take about $100,000 to establish their school, so they decided to allocate 10 percent of all donations to another school project somewhere else in the world, where it could benefit others. “To teach our kids, this is what it means to be a Jew; it’s our responsibility,” Balaban said. 

Brous and Balaban had both just read the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and they were inspired by its message that even a small amount of cash can have a ripple effect, effecting enormous change in communities by allowing people to rebuild their own lives.

“We spent a lot of time fretting about which school and where,” Brous told a group of supporters who gathered one evening last August at a Santa Monica home to learn about the project. After lots of research and one false start, Brous and Balaban, working with a group of IKAR volunteers, came across an organization called Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA — jhasol.org). It employs Jewish people in African communities to bring Israeli solar systems to power African schools, medical clinics, orphanages and water pumping systems.  

It was a perfect match for IKAR, to partner with a Jewish group that could oversee their project on the ground and to bring “the best of Israel,” as Balaban said — Israel’s technology — to a remote place where a little could go a long way.

JHA connected IKAR with the village of Katira, some five hours from the Ugandan capital city of Kampala. And in early August, the lights went on.

IKAR donated about $12,000 for this initial project, and JHA installed solar panels on the roof of the Katira Primary School, a simple, blocky building with large, unadorned classrooms, that serves nearly 1,400 students from the surrounding area, according to JHA. People in Katira live in primitive thatched-roof huts, and their school had the lowest academic performance in its district.

As it turned out, the school’s pitched metal roof was perfect for capturing the strong African sunlight, and the JHA representatives have trained the locals on the simple techniques of maintaining the panels so they can keep it working themselves, without outside help. And now, although the solar-powered electricity lights only the one building, students — who once had nowhere to go to do their homework after spending long days in school and then helping with the housework at home — can now go to the school to study late into the evenings. They will have the opportunity to study harder, enhancing their chances of future success.

No IKAR members could make it to Katira for the ceremony, but witnessing the lights going on was still important. So, Brous’ mother, Marcia Brous, made a connection to a woman she had met through Rotary Club here — Marsha Hunt, who travels regularly to Uganda through the Uganda Development Initiative (udiworks.org), an aid group. Hunt was already planning a summer trip there, and she readily agreed to become IKAR’s emissary, adding to her trip a visit to Katira to watch the ceremony of the lights being turned on.

“I thought I’d be doing a simple report,” Hunt said. Instead, she arrived at the village to a scene of “tears and celebration, singing and dancing.” She became a witness to a modern Bereshit.

The Israeli solar panels had already been installed. And as she watched, lights for the first time lit the school’s classrooms. 

“They were so gracious and wonderful,” Hunt said of the villagers. And in thanks, the people of Katira gave her gifts intended for her to bring back home to Los Angeles — a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. For obvious reasons, those didn’t make it back to L.A.

But what did was the sense of accomplishment, extraordinary joy and connection between the people of Katira and the people of IKAR, as evidenced through photos that you can see by viewing this article at jewishjournal.com. 

And the project continues, Balaban said. “We are now raising money to light the medical clinic, and hopefully to install a solar-powered water pump.”

The light that came from God is now being harnessed to power a different kind of light — an electric energy that will also sustain growth, vision and warmth into the future.

And it is being channeled from Los Angeles via Israel to a remote village in Africa.

As Balaban said, “This is what it means to be a Jew.”


Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. She can be reached at editor@jewishjournal.com. You can follow her on Twitter at 

A certain magic


Chasidic reggae and rap singer Matisyahu just released his fourth album, “Light” — his first full-length work in three years. He discussed his new music, God, spirituality, sex, drugs and Israel in a phone interview with Rabbi Naomi Levy, spiritual leader of Nashuva and author of “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002)  and “To Begin Again” (Ballantine Books, 1999). A longer version of the 45 minute interview will appear here shortly.

Naomi Levy: I was just really impressed to see the variety of people who listen to your music at a concert and how you’re able to reach so many different sorts of stereotypes of people, from surfer dudes to rap fans to hip-hop and reggae, and clearly ultra-Orthodox people, all in the same room together. How do you think you’re able to achieve something like that, which very few people are able to achieve?

Matisyahu: I guess in general reggae music is a type of music that people listen to regardless. It’s kind of like a universal kind of style of music. And, then, I’m not specifically just producing reggae music. I definitely cross over into different genres. I’m 30 years old now, but the younger generation, and also my generation, we grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop music, to rock, to different stuff. And then there’s the message, and I guess the spirituality behind it, which is also kind of like that — crosses over into all different types of people.

NL: Yes, I’m curious how you think your words affect Jews and non-Jews.

M: Well, I think there’s definitely a certain kind of pride that Jewish kids get from my music, but I think everyone’s going to come to it from a different place. There’s definitely a large amount of young, Jewish kids out there that might be affiliated, [or] might not be, and the music is their kind of bridge into combining their Jewish identity with mainstream culture. When I was a kid, there was never anything really like that. There was never really any kind of a bridge between those two things, and they were always kind of at odds with each other, coming from a secular background. So I think for those kids, it’s a beautiful thing to have those feelings and that pride.

NL: Most performers, even if they are Jewish, they’re not out there being Jewish while they’re performing. With you it’s so out there, which gives your audience a different kind of connection.

M: Yeah, totally different thing altogether. And then for people that are not necessarily Jewish, you have to give people credit. People, when they’re into music or into something, they investigate it, they study it, they just feel the way it resonates inside of them, and it’s just as powerful for a non-Jew as it is for those kids.

NL: So what is your hope for how your music can affect people, Jews and non-Jews? What would be your dream of what your music could do for people?

M: Obviously I want to be able to sell out stadiums and to sell millions of records and all that and have all those opportunities, but for me the vision part of it is really about being able to really make something happen, something real, and then everything that would come along with that, it would be a reflection.

NL: What would be that thing?

M: It’s like a certain magic that happens sometimes on stage or in the studio, and it’s when you have that moment. It’s this kind of real emotional experience that takes place where it’s kind of a unification, that’s sort of a transcendent experience.

NL: Is it God?

M: No. I mean, I think it has to do with … I mean, it’s all God, you know? But I wouldn’t say that it’s God. I’d say it’s really a musical thing, and an interaction between the musicians, myself, and the people that are there. It’s all from within.

NL: What is the relationship in your mind between your music and prayer?

M: It’s sort of having an emotion or a feeling and then expressing it, and then in the expressing you kind of get caught up in it and you put it out there.

NL: And so, it’s similar in some ways to prayer.

M: Yeah. And then there are those moments in the show that I feel like I’m actually addressing God. I feel some moments of the songs are me speaking to God.

NL: When is that?

M: I think it happens more in the improvisations than anywhere else, when something is happening fresh, when something is happening new for the first time.

NL: What does it feel like at that moment to jump into a crowd? What does that feel like?

M: Well, it’s awesome…. There’s actually a song about it, like going over the wall. Instead of trying to go around the wall, go over the wall, and I think that … in some ways it’s almost like a shortcut, or it could be that I have the feeling for the crowd of people and then that draws it out of me, and then it’s like a climax by jumping in.

NL: As somebody who’s Chabad — or not Chabad or wherever you are with your religion now — have you taken heat? How do you feel about the whole connection between your music, sexuality, gorgeous girls throwing themselves at you and all of that?

M: It’s funny. I have a certain thing inside that it’s almost like a block, and it’s my own trip. When I look out into the audience, I feel like the women that are out there, they don’t want me to hit on them.

NL: They do. Trust me. They do.

M: Well, that’s funny … because that might be the case, but I get this feeling that that’s not really what they want from me, and that I feel like they want to trust. They want to trust me like I represent myself, as a religious person having certain beliefs, and I don’t think that people want me to compromise that. I kind of don’t allow myself to get lost in that.

NL: Your attire, the way that you look, in what ways is it a hindrance to you; in what ways does it help you?

M: In terms of the beard, it keeps me a little bit less focused on how I look, you know what I mean? I want to look good, but it kind of makes me less focused on that a little bit. And then I guess when I get into the music and I’m moving around or I’m singing or whatever it is, it’s like there’s a lot in it, a lot of emotion, and there’s excitement and there’s love, you know what I mean? And I guess all those things can be translated as sexy. But I won’t go out there and sort of like … I’m not looking to be sexy. I’m looking for this kind of spiritual experience.

NL: It seems like in reggae music altogether, the connection to pot is so intrinsic to the music. Do you have an objection to that?

M: I have feelings about it. For me, myself, I used to smoke a lot, and I used to experiment with a lot of hallucinogens and stuff, and I had experiences where I feel that it really completely opened me up to deeper dimensions of reality, and then I’ve had experiences where I felt it really hindered me and kind of distracted me. So, at this point in my life, spirituality for me, it’s kind of work, and it’s kind of about trying to get to those places without the substance. In terms of other people that are at my show or that are listening, I don’t have really an objection to it. I think that’s for everyone to figure out for themselves, and I think that music in itself is kind of like a high….

NL: And your song “One Day,” speaking of [Bob] Marley, it just seems like in one way it’s a slight departure for you in terms of being much more like a very singable anthem. I think it’s an amazing song, but it’s a much more commercial song than anything that I’ve heard of yours so far.

M: Yeah. It’s basically like exactly what you’re saying. It’s basic, just like really the theme, it’s something that I relate to, that I think pretty much everybody can relate to, and it’s the theme, the lyrics, the music, it’s just accessible. I wanted to write a song like that. I wanted to try to sum up some very basic idea about faith and about staying positive and kind of just create a song about exactly that. You don’t have to think too much. You can just put it on and feel those feelings and relate to that part of yourself.

NL: I do have one more question. Since so many kids from L.A. go to the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, how did that place affect you?

M: Well, I would say it was more about being in Israel than specifically that place, but that was when I was 16, and that was when I was just really starting to figure out ‘who am I?’ — and identity — and then being in Israel, I was able to make that connection between my Judaism being relevant to me and informing who I am, my history and all of that. So it was pretty massive for me.

An enduring miracle


This coming Shabbat, together with Jewish communities around the world, we will celebrate the joyous festival of Chanukah. Most of us are quite familiar with the story of Chanukah and the miracle that our tradition recalls.

We learned as children that when the Maccabees rededicated our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, they found enough oil to light the menorah for only a single day. God’s miracle, we learned, was that the oil that should have lasted but one day lasted, rather, for eight days.

The rabbinic sages, explaining the ritual lighting of Chanukah, recounted in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat the miracle noted above. We might wonder whether this miracle actually occurred. And, if it did not occur, we might question whether we should continue to observe the ritual lighting associated with this nonevent.

In order to understand the original and continued significance of the lighting of Chanukah’s flames, we might explore the manner in which we light the chanukiyah — Chanukah’s eight-branched menorah. We can thereby gain a deeper and enduring appreciation of the lighting, one that chronicles a miracle we live today as much as it commemorates a miracle of long ago.

The Talmud instructs us to observe Chanukah’s ritual lighting in accordance with the sage Hillel’s practice. We are to kindle one additional flame for each successive day of the holiday. On the first day, we kindle one flame; on the second, two flames; etc. According to the sage Shammai’s dissenting opinion, we ought eliminate one flame for each successive day of the holiday; on the first day, eight flames; on the second day, seven flames; etc.

At first glance, Shammai’s approach seems compelling: In recounting the miracle of the single jar of oil that lasted eight days, we should acknowledge that, despite our rational conclusion to the contrary, there was in actuality enough oil on the first day of Chanukah to last eight days, on the second day to last seven, and so on. In other words, Shammai suggested that the proper way to recount the miracle is to recall what once occurred from the perspective of one who knows how the story ends.

Still, the Talmud rules in accordance with Hillel. I believe Hillel’s view prevailed because it reflected a belief that the ritual lighting of Chanukah is more than commemorative; it exists very much in the present tense, experientially. Standing outside the miracle, remembering it historically as Shammai did, the focus is simply on how much oil remained each day. However, when we use the ritual to relive the miracle in our present, when we experience each day of it anew, we are not certain that our oil will last yet another moment. We cannot be sure that the lights we revisit from our ancient Jewish past, or even those we strive to preserve and nourish today, will endure. Will the Jewish flame of our era burn forth unto our children and our children’s children? Are we any less at risk of losing our light than the menorah in the Temple was so very long ago? Might it have been the case for the rabbis long ago that the “miracle” of Chanukah was a metaphor for our people’s unlikely but persistent survival and flourishing, against all odds? Is it possible that the miracle that we celebrate in our own era, when kindling our own flames of Chanukah, is the ever-constant miracle of our presence in this world, altogether, as Jews?

The flames of Chanukah, as Hillel had us kindle them by adding one more flame each day, express our enduring faith that our flame of today will grow ever stronger, in our own generation and beyond. The flames we kindle on Chanukah represent our commitment to the work we must do to enhance and clarify the light of our people and the beauty and depth of Jewish meaning and purpose. Ultimately, from within the annual and ongoing miracle of Chanukah, we might even come to recognize that we, ourselves, are the flames; we are the enduring miracle of Chanukah, if we make it so.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes. For more information, visit http://www.nertamid.com.

Open House


I’m a Chabadnik.

That makes no sense to most people who know me: I’m not highly observant, I don’t pray at a Chabad house, and the only time I danced with Jon Voight at the Chabad telethon, I embarrassed myself by chewing gum on camera.

But it’s true: My Jewish identity was nurtured as much by Chabad as it was by the Reform synagogue I grew up in, the Conservative shuls I’ve belonged to, the books I’ve read and the conversations I’ve had with Jews of all stripes. Like so many Jews of my generation, when I left my Jewish home, I found a Jewish home, wherever I traveled, with Chabad.

Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackI walked into my first Chabad house when I was 19. That’s the perfect age for a searching, wandering Jew to receive what Chabad offers at its 4,000 houses in 73 countries — welcoming, hospitality, acceptance. It makes a lasting impression.

It’s also why I have always had a scandal- and gossip- and politics-resistant affection for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Yes, I know it’s far from perfect and has its share of issues. But whether in Thailand or San Francisco, when I wanted a place to spend a holiday, to pray on Shabbat or just to connect, there was always one of those perennially cheerful Chabad rabbis, a motley collection of tossed-about Jews and some schnapps. And I was home.

That’s also one reason why the tragedy that unfolded late last week in Mumbai, India, has sent me reeling. I felt for the innocent Indians gunned down in the train station, the hotel and café guests murdered in cold blood, the whole city paralyzed by fear and bloodshed. But my thoughts kept returning to what happened at the Chabad house there, where terrorists killed six people, including Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg, the house’s young rebbetzin and rabbi.

I didn’t know the Holtzbergs, but I’ve known the kindness and hospitality of so many Chabad emissaries like them. So when I received an e-mail from Hillary Lewin, a graduate student at Yeshiva University who spent many days with the Holtzbergs, I could picture exactly what she described for me.

In fact, what’s exceptional about the Chabad house in Mumbai that Lewin describes is how common it is by Chabad standards. She wrote:

“The Holtzbergs were running a remarkable operation. Their lives never stopped. The phones rang constantly, people came in and out like a subway station, and all the while Rivky and Gabi were calm, smiling, warm, and welcomed everyone like family.

“Rivky spent each day cooking dinner with the chefs for 20-40 people…. For each meal, Gabi prepared about seven different divrei Torah [words of Torah] to share…. His wisdom, knowledge and ability to inspire amazed me. Rivky and Gabi were accepting of everyone who walked through their doors, and they had no hidden agendas.

“On my last Shabbat in India, I slept in Rivky and Gabi’s home, the 5th floor of the Chabad house. I noticed that their apartment was dilapidated and bare. They had only a sofa, a bookshelf, a bedroom for Moishie, and a bedroom to sleep in. The paint peeled from the walls, and there were hardly any decorations. Yet, the guest quarters on the two floors below were decorated exquisitely, with American-style beds, expansive bathrooms, air conditioning (a luxury in India) and marble floors.

“We called these rooms our ‘healing rooms,’ because life was so difficult in Mumbai during the week. We knew that when we came to Chabad, Rivky and Gabi would take care of us just like our parents, and their openness and kindness would rejuvenate us for the week to come.

“I remember asking Gabi if he was afraid of potential terror threats. Although his demeanor was so sweet and gentle, Gabi was also very strong-minded and determined. He told me simply and sharply that if the terrorists were to come, ‘Be my guest, because I’m not leaving this place.’ Both he and Rivky believed that their mission in Mumbai was far greater than any potential terror threats.”

(To read Lewin’s complete letter and view her photos, visit jewishjournal.com).

Two years ago, Mark Ballon wrote a story for The Journal on synagogue security during the High Holy Days. One synagogue president said his shul had spent $400,000 that year on the holiday security measures. What struck me then — and seems utterly poignant now — is what Rabbi David Eliezrie of the Chabad of Yorba Linda said: He wasn’t spending a dime for security.

The money, he told Ballon, was better spent on student scholarships for Jewish day schools than on installing security cameras and renting armed guards.

Wasn’t he scared of terrorist attacks?

“I’m fearful of God,” he said.

One of the striking features of Chabad houses is their lack of barriers — security and otherwise — in a time of threat and fear.

There will be a lot of debate over whether Chabad should now increase security at its houses around the world, whether the State of Israel should play a part in providing security, whether travelers will feel vulnerable if Chabad rabbis continue to spend more on education and kosher meals than on guards and buzzers.

I’ll tell you my gut reaction: No. No to more security. No to locks and guards. No to the fear that would keep any of us away from a meal, a service, a helping hand. The key to winning this fight is to take the battle to the enemy, not to close ourselves off in ever-smaller rooms.

That’s why this Shabbat you’ll find me at a place I haven’t been for years — my local Chabad. I hope you do the same. I hope rabbis of all stripes march down with their congregants to do the same.

Screw the terrorists. This Shabbat, we’re all Chabadniks.

Menorah Lights Our Way


For three years, I lived in an apartment in Jerusalem next to a bus stop. The rhythm of my life quickly adapted to the bus schedule. Just by looking out my bedroom window, I knew exactly when to leave the house in order to catch the bus.

When I returned to California, I assumed my life’s association with buses would end. But this was not to be. I live in a neighborhood where buses abound. But the associations couldn’t be more different.

In Israel, a bus represented a possible tomb. Each passenger a could-be suicide bomber. Taking the bus becomes a statement of defiance in the face of unrelenting terrorism and the constant threat of death.

I had friends who stopped taking the bus in favor of taxis. Or if they saw someone who looked suspicious board the bus, they jumped off and waited for the next to come along. Here, boarding a bus means getting to where you need to go.

While the buses are different, so is the experience of Chanukah. Growing up, my family always lit a single menorah in an interior room of the house. In Israel, I learned the menorah is supposed to be placed near a window looking out onto the street to publicize the holiday, and each member of the household should light his own.

I quickly grew to love this enhanced way of honoring events that happened some 2,000 years ago.

We all know the story of Chanukah. The Syrian-Greeks occupied the land of Israel and commandeered our Holy Temple. They outlawed many of our religious practices and defiled the Temple. Then a group of Jews known as the Maccabees rebelled, drove the Syrian-Greeks out and reclaimed the Temple. Topping off the victory, a flask of oil meant to last just one day, miraculously burned for eight.

But the battle of Syrian-Greek versus Jew ran much deeper than a mere physical occupation of our land. It was the battle of two great forces — spirituality versus physicality.

Syrian-Greek culture placed beauty and intellect above spirituality and religion. It honored and revered all that the physical world represented. In their aspiration for aesthetic idealism, however, they denied the transcendence of the human spirit and rejected any notion of metaphysical reality. Thus it should not surprise us that they fought so desperately to uproot Torah, the spiritual compass for morality and spirituality.

Judaism teaches that the potential for human greatness is achieved not through the ascendancy of the physical, but by subjugation of the physical to the spiritual. We strive to break through the bounds of physical limitation and aspire for a higher reality, one that lies beyond materialism, beyond superficiality.

The Syrian-Greeks enjoyed a high measure of success in "converting" Jews who succumbed to the attractions of secular life. These Jews, known as Hellenists, thrived in the cultural ambivalence offered by the Syrian-Greeks to such an extent, that Jewish tradition was on the verge of disintegration.

The Jewish people had survived attempts by the Babylonians and the Persians to destroy them physically and spiritually, but never before had a movement from within sought to redefine the beliefs and practices that had shaped the Jewish national character since the time of Abraham.

Ultimately, the Macabbees routed the enemy, the Temple was rededicated, the oil miraculously burned for eight days and the Hellenists were discredited. And just who were these victorious Macabbees? None other than the Cohanim, or the priests, of the nation.

On Chanukah, therefore, we celebrate the victory of traditional Jewish culture over both the external forces that strove to overturn it, and the forces within that wished to dilute it.

Today we find ourselves in much the same shoes, but in an even more complicated mixture. Ideological sects lay claim to spiritual authenticity, separatist movements labor to set themselves apart and multiculturists demand a coming together. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing and hate crimes prod us to wonder if we may not be better off abandoning our culture and religion.

Had the ancient Syrian-Greeks not sensed their beliefs were threatened by Jewish monotheism, they would not have fought so desperately to crush Judaism. Had the Hellenist Jews felt more secure in the traditions of their ancestors, they would never have contemplated compromising their heritage by pursuing secular culture with such fervor.

The one who knows what he believes and why is both immune to the attraction of foreign culture and tolerant of sincere alien belief. He will be neither bullied nor seduced by the philosophies of others, because he is secure in his own. He will be able to live in harmony with others and work together for the common welfare without sacrificing his ideals or compromising his values.

For more than 2,000 years, the lights of Chanukah have burned as a symbol of spiritual wisdom. And it is the menorah that represents the way the soul finds its expression in this world. No matter how much darkness surrounds us, we still light the menorah, because we know who we are and who we can be.

This year, proudly place your menorah in a spot where the outside world can gaze in and see your spiritual light illuminate the darkness. Because sometimes a bus ride isn’t just a bus ride.

Marisa N. Pickar is a freelance journalist living in Laguna Woods.

Light and Thanks


I spent most of this past week at the United Jewish Communities (UJC) General Assembly (GA), the annual gathering which, this year, brought nearly 4,000 Jewish communal representatives (and journalists) from North America, Israel and elsewhere overseas.

The GA is part sales seminar, part pep rally, part continuing education, and major schmoozefest. This year, it was also something else: befuddling. Spend a half-hour in the hallways between sessions and you get a sense of the intensity and vigor of contemporary Jewish life. A charged-up communal leader from Knoxville, Tenn., told me the Jewish community there is strong and active. The rabbi from Austin, Texas boasted of a beautiful, multimillion dollar new Jewish Community Center campus. The lay leader from Tulsa, Okla., said Jews there were active and involved, and activists from Boston, Chicago and New York talked a mile a minute about new projects, new organizations, new ventures.

But then there are the actual, big lectures, the plenary sessions that are meant to rally and inspire the troops. They are lugubrious: anti-Semitism in Europe, on campus, in Canada. Terror here and abroad. Crisis in Israel, in Argentina, in the economy. Outside the meeting rooms, strength and vigor; inside, doom and gloom. Outside, Candide; inside, Cassandra.

As one speaker went on (and on) about the tragedies confronting the Jews, I ducked into the hallway, where I bumped into Mort Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America. "What is this guy talking about?" said Klein. "On and on and on, all these tales of woe." He wasn’t being callous — he’s as aware of the tragedies as we all are — he just wanted to hear a call to action. Ease up on the hysteria and give it a little inspiration — and a little reality check.

The very people listening to the tales of woe are the very same lay and staff leaders whose fundraising efforts place UJC as the highest-ranking Jewish philanthropic organization in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. They have access to the worlds of media, government and business unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people. They are, by almost any measure, stronger and more vibrant than at any other time in their history. As I write this it’s past midnight on the third day of the convention, the hotel lobby is still noisy with animated GA conversation, and a giant electronic scroll board over Center City reads, "WELCOME UNITED JEWISH COMMUNITIES!" Hardly the signposts of imminent doom.

Events are terrible, as the brutal Jerusalem bus bombing that Thursday morning showed. Israelis suffer daily under the fear and the reality of terror.

But even that reality doesn’t begin to describe the remarkable fact of Israel, its resilience and the daily achievements of its people. To cement Israelis in the American Jewish mind as nothing but victims-in-waiting is to demean the country and its people. To worry ourselves silly about media bias when the vast majority of news outlets editorialize in favor of Israel is almost indecently ignorant. To demand Jewry uncritically support Israel in these times, as some speakers did, negates Jewish and Zionist history. After all, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon couldn’t address the GA in person not because of pressing security concerns but because he is locked in a fierce election battle.

My sense is that most of the participants gathered information in the meeting rooms — and some of it was hopeful and upbeat — but a sense of perspective in the hallways.

The Thanksgiving/Chanukah doubleheader arrives then just in time. "Judaism is the religion of optimism," Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author and spiritual leader of The Temple in Atlanta, told our contributing writer Rahel Musleah. "It’s about increasing the light." He reminds us that we’ve fashioned a holiday in which each night, we bring more light into the world. "The light gets stronger and serves as a weapon against the darkness," he said.

It demeans no one’s suffering — and there has been too much this past year — to also count our blessings. Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Chanukah.

The Light of God


Recently I had an opportunity to lead some adults through a group-dynamic exercise. They sat in clusters of five or six, and each person identified a strength of each of the other participants. There were some in the group who knew each other very well, others who were less familiar with one another. The result was actually quite remarkable. After initial discomfort at being asked to look someone in the eyes and articulate one of their strengths, the participants positively glowed from the opportunity to share their remarks. Their faces beamed with delight. Of course, those hearing their strengths enumerated (after their initial discomfort of being the focus of attention) appreciated the process. What was revealing for me was the joy that the speakers experienced.

This encounter was analogous to a stunning, powerful and beautiful moment we read about in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Moses pleads with God, "Oh, let me behold Your glory!" God responds, "I will make all My goodness pass before you … as My presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."

Imagine what it might have felt like for Moses, standing inside a cold, confining, pitch-black cavern, not knowing when light would reappear. Fear? Uncertainty? A sense of loneliness, perhaps? Then God removes His hand. In a flash, Moses is able to peer outside into the light and see God’s back as He passes by the rock. Moses is greeted by an overpowering brightness, an awesome awareness of God’s presence, a transformational, inspirational moment of sight and insight.

Moses is only allowed to see God’s back, yet this limited view gives him a glimpse of God’s goodness. Moses has encountered God and has seen goodness. When we experience goodness in the world, we encounter God.

We cannot see nor can we completely comprehend or apprehend God. We can, however, recognize the places and moments that God’s presence has been in the world. We can, like Moses, see God’s goodness. One way we can have a glimpse of God is when we experience acts of chesed (kindness).

The goodness of others reflects God’s image. These acts bring God’s light into the world. Yet, there is more to this process: when you bring goodness into the world, it is as if you are shining God’s light directly onto another person and then it shines back on you.

We can stay within ourselves, closed up in isolated, dark, inward- focused places, as if shut up in a cleft in rock. Or we can move past our insulation and apprehension and welcome the light. We can look into the faces of others and be critical and closed to them, or we can see the image and light of God reflected in their essence. We can do good, and we can acknowledge it in others: a simple "hello" and "thanks for your help" at the supermarket, an expression of gratitude to a coworker going an extra step, a remark of appreciation to someone even if we are frustrated with them. When we do this, we brighten their lives. These acts of kindness not only bring light to the receiver, but they reflect joy back on to us.

When we recognize the strengths, the potential, the gifts that others give to the world and us, we can see a glimpse of God in them. When the adults in the small groups were given the opportunity to articulate the goodness of others, they were joyous. That joy is the spark of light of God’s presence. Let it glow.