Opening the Gates


Jacob Artson, 16, gave the following speech last May at a conference in Los Angeles titled “Opening the Gates: Building Inclusive Congregations and Communities for Jews with Special Needs,” where he shared the keynote address with his father, Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. The conference was co-sponsored by The Jewish Federation, HaMercaz, The Board of Rabbis, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health.

Hi. My name is Jacob Artson and I am a person just like you.

I am part of a wonderful Jewish family, I go to our local public high school, where I am in mostly regular classes, I play sports, I love to travel, and I enjoy hanging out with my friends and girlfriend.

The only difference between you and me is that I have lots of labels attached to me, like nonverbal, severely autistic and developmentally disabled.

It is true that I have some challenges, but there are lots of myths and misconceptions about autism out there. Many purported experts claim that individuals with autism are not interested in socializing. This is totally ridiculous. I love people, but my movement disorder constantly interferes with my efforts to interact. I cannot start and stop and switch my thinking or emotions or actions at the right time. This can make being in a big group very lonely and that is the worst thing about autism. So next time you see someone like me at your synagogue or at your event, remember that they probably feel really lonely and you could be the person to make their day by smiling at them and letting them know that they exist.

Another myth is that the majority of kids with autism are mentally retarded. In fact, our bodies are totally disorganized but our cognitive skills are intact and our minds are hungry for knowledge.

Every person alive is encumbered by challenges and blessed with gifts. I used to think that my ratio of challenges to gifts was higher than most, but now I realize that my challenges are just more obvious. I have learned that there are actually many positive aspects of autism. For example, I get a VIP pass at Disneyland and I get to kiss all the beautiful counselors at camp and pretend I don’t know any better. On a serious note, not being able to speak means that you spend lots of time listening.

In fact, much of what I know I’ve learned from listening to conversations that other people didn’t think I could hear, or listening through the wall to what the teacher in the next classroom was saying. People often ask me how I became such a good writer. The answer is that my inability to speak gives me lots of time to contemplate and imagine and also forces me to hear everyone’s perspective and think about it because I cannot interrupt or monopolize the conversation like people who have oral speech.

In the autism world we say that not being able to speak doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to say. In my experience, the converse is also true —just because you can speak doesn’t mean that you have anything worth saying.

Since this is a conference on including people with disabilities in the Jewish community, I want to share with you the ways in which autism has affected my participation in Jewish life. I have found great support in God, Torah, and the Jewish community. The greatest single day of my life was my bar mitzvah because everyone there accepted and celebrated me for exactly who I am. At the end of the service, everyone came up on the bima for Adon Olam. I will carry in my mind and heart forever the picture of everyone there smiling at me. I had wonderful experiences when I was in a Jewish preschool and later kindergarten, even though my teachers had never had a child with autism in their class. What made those experiences successful was the way the teachers modeled inclusion for the other kids. They treated me as a person made in God’s image and not as different in any way. In kindergarten, I had amazing peers. They were mostly Persian and inclusiveness is engrained in their culture. They tried all year to get me to interact with them even though I was usually too excited to focus. I’ve also had wonderful buddies from The Friendship Circle, attended several Jewish camps, participated in a Jewish musical theater program called The Miracle Project, and prayed at Koleinu, a service at Temple Beth Am for kids with special needs.

But there have been obstacles as well. I have never attended religious school because I was bored in the special ed Hebrew school and the typical classes did not allow a place for me to engage either. When I was younger, I went to synagogue every Shabbat but the other kids ignored me. As a teenager, I have had some wonderful Jewish experiences at camp and elsewhere, but the first reaction is that I am too disabled to attend, or that I don’t participate once I’m there. So whether I’m invited seems to depend on the particular director that year. I have noticed that when I attend Jewish youth group events, the volunteers seem to pay attention primarily to the verbal kids, so I am lonely. I suspect that this stems from lack of exposure, but their youth leaders could do a better job of modeling inclusion too.

The public schools and secular programs I have attended have been much more welcoming. The public schools are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, and they, too, seem to have a culture of inclusion. The kids at school treat me like family and pull me into everything they do. I go to a secular camp for autistic kids in Aspen every summer and everyone is welcome there. We do cool things like go tubing and white water rafting and I am able to participate in everything because I know they will work with me where I’m at.

In my secular inclusive sports program, Team Prime Time, the director has taken the time to allow for sharing on several levels, so the kids all respect me for my intelligence and understand how hard I’m working to make a basket or kick the ball. I have also been part of their new volunteer training and have spoken about autism at school, but I have never been invited to participate in volunteer training for any Jewish program I have attended.

So here is a final thought I would like to leave you with:

The best peers and aides I have had didn’t have any special background. It doesn’t actually take any training to be a leader who models inclusion. It just takes an attitude that all people are made in God’s image and it is our job to find the part of God hidden in each person.

I used to get very upset and offended at the idea of being someone’s mitzvah project or community service project. But now I see that I also have a role to play in helping create the messianic future. It is easy in our affluent society to become too dazzled by the material opportunities and the privileges that we have been born with. But I have had to struggle from the day I was born to do many things that other people take for granted. Because of that, I have experienced God’s love in a way most children have not. So maybe we are each other’s mitzvah project because I can help them see the glories of the world that they have never noticed, and they can teach me how to look like other kids. All in all, who is getting a greater benefit? In the end, together we bring God’s glory to all of humanity.

Elegy for a Dream


I came to America 30 years ago last month. I arrived in Los Angeles the night Elvis died. I was 16 years old, fresh out of a Swiss boarding school, about to
start my first year of college.

This was two years before the Islamic Revolution, yet I had left Iran willingly and without regret, certain that I would never go back except to visit. I did love the country, and most of its people. To this day, I think it’s the most beautiful place I have seen, and that its people, by and large, are among the smartest, most hospitable, most capable in the world.

But even in 1977, when the Shah was still firmly in power and his kingdom was, in the fateful words of President Carter, “an island of stability,” Iran was a place of great injustice and vast intolerance — a land of the mighty where the rich, the well-connected wielded nearly absolute power over the weak. And though I came from a well-to-do family, at a time when the Jews had thrived and prospered thanks to the Shah, I was acutely aware of the small and large cruelties — the devastating limitations imposed on the poor, the meek and women by religion and geography and thousand-year-old traditions.

The first two years in Los Angeles were a time of great loneliness for me: I had lost touch with my Iranian friends when I left for boarding school, and I lost my boarding school friends when I left for America. Back then, most Americans had not heard of Iran and couldn’t imagine what kind of place it was. When I told them it’s somewhere in the Middle East, near some Arab countries, and that we had oil, they asked, without malice or sarcasm, if I could belly-dance and if we had paved roads and cars or if we rode camels to work and school. When I told them that Iranians are not Arabs, that Iran is the old Persia, they looked at me suspiciously and asked why, then, had I claimed I was Iranian, and not Persian.

Still, there was something about being cut loose from the past, existing in a vacuum of tradition and identity so dissimilar to the rigid structure that would have stifled me in Iran, having possibilities I wouldn’t have dared contemplate as a woman or a Jew back there, that gave me a sense of exhilaration and optimism.

When the Shah fell in early ’79, and tens of thousands of other Iranians began to settle in Los Angeles, I thought I had been granted two blessings at once: I could live in the proximity of my Iranian family and friends, without having to submit to the inequities of Iranian society. I found it strange that other Iranian Jews, even women my age, lamented the fall of the Shah and their own subsequent exile with such great passion, that they spent months, even years, glued to American television and Farsi language radio, waiting for news of the coup they were sure the Shah, and later his son, would stage. I could understand the sense of loss and disorientation, the nostalgia for home and country that many of my fellow Iranian Jews suffered from in those days, but I didn’t see how any of us would want to return to the place we had been, in my mind at least, liberated from. How we could, in good conscience, pray to return to life in a dictatorship when we could live in a democratic country; how we could wish to be ruled by one man’s whims and wishes when we could opt for a set of laws that transcended the individual?

Once the Shah died and his crown prince assumed the role of “monarch in exile,” I watched with wonder as Iranians rallied around him in hopes that he would unseat the mullahs and bring them all back home. I had seen him — Crown Prince Reza — when I was a child in Iran. He was about my age. In official photographs and on the television news, he looked lost in his surroundings, uncomfortable in the French suits and military uniforms he was made to wear, uneasy before the grown men who bowed before him and kissed his hand, the jewel-clad women who were moved to tears by the honor of having permission to curtsy before him.

Three decades later, in the gatherings hosted by Iranian immigrants in Los Angeles, he was tall, graying, and still, to my mind, a bit lost. He spoke about his imminent return to Iran, how he was going to save the country and its people, rule as a constitutional monarch. To me, he sounded tentative — as if he were playing a role he had assumed for lack of another option, chasing a destiny that, try as he might, he knew he wasn’t going to catch. But all around me people sat glued to his words, praising his speeches, rushing to applaud.

I could understand the adoration most Jews had for him and his father: The Shah had been good to us. He had given us freedom and opportunity and a sense of safety we hadn’t known for more than 1,000 years of living in Shiite Iran. But he had also ruled as a tyrant who claimed he was God’s personal envoy on Earth, who insisted that his portrait be displayed in every house and business establishment in the country, that his anthem — not the national anthem, but the one created to worship him — be played in every movie theater before every showing of every film. That schoolchildren everywhere in the country begin their day with a prayer for his health and well-being. His appetite for power was endless; the consequences for disobeying were unthinkable. Is this, I wondered, what people were wishing to return to?

On Aug. 24, I was clearing out my junk e-mail when I came upon an e-mail sent by one of the many Iranian-American groups active on the Web. Perhaps because it was the anniversary of my arrival in the United States, because I was already amazed and stunned at the speed with which time had passed, I opened the e-mail. It was a grainy, black-and-white, home video shot by an unsteady hand and posted on You Tube. It showed images of Tehran on the morning of the Shah’s official coronation: Empty, barricaded streets; the Shah and his family inside a palace, walking down a velvet rug, up to a bejeweled throne where he placed a crown on his queen’s head, and another on his own. Afterward, thousands of people lined up behind barricades on the sides of the streets, an endless police motorcade, two carriages — one for the Shah and his queen, the other for the crown prince — pulled by white horses. It was an unreal sight — the young prince, so small that his feet, I imagined, didn’t reach the floor of the carriage, sitting behind the window with the solid gold frame, waving his little hand at his father’s subjects, traversing a street, a city, a country that, he has been told all his life, will one day be his.

The Painful Holidays


A feeling of trepidation takes hold of my heart. The Jewish holidays are upon us again, and as a 30-something single in a family of all married siblings, I’m feeling anxiety and pain.should be excited, as I get to spend two days with my parents, brothers, sisters-in-law and their kids. However, for weeks before a holiday arrives, I experience apprehension that grows exponentially as each holiday draws closer.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love my family very much. I’ve always gotten along with my siblings and their spouses; I love my nieces and nephews like crazy, and I’ve always considered my family to be closer than most. The idea of being with them should ease the pain of being single and alone, and should ease the sense of loneliness I feel being single among married couples.

Hence, my feelings of guilt, because I do not look forward to being with my family during the holidays. I don’t look forward to having to put on a happy face, when cheerful is the last thing I feel. I don’t look forward to the questions my nieces invariably ask, when wanting to know why I am not yet married.

It is as if an important part of me is missing. I watch the loving eye contact between my siblings and their spouses, the hand holding under the table as we eat the holiday meals and the cheerful chattering of my nieces and nephews. I listen to talk of the kids’ baseball leagues, dance lessons and where the next family get-together should be held.

Someone tries to pull me into the conversation every once in a while, but I don’t really have anything to add. I feel separated from what is going on.

What I really want to say aloud is, “What about me? I want someone to talk to, to love, who will understand me, and really listen to me, and have things in common with me. I want to enjoy my own little boy and girl.”

Sitting in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, I have tears in my eyes, because another year has past, and I’m still alone. And being with my family only makes it worse. Seeing the happiness among my family members and knowing it’s due to the one thing I don’t have — a loving spouse and children — makes my heart ache.

Jewish holidays are times when families come together. But I don’t have my own family yet. And this point is driven home to me very clearly every time I’m with my siblings for the holidays.

I sit at the meals wishing there was someone who could understand what I’m going through, and I’ve come up with what I think is a really good idea: If there were one or more singles sitting at the meals with me, this would surely ease the loneliness I feel. They would probably be feeling some of the same emotions as I am, and we could support each other, just by sharing these times together.

I would have someone to laugh with when my nieces asked their probing questions, someone to roll my eyes at when my siblings were acting mushy and I was feeling vulnerable, and someone who would be going through what I was going through and could relate.

There are always some singles who have nowhere to go for the holidays, because their families aren’t observant or perhaps they live too far away. If these singles were invited for the Jewish holidays by families like mine, where there is one single among many married couples, this could have multiple benefits.

First and foremost, it would be a tremendous mitzvah on the part of the families doing the inviting. It would also alleviate some of the pain that the singles feel at being the only one who is single. Personally, having another single around for the holidays would make me feel less alone and more open to enjoying my family’s company, without the added burden of loneliness.

Before the holidays wrap up for the year, I wish to call out to families who have singles in their midst. I wish to tell them that we, the singles, are lonely and need help this time of year, help that could come from having other singles around.

So please, this year when we are all trying to make changes, do something new, something good, and invite singles to your tables and to your homes on Yom Tov. You will warm others’ hearts, and maybe even your own.

Michele Herenstein is a freelance journalist working in New York. She can be reached at michelesherenstein@yahoo.com.

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Comedy Is Not Pretty


Mark Schiff’s friends looked at him funny after reading an early version of his play, “The Comic.” “It ends with a murder-suicide,” the comedian concedes. “But it’s funny.”

The play revisits the years when Schiff spent 30 weeks a year on the road, playing Tuesday-night crowds with nine people in the audience, telephones ringing throughout his act. “The Comic” recalls the smelly, divey motels he stayed in and the chronic loneliness. “It gets to the point where every town looks the same,” says Schiff, who was one of Johnny Carson’s favorite comics. “You eat every meal by yourself, you spend all day by yourself, and you’re a comedian onstage by yourself. You lay around for 17 hours a day, watching TV and eating bad food.”

The isolation got so bad that Schiff used to tear up every time he glanced at photographs of his wife and kids. At first, he hid the photos. But by 1990, he had had enough.

The character of Sid, the washed-up 58-year-old comedian of “The Comic,” first came to Schiff as a caveat to himself, a warning to get off the road. “These old guys get tortured,” he says of some old-timers he’s known. “They’re like cars with 500,000 miles on them. They’re tired, wrecked, bitter. They’re doing the same trick, over and over. They’ve given up.”

Instead of continuing to fill his inner emptiness with the fleeting attention of the stage, Schiff decided to begin a journey toward observant Judaism. He cut back his road trips to corporate and cruise gigs. He reinvented himself as a writer, serving on the staff of the TV show “Mad About You.” Finally, he penned his first play, “The Comic,” which focused on the limbo of the road.

Schiff actually hoped to write plays since he was 16, when he’d sneak into Broadway shows at intermission. Instead, he chucked his theatrical ambitions for the “instant gratification of standup comedy,” he says.

Finally, at 44, Schiff’s first play is being staged by arcade; one of the artistic directors is ex-comic Michael Patrick King of “Sex and the City.” “I’m nervous,” admits Schiff, who elected not to star in his play. “Writing it was painful enough. I didn’t want to live in it.”

“The Comic” shows Nov. 15-19 at arcade, 8741 Washington Blvd., Culver City (in the historic Helms Bakery). Admission is free, but reservations are essential: (310) 253-9097.

Too Much Too Soon


Once you spill your guts, they’re a little hard to mop up.

Take it from me. I’ve been cornering men I hardly know and talking their ears off. I must be stopped. This month alone, I’ve had three lengthy conversations late into the night with three virtual strangers. I don’t have one-night stands in any physical way. I have what my friend Richard calls “emotional hit and runs.”

In short, I overshare.

Like any vice, my compulsion to overshare worsens when I’m down. For months, I’ll be on the talk wagon, keeping my secrets to myself, straining to call forth my inner Audrey Hepburn, the one who listens intently, arms rested on crossed legs, all poise and quiet confidence.

Enter a funk: you know, any combination of loneliness, identity crisis, job stress, rejection, amorphous lack of joie. That’s when I find myself latching onto guys and setting my emotional VCR on fast forward, as in skip the small talk and let’s get to the juicy scenes.

The last victim, a lanky writer I met at an industry cocktail party, really should’ve been wearing a yellow ribbon, because he was nothing short of a hostage to my need for instant connection and understanding. I lured him in with just enough normal interaction before unleashing the full fury of the overshare, discussing my family, my fears, my past. When the party ended, we went to a bar. When the bar closed, we went to the all-night burrito stand. I honestly needed a lozenge at that point. The more his eyes glazed over, the more I pushed to make myself seem interesting.

The next day, I couldn’t help reliving some of my monologues in forehead-grabbing disgust. The most pathetic are the transparent anecdotes I tell that lead to the inevitable conclusion that I’m witty and in demand. If I feel I’m really losing my audience, I allow myself the indulgence of one tiny lie: something about juvenile hall (“juvie,” I call it for dramatic effect) and “pulling a knife on a girl.”

Mostly, though, I tell the truth. I’m spilling my guts just hoping something comes out that someone will like. With the same goal as people who have sexual one-night stands, I’m trying to break through to other people, to make them love and want me before either feeling is appropriate or possible.

Sometimes, I see it starting and I’m powerless to stop it. As I’m launching into a string of too-personal questions (Do you want to have kids? What was your last girlfriend like? Do you believe in God? Am I your type?) I notice that I’m turning into that girl, that awful girl men mock, the girl who won’t shut up. Just be Audrey Hepburn, I tell myself, just feign some semblance of self-contained grace. But once the first revealing story is out on the table, there’s no going back. I’m a Mack truck of need.

Yesterday, I called my friend Richard to confess that I’d been on an emotional hit-and-run bender. He’s a recovering oversharer and therefore likely to have not only insight, but stories way worse than mine – always a comfort.

I told him about the writer, the out-of-town law student, the unsuspecting blind date. I confessed to two-hour phone calls and novella-length e-mails and one late-night/early-morning share session during which a guy actually fell asleep – right in the middle of a particularly poignant story about my first Halloween. I actually had to wake him up to kick him out.

Richard told me what I already knew: I’m only scaring men away. It’s no sin to want to be wanted, but you just have to trust that people will see who you really are without a crash course.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” I said, quoting Thoreau. “I lead a life of loud desperation.”

“The quiet kind is so much more dignified,” he added. Tell me about it.

Strangers No More


Each Yom Kippur, a vestigial loneliness creeps over me. I achingly feel that my parents and family are back East; that my cousins live in Japan; that some of my dearest are dead. On this day, dispersion and alienation seeps in, and I cling to my community like fog to the shore. And this is the way it should be.

On Yom Kippur, the last and greatest of the Days of Awe, Jews know that something big is at issue, the ebb and flow of life’s grand themes, who shall live and who shall die, when even individuality and family are not enough. Cynics and true believers alike, we meet in “holy convocation,” instinctively reaching out to each other, seeking the company of our truest soul mates. To my surprise, I find what I need not high on a mountain top alone, but on hard seats in overheated, cramped quarters, in, of all places, the synagogue.

The psychic angst of Yom Kippur may not be the most obvious lead-in to a discussion of High Holiday tickets, and yet, angst is the real bottom line. Synagogue is our community, it is the Jewish home base. For years it has been the whipping boy of Jewish life, the scorned symbol of everything staid and unmoving, resented and unloved. Yet now that the Holocaust and Israel have lost their force, the synagogue alone is our glue. When we choose our synagogue for the Holy Days, even as drop-ins, we seek the one that reflects us, the place where everybody (or somebody) might eventually know our name. Whether the cantor plays a tambourine, or the rabbi wears a designer tallis, community is our mirror. It is who we are. The question is, how do we get in?

My synagogue, Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, has had an “open tent” policy for some 10 years. We have a beautiful five-acre site overlooking the Pacific, but no permanent structure large enough for community services. Rather than adjourn to the local movie theater or high school auditorium, we erect a huge tent that stands between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which accommodates everyone. And, until this year, anyone could come, for free.

The no-ticket policy is one that I have advocated proudly as board member and resident propagandist. Sitting in that tent is one of the great spiritual moments of the Jewish calendar. It’s the way I find that prayer is possible, and I want to share it with everyone. I love it that we have not sold tickets, the paper symbol of Jewish elitism that has turned off so many. I love it that my community has a generous open heart, and I love the yearning crowds that answer its call.

Everything good about my synagogue has been summed up in the words “open tent.” But this year, that policy changed, and finally, in contemplating the needs of my changing community, I understand why. Money is not the issue. A building fund (though essential) is not the issue. Desire to punish some Jews who want something for nothing is not the issue either.

When the board voted to charge non-members for seating passes (while allowing members to bring their guests without charge), it picked the middle ground in a raging battle in Jewish life: what is the best way to get Jews back in. With affiliation rates so low, but spiritual hunger so high, “tickets yes or no,” can split a congregation in two. That it did not do so in Malibu testifies to the desire of a community to hang in there together, to know and hear each other.

I fought even the compromise policy for a long time, fearing we were reverting to selfishness and exclusivity. After all, the no-ticket policy cost nothing. Most synagogue boards insist that fiscal responsibility is the reason for selling tickets. It’s not true. The open tent policy actually made money, through the generous contributions from appreciative members and non-members who wanted to reward our institutional bravery. We turned a profit every year, and brought in amounts equaling what fair-market tickets would have earned.

Beyond actual donations, the policy bought us lots of good will. Many of our members recall when they were too poor to belong to a synagogue, or that they were turned away for having no tickets.

The no-ticket policy meant that ambivalent Jews could still walk through the door, and discover where they belong.

But what if just the opposite occurred? During emotional meetings of our congregation, our activist members charged that the no-ticket policy actually discouraged membership and the very sense of belonging that in our generosity we had hoped to build. Rather than encouraging all who were needy to participate without consideration of cost, maybe free entry made belonging only one-sided: we, the synagogue, belong to you. But do you belong to us?

What an irony! Most people say they won’t pay for tickets because they don’t want to go to a shul where they don’t know anyone. But what if the very act of paying for a ticket increases the odds you’ll try to make yourself known.

The great convocation is upon us, the in-gathering of Yom Kippur. But this year I’m asking, what does it mean to belong?

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.com