A ‘Nice’ Idea Blossoms Into a Group of ‘Niceaholics’


Debbie Tenzer was having lunch with several girlfriends when the conversation got heated. “We all had such different views on where the country was headed. There was so much anger and so much scary news in the post-Sept. 11 world,” she says, recalling the devastation from hurricanes and the tsunami, terrorism threats, difficulties facing Israel and escalating deaths in Iraq. “I wished I could pull my head in and hide like a turtle.”



But that’s hardly what Tenzer, a mother of three and marketing consultant, decided to do.

She thought to herself: “I can’t single-handedly end world hunger, but I can donate some cans to a food bank. I can’t fix the entire school system, but I can donate my kids’ old books to the library.”

So she did, and her kindness was empowering.



“I realized that if you have the ability to help other people, you’re in a pretty good place,” says Tenzer, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 29 years. “It’s not always easy, because basically, we’re selfish creatures, many of us struggling every day. We have to make a choice, and it starts by doing just one nice thing.”



Tenzer decided that every Monday, she’d do something nice for others.

“It’s the hardest day of the week,” she explains, “so I wanted to start off with something I could feel good about, a personal victory,” even if it was only a five-minute gesture like making a card for senior citizens in nursing homes. Her friends were inspired by her idea, so she sent an e-mail to 60 of them with her suggestions for kind acts they could easily do, too.



One year later, her idea has evolved into a Web site, DoOneNiceThing.com, with thousands of visitors and a weekly e-mail that reaches people in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Israel, Japan and Slovakia. Her self-funded site reinforces the idea that small acts of kindness can create lasting results and suggests simple deeds that appeal to both adults and children without usually asking for money.

She credits them with cheering up hundreds of hospitalized children, donating countless books to schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as backpacks to foster children who were literally carrying their belongings from home to home in a garbage bag.



“What kind of message does that send to them?” Tenzer asks rhetorically.The ideas are often sent to Tenzer in the more than 200 weekly e-mails she receives from the site’s members, whom she calls “Niceaholics” because, Tenzer cautions, “you get hooked.”

Operation Feel Better, for example, encourages people to make or buy cards that she then sends to hospitalized children. “So far I’ve gotten 1,000 cards from all over the United States and as far away as China, and they’re still trickling in,” she says. The figure includes about 20 from her 14-year-old daughter. “I brought some to UCLA Children’s Hospital and sent others to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis.”

Pulling out a big batch in a manila envelope, she adds, “These are on their way to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where sick children of all faiths lie side by side.”



Pointing to a wall in her home office that’s covered with pictures, Tenzer says, “These are some of the heroes who are making life better.”



She begins to cry as she talks about Mallory Lewis, with whom she spent the day at Fort Irwin near Barstow, the last stop before many of the soldiers are deployed to Iraq. “Some of the people we met were killed in the war. Maybe the last smile they had or their last taste of childhood was because of Mallory,” she sobs, noting that Lewis, the daughter of puppeteer Shari Lewis, performed with Lamp Chop for no fee.



“I’m not usually so emotional, but these people remind me of a higher purpose in life,” she adds. Getting teary-eyed again, she points to a picture of a young man who quit his job at a law firm to teach at an inner-city school, where he spent his free time helping students fill out college applications.



“Every one of them went to college because of him,” she said.



While some of the “nice people” Tenzer has recognized are spearheading grass-roots efforts or starting nonprofits to help the homeless, disadvantaged children, AIDS patients, abused animals or drug addicts, others are honored for simply making people smile. Bob Mortenson, for example, a retired man in his 70s, takes a walk every morning carrying a bag of cookies so that he can share something sweet with workers in his neighborhood. And on her way home from work as a gynecologist, Karen Gross has a daily ritual of dropping off treats at her local LAPD and Fire Department stations.



The one thing all the honorees have in common, Tenzer says, is their reaction to being praised.



“Every single one of them says something like, ‘Oh no, not me. Other people do so much more than I do,'” Tenzer says. “This is the sign of a truly kind person.”

When the kindness hits close to home, she’s especially grateful and pleasantly surprised.

“You won’t believe this,” she says, explaining that her younger son, Ben, a college junior who’s spending the semester in Barcelona, was recently pickpocketed. But within days, a taxi driver had found what remained of Ben’s wallet, including his credit cards and ID, and called his university in the United States so that he could arrange to return it.



“There really are a lot of nice people out there,” Tenzer says with a smile. She attributes her sense of tikkun olam, healing the world, to her Conservative Jewish and Zionist upbringing in the Bay Area, values that she and her husband, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, have instilled in their children. “I was always taught that we have a responsibility to other Jews and to the whole community,” she says, praising her parents for being role models. “Tikkun olam is in my soul. It’s just a reflex. It’s what’s expected of us.” But she’s careful to point out that her site embraces people of all denominations and backgrounds.



“My goal is to unite people, not point out our differences,” she says. “I never ask people their faith, but it often comes out.”

Still, she admits that about half of all the people featured on the site are Jewish: “And I’m proud of that.”

Like her honorees, she’s also proud of her accomplishments, but won’t take all the credit. “It’s not all me by any means,” says Tenzer, who’s now working on a related book. “I just lit a match to get some light going out there. It’s the people all over the world who are keeping it going.”

Community Braces for Flu Shot Scarcity


 

Michael Gabai is on a quest.

The owner and administrator of Ayres Residential Care Home has spent the last two weeks calling physicians, senior centers, grocery stores and pharmacies in search of flu shots for about half of the 18 residents in his facilities who have been unable to get one. Gabai was finally able to secure a reservation for his oldest resident, a 96-year-old, to get vaccinated at a grocery store about 10 miles away.

“We’re scrambling to get it done, Gabai said. “We know how easily [flu] can turn into pneumonia for our elderly clients.”

With the flu vaccine shortage becoming a national — and political — crisis, people working with seniors, like Gabai, are the most troubled.

“Flu is always a concern,” said Molly Forrest, director of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). Vaccinations are normally given to all of JHA’s residents and frontline caregivers willing to be inoculated, she said. However, JHA has not yet received its supply of vaccines from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, which has promised to deliver them late this month or early in November. Flu season generally spans from November to March, and affects between 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans.

During the 2003-2004 flu season, there were 1,600 deaths from influenza and pneumonia in Los Angeles County, according to the Center for Disease Control. Also, over the last five years, nearly 90 percent of all deaths from flu andpneumonia were among those 65 or older.

Forrest believes they will get adequate amounts of vaccine to cover the residents, but thinks they might need to seek additional doses for frontline staff.

During her nine-year tenure, Forrest said that JHA had not experienced any serious flu outbreaks. When cases have arisen, they have isolated individual buildings or patients in order to contain the spread of the disease.

Jewish Family Service’s (JFS) Valley Storefront and West Hollywood Senior Center had to cancel scheduled flu shot clinics when the Red Cross failed to deliver vaccines as promised, said Lisa Brooks, one of the agency’s directors.

“We’re waiting to see if more supplies become available,” she said. Directors of JFS’s senior centers are in close contact with sources of the vaccine to find out when that might be.

Additional flu shots might soon be forthcoming from drug manufacturer Aventis Pasteur. The majority of its 22.4 million doses, which were promised but not yet shipped to customers, will be routed to entities designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as priorities. In addition to seniors, those considered most at-risk of developing potentially life-threatening complications from the flu include children under 2 years old (the vaccine is not recommended for babies younger than 6 months old), individuals with chronic medical conditions and pregnant women. According to United Press International, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said the agency is mapping areas where the vaccine has been sent and those where it is needed and also tracking flu cases by county to quickly identify flu hot spots.

The flu shot shortage does not seem to trouble early childhood educators.

“I don’t think at this time anyone is particularly panicking,” said Betty Zeisl, director of public relations and communications for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), who noted that at a meeting of early childhood center directors last week “the subject didn’t come up.” (While BJE facilities must conform to federal, state and local guidelines, protocols for dealing with illness are determined by each individual center.)

“I don’t think [the shortage] is going to affect us,” said Angie Bass, director of the early childhood center at Temple Beth Am, who believes that sensationalized media reports are needlessly scaring parents. Bass said that the school maintains routine health precautions such as undergoing regular cleaning, a hand-washing policy for staff and students and a practice of sending children home if they need to wipe their noses more than three times in a 15-minute period.

Bass said that “if it really looked like a real epidemic and not just media hype,” she would send home a letter informing parents and include advice from pediatricians. Thus far, however, none of the pediatricians she has consulted have expressed concern.

“As soon as the pediatricians are worried, then I’ll worry,” she said.

“I think it is a potential problem,” said Dr. Carol Berkowitz, professor of clinical pediatrics at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We never know how serious a flu season we will have.”

At the same time, she said that last year was the first year that vaccination was suggested for healthy children between 6 and 24 months.

“Flu vaccine has never been recommended for healthy children over the age of 2 years,” she added.

Berkowitz and others emphasize the importance of following CDC recommendations to help prevent flu. These include avoiding close contact with people who are sick, staying home from work or school if you are sick, covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth and washing your hands frequently. Certain prescription antiviral medications (oseltamivir, rimantadine and amantadine) can either prevent the flu or lessen its symptoms if taken promptly after exposure to the virus — or soon after symptoms begin. Symptoms may include fever, headache, chills, body aches, dry cough, stuffy nose and sore throat.

Unfortunately, even if individuals take precautions, they cannot control the habits of others. As the JHA’s Forrest notes, this is especially true for the most vulnerable populations.

“The very young and very old, who get help from other people, are incredibly at risk because they depend on someone else’s hygiene,” she said.

 

Yeladim


 

It sure seems like winter came a little early this year – but the first official day of winter will be Dec 21. On that day, the shortest day of the year, our part of the Earth is tilted its farthest from the sun. The longest day of the year is June 21.

 

In Vayigash, Jacob’s family moves to Egypt to be with Joseph, who has become the grand vizier. All four of Jacob’s wives are named – and who there sons are. Match up the sons with the mothers by putting them in the correct column.

You’ll get a big prize if you can do this one!

 

Never Forgetting Sarah


I was thinking about my friend Lillian Ross last week as I was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge on my way north to an enzyme bath and massage in an outdoor Japanese tea house in Occidental. (I was celebrating freedom after submitting my manuscript for a book on families and family life.) Lillian’s the one who, when asked by her children what she wanted on her 70th birthday, told them that she always had this desire to walk across the bridge with them.

Lillian is a pixie with Jungian wisdom. I wrote a column about her in 1992 for the Los Angeles Times. She began writing children’s books after her 60th birthday, with titles such as “Buba Leah and Her Paper Children” — the tale of an old shtetl woman whose only contact with her children in America were the letters they wrote to her. Every time Buba Leah read a letter, she kissed it and thanked God that her children had not forgotten her.

I thought about Lillian’s Buba Leah character a week later, while I sat on the floor of my kitchen and examined my grandmother’s Passover dishes — the Depression-blue glass dishes and the plain, white Syracuse china plates that I see at the Santa Cruz crafts fair selling for prices my Grandmother Sarah would never pay. I picked up her blue-and-white tea cup, made in Japan, and I can picture her holding it as she sat at her small Formica kitchen table (also on sale at the crafts fair), sipping Lipton’s and eating honey cake. I kissed the cup as Buba Leah kissed her letters, and I thanked God for the memories of Sarah.

Simon & Schuster may have my work, but I am Sarah’s girl, and Passover was our holiday. Pesach was the only time I was allowed to help her in the kitchen — a room entered by family members while looking over their shoulders.

My grandmother was the culinary commander in chief. If I asked her what she made for supper, she’d say, “Supper.” If I asked her what kind of meat, she’d snap, “Meat.” But Passover was different. Together, we scraped the scales off the fish given to my Uncle Al from guys with hooks who worked the docks of New York. We washed the dishes that now decorate my table. We brushed the crumbs out of shelf corners.

Sarah never shared her kitchen with her five daughters or her other granddaughters. Today, 15 years after her death, I am the only one of Sarah’s girls who makes a seder. This year, the California wing of the family decided to have the seder earlier than the rest of the Jewish population so that we could be together. I actually thought, “What would Sarah say about this?” Besides having to eat the bread of affliction for two extra days, would she disapprove? “Whoever enlarges upon the telling of the exodus from Egypt, those persons are praiseworthy.”


Sarah never shared her kitchen with her five daughters or her other granddaughters. Today, 15 years after her death, I am the only one of Sarah’s girls who makes a seder.


Seated at my seder table, drinking wine from the same navy-blue glasses I used to abuse Manischewitz from, were three of Sarah’s grandchildren, their spouses, a great-great-granddaughter (my daughter) and my granddaughter. The youngest who knew Hebrew was Julia, my daughter.

We sang “Hinei Ma Tov,” and everyone sat down. I lit the candles; we told the story of the Exodus. Seventeen years ago, Julia asked why this night was different from any other night, and she asked again. She never hesitated — the words came through her, not with the speed of a 13-year-old anxious to get it over with, but with a joy that made us all feel connected to one another. My brother hid the afikomen, and my granddaughter, Kaya, found it. My cousin Hattie jangled the tambourine I brought back from a trip to Egypt as we sang songs, and my sister-in-law Alana made sure that we didn’t make any mistakes.

When we opened the door for Elijah and Miriam, I read a Chassidic saying: “If you always assume that the person sitting next to you is the Messiah waiting for some simple human kindness, you will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands, and if the Messiah then chooses not to appear in your time, it will not matter.”

Sarah’s children had not forgotten her.


Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is the co-author of “Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’s Wisdom,” due out this fall from Simon & Schuster.

All rights reserved by author.

Finding Our Place


My daughter and I were driving through Koreatown again. Five years had passed since the first Rodney King verdict, since the riots, since the day we’d first driven these same streets, with their smoldering buildings and the militia standing guard. She noted every new building and every lot that remained vacant.

“It couldn’t all have been about Rodney King,” she said, noticing that the street signs change from Korean to Spanish.

Of course not. At 15, she’s better able to understand the concept of precipitating causes. But if I can explain the lack of justice, jobs and hope that led to the worst rioting in Los Angeles history, I have a harder time clarifying what has happened since. Anger, bitterness and ethnic separation have only increased.

What part has the Jewish community played in all this? For most of us, the riots have become part of the background, soon to be joined by fires, earthquakes and even O.J. We have moved on. Like the jacaranda tree, blooming again this spring, our sense of civic life has returned. A few weeks ago, I joined a crowd at the downtown library to hear a theatrical reading. New members are flooding to Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, even before the new religious school opens on the Westside in the fall. The beauty of Southern California once again seems overpowering, and we are glad to be here.

In the early post-riot days, people spoke casually about two revolutionary ideas: purchasing guns and moving out of town. A kind of wild-west ecstasy overtook us, in which the future was perceived as either siege or isolation. We hatched dark plots for our own salvation. The new movie “Volcano” strikes me as arriving a bit too late to completely capture this barricaded anti-Los Angeles mentality. By now, one natural disaster can’t shake us.

Instead, I am struck these days by how people are settling in. Book clubs and gardening are the big business now. At Passover this year, friends brought over their home-grown irises and roses and debated over which was the more beautiful. Dueling pistils at dawn.

When I consider what has happened to the Jewish community since Los Angeles erupted five years ago, it is the sense of retrenchment, joined by detachment, that I see. We are here to stay, but not many of us are sure what, in the matter of civic activism, our role should be.

Jewish activists took a beating in the post-riot analysis. Though we were not to blame for the riots, and (unlike the Watts fires 27 years before) were not a target of the civic rage, a verbal berating nevertheless came our way. We were criticized for our isolation, arrogance and self-absorption. And, in those first months after April 1992, we redoubled our efforts, joining task forces, building bridges, joining an endless number of coalitions. Still, we were accused of turning inward, and took the blame for the breakdown in the black-Jewish dialogue, as well as for the stillborn connections with Latinos or Asians.

But looking back now, I wonder if we Jews haven’t made ourselves too liable. We cannot create dialogue on our own. We cannot sit alone at a table and concoct jobs or a political agenda where there are no coalitions. So, while certainly we cannot be satisfied with the moribund status of politics, education and civic leadership in this city, it’s time to acknowledge that at least we stayed the course. In times of upheaval, there is value in merely staying put.

I realize that this is not the common interpretation of what’s occurred. Most commentators look at the Jewish demographic shift from the city to Ventura as an escape from Los Angeles. They accuse us of fleeing the riots, racial chaos and municipal disintegration. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, in particular, is even now accused of leaving town, although its membership had left Koreatown a decade before it broke ground on its Westside campus at Olympic and Barrington.

But if the riots were the final straw, we have to see that this westward and northern shift is a statement not of despair but of hope.

I know something about fleeing. When I graduated college, I joined half my class in a move across the country, from the East Coast to the West. Part rebellion, part pioneering effort, that 1970s shift instinctively recognized that New York was finished and that Los Angeles was the true land of opportunity. We left behind our families and history and made haste for something new.

The same motivations do not apply to today’s young families. For one thing, they’re moving only 40 miles away. And if they’re moving out for cheaper housing and better schools, they’re still staying as close to home as they can get.

A young lawyer recently told me that his dream, once he got married, was to buy his grandmother’s home. If he couldn’t afford that, he’d probably do the next best thing and move to Agoura.

Agoura and its booming neighbors, Westlake and Thousand Oaks, are attractive to Jewish couples who want what Los Angeles has to offer — a strong cultural base and a lot of open space. Rather than rejecting their families and their personal histories, they are voting to extend it, putting down roots and staying involved. And they’re bringing Jewish life with them. Heschel West Jewish day school has expanded so fast that it will soon be seeking permanent quarters and plans to build a high school as well.

This move west reminds me of New York after World War II, when the grandparents stayed in the city while young families moved to Long Island and Westchester. It was arguably the healthiest period of Jewish-community development in the 20th century.

Have these Jews opted out of civic life? There is no evidence for it. Jews still dominate the political, cultural and even the economic scene wherever they move. Where there is a board, we are on it. Where there is no leader…as the Talmud said, we are the leaders. Every ethnic group capable of leaving the inner city has done so. Only the Jewish community sees mobility as having a dark side. I am not sure we deserve the rap — not yet.

Los Angeles deserves better than what the past five years have given us. But there is a future here, and we are part of it.


Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address us wvoice@aol.com.

Innocence Lost


— Richard Rodriguez, in the afterword to “Fast Forward”

From top: book cover, Photojournalist Lauren Greenfield; photo from exhibit “Ashleigh, 13, with her friend and parents, Santa Monica.”Signs of the times: At an upscale bar mitzvah party in Santa Monica, 13-year-old boys in “fade” haircuts and baggy suits strike hip-hop poses on the dance floor. Little girls at a San Fernando Valley Jewish preschool report for circle time in midriff tops and lipstick. In Hollywood, a teen-ager acquires a tattoo, a designer backpack and a baby within a year of her arrival here from rural El Salvador. A “soccer mom” at a park in Van Nuys chats blithely about buying her 17-year-old daughter breast implants for her birthday. “This is the real world,” she says in response to my look of disbelief.

Is it? Such stuff is not unique to Los Angeles. But with Hollywood in our collective back yard, we are closest to the flame. The media-stoked hunger for things, the star worship and the drumbeat of MTV seem intensified in Los Angeles. Rappin’ rich kids deck themselves out as faux “gangstas” in sexy store-bought street clothes, and inner-city teens sport WASPY-looking Tommy Hilfiger duds. In the end, the twin grails are youth and celebrity. Too often, it seems the grown-ups don’t grow up. The kids seem jaded long before they hit 18.

In a remarkable new book, “Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood” (Knopf, $35), photojournalist Lauren Greenfield examines the impact of contemporary culture on this city’s children. From Calabasas to Compton, her photographs capture a disparate series of moments: Skyler, 7, wanders aimlessly through the posh, daytime isolation of his parents’ Malibu home. Enrique, the cash-strapped son of a seamstress, pays a limo driver outside his prom date’s South Central bungalow. Phoebe, 3, suffers through the VIP opening of Barney’s department store in Beverly Hills in her tutu. A tagger hurriedly spray-paints his way to notoriety on a Compton bus. At the ritzy Peninsula Hotel, where she lives like a modern-day “Eloise,” 10-year-old Emily poses provocatively in the mirror of the Presidential Suite’s marble bathroom.

What unites these images is the sense that innocence is no longer a possibility. The color-drenched photos evoke the breathless speed referred to in the collection’s title. Greenfield’s young subjects, whether pushed by circumstance or desire, appear to be in a headlong rush toward adulthood, a destination rich with the dangerous promises of sex, money and autonomy. Los Angeles, these pictures tell us in countless ways, is no place for the poky, incremental discoveries of childhood.

Bracketed between essays by Carrie Fisher and Richard Rodriguez, the pictures are accompanied by excerpts from countless conversations the photographer had with her subjects. Greenfield hung out at prom dances and East L.A. crew parties. At one point, she crouched behind a car to dodge gunfire, and, later, she attended a funeral so rife with gang tension that she was compelled to wear a bullet-proof vest.

“This project became an obsession,” she said during a recent interview with The Journal. “I shot over 1,000 rolls of film…and turned down an assignment with National Geographic in order to finish the book.”

Her sensitivity and empathy for her subjects is rewarded by the frankness of the interviews. These kids’ voices abound with blunt wisdom, confusion, swagger and insecurity. They talk with straightforward candor about the world around them.

“You grow up really fast when you grow up in L.A.,” says Mijanou, a former homecoming queen whose image graces the book’s cover. “It’s not cool to be a kid.”

At his bar mitzvah party, Brandon stands next to his mother, who wears a sexy backless dress, her back to the camera. “My mom does embarrass me sometimes when we go somewhere together and she dresses in these outfits,” Brandon says in the accompanying text. “I guess they are in style, but like too in style, too ahead of people knowing they are in style, and they are really embarrassing.”

Greenfield includes several photos of bar mitzvah parties. The Fellini-esque circus atmosphere in these candid pictures documents an excess that would make Philip Roth blush. During one at the Whisky-A-Go-Go, bar mitzvah boy Adam stares goggle-eyed as a go-go dancer thrusts her chest in his face. His expression is a mixture of embarrassment, delight and mild panic. At another, a grotesque Madonna impersonator performs for a giggling boy and his friends. During a bat mitzvah party in the commissary of 20th Century Fox, a trio of young girls gossip breathlessly in the parking lot, their baby fat visible above strapless dresses.

Greenfield, who is Jewish and a native of Los Angeles, wondered aloud about the potential reaction of a general audience to the bar mitzvah pictures.

“I grew up in a community with a lot of Jews, and I’m familiar with these people,” she said. “But as this book goes out into the world, I hope people who live in other places will not view these as stereotypes.”

Her main objective is not to take easy potshots at kids, no matter which side of the tracks they live on.

“If readers sense a critical perspective in my pictures,” she writes in the preface, “it is a criticism of the culture and its values, not the children or parents who adapt to it.”

True enough. Our culture’s obsessions with weight, wealth and fame hound adults as much as they do children. Greenfield’s nonjudgmental approach to the people she encounters is part of the reason “Fast Forward” rises above sensationalism or voyeurism, offering, instead, an unvarnished and challenging look at the consequences of modern values.

But it’s also true that someone ultimately has to take responsibility for minding the store. For rich and poor, the absence of parents — both figuratively and literally –is a leitmotif in “Fast Forward.” A photo of tuxedo-clad “Ari,” 13, standing in his bedroom, under the Playboy girlie posters his mom bought him “because she knows I like that” begs the question: Where have all the grown-ups gone?

“Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood” is available at area bookstores and will be on view through May 27 at the Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Call (213) 937-5525.

Strumming, Fiddling at the Skirball


What is there about klezmer music that sends feet flying and excitement levels of certain Jewish audiences soaring? Nostalgia for the past or a just-found fondness for a “new” music”? Whatever it is, when the klezmer band struck up a “Freylach,” almost instantly, a woman in a red baseball cap jumped to her feet, raised her arms to the sky and began bouncing joyfully to the music. She was quickly joined by someone in a jaunty straw hat and a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Danceaholic.” Soon, there was an impromptu circle of happy bouncers — young and old — stepping lively under the warm California sun.

So began “KlezFest at the Skirball,” a celebration of klezmer music and its role in Yiddish culture. The event, which took place on Sunday, April 13, in the courtyard of the Skirball Cultural Center, attracted some 250 participants, from octogenarians to 8-year-olds.

I was there with my husband and teen-age son, instruments in tow. Bernie, my husband and the trumpetmeister, has long been a mainstay of our synagogue’s official band, Close Enough for Klezmer. Jeffrey, our son, who plays classical and jazz clarinet, is also a Klezmer wannabe. Over the last decade, this home-grown band has brought its members both inspiration and aggravation, but, musically, it has grown a bit stale. So six band cronies (and their offspring) showed up at KlezFest, looking for new ideas.

Other folks had other agendas. Nancy Carroll, who’s taking a Yiddish-literature class at Los Angeles Valley College, signed on for KlezFest because this “is a perfect illustration of what we’re studying.”

Joyce Hart, raised in a Yiddish-speaking household in Canada, is so passionate about the mamaloshen that she used to make weekly treks to Fairfax just to listen to people speak. KlezFest enabled her to sing in Yiddish, hear talks on Yiddish folklore, and applaud Yiddish-theater songs belted out in the style of Second Avenue.

A young man named Richard, who’s getting married in September, came to KlezFest in search of hints on how to integrate his Eastern European Jewish heritage into an American Jewish wedding. The fact that the day was to climax in a mock wedding ceremony made KlezFest, for Richard, the place to be.

One especially distinctive presence was that of Joy Krauthammer, dressed in flowing purple and chains of silver amulets. She proudly displayed the large African buffalo-skin drum she’d adorned with ribbons and snapshots of past mentors, including “my number one teacher in the world, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.” In attending the KlezFest-sponsored concert at the Wadsworth Theatre, Krauthammer had found an excitement that bordered on the spiritual: “I was doing Shabbos at the concert.” Now she was primed to learn how to bring her African and Middle Eastern percussion skills into the Klezmer idiom.

While the Yiddish-culture enthusiasts enjoyed lectures and a dance workshop, the 50 aspiring klezmorim present were sent off for in-depth master classes with members of The Klezmatics and Klazzj. These professionals gave solid and specific advice. Violinists were told to forgo vibrato, and got tips on how to incorporate that distinctive klezmer “sob” into their sound. Brass players were initiated into the mysteries of the Freygish Scale. There was a special section for accordionists and (high on the hill above the Skirball) one for wailing klezmer clarinets. Guitarists joined forces with a classical mandolin player and the owner of a Turkish oud to learn about plucking and strumming, klezmer-style.

After lunch, the instrumentalists were melded into ensembles for some ad hoc music-making. Close Enough for Klezmer found itself in a basement room, where a maven from The Klezmatics gave pointers on how to rearrange an old tune from the repertoire for maximum impact.

Nor was energy in short supply in the courtyard, where the promised wedding procession was about to start. The KlezFest organizers had supplied 12-foot puppets representing a giant-sized khosn (groom) and kalle (bride). There was also a billowing chuppah, made by the children in a crafts workshop while their elders strummed and fiddled. A long-bearded shtetl rabbi dramatically read off the items the groom had promised his chosen one — 200 silver zuzim, feather pillows, a brass bed and a Stairmaster. After the groom, his huge fingers fluttering anxiously, lifted the veil from his shy bride’s punim, KlezFest participants of all ages joined the celebration by waving multicolored banners and dancing along to the strains of the very haimish Ellis Island Band.

At last, happily sated with Yiddishkayt, the participants drifted out to the parking lots and back to their Southern California lives.

As for Close Enough for Klezmer, its members were blissfully close to overload. So much music, so little time.


Beverly Gray writes about education for The Jewish

Journal from Santa Monica.

All rights reserved by author.