Author Chava Tombosky and her husband, Rabbi Robbie Tombosky.

Meant2Be: Diva disorder


The first time I learned my husband, Robbie, has super powers was the day I revealed my ugliest side. We were apartment hunting in New York City, where we would spend our first year of marriage together, and I came with dangerously absurd expectations.

The good news was we found a beautiful one-bedroom apartment with hardwood parquet floors and 12-foot ceilings surrounded by crown molding. The bad news was that it came with a bathroom that was Pepto-Bismol pink. I really hated the thought of applying makeup as the fluorescent lights glared a Barbie halo around my face, making my skin the color of Miss Piggy. 

The fact that the apartment was situated down the block from a corner where hookers and alcoholics congregated didn’t bother me at all — that seemed “cultural,” part of the New York scene. However, I wasn’t about to move into a fifth-floor Brooklyn apartment that had one door with 18 locks and no bars on the windows. I didn’t care if they cost a thousand dollars; that was just the price you paid for living in New York.

Robbie really needed to get with the program on that. Apparently he thought that was “ridiculous.” I can still remember having my first temper tantrum at the carpet store over the issue after Robbie learned window bars were going to cost him as much as my diamond ring (we were engaged at the time). 

But there was more. The master bedroom had beautiful hardwood flooring, but New York gets cold in the winter and I felt it would be prudent to buy carpeting for our rented apartment, even though we were planning to live there for less than a year. My bubbe warned me every time I spoke with her on the phone to keep warm, lest I catch cold. 

So Robbie and I spent hours looking at different kinds of carpet colors and carpet textures. Finally, we agreed on a beautiful hunter green carpet, middle grade, plush enough to leave vacuum lines, but not overly plush to make messy foot prints if you stepped on it. 

The carpet salesman then asked us the one question that led to my ultimate downfall: “Would you like wall-to-wall carpet or the less expensive option, a carpet remnant?” To which Robbie and I replied simultaneously:

“Wall to wall.”

“A remnant is just fine.”

I looked at him like he was an alien who just fell out of space and had no idea how real humans lived. He wanted a remnant? A sloppy remnant which would move around the room and cause our bedroom furniture to slide all over, and crease the carpet, causing a large lump to form in the middle, which I might trip on in the middle of the night when I got up for the umpteenth time to pee because we drank too many milkshakes, since New York had the best ice cream shakes of all time?  That remnant? 

What sort of man was I marrying? Was he a crazy person who did weird things like squeeze almonds to make milk or drink herbal tea to kick a perfectly appropriate overpriced Starbucks habit? Who buys a remnant of carpet … even if we could possibly take it with us when we moved, which would probably be before the sunrise of our first anniversary? Who does such practical things? Who?

Who doesn’t lay down wall-to-wall green beautifulness in a brand new palatial Brooklyn apartment … even if that apartment happens to be attached to a very scary and ancient elevator, which led to the Nightmare on Elm Street basement that had three washing machines for an eight-story building?  For God sakes!  A remnant?

One week after our wedding, we drove from my husband’s hometown of Pittsburgh to our new apartment. Along the way, I thought about that ugly pink bathroom, the 8-by-12 carpet remnant that I’d have to pull flat every time I opened the closet door, and all the unpacking and cleaning that lay ahead.

After eight hours of driving to our brand new home, I walked into my apartment and nearly passed out in shock. A large banner hung in the dining room that read, “Welcome home my beautiful wife, Chava!” The bathroom had been painted white, bars were on the windows, the apartment was magnificent and sparkling clean, and the master bedroom had wall-to-wall green carpeting.

We stayed in that apartment for nine months. I added Spoiled-Brat-Diva to my last name and knew I had truly married a superhuman.

Dedicated in memory of the real St. Valentine — Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz — the ultimate love guru.

Chava Tombosky is an executive producer and a director at Deer-Vision Motion Pictures, a recording artist and an ongoing writer for The Huffington Post and for her blog, “Thelma & Louise,” which can be read at jewishjournal.com.

Do you have a story about dating, marriage, singlehood or any important relationship in your life? Email us at meant2be@jewishjournal.com.

Meant2Be: A match made in temple


Some people claim to hear angels sing the first time they meet their bashert. In my case, it was more like the theme to “The Twilight Zone.”

I was sitting in my usual spot at temple at the time, alone at the very back of the intimate, Midwestern sanctuary. I liked it that way during services — isolated, focused on prayer and my own thoughts.

Then she walked in. Long brown hair, a New Yorker’s confident strut and — unlike just about everyone else in the room — a birth date after the Johnson administration. As luck would have it, she also was five minutes late, so she quietly took a seat next to me.

The rest of services were a blur as my eyes kept creeping in the direction of the newcomer. Forget about introspection; I was more concerned with figuring out who this outsider was. When, at the service’s conclusion, she was identified to the congregation as our new cantor who would be starting the following week, I decided to introduce myself.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Ryan.”

“Ryan Smith?” she responded.

Cue the freaky, horror movie music. Or alarm bells. Something wasn’t right.

She grinned knowingly. All I knew was that I was in trouble.

To find out the rest of the story, I invited her out to dinner. Her words were anything but sweet nothings. Instead, the true tale of how fate — or rather, an extremely enthusiastic congregant — brought us together, was enough to keep me up at night.

It turned out that my future wife’s job interview had more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. It started when the temple Brotherhood president (who happened to be my former religious school teacher) met her before her audition.

“Are you single?” he asked.

She hesitated, then answered: “Yes.”

“Have you met Ryan Smith?”

So much for idle chit chat — and it got worse.

“You two would make beautiful babies,” he said. “Hey Steve, don’t you think she and Ryan Smith would make beautiful babies?”

With an introduction like that, how could you not be interested in dating someone? And yet, with those words, a series of events were set in motion that made our pairing inevitable.

Maybe our happy union would have happened anyway, but I was never any good at dating, and my friends — not to mention my mom — all will admit that I could use some help. So it’s probably good that I had a whole community looking out for me.

This wasn’t the first time my shul had tried to come to my aid. There was the mensch of a temple president who, after Yom Kippur morning services one year, offered me two tickets to a gala for that very evening — then suggested that I take his niece. (I declined, explaining that I was busy … attending Neilah.)

Now, there were others who asked the same question as my friend, the Brotherhood president: “So, cantor, have you met the only other congregant under the age of 30 — or 65, for that matter?” (An exaggeration, perhaps, but only a slight one.)

And when my future wife was hospitalized shortly after starting the job — which she accepted despite (or was it because of?) the awkward offer of beautiful children — another temple leader called me and asked that I be the community’s emissary to visit with her. You know, in her time of need. Wink, wink.

I could thank God every day for the privilege of waking up next to a beautiful, talented, amazing woman. Or I could thank Ross and Mel and Audrey and everyone else who conspired to bring us together.

They saw beyond our differences with typical Jewish stubbornness, envisioning the miracle of a union between a Prius-driving, Broadway-loving vegetarian hippie from Manhattan who had never seen “The Godfather,” and a “Terminator”-watching, carné-craving, sports fanatic from Ohio who couldn’t hum a single chord from “A Chorus Line.”

To these haimish souls, we were perfect for each other, and not just because we were young and single and there was no one else. They got to know us as family, from the very start, and family looks after family. They invited me — a young single man living away from his parents — into their homes for Shabbat, for holiday meals, for movies. They sought out the new cantor not just for her counsel but for her companionship.

When we finally became the match they knew we could be, it made them all so happy. Truly happy — because it made them more complete, more joyous. Talk about a caring community.

And, for the record, they ultimately were right: We did make beautiful babies.


Ryan E. Smith, managing editor of the Jewish Journal, is married to Cantor Jen Roher. They are the parents of two beautiful children, Elijah and Gabriel.

Dating 101: Snakes & iTunes


My dating life is interesting. By interesting, of course I mean slightly more pathetic than interesting, but still interesting. I truly have to laugh at the absurd things that happen to me, otherwise I would cry. Cry and scream. Cry and scream and adopt a cat. By cat of course I mean a dozen cats, two dogs, and perhaps a parrot. One I could train to laugh every time I said “I have a date”.  I am good at a lot of things, but detecting crazy in men is not one of them. I suppose in the big scheme of things this is not a terrible gift to be saddled with, but some days the inability to see exactly how insane a man is exhausts and depresses me.

I was chatting on Match with a man from Beverly Hills. He works in mining, was sweet, and if you took out one contact lens and squinted with your other eye, looked a little bit like Kelsey Grammer. We were texting back and forth as I am in London, and made plans to go out when I get back. He asked me to tell him something interesting about myself every day that I was in London. Seemed like a cute thing to do. I told him I was Canadian and had a Canadian flag tattoo. He told me that he had a very large penis, that he refers to as “snake”, and you can see it even when he is wearing a suit. You can’t make this stuff up people.

I marveled that of all the things he could have told me as we did the dance of introduction, he opted to tell about his genitals. I told him I thought it a was strange and disrespectful choice. He told me he meant no disrespect and was simply sharing. I reiterated it was offensive, and he told me I had no sense of humor, sent him mixed messages, and should “fuck off and die”. He then proceeded to tell me I would remain alone because I hated men. Dear Lord. I don’t think I hate anything, other than Donald Trump as President, so his outburst was hilarious. The snake charmer was anything but charming and I was in shock.

He was texting nonstop, then started to talk about my son, who he knows nothing about. Well that’s no fun, so I blocked him on my phone, blocked him on Match, and sent them a screen shot of his text telling me to die. This is a guy who has put his picture online, given me his phone number, then threatened me, all because I told him it was disrespectful to talk about his penis with a stranger. His name is David and he’s 48 years old with glasses, so if anyone comes across him run because he is unstable and dangerous, with or without his snake. As of this morning Match had not suspended him. Dating is strange to be sure, but this is terrifying.

Cut to James, also from Match, who also happens to do something with mining. He is originally from Brazil, and is looking for love after having his heart broken. We exchanged a few emails, then exchanged phone numbers and started to text rather than call as I am in London. He wrote to say he was going to Boston and would let me know when he had arrived. He did as he said he would, and when I asked him how it was going, he told me he got an iPhone. I am a diehard Apple person, so I congratulated him on stepping into the light. I asked what he was up to on a Sunday in Boston, and he told me he was downloading an app he needed for work.

He then told me he did not have his credit card and could I buy him an iTunes card and send it to him by email. Really? Yes. Really. I’m not sure how he bought the phone since he said he left his credit card at home, but I’m guessing details are not important to James. Details or the truth. When I told him he was insane to think I would send him anything, he stopped writing. Not a word since I said he was creepy and I would report him to Match. It makes me sad because there are women who will fall for things like this and in an attempt to not be lonely or feel desired, will buy into this type of scam. James should be arrested, not dating.

Cut to today, when James wrote to tell me I misunderstood him and he expected more from me. He doesn’t know me, so I’m not exactly sure what exactly he was expecting, or what was disappointing. He said he wasn’t asking for money, just asking for an iTunes card to get some apps, for his work, so he could give a great presentation. He said he has a daughter, and friends, and a boss, and family, so why ask a woman he does not know? This is insanity and makes me sad for people who are dating from a place of deep loneliness, as I am sure money is being sent and snake selfies are being taken. It is very sad and frightening.

I looked this morning and the profiles for both James and David are now hidden from the Match website. I am not sure if that was done by them or Match, but they should be looked at more closely. These men are predators and ruin it for others who are online genuinely trying to meet someone. I invite Match to get in touch with me at angel@jewishjournal.com and I will give them the details of these two loser who are polluting their website and good work. Dating is scary in general, but when you do it online, there are risks involved that perhaps women don’t think about. It can be creepy, but if you want to find someone, a necessary evil.

I date not because I love to date, because who would love something so revolting? I date because I would like to share my life with someone, and dating is how I will meet that person. I am hopeful, which is truly the most important thing to have when dating, because without hope you’ve got no shot in hell of ever meeting anyone. Please just be careful out there, and I don’t just mean the ladies. There are women online who are scamming people just as often as men. Do not send anyone any money, do not tell anyone where you live, meet in a public place, and don’t let anyone pick you up at home. You cannot be too careful.

It is sometimes hard to trust people you know, let alone strangers, but you really must try to be aware. If you come across people you sense are dangerous, tell someone. Write to the dating site you are using and tell them. You owe it to yourself, and also to the other people who will innocently stumble across these people. If you’re wrong and they are not dangerous, just crazy, still better to have said something than to be quiet. James and David are bumps in the road and I will not be scared off by a couple of idiots. I will be cautious and I will be brave because my bashert is out there and he is keeping the faith.

Meant2Be: Smitten with Judaism


“Honey, I think I might be Jewish.”

Letting these words hang in the air, I opened my eyes and looked at my husband, Adam. His dark eyebrows were up as far as they could go, and he was giving me a bemused sort of smile that I’d seen from him often. It was a chilly, late November night in 2013, and I already had all of our Christmas decorations up, strings of multicolored lights twinkling peacefully on our fake tree. 

Adam and I had met in 2008, the old fashioned way. You know: Girl decides she wants to learn kung fu and tries a class at her local martial arts studio. Girl is tragically uncoordinated and decides to give up … until boy walks in to teach the next class and gives her a sly, flirtatious smile. Girl is hooked. A few months later, love becomes reality (and, eventually, so does a black belt).

On the night I made my sort-of statement of faith, we’d been happily married for four years. We had recently decided to start trying to have kids, and there had been many discussions about wanting to raise those kids with a strong religious foundation. But what religion? We felt as though we didn’t quite fit in with the traditions in which we’d been raised — Catholic for me, vaguely Christian for him. 

At the time, I’d been working as a pianist for more than two years at Temple Ahavat Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Northridge. This amazing community is full of people who made me think to myself, “I don’t know what it is about these people, but I want to be like them. I want to be a part of it.” I soon figured out that “it” was being Jewish. 

I also spent two years working for the acclaimed Israeli film, television and concert composer Sharon Farber, who introduced me to the world of Jewish music, culture, values and faith. Eventually, I heard this still, small voice deep within me whispering that I, too, had stood at the foot of Sinai, that my soul was Jewish, even if I hadn’t realized it. 

I had fallen head over heels for Judaism. 

God bless the incredible man I married. Adam took my revelation in stride, and said he would think about the possibility of us both converting and raising our future children in the Jewish faith. He took a year to read the Tanakh, and bought every book about Judaism he could get his hands on. (This is a man who doesn’t even buy a sweater until he has researched it thoroughly and read all the reviews on Amazon.) 

A year later — three months after our son was born — he returned with his answer: He had found deep meaning, spiritual fulfillment and powerful resonance in the teachings and values of Judaism. He was ready to commit to converting. And when my husband is ready for something, he’s ready (he proposed to me after we’d been dating for only three months, after all). 

As we went on the journey of converting together, it was like we were discovering each other all over again. It’s a uniquely challenging and joyful experience to convert to Judaism as an adult, and most of the people in our Miller Introduction to Judaism class at American Jewish University already had a Jewish partner to help guide them. 

Together we made mistakes, pronounced things incorrectly, discovered there is dairy hidden in all kinds of foods you wouldn’t expect, stumbled over Hebrew, and navigated how we would tell our parents and families about our decision. We chose Hebrew names, and I took a dunk in the mikveh with our nearly 2-year-old son when I was almost nine months pregnant with our daughter. 

We shopped online for Judaica that most Jews are given as bar or bat mitzvah presents, or get handed down to them. Adam ordered a beautiful wool tallit from Israel and our rabbi took him to get a set of tefillin, celebrated afterward by sampling traditional Israeli food for the first time. For my birthday this past summer, Adam gifted me with my own handmade silk tallit. 

The process of “becoming” Jewish strengthened our bond as a couple in ways I hadn’t anticipated, deepening our understanding of each other’s inner lives and external goals. Little by little, we’ve incorporated more Judaism into our daily routine. We still haven’t figured out how to keep kosher in the comically tiny kitchen of a house built in 1947, but we’re getting there. 

Thanks to a super supportive family, who all gathered around us for our daughter’s simchat bat (celebration of the daughter) ceremony after she was born in August, and our family of friends from our temple and the Miller program, we are so proud and happy to be Jews by Choice. 

Will life give us more surprises as my dear husband and I continue on our journey together? Probably none as big as the bomb I dropped on him three years ago. And yet … I do enjoy keeping him on his toes. 


Christy Carew Marshall is a composer for film, television, advertising and the concert world. She’s a devoted wife, happy mom of two gorgeous children and proud Jew by Choice.


Do you have a story about dating, marriage, singlehood or any important relationship in your life? Email us at meant2be@jewishjournal.com.

Meant2Be: Wud den? (What then?)


A five-pound bag of Peruvian seabird guano sits on my computer desk. I’ve wrapped it with a big, red bow. It’s the best fertilizer there is, second only to bat guano, which is twice as expensive and almost impossible to find. 

Along with a new dog leash, the gull and pelican droppings are the gift I’m giving to my husband for his 75th birthday. The leash is for Sheyna, his golden retriever, whom he grooms and cleans like a baby. I’ve fooled my husband into thinking Sheyna is an Irish name, but I know it’s Jewish. Which I am and he isn’t. 

The guano is for his vegetable garden. Whatever he plants, blooms. Everything responds to his touch. He makes the world beautiful with his hands. 

To celebrate, he’s chosen the (now closed) Villa Italia, a greasy Italian restaurant. He wants to eat there out of nostalgia. Years ago, we had “our booth” and went there on Saturday nights. He had a going flirtation with our regular waitress — Eva. All that remains of Eva is “Eva’s Special,” a pizza smothered in fatty sausage. 

Tonight, the dinner is terrible. The salad is not young and my steamed vegetables are cold. The waiter is beyond rude, and when I tell him to take back the sad carrots and zucchini, he refuses. I now hate Villa Italia, but our adult children are celebrating with us and my husband is having a ball, so I don’t complain any further. 

I feel like my spaceship has landed on the wrong planet. This can’t be my life. But it is. 

When they bring our tiramisu desserts, staff members come out and sing “Happy Birthday to You” to my husband. He beams and I forgive them for everything. The whole place joins in the song and our dinner ends on a festive note. 

Soon, we’re home. My husband loves the guano and the leash. I didn’t have time to get him a card, so I quickly jot down whatever thoughts come into my head. 

I met him when he was 33. He was a beautiful man then. Now his skin sags and his backside looks like the face of one of those perpetually sad, wrinkled pedigree dogs: a Shar-Pei. He’s almost deaf but refuses to wear a hearing aid. When I complain, he says it’s my fault because I’m mumbling. In those moments, I’d like to bash him over his hard head with my favorite cast-iron frying pan. 

He’s always worked with his hands and, although he’s never made any real money, is content with little. I am not. I’m a former princess of the royal Schlanger clan from Manhattan’s Sutton Place. We had a 24-hour doorman and a view of the East River. I expected more from life than our little suburban house, our little life, and do blame myself, but more often, blame him.

He reads my birthday note. It took me less than five minutes to write. I barely thought about what I was saying because my mind was elsewhere. He reads it very slowly and is then silent. His shoulders shake, he covers his face with his hands and — he is crying. 

I see tears slide down his cheeks and I am shocked. He’s from Texas and has a pure cowboy ethos. I’ve seen him weep only twice in our 40 years — once when his father died and when we were hippies and I slept with his best friend. 

I never wanted to marry him in the first place, but whenever we were apart I discovered I couldn’t live without him. Our children are wide-eyed. They have never seen their father cry. My daughter takes the note from his hand and reads it out loud: 

Dearest, every night when I go to bed and feel your warm body next to mine, I am content — there is nothing sweeter on this earth. I will always love you and in your eyes, I see the strapping young god you were in those thrilling days of yesteryear. You are my hero. Stay with us another 75 years.

As I watch my husband carefully fold the ordinary piece of Staples copier paper that I’ve written on as if it is a sacred parchment, I know that he loves me and my returning that love means everything to him.

Things in life I have not been given: a private jet, a walk-in closet, live-in help, a flat stomach, an Academy Award, a hit series based on my best-selling novel and starring me. 

Things in life I have been given: a husband who totally loves me and whom I love. 

I throw my arms around him and kiss his craggy face. My children watch, knowing that their parents love each other; that outweighs whatever neurotic, foolish mistakes we made in their upbringing. My husband wipes away his tears with the cloth he uses to clean his computer screen. He pats Sheyna, picks up the guano and goes outside to fertilize his tomatoes. 

Wud den? Could it be any other way?


Carol Schlanger is a working actress, storyteller and artist-in-residence for the Jewish Women’s Theatre. Her memoir, “Far Out,” has been optioned for television.

Want to submit your own Meant2Be story? Send an email to meant2be@jewishjournal.com.

Meant2Be: Why we both cried over his first love


When I first met my husband, we were both in our 40s and full of stories of the lost and found loves that preceded finding each other. I was mostly the one with the found loves; his were mostly the lost. When he told me the woeful tales of the women who hadn’t noticed him, who didn’t want him, who ditched or disappointed him, I told him he needed a new PR department. From my perspective, he was wickedly smart, handsome, had a gap-toothed smile that telegraphed how incredibly genuine and sweet he was. And come on, he was a successful doctor.  

Eventually, the sad stories stopped. Only one remained, the one about Peggy Buckley, the Irish Catholic girl he met in college who was the single exception to his roll call of disastrous romantic life. Theirs was a mighty attraction and they would have married but the pope said ‘no.’ So did the rabbi, Peggy’s parents and my husband’s parents. 

I, too, had my share of romantic woes. I’d loved and lost, loved and won, loved and checkmated but the good news was he and I … oh, never mind!

Eleven years ago, we’d been married for a decade, and my husband popped into the kitchen and said brightly (a little too brightly), ‘Today is Peggy’s birthday!’ ”

 “Why don’t you find her?” I said, thinking that talking to Peggy again might give him some closure. Thus he dutifully contacted her college alumna association and placed a call to her in Boston. 

“So, did talking to Peggy help?” I asked after the hour they spoke. 

“Yes!” He was jazzed. 

I didn’t say, “Maybe now you can concentrate on how much you love me?”

A few weeks later, he was asked to fly to Boston on a business trip. He made a reservation for two at the best restaurant in Boston. 

He called later and told me he sat at the bar and spotted a beautiful young woman with short, dark hair who looked exactly like Peggy. It was only after awhile in this dreamy state that a middle-aged woman tapped him briskly on the shoulder and said, “Hey! Didn’t you see me walking back and forth?” 

He finally got to talk to Peggy about those days of confusion and longing. He asked if she ever came to enjoy sex. If she thought about him, and all the questions we’d like to ask our old flames who’ve left skid marks on our souls. 

After dinner, they took a walk. Peggy had married a Jewish man, after all. Apparently, she was over my husband and also over the pope.

At last, mystery had a face and the face had wrinkles, 30 extra pounds and unbecoming shoes. Five more years passed. Cut to Thanksgiving 2012. 

We were hanging around the house. My husband had never learned to use Facebook, so I showed him how to search for friends. Naturally, he looked up Peggy Buckley. 

A screen appeared with a year-old article about her from The Boston Globe. My husband stared ahead in stony silence. It took me a minute to understand why: We were reading Peggy’s obituary. It spoke of her extraordinarily loving heart and her service to her community. She clearly was a terrific woman. Now, that beautiful, if unwilling girl, was gone. 

But in an instant, she became newly alive to my husband. The mourning began. He was crying. He talked to a therapist. He emailed old friends. He retold the Peggy stories and included some I’d never heard. When he said, ‘This is ridiculous, she wasn’t in my life. Why am I so upset?” I told him the truth: She’d always be in his life; she was an important figure to him. It moved me to see the depth of heart he was capable of. 

But then, I realized I wasn’t doing very well myself. What could the loss possibly be to me? I couldn’t concentrate, became withdrawn, then I, too, began to weep. That really made no sense. Peggy was his youth, his frustration, his football games. Peggy was his story.

I realized that in a life littered with despicable prom dates, disinterested coeds and haughty nurses, Peggy was the first person who truly got him, got his humor, his shyness, his slightly offbeat ways. I was grateful to her for loving him.

Meanwhile, he was walking around the house singing, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” … specifically the line that goes: “But I always thought that I’d see you, baby, one more time again … ”

Finally, it came to me; on a soul level, Peggy was a kind of sister to me. She made a lonely college kid happy; she centered him, helped make him real in his skin. I was bereft because I’d lost a “sister wife” who I’d never have the chance to meet. This was my loss, my Peggy Buckley story. We two were the women who saw the magic in this person who needed our love and who loved us both. 

Thank you, dear Peggy. Rest in peace. 


Barbara Bottner is the author of more than 45 books for children (some she illustrated), has had short stories published in national magazines and articles appear in the LA Weekly and Miami Herald, and has written for television.

This column is part of our new series, Meant2Be, stories of love and relationships. Do you have a story about dating, marriage, singlehood or any important relationship in your life? Email us at meant2be@jewishjournal.com.

How two survivors found romance


In a way, their relationship began like so many others: a workplace romance.

Gabriella Karin, 85, was a docent at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH); Robert Geminder, 80, who goes by Bob, was on the museum’s board of directors.

His wife, Judy, died four years ago. Her husband, Ofer, passed away two years later. Neither one expected to love romantically again, but both seemed to understand that their long and fruitful marriages marked them as romantics.

“Is the pope Catholic?” Bob said. “I didn’t stay married for 52 years and she didn’t stay married for 64 years for no reason.”

Both are Holocaust survivors, deeply committed these days to a post-retirement career transmitting their stories to young people.

“We were trying to make menschin [upright citizens] out of young people,” he told the Jewish Journal. “We spoke in schools all the time — I did, Gabriella did — way before we even knew we existed.”

On Feb. 17, they’ll celebrate their first anniversary as a couple, on a speaking tour in Baltimore.

It started innocently. The two have known about each other for half a decade. They got to know each other a little better on the March of the Living, the annual youth pilgrimage to Poland and Israel, listening to the other’s stories of surviving the war.

(Both of their life stories have been recorded by Jane Ulman in the Journal’s Survivor series and can be read in full at jewishjournal.com/survivor.)

Soon, they began to notice each other at LAMOTH events they both attended.

“He asked me to save a place next to me when we went to some meeting, so I saved a place,” Gabriella explained. “Next time, he saved a place.”

Then came the act of fate.

At the 2014 annual LAMOTH Chanukah party, E. Randol Schoenberg, then the chair of the museum’s board, persuaded Gabriella to buy a raffle ticket. Sure enough, she won: two tickets to an opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.

“I sit down with the ticket, and I ask him, ‘You want to go with me?’ ” she said. “He said, ‘Let me see.’ So he looks in his phone. ‘Yeah, I have time this day. Good!’ So he says, ‘OK, you have tickets, I’m taking you out to dinner.’ ”

The dinner at Bottega Louie on Grand Avenue was the first in a series of dinner dates leading up to Feb. 17, the day of their first kiss.

Since then, they’ve been visiting each other a couple of times a week or on the weekends. Mostly, he drives to her place from his home in Palos Verdes — where he walks his dog past the golf course he says is too expensive to play on but nice to look at.

She lives in the Fairfax neighborhood, close to LAMOTH’s home in Pan Pacific Park on Beverly Boulevard. They have no plans to move in together, instead cherishing the space and time they each need for their busy lives: “It’s great this way,” she said.

Last year, they traveled as a couple to Poland and Israel with the March of the Living youth trip, and they are going back in May for this year’s pilgrimage. They intend to go a week early, so each can tour the areas where the other rode out World War II.

Over a recent Saturday lunch, each waited patiently while the other dutifully shared stories of the Holocaust. Each has done this umpteen times.

Bob clammed up and stared fixedly at his lap while Gabriella told her story. She recounted in soft, accented English how she hid first in a convent and then in a one-bedroom apartment in Slovakia with her mother, father, aunt, two uncles and two family friends — across the street from the regional Gestapo headquarters, miraculously escaping notice.

While the Nazis and their collaborators thinned the ranks of Bratislava’s Jews, Gabriella watched her mother commit acts of daring for the Slovakian underground, accompanying her to warn Jewish families when their names appeared on deportation lists.

Bob cautions against drawing parallels between survivor stories, saying that each is unique.

But he also played eyewitness to his mother’s intuition and courage that mark her as the hero of his story. She sneaked him out of the ghetto on the way to work by hiding him under her skirt, while his brother scampered underneath her girlfriend’s skirt.

“Nobody saw that there were a couple of extra feet under the skirts,” he said.

Another parallel emerges: In both stories, a young couple proves a pivotal agent of survival.

The cramped one-bedroom apartment where Gabriella quietly hid for nine months belonged to her aunt’s boyfriend, Karol Blanar, a young lawyer whom she later successfully nominated to receive Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations award. Blanar brought food for the family and books for Gabriella to read so she wouldn’t fall behind in her education.

For Bob, it was a man who his widowed mother met in the ghetto who proved integral to arranging a place to stay in occupied Warsaw. Emil Brotfeld would later become Bob’s stepfather when he married Bob’s mother at a displaced persons camp in West Germany after the war.

Neither Bob nor Gabriella put much stock in the idea of fate, or in things turning out as they were somehow meant to.

Bob prefers instead to refer to luck: It was luck, he says, that resulted in his being at the back of the crowd at the Jewish cemetery in Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine) during the Nazi mass murder of Oct. 12, 1941. If he had been in the front, he might have been among the 14,000 who were assassinated, rather than the 6,000 who lived.

“We were in the first trucks — who knows why?” he said. “It’s not that we were smart to get on the first few trucks — we were pushed on.”

Bob is the talkative one of the two. Gabriella chimes in intermittently to add a detail or to gently correct him, and he treats her graciously.

“I never want to take more time than Gabriella,” he said. “When we speak together, she always gets the extra two minutes.”

“He’s just polite,” she said.

Bob has a curious habit of interspersing his survivor story with jokes. Describing how he scavenged raw eggs to survive while stowed away at a farm near Krakow, he pointed to his full head of hair that, despite his age, has not thinned out.

“Usually at this point I try to find a guy in the audience who’s bald-headed and say ‘See? Raw eggs,’” he said.

He doesn’t joke around to make light of his story, but rather to make it easier for his listeners to stay tuned in.

“It’s such a tense, terrible story for both of us,” he said, before launching back into the recollection. “Not that I want to add humor — I just want to add relief, so people can breathe and listen again.”

If he’s the funny one, she’s the creative one.

Gabriella had a career as a fashion designer before turning to sculpture and illustration, focusing her artwork on themes related to the Holocaust. (Her work can be found at gabriellakarin.com.) She dressed for lunch in a gossamer blue blouse with matching pants and a necklace of her own making.

The two are not affectionate in public, but Bob seems to enjoy doting on her. When somebody set down a bowl of strawberries in front of the two, he turned to Gabriella.

“You don’t want any of these, I know,” he said.

“I’m allergic to strawberries,” she explained.

Later, he tried to pick the marzipan truffle from a box of chocolates to share with Gabriella but picked the caramel one instead.

“That’s not marzipan, Gabriella, I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ll put this one back. I didn’t eat it.”

On the second try, he successfully picked the sweet and split it with her.

Gabriella and Bob don’t exactly buy into the idea of a soul mate. But others who know them aren’t so skeptical.

Samara Hutman, executive director of LAMOTH, waxes poetic when talking about the new couple. She played a key role in their introduction.

“My mother always taught me there’s a lid for every pot,” she told the Journal. “They’re just the perfect lid for each other’s pot — just a perfect fit.”

She admits to getting a little warm and fuzzy about Gabriella and Bob’s relationship. For her, it speaks to the possibility of a second chance at love. But on a personal level, she’s proud of the museum’s role in bringing them together.

“Every time I see them together, my heart smiles like I’m an old lady, like they’re my kids,” she said.

In fact, Hutman was the architect of the raffle that first brought them together for dinner. (“Everything’s better with a raffle,” she said.)

She had known Gabriella for years, because Gabriella got involved with Hutman’s Righteous Conversations project, now under the LAMOTH umbrella, which brings together young people and survivors.

She remembers watching Gabriella care for her late husband when he took ill, after he had for years enthusiastically supported her work as a survivor-storyteller.

“He was as excited about her second career as she was, and when I would go there to visit, he would always give me a flower and a smile,” Hutman recalled. “He was just one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known; their relationship was just so beautiful.”

Hutman hadn’t known Bob all that well until he offered to drive her to the airport on her way to Jerusalem for work.

During that car ride, he unburdened himself to her about how his five-decade marriage had left him a student of loving devotion toward “a really special person,” and to keep her eye out in case she might come across such a person.

“He was kind of putting his soul out to the universe, to me on this drive,” she said.

Hutman is careful not to take too much credit for the relationship. But she said LAMOTH provides a loving community built around Holocaust education that contributed to their meeting. She wouldn’t say if she’s heard of other couples that have met through the museum.

“Are you asking if we’re running a dating service at LAMOTH?” she joked. “I’m not at liberty to say.”

Bob and Gabriella emphasize it was their shared mission of education, of teaching kids about resilience and respect for their fellow humans, that first bound them to each other.

A retired electrical engineer, Bob earned his teaching credential at the age of 70 and now teaches math as a substitute in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He recalled a moment when a student in his math class at a southeast L.A. high school told him he’d heard Bob’s story before in another classroom.

“He’s sitting in class, and he shows me a picture of he and I two years ago,” Bob said. “Do you think he’s going to remember algebra?”

When the lunch wound down, Bob stepped outside and escorted Gabriella to his car, a silver 2016 Corvette Stingray with the dealer plates still on.

“A present to myself for my 80th birthday,” he said.

Bob held the door as Gabriella slid into the passenger seat of the two-door convertible. They waved and then, with a roar of the engine, tore off under a cloudless Los Angeles sky.

A grand love, in life and thereafter


My husband came into my life like a sun and showered me with a golden light I had not known before. The moment we met, we recognized each other and without wasting too many precious moments, reunited after a much-too-long hiatus. Of course, I knew when we started that our time together would be too short no matter what: Truthfully, infinity by Theo’s side would still be too short (not that I wouldn’t kvetch from time to time).

By the time Theo and I met, I had been living in India for 17 years, and was working as the India correspondent for Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. I loved my life in India, my work and my play. Besides publishing stories in Yedioth and in magazines around the world, I had a weekly column in one of India’s best newsweeklies. I was doing commentary about Jewish and Israeli issues on Indian TV and about Indian affairs on Israeli TV. I travelled extensively for my stories, but otherwise lived in peace in a small village, my kids romping through the jungle, looking for lizards and snakes. From my windows, coconut trees, rice fields, and ancient cashew groves glowed and glistened in the monsoon rain. Although life, being life, was not perfect, it suited me well in almost every way.

Still, within five months of meeting my husband at a Shabbat dinner on a visit to Los Angeles, I dismantled my life, sold my air conditioner, gave away our books and our cats, quit my job and came to L.A. We were married soon after. Theo said had he been 10 years younger, he might have joined me in India. I would have loved that, and I think he might have as well.

The Bikels in the East Village of Manhattan in July 2013. Photo courtesy of Amy Ginsburg Bikel

Although we often regretted finding each other again so late in Theo’s life, we knew there was a reason it was as it was, that we both needed to experience all that we had beforehand, so that we could properly fit. We spoke about the agreement we now realized we had made together before we were born; our pledge to come back into each other’s lives exactly at the right moment, just when we need each other most. We realized that our life lessons are precisely what made it possible for us to be together in the way it was meant to be. This included all of the lessons that we still had to learn from each other, and from our union.

Some people, especially at the beginning, asked if our age difference, 38 years, bothered me. I answered them that I would have utterly adored my husband had he been 380 years or 3,800 years older than me — what do numbers have to do with any of this? Others asked if I wasn’t afraid of how soon I might lose him. Of course I was afraid; I was afraid so often. Sometimes I was petrified.

But examining the issue closely, I came to realize that we might lose anyone that we love, God forbid, sooner rather than later. We have no idea if we, or anyone else, will be alive by evening. We pretend that seeing our loved ones again at the end of the day or next week is somehow promised to us, even though we know perfectly well that it is not. I decided to choose love over fear, and I needed to keep choosing it with every breath. As time went by, as my husband became increasingly unwell, love over fear became our narrow bridge, our path.

Still, sometimes I have felt downright cranky for having missed most of the fun. What great times Theo had! (And all I got were the anecdotes.) I mean, life on a kibbutz in the time of the chalutzim! A concert before the queen of England at Buckingham Palace! Singing with Reb Shlomo Carlebach at Washington Square Park (and with the Russian gypsies in the Left Bank clubs of Paris)! Backstage at the “Sound of Music”! Limo rides with Eleanor Roosevelt on the John F. Kennedy campaign trail! Marching for civil rights and jail time in Birmingham! The Newport Folk Festival! The 1968 Democratic convention! Prayer books smuggled into the Soviet Union! Surely, I belonged there at his side.

But the truth is, and we both knew it, that by the time I met my husband, all of the life that had already flowed over him and through him like a bubbling stream, like a mighty waterfall, had polished him, removed the imperfections, made him even more beautiful, and I thank HaShem for bringing me to my chatan, my groom, in the time of his sweetest flowering. It is also true that neither of us would easily trade away the full lives we had lived before we met — mostly because of our wonderful sons, but a lot of the rest if it as well.

Many years ago, I studied some cartography — fascinating stuff. What impressed me most was the part about measuring. We were taught that in measuring anything, a shoreline, for example, the question was the scale of measurement one used. Measuring that shoreline by miles yielded one result, finite and crude. Measuring by feet, one was able to take into account the curves and the bends, turning out a longer measurement, so much more exact. Now, imagine measuring that shoreline by millimeters, being able to really account for the most minuscule nooks and crannies. How exquisitely intimate would be the knowledge of that shoreline to the measurer; how close to infinite the measured length.

So Theo and I decided to measure by millimeters and grew our shoreline as close to infinity as we could; and when our millimeters seemed to be running out, we switched to plancks. (I had to Google this, but a planck is the smallest unit of measurement.)

What a nifty trick! And it worked pretty well!

But, it turns out, even if you reduce the unit of measurement to the smallest one and come close to infinity, life is still marked with a start and an end. On July 21, the second bookend of Theodore Bikel’s life was revealed. Now we know not only how it starts but also how it ends. If there are any real regrets, they have to do with the times when by lack of presence, lack of consciousness, we used a plain old, crude yardstick and missed so many of the nooks and crannies that would have lengthened our shoreline and given us so many more real moments of love.

One day, in the woods outside Vienna, where Theo had spent countless joyful hours hiking with his mama and papa before the Anschluss, we made a new pledge: To do our best next time to be born more or less in the same year, or at least in the same decade (give or take), so that we could do the whole thing together side by side. We were sitting in an inn with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, eating the chicken soup with liver dumplings of his kinder yorn (childhood years). His trusty wheelchair sat folded behind us. I was imagining hiking, or at least walking, together through the woods, hugging trees, looking for mushrooms, singing labor songs as he had done as a boy. Theo read my mind. “Next life,” he said, and kissed my nose. “Promise?” I asked, and hid my face in his pashmina shawl. A month later, in an ICU in the Valley, Theo promised me again, and I climbed into his hospital bed, despite the growling nurse, careful of the IV and oxygen lines. I am only 53, so this promise might mean lots of extra time for Theo to hang out in Gan Eden regaling all the inhabitants with music and laughter, as all who knew him know he will.

The truth is that since I lost my husband, I feel lost myself, alone under a dark night sky, tracing that shoreline with my bare toes, an oil lamp in my hand. Maybe I will find something we had overlooked before, something new to measure. Maybe it will ease this constant ache. Mostly, I find myself searching the very last stretch, the millimeters of that last night, the plancks of the last moments, searching, searching. “What are you searching for?” I ask myself. (“Be peaceful,” my husband whispers.) Maybe I think that if I look hard enough, finely enough, between the seconds and the nanoseconds, I will find the secret doorway, the crack in time and space through which I could bring him back to me, or travel back to him. These days, I sometimes fear that our pledges about next time were nothing but folly, and that I must accept that death might very well be, simply, the end. Other times, I feel him just on the other side of an invisible membrane, the Holy Mechitza, reaching for me as I reach for him. The mechitza remains unbroken. Maybe inter-dimensional communication will never be ours to learn. Maybe it is my faith I am searching for in the cold sand along the shore.

Theo was so brave in the last months of his life, when living in his body became quite difficult. What I mean by brave is that he continued to be exactly who he is in the given moment, without shame, without hiding. If he needed help, he asked for it. If he felt afraid, he said so. If he needed to moan and groan, he did. I actually asked him to moan and groan a little less, because of the effect this had on my own state of mind, but I now wish I could give him retroactive permission to moan and groan all he wanted. Theo was always himself. He never wanted to be anyone else.

This reminds me of the famous talmudic story about Reb Zusha. Reb Zusha, a perfect tzadik and great Chassidic master, was on his deathbed, crying his heart out. His devoted students were mortified, and begged him to tell them what was wrong. “I’m afraid of meeting God,” he told them. “How could this be?” his students exclaimed. “You are almost as wise as Moses, and you are as kind as Abraham!”

To which Reb Zusha replied, “But God is not going to ask me ‘Why were you not wise like Moses and kind as Abraham?’ He is going to ask me, ‘Zusha, why were you not more like Zusha?’ ” My point is that there is absolutely no danger that God, nor anyone else in heaven, is now asking Theo why he wasn’t more like Theo.

Theo became so gentle and peaceful in his last days that he was almost like a lake, a pond, reflecting back whatever was in view. This was a very forgiving mirror, easy to see yourself as beautiful when peering into it. He really and truly only wanted everyone to be happy, to be at peace, to enjoy as much as they could, to forgive each other, to quit the blame game, to be kind to one another. That is all he wanted — in the very last days he didn’t even want food or even drink, but kindness, gentleness and peace he never lost his taste for.

And then it was time, and just like that, he was gone. Theo’s shoreline had reached its end, and he was off to meet his parents and other beloveds he’d lost over the years. At 91, there are, of course, so many who have gone before him, and Theo missed them dearly. Although not religious or mystical by nature, Theo assumed he would be with them in some unfathomable yet real way after leaving his body. Not that Theo wanted to go — he did not want to go at all; he wanted to stay with me, enjoying our love (and the love among his brothers and his sisters all over this land). He would have liked to stay here forever, if possible. He liked it here, and had lived, thank God, an unusually happy and fulfilling life. But his body, being mortal, could not house this magnificent spirit any longer, and now my darling husband, our darling, inimitable Theo Bikel, is free to fill the cosmos with his joy, his generosity of spirit, his kindness.

The day before he died, he woke up, looked up at me and said: “Love is the poetry of life.” I’ve had many teachers, some of them Himalayan masters from the most exalted of dynasties. Let me tell you, they ain’t seen anything the likes of Theodore Bikel, Grand Master of the poetry of life. 

Theo, I will love you till the end of time. 

Love each other


We are different.
 
We don’t dress the same (although we both wear kippot around town and tallitot when we pray). Our accents are different (in 60 seconds you’ll be able to guess who is from Brooklyn and who, from Omaha). More significantly, we don’t understand Judaism or interpret Torah in precisely the same way.
 
But this is how it has always been. Rabbis bring their unique world-views and experiences to the Torah they teach. One of us grew up in Crown Heights, raised by parents who were ba’alei Teshuva, just blocks away from the home of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The other grew up in Nebraska, in a Reform-Zionist household.
 
We are, indeed, different.
 
But we are the same, too. We share a yiddishe neshama (a Jewish soul). We share a love for Judaism and a desire to bring that passion for our tradition to our People.
 
We share the belief that we are stronger together, as Rabbis and as Jews. We share a desire to build bridges and make connections across denominational and institutional boundaries.
 
We share a deep respect for one another and for the Torah that we each try to communicate to those whom we serve. We’ve broken bread together and made a l’chaim (or two) together as well.
 
We share a deep concern over the divisions that plague our community at this moment. Whether it’s how we relate to Israel, what we think of the “Iran Deal,” or how we believe Judaism should be observed, it feels like we are divided as never before. Please know this: we rabbis are united in our belief that these divisions are terrible for the Jewish community we love so much.
 
Divisions exist between us, make no mistake about it. But this is critical: we respect and love each other nonetheless. Our tradition teaches us that מחלוקות לשם שמיים (machlokot l’shem shamayim – “disputes for the sake of Heaven”) are a good thing when they are focused on discovering the truth and when we conduct them with כבוד (kavod – respect) for one another.
 
According to our tradition, when God took our ancestors out of Egypt, God took all of them out, even those of our People who still practiced עבודה זרה (avodah zara – idol worship). What’s the lesson? If God could love and accept those among our ancestors who committed what, in God’s eyes as it were, was surely among the gravest of sins, how much more so should we be able to remain friends, family even, despite all that divides us. So this Jew is a Democrat and this Jew is a Republican? Nu? This one thinks the Iran deal is good for us and this one does not? So nu?!? This one goes to Chabad and this one to a Reform synagogue? Nu?!?! We still can respect each other. We still can love one another.
 
When we commit ourselves to the value of אהבת ישראל (ahavat Yisrael – loving the Jewish People and Israel), we will find ways to live in and grow from and embrace what makes us different.
 
In the wake of the events of the past week, we raise our voices together and cry out: God forbid that a Jew would ever raise a knife in his hand to strike a fellow Jew (or any other person if not in self-defense)! God forbid that a Jew would ever firebomb a home and endanger or injure or חס ושלום (chas v’shalom – God forbid) kill an innocent person.
 
We are not really different. We are one people, one neshama – and we must love each other.
 
Rabbi Mentz is the Rabbi of Chabad of Bel Air. Rabbi Zweiback is the Senior Rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple.

Marriage: What’s in a promise?


The week after my parents’ wedding, at the swanky Officers’ Club in downtown Tehran, another Jewish couple were married in the same ballroom, by the same rabbi, and before many of the same invitees. Like my parents, both members of the other couple were children of a new but quickly rising upper class in 1950s Iran. Their families were modern and worldly and eager to embrace Western values. They threw lavish parties and drove late-model American cars and bought diamonds the size of yellow cherries for their women. Their sons pursued higher education and became professionals; their daughters skied and rode horseback and vacationed in Europe.  

My parents’ wedding, I’m told, was attended by no fewer than 1,000 guests, many of them dignitaries and members of the royal family. My mother’s gown was made of exquisitely fine French lace, with a trail so long it had to be carried by a half-dozen women as she climbed out of the car and up the front stairs of the Officers’ Club. Caviar was served by the bowl. Delkash, then a great diva, sang. Her fee was higher than that of any other entertainer in the city. Sometime near midnight, feeling slighted or not sufficiently appreciated, Delkash made a great show of walking off stage in indignation and had to be entreated and cajoled to return. 

The other wedding, also featuring Delkash, was just as lavish and well attended, but it was mired in rumors too dark and unnerving to voice. 

Not that one should commit lashon harah, mind you, but some weeks before, it seems, the groom was found in compromised circumstances with a younger man in the back room of the bookstore where he — the younger man — worked as a clerk. The groom, it seems, had a reading fetish. The clerk, it seems, had let him into the store after closing time. Past midnight, a neighbor saw a light in the back of the store and called the store’s owner. He called the police. 

I was reminded of this last week when the Supreme Court issued its same-sex marriage ruling: two weddings, so outwardly similar, so internally different. My parents found each other when my father, sitting in the back of a car, saw my mother cross the street on her way to school one morning. They’ve now been married for 56 years. Through thick and thin, three daughters and eight grandchildren, their commitment to each other and their family has not wavered or come into question. As for the other couple …

In very short order, the groom’s family found him a girl young and appealing enough to satisfy his cravings, from a place distant and out-of-the-loop enough to have remained untouched by the lashon harah. The newlyweds honeymooned in Europe; the bride was pregnant by the end of the trip. Back in Tehran, the groom’s parents bought him a house as far away from the old neighborhood as they could find, set him to work in the family business, encouraged his wife to see to his every need and to keep bearing children. The young man in the back of the bookstore got a good beating from his boss and was fired. He found work as an assistant bread maker on the other side of town. 

Years went by. The groom’s wife bore him four sons. His family became wealthier and more prominent. His wife blossomed from a pretty teenage girl into a beautiful mature woman. As far as anyone knew, he remained faithful to her in deed, if not in thought. There were no rumors of him seeing other women, or — lashon harah — men. He never went out alone at night, never took business trips or insisted that his wife and children spend the summer in Europe or at the Caspian. There was only this: Every morning and evening, even on Fridays, when the office was closed, he drove his car across town, parked a few blocks away from a certain bread oven, and walked past its doors as the young bookstore clerk was pulling hot slabs of flatbread out of the stone oven. 

If marriage is a promise, what is that promise? To love each other? To remain faithful to each other where love is there not? To feed and clothe and house each other in sickness and in health? 

For 20 years, the groom cared for and remained faithful to his wife and children, and walked past the bread maker’s twice a day. For 20 years, the clerk stood at the same doorway in the same shop. When the revolution came, the groom’s family — his wife and children, his siblings and elderly parents — escaped with their lives, but he stayed in Tehran. By now he was in his mid-60s and wider around the waist; his hair was growing silver at the temples; his voice had become scratchy from too many cigarettes. The clerk, too, had grown old and gray. Around them, the city burned and bullets were fired into crowds and people disappeared behind stone walls, never to be seen again. 

The groom stayed in Iran as other well-known Jews were imprisoned and executed, as his name appeared on the “wanted” list in the evening newspapers, as his holdings were expropriated. He stayed until he was picked up off the street by a posse of revolutionary guards and taken away. The day after he was released, he went back to the old street and past the bread maker’s door. The clerk wasn’t there anymore.

Accounts differ as to what became of the clerk during the time the groom was in prison and thereafter. In some versions, he was identified as homosexual and beaten to death by some mullah’s posse; in others, he simply gave up on the groom coming back alive from prison and left town. As for the groom, in some versions, he stayed in Iran for another decade after his stint in prison; in others, he left to rejoin his family very soon after he realized the clerk had vanished. What we do know is that the couple who were married at the Officers’ Club the week after my parents’ wedding kept a promise of sorts to each other, raised a family and took care of each other’s physical needs until they both died of old age in America. And that the couple who were caught and publicly shamed by the neighbor and the police, who most likely never exchanged another embrace or even another word, might also have kept a promise — to not forget? to not abandon entirely? to not stop caring? — albeit a promise unspoken, to the other. 

I thought of the old groom the day the Supreme Court released its decision.

Gina Nahai’s new novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Religion as romance


I met my husband in college, hobbling my way through campus on crutches. He touched my shoulder, shouted, “Tag, you’re it!” and ran away. I laughed and found myself looking for his lanky swagger everywhere I went. We were both 20, both experimenting with the contours of our personality. I studied political theory and art history, fancied myself a performance artist, and wanted to spend my free time at philosophy lectures. He studied mycology, hiked every weekend, and knew how to fend for himself by putting spoonfuls of sugar in plain yogurt and lemon pepper on canned string beans.

He didn’t really know much about my background. He didn’t know that I had attended Orthodox yeshiva, that I had only recently suffered from the loss of my faith, or that somewhere deep inside my newfangled hipness, I really missed synagogue and my Tanakh class.

Reality came to my husband in waves. He met my grandparents and learned that it was me, not my family, who was, for a time, religious. I had made my home kosher, tyrannized my parents over the rules of Shabbos, moved to Israel and transferred to yeshiva. Religion was never imposed on me. I chose religion. For years, I had this feeling of closeness to history and to God and then, one day, I just stopped believing in that closeness.

What at the time seemed like a crisis of faith was, in retrospect, just the beginning of a new form of religious feeling. I was in the process of creating a practice that no longer hinged on faith alone but rather on the value of a life immersed in communal rituals. I met my husband during this transition. To his credit, after some initial confusion, he accepted this.

My husband converted to Judaism because we found together a life of beauty in studying Torah and organizing our weeks around Shabbos.

Seven years after we met, my husband converted to Judaism. We had taken a yearlong beginners class together and then he found a rabbi who was smart, realistic and inspiring. My husband didn’t convert to Judaism for me. He is not a man capable of falseness. My husband converted to Judaism because we found together a life of beauty in studying Torah and organizing our weeks around Shabbos. We found shared passion in discussing texts and arguing over the purpose of kashrut. We haven’t always agreed on content but we have always agreed on the kind of argument we should have. 

Judaism is a space of romance for us. In the last few years, when money has been tight, he has learned prayers in lieu of a physical gift. He spent months learning how to say the Friday night Kiddush and now honors our Shabbos table with his sonorous prayer. When we moved to Columbus, Ohio, he arrived first to contact rabbis and get to know the Jewish community. His partnership in our religious life remains one of the strongest attributes of a marriage that, like all marriages, has weathered conflict.

My husband’s faith has been called into question. Not only by rabbis who doubt the verity or legality of his conversion, but also by peers and colleagues who don’t understand its purpose. His conversion has confused our children and been a point of serious conversation with family members. It has never been easy. In some ways it has even been hurtful. But how we have worked through this process has added remarkable depth to our relationship with each other and with the Jewish people. We know what it feels like to be rejected and to still show up, to give people the time they need to grow out of prejudice and into acceptance.

When I look back on the 15 years we have been together, I am awed by how my husband has come to express love through the language of Judaism. He is the one who suggested we call our rabbi when we couldn’t move past certain issues. He is the one who helped prepare the house for my grandparents’ shivahs. He rushes home so that I can go to Tanakh class and lifts our children in the air to make Shabbos magical at home. His relationship to Judaism is different from mine. He doesn’t yearn for closeness to God (a word that would probably even make him uncomfortable); he struggles with Hebrew, prayer and learning. But every gesture he makes seems to matter more to me than anything else I have ever witnessed religiously. Every day he opens himself to being new at something, to not knowing things that seem basic to other people, and he does it to give more religious content to our family life. He does it so that our children can grow up with a sense of their religion as a gift they have been given. A gift that requires practice and work. A gift their mother and father have both inherited and chosen.

The singles crisis: Let’s support singles for relationship success


We are now facing a genuine singles crisis. Lara, a successful 37-year-old chemist from San Diego, is concerned that her dream of marriage and a family will elude her. She rarely meets anyone for more than a few dates, and her only serious relationships have been long-distance ones. Jeremy, a 42-year-old good-looking accountant from Boston, has dated more than 200 women over a 25-year period and has just broken up with his fiancee after panicking for fear he had chosen the wrong one. For many singles, the best chance they have of coming home to someone else is if they have just had a burglary. Tens of thousands of Jewish singles in the United States are struggling to form and secure lasting relationships. Many are distressed and demoralized, further pressured by worried parents and grandparents. Jews, it seems, are not marrying. The former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has noted that nonmarriage is now more of a challenge to the viability of our community than interfaith marriage. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Jewish marriage rates in the U.S.have fallen to a new historic low. I cannot imagine another cause of this magnitude that would receive such a tepid response.

[Five questions you may want to ask yourself if you are single]

Many singles experience a huge amount of pain and frustration as they struggle for years to achieve their most important objective of getting married and having a family. The deep sense of frustration many singles experience is compounded by a community that they feel judges and blames them. A communal rabbi recently provided me with his verdict: “I’ve come to the conclusion that most singles don’t really want to get married, or they’d find a way.” Knowing that this rabbi had a child with educational challenges, I responded: “Like telling a child with dyslexia that the reason they are struggling to read is because they cannot be bothered, for if they cared enough, they’d figure it out.” It’s true, some people are single because they do not wish to be married, or are disinclined to make an effort — which is their prerogative. However, the vast majority of singles I meet try enormously hard to find a life partner, throwing toward that effort inordinate amounts of time, effort and money. To tell these people that they don’t want it enough is ignorant and hurtful. They need our understanding and support, not our judgment and criticism. Blaming singles for their struggles just adds insult to injury. As Bella dePaulo, an expert and author on the topic who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, has argued, disparaging singles — what she terms “singlism” — is about the only form of discrimination still deemed acceptable in our postmodern era. 

What many singles need most is not someone else to meet, but to meet him or herself.

The truth needs to be told: Singles are generally trying their level best to succeed in relationships, but it’s not working out for many of them. So what to do? Let’s start by understanding the issue. Finding the right person is half of the dating challenge; being the right person is the other half. As a relationship coach, I am often asked, “Can you suggest someone nice?” as if meeting someone “nice” is likely to make the difference. The person who asks has almost certainly met dozens of “nice” people, so meeting one more is unlikely to resolve the issue. Many singles — and those whom they turn to for advice — are unaware that, most likely, some internal barrier is holding them back. Simply meeting a bunch of new people won’t wish that away. Arranging social events and providing matchmaking or dating services, while necessary, is nowhere near sufficient. Many people who attend singles events, though grateful for the opportunity, return home disappointed that it did not result in a meaningful chance at a relationship. Matchmakers, whether formal or informal, will tell you how frustrating it is making suggestion after recommendation only to be told that something or another is wrong, or doesn’t work. For someone who is struggling with some internal barrier, attending another singles event or being introduced to one more date is typically just another chance to experience failure. 

What many singles need most is not someone else to meet, but to meet him or herself. Most of the singles I meet are highly successful and attractive people who are high-functioning in pretty much every other aspect of their life, but for some reason are falling down in this most crucial pursuit. What they need are the awareness and skills to successfully manage the internal resistance or limitation that is holding them back from enjoying relationship success. As long as the issues that are at the heart of the relationship struggles remain unaddressed, continued disappointment is far too likely. 

A man approached me in a restaurant: “I’m looking for a beautiful, good Jewish girl; what advice can you give me?” In response, I quipped: “Try starting by being a beautiful, good Jewish boy!” So many people would have you believe that their problems are outside of themselves, and that if only Mr. or Ms. Right would show up, wedding bells would ring. If only it were so. Some of the people I work with have dated hundreds of people, and it is implausible that all of them were unsuited. We need to use education and coaching to encourage people to be Mr. or Ms. Right. Singles should know that while, of course, we don’t blame them for their difficulties, they can play a crucial role in improving their own chances for success. 

When I first discovered this issue, I contacted two of the most important relationship organizations in the English-speaking world and asked them what they could offer singles. The response: “We are a relationship organization, so we focus on people who are in a relationship.” In other words, if you are married and your relationship gets into trouble, you have a relationship problem. But if your issue is that you are having trouble getting into a relationship in the first place, you are fine, because your relationship is not in crisis. This would be hilarious if it were not so tragic. 

Determined that something had to be done, I became a relationship coach. I completed a doctorate and published a book on coaching psychology. Together with my brother Zevi, I established Jewish European Professionals, to provide high-quality events around Europe that would not only enable Jewish singles to meet, but also would provide valuable relationship education and coaching. Ever modest, I now provide relationship coaching under the banner of “The Singles Guru.” My practice and research with dozens of singles suggests that most people who are struggling to succeed in relationships are being hindered by a single key issue, of which they are generally unaware. With raised awareness of the nature of the issues and with support to devise personal strategies to cope with them, many people would be able to dramatically enhance their chances of relationship success. My learning from this journey is now the subject of my recently published book, “Relationship Coaching.” 

People are often unfairly labelled “commitment-phobic.” Jonathan, a 39-year-old graphic designer from London, had a history of entering into relationships and breaking off when things started to get “too” serious. Then he started dating Debbie, who everyone insisted was ideal for him. Jonathan, however, was experiencing his usual misgivings: “There are some things about her that bother me; I can’t go through with this.” The reasons were flimsy at best, and by Jonathan’s own estimation, Debbie more than met his key requirements. Jonathan questioned, if she was so perfect for him, why is he so resistant to marrying her? Debbie was ready to quit, having put up long enough with Jonathan’s endless prevarications. 

I helped Jonathan understand why he felt compelled to withdraw from suitable relationships — it is called “avoidant attachment orientation.” For various reasons, a person may develop an unhealthy relationship orientation, which sometimes manifests itself in an extreme fear of attachment. People who are fearful of attachment are ambivalent, desperately wanting closeness on the one hand, but afraid of it on the other hand. Thus, their relationships exist in a manic state of drawing close and pulling away. To their partners, this type of person appears highly inconsistent and unreliable, seemingly unable to stick to a relationship without escaping, often for contrived reasons, behaving as what psychotherapist Randi Gunther called a “relationship saboteur.” Jonathan was caught up in this cycle and was unaware of the madness that is running amok in his mind. 

Until a person is aware that this is happening, they are largely powerless to help themselves. However, once a person becomes aware, the matter often can be easily addressed. On their next date, Jonathan required three attempts over an hour and half, but he finally did propose! They are now happily married with a child. The problem for most singles is not that they are picky — they are stuck. If we are serious about making an impact on this issue, we need to help them become unstuck. It’s that complicated and that simple.


Rabbi Yossi Ives is an experienced relationship coach based in London, focused on helping singles find relationship success. He is the author of “Relationship Coaching” (Routledge, 2014) and is the co-founder of JEP, a European singles organization. Ives wrote this piece while visiting L.A. to set up a singles project in the United States. He can be reached at yossi@singlesguru.co.uk.

Five questions you may want to ask yourself if you are single


Are you afraid of getting close? Do you follow a pattern of backing out of relationships once they get serious? If so, chances are that your relationships are fine, but you have difficulty with intimacy and attachment. Don’t give up the relationship; get help to give up your fear. 

[The singles crisis: Let’s support singles for relationship success]

Are your relationships like a roller coaster? Do you follow a pattern of getting super excited about someone you are dating, only to suffer huge disappointment? If so, you would do well to understand that you have a tendency to idolize your date and then suffer the inevitable disappointment when the bubble bursts. Your deflation does not mean there’s a problem with the relationship.  

Do you practice love by smothering? Do you find that people back away when they start a relationship with you? Perhaps you are squashing and overwhelming your love interest with your intensity. Twenty texts a day is exhausting and risks alienating the one you are so keen to draw close. Respect your partner’s space. 

Do you find it hard to fall in love? Do you meet lots of lovely people, but feel there is no spark or emotional draw? It could be that you have difficulty bonding. There may be nothing you can/should do to change that, but do not withdraw from a relationship when you have the issue. Learn how to connect meaningfully with another person.  

Are there actually two of you? Some people are conflicted and are actually looking for incompatible qualities in a partner. If so, what you need is bigamy! Otherwise, get real. Work out who the “real you” is and focus on getting that one married. Finding a partner often means giving up on unrealistic dreams. Good news: Once you wrap your brain around it, you can enjoy a long, happy relationship.

How we met: Love stories for Valentine’s Day


This Valentine’s Day, I am beginning a new series asking happy couples the age-old dinner-table question: How did you meet? I believe that, for those looking for love, there is nothing more inspiring than a real love story.

Ellen Abramson-Cohen and Jonathan Cohen 

Ellen is from New Jersey. When she was 14, she met a boy at summer camp named Jonathan. Jonathan was cool while Ellen was nerdy. Ellen spent her summer in love with Jonathan but he spent his summer in love with someone else. But they became friends and stayed in touch after camp ended.

When Ellen was 17, Jonathan invited her to Long Island for a visit. They watched “Caddyshack” and had “relations.” After that date, Ellen headed to Brandeis while Jonathan went to Buffalo State. They went on their second date two years later, while both were home from college and shared additional “relations.” Cut to more than 20 years later, Ellen was in Los Angeles working as a schoolteacher when a friend insisted she join Facebook.

Two days later, Jonathan sent Ellen a friend request. She accepted and he told her if she was ever back in New York City, where he now lived and worked as a TV news assignment editor, to let him know. Ellen got on a plane, and 25 years after their second date, they had their third. 

They caught up with one another, and Jonathan mentioned he was born at Doctors Hospital, which used to be across the street from Gracie Mansion. Ellen was born in the same hospital. Their birthdays are only 18 days apart. 

They had a great date.  After that, Jonathan went on a camping trip with friends while Ellen still had a couple of weeks of vacation in New York. He texted her nonstop. Jonathan was now the smitten one and couldn’t stay away from Ellen, who told her mother she was going to marry him. Her mom laughed and said at least Ellen could tell her kids she lost her virginity to their dad.   

Ellen asked Jonathan if he would ever consider moving to L.A. He said no way. Ellen returned to L.A., and they stayed in constant contact.  

Over the High Holy Days, Jonathan came to visit. Ellen was closing escrow on a condo. As they walked through together, Jonathan mumbled, “I could live here.” He returned to New York City, but came back for Thanksgiving. They watched Ellen’s beloved Giants lose their game, and Ellen paced in disappointment as Jonathan got down on one knee, holding his mother’s engagement ring. She didn’t see the ring and yelled at him to get up off the floor. 

He said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. Ellen replied, “Do you have something to ask me?”  He asked her to marry him, and she replied, “Duh.” It was beshert. Thirty years after meeting at summer camp, Jonathan and Ellen wed along the banks of the Hudson, followed by a reception in L.A.  Jonathan moved west, and they live in the home he once visited, giving up his New York life for the woman he loves. He changed his career to real estate, and his life began again, 30 years after meeting his bride.

Ellen has her favorite picture of Jonathan from summer camp on her desk, and students often ask if he is her son. She tells them he is her husband, and the kids are surprised by how young he is. It took them 30 years to get to happily ever after and prove you should never give up on finding your own love story.

If you have a love story to share please email Ilana at angel@jewishjournal.com.

Women want to be chosen


What women would give to be lusted after today.

Women are not looking just for love in a marriage. They are primarily looking for lust. A woman wants to be wanted, needs to be needed, desires to be desired. A woman does not go into marriage principally to be loved. She goes into marriage to be lusted after, to feel that there’s a man who has a magnetic attraction for her. It’s an easy point to prove. 

If a woman wanted primarily to be loved why would she ever leave the comfort of the parental home? No one’s ever going to love her more than her parents. Her parents are never going to divorce her. Her parents aren’t going to cheat on her. Her parents are going to love her unconditionally. She doesn’t have to dress up for them; she doesn’t have to impress them. If you want to be loved, you stay at home. 

So why is it that by the time she’s a teenager her parents have to threaten her to be at home? Whey does she trade in the unconditional love of her parents for the very conditional love of a man?

When her parents tell her she’s the prettiest girl in her class she just rolls her eyes. They’re just saying that because they’re her parents. They have a genetic AK-47 to their heads making them love her. There is no choice in the matter and therefore her parents’ love for her can’t make her feel special.

But when a man says that to a woman it must mean that she’s special, she’s unique. Her parents can give her love but they can’t give her what she really wants, which is to be chosen. 

Every woman wants to be chosen. Our parents can give us the gift of love but not the gift of chosenness.

In the Hebrew language there is a specific word for “husband” (baal), but no specific word for “wife.” The word used to identify “wife” (ishah) is the exact same as the word “woman.” A “wife” is in essence a “woman.” A woman is always a woman, no matter who she is and what role she plays in life. She can never be fully possessed, even in marriage, which, ironically, is a good thing. It means that no husband can ever take his wife for granted. Even after you marry her she never fully becomes your wife. She remains a woman who can only be won over not by the commitment of the marital institution but through the daily solicitation of emotional devotion and affection. Women are drawn to men who desire them. 

The point is best illustrated by the story of Bruriah, wife of the Hebrew sage Rabbi Meir. A daughter of the respected martyred sage Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion, Bruriah is one of the few women singled out in the Talmud as being herself a sage. She was an intellectual and a paragon of faith who proved her mettle in soothing her husband’s grief with complete acceptance of the will of the Almighty when their two sons suddenly died in tragic circumstances.

A curious story referred to in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18b) only as “the Bruriah incident” has much to teach us about the traditional Jewish attitude toward women’s sexuality. The eleventh-century canonic Jewish scholar Rashi comments on this cryptic reference as follows:

One time [Bruriah] mocked the Sages’ saying “Women are suggestible” (Kiddushin 80b, Shabbat 33b). [Rabbi Meir] said to her: “In your lifetime, you will eventually affirm their words.” He instructed one of his disciples to seduce her. [The student] urged her for many days, until she consented. When the matter became known to her she strangled herself, and Rabbi Meir fled out of disgrace.

Much ink has flowed over this unusual and heartrending account throughout the centuries. I’ll give you my take on it. Bruriah heard her husband teaching his students the passage from the Talmud (Kiddushin 80b) that says “Nashim da’atan kalot aleihen.” It literally means that women are “suggestible” or “lightheaded,” but Rashi explains this to mean that they are sexually uninhibited and receptive, and indeed this appears to have been Rabbi Meir’s intention.

Women are easily much more sexual than men. I imagine Rabbi Meir telling his students that husbands must not take for granted that their wives are permanently faithful. RatherRabbi Meir taught, women are profoundly romantically impressionable. A woman find its challenging to resist when a man focuses his starry-eyed attention on her, and therefore a husband must ensure that he himself is his wife’s seducer.

Bruriah took issue with the Talmud’s assertion that women are readily seduced. You’re insulting women, she told her husband, by insinuating that we’re not innately moral and some Don Juan can come along and sway us; it’s not true. I am not primarily an emotional person, she said; I’m an intellectual like you. When I know something is wrong, it’s an iron-clad conviction.

Now, all this is obvious. Women are as intelligent, driven, and ambitious as men. But they are also in love with love, which make them more humanly responsive. 

B’chayecha,” in your lifetime, Rabbi Meir replied; in your lifetime you will bear witness to the truth of this aphorism.

Rabbi Meir set out to prove to his wife the Talmud’s wisdom, tragically recruiting one of his students to seduce her to demonstrate the point. Bruriah resisted the young man, just as she had said she would. But the student was persistent. We don’t know whether the student had feelings for her or whether he acted only out of a sense of duty to his teacher. We also do not know whether she actually succumbed to the seduction. 

Either way, the resulting shock apparently caused her to take drastic action. Why was she so irretrievably humiliated? One explanation is that she had compromised her moral core and couldn't live with herself. Another explanation is that she was afraid people would find out. I don’t accept either of those answers, because this is the same Bruriah who buried two of her sons and saw her father burned alive for teaching Torah, yet she persevered in her faith. 

I think the reason she was so crestfallen to the point of wanting to end her life was that her husband had been proven right. For all her pretensions to being someone who could overcome emotions and passions and choose her own path, someone who was a master of her own destiny, guided only by the cold, hard facts of logical principles, she discovered that human passion in fact trumps intellect.

And that is true for both men and women.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, winner of The London Times Preacher of the Year Competition, and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He has just published “Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer”. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley

Sukkot: The most romantic of Jewish holidays


Sukkot is my holiday.

It’s been obvious since my girlhood, even before I saw “Titanic” a dozen times, that love stories ignite me and are my preferred mode of engagement with the world. I’m partial to eros, of course, but any love will do: filial, platonic, philosophical, spiritual. “You live in a romance novel,” someone I love likes to say. 

It’s why Sukkot suits me. After the parent/child, master/servant, king/subject modality of the High Holy Days, Sukkot offers a more romantic kindling of the God-Israel relationship. 

“Sukkot is all about pleasure,” Rabbi Amy Bernstein, senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades told me when I reached her by phone just before Kol Nidre. What a relief: After all those trying hours in shul celebrating God as the creator of the universe and repenting the myriad ways we’ve failed our covenantal relationship, “Sukkot is celebrating that we’ve come back,” Bernstein said. “It’s all about when we dwelled in the desert with God, when we depended only on God for food and water, [when] we were fed with manna, and [since then] we’ve moved on, and God hasn’t — and it’s this kind of wonderful, gorgeous honeymoon imagery.” 

Even God yearns. It’s quite flattering. And while I’m not terribly keen on the idea of honeymooning in the desert, I do like the general gist: an ancient mythic time when we were wandering through a scorching landscape (facing, as we Angelenos are today, a desiccated Earth) when our valiant hero, God, comes to save us, like a prince in a Jane Austen novel. God first gives us Torah, then escorts us through the desert under “a cloud of glory,” then feeds our bodies and souls with this magical manna substance, which the rabbis liken to sesame seeds that could take the form and flavor of any edible we desired. Imagine if spouses could do that.

That which nourishes, satisfies. And Sukkot, after all, is a pilgrimage festival — the third in our calendar year, after Pesach and Shavuot — which, in the ancient Near East, also marked the last harvest before winter. “So, while you’re harvesting crops, which is what’s going to feed you,” Bernstein said, “you remember a time when God fed you. And [the festival] is a way of reminding the Israelites: ‘Don’t think this is all about you or that you did this.’ Living in these fragile huts [the sukkahs] reminds us that we’re dependent on God for our well-being and our safety, not our permanent structures that are illusions of security.”

Power dynamics can be a powerful aphrodisiac. Unfortunately, though, we humans easily get bored. Especially when we have Facebook messages and Twitter feeds to check, TVs to watch, careers to ascend and human problems to solve. “We don’t have time with each other anymore, in our [technologized] culture,” Bernstein said, let alone time with God. The strains on our fine romance are endless; Sukkot invites us to reconnect. 

“God wants us back,” Bernstein added, “and, for a week, we come back” — entering into the sukkah, which Bernstein described as “the honeymoon suite.”

“It’s the only mitzvah we do, except mikveh, that completely surrounds us.” 

It’s kind of hot. Outside, yes, of course, but also the idea that we’re meant to engage in this tradition of ushpizin — inviting guests into the sukkah. We create this romantic, intimate space beneath a wide, starry sky in which we can draw close to friends or even mysterious strangers. “Have we considered inviting a neighbor?” Bernstein asked with requisite rabbinic prodding. “Someone we don’t normally interact with? Someone we just met and are interested in getting to know?” 

The sukkah is a place for hunger, desire and need for a partnership that sustains us. But even as we saturate our senses with food and drink and music in fresh air, we face our insignificance. Dwarfed by the enormity of God’s creation, we are but transient beings in a temporary shelter. “The sukkah could be knocked over by a strong wind at any moment,” Bernstein warned. We can — and will — lose what we love. Pain is real. Time on earth is brief. 

And yet, despite living in a world on fire — where war and hunger and disease dominate the headlines — Sukkot demands from us z’man simchateinu, a season of joy. 

“How do we hold all of that?” Bernstein wondered, elucidating the tension between the atonement of Yom Kippur and the euphoria of Sukkot. “I think Sukkot is a call into not despairing,” she said. “Yom Kippur teaches that you have to actually get better at what you say you want to be about, and then, once we’re committed to that, we have to celebrate what is. We have to celebrate in the places that we can.” 

Gratitude is Sukkot’s response to a flawed and fractured world. It is evident in our spiritual leap from Yom Kippur, during which we acknowledge our own brokenness, to Sukkot, a celebration of beauty. “We need both,” Bernstein said. “We need Ashamnu, to beat our chests, because we haven’t done enough, we haven’t cared enough. And we need the commandment v’samachta v’chagecha — you shall rejoice on your festival.”

We need the erotic jolt of that tension to rouse ourselves from thanklessness and routine. It’s a spiritual protest against ennui. Besides, aren’t the most exciting relationships usually the complicated ones? The ones that push and propel us, drive us mad in the very best ways, and challenge us to grow? Apparently God wants that kind of passion, too. 

A little etymology promises a lot of suffering, but the magic of the sukkah is that it can hold everything: joy and grief, light and dark, abundance and wanting. It can hold us — imperfect, impermanent, insignificant beings — and God, glorious, sublime, greedy for our love.

Correction appended: An earlier version of this column mistakenly misstated Rabbi Amy Bernstein's first name. It is Amy, not Rachel.

‘Fallen Fruit of the Skirball’: A labor of love


An installation titled “Fallen Fruit of the Skirball,” currently on display in the Ruby Gallery of the Skirball Cultural Center, presents the various dimensions of love and relationships, using fruit as a catalyst.  

“Fallen Fruit” is a collaborative that was originated in 2004 by Matias Viegener, Austin Young and David Burns. Young and Burns have continued the work together since 2013. Part of their early work involved informing people about fruit that was available for the taking on trees in public places.  

“So, the origins of our project were looking at fruit as a system of knowledge, or a way of experiencing the world,” Burns, acting as spokesperson for the duo, recalled. “Since that time, the work that we do, or the projects we work on, has expanded in scope and scale and material. So we always use fruit as a connector, however, the way we present that to a public or a museum will be different every time.”

For their Skirball commission, they looked through the institution’s permanent collection of artifacts and were particularly intrigued by a 17th-century ketubbah, or marriage contract. Ketubbahs date back to biblical times and spell out certain protections for the bride — particularly necessary during the days when women were considered virtual property — in case she is widowed or divorced.

Ketubbah. Busseto, Italy, 1677. Ink, gouache, gold paint and cutout on parchment. Courtesy of the Salli Kirschstein Collection, Skirball Cultural Center

The artists, who are not Jewish, knew nothing about ketubbahs and got help with their research from the historians at the Skirball. The particular ketubbah they found was hand-illustrated with ornamentation, vegetation and scenes from biblical stories, including the story of Adam and Eve, who appear to be holding a pomegranate. Burns said they knew that the fruit has meaning for several cultures.

In Jewish culture, according to Linde Lehtinen, the exhibition’s curator, the symbolism of the pomegranate is multilayered. “It’s referenced as one of the first fruits; it’s used on Rosh Hashanah as part of that Jewish holiday. There were pomegranates that were shaped almost like bells that were attached to the robes of some of the rabbis.”

Lehtinen said the exhibition unfolded in stages. For the first stage, the artists used custom-designed wallpaper illustrated with pomegranates to line the Ruby Gallery, a lobby gallery that the museum uses as an experimental space, and can be visited free to the public. 

They then took the installation to the next stage. 

“We asked people to submit statements or language about how to have a great relationship with someone,” Burns said, explaining that the theme of the project is love. “We asked all kinds of people. We asked people in the museum; we asked people in the world as we traveled; we asked people from the Internet, via Facebook and other things.” 

Lehtinen said they got back a plethora of postcards for display. “This example,” she said, reading one of the cards, “starts with ‘Cherish the others in your life — spouse, family, friends.  Celebrate their good qualities. Forgive any faults. See through their eyes. Laugh often. Give hugs.’  And then someone signed, ‘Married 56 years — 4 children — 5 grandchildren. Very, very blessed.’ ”

The artists used the responses to create a document they called a “love score,” which contains three different voices — the voice of wisdom, of reason and of everyday actions.

“They distinguished the three voices in three different fonts,” Lehtinen said.  “And you basically have to follow the fonts in order to read the correct sequence of phrases and match the different voices.”

The first phrase from the voice of wisdom says, “If there’s something you love about someone, chances are that same thing will manifest itself in a way that you don’t like, so remember it’s the same thing that you enjoy.”

The artists also put out a call for pictures. One photo they received is of a young girl sitting with her father, who wears a military uniform. Captioned “Daddy and Sugar,” the photo was taken in 1946 when the girl was 2 years old. They were in Shreveport, La., where she had been born in an Army Air Corps hospital.  

Lehtinen read from the story that accompanied the picture: “My mother died, hemorrhaging shortly after I was born, and for several months it was difficult for my father to hold me, until my grandmother placed me in his arms and momentarily walked away. Obviously he overcame his reticence, and we had a very close, loving relationship. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful daddy.”  

“Some of them got to be incredibly emotional,” Lehtinen said.

The exhibition reflects a kind of cycle of life, she said. And, Burns added, while love can be simple and natural, it’s also complex.  

“The way we make art, and the way we express our feelings and our relationships with people, can move through time and space,” Burns said. “It can come with us in life, and that was the goal of the work in the project we made, [to show] that love doesn’t stop.  And it can keep changing effortlessly as you get older and as life goes forward.”  

And it all started with fruit.  

“Fallen Fruit of the Skirball”, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.

phone: 310-440-4500

Hours: Tues.–Fri., 12:00–5 p.m., Sat.–Sun., 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Closed Mondays

Admission: Free

On a Birthright trip, love is born


Sagi Alkobi almost didn’t go on the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

It was August 2008, and the then-20-year-old student at The City University of New York had applied months in advance to participate in the educational tour of Israel for young Jewish adults. But a problem with his paperwork kept the application on hold, and, five days before the trip was about to begin, he assumed he wouldn’t be on it. Then he got a call.

“It was from Birthright,” recounted Alkobi, “They said, ‘We have an open spot for you. If you’d like, you can get on our Birthright trip. It’s on Monday.’ ” 

Perhaps it was destiny. Alkobi didn’t know it yet, but his life was about to change forever.

That change had a name: Daniella Elghanayan, a 21-year-old recent UC Santa Barbara graduate. They fell in love on the Birthright tour, and Sagi and Daniella, now 26 and 27 respectively, married last month at the Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo. 

It’s not the first time a Birthright experience has led to a wedding, said Pamela Fertel Weinstein, acting director of communications for Taglit-Birthright Israel. A recent request on the organization’s Facebook page for love stories from Birthright participants who met on the trip yielded more than 50 replies. 

Fertel Weinstein said studies of the program also show that Birthright participants are 46 percent more likely than non-participants to marry a Jewish spouse, and 25 percent of alumni are married to other Birthright alumni, although not necessarily from the same trip.

“People often look for similarities and common interests in their partners and Birthright Israel is becoming a more common experience,” she told the Journal in an email.

For Alkobi and Elghanayan, their love story began on the second night of their 10-day trip to the Holy Land. Their group of about 40 young people from the United States was camping with Israeli soldiers near the banks of the Jordan River. It was hot, people were snoring, and Alkobi and Elghanayan couldn’t sleep. As they sat with a small group of fellow sleepless campers, the two began to talk, and their conversation lasted all night.

“It just felt so natural and easy to talk to each other,” said Elghanayan, who is Persian. “There was definitely a spark.”

In the days that followed, Alkobi and Elghanayan grew closer. At first, Elghanayan felt a little shy, but slowly she let her guard down, and the pair became inseparable. 

“I would always look for her, I was always trying to see where she was. … It was like I was drawn to her,” Alkobi said. “I wasn’t really thinking straight, because I knew she lived in California, but I didn’t really care about that at all. I was like, whatever is going to happen, it’s going to happen. I just have to get to know her.”

When the time came to return home, it didn’t seem right that things should end there. 

“After we got back, it was like, wait, but, we’re not finished yet,” Elghanayan said. “I just couldn’t wait to talk to him again.”

Back home in the United States — but on opposite sides of the country — the couple stayed in touch with regular phone calls. Within a month, Alkobi had booked a flight to California, but he was still nervous. Getting to know Elghanayan amid the wonders of Israel had been magical; would that same spark still be there when he saw her again on her home turf?

He needn’t have worried.

After about 2 1/2 years of long-distance dating, Elghanayan moved to New York City to be closer to Alkobi, who had opened his own jewelry store, while also working for his family’s real estate and property management business. Then, around the fifth anniversary of their Birthright trip, the couple decided to take another trip together, back to Israel and also to Italy. 

They returned to their old haunts in the Jewish state, where their love had blossomed on Birthright, and visited Alkobi’s relatives. All the while, Alkobi carried a ring with him, waiting for the just the right moment. 

The young man’s original plan was to pop the question at the top of Masada, but with the August weather unbearably hot, he decided to wait until they reached Italy. After dinner on their first day in Rome, the couple headed to the famous Trevi Fountain. As they stood there admiring its majesty, a man came up and offered to take their picture. 

“Is this your wife?” he asked, causally.

“Not yet,” Alkobi said.

“I just kind of laughed and brushed it off. I didn’t think anything of it,” Elghanayan said. “Then as soon as he took the picture, [Alkobi] went down one knee. … I just stared at him with my mouth open.”

When Elghanayan finally said yes, it seemed the whole crowd of tourists surrounding them had been listening in. People began to clap. Somebody threw them a rose.

“It was really romantic,” Elghanayan said.

The couple were married Aug. 17 in a traditional Jewish wedding officiated by Rabbi David Zargari of Torat Hayim in Los Angeles. Prior to the big day, they held a celebration in Israel with Alkobi’s family, a Moroccan henna party, to honor his relatives’ cultural traditions.

The couple now lives in Santa Barbara, where she is a public relations consultant for several companies; one of her clients is Tel Aviv University. He works in real estate development and property management. They said they’re grateful to the Birthright trip for bringing them together.

“I really had no expectation at all. I was just going to see this country that obviously we had a connection to, and to see a new place that I’d never seen before,” Elghanayan said.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Alkobi agreed. “I just thought it would be a cool trip, and I happened to meet my future wife.”

From dark deprecation to ‘Suddenly, Love’


Back in 1988, no less august an observer than Philip Roth described the authorial voice of esteemed Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld as one “that originates in a wounded consciousness pitched somewhere between amnesia and memory, and that situates the fiction it narrates midway between parable and history.” Anglophone readers — whether new to Appelfeld or among his longtime fans — may now experience this singular voice in “Suddenly, Love” (Schocken Books, $25), Jeffrey M. Green’s translation of the novel published in 2003 as “Pitom Ahavah.”

“Suddenly, Love” essentially traces the (re)awakening of memory and spirit of its protagonist, Ernst, a native of Czernowitz, Appelfeld’s own birthplace (then a Romanian city, Czernowitz is now part of western Ukraine). But whereas Appelfeld, born in 1932, encountered the Holocaust as a child, the somewhat older Ernst was already a married young father when his wife, daughter and parents were murdered. Ernst likely owes his survival at least in part to the fact that, as an adolescent, he became a communist and was serving in the Red Army when his family members were deported.

When the novel opens, Ernst is a divorced septuagenarian living alone in Jerusalem, retired from an investment company, spending his hours writing. He shares portions of what he writes with his caregiver, Irena, who finds it mystifying that he never mentions his parents or grandparents. Irena, who was born to Holocaust survivors in a German displaced persons camp, is an only child whose deceased parents remain “always with [her].” Indeed, the quiet, solitary Irena seems to exist in a world of her making, a world constructed around the family history and Jewish traditions transmitted by her parents.

For Ernst, heretofore prone to depression, not even serious physical injury or illness can compete with “Irena’s presence, her closeness,” which “opens corridors for him to worlds he never knew. Or if he knew of them, he was blind to them. He had never imagined such love.” Under this influence, Ernst becomes able to immerse himself in what he had resisted remembering, including childhood summers spent with his religious grandparents in the Carpathians — and the ugly anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of his communist past.

The latter strand makes it difficult to resist quoting again from Roth’s 1988 exchange with Appelfeld, in which the Israeli author revealed: “What has preoccupied me, and continues to perturb me, is this anti-Semitism directed at oneself, an ancient Jewish ailment which, in modern times, has taken on various guises. … It took me years to draw close to the Jew within me. I had to get rid of many prejudices within me and to meet many Jews in order to find myself in them.”

In general, one must be cautious, to say the least, when inferring that a fictional character mirrors his creator. But Appelfeld himself has remarked more than once on his practice of weaving his tales from life experience. To Roth, for example, he described his own return, in the emotional sense, “to the region where I was born and where my parents’ home stood. That is my spiritual history, and it is from there that I spin the threads. Artistically speaking, settling back there has given me an anchorage and a perspective.” As it does for Ernst.

It is equally tempting to attribute to Appelfeld the ideas about writing embedded within this novel. At one point, for instance, Irena notices: “Ernst doesn’t tell a story all at once. First, he prepares the heart, traces the framework, and gradually brings the images into it.” Later, as he finds his true subjects and rhythm, Ernst realizes “that extended descriptions were no longer necessary. He mercilessly uprooted words that didn’t further the action of the story. The details emerged selectively, without superfluousness, only what was most needed.” Such characterizations apply not only to Ernst’s writing, but also to his creator’s.

At the end of this spare, slender novel, both Ernst’s and Irena’s lives have been transformed. It isn’t far-fetched to suggest that, in some subtle way, the reader has been changed, too.


Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories” (Last Light Studio). Visit her online aterikadreifus.com and find her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus, where she tweets “about things bookish and/or Jewish.”

Israeli couples say ‘I don’t’ to Orthodox Jewish weddings


For most Israelis in the Jewish state, there is one legal way to get married – God's way.

Israeli law empowers only Orthodox rabbis to officiate at Jewish weddings, but popular opposition is growing to this restriction and to what some Israelis see as an Orthodox stranglehold on the most precious moments of their lives.

Some of Israel's most popular TV stars and models have come out this week in an advertisement supporting a new bill allowing civil marriage. A political storm is likely when it eventually comes up for a vote in parliament.

The Rabbinate, the Orthodox religious authority that issues marriage licences in Israel, says it is charged with a task vital for the survival of the Jewish people, and a recent poll showed more Israelis oppose civil unions than support them.

Nevertheless, many Israelis want either a secular wedding or a religious marriage conducted by a non-Orthodox rabbi. Facebook pages have been popping up, with defiant couples calling on others to boycott the Rabbinate.

In September, Stav Sharon, a 30-year-old Pilates instructor, married her husband in an alternative ceremony performed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi.

“We wanted a Jewish wedding despite being secular. We feel connected to our Judaism, even if we are not religious. It is our people, our tradition,” Sharon said.

Weddings such as Sharon's fall into a legal no man's land. They are not against the law, but neither are they recognised as valid by the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for registering marital status on the national identity card every Israeli is required to carry.

In a twist in the law, the ministry will register as married any Israeli couple that weds abroad – even in a non-religious ceremony – outside the purview of the Israeli rabbinate.

Some couples hop on the short flight to Cyprus to marry. The Czech Republic is another popular destination for Israelis wanting a civil wedding.

Sharon and her husband decided against that option. “Marrying abroad means giving in. We wanted to marry in our own country,” she said.

No formal records are kept on the officially invalid alternative ceremonies held in Israel. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly 39,000 Jewish couples married via the Rabbinate in 2011. About 9,000 couples registered that year as having married overseas.

Muslims, Druze and Christians in Israel are also required to marry through their own state-recognised religious authorities, making interfaith weddings possible only overseas.

WHO IS A JEW?

Secular-religious tensions have simmered in Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state, since its establishment in 1948.

About 20 percent of Israeli Jews describe themselves as Orthodox while the majority of citizens are only occasional synagogue-goers. There are also non-Orthodox communities such as Reform and Conservative, but these are proportionately smaller than in Jewish populations abroad.

Ultra-Orthodox zealots have drawn anger in recent years for separating men and women on some public buses and harassing women and girls for what they see as immodest dress. Orthodox rabbis insist that brides take ritual baths to purify themselves before marriage, a practice to which some Israeli women object.

Immigrants to Israel, which since its inception has appealed to Jews around the world to live in the Jewish state, can find marriage through its Rabbinate a gruelling process.

Anyone wed by the Rabbinate is required to provide evidence of being Jewish, usually a simple and quick process.

But when it comes to new immigrants, the Rabbinate requires an affidavit, usually from an Orthodox rabbi in their home country, attesting they were born to a Jewish mother – the Orthodox criterion for determining if someone is a Jew.

And, Orthodox authorities in Israel can pile on more problems by digging even deeper into Jewish roots by requiring additional documentation proving that a bride or bridegroom's grandmother was Jewish.

“It took a year,” said a 34-year-old Argentinian immigrant to Israel, who asked not to be identified.

“They said the papers I had were not sufficient. They kept asking for more and more crazy documents. At one point they wanted me to provide a witness, from Argentina, who knew my grandparents and who had seen them, inside their home, celebrating a Jewish holiday,” he said.

His case was ultimately brought before the Chief Rabbi who ruled the man was Jewish and could marry his bride-to-be.

Israel's government is less strict in determining “who is a Jew” and therefore eligible to immigrate to Israel. Under its Law of Return, proof that someone has at least one Jewish grandparent is enough to receive automatic citizenship.

The Rabbinate says it is charged with preventing intermarriage and assimilation with non-Jewish communities which would endanger their people's survival.

Ziv Maor, the Rabbinate's spokesman, said strict adherence to Orthodox ritual law and practices had bonded Jews across the globe and set common rules for all.

“A Moroccan Jew knew he could marry a Jewish woman from Lithuania,” he said. “Rabbinical law guides us in a very clear way on who is Jewish and who is not … and we do not have permission from past or future generations to stray even a hair's breadth from those criteria,” Maor said.

According to the Rabbinate, only two percent of the men and women who apply to it for a marriage licence are turned down because they are found not to be Jewish.

GAY MARRIAGE

There are other groups to whom marriage is forbidden by rabbinical law.

Same-sex marriage, as in other religions, is out of the question as far as the Rabbinate is concerned. Israel's Interior Ministry recognises gay marriage – but only if it is conducted in a foreign country where it is legal.

Margot Madeson-Stern, a business consultant, was wed in Israel by a non-Orthodox rabbi at a celebration attended by more than 300 guests. The ceremony had no legal foundation in Israel.

“The (Rabbinate) would not marry me. The person I fell in love with was a woman,” said Madeson-Stern, 30. “I'm Jewish. I wanted a Jewish wedding. It's my family, my tradition, it's how I grew up.”

She later travelled with her wife to New York for another wedding ceremony. New York recognises gay marriages, so Israel's Interior Ministry did the same, registering them as a couple.

At least two parties in the coalition government are promoting a bill to allow civil marriage in Israel, including for same-sex couples. One of them is Yesh Atid, which tapped into anti-religious sentiment in last January's national election and finished in second place.

“It cannot be that people who do not believe or whose lifestyle does not suit the Rabbinate will be forced to get married by people whose way is not their own,” Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid told Israel Radio this month.

But tradition could die hard in Israel. A poll published in November in the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, showed that while 41 percent of Jewish Israelis supported Yesh Atid's Civil Union bill, 47 percent objected.

Such bills have been floated at Israel's parliament before. But for the first time in years, ultra-Orthodox parties, which oppose civil marriage, are not in the government.

Yesh Atid believes it has enough votes from lawmakers across the board to pass the law in the next few months. The Rabbinate says it will oppose the measure strongly.

“Matters of marriage, divorce and conversion are our most important fortress. It must not be touched and we will defend it fiercely,” said Maor.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Stamp

A short history of Jewish intermarriage


JTA’s Uriel Heilman reported this week on the continuing evolution of Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage. After the clarion call of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed a 52 percent intermarriage rate among American Jews, Jewish groups poured millions into efforts to stem what was seen as a threat to the future of the community.

Intermarriage has long been an issue of concern to American Jews. In 1926, the marriage of “Miss Mina Kirstein” of Boston to a non-Jew was considered worthy of a news item in the Jewish Daily Bulletin, the precursor to JTA’s Daily Briefing.  But the degree of fear engendered by intermarriage, not to mention its frequency, has ebbed and flowed over the years.

In 1967, a study by the Reform movement’s rabbinical group found that intermarriage rates were actually lower than they had been in the early days of North America’s settlement by Europeans. Between 1654 and 1840, the study found, there were 942 Jewish marriages, only about 15 percent of which were between Jews and Christians. The low rate may have owed something to the fact that large majorities of Catholics and Protestants at the time opposed marriage to Jews.

Back in the 1960s, long before the NJPS, solid evidence of intermarriage rates was lacking, but what did exist pegged the rate lower than what had existed in the first two centuries after the Pilgrims arrived. The federal census bureau put the intermarriage rate at 7 percent.

Two years after the Reform study, a woman identified only as Mrs. Moses Richler told a conference of Jewish women that if current trends persist, there would be no Jews in Canada in “four or five generations.” Mrs. Richler said that in 1968, 18 percent of Jewish men and 12 percent of Jewish women married out.

Since then, the rates have grown dramatically (and, last we checked, there were still Jews in Canada). Jewish consternation over the issue has also risen. Following the 1990 survey, several academics concluded that Jewish engagement was far lower among intermarried couples and the Jewish community should focus its resources on combatting intermarriage and providing avenues of engagement for the in-married. Others argued that if effective outreach was made to intermarried families, they too could be drawn into the Jewish fold.

A similar debate has unfolded over the decades within the religious denominations. The Reform movement has wrestled with the issue most prominently, particularly over the question of whether rabbis should officiate at interfaith weddings, gradually coming to the view that rabbis should perform such weddings in the hope that a welcoming approach could increase the odds of future Jewish engagement.  The Conservative movement, which long considered itself less vulnerable to the threat of intermarriage, had to reconsider that position after 1991, when the NJPS found that the intermarriage rate in the movement was not 5 percent, but 28 percent  Among the Orthodox, which maintain the most uncompromising stance toward intermarriage, the threat was recognized far earlier. in 1979, Rabbi Bernard Rosenzweig, the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, said intermarriage had reached “catastrophic levels” and formed a commission to fight it.

In recent years, the intermarriages of several high profile Jews have both driven home the reality of American Jewish nuptials and raised further questions. An essay by Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman in the New York Times in 2007 challenged the decision by his Orthodox alma mater in Boston to eliminate his Korean-American wife from a photograph. The 2010 marriage between Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky prompted a debate over whether to celebrate the extent of Jewish inclusion in the corridors of American power or lament yet another soul lost to the community.

Meanwhile, the trend lines continue as they have for decades. This year, Naomi Schaefer Riley reported that intermarriage rates are rising among all American religions, but are highest among Jews.

‘Mind Meld’: Love, marriage and magic


For Jeff and Kimberly Bornstein, first came love. Then came marriage. Then came a spellbinding, mouth-agape mind-reading show. 

In 2005, Jeff, who was doing road gigs as a comedian, wasn’t having any luck finding a girlfriend on Match.com. He sent out an e-mail on the site, telling people he was headlining the Loony Bin in Oklahoma. To his surprise, he received 50 replies, one of which was from Kimberly, who lived in the state. “We talked for about two weeks on the phone every single day,” Jeff said.  “The conversations were so intense, and after going back and forth, I flew her out to see me,” in Los Angeles.

For two years, the couple dated long-distance. Kimberly asked Jeff if he wanted to move to Oklahoma, but the opportunities to perform there were, well, scarce. Instead, he bought a ticket to see her without her knowledge, knocked on her door at 11 p.m., and told her to pack. “I basically adult-napped her,” he said. “We drove from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, and we’ve been together ever since. That was over seven years ago.”

Today, Jeff and Kimberly perform their two-person show, “The Bornstein Experiment,” all over Los Angeles and the world. In it, Jeff does stand-up comedy, while Kimberly reads audience members’ minds. She’ll tell them what streets they live on and how much money is in their pockets. The official story is that she gained her psychic ability when she was 10, when she fell off a tractor and hit her head. The two don’t reveal in the show whether the mind reading is real, either. “We let you decide,” Jeff said. “We don’t claim to have supernatural powers. She just takes her sixth sense to the 10th power. And then we leave it up to you.”

They will perform their new show, “Mind Meld,” which also focuses on mind reading, at the invitation-only Magic Castle on Jan. 22 and Feb. 5, 12 and 19, and at the ACME Comedy Theatre on Jan. 23 and 30, and Feb. 6 and 13. The show will be hosted by Fritz Coleman, the performer and NBC4 News weathercaster. 

In the traditional act, Jeff does stand-up at the top, and he and his wife talk about the ways Kimberly reads body language. “Our show is about communication, and we draw the differences between what it’s like when you have communication and when you don’t,” Jeff said.

Geared toward adults over 25, the show was an idea Jeff came up with after Kimberly suggested they do an act together. She had never performed, but after their initial 10-minute show, the audience adored her. Jeff said, “I thought she would see that it’s too tough and too much work to be on stage. Our first one we did, she was a hit. She was the star, and to this day, she is still the star and steals the show.”

Aside from performing at the Magic Castle and ACME, the two also produce “Operation Magic,” a comedy and variety show for the military. They’ve taken “The Bornstein Experiment” to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. One of the most touching moments in her performing career, Kimberly said, happened at a base when “a mom came up to me and said her husband just got deployed. She said ‘I don’t know if my husband is coming back, but this one hour you guys performed, you made me not think about that.’ That meant so much. That brought tears to my eyes. I was beside myself.”

The two also juggle day jobs in addition to their stage work: Kimberly is an executive assistant, while Jeff does stunt work. He’s appeared in “The Specialist,” “Lethal Weapon 3” and “Star Trek VI.” 

Joe Monti, a friend and magic producer and senior consultant on A&E’s “Mindfreak,” said their chemistry is apparent. “They are husband and wife, and that really shows on stage. Although people who are not performers wouldn’t notice, their technique is flawless.”

Creative consultant Bruce Gold said that keeping the audience doubting is what makes Jeff and Kimberly’s act so good. “I don’t think it needs to be real. As long as there is doubt, it makes it entertaining. If you wonder how they are doing it, then you are engaged, involved and entertained. Whether or not it’s real is immaterial. The thing that’s important is the possibility of it being real.”

Kimberly said that working 12-hour days and rushing to perform on stage at night is worth it. “It seems that every show I do, it’s almost like I get to do it for the first time, every time.” 

Although Jeff and Kimberly are still striving to make it, doing their act together only makes them stronger. “Especially now, times are tough, and families are working three jobs to make ends meet,” he said. “We get to struggle together on stage and laugh and joke about it, which really makes it a lot more fruitful. When one person is down, the other lifts the other person up. When we are together, wherever we are, we’re home.”

ACME Theatre, 8 p.m. Jan. 23 and 30, Feb. 6 and 13, 135 N. La Brea Ave. Advance tickets $10 online, $15 at the door. A drink discount with your ticket will be good for $1 off a beverage at the adjoining Amalfi bar. Shows at the Magic Castle are by invitation only.

An age of broken glances: On ‘Why Love Hurts’


Each time I officiate at a marriage, I perpetrate a small fraud. I read the ketubah, the marriage contract, in its original Aramaic and then I read the “translation.” The translation is actually a confection of sweet-spun phrases about creating a home of warmth, openness, and commitment based on mutual emotional support. The original Aramaic, on the other hand, mostly explains financial obligations the husband owes the wife in case of divorce, and the property the wife brings to the marriage. In other words, the Aramaic is legal and the English is therapeutic. When the rabbis drafted the ketubah in the first centuries of the Common Era they neglected to include quotations from Maya Angelou.

Yet the more comforting translation, with its echo of pop music promises, is what the couple — and the daters they were before — thought they were getting, not transactions but transcendence, less the assurance of financial stability than the wild endorphin circus of new love. The couple heard the fusty, older/wiser warnings but clung tightly, and appropriately, to the exceptional character of their love. When prenups or family quarrels intruded on the bubble, it felt less like reality than an unwonted violation.

For most couples, the little fraud is emblematic of a bigger one. Romantic love is a foreshortened story: the princess is carried from the tower or awakened with a kiss. The prince shines, full of dash, bravery, and brio. The story stops before that same princess spends her days working and childrearing, and they both realize she actually prefers sleeping late to a princely, wakening peck on the cheek as the kids run off to school. In the tower there were no soccer shuttles or bills to pay. Fairy tales end at the beginning because the ending is not so enchanting. Even in the age of perilous sea voyages and daring rescue on horseback, romance too quickly ebbed. So how long can we expect it to endure in the rapidly accelerated age of texting, sexting, and tweets?

The path to love is strewn with paradox. According to most studies marriage benefits men more than women, yet men are less inclined to marry. The same qualities — beauty, power, wealth, wit, charisma — which make a partner attractive may render them unsuitable as a mate. Romantic failure, which used to be blamed on the other person’s inadequacy, is now an arrow to the heart of self-esteem. As for healing from the wound? There are almost as many books about romantic healing as there are diet books, and for the same reason. When no single cure works, you can count on endless suggested treatments. Often the pain endures whether one is the breaker or the breakee — as Iris Murdoch said, “jealousy lasts forever — bad news for the young.”

¤

I read Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts with both personal and professional interest. As a divorced rabbi who meets with hundreds of singles and couples, I hear the same promises and plaintive cries: “Why can I not meet the man I seek?” “Why are men incapable of commitment?” “What is wrong with me/her/him?”

Why Love Hurts looks at the social conditions that affect our romantic lives. Illouz’s book is full of arresting ideas about love in our time, even as it staggers under some academic prose and doctrinaire commitments. Hers is the book of a sociologist. What we might see as personal traits, she enlarges to social trends. You think your boyfriend is a jerk; Illouz may agree, but sees him as succumbing not to selfishness alone, but also to a widespread pathogen.

Illouz draws the contrast between an age in which choice was limited to one’s social class or village, to the modern era, when no one is, in theory, off limits:

Pickiness, which seems to plague the entire field of romantic choice, is not a psychological trait, but rather an effect of the ecology and architecture of choice: that is, it is fundamentally motivated by the desire to maximize choice in conditions where the range of choice has become almost unmanageable.

Modern romance is like dinner in Beverly Hills, always looking over one’s partner’s shoulder because someone important or alluring might enter the room. Who can commit in an age of broken glances?

Add to that uncertainty the promise of self-realization, the idea that all of us should be changing, progressing, improving — and throughout our lives. This is the Heraclitus theory of personality — you never meet the same person twice. Solidity is staying in place and in Oprahville we must all grow. The ideal self is not a stable self but rather one that can perpetually create itself anew, be reinvented tomorrow. As Illouz writes, “The cultural ideal of self-realization demands that one’s options should be kept forever open.” By definition romance involves commitment and limitation. The ever-expanding self requires boundarylessness. No surprise then that the marketplace has become a mess.

Of course if you fashion who you are, you also bear the consequences. Individuality and autonomy place the burden of one’s fate on oneself. Fault lies not in one’s social conditions (although parents still come in for a proper beating) or what Henry James called one’s “envelope of circumstances.” In a world of individuals, when romance is less about social station than interiority and emotion, if you don’t accept me, it is all about me. Illouz points out that when Jane Welsh first rejected Carlyle in the mid 19th century, he assumed it was his financial woes and not his personality. (To be fair, Carlyle thought quite well of himself.) In the marketplace of choice, with outsized emphasis on the individual, we assume an acceptance or rejection says something essential about our very self. We are more likely to feel the way Bridget did in the bestselling Bridget Jones’ Diary:

When someone leaves you, apart from missing them, apart from the fact that the whole little world you’ve created together collapses, and that everything you do or see reminds you of them, the worst is the thought that they tried you out and, in the end, the whole sum of parts which adds up to you got stamped “REJECT” by the one you love.

Rejection is not new. Shakespeare knew of the “pangs of despised love.” But the deeply personal wound, Illouz believes, is largely a product of modern social arrangements.

Marriage keeps slipping down the statistical slope. Without the societal assumption that everything leads to marriage, there is a paradoxical pas de deux: each person acts as though commitment is not part of the opening negotiation, the man because he does not wish it and the woman because she does. The calculation of how to pressure, when to pressure, to coax, to cajole, or to strategically retreat can lead romance columnists to sound a little like von Clausewitz. And that those same writers view the whole enterprise, with men skittish and evasive, and women strategic, has led to a flourishing of aquatic imagery, with reeling, hooking, baiting and (at times) gutting — clear signals that all is not well in the land where there are “always more fish in the sea.” Dating seems less The Little Mermaid than Jaws.

¤

As love has shifted from a social enterprise to the individual, Illouz writes, we have learned to evaluate according to categories that are intangible, like “sexiness” which (unlike beauty) was not a marker in an earlier age. These categories entail a relentless disenchantment of love. In high school, savvy teens already know that attraction is only a rush of chemicals in the brain, or nature’s way of fooling us into reproduction. We study love as if it were botany, abandoning poetry for pathology. When we seek to understand the overwhelming emotion that drove Shelley to write, “Its passions will rock thee / As the storms rock the ravens on high,” by shoveling infatuated undergrads into MRI machines, their temporal lobes may be illuminated but little else is. Something has been lost.

¤

The infamous internet dating profile requires a still greater intellectualization of love, with lists of categories and attributes. Modern love: science abetted by a checklist. There are few things more essentially unromantic than a multiple-choice exam.

Mass entertainment, so much more pervasive and potent than the romantic novels that sent Emma Bovary over the edge, teaches us the lesson of perfect, temporary bliss. When at the end of Ghost Patrick Swayze ascends to heaven, his soul at peace, leaving Demi Moore to tearfully wave goodbye, I recall leaving the theater thinking that I pity her next boyfriend. He will have to compete with an angelic Patrick Swayze. And then it hit me — so will the boyfriends of every woman in the theater. Not that people are so literal, but the repeated images of beautiful human beings speaking laboriously polished lines with carefully directed expressions and accents cannot help but make the guy beside you, well, a bit of a shlub. Especially if within you lurks the suspicion that he was on the shlubbish side to begin with. Besides, the qualities that promise dependability are rarely the same as those that dazzle.

Illouz explains that she has written this book primarily for women. Therefore in some deep way it is about men. In an epigraph to one of her chapters, she quotes Julian Barnes from Love, etc.:

I book that marriage therapist, naturally.

We last about 18 minutes. I explain that basically my problem with Stuart is getting him to talk about our problems.

Stuart says, “That’s because we don’t have any problems.” I say, “You see the problem?”

Men. Is the problem of love the problem of men? Illouz struggles with two consistent tensions. First is her commitment to feminism, which teaches that “power,” in her words, “must be tracked down and expelled from intimate relations.” But as everyone who has ever been in love knows, power — the having of it, the losing of it, the renouncing of it, the reclaiming of it — is the delicate heat without which the soufflé flattens. If you cannot be powerless in love you cannot know bliss. Tracking down and expelling power from intimate relations is simultaneously blindly authoritarian and sweetly naïve. The French proverb has it right: “In love there is always one who kisses and one who offers the cheek.” Illouz acknowledges the reality of power imbalances and male/female differences, but there is a schoolmarmish, vaguely censorious undertone, suggesting they shouldn’t really be there if all was well with the world. (What to make of this? “Instead of hammering at men their emotional incapacity, we should invoke models of emotional masculinity other than those based on sexual capital.” In other words, I suppose, since men are actually romantically stunted, let’s encourage them to be good fathers and cry at sad movies. Workable on the page, but I doubt this epicene ideal is going to persuade in the bedroom.)

The second tension is her commitment to Marxist analysis, which erases the individual. It pushes the puzzle of sociology to the brink: if this is all about society, then is the individual a helpless agent of larger forces? “The widespread literature of Mars and Venus is nothing more than an attempt to understand in psychological terms what is in fact a sociological process,” she writes.

Illouz tries to qualify the conclusion that individuals don’t matter but she is too subtle and too smart to miss the complexity of the questions. And she is surely correct that something large is going on when romantic disappointments are soothed by “hooking up,” and sex, instead of being the volcanic core of romantic mystery, is reduced to a form of advertising.

We have learned the lesson from DVRs and Netflix that everything can be revisited, nothing is lost, nothing should be missed and it is easy to live alone and have needs provided for. The essential human need, to love and be loved, suffers from each technological boost to the energies of autonomy. Into this jaded and self-sufficient world, what chance love?

Why Love Hurts is not an easy read but it is an important book. Illouz does not pine for an earlier world. Modernity brought untold blessings to us all. But even its greatest goods come with serious costs. She quotes literature, as if uneasily aware that artists have done much of her sociological work before she got there. But she doesn’t address the spiritual condition of human beings, which does not change — that yearning for something greater than ourselves. Having lost classical faith, people often seek its substitute in romance. But as Borges taught us, falling in love is creating a religion with a fallible god. Sooner or later the worshipper will be disappointed and be forced to readjust expectations.

¤

The movie Quartet is based on a Somerset Maugham story that tells of a man whose wife publishes a book of poetry. He soon learns that all of London is talking about the work. In striking images, the poems describe a torrid affair. The husband grudgingly attends a party to celebrate his wife’s success and hears someone remark that such a book could only have come out of real experience.

He confronts his wife. She begs him to forget it, but he will not. Finally she confesses, yes they are based on reality. “Do I know the man?” he thunders. In a meek voice, she admits that he does and begs him not to go any further. But he cannot stop and demands to know who it is.

Finally in a soft voice, his wife answers, “It was you. It was you — as you were — all those years ago — in those happy days when we first met, and you loved me.” Her husband responds incredulously that the poems say that the lover died. He did, replies his wife. “The man that loved me died.”

The deepest magic of love is not first love but continuous love, which we know is not easy. But in our day even first love is not easy, either. Perhaps the title answers itself. Asking why love hurts is a little like asking why rain falls. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t love.

At one-film-a-year pace, Woody Allen not slowing down


Funny, serious, and controversial, Woody Allen’s films evoke many emotions—but his Jewish upbringing sticks out in them like a matzo ball in chicken soup.

With Allen’s new movie, “To Rome With Love,” opening this summer and his “Bullets Over Broadway” set for a musical theater adaptation, this 76-year-old American filmmaker is not slowing down and remains at the top of his game.

According to Leonard Quart, professor emeritus of cinema at the City University of New York Grad Center and contributing editor of Cineaste, Allen’s comic style and vision differ significantly from other Jewish filmmakers like Mel Brooks.

[The Woody Allen Israel Project: Help #sendwoody to Israel for his next film]

“Allen, in his middle period, was the more controlled, stylistically rich, and gifted director,” Quart told JNS.org. “His works then seamlessly combined the comic and pathetic, with characters who had internal lives, and weren’t merely cartoons. Brooks is the more manic and anarchic, and he can provoke belly laughs that Allen rarely does. Both engage in social criticism, though Brooks’ use of pop culture makes his work broader and less subtle. For a time, these two Brooklyn products, who did stand-up comedy and wrote for Sid Caesar, were, albeit in different ways, the two best American directors of comedy.”

Born Allan Konigsberg in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn (the son of Nettie, a bookkeeper at her family’s delicatessen, and Martin Konigsberg, a jewelry engraver and waiter), Allen’s parents were born and raised on the lower east side of Manhattan and his grandparents were German immigrants who spoke Yiddish. He pays homage to New York City in many of his films, including the critically acclaimed “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

Bespeckled, diminutive, and neurotic, Allen makes many short lists of the most important comedy directors of all time. A writing, acting and directing triple threat, he has received 15 nominations for Academy Awards, winning three.

For years, Allen has managed to release one film annually, oscillating between brainy comedies and stark dramas, full of funny wordplay and incisive characterizations. According to Foster Hirsch, author of Love, Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life: The Films of Woody Allen, Allen carved out a unique place for himself in American movies, becoming our national auteur as well as the most prolific director in the country, and creating a singular world with each film released since his first in 1969.

Hirsch said he was drawn to Allen’s films when he saw “Annie Hall.” “Something about that film struck a nerve,” he told JNS.org. “In my work I usually avoid comedy but something about his New York Jewish humor I respond to. It’s very fresh.”

Allen’s Jewish background has a total impact on his work, Hirsch said.

“Everything he writes and acts and films has direct roots in a New York Jewish sensibility, which he presents to the world, and he then becomes an ambassador of that sensibility,” Hirsch said. “In literature Philip Roth would be a good equivalent. What does that mean? There are a litany of complaints, grievances, family trauma, the over-possessive mother and the distant father, the feelings of exclusion and inferiority. All of the angst associated with being Jewish is transformed in Woody Allen and lit by his radiant humor.”

Allen is typically inspired by European filmmakers.  When “To Rome With Love” opened in June, he told Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times how profoundly Italian filmmakers influenced him.

“They invented a method of telling a story, and suddenly for us lesser mortals it becomes all right to tell a story that way,” Allen told Itzkoff. “We do our versions of them, never as shockingly innovative or brilliant as when the masters did them.”

Always serious about his art but never self-involved, Allen’s best work, like the masters he idolizes, touches deep human issues. Although rooted in a Jewish sensibility, his subjects are universal. For example, in Hirsch‘s favorite film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the universal issue of self-forgiveness resonates.

“It’s about a person forgiving himself for committing a horrendous crime,” Hirsch told JNS.org. “This is the one film of his that has continuing resonance for me. I cannot get the Martin Landau character out of my mind.”

Additionally, Allen’s “schlemiel” character—the outsider, apparent loser, underdog, and person not part of the dominant culture—is indeed imprinted on our collective consciousness.

“With his figure of the schlemiel, Woody Allen has made a permanent contribution to the history of American film,” Hirsch said. “His artistry is inseparable from his Jewishness.”

 

Israel is swamped with singles


Israelis are known for their gregarious behavior and love nothing more than spending time with their group of close friends. It’s a trait that is wreaking havoc among the quickly mushrooming singles population and threatens to have long-range anthropological effects on Israel’s future society.

“The impact of the singles revolution, or better called ‘the breaking-up revolution,’ is far reaching and has been leaving its mark in recent years on housing, economy, education and even the level of personal happiness,” writes Amit Zahavi-London in a new study on the singles scene in Israel.

Zahavi-London, who manages a dating service, maintains that modernization, pluralism and the rise in the standard of living can actually increase misery. “Perhaps it is temporary misery – a transition stage on the way to a society with new game rules.”

According to the statistics, in 1971 the chance of a 35-year-old woman in Israel being unmarried was 1 in 40. Today, at least one in four women of that age is unattached. The situation is the same with men. Reflecting trends in the West, Israel is also witnessing a sharp rise in the divorce rate.

“A few years ago being divorced was a disgrace, shameful. People wouldn’t even admit they were divorced. Now, in America, one out of every two couples is divorced. It’s a very common phenomenon. In Israel, it’s one out of three,” Prof. Oz Almog, a sociologist from the Israel Studies Department at Haifa University, told The Media Line. “Having a lasting marriage is becoming abnormal, and that’s no joke. We have to adapt.”

Israelis use the Hebrew term Panu’i or “seeking” to describe that growing chunk of the population looking for a relationship around which an industry has been built. According to those in the business, Panu’i is anyone over the age of 24 who is officially either divorced, widowed or has never been married and is looking for a partner. It excludes all those fantasizing or miserable or even happy married folks who just want to hook up with someone new.

The latest figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that 35% of Israeli women between the ages of 35-49 are “seeking.” For men, 42% between the ages of 35-39 are in this category. It drops to 35% between the ages of 40-44, and to 31% for the 45-49 age bracket.

As late as 1980, the Central Bureau of Statistics didn’t even list “divorced” as a category for family status; offering only “single” or “not single.” This drives home the fact that at that time, divorce was still on the margins.
“Dating sites have taken the place of the matchmaker with one exception,” Zahavi-London tells The Media Line. “In the past it was uncomfortable to admit one needed the services of a matchmaker and it was usually done clandestinely. Today, belonging to a dating service is very legitimate.”

Zahavi-London manages a dating site called “Shakuf B’Tzafon,” in northern Israel. She maintains that the Internet significantly widens the number of potential partners over the traditional ways of hooking up. They usually offer everything from hikes, to dance parties, bus tours, communal singing, folk dancing and even bowling events. 

But in reality, these events are very often attended by many more women than men; sometimes up to 80% are women.

“Women come to the parties in packs, not alone, whereas a man will come alone,” she explains. “Men are less social and less engaged and are embarrassed to come alone. They are more functional minded. If they come to an event and don’t find someone to go home with they won’t come back. But girls have a good time. If they don’t meet someone, then so what? They had fun and will come back hoping to meet someone the next time.”

Eviatar Ronen, a divorced 49-year-old events organizer with boyish, charming looks, says he finds Internet dating the best way to meet women. However, while he says he has enjoyed it, he suggests that it risks creating a culture of “alienation” from the more challenging real world.

“Dating is easy these days. There are lots of choices and if you don’t like it… click away and go to another group of choices,” Ronen tells The Media Line. “Internet dating sites create an illusion of getting closer to people but really it creates alienation. You just head to J-Date and login and it creates a sense that if things don’t work out, then you can just move on with the idea that you’ll find another one with another click of a button.”

Noga Martin, an editor in her 30s living in Tel Aviv, says she’s practically given up on Internet dating sites.

“I’ve tried. I have stopped counting. When I used to keep a running tally I think I went out with well over 60 guys and the conclusion I’ve drawn about Internet dating is that it reflects exactly what you would find if you weren’t using the Internet. People who are very sociable and outgoing find it very easy to meet people on the Internet and people who are more reserved or shy find it difficult,” says Martin who has big brown eyes and enjoys long walks on the beach.

“If you are in a bar or any real analogue social situation and someone comes up and talks to you, you might not be that interested in talking to them at first but you know, someone can have another chance. Whereas, if someone passes over you on an Internet site, there is nothing you can do,” she tells The Media Line.

Still, Zahavi-London argues that the Internet lets one cast a wider net.

“True, the alienation is easier, but why? It’s because you can reach a wider group of people now. In the past, it was harder to break-up because often you and your spouse were in the same circle of friends, or at work or in the neighborhood. Now, if it doesn’t work out, it is easier to cut-off because you don’t have to see them,” Zahavi-London says.

Ronen says that “seekers” who are put off by the blatant dating clubs and sites use other, more subtle activities to meet partners.

“Meditation classes, Yoga, Kabbalah studies, Tantra courses; it’s a meat market,” Ronen says. “Officially, it’s not a dating site but nevertheless, practically speaking, it is a very popular pick-up place and ironically, that’s because it doesn’t have that stigma.”

Ronen, who has lived abroad for extended periods, says he often finds Israeli single women very assertive.

“Israeli women can be very bold today and will come up to me and ask me for my business card and they ask me where I’m from and say ‘You’re so cute’,” he says. “Many of these are women are freed-up from a miserable relationship. They are saying to themselves that they live only once and they don’t give a damn and they deserve to enjoy life.”

Zahavi-London says that people seeking a partner are not necessarily interested in getting remarried but are mainly looking for a partner to take them out of their loneliness.

The “seekers” population in Israel is growing and not just because more and more people are divorcing, but because, as Prof. Almog, believes, it’s uniquely harder and harder to actually meet in Israel, regardless of the dating clubs. 

“Specifically in Israel we have extra difficulties,” Almog says. “One for them is our very inefficient public transportation network which makes it harder to meet up. Another thing is the lack of clubs and bars that cater for the middle aged, people above the age of 40—like me.”

Almog says this was because Israeli society itself is in-flux and the industry of night life is relatively new.

“We used to meet in each other’s apartment in our leisure time. And now, so many singles don’t have the right place and they don’t want to host someone in their apartment—why should they? Now, for them it’s difficult to adapt, and you know, there are so few bars that provide entertainment for mature people. It has to develop over the years. We have to think about people above forty.”

Almog, who has written extensively on Israeli culture, believes that the number of single people will grow, especially women, who will be inclined to do away with having a relationship altogether. He even believes that in the future women will start to live in communal dwellings, a sort of Amazonian kibbutz.

“They will say, ‘We don’t need the male full time. Let him be my neighbor and come to some arrangement that will gradually replace him’,” Almog quips. “Many people on Facebook do not accept term ‘relationship’. It’s not suitable for them. What we are going to have is a big large spectrum of relationships during a life course. It will be reflected in the different ways we are going to live. Many families will be temporary, they will change, and then we will live in a commune, then we will live alone, and then we will be together, with the kids, without the kids, kids coming back to our house, living with us, urban life, rural life, all sorts of things.”

“We are living in a twilight zone, sociologically speaking,” Almog says. “Researching the phenomenon of singles is actually researching the transformation of the human system.”

In love and defense


I have a complicated relationship with Israel. My younger brother made aliyah last year and is currently serving as a paratrooper in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), leaving me feeling simultaneously proud, nervous and occasionally nauseous all at once. We were raised in a Zionistic home with a strong legacy of Israel support — our grandparents collected money in little blue tzedakah boxes before Israel even became a state. My own schooling taught me the importance of being informed about complex Middle East issues; as an educator, I confront the media bias and hatred of Israel and instead promote positive messages about the country and her people. Through professional work, I also lead an annual student delegation from Los Angeles to Israel, where I continually experience the Jewish homeland through my students’ eyes. 

A 2007 study by sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman explained that American Jews’ connection to Israel drops off with each generation, leaving many youth alienated and apathetic about Israel’s future. Since that study, Hamas has come to power in Gaza, a barrage of rockets have fallen on southern Israeli cities, the world has shouted in outrage over the flotilla incident, the controversial and emotional prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit’s release occurred, and the United Nations bid for Palestinian statehood is ever looming. Yet, the majority of American Jews have not felt compelled to get involved and advocate for Israel’s security.

I surmise the reasons for this disconnect are in one’s upbringing, lack of Jewish education (not just from day schools but without the Jewish learning provided by religious schools, supplemental programs, camps and youth groups), and absence of positive, personal experiences in Israel that bind one to the land and the people. The silence in response to threats against Israel is not just limited to the youth, however. Many parents are not imbuing their children with support for the Jewish homeland because they, too, do not believe in its importance. Too comfortable and too assimilated in American society, just as Jews were in different societies throughout history before becoming a scapegoat, these parents do not see Israel’s existence as a beautiful culmination to centuries-old longing and an integral piece of our past and future.

Since Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War,  public perception of has changed from Israel’s being the sympathetic underdog that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to a powerful and accomplished nation. Particularly in the last decade, there seems to be a misplaced sense of liberalism that breeds exclusive concern for the Palestinians, coupled with virulent anti-Zionism (often cloaked anti-Semitism), affecting Jewish support.

Despite the 7,563 miles separating Los Angeles from Tel Aviv, my connection with Israel is strong and my commitment is unbreakable. Today I can say that I have come full circle — once a student at L.A. Hebrew High School, I’m now its program director. Israel and engagement in the Jewish community has always been a common thread in my life. Even during my college days, I was vice president of Hillel and a student leader with AIPAC. My administrative work today includes teaching a politics and values elective called Jewish Civics Initiative (sponsored by the Panim Institute), which happened to be my favorite class when I was 16 years old.  For the past four years, I also served as the Partnership Coordinator for the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership School Twinning Program, which seeks to deepen the connection between American and Israeli teenagers to create a shared sense of Jewish identity and destiny. It has been amazing for me to head the programs that I had been involved in as a student and that had such an impact on my personal growth. Through my position, I focus on leadership training, to give the students the tools they need to be successful ambassadors for the causes that matter to them.

My students are the exception to the majority in that they understand the importance of using their voice to defend and strengthen Israel. When we returned from the Jewish Federation’s annual delegation trip to Israel in December, I was overwhelmed by the breadth of student testimonies that attest to the necessity of providing students with actual experiences that connect them to Israel. They talked about the importance of visiting and learning about the land for themselves:

“All my life I heard about Israel. How I need to be pro-Israel and love the country. My relationship to Israel was outlined by others, but now I can develop my own opinions on Israel based on firsthand experience. I own it.”

“What I loved about this experience was that I really got to connect to my Jewish roots and appreciate how we are all different but all the same.”

“Being pro-Israel means understanding its history, its present situation and most of all, protecting its future.”

“I never realized how such an amazing place can have so many problems and conflicts that seem to never end. I hope many things for Israel, but above all I hope one day this country will be at peace. I hope a day will come when all the fear will not exist and Israel can live freely and be secure.”

Many participants spoke in length about the shared values that both America and Israel stand for and how moved they were in actually looking at all accomplishments that these countries of immigrants have achieved. The group of Israeli and American teens discussed how it does not matter where you are from, Jews all over the world are bound together through their shared memories, and Israel is the center. The opportunity to actually travel to Israel cemented their feeling of Jewish unity and commitment to ensuring a strong Jewish future.

As demonstrated by these students’ thoughtful reflections, despite claims to the contrary, students do care. When an issue speaks to them, they are passionate. But when it comes to Israel, they need to first feel a sense of love and pride for the country and then be given the tools to defend her. We do not need to teach that Israel is always right or to support every policy, but our silence is inexcusable.

Many organizations are already producing effective programming and resources to explain why support for Israel is essential and well deserved. It is time for us as educators, congregations, community leaders and parents to utilize them in designing meaningful programs that educate the greater community about Israel. To create the next generation of leaders, we cannot simply provide talking points, a list of Israel’s technological innovations, or screen Israeli movies while eating falafel, nor can we expect support of Israel just because the Torah states it was our land for thousands of years. All of those activities may have an impact, but none can be done in a vacuum and expected to be successful in the long run.

There needs to be a multitiered approach to help students (both affiliated and unaffiliated) build their own relationship with Eretz Yisrael. We should teach the history of the Jewish homeland and facilitate honest dialogue about its ongoing challenges, while also celebrating its diverse culture and encouraging travel to the country. When this experiential learning occurs, as evidenced from the declarations from the students that participated in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program, the youth will be empowered to answer the tough questions, correct misinformation with facts, and articulately respond to the anti-Israel rhetoric in college and throughout their life.

“I will fight because no one else will do it for me, no other nation will do what is necessary for Israel to survive,” my brother once wrote in an e-mail explaining to family and friends his reasoning for enlisting in the IDF.

He is right. Our actions are what define us, and this is our opportunity to act as Israel’s guardians and ensure that the Jewish homeland we dreamed about for so long continues to survive, thrive and hold meaning for future generations. One need not make aliyah and join the army, but we must find our own way to be a voice for Israel, whether it is in the media or over the dinner table.

“Israel is the greatest story ever told,” said one student from the Partnership program during our reflection activity in Tel Aviv. It is our responsibility to be the authors of our own narrative and keep telling it to future generations. Am Yisrael Chai.

Erica Solomon is program director for Los Angeles Hebrew High School (lahhs.org).

Opinion: Norma’s love


I’ve always been fascinated by romantic relationships that seem to last forever. When I hear of couples who remain deeply in love after 40, 50, 60 years of marriage, I imagine the thousands of meals they’ve shared together, the thousands of shared conversations, road trips, stories, arguments, conflicts, moments of silence, even moments of boredom that must come from knowing someone so well you can predict their every move.

In today’s dating scene, when a one-hour coffee date can seem like a long ordeal, I marvel at how a couple can go on a few thousand “dates” and still love each other. I mean, seriously, how much is there to talk about?

Well, I met a woman the other day, Norma Zack, who can’t remember ever being bored during the 63 years she spent with her husband, William, who passed away five years ago. Norma is a hopeless romantic. Her love for her husband was so deep that after he died, she had to move to another retirement home because the memory of his absence was too painful. But that didn’t make things any better. The hole in her heart was still there. She missed him more every day.

As simple as it sounds, she needed to find something else to love. She didn’t just miss her husband, she missed the very act of loving him. That act of loving kept her alive. She needed to fall madly in love again.

So she rekindled an old love affair — with words.

At 92, she decided she would become a full-time poet. She gathered some of her old poems and started writing new ones. Each day, she would work on her poems on any kind of paper she could find — from yellow legal pads to the backs of envelopes. After a few years of this, she had accumulated hundreds of papers filled with old scribbled poems and scratch marks.

But who would ever get a chance to enjoy these poems?

As it turns out, a UCLA English student, Laura Rivera, had started a weekly poetry class at the retirement home. She met Norma, fell in love with her poetry, and decided she would edit and publish a book of her poems.

For many months, Rivera met with Norma to go over the random pages of her poetry. She had to decipher the handwriting and the scratchy notes; some of the poems were incomplete. Eventually, they selected 28 poems and published them in a little booklet called, appropriately, “Simple Poems.”

The poems are about love, loss, renewal and simple encounters. In “Will I Be Content,” she wonders how she will cope without her husband: “Will I be content to hear the day’s sounds and songs/And know that he does not?/How can I stop dreams for him/When I have lived within his dreams?”

In “A Fable,” she writes about her search for wisdom: “Come, old man, sit by my side/What’s in the paper bag you hold so tight?/ I will tell you, he replies, if you promise to stay/Listeners are scarce.”

In “Marriage,” she reflects on marital bonds: “I had taken a vow. That was a blanket/To cover all life’s events/Some cracks appeared/Many healed unaided/Others became accepted/We let no space grow too far apart.”

In “Care Giver,” she speaks of the eternity of love: “When we were young lovers/You called me by many names/I answered all with pleasure/Today you call me without a name/I still answer your call.”

In “Too Late,” she writes about their last moment: “You cry out, ‘I’m sliding…’/I jump to hold you tight/To save you from the darkness/Beyond these walls.”

In “Visiting,” she sees a time when they will reunite: “I have watched the fields for many springs/Grow green with tender grasses/And have walked on the fallen winter snows/Clinging to the mound encircling your special space/You’ve seen me, slightly stooped, arms crossed/Walking silently round the markers…/Someday I shall cross the many miles/And on your grave I shall place/One small pebble and next to it/My heart.”

In “Forgetting,” she fears the loss of memory: “I look into the mirror to check myself/I am wearing my pearls/My hair is not combed/Lipstick is on/Wrinkled hose sit in mismatched shoes/Will everything soon be forgotten?/Will even I become/ The last thing I can’t remember.”

In “Unsaid Words,” she laments life’s missed opportunities: “How sad to have crossed paths frequently/Not knowing each other at all/It would not take too long to be strangers no longer/To you, I’d gladly spill all my memories/I’d let them fall as petals shaken from a tree/In exchange/ Talk to me, talk to me/I will clasp your words like lost children/Close to my heart.”

And in “For Simple Poetry,” she explains her art: “What’s wrong with simplicity/Sincerity enjoyed immediately/I hope that one poem reaches you like a summer breeze/Wonderfully cooling and refreshing/That will lie in your memory like the past/Of some lovely day.”

“I love words; I always have,” Norma told me when I met her at her retirement home. “It’s important to love a lot of things. That’s how I stay alive.”


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Valentine’s Day: Use what you’ve got


Valentine’s Day can be a tough time for a young Jew. Fancy restaurants do not cater well to our people. The last time I took a lady to a snooty eatery, the special was baked swiss-cheese-topped-pork stuffed into a lobster served on a picture of Jesus.

Why do we put ourselves through this fahklumpt meshugas? Why not treat your special someone to a romantic night right in your own home? What if you prepared this same sexy evening, from ingredients that you have left over from Jewish holidays? The possibilities, my friends, are endless.

Set the mood with candles. Hanukkah candles.

You’ve got a menorah just sitting on a shelf as a decoration? If that menorah had a Jewish mother it would get yelled at for being so lazy. Put it to work softly lighting the room, and watch your significant other marvel at your ability to create ambiance and your resourcefulness. If she asks why a menorah, look deeply into her eyes and say “because I never stop believing in miracles,” and kiss her, you smoothie.

What’s for dinner? What isn’t?

A romantic dinner comprised of Jewish leftovers from around the house could be any number of tantalizing combinations. When you think of a sexy dish, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Gefilte fish, I knew we were on the same page. What if you upped the ante and served up some Manischewitz-marinated Gefilte fish?  That latke mix box you’ve got lying around doesn’t make latkes, it makes, “salt-encrusted potato medallions.” You just created a fancy dinner and freed up pantry space (for more Gefilte fish).

Sukkot: The gift that keeps on giving.

What is the point of a gift like chocolates? They’re gone when you eat them, and then you forget about them. A gift should be something practical, something you can really use in your daily life. I say, take the wood and hammers you used to make your sukkah, and gift them to your lady. She’ll always have them as a reminder of your romantic gift-giving skills and thoughtfulness. Who knows what she could create with them? As long as she doesn’t build a chuppah, you can’t go wrong.

Sprinkle rose petals on the bed? More like sprinkle matzah.

Why would you waste perfectly good flowers creating a sexy atmosphere when you’ve got what you need collecting dust in the back of the pantry since last April? Keep those flowers in a vase and crumble (let’s be honest—it’s already crumbled) some matzah on that bed. What you lack in traditional symbols of love you will gain in the cute, uniting task of gathering all the tiny matzah bits when they get everywhere. And have you ever been with your lady on top of a bed of matzah? I won’t make a find the Afikomen joke here, but she will, and she’ll thank you for it.

Put all these steps together, and you’ve got yourself a sexy dinner for two followed by an intensely romantic evening. A successful evening and using all your Jewish holiday leftovers? Now that’s a good Tuesday. Just be sure to save the Purim noisemakers for some fun in the bedroom.

No healing the world here — Humanistic Jews are ‘building’ the world


Rabbi Greg Epstein, the young Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, maintains that the question “Do you believe in God?” is totally meaningless and that “tikkun olam,” to repair the world, is the wrong concept.

But he also affirms that religion will never disappear and that the “New Atheists” don’t have the answers to meeting human needs.

In his 31 years, Epstein seems to have done most everything, from being a singer and composer in a professional rock band to studying ancient Aramaic literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

During a lengthy phone conversation, he previewed some of the points he will raise when he speaks at Rosh Hashanah services at Adat Chaverim, the local Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, points that he analyzes more deeply in his forthcoming book, “Good Without God.”

Humanistic Jews do not believe in an omnipotent supernatural power, “but in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to be,” he said.

“If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if your god stands for nature, or the universe, or love, that’s fine,” he added.

“The real point is that this is the only world we can ever know and that this life is the only chance we get to make a difference.”

Epstein also thinks that the oft-repeated injunction to repair the world misses the mark, because it assumes there once was a perfect world, which degenerated and must now be fixed.

“I prefer the phrase ‘bniyat olam,’ to build the world,” Epstein said. “Humanistic Judaism teaches that there never was a utopia, but this lack of perfection is no excuse for intellectual or spiritual laziness.

“We must build our relationship to our fellow humans and the world brick by brick, for we are responsible for one another and no one else will do the work.” He added facetiously, “The most pernicious rhyme in our language is ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the idea that there was once a perfect white egg which shattered into a million pieces, and no one could put it together again.”

Many, but not all, Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but Epstein is no fan of such popular proponents of the “New Atheism” as writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

In an early story about these writers in Wired Magazine, the cover proclaimed “No heaven, no hell — just science.”

That distillation oversimplified a “painfully complex” question, Epstein said. “Science is the best tool for determining the truth about us, but that is not the same as doing something about it. It is not enough to just observe, we must engage in our community and do something.”

Epstein also distinguishes his philosophy from that of Jewish, mostly Yiddish-speaking, secularists of previous generations, who maintained that religion would ultimately disappear as mankind became increasingly rational.

“Religion is not primarily about faith in God; it is about community, identity, heritage and being of service to others,” he said. “We Humanists must also do more to meet these needs, rather than complain about what others believe.

“As a friend pointed out to me, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, he did not say, ‘I have a list of complaints,’ but ‘I have a dream.'”

Questioned about the role of religion in the current presidential race, Epstein recalled that slamming the other candidate’s religion or piety has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics.

In the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, an Adams partisan, swiftboated Jefferson in the following advertisement.

“The Grand Question Stated: At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD _ AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson – and no god!!!”

Epstein was born in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., then a widely diverse, multiracial community, and he had his bar mitzvah in a local Reform synagogue.

“It seemed to me then that no one took the message of religion seriously, and everyone recited prayers just by rote,” he said. “So I soon started exploring everything except Judaism and visiting every place except Israel.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Epstein studied Buddhism in Taiwan and China, then joined the rock band Sugar Pill and recorded two albums. Like many of his contemporaries, Epstein said, “I wanted to express myself through art and music, rather than religion.”

At this point, Epstein discovered the pioneer Humanistic Judaism congregation established by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in suburban Detroit, and “I finally connected to my heritage, but also realized that I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me.”

The process began with five years of study in suburban Detroit and Jerusalem at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, followed by a master’s degree in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, and another master’s degree in theology and comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School.

Four years ago, he became a chaplain at Harvard, where he advises students in the Secular Society, Interfaith Council and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community.

Epstein’s thoughts are frequently expressed in national publications and on radio networks, and he is one of a select group of invited panelists for the On Faith blog, started jointly by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there are 1.6 million American adults and children who define themselves as “just Jewish,” and who are either secular or without any denominational affiliation.

Epstein said that one out of five young American Jews between ages 18 and 25 fall into that category, and that globally 1.1 billion human souls do without formal religion.

If all secular and unaffiliated American Jews joined together, they would form the country’s second largest Jewish denomination, barely trailing Reform membership.

The problem for Epstein and other Humanist leaders is that the 1.6 million are not organized and are not joining the existing congregations/communities of the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

After more than 40 years on the North American scene, the movement claims only some 10,000 adherents and 30 congregations, according to national executive director M. Bonnie Cousens.

Only six of the congregations are led by ordained rabbis, the others by lay leaders or “madrichim.”

What accounts for the low figures, given the large pool of potential members?

There are no clear-cut answers, but Cousens and other national leaders speculate that secular Jews, having arrived at this state through personal doubts and mental wrestling, are just not prone to join any organization.

Another cause may be that there is still, at times, an onus attached to “coming out” as a secular or atheistic Jews, though reactions by more traditional Jews seem less shocked and outraged than in the past.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, bemoaned the society’s lack of popular visibility, saying, “There are so many Jews out there just waiting to discover us.”

Epstein is more upbeat. Drawing on his four-year experience at Harvard, he said that in the beginning only four students regularly attended his meetings.

Now his meeting rooms are crowded and last year, when he organized an international conference on “The New Humanism,” some 1,100 people attended.

“We may be a small minority, but minority groups can have a profound impact on mass movements,” he said. “Even now, I believe, liberal mainstream congregations are speaking more to human needs than divine needs.”

To have a growing impact, Humanistic Jews “must sing and must build, and I mean that literally and metaphorically,” he said.

So Epstein is hopeful, but within reason. Quoting playwright Tony Kushner, Epstein said, “We are optimists, but we are not stupid optimists.”

Stars come out for Jews in Cuba; Fall in love with Judaism


Stars Come Out for Jews in Cuba

ALTTEXT
Event co-chairs Michael Arnall, Adam Winnick, Jackie Flesh, Michelle Flesh, Daniella Essako and Dan Flesh accept a $5,000 check from The Jewish Federation. Photo by Rachel Heller

Hundreds of well-dressed, young Jewish philanthropists packed Cuban restaurant La Bodeguita de Pico the night of Aug. 14 to show off their support of the Cuban Jewish community.

The “GenD: Making a Difference” fundraiser, hosted by Los Angeles-based social action initiative, GenD, took in more than $62,000 to help sponsor food, medical and cultural programs for Cuban Jews through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

West Los Angeles native Jackie Flesh, 25, founded GenD earlier this year after a trip to Cuba with the JDC to see their relief efforts in action.

“I saw how much of an effort people make to preserve the Jewish religion and maintain a connection with their past,” she said of the country’s 1,500-member Jewish community. “It was really inspiring. The community is so tight-knit.”

When she got back home, Flesh joined forces with several siblings and friends to continue to support the JDC’s work. “We wanted to show our age group doing something positive,” she said. “We’re so happy — every dollar we make does something good over there.”

Attendees at the event, mainly in their 20s and 30s, sipped on cosmos and mojitos from the open bar and puffed on — what else? — Cuban cigars as they listened to a live Cuban band. Many bid on silent auction items, such as Madonna concert tickets, Dodgers tickets, an Ed Hardy gift certificate and a sparkling Stila cosmetic set.

Actress Mischa Barton made a brief appearance, and socialite Nicky Hilton showed up with producer David Katzenberg.

The funds raised will support JDC programs in Cuba, such as a Jewish summer camp for children, bar and bat mitzvah lessons and a weekly Shabbat chicken dinner at a Jewish community center, explained Sarah Eisenman, JDC program director for NextGen engagement.

The Jewish Federation, which co-sponsored the evening with the JDC and L.A. Direct, presented Flesh and the other GenD chairs with a $5,000 check to aid the effort.

“This is exactly what the Jewish community asks of young people — that they take the initiative to help others,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, where the Flesh family is members.

Wolpe praised the young crowd for showing their support by simply showing up.

“The fact that you’re here helping people who you’ve never met and likely will never meet doesn’t only change them,” he told attendees, “it changes you.”

— Rachel Heller, Contributing Writer

Fall in Love With Judaism

ALTTEXTIn ancient Jerusalem, the holiday of Tu B’Av was celebrated when unmarried women would dress in white and dance through the vineyards, hoping to catch a man’s eye. JConnectLA put a modern spin on the ancient ritual with an Aug. 14 “Love Fest,” a late-night romp at Fu’s Palace that focused on Jewish culture over romance.

But not everyone gave up on love. Michal Taviv, JconnectLA’s program director, donned a wedding dress for the occasion.

Jewish pride seeped through every act: Moshav and comedian Smooth-E entertained a raucous crowd; Modern Tribe, Jewcy, Rabbi’s Daughters and Threaded Heritage sold their goods in a “Heebster shuk” (thongs with Jewish catchphrases, anyone?); Rabbi Yonah and Rachel Bookstein, creators of Jewlicious, presided over “Instant Matchmaking”; and author and event co-organizer, Lisa Alcalay Klug, debuted her new book, “Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe.”

“There is an organic synergy between the work JConnectLA does and the aims of Jewlicious and my own aims,” Alcalay Klug said. “My book is celebration of Jewish culture, a rally call to identify as a proud and informed Jew — it elevates Jewish unity and community and having fun with who we are.”

It’s the new Tu B’Av: Fall in love with being Jewish.

Photo: Michal Taviv and Elliot Schiff dress up in full regalia and go all out for Love Fest ’08.Photo by Jonah Light Photography