September 25, 2018

Hot Dogs, Knishes and Death

A Hebrew National hot dog wrapped in a potato knish AKA hush puppy

In my final column for the Jewish Journal today, I got the chance to thank publicly many of the people who helped, inspired and supported me over the years.

Marlene Adler Marks was one of them. She was managing editor when I started at the Journal.   She wrote a weekly column called “A Woman’s Voice” in the days when there were few female columnists taking on subjects beyond family life. It was, alas, the days before the Internet too, so the column never got far beyond LA. That’s a shame, because Marlene was too good for analogue.   She always wanted a bigger readership, and her writing—original, strong, unafraid—deserved it.

Her best column was her last. She was diagnosed with interstitial lung cancer at age 52.   What a joke: she never smoked, not once. In all the times we ate lunch together, all I remember her eating was cut fruit.   She was whippet-thin, a yoga fanatic long before there were $40 T-shirts saying, “Yoga Fanatic.”   When we went to one of those fundraising banquets— which, by the way, I will not miss, not for one second—Marlene would drink a glass of red wine– and eat a fruit plate.

After diagnosis, she lived two more years:  54.

The column, published August 31, 2002, is entitled, “Oh So Sorry.”    (The Journal posted it in 2014.) Today, just before I was about to Tweet the link to a friend, I re-read it. She wrote it during the period just before the High Holy Days, so on the eve of the eve of Yom Kippur, it feels more like liturgy. She wrote about why denying ourselves the pleasure of food can only lead to regret. The older I get, the more profound, sad and funny this column is.   Here’s a taste:

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

My new High Holiday tradition to add to the apples, honey and fasting: re-reading Marlene.

 

 

The clout of Judge Stanley Mosk

A new biography of California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk opens with an apt quote from the late and much-loved Jewish Journal columnist Marlene Adler Marks: “Mosk,” Marks wrote in these pages in 1997, “is California history with a heartbeat.”

Mosk entered public service during a certain golden age of California, a period during which the administration of Gov. Pat Brown was building highways, dams and a public university, while his attorney general, Stanley Mosk, continued his own lifelong commitment to achieving social justice through the rule of law. Today, Mosk’s legacy is arguably more important — and even more enduring — than Brown’s.

“[T]here were few people who could rival the seventy years of influence Stanley Mosk had on the evolution of California law, the administration of justice, politics and social policy,” write co-authors historian Jacqueline R. Braitman and law professor Gerald F. Uelmen in “Justice Stanley Mosk: A Life at the Center of California Politics and Justice” (McFarland, $45). “The City of Los Angeles, the State of California, indeed the United States of America had all been changed by his life, in ways both subtle and dramatic.”

Braitman’s and Uelmen’s biography, both scholarly and spirited, for example, tells of how, as a Superior Court judge in 1947, Mosk issued the courageous ruling that invalidated covenants in grant deeds restricting resale of a property to members of racial minorities, a stain of legalized racism that can be found in countless residential chains-of-title across Southern California, including the one to the house in which I live today.

Mosk was, among other things, the longest-serving justice in the history of the state high court (1964-2001), and it was there that he wrote himself into both law and history. “The real monuments to Stanley Mosk … lie in the pages of the official California Reports, where the opinions of the California Supreme Court are available for public inspection,” explain the authors. “The crisp logic, passion and eloquence of Justice Mosk’s majority and dissenting opinions continue to influence the law of California and the nation.”

When Mosk was elected to the office of attorney general in 1958, he was the first Jewish statewide office-holder since the Gold Rush era. “In many ways, Stanley Mosk was the archetypal Jewish liberal,” the authors explain. “His progressive-liberalism reflected a shift by many in the secular Jewish immigrant community whose politics emerged from historical exigencies as well as religious tenets.” He was born in 1912 in San Antonio to a family of recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; he was known by his first name — Morey — until he changed his full name to Stanley M. Mosk when he first ran for public office. But his interest in politics started early, when Stanley and his younger brother, Ed, started an autograph collection: “The Mosk brothers wrote to every elected official alive, senators and congressmen, surviving presidents and vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, and anyone else they could imagine to add to their collection of autographed envelopes….”

As it turned out, the adolescent Mosk grew up to be a public figure of remarkable sweep and influence. “Nearly every political campaign of note, from the rise of Earl Warren and Richard Nixon, through the administrations of governors Goodwin Knight, Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis directly involved Stanley Mosk in one way or another,” the authors point out.

To their credit, the authors do not neglect the rare moments of tumult that boiled up in Mosk’s long career of public service. In 1964, Mosk was the likely choice to fill the Senate seat of the dying Claire Engle, until an LAPD surveillance report from 1958 suddenly surfaced in the media — Mosk, it was alleged, had attended a “freak party” at the West Hollywood home of a convicted bookmaker in the company of “a rogue’s list of individuals who were alleged to be ‘sex degenerates’ and ‘advocates to the Communist Conspiracy.’ ” One of those rogues turned out to be an attractive 20-year-old woman with whom Mosk had conducted a long-term affair.

“The double life he led for so many years is an important window into a full understanding of the man,” the authors write. “Despite his judicial and political experience, he may have been somewhat naïve in viewing romantic dalliance as unrelated to his official duties. He was also a partner in a marriage [to his wife, Edna] that locked two very ambitious people together in a powerful political alliance, but may not have offered much intimacy for either partner.” Although they make no apologies for his conduct, they wonder out loud: “Perhaps Mosk was a closet hippie, who was born a little bit too early to roam the Sunset Strip. Perhaps he was truly in love.”

Fatefully, the scandal that cost him a shot at the Senate did not deny him a seat on the California Supreme Court. At the age of 52 he took the oath of office, and he would spend the next 37 years on the high court, “longer than any Justice before or since.” By the year 2000, he had written some 1,436 opinions, thus making him “the most productive justice in the history of the court.” What we learn from “Justice Stanley Mosk” is that Mosk was not only a prolific jurist, but a consequential one, and the world we live in today has been shaped in significant way by his life and work.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

First Person – God Laughs?

This column first ran on July 26, 2002, and is one of a series that the beloved former managing editor of The Journal wrote about her life and her battle with cancer. She died on Sept. 5, 2002. She was 54.

My girlfriend “E” was the first to declare what others had been observing for a while.

“God sure is having a good laugh,” she said. “You write a column called ‘A Woman’s Voice.’ And yet you have no voice.”

The irony had crossed my mind.

Lance Armstrong, the bicyclist, had testicular cancer. Beverly Sills, the opera singer, has two daughters who are deaf. Is there “meaning” in the fact that I, who have for some years traveled the country public speaking, and whose professional identity is hung up on the moniker of this column, cannot be heard?

I haven’t had a speaking voice in more than a month. I whisper, a frog croaking through the bulrushes.

My right vocal cord is paralyzed. While speaking, which I assure you doesn’t hurt, I puff like I’m running a marathon. I take an hour to eat scrambled eggs.

Still, if you ask me, God has nothing to do with it.

The loss of a voice carries a surprising spiritual threat: friends act as if some crucial part of me were gone. Inside my head, I still yammer away, brilliant on the topics of WorldCom, ImClone and Israel. But when I open my mouth, I become like Hannah before the Tabernacle. My every chortle and grimace is subject to misinterpretation.

The phone rings. The caller is disoriented: Who am I? I rush to reassure them: I’m OK. I feel fine. When I had chemotherapy, I continued to sound like myself. I would call my parents in New York right after treatment ended. Sitting tall, I was convincingly strong and congruent.

These days, without a voice, identity is not so much gone as taken on faith. I have faith that the situation is only temporary. My community has faith that I’ll be restored to myself, New York accent and all.

We are known by how we sound. Sound — our laugh, our cry, the song we hum — is the beginning of identity.

We know that God stands watch at night by the natural and unnatural sounds of the universe: the roar of the wind, the bray of the ass, the bark of a dog, the sound of a baby’s cry.

I listen for God’s comfort at night, and offer the silence of praise.

But is God laughing?

Judaism has struggled since the Holocaust to remove God from the nation’s “Most Wanted” list — the “intervening punisher God” with a wicked sense of humor.

As for you and me, the good people that bad things happen to, we’re our own worst enemy: We keep asking “Why?” as if there’s an answer. We remain committed to a God who can’t wait to pull the tablecloth out from under us.

We seek out “God the sadistic entertainer” when all other explanations fail. Lacking all other reasons, we fall back to a punitive concept, that we deserve punishment; that perhaps God never liked us to begin with.

But illness has shown me another God, one of comfort. The “loathsome trickster God” offers nothing, not even to say, “I don’t know.”

There is no reason why this has happened. Life is inherently unpredictable. Diseases, like lung cancer, have more ups and downs than a soap opera. Like “Anna Karenina” you laugh or cry, and sometimes both.

It’s funny, at least to me, that since losing my voice, I can’t interrupt anyone, not even to tell a joke. I have learned to listen to news reports rather than comment on the haircut of the newscaster. Now that I listen to conversation, I’m no longer the smartest person in any room, so far as you could tell.

The condition won’t last forever. Soon, I’ll have a silicon implant that has nothing to do with breast enhancement. I’m told it will smooth out my vocal cord and will restore my voice to normal. I’m saving my best repartee until then.

“Man plans and God laughs,” is what we say in difficult times, as if God were Henny Youngman.

If so, God can find me right here.

 

Your Letters

Palestinian Perspective

My thanks to The Jewish Journal for opening its pages to a Palestinian American journalist living in Los Angeles to present a Palestinian perspective on why they initiated an intifada two years ago (“Intifada Fruits: A Palestinian Perspective,” Oct. 4). At the end of Muhammed El-Hasan’s article, he seemed to imply that the intifada grew out of Palestinian frustration at what former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered the Palestinians at Camp David and later at Taba, Egypt. The issues he presented for their frustration were not the real reasons for the failure. The two major items that separated the two sides were contained in former President Clinton’s bridging proposals. They involved Jerusalem and sovereignty over the Temple Mount. It should be pointed out that Barak had agreed to Clinton’s bridging proposals and Arafat did not. Furthermore, Arafat scuttled the peace talks in crossing Israel’s most sacred red line by insisting on the Palestinian right of return.

While there was urgent need for further negotiations between the two sides, the Palestinians resorted to violence and terrorism. This is the major cause of today’s tragic situation. It is indeed a pity, and it is about time the leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people assume responsibility for the options they choose and their consequences.

Dr. Michael Ben-Levi President Meretz USA Southern California Chapter

Watson’s Peers

In Mike Levy’s piece, “Support for Israel Elementary to Watson” (Oct. 4), he described the recent “primary defeats of African American incumbents Earl Hilliard in Alabama and Cynthia McKinney in Georgia” and comments that the two incumbents “were defeated with the help of Jewish organizations and individuals.” He should also have mentioned that the winners in both Democratic primaries — Arthur Davis in Alabama and Denise Majette in Georgia — are African American as well.

Hal Denner , Sherman Oaks

CAMERA

Jeffrey Dvorkin takes CAMERA to task but doesn’t address any of its many complaints against NPR (“CAMERA Out of Focus,” Oct. 4). He does not even address the issue raised by Andrea Levin that Israelis are not permitted to answer charges made against it by NPR. Dvorkin is an advocate, apologist and spokesman for NPR. This is not the legitimate role of an ombudsman.

Mike Michelson, Mission Viejo

It’s Not Easy Backing Simon

The left (i.e., those who still believe that appeasement is the path to peace in the Middle East), are suddenly discovering that free speech isn’t free. There is a price to pay for taking positions that are not popular, and there always has been. The fact that the vast majority of Jews in America reject the left’s views does not mean that “honest and open discourse” cannot take place or that there are “some serious limits” on free speech. It means that they are losing the argument.

To illustrate the utter childishness of those on the left who are whining about their supposed inability to express unpopular views, all one needs to do is turn the page to the story about Dr. Joel Strom who was told, “You are a traitor to your people” at a Santa Monica synagogue for the grievous sin of supporting Republican Bill Simon for governor (“It’s Not Easy Backing Simon,” Sept. 27).

Which end of the spectrum was it that gave us political correctness?

Ira Mehlman, Marina del Rey

An Inch Late, a Dollar Short

Having read your “An Inch Late, a Dollar Short” (Sept. 27) three times, all sorts of memories spanning six decades came flooding back. The snubs, disdain, contempt, etc. inflicted on so many Jewish height-challenged fellas that I witnessed may be of use to you in some future article. The attitudes of so many Jewish females concerning height may be masking some deeper feelings that cause them to be so rejecting. There may be deeper issues behind the ladies’ repugnance.

Name Withheld Upon Request, Glendale

Nobody Likes Saddam

President Bush has no proof on Iraq. Waiting for proof is like waiting for the sky to fall. Your article in this regard is quite an understatement (“Nobody Likes Saddam,” Sept. 27). Should we be afraid of Saddam Saddam? Yes. Should and can he be contained? Yes. Through the U.N. inspections and resolutions. Saddam has been seriously weakened through embargo and exposure. Bush and his cohorts are frightened men and are fear-mongering and trying to distract us from the real fears of the weakened economy and business immorality.

The question of war is more than not idle. War is terrible, costly, and is a failure. Imagining terrible things happening in the United States without a complete and total wipeout retaliation of Iraq by our country is absurd and insane. That’s insane, Hussein is not.

Isaac Motola, Pasadena

Kudos on Covers

Many thanks to Carvin Knowles for the thought-provoking covers of Sept. 6, Sept. 13 and Sept. 27.

It’s not often that l am so moved by a front cover that I check to see the name of the designer. The one of Sept. 6, “A Time to Reflect,” shows the reflection of the World Trade Center disaster on an apple that is next to a bee (our symbols of hope for a sweet upcoming year). This cover brings chills to me, whenever I see it. I have shown the cover to other people. I know the covers have been criticized in the past (Arafat caricature), so l wanted to express a thanks for these covers.

Judy Lederich-Mayer, Sherman Oaks

The Silencing of the Left?

The real loneliness has been on the right for many years (“The Silencing of the Left?” Sept. 27). Those of us who questioned the wisdom of Oslo were labeled as enemies of peace when all we said is that Yasser Arafat will never be a Nelson Mandela.

Oh, of course there was lip service for a variety of views. A great exhibit of this was some two years ago when The Jewish Federation put on a community meeting just after of the violence broke out. My solitary voice that challenged the then-accepted wisdom that Oslo was “good for the views” faced six other opinions that ranged from the extreme left of Peace Now to the moderate middle of “maybe there are some flaws in the process but essentially it is good.” That was balance then and, alas, I doubt The Journal ever did a piece on the isolation of the right.

The problem today is not that the left is isolated because of some kind of group-think. Their intentions may have been noble, but simply put, their ideas have failed. Some still cling irrationally to a dream that has proven unrealistic.

The left needs to take some responsibility for what it has done. Today Israel, instead of being somewhat safe with the master terrorist cooped up in Tunis, faces an enemy armed by Israeli guns. Those guns, and the empowerment provided by the dreamers of left to the Palestinians has forever transformed the Middle East into a place much more dangerous for Jews — and Arabs also.

Rabbi David Eliezrie President Rabbinical Council of Orange County

Jewish Values and Work

I took notice of two articles in the Sept. 27 issue: Rabbi David Saperstein and Rachel Wainer’s article on “Sukkot and Our Duty To Alleviate Poverty” and Julie Gruenbaum Fax’s article “The Silencing of the Left?”

In both articles, my colleagues passionately connected their work to Jewish values and Torah. Indeed, it is our passion for what Jewish traditions, history and values teach us that drives our social justice work, not just the other way around. The important work of the organizations that are summarily described as “the left” represent the support of significant numbers of affiliated and unaffiliated Jews.

Whether it be a focus in the Middle East or at home in the United States it is projects and organizations whose missions are driven by our Jewish traditions of tikkun olam that are resonating with increasing numbers of supporters, especially from many Jews in our community who have been disconnected from mainstream Jewish institutions.

Celia Bernstein, West Coast Director The Shefa Fund

Marlene Adler Marks

It’s reflex, I suppose. I can’t help it. Is anyone else out there opening The Jewish Journal each week since Marlene Adler Marks’ passing, only to find herself or himself looking for her? I know that many of us would turn to her column soon after opening The Jewish Journal’s pages. I miss it. I miss her spicy yet gently irate reactions to injustice. And even though I’m confessing this secret, I’m still looking.

Leah Schweitzer, Valencia

Oh So Sorry

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

Saturday is Selichot, the time when the whole Jewish world sings with Connie

Francis, “I’m sorry,” and vows to do better next time. Many of us are focused on the wrongs we’ve done to others, or even to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More hot dogs. More fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much gets squeezed on to a hot dog.

Minority Report

Would I really care to know the future? Facing lung cancer, I am periodically asked, "How long do you have?" I respond, "How about you? How long do you have?"

No one of us knows the number of our days, or anything else for sure. A fortuneteller in New York read my Tarot cards.

"Don’t worry about anything," she said. So I don’t.

How much do I worry about the future? I worried when the radiologist said my hair might never grow back. Yet here I am with a mohawk. A lot of good worry did me. Life, you know, can change on a dime. That’s what makes us human.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t obsess about the future, tooth-breaking, pension-fund losses. Forget those who say they live in the here-and-now. They’ll never eat a tongue sandwich, and what fun is that?

Steven Spielberg’s new film, "Minority Report," is not exactly a deep take on the problems of "knowing," but since you’ll probably see it anyway, here’s where it brought me.

The film, based on a science fiction story by Philip K. Dick, argues that the future can indeed be known. Moreover, our security depends upon finding a Pinchas, a zealot who knows what crimes are being committed, and personally stops them. So anxious are we to hire this Pinchas, this future-knower, that we would sacrifice our freedoms for him.

It is 2054 in a dark, police-state Washington, D.C, all murder has been foretold by three mermaid-type creatures called "precogs," so named because they have pre-cognition. The crimes are prerecorded in the future, then replayed in real time, at which point they are interrupted and prevented by a "precrime" squad headed by John Anderton (Tom Cruise), the very Pinchas we are seeking. Pretty neat.

We watch on translucent computer screens as a husband is shown killing his wife after finding her in bed with her lover. It’s hard to look away from those screens as the future dances by. When the murder is about to occur, Anderton swoops onto the real-life crime scene exactly like Pinchas in last week’s Torah portion. He interrupts that very murder we were watching. Unlike the biblical Pinchas, a life has been saved.

The film lost me soon after, as plot holes appeared. Yet it was enticing. The same precogs, recording the future in order to prevent murders, could also be recording ordinary life, the births, love affairs, scientific advances.

These precogs, if we had them now, would know everything; how long I have to live, and if the clinical trial will work.

But would I want that? Isn’t interrupting normal life a form of "zealotry," too — destroying the mystery and the magic of life unknown? Pinchas could satisfy curiosity about my personal fate, but he’d also be tinkering around with hope.

Judaism teaches the hope of the future, as well as the dangers of prediction. It says that when faced with knowledge of the future, we usually lack self-control.

The first "precog," was the serpent, predicting that Eve could be enticed to eat from the tree. But what was the genius in that? God "knew" that it was a frustrating set-up: eat from this tree, but not from that. Adam and Eve were merely acting according to plan, manipulated by the serpent into being the curious, inquisitive humans they were created to be.

The matriarch Sarah, too, had "precognition." She knew Abraham’s destiny — that he would lead a people "as numerous as the stars in the sky." Her problem was using this knowledge to meddle. Sarah planted the idea that her concubine, Hagar, could produce an heir for husband concubine. She didn’t trust the future to be revealed on its own.

So too, Rebekah’s "knowledge" of her twins’ destiny brought trouble. What would have happened had she not encouraged Jacob to pose as Esau? Would Isaac have given his blessing to the "wrong" son?

And where does that leave me? If I knew all, would I stop eating Dove bars for nutrition or doing my yoga? Knowledge could shatter hope.

I believe in hope. I’ve heard Rosemary Clooney sing "Hey There" which says everything about the hope of love. Clooney died of lung cancer last week at 74, despite years of depression and drug abuse.

"Though he won’t throw a crumb to you. You think some day he’ll come to you," she sang.

What else is there to know?

Talk to Me

I owe my life’s work to Ann Landers. And, of course, her sister, Dear Abby. Dr. Rose Franzblau. And Dr. Joyce Brothers.

It happened this way.

In our New York home, my parents subscribed to three daily newspapers. Mom and Dad are enthralled by the tabloids. Even today, they read newspapers in the kitchen or the living room. Each page is like a hit in the ribs. They regale themselves with stories of which politician is on the take, which star is on the make and murders gone unsolved. They got a big kick out of Frank Sinatra and remembered every Jewish charity he supported, and how he cared for his mother.

It’s part of the shtetl mentality that I inherited, that the world is fascinating because people make it so.

I was already following the family tradition of reading and gossiping when I hit what I’m sure my parents still consider "the miserable years." You would think I was the only teen who wanted her own phone or who had a boyfriend taking up her time.

And so the ice age began, when I didn’t talk to them, or they to me. Our dinnertime was frost.

"How was school?" Mom would say. Dad wouldn’t bother asking.

"Why do you need to know?" I would reply. It deteriorated from there, until I’d finished my cherry Jell-O and my brother and I had cleared the table.

An hour later, I’d be in my room studying the American immigrant experience. When I looked up, there on my blue jewelry box was the newspaper clipping of the day, placed there by whichever brave parent had the nerve to come into my sanctum.

Wisdom had arrived. One of the advice columnists had written precisely the words that brought my father and mother comfort, confidence that this phase was not life or death. It would pass.

"Talk to each other," was the gist of it. "Make peace in the home."

Later on, just before the 11 p.m. news, my father would say, "Did you read it?"

And I would grunt, yes. It wasn’t quite a truce, but it was the best we could manage until the next day’s installment.

As the obits this week remind us, Ann Landers, born Esther Pauline Friedman, and her twin sister, Pauline Esther Friedman (Dear Abby) had a running competition in the newspapers my parents read each day. They were Russian Jewish girls from Sioux City, Iowa, where their father sold chickens.

These columnists, in a sense, are the next step after the Bintel brief, a popular feature of the Jewish Daily Forward. The Bintel brief was written (by men) to explain America to a generation of confused immigrants. The advice columnists, writing in English, were naturals in the area that so many children of immigrants shine: common sense. The New York Times said that Ann Landers’ appeal was that she wrote in what has been called a wise-cracking style out of Damon Runyon. These advice columnists took America seriously, but not too seriously. Which is why they appealed across the generations.

Do we still need such bridge-builders? In the Southern California Living section of Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Hax, the Washington Post advice columnist, suggested the answer is "no."

"It’s not that hard for anyone to get expert advice now," she said. "You can get legal advice in a minute on the Internet."

But expertise was never the appeal of these features, though it was nice that Ann Landers buttressed her liberal opinions with religious and legal authorities like Father Theodore Hesburg and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. The appeal to my dad was the voice of comfort, as the human dilemma confounded itself again and again.

It’s no small thing to give an audience comfort. A great columnist puts the world in order, finding wisdom merely by an anecdote and a bit of dialogue. I grew up in an age of great columnists, privileged to read on any weekday in the New York Post: Max Lerner, Murray Kempton, James Wechsler, then Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and Nora Ephron.

They wrote about which politician is on the take and which star is on the make, and murders gone unsolved. Every now and then they write about their mother’s birthday, a good piece of theater, the death of a friend. It seemed a good way to live.

But it began with the advice columnists. Bless you ladies. Anyone who could get my family to thaw is precious to me.

In the Soup

My parents visited a year ago while I recuperated from lung cancer surgery and they developed a division of labor.

My father would do odd jobs around the house. My mother would feed me.

This was a good plan in theory, but in reality, it had loopholes. My father’s tasks were well-defined: fix a fence, change a light bulb.

But my mother struggled. What is it exactly her middle-aged daughter with upper-middle-class tastes liked to eat? The fact is that both of us had long since stopped cooking most of our meals, taking our nourishment from restaurants and take-out. Nevertheless, there persisted in her the belief that when a "child" is sick, only homemade foods will do. Familiar, nourishing, Jewish foods.

It had been decades since we’d all lived together. Immediately, she returned to the rigid cooking rhythm I recognized from my youth — Monday and Thursday she served fish, followed by sour cream and fruit; Tuesday and Wednesday, meat. If it seemed awkward to me, like stepping into a sepia photo, to her and dad it was preordained, as natural as lighting candles on Friday.

But it wasn’t to work.

Within hours of the folks’ arrival, my friends indicated that they knew me better than she did. Day after day, well-wishers came by the house loaded with platters and casseroles. My mother stood miserably at the door as the parade came by, stunned by the variety and creativity of the offerings. Little did she know that in sunny California, health and healing was based on soup: chicken soup, of course, but also barley, lentil, squash, tomato-vegetable and bean.

Overwhelmed by an overstuffed refrigerator, my mother surrendered, serving from the bounty that was given us.

I ate the donations my friends delivered, and she did, too. She returned home to Florida, plainly stewed.

Fast-forward. I healed from the surgery. But the long-distance phone calls were confusing. I was undergoing high-level biotech cancer treatments that seemed to transform their daughter into a one-woman human genome project. In frustration at the scientific complexity, mom and dad threw up their hands. OK, no parents should have to know from signal interference and cell aptosis. But the real question was: What was I eating?

Mom and dad arrived again to see for themselves.

This time, mom had a plan. While dad got right to work on his home repairs, mom settled into the kitchen: Operation Soup.

Out of my kitchen came scalding vats of chicken noodle soup with matzah balls, vegetable soup, bean and barley. With mom busy night and day, the word went out to friend and neighbor: hold the pottage.

The trouble was cancer treatment had ripped into my taste buds. I did my best to fake it. But I couldn’t abide the smell of vegetables, let alone chicken. What’s a mother to do?

One day we visited Elayne, whose home was perfumed with the ancient sugar-meat smell of tzimmes. Of the great dietary mysteries, somehow I could tolerate a brisket-potatoes-carrots melange, but not my poor mother’s barley soup.

"You eat tzimmes?" my mother stammered. "I’ll make you tzimmes!"

"Mom! Please don’t!"

But there she was, leaning her exhausted body over the sink, steadying herself while she cut yams and carrots into a boiling brew.

It broke my heart to see her work so hard, but she was unstoppable.

Then, a day later, the doorbell rang. It was my friend, chef Andy, with daughter, Sally, and dog, Abe. Andy carried a huge aluminum pan of an award-winning tzimmes of his own. His tzimmes is loaded with the flanken that for months I could not go near. By a fluke, this flanken I could stand.

Last week, my parents visited again. My father hung pictures and bathroom hooks. n

Mom served cheese blintzes straight from a New York deli. Delicious! See, you can’t keep a good woman down.

Honoring Marlene

Marlene Adler Marks’ first column for this paper appeared in March 1987. It was titled “The Unwanted Visitor.” It was about a rabbi who showed up to comfort Marlene as she waited in the hospital for her husband, Burton, to come out of surgery. “It hadn’t been comforting to me,” Marlene wrote, shortly before Burton died. “I couldn’t handle it. There is a time when even a rabbi can do no good at all.”

After that column came 700 more — the great majority of them thought-provoking, poignant, hard-edged, insightful. Though she left her position as managing editor of this paper several years ago, she has continued to write a column, almost every week for 15 years.

That is a hard, hard thing to do. Marlene made her task more difficult by refusing to settle for mere musings. What she wrote was the result of hours spent interviewing, attending events, researching, phone calling. She treated the Los Angeles Jewish community as the big, serious enterprise it is. She brought out its diverse, often conflicting voices, she dissected our relationship to the larger society, she examined our spiritual lives and ethical values as they are tested in real life. “Jews are the link between those who feel comfortable only with the haves and those who speak only to the have-nots” she wrote in a column just after the 1992 riots. “This is where Jewish power lies, though for who knows how long?”

Marlene reported from the intersection of Jewish power and Jewish insecurity, of Jewish pride and Jewish doubt. She beat the drum for the kind of liberalism that many in the community have come to reject. Even in liberalism’s post-Dukakis Kick-Me phase, she defended it, “in the old-fashioned meaning of tolerant about the extension of rights and freedoms within American society. Jewish liberalism results from our experience in exile,” she wrote, “our tradition of empathy for the stranger, our knowledge that all freedoms are knit together, the precious garment we all wear.”

But a close reading of her columns proves that she has been anything but knee-jerk. She criticized the Reform movement for pandering to the least-committed among its members; she took after feminists who were too eager to undo all tradition, she praised modern Orthodoxy for nurturing, “close-knit community, beliefs worth fighting for, an ambitious standard of integrity.”

The ongoing struggle of Jewish Republicans to create a more tolerant party always drew her support, or sympathy. Marlene made enemies and friends — a good columnist inevitably makes both. But what stunned me when she announced in these pages that she had cancer, was how much goodwill and concern poured in for her from friends and enemies. She has fought the cancer — yet another unwanted visitor — more bravely and openly than anyone could be expected to. Her columns detailing that struggle comprise some of the most powerful writing I have ever read.

Marlene is being honored by Congregation Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades this Sunday night, April 28, at 6 p.m. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to honor her: 10 years after riots tore apart the city she loves, and 10 years after that city has struggled to understand itself and go forward.

Marlene, more than most of us, knows what it means to understand oneself, and move forward. She has been a gift to this paper, and this community.

For information and reservations for the benefit honoring Marlene Alder Marks, call Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades, (310) 459-2328.

Travel Machismo

As Israeli-Palestinian violence makes daily life in the Jewish state a living (as opposed to a virtual) nightmare, American Jews are raising the ante on expressions of loyalty. A rabbi recently told me he wants every Jew to travel to Israel this year. A lay leader puts his name on the list for every mission, but breathes a sigh of relief when each is quickly cancelled.

What is behind this travel machismo? There are many crucial ways of helping Israel, including monitoring the secular press, contributing to special relief efforts sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and buying items offwww.shop4Israel.com.

But none of these practical actions achieves the point. Jews have an ancient and deep-seated longing for Eretz Yisrael. We feel better when we draw near to Israel, especially in times of need — hers and our own. We try to create that yearning in our children and keep it going, with camp experiences and Israeli visits, during their youth.

What we’re doing, of course, is preparing for the hard times that inevitably do come. During the ’67 and ’73 wars, many American college-age youth moved to Israel out of exactly this same desire to do something that would make real the connection to the land. Some enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces as, I’m sure, some are doing today. This sense of responsibility to the survival of the Jewish state is a social miracle of our people. The suicide bombers ape this desire to have something to live and die for with tragic results.

Professor Lawrence Hoffman has written that we go to Israel as pilgrims, not as tourists. I wish he weren’t right, but it explains the tone of extremism that marks travel machismo today. It is the pilgrim who is going now: The political pilgrim. The spiritual pilgrim. The one who is desperate to draw near, to make real the connection between holy stones and our own fragile bones.

“I give unto you the land of Canaan to be unto you a God,” says the Talmud. Jewish survival is based on a triangle: God needs the land, and we need God. Only a few years ago, in the post-Oslo glow, the Israel tourist office was happy to advertise Israel for nonpilgrims, a place of waterslides, hiking trails and great cuisine. God was only part of the route.

But how many pilgrims can there be? With tourism down 50 percent since 2000, we put travel on our Top 10 things to do to help Israel. We bravely say we are standing by Israel just by showing up. Let’s face it, tourism is a peacetime activity, and we are not at peace.

I’m just as susceptible as the next former USY’er to the lure of travel machismo. Especially now that I have a ticket allowing me to name my date of departure, I am particularly eager to go again. And yet, professional journalistic interests aside, I resist the argument, heard frequently, that any such trip would be (a) brave or (b) helping Israel more than helping me.

Travel machismo puts the emphasis on the wrong crisis, that being the American Jewish crisis of faith that Israel will outlast the current moment. So I stay home and pray that by the time I book my reservation, there will be a speedy restoration of daily life. At that time, I’ll know precisely what to do.

I want to study about how a country moves from peace to war.

I want to put a crumbled note in the Western Wall, praying for my recovery from cancer.

I want to roam Jerusalem and search for spiritual healers who have been known to work miracles in the past.

I want to study with the great teachers of our time at Pardes, at the Hartman Institute and with Avivah Zornberg.

May that day come speedily and soon.

Men in Black

The 74th Annual Academy Awards program will be remembered, at least by me, for women’s gowns with faux see-through gauze fronts and men’s suit jackets down to the knees.

Sunday night. For my town, Malibu, Oscar night is a kind of Yom Kippur. Roads are deserted; the local restaurants close early. The sky sparkles with possibility, in which any kind of magic or healing might occur.

It was 9 p.m. I was at home with my parents, having already cried over Sidney Poitier’s tribute and drooled over Denzel Washington. Now I was deep into analysis of Gwyneth Paltrow’s sheer frontage when the doorbell rang.

There in my darkened doorway were two men in black mid-length coats with long, curly beards and black hats; a younger and an older man, with eyes burning so clear and bright that they seemed to be reading from an inner script. There was about their smiling countenances such a sense of purpose, that the word "messenger" sprang to mind. They knew and I knew. They had come for me.

If you read enough Torah, it can come easily to life: a blending of the "then" and the "now," the foretold and the foregone. The slightest stimulus revives the age of prophecy to our own time. Seeing these two men in black, I pictured myself alongside the biblical Abraham as he sat in his tent, healing from his circumcision, awaiting word from the three angels.

Abraham wanted an answer. So do I. Angels always come in human form. Here they were. For a second, I expected these two messengers would present me with a ticket to my destiny. If so, I was relieved to be wearing my wig, ready to go.

"Malkah!" I was shaken from my reverie by the friendly voice of Rabbi Chaim Cunin of our local Malibu Chabad, addressing me by my Hebrew first name. He waves to me on my daily walks as he drives his SUV and talks on his cell phone.

"My father was in the neighborhood and wants to give you a prayer." Sure enough, the older man was Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch.

"It’s the Rebbe’s birthday!" the elder Cunin booms out. "You need a blessing."

I certainly do.

Now let us talk about the power of suggestion: How much do you want something, and to what length will you go to get it?

As a person with lung cancer, I know there is only so much that medicine can do. After that, prayer must step in.

The other day, I began a new form of drug, an experimental clinical trial. The drug is so new it only has a number, not a name. It has the potential to work a miracle. That miracle is my prayer.

I am not the only one who is praying. Each time I see my oncologist, he looks at me for answers. His eyes get focused and he studies me for responses. The expert and the novice, neither of us know.

Prayer is possibility; it is the statement: "I don’t know all." Prayer asks, take me beyond my current knowledge to do good work.

Even the traditional kinds of prayer seek the extraordinary, the new.

I invited the rabbis into the living room where my parents were busy looking for Russell Crowe.

The Cunins presented us with a box of shmura matzah.

The elder Cunin asked my full Hebrew name.

"Malkah bas Henya," I said.

Then, while the TV screen showed Halle Berry’s sheer gown embroidered with silk flowers, the Chabad rabbi chanted at great decibel, for God and all of Malibu to hear, the traditional prayer for a full and speedy recovery.

I am getting answers to questions I have not asked.

Frequently Asked Questions

I was the oldest child at the Passover table during two decades of social turmoil, and so invariably I was the one to whom questions were directed.

"Why does your generation think it can have everything its way?" my relatives began after the afikomen was eaten. They wanted my opinion on everything: civil rights, interracial dating, Vietnam, communism, women’s rights. Seder after seder, their questions reflected a world turning upside down fast. And I was expected to account for it.

Passover is only days away. Decades after my childhood seders, the world is still spinning, and I am still doing my accounting.

The young men and women at this year’s seder table might ask about Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat or Enron.

But young and old alike are just as likely to ask other more personal questions. They may ask about cancer.

In a year of dealing with lung cancer, I continually face the ultimate decisions of illness. But disease, like history, does not belong to me alone. I inevitably report to my daughter, parents and brother, my cousins and wide extended family and friends whose love and concern make every night a seder and every phone call a meeting with the Four Children. They ask:

What is your prognosis?

Do you know how long you have to live?

Do you know about X or Y secret treatment in Germany/Mexico/Canada?

How do you feel?

No matter how well-intended these questions, they always cut to the bone. It can be no other way. There are always Four Questions, themselves angry, brash, insouciant and designed to one-up the self-satisfied, reflecting the Four Children of love.

A question in Hebrew is kasheh (difficult), and it is anything but the softball, Larry King-type of inquiry designed to keep people superficially serene. "Kasheh," writes Avivah Zornberg, is the hard-edge of resistance that changes worlds. A question is a radical act. When we ask each other questions, we go to the wall of what life and love can bear. A father who asks a daughter what is your prognosis has to be — fears to be — prepared for the worst. He cannot tolerate anything but the truth.

We are trained at the seder table to ask about the worst. Why were we slaves? How were we freed? If the questions mean anything, they are about essential connections: between parent and child, between Jew and non-Jew, between God and ourselves. They shake us up, set us free.

I have struggled with this hard-edged, radical, rude, crude, know-it-all Jewish tradition all my life. Every questioner is an expert; every probe comes from yet another Wise Child second-guessing and undermining some of the most difficult judgments a person can ever make.

Yet how could it be otherwise? The seder table pits the Wicked Child, the "I" who makes decisions for herself, against the Wise Child, the "we" who wins liberation as a group. This tension between the "I" and the "we" is the undercurrent of Jewish life. No wonder we relentlessly ask our questions, pushing and probing the limits of the truth, hoping and praying for the Outstretched Arm to liberate us once again.

Anxiety is the tremor of the powerless. Questions are the weapons of self-control.

I have never asked my doctors for a prognosis, and, gratefully, they’ve never offered one.

I have no idea how long I have to live. And neither do you.

I am open to all scientific wisdom; Western medicine, including that in the United States, has a lot to offer.

I am feeling fine, thank God.

Riordan’s Primary

Say what you will about Richard Riordan’s abortive primary strategy, and the way he naively stepped into Gov. Gray Davis’ trap, but Riordan certainly understood one of his key customers: the Jewish electorate. Too bad we’ll never see the Davis/Riordan face-off that would have told us so much about ourselves.

I make no claim to understanding the doctrinaire conservative rank-and-file Republicans who gave millionaire Bill Simon, Jr. his Tuesday night victory. But, I do know a bit about the socially liberal voter who was the target of the former Los Angeles mayor: he was aiming right at people like me. (Too bad voters no longer have the open primary.)

In Los Angeles County, election results show Riordan led Simon 48 to 41.5 percent. Davis pummeled Riordan with $10 million in TV ads questioning his philosophy and accusing him of not being a good enough Republican. That’s exactly why Riordan won Los Angeles’ liberal heart. Whatever his managerial skills and his actual performance as a mayor, Riordan represents a kind of political tolerance that indeed has turned Los Angeles, and certainly its Jewish community, around.

I remember the shock waves that went through Jewish Los Angeles during the first Riordan campaign, against City Councilmember Mike Woo. To leave the liberal nest, Jews had to make peace not only with the memory of their parents and grandparents, but also with the new post-riot social reality that put public safety, not union affiliation, high on the political agenda. They accepted as their political ally a mayor who was good friends with the cardinal.

In this, Riordan is precisely the same kind of crossover guy as Rudy Giuliani. Riordan’s primary platform offered exactly that kind of opportunity to break down rhetorical barriers as had happened in pre-Sept. 11 New York: suburban interests shaping urban politics. It’s a kind of political calamity that Giuliani opted to befriend his former employee Simon, who worked for him in the Justice Department. Riordan’s message was risky and powerful (even if his timing was wrong): why can’t we disagree on social issues — abortion and the death penalty — while addressing the crucial problem of time — education. Not for nothing is Pat Brown Riordan’s favorite California governor.

I know many Angelenos who think Riordan’s legacy amounts to little, but he can take credit for creating the socially graceful political climate that has been Los Angeles for the last eight years. That matters, too.

The fact is, though I have never voted for a Republican candidate for governor, Riordan would have had a good shot at my support. Not living in the city, I missed a chance to vote for him for mayor. Breaking a barrier can be good for the soul.

At press time, Wendy Greuel was 55 votes ahead of Tony Cardenas to replace Councilmember Joel Wachs, who had represented the East Valley for more than 20 years. The 2nd District seat was once the heartbeat of the Valley Jewish community; as the district map is redrawn, this seat may be doomed to be a continuing battleground between competing Anglo and Latino interests. At Greuel headquarters, I heard smart people discussing whether it really is better to have districts that are all-city or all-Valley. Underlying that question is a bigger one: How can we use the wisdom of two great communities, Latinos and Jews, for our city’s best interests?

The race to fill the 40th Assembly seat (Sherman Oaks) now being vacated by Speaker Robert Hertzberg shows how even two Jews can have a dogfight. Lloyd E. Levine, 33, son of veteran political consultant Larry Levine, defeated Andrei Cherny, 26-year-old former speechwriter for Al Gore and Hertzberg’s heir designate by a little more than 1,200 votes. The bad blood between the two led to last-minute charges that Cherny had sent a mailer with racist overtones misrepresenting Levine’s record. Levine countered that Cherny was for privatizing social security, the third rail of American politics.

Politics offers a continual opportunity to rise above self-interest and bad behavior into leadership. One hopes for better in the months to come.

A Map Is a Mirror

No one said redistricting is fun. But this once-a-decade political ritual does provide a mirror to how much leverage a community has, or lacks.

In the case of the proposed map for the Los Angeles City Council, this time the mirror says what many in our community are still reluctant to admit: That Jewish action has shifted to the San Fernando Valley.

We should have caught on long ago, but “city Jew” is still one of the great myths that dies hard. In 1992, the Westside seat then represented by Congressman Mel Levine merged with Long Beach, for a loss of one of three Jewish seats in the House of Representatives.

Perhaps now, with the potential loss of one of three Westside seats in City Hall and the creation of a new seat in the central/eastern Valley, it is finally time to take seriously the dominance of Jewish life over the hill.

It’s not that Jews are declining on the Westside — Jews still represent 10 percent of total city population, as well as 30 percent of the registered voters citywide. But the latest census is historic for declaring that the Westward expansion, which began in 1918 when Jews first left Boyle Heights to start Mishkon Tephilo on Main Street in Venice, has been outpaced by the northwest drift.

In a city of explosive ethnic growth, and competing geographic interests, not growing isn’t good enough. Gone forever are the days when Jewish representatives occupied seven of 15 council seats.

That’s why the Los Angeles Redistricting Commission merged Districts 6 and 11, now represented by, respectively, Ruth Galanter and Cindy Miscikowski.

And, of course, it hurts. Every redistricting session is a shark fight, a search for meat. This time, sadly, it looks like Galanter, who was on the wrong side of the battle in which Alex Padilla became council president, is vulnerable.

(Her loss is not a foregone conclusion. She’s fighting the peculiarities of redistricting, by which Galanter serves out her remaining year by representing the new Valley district, people who did not vote for her.)

But Galanter aside, the Westside and the Valley must come to terms with changing Los Angeles realities. Any new Valley city would be predominantly both Jewish and Latino. These two groups are the lynchpin of secession: they will provide the “yes” or “no” upon which the new city will rise or fall.

In the new Los Angeles map, Latinos will comprise fully 47 percent of the registered voters in five districts, all in the Valley or the East side.

The Jewish population in the Valley is the future — it has grown 25 percent over two decades.

The new as yet unnumbered district “B,” includes Encino, Valley Glen, North Hollywood and all non-Latinos east to Tujunga. The creation of this new Valley seat silenced even those on the Westside who most wanted to cry foul.

In conversations with Westside activists this week, I heard a reluctance to accuse the commission of ethnic bad faith: one and all are coming to terms with demographic reality, much as it hurts.

The character of this new “Jewish district” is unclear. It went sizably for Jimmy Hahn for mayor, but so did much of the Jewish vote. And it voted for Mike Feuer for city attorney (against the winner, Rocky Delgadillo) in almost the same majority as did voters in the combined District 11-6.

I don’t necessarily recommend reading the proposed map instead of watching reruns of “The Sopranos,” but there is a certain symmetry to the way the commission accomplished its task.

Raphael Sonenschein, an expert in Los Angeles black-Jewish relations, headed the city charter commission the set the tone for the remapping process. He tells me that the charter added the requirement that wherever possible neighborhood boundaries must be respected.

“That’s the biggest change,” he said. “Place and race matter.”

“Place and race” means that most districts are either in the city or the Valley, no longer the long strips that crossing Mulholland that made the Valley feel ignored. As a result, the new map mirrors the current Jewish political reality: that the Jewish community is now a collection of communities. We live in neighborhoods and feel connected to each other.

Ron Turovsky represented Councilmember Jack Weiss on the redistricting panel.

“Time and again we heard Jewish representatives talk about the importance of the community staying together,” Turovsky told me.

As a result, District 5 has what might be called an enhanced Jewish presence, with the addition of Carthay Circle as well as Westwood, Pico-Robertson and Beverlywood.

In the newly merged 11-6, Galanter’s Venice Jewish community once made me think of New York’s Greenwich Village, with its left-radical leanings. Today, it seems an even fit with Miscikowski’s District 11, the silk-stocking elite.

Time changes many things.

The Redistricting Commission holds public hearings this
Monday Feb. 11 in Woodland Hills and Wednesday in West Los Angeles. For
information visit www.lacitydistricts.org; call the
hotline: (213) 473-4595; or e-mail: redistricting@laccrc.lacity.org .

On My Mind

The hardest part about writing about brain radiation is writing the words "brain radiation." I assure you that I’m OK. It’s my fingers that are typing these words on my computer. It’s my thoughts that are deciding which of the Yip Harburg lyrics from the Scarecrow’s song, "If I Only Had a Brain," I should use later in this piece.

After 14 sessions in which I received 250 rads each, I’ve met some great people — since so many great people get cancer. And I’ve solidified some terrific friendships, since it takes terrific friendship to drive a person to Cedars-Sinai and sit with one’s own doubts during a friend’s treatment.

Other than that, the only part of my reality that has changed is that my hair, which had grown back into soft brown poodle curls, is once again gone. At 4:30 a.m. on the morning of Radiation No. 13, my head was expelling poison like Love Canal. Hair was everywhere. I got up, found my lady’s razor and took care of business.

Nevertheless, it is true. I’ve just completed three weeks of brain radiation.

Like every Jew alive, I believe that the brain is the seat of the soul. It matters not at all if you’ve never heard an Orthodox take on spiritual biology, in which the brain is equated to the Torah, while the "heart" is divine service. The beit hamikdash, God’s residence, is described as, "The brain of the world."

The brain is the big act; it’s us at our very essence. It’s where we make up puns and drive ourselves crazy with guilt, must-haves and might-have-beens.

You can take out a hunk of my lung, and I’ll still want chocolate chip cookies.

You can burn the daylights out of my cells with chemotherapy, and I’ll still love eggplant parmigiana.

But when an MRI suggested that tiny lesions in my brain would eventually create a problem, I turned myself into Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind," drawing pictures on stained glass. Except I’ll never create a new market theory.

I pleaded with my doctors, say it isn’t so.

But lung cancer has a great propensity for metastasizing to the brain. Act early and we have a chance.

Full-brain radiation is no one’s first choice, but it doesn’t have to be awful. My worst problem was my imagination, having been primed by movies like "The Snake Pit." The imagination, too, is in the brain, along with quantum physics.

In moments of trouble, the soul becomes dogmatic. Maybe that’s because the soul is located in the brain, which is also where the "Pharaoh" resides. According to one theory, "Pharaoh," is located in the back of the neck, lodged in the brain stem, part of the essential dogmatic taskmaster that won’t let us go.

I brought to brain radiation all the same obsessions and skills that I’ve used all my life. Which means, I was determined never to be merely a number, a cog in the wheel.

"I would not be just a nothin’

My head all full of stuffin’

My heart all full of pain," sang the Scarecrow.

I still had a brain.

My first day of brain radiation at Cedars-Sinai went like this:

I showed up at 6 p.m. accompanied by my daughter, Samantha, her friend Heather and my friend Diane. My name was called over the loud speaker. The four of us stood up, held hands and said a prayer.

Tim, the radiation tech, met me in the radiation room, with its giant version of the machine that takes your teeth X-rays. He handed me my personalized facemask, which I can now use for Olympic fencing, and gestured for me to hop on the treatment table.

"Wait," I said. He wore a cross around his neck. I felt safe going into my spiel.

"This is my brain we’re working on here," I said, looking him in the eyes. "Do your best."

And it went fine. The mask fit snug, and the cross hairs lined up perfectly, so only the right areas got hit. The whole procedure took 90 seconds on each side. He took good care.

The next day I moved to the morning shift. Over 13 more days in a row excepting weekends, I would also meet Christine and Joanie and Kimberly.

From inside the mask, it went like this:

After checking my mask, Tim left. The room was silent. I’m alone. Tim calls my name over the intercom. I begin to breathe deeply.

How will I get through this? Dare I pray for myself? Why the hell not!? I’d say the "Misheberach" for you, if roles were reversed. Why is the universal "Om" better than the direct appeal?

So against the purr of the radiation, the glare of the white light and the antiseptic spray of ozone, I prayed for a refuah sheleima, a full and complete recovery.

You can radiate your brain without losing your soul.

Judaism From the Bottom Up

One of the most exciting experiments in Jewish transformation is taking place right here in Los Angeles.

Beit T’Shuvah is one of the nation’s only homes for rehabilitation and return that integrates the 12 steps and Judaism. To hear Rabbi Mark Borovitz’s interpretation of the Torah portion on a Friday evening is to understand what Abraham Joshua Heschel meant by "Judaism from the bottom up" — the crucial reconfiguration of our people that must take place, Heschel said, if Judaism is to answer the redemptive call of the next generation.

Judaism asks the essential questions, if only we’d listen, wrote Heschel in "Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul." "For what purpose am I alive? Does my life have a meaning, a reason? Is there a need for my existence? Will anything on Earth be impaired by my disappearance?"

Each Shabbat, Borovitz asks these questions of a packed crowd of 300 addicts, convicts, malcontents and their families at the House, on Venice Boulevard near Robertson. Usually, he quotes Heschel along the way. Sixty men and 40 women live at the complex, in three programs that constitute a life-skills training school more than a typical rehab. That ‘s because Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto, Beit T’Shuvah’s founder and CEO (and Borovitz ‘s wife) do not think of addiction as a terminal Jewish abomination, a shanda. They understand, as so many others are coming to know in their own lives, that addiction itself is only a symptom, (as Borovitz repeatedly says), an indication that we are in our "wrong skin" and have work to do.

Emblazoned on the Beit T’Shuvah stained glass window is the Talmudic challenge: "In the place where a penitent stands, even the perfectly righteous cannot reach." At a time when the standards of Jewish financial and spiritual ambition have reached excessive new heights, Beit T’Shuvah asks: do we mean this?

"Each of us has a Moses in our lives, leading us to freedom," Borovitz told the crowd last Friday. He spent 17 years in assorted criminal activities leading to jail and prison — as he says, stealing everything that wasn ‘t nailed down. His own Moses was a prison chaplain, Mel Silverman. Today Borovitz, who received ordination two years ago from the University of Judaism, is a chaplain at Los Angeles County Jail.

"We all have to make teshuvah," he told me. "If we each made amends and expressed gratitude around our Shabbat table — as we do here each Friday — the amount of addiction would be lessened. We would break the myth of the perfect family."

Recently, I wrote about the Addictions Conference held at the Skirball Cultural Center by our own Jewish Federation. It was a good first step for the so-called "rest" of us, the Jews who would rather not have 12-step programs in their synagogues for fear of offending the upscale gentry. (Another option in town is the Chabad Drug Rehabilitation Program, which treats dozens of addicts each year.)

But the battle is fought day after day. It begins with teshuvah, the radical notion that we are both imperfect and capable of change.

This is heavy stuff, but at Beit T’Shuvah, life itself is no parlor game. Borovitz and Rossetto are making it safe for Jews to say the unthinkable: that Judaism is for the lost, not only the found; for the wanderer, not the self-satisfied; that God will not lose faith with me, even if I have temporarily lost my way.

Borovitz, along with Rabbi Ed Feinstein, is revising the 12 steps used universally by Alcoholics Anonymous, and recasting them as 10 Jewish steps, beginning with "I am a holy soul. I have chosen paths that have led to separation and destruction."

Meanwhile, I am rising to applaud them on the eve of their annual fundraising dinner, to be held this Sunday, honoring community activist Annette Shapiro. After 15 years with Gateways Hospital, Beit T’Shuvah is on its own now, dependent on community support. You can’t get into the sold-out dinner, but you can visit any Friday night and see what ‘s coming down.

Red String

I wear a piece of red string around my right wrist, a talisman for healing.

Since receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer a year ago, my life has continued in a relatively "normal" vein, recognizable to secular Jewish Westerners like myself. I meet with the best oncologists and take advantage of the extraordinary medical advances of our day.

But when Rabbi Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel offered me a length of string, I did not resist. I became excited, my heart racing. As a patient, I was entering a world where logic was obscure. More would be revealed.

As it turned out, Lewart left the string with her colleague, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, when she visited Israel, where she promised to put prayers for my health in the Western Wall. One Shabbat, Reuben took the length of string and tied it on me, making a gentle series of knots. "There," he pronounced with a sweet smile, when the wristlet was neat. "Go."

One day about a month ago, I saw another woman with a red string bracelet. I chased her down the hall.

"Your string," I muttered.

"What of it," she said. She did not open up, and my search for a sister sufferer ended.

I have been asked to speak next weekend on the topic, "The Spiritual Challenge of Cancer," at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I hope to explore not only this specific affliction, but also the relationship between disease and morality, health and faith — the challenge of living as experienced by most of us, the well and the ill. It is the challenge of the red string.

Though our tradition decries it, Jews are no strangers to magic. Like advocates of feng shui, American tribal healing or any superstitious band of cult followers, in times of pain we go occult, putting faith in colors, mascots, stars — silent prayers for survival. In the end, my doctors would be happy if magic worked, as would I.

I do draw the line. On the Web, recently, I came across an entire Jewish site devoted to superficial guidance that illness is a distortion of "energy fields." Even my acupuncturist knows better. He would not offer me a piece of blind Torah text and claim that the healing power of Hebrew letters would clear the body.

Yet, the red string does me some good, or else I wouldn’t wear it. When I’m washing dishes, the warm water slips over the thread, quickening my pulse. I am reminded, in an intimate way, that my body is leading me toward healing.

Somehow, the simple decision to keep my kitchen clean is connected with the idea of God. God is the action that transports me from cause to effect, from waiting for others to take care of me to willingness to do my part.

It transforms me from a cancer victim, passive recipient of pathetic wishful thinking, to a person in service, engaged in my own salvation.

Salvation is at the heart of the matter. The ill and the well alike have limited time. We inevitably, constantly, ask ourselves, what is it we are doing with what we have left, with the life we have been granted?

As it turns out, the red string comes from the Torah discussion of leprosy, a topic filled with moral confusion. Leprosy is one of the few medical conditions given full biblical analysis.

Like cancer, leprosy provides a "moral warning" that time is at hand. We are not to punish ourselves for our affliction, but ask what to do now. I am not being punished with cancer, but rather I am demanded to take what time I have left seriously, and to resist the inclination toward self-absorption that, sadly, is the homeland of the ill.

The red string reminds me that this struggle, between my body and my purpose, is of utter urgency. It is anything but an exercise in blind faith. It asserts that salvation is larger than what the doctors can do. Unbreakable filament, it provides connection that is direct, strong, true.

Entering the New World

Brave New World, here we come.

A Worcester, Mass., biotech company reported this week that it had created a human embryo directly from human cells. A cell implanted with adult DNA split into six cells, then died, stopping far short of the 150-plus needed to create viable stem cells, critical for gene therapy.

Though the experiment by Advanced Cell Technology was considered a failure, it was immediately regarded as a breakthrough, for good or ill. Governments may stamp their feet, refusing to fund the cloning experiments. But a free science won’t put its laboratories behind bars.

Maintaining free science is up to us. President Bush, responding to what The New York Times called a "storm of protest" and a Congressional call for cloning to be outlawed, promptly called cloning immoral. "We should not as a society grow life to destroy it," he said. "And that’s exactly what’s taking place."

Not to me. Exactly what I think is taking place is the grand possibility that life can be preserved and health enhanced through human ingenuity. I hope you see it that way too.

Didn’t Aldous Huxley have it wrong? Don’t you know someone whose family was enhanced by fertility drugs, let alone test-tube babies? Would you really close science down now, at the very portal to the healing world?

We must say no to the pessimists, the religious and political negativists who would use anything — the Bible, Frankenstein and fables of the Golem — to keep humankind in the grip of pain and fear. Science can be for the good. The human spirit of creativity is something to praise, not fear. A clone does not an evil Golem make.

What’s taking place, to me, is that scientists are continuing appropriate scientific inquiry into the beginnings of life. As Jews, we understand that humanity is permitted to learn from nature, and encouraged to use our knowledge to save lives. We’re getting there fast, but scientists as of this week have developed only a few cells equivalent to the first day or two of fertilization. Bush would close down the lab even before it creates a blastocyst large enough to be implanted in a uterus.

But Bush is wrong: The goal here is not to destroy life, but to save it. Though cloning may be controversial, the basic science upon which it is based is not new. Similar experiments into the origins of human life, and the capacity of embryos, were conducted in the preliminary stages of in vitro fertilization. Many failed embryos were created on the way to what is now routine: test-tube conception. Half a million test-tube babies have been raised in loving families — a testimony to how science aids the human heart.

I spoke on Monday with Laurie Zoloth, director of the Jewish Studies Program at San Francisco State University and an associate professor of social ethics and Jewish philosophy. Sounding quite astounded by the news of the newly cloned embryo, she said, "It gives one pause how fast we are crossing into the new era."

Many observers speak of cloning as a "slippery slope." Zoloth, however, believes it is possible — and necessary — to draw a boundary between "reproductive" cloning and "therapeutic" cloning to save lives. "I don’t believe we should ever implant these early embryos into a human," she said. "I don’t believe we should try to duplicate human life."

At the heart of the matter is what we think religion — and life — is for: a tool to liberate the spirit, or a way of controlling the future. In December, Zoloth will convene a panel of leading American and Israeli Jewish scientists and ethicists, including Los Angeles’ own Rabbi Elliot Dorff, to study problems of human genetics.

Stand strong. Defend pekuach nefesh. Save the living, not six cells. Free science and scientists. Pass it on.

End the Silence

Only three weeks ago it was possible to speak in optimistic terms about a united front against terrorism. History seemed to be blowing at our back, pushing the forces of civilization onward and upward to victory against the scourge of modern times. Writing in this space in early October, I quoted with admiration the prediction made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; that the nations of the world would now join together against terrorism much as the nations of the post-Napoleonic period had defeated piracy. For a brief heady moment, it looked like we American Jews could sit back in the warm protection of our nation acting out of grief and righteous revenge.

But the center is not holding. The coalition is falling apart, especially United States reliance on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

And Israel, which on Sept. 11 epitomized a western nation fighting valiantly against terrorism, is now isolated. Israel has gone from victim to scapegoat. The pirates seem to be winning.

The anxiety on the part of the American Jewish community is growing. It’s time to regain our voice.

Last week, I spoke at a luncheon for Hadassah and Israel Bonds at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. With me on the podium was activist and law professor Susan Estrich.

We could not miss feeling the change in the wind, and the sense that our silence was hurting us.

Many in the room had recently returned from a deeply demoralized Israel, which in the aftermath of the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavan Ze’evi, was rapidly turning to a fear-driven political right. They wanted to know how to respond to the Bush administration’s hypocritical warning to Ariel Sharon to stop reacting to terrorism, while the United States was trying to "take out" Osama bin Laden.

Others were alarmed by the turn in the war itself, a new Vietnam in the making. But this time American Jews could not reveal the Emperor’s empty closet for fear that such truths, too, would erode support for Israel.

Still others were focused on domestic concerns, especially the America media’s new fascination with our Muslim community.

How could we, as American Jews, speak up without causing ourselves and Israel backlash and pain?

I find these questions right on the money, but since Sept. 11, our community leadership has played from the sidelines. They have preferred to play out their influence behind the scenes, content to cite the Chicago Sun Times public opinion poll that 72.8 percent of the American public supports Israel, while Palestinian support is down to 7 percent, lowest since the intifada.

Polls are not enough. It’s time to answer back, not only in defense of Israel, but on our own behalf.

Take for example the endlessly debated question: "Why do they hate us?" which played and replayed on American media throughout the last six weeks. That’s one question American Jews should be shooting at with a sling. At best, it’s a cheap rhetorical trick, at worst, it’s an insult to the 5,000 dead.

"Why do they hate us?" is an old media ploy, an intellectually vacuous equivalent of "Do you still beat your wife?" designed to give the enemy the upper hand. When applied to Jews, the question is always an invitation to anti-Semitism, as more than one Los Angeles radio station learned when it opened its programming to the question. "Why do they hate us?" is open season on hate.

As it turns out, even when applied to America, "Why do they hate us?" is still an invitation to anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Israel, views. Every story about why some Muslims despise us falls into the tar pit of Middle East politics. If the question is why they hate us, the answer must be America and its Jewish ally.

"The press fall into a trap, blaming Israel," Alex Safian, of CAMERA, told me. "For if Islam means ‘peace,’–" a point Safian disputes — "Israel must be what made it violent."

With groups like MEMRI and CAMERA monitoring the press these days, such tactics don’t go unanswered. CAMERA will hold its annual conference on Nov. 11 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. It will be one way to get back your voice.

Take 12 Steps

It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of The Jewish Federation’s Addiction Conference held Monday at the Skirball Cultural Center. But to compare, think back to the Shechinah Conference held 20 years ago at Hebrew Union College, which helped consolidate and shape Jewish feminism. In its willingness to creatively address perhaps the biggest social issue of our time, the Skirball program is that big a deal.

In truth, it was not the "first" West Coast conference on the subject of addiction and the Jewish community. More than two decades ago, L’Chaim, an Alcoholics Anonymous-style organization for Jews, made a similar effort to bring a dirty secret of Jewish life out into the open at its conference. There have been alcoholics and drug addicts ever since Noah, just as there have been Jewish professionals trying to help us face our demons.

Nevertheless, the larger American zeitgeist of "recovery" makes this event historic. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, formalized more than 65 years ago by Bill W., are now the common parlance of millions, who gather together to share their experience, strength and hope to overcome personal obsessions deemed out of control. To nail the point, last year, California voters passed Prop. 36, allowing some drug offenders to participate in treatment programs including those using the 12 Steps, rather than jail.

Thousands of Jews consider themselves members of the "anonymous fellowships," including Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Al-Anon, for relatives and friends of the addicted. These Jews speak the language of "powerlessness" and "Higher Power" and say the "Serenity Prayer" as often and as easily as they do the "Shema."

Until now, these Jews in recovery have met with their fellows, mostly in churches, often with twinges of guilt that they were somehow committing treason, if not embarking on a course of spiritual schizophrenia.

But on Monday, a host of community authorities, including many addicts themselves, rose to assert that the language of recovery is congruent with Judaism.

"All the principles of the 12 Steps were in Judaism 2,000 years ago," declared Dr. Abraham Twerski in a keynote speech titled, "Twelve Steps and Torah — Is there a Fit?" Twerski, a white-bearded Orthodox rabbi who might have popped out of a Sholom Aleichem story, is a national authority on chemical dependency. He shocked many in the audience with his matter-of-fact quoting of 12-Step principles side by side with Talmud.

The day was an enormous breakthrough.

First, Jews can now feel free to walk the 12 Steps without thinking they are on the road with Jesus. These programs may not be exclusively Jewish in tone (the language of the program is a mix of Carl Jung, Buddhism and 1950s Christianity), but they are decidedly focused on Jewish purpose: overcoming the "evil inclination" and finding God’s will.

Second, the Jewish community, by this conference, is admitting that it, too, is powerless over addictions. We can’t hide from them, nor feel confident that our community alone can solve them. Drugs are everywhere, as the morning’s keynote speaker, Ethan A. Nadelmann, insisted. And we can no longer pretend that the consequences of obsession with drugs, alcohol, sex and whatever are limited to an aberrant few, most of whom end up in jail.

Scoffing at Jewish addiction is an age-old sadistic tradition, represented at the conference by UCLA’s professor Mark Kleiman."Jewish addiction is like Jewish basketball," Kleiman said. "There’s not much of it, and it’s not very good."

But this trivialization of individual and family crisis is, thankfully, no longer going to hold. Playing the numbers game to disprove a Jewish problem didn’t stop divorce or homosexuality from becoming a reality. When the community is ready to accept a social condition, it does so.

Third, the Jewish community admits that it has something to learn from another spiritual discipline. Rabbi Paul Kipnes from Congregation Or Ami suggested that synagogues open their doors to 12 Step programs. He has created a six-congregation ad hoc Rabbinic Coalition to Support Jewish 12 Step Programming. This had to be an enormous first step.

In a day filled with mind-blowers, here is my favorite, from Twerski:

"I feel sorry for those who don’t have addictions," he said. "They don’t hit rock bottom. So they’re missing out on some of the greatest ideas in life."

“We” Judaism

NOW THAT THE HIGH HOLY days are over, we can begin to appreciate how the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington may alter American Jewish life.

Like the rest of America we are stunned. Grieving. Angry. Afraid.

The enormity of loss cast a dark spiritual shadow across the holiest days of our calendar. History may record that in this catastrophe, American Jews are finding a new solace in community, bending the wounded self into the arms of the whole. We have come to a juncture; the end of "Me" Judaism and the return, however temporarily, to the Judaism of "We."

The synagogue crowds were large as always, solemn as always, on the days of reflection. But the way we crowded in, huddling together, grasping each others’ hands for psychic comfort and hope, was distinct, abiding, old-fashioned yet new.

You could see it in the extended hugs, and the extended tears, and the extended silence. We were like survivors of a shipwreck, clinging to each other. In my synagogue in Malibu, Rabbi Judith HaLevy brought us to a full 10 minutes in silence at each prayer service. Being together in stillness calmed the beast of revenge, and gave shape to grief, a name to fear.

I kept thinking of my grandfather and what it might have been like to worship with him at the turbulent turn of the last century. Like the immigrants who grasped hard to community to steady them after the rocky Atlantic crossing, we too are finding in the group, and in each other, a firming grip against hard times.

Grandpa had something I rarely experienced before last week: "Kahal," community, not a pool and a basketball court, but a common purpose. My prayer book constantly reminded me, we pray for Jews and for "all who live in the world." Kahal gives direction to individual efforts. It transforms "Me" into "We."

Baby Boomers have been notoriously anti-community, challenging its voracious appeals for money, its bureaucracy and cliquishness. Yet as Baby Boomers and their children came back to Judaism, we had our own rapacious needs. We regarded the synagogue and the Jewish community as service providers for our own private demands. We needed daycare, yoga classes, spiritual uplift. And we got them.

These programs, and I for one participated in them all, made the community a much livelier, contemporary place. But there’s little doubt that they reversed the order of the Jewish universe.

The community revolved around the individual, rather than vice versa, which is, as Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch would put it, how God intended Jewish life to be.

It’s amazing how fast the roles reversed in these past weeks. My puny problems and desires disappeared when those planes filled with innocent civilians crashed into the New York skyline. Death does not discriminate between the mighty and the weak, the rich and the poor, listeners to NPR and Rush Limbaugh.

Last week, we kept telling ourselves how lucky we are.

Lucky to be together.

Lucky to be alive.

Lucky to be Americans. Lucky to be Jews, with a set of rituals that gave us a tangible job to do.

The nameless suicide bombers left 6,000 dead in mass graves. This fact alone — the lack of bodies over which to mourn — was tragically, obscenely familiar. It created in many of us a profound spiritual disturbance, what might be called the Holocaust effect.

We were there to say "Kaddish" for the 6,000, as we have mourned the 6 million. Lucky to feel useful.

I read the confessional prayers and noticed, as if for the first time, that they are written in the plural: "We have sinned. We have dealt falsely."

Not me. We.

The reliance on the group, which once felt so stultifying, denying of my very originality, now seemed in fine balance. I must start with myself to bring peace to the world. But it will be easier if we join together.

This week I could feel the shift, the turning of the axis.

I am not the center upon which the community revolves, as Copernicus would have it. I have a community, and at the very least, we revolve around each other.

How long will this other-directedness last? If aggression against our nation persists, perhaps indefinitely. We will rebuild, perhaps, our programs of social action and international response. We will move beyond anger into justice. Beyond "Me" into "We."

In hard times, spiritual needs get redefined. Community will be one of them.

Fuzz

A day before I left for a vacation cruise to Alaska, I looked in the mirror and spied, atop my clean, bald head — Hair! There wasn’t much of it, standing less than one-sixteenth of an inch tall. But when I ran my hand over my crown, I felt the delicious tickle of stubble.

"It’s back!" I cried to my friend Susan, who was lending me a gown for the cruise’s formal night. We jumped up and down the way we did in high school when the latest "he" called. I’ve been a cue ball since Day 12 of my first round of chemo. All my hair is gone, including eyebrows and lashes. The only really bad part, aside from looking like a Conehead, is the way drafts of cold air make my forehead feel glacial. In Alaska, I spent time looking for bald eagles, seeking to join their minyan.

Still, the stubble signified as nothing else could that Taxol and carboplatin were leaving my system, and four months of bravery before the IV drip were at an end.

And I had been brave — if by that you mean accepting the inevitable without flinching. Brave and grateful, for the many lucky breaks of getting cancer in the 21st century, where we at least have a fighting chance of extra time. Yet my happiness at the sight of these tiny fractions of colorless cilia revealed a sullen truth: I hate wearing my wigs. They’re beautiful, probably nicer than my real hair. But they itch. And they make me feel anxious and schizophrenic, like the Cameron Diaz character in "Shrek," conventionally lovely only until sundown.

And I’m not so happy being bald, however lovely people find the shape of my skull.

The last time I wrote about hair and the cancer patient, I quoted two Hebrew definitions of female beauty, "yofi" and "chayn."

"Yofi" was my wig, conventionally pretty, phony and safe. "Chayn," the more internal attractiveness meaning "finding favor," was my bare head, either bald or wearing the baseball cap, naked but true. As I entered the world of chemotherapy, I wondered which would it be: wig or bald. But life is not either/or; it’s more complex that that.

For now, I had turned a corner. After chemo, I wanted my self back, not just my old pre-cancer self, but the new self that had grown and changed by circumstance. How to reconstitute this self post-chemo was the spiritual dilemma.

Aviva Zornberg, writing in "The Beginning of Desire," says that the biblical Joseph’s problem in reuniting with his brothers was to "remember" himself. They had ripped up his coat of many colors and sold him into slavery, depriving him of his family and tradition. Now they had to "reassemble fragments of his repressed past."

If I am to live fully in the aftermath (and shadow) of cancer, this is my task too. I can’t deny that time and security have been ripped from me. But also, I must not let bitterness cast me into the pit of paralysis. I regarded this vacation as a test: Which of these selves — wig or bald or both — would I present on the ship?

Fast forward to the good ship Statendam on its first night heading north from Vancouver to Seward into the heart of fjord country.

I’m in the library room, wearing my wig and makeup and a new dress, before dinner. True, the wig is phony, but it has panache. Two good-looking guys are talking Israeli politics and immediately invite my opinion. Before you can say "Yasser Arafat is no friend of peace," we are all best buds.

Fast forward again, it’s after midnight. We’re walking around the Promenade deck, me and one of the two fast-talkers. By now, we’ve been talking for hours, like we’ve known each other forever. Beyond Israel, we have nothing in common except that we’re both bald. Except, of course, he doesn’t know that. And if I have my way, he never will.

It’s a big if. Post-chemo, I’m alive with sensations I haven’t known since before my diagnosis. One of them is fear: If he kisses me, will my wig fall off?

And just as I’m thinking this, bathed in starlight and the soothing hum of a ship under the moon, he makes his move.

I turn to him. I prop my elbows on his shoulders and hold onto my hair for dear life. He’s a strong guy, and now I increase my grip on my head.

He moves his hand over my cheek. He goes for my hair. My wig moves, a full half-inch.

He stops breathing. He moves my wig again, this time on purpose.

"Cancer?" he says.

What have I got to lose? I take off the wig. Will he see the mark of "chayn?"

"Very sexy," he says. "You know, your hair is growing back."

And Many More

There’s nothing like completing chemotherapy to spice up a birthday party. Last weekend, 40 of my dearest friends performed a commemorative Havdalah ceremony to mark a really great CT scan and year 53. My "re-birthday" celebration was just the ticket, restorative not only for me but also for the extended community that has seen me through my struggle with lung cancer.

In the afternoon, we painted silk squares for a healing quilt. We stuffed ourselves on smoked turkey and exotic salads. At sunset, we stood in a circle, lighting each other’s candles, saying blessings, smelling the spices that would stimulate the memory of friendship overcoming pain.

After the candles were blown out, we stood around the lemon cake lit with a single candle and sang the Birthday Song. When we got to the last line, I raised my arms like a choral director and elicited a benediction: "Hap-py Birth-day to you. And mannnnny more."

Yes, yes, make it so. Many, many more.

It is wonderful to be back among the living. During the afternoon, I walked around my garden, the summer sun dappling through mock pear trees. I eavesdropped as my friends, all Baby Boomers, complained about the ravages of age. One cries that her ear lobes are growing longer. Another says her face is sagging. Still another notes that her nose seems bigger, or that there’s no hair on her legs. How I want these problems, too.

And when I’m 90: a sturdy cane, decent hearing, a steady hand for the crossword puzzle, gums to eat corn.

Now begins yet another hard part, the reconstruction of normal time. Cancer shakes to the roots any complacency that we own our own existence. A day, a week, a month, a year. The forest of my life has separated into distinguishable trees, many of them now fallen, as if by a hurricane. Who or what owns what comes next? I am baffled. What is a worthwhile activity, and what would lead only to irrelevance or regret?

When the matriarch Sarah dies, the Torah counts her life this way: "The life of Sarah was 100 years, and 20 years and seven years." Why the triple repetition of the word "years"? The sages answer that Sarah truly lived every part of her life cycle: She was intently young, intently adult, intently old.

"One who has truly lived walks through the days," says Samson Raphael Hirsch. "He does not walk above them or below them." I will walk through the days, too.

What does this mean to me? Hirsch explains that we must bring the best of ourselves into our future. I assume he doesn’t mean my youthful love of Archie and Veronica comics, but wouldn’t mind my carrying along a sense of humor.

Can I really move on without resentment, not embittered by cancer, still resolutely me (whatever that might mean)?

The mythology of cancer is that the disease changes us in big ways. We imagine that if we survive chemo, well, naturally, we’ll quit our jobs, or go off on a junket around the world, living with an urgency and a new desire for spicy food.

But I’m not so sure. Since the diagnosis of lung cancer, the biggest change I intuit is that I drive slower.

Well, it’s true. I have a peculiar new understanding of risk, and the way unfortunate forces converge in unpredictable ways. There is danger in a sloppy left-hand turn, and what about that guy tailgating in the next lane. Having made it through lung surgery, would I want to die on Pacific Coast Highway?

To counter this caution, maybe what I need to bring with me into this next period is my insouciance. I loved being young. I gave away my years, and flaunted my energy. I crammed a lifetime into a day, reading bad books, following bad fashion, seeing bad movies without discrimination.

"Hope I die before I get old," I sang with the car radio. How close to that goal I came.

Beyond Stem Cells

Were you queasy last week, when U.S. senators quoted the Bible in their effort to stop potentially life-saving stem cell research?

Did you feel discomfort on Monday when Pope John Paul II told President Bush he condemned the study of human embryos because the practice would "devalue and violate human life?"

The cynic in me suspects what’s going on: This pseudo-debate, focused on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, asserting that man was formed from the "dust of the ground," is merely a setup for an inevitable (and, one hopes, tolerable) compromise in which the Bush administration retains the support of the Christian right while allowing science to proceed. Give them airtime, then cut a deal.

Nevertheless, the show is uncomfortable to witness. The stem cell debate replays an argument dating back at least to the second century and the ways Christians and Jews translate Exodus 21:22, on the killing of a fetus during battle. But are we, in 21st century America, faced with so many competing views of life’s beginnings, eternally limited by that trap?

One can grant Christian believers their view that six fertilized cells in a petri dish constitutes life, but not grant them a czar-like grip on whether destroying those cells — containing untold pharmaceutical miracles — equals murder.

Embryonic stem cells contain the basis of all other cells and hold the potential for resolving many serious diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Yet, this one-sided faith-based debate can hold research hostage, and jeopardize the lives of thousands. Where does spiritual commitment end and life-threatening intolerance begin?

The stem cell debate is hardly the only distortion of the religious enterprise of our political era. At a time when "faith-based" organizations are being sold out to the lowest bidder, I wish the Jewish community would rise and reject public monies that torture our civic purpose. Absent that, it’s time now to redefine our political strategy and return to our basics. Now is the time to reclaim and harness the Jewish secularism within which so many of us were raised, and to reassert, as a result, the pluralistic tolerance which guarantees a civic role for all faiths and, yes, even for those without religious faith.

Nearly 20 years ago, the current battle over who would control the public discourse heated up. Richard John Neuhaus’ book, "The Naked Public Square," urged the religious Christian community to adopt a new political activism based on opposition to secular humanism, a universalistic philosophy dating back to John Dewey during the 1930s. It had great appeal among Jews as a corollary to Zionism.

Neuhaus’ target was Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision which supported abortion without due respect for religious beliefs on when life began.

"From the pro-life viewpoint, [abortion] is a matter of how we define the human community for which we accept collective responsibility," Neuhaus wrote.

The stem cell debate, dominated as it is by Christian understanding of "ensoulment" of cells at the time of conception, without competing respect for a non-religious sensibility, is the apotheosis of Neuhaus’ call to action. "The Naked Public Square" is now dressed to suffocation.

The Jewish community has been slow to respond to the growing dominance of Christian political activism. In fact, our religious groups are at a particular disadvantage in the current climate, because they appear to be merely asking America to accept the Jewish version of religious truth over another: either "ensoulment" begins at conception, or at birth. Our numbers aren’t big enough.

Secular Judaism has no such disability. While grounded in the Jewish religious calendar, love for Israel and the romance with Yiddishkeit, secular Judaism in the public sphere respects and relishes the widest diversity of thought and culture, including the rights of the nonbeliever to have no opinion at all. Secular humanism has a profound respect for privacy, for the wall between church and state. Secular Judaism reminds America that the goal is not to create a Bible-true or Torah- true society, but an America in which all can flourish.

As Samuel G. Freedman writes in "Jew vs. Jew," secular Judaism was "not so much defeated as loved to death. America made a promise to Jewish immigrants, and to its enduring grandeur as a nation, it kept that promise. It welcomed history’s wanderers into a greater whole."

But though America accepted bagels, rugelach and Steven Spielberg into its culture, the creation of the "greater whole" remains unfinished today, and not only for Jews.

In an article reprinted in the magazine of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Ya’akov Malkin, professor of Rhetoric and Aesthetics at Tel Aviv University, calls secularism "principled pluralism."

"We see the passing of divine authority from those who speak in God’s name … to human beings who decide according to their own reason and by means of the decision of the majority, and in accordance with the principles of the prophets who believed in the primacy of social justice over any cultic mitzvot."

In America’s coarsening political environment, such sympathetic love of diversity may be just the ticket.

The Strongest Link

No matter how well things go in chemotherapy, the truth is, cancer always makes new demands on you. You can’t afford to be a k’nocker, pretending you know what you’re doing or what you’re ready for. It’s not as if you are in charge.

On the morning of my final course of treatment, I was ready for the long, seven-hour routine now so familiar to me. I was bringing irises for my room, pretzels filled with peanut butter for the nurses and anticipated visits from dear friends throughout the day.

It occurred to me that now, on my sixth round, maybe I was overdoing the need for support. The nurses have become like friends, and I knew I could count on them for diversion and hope, conversation about their art projects, pets and outside interests. Why ask others to interrupt their lives when by rights I could (should?) handle this last treatment alone?

My portacath was easily accessed. The intravenous drip of steroids and kidney stabilizers was set in motion. Emily, Joyce and I were discussing the career prospects of our adult children. At 2 p.m. the doorway filled; my oncologist and the staff brought a chocolate cake and sang "Happy Last Chemo to You!"

Yes, my last chemo day proceeded naturally, dull with the drip of healing.

At 6 p.m., we caught the mistake. The IV pump had a glitch, and I had not yet begun Taxol, the first and longest part of chemo treatment. For two and one half hours, while Susan, Cynthia and Rona had been discussing art museums and second careers, I’d been getting nothing from a blocked port.

And so I was back at the beginning. Not just the beginning of the day, but, my thoughts sent spiraling, the beginning of my life. Fear took over, my blood pressure rising into the stratosphere. And I knew, with a certainty only six months of lung cancer could produce, that this was bad news. My grandmother, who died before I was born, had had high blood pressure, followed by a stroke. She’d gone blind. All my life seemed pointed at this moment, this awful dark joke. Maybe cancer wouldn’t kill me, but blood pressure might.

"Can you meditate?" nurse Stephanie asked as she turned down the light.

Yes, of course. I had practiced 20 years of meditation, plus visualization. Plus prayer. Not to mention yoga.

"Om," I began. And "Shalom."

I started the slow counting of the breath, in and out. I saw myself on a sandy beach of a tropical island at sunset. I breathed God in, and tried to breathe fear out.

Nothing worked. The slower I breathed, the worse my fear became. I was the proverbial speck, a victim of a senseless universe, with the terror of my grandmother’s legacy whispering in the wind.

And my blood press stayed high.

Then I heard the rustle of leaves. I wasn’t alone, of course. Cynthia and Rona were bringing back soup and sandwiches. But Susan was there, flipping through the newspaper nearby.

"Hold my hand?" I asked her. Within minutes, I was breathing normally. My blood pressure stabilized.

So on the very last day of chemotherapy, one valve of an IV tube was constricted, but another valve, that of the heart, opened up.

I know nothing about bravery. I know only about need. Reb Nachman of Bratslov calls prayer the cry of the brokenhearted to a father who is far away. Maybe so. But prayer can also be reaching out, to friends who are close at hand.

Alone, I am the weakest link. Together, there are soup and sandwiches for all.

New Directions

Who’s the big winner in Tuesday’s Los Angeles mayoral election? My bet is real estate developer Steve Soboroff. James Kenneth Hahn may be an old-line Democrat, but he benefited mightily from the silence maintained by the wealthy Republican businessman, who had come in third in the April primary.

Soboroff’s refusal to endorse former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, as Soboroff’s political mentor Mayor Richard Riordan did, was an artful way of leaving his white conservative supporters in the Hahn camp, or letting them stay home.

The Los Angeles Times exit poll confirms the Steve Effect. Fully 26 percent of Hahn voters came from Soboroff, the largest group among the six primary candidates. By comparison, fence-sitting was the tendency for supporters of veteran Valley City Councilmember Joel Wachs, who had endorsed Villaraigosa; they split about 3 to 2 for Hahn.

As for Jewish voting patterns, I won’t be shocked to find larger numbers for Hahn. Yes, the younger liberal core probably held firm. But as Election Day approached, and the campaign took a snide turn, it was clear many were seeking an out. You could feel the fear level rise.

Even two weeks ago, there was a heartfelt desire for coalition with Los Angeles’ largest rising ethnic majority. That desire remains, but given the well-publicized split in the Latino community political hierarchy around Villaraigosa, voters lost the guts for the brave act. Sadly for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Jewish community leaders who went out on a limb, Antonio is now being seen as one who created his own demise. We’ll see how this plays out in the world of ethnic bridge-building.

The legacy of beloved Supervisor Kenny Hahn, the new mayor’s father, is an old-line paternalism that has always meant less to Jewish voters than to blacks. So, as of now, the black-Jewish coalition is dead, and the Latino-Jewish coalition is back to the drawing board.

But this point can be made: Our electorate is now far older than the average Los Angeleno — less prone toward risk-taking. At the Westin Bonaventure Hahn headquarters on election eve, Valley Councilmember Hal Bernson stood out among the crowd of blacks and Koreans. Yet the Jewish conservative flank of representatives is growing, with the addition of police advocate Dennis Zine, who defeated Judith Hirshberg in the 3rd District of Tarzana. Zine replaces Laura Chick, the new city controller. In such a mix, will we recognize our own representatives in city debate?

That’s the vacuum that affable, business-oriented Soboroff may fill. Wachs is leaving Los Angeles to head an arts foundation in New York. Riordan is turning his attention toward a possible run for governor. This leaves Soboroff, the former parks commissioner under Riordan, with nothing but time and opportunity, not to mention an audience wanting his ideas on solving, say, traffic congestion.

On the radio on Election Eve, Soboroff could be heard positioning himself as experienced in the serious business decisions that neither Hahn or Villaraigosa understood.

The biggest loss Tuesday? City Councilmember Mike Feuer of the 5th District, defeated in the race for city attorney by Rocky Delgadillo, in an astounding upset for those who care about good government. Arguably, Feuer was born to be city attorney, having started out in the estimable Bet Tzedek, the nonprofit legal institution that represents seniors, Holocaust survivors and others in need.

Pin Feuer’s loss to Riordan’s money and the billboard industry’s support for Delgadillo. Feuer’s moving on from City council signals the end of an era, the braided candle of political liberalism and law reform that has run through Westside Jewish politics since the days of Roz Wyman, through Zev Yaroslavsky.

Federal prosecutor Jack Weiss has defeated State Assemblyman Tom Hayden, though only 289 votes separate the two.

At Westwood Brewing Company, Weiss took a shot not only at Hayden but at the liberal Old Guard now being replaced. Noting that Hayden’s ad campaign focused on his own reputation as a maverick, Weiss asked, “How long can Hayden run on events that happened three months before I was born?”

Weiss has become more than anti-Hayden; his campaign rose from nowhere by emphasizing his commitment to the local neighborhood. Yet, one can only hope that Weiss appreciates the role of the 5th District in shaping a politics that is concerned with larger issues than whether Westwood has a supermarket.

All politics is local, but Jewish politics has a universal flavor that serves everyone well.

Finally, near midnight, Mayor Riordan himself bounded into Anna’s Italian restaurant on Pico, to congratulate Marlene Canter on her 4th District school board victory.

“For the children!” he cheered. Canter, a businesswoman with experience in teacher training, spent nearly $2 million to defeat incumbent Valerie Fields. This victory, too, marks a change in the community agenda. Once upon a time, Jewish politics was synonymous with unions, especially the teachers’ union, which gave so many of us a stab at job security.

But school board member David Tokofsky, a supporter of Canter’s, said it right when he insisted that the new board’s first priority is upgrading teacher skills. Job security for professional staff means nothing if our children don’t learn.

The Comfort Zone

Those of us with a sense of Los Angeles history approach the June 5 election with trepidation. No one wants a repeat of the first Sam Yorty/Tom Bradley race in 1969, with its bitter overlay of race-baiting. That’s one reason why throughout most of the campaign the candidates have wisely lowered their rhetoric, stressing their similarities rather than differences. As Los Angelenos consider picking the first Latino mayor in the modern era, Tuesday’s election, pitting former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa against City Attorney James Hahn, already has, if anything, too much historic significance.

To their credit, voters have apparently taken their cue from the candidates, keeping their cool. I spoke this week with north San Fernando Valley voters. It was hard to mistake how, as the race has tightened, the emphasis has shifted. In the April primary, voters in our community spoke freely of what it would mean to the city’s Latino population to have one of their own in City Hall.

All that has changed. The key word now is “comfort,” for us as well as for others. The stress is on “coalition” and “inclusion.” Voters, whether for Villaraigosa or Hahn, even when speaking off the record, never mentioned the possibility of a Latino mayor; nor did they mention an Anglo or white mayor. They were far more likely to suggest that their candidate reflects their own values or the common good, that Hahn had bureaucratic competence or that Villaraigosa worked with the Jewish Labor Committee or created park bonds; or to quote Sunday’s Los Angeles Times articles on the candidates’ religious values in which Villaraigosa praised Judaism as “a very accepting religion” in which he felt at home.

In that sense, Tuesday is about how much Los Angeles can change and still feel the same. The Valley vote is the great unknown. Real estate developer Steve Soboroff, who came in third in the primary, has declined to endorse. But on Friday, City Councilmember Joel Wachs, who has represented the Valley for 30 years, gave his nod to Villaraigosa.

This was big news. Wachs, who came in fourth in the primary, speaks for a certain kind of Jewish voter: older, fiscally conservative — including many Valley Republicans — but socially liberal. Wachs’ endorsement follows Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s the week before. Like Zev, Wachs’ explicitly vouched for his own comfort with Villaraigosa.

“Antonio’s dynamism and commitment is infectious,” said Wachs. “He won me over and if you give him a chance, he will win you over too.”

Hahn has won endorsements from former Seceretary of State Warren Christopher and the former Supervisor Ed Edelman, and at press time had pulled seven percentage points ahead in a Times poll.

I spoke with older men split between memories of Kenny Hahn and Tom Bradley. There are married couples who are divided between the candidates, though there’s less of a gender gap than eight years ago when Richard Riordan caused real breakfast-time friction. In some homes, it’s the woman for Hahn, the husband for Villaraigosa; in others it’s the opposite.

Voters kept repeating that the other guy would “do a good job.” That, in itself, is interesting, perhaps reflecting the current anxiety. Contrast this with the city attorney race, in which passions run high for 5th District Councilmember Mike Feuer, who takes no special-interest donations, who faces Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, the recipient of billboard industry money.

Here are some of the concerns tugging at the chads of voters north on the 405:

Secession: Uniformly regarded as a bad idea, “pandering to the worst instincts,” one woman told me, my informers want Valley separation from Los Angeles to be put to rest once and for all. There is relief that neither Hahn nor Villaraigosa are for secession, yet these voters hope that the next mayor will help make the case for One Great City.

Education: Jewish voters in the Valley — like those in the city — have children and grandchildren who want to go to public high school. This issue is being played out in Jewish homes, even among those now attend day schools. While the next mayor has no power in education, they can’t leave the issue of school performance to the board of education.

Roads: Valley voters are as disgruntled with traffic as anyone else, even if they accept distance as the price of suburban life. But road repair really is their beef. Those who spend their weekends traveling to beaches, hiking trails and riding bikes, get the “fanny test” on the city’s lax repair schedule; they want action.

Pride: The cynicism and exhaustion that characterized voter attitudes eight years ago is gone. The next mayor must get a grip on the LAPD, encourage business development, solve the housing crisis and make sure we do, indeed, all get along. Valley voters who spoke with me have no patience with ethnic partisanship any more than they do geographic chauvinism. They believe there is opportunity for everyone on both sides of the hill.

Love for Los Angeles is the common chord. In that regard, we are one people, at least for now.

A Jewish ‘Sopranos’?

In my house last Sunday evening Tony Soprano easily defeated Anne Frank as “must-see TV.” Yes, even in the home of committed Jews, the rancid affairs of a New Jersey Mafia family beat out the young girl of the Holocaust. The question is, why?

All season long my friends and I, Jewish boomers, have followed and then avidly discussed the gangster Sopranos, whose patriarch, Tony (James Gandolfini) endures the slights of his own mother, suffers panic attacks and sees a therapist, Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) while conducting his nefarious business at the Bada Bing Club.

For a week or two, after Dr. Melfi’s graphic rape and the particularly hideous murder of a pregnant prostitute by one of Tony’s low-lifes, we swore off watching the HBO series, protesting its gratuitous violence. But we came back, as did much of upscale America, in time to see Meadow Soprano’s gloomy affair with a Jewish African-American student and Uncle Junior’s struggle with chemotherapy.

It never occurred to me to forego the season finale, though I didn’t expect its competition to be an updated realistic portrait of the Jewish girl with the diary in which Anne’s father, Otto, is played by Ben Kingsley.

Yet after watching the conclusion of “Anne Frank” on ABC Monday night, a story that concludes with a heart-breaking descent into the concentration camp, I see the truth behind my own instincts. In such small choices we discern the changing nature of Jewish life and the meaning of our history in America today.

First, I was struck by the superficial similarities between the Frank and Soprano domestic situations.

The Franks are hidden from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic and soon are part of a new extended family, rife with suspicion, hysteria and misunderstanding. So too are the Sopranos in hiding, not only from the FBI and police but from non-Mafia Americans who might mistake their ethics; in their extended clan betrayal is the name of the game.

Otto Frank and his wife, Edith, don’t get along much better than Carmela and Tony. Anne is just as attracted to her attic-mate Peter as Meadow Soprano is to Jackie Jr., son of Tony’s late friend Jackie Aprile.

Otto is guilt-ridden over not getting his daughters to freedom. Tony, likewise, is beset with how his own crime career affects his wayward son, A.J.

Of course the Sopranos are fiction and guilty. The Franks are real and innocent. But those are not the telling differences. One is old-world drama fearing big government; the other is new-world drama, in which life’s problems come down to class and self.

Of course we must continue to retell the story of Anne Frank, as each generation learns the horror of the Holocaust and the death of innocents, with the caveat “never again.”

But if Anne Frank, great, sweeping and tragic as her story is, is the only story about Jews that TV understands, then we’ll all be victims of the remote control.

It’s not only out of respect to the Six Million that television continues to rely on Holocaust dramas for Jewish life, it’s a failure of nerve and the imagination. We can ask if our community would tolerate stories in which the Jewish religious world duels with the realities of government and/or business as the Sopranos must. The dearth of Jewish characters on television today suggests otherwise, that we have painted ourselves into a corner called self-righteousness.

Not so long ago, Isaac Bashevis Singer won a large audience by portraying the dramatic conflicts of the religious life, including the passions that push devout people to go over the line. His stories were populated by ghosts of destroyed Eastern European Jewish worlds, but they were deeply rooted in the now.

If we want to get to the contemporary moment, we have to be ready for the bombshells. Jewish crime did not end with “Once Upon a Time in America.” The newspapers tell us that we are not removed from the human dilemma: a rabbi is charged with a murder for hire; another is accused of sexual abuse; a religious husband traps his wife in a loveless marriage. Certainly we understand that commitment to a religious life does not end one’s fight with temptation, but in a way it only begins the battle. In our fictions we can know ourselves.

I’d love to see a weekly script dealing with the conflicts between an observant family and contemporary life. How do we read the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then handle labor negotiations? How does a patriarch, knowledgeable about the laws of Leviticus, control sexual jealousy? Last week, in the portion Behar, there is a warning about dealings in real estate, with the warning repeated, “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God.” There’s a plot device right there.

Are we ready for a Jewish “Sopranos”?

Jewish Big Time

A month after Passover, the winds have not yet died down from the "Wolpe Hurricane."

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood caused a stir when he asserted, in earshot of a Los Angeles Times reporter, that the Exodus story can still inspire us even if, as some archaeologists assert, the story of the liberation from Egypt is not true. Rabbi Wolpe’s remarks ended up on the Times’ front page during Passover and became grist for sermons and Torah study all over town.

Readers of this newspaper have been kept well-informed on the controversy — the to and fro of great minds on the question of whether it is OK to question Jewish fact and story, whether it is right or even possible to separate faith and fact.

I doubt that one mind has been changed by the debate or that one home has decided, "Next year, no seder for us." That’s because with Passover, as with much of Jewish ritual, time is porous, and history, whatever its origins, is only the beginning. Out of the story of the Exodus came the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, not to mention the civil rights and Soviet Jewry movements.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Wolpe has done us a service by pointing out just who we Jews are and who we are becoming.

We are a community that still predominantly gets its sense of self, including what Jews believe, from the non-Jewish world and the secular press. We still care about how we look to non-Jews, and we shrei gevalt at whatever the Times puts on page one, even if the subject of the story itself wouldn’t quite fill a classroom at the University of Judaism.

Some years ago, the Times caused a similar ruckus when Robert Scheer did a three-part story, which also ran on the front page, on the topic of who leads Jewish Los Angeles. By naming some and omitting others, the Times shaped how Jews regard themselves, at least for a while.

But who are we becoming? That’s the interesting matter. Scheer and the Times would hardly catalogue Jewish leaders today.

Taken narrowly, this story alone indicates an astounding development: that non-Jews themselves are familiar with Judaism, including Jewish ritual. If you grew up with traditional Jewish fear of the world outside the ghetto, you understand the revolution that has occurred. Every year the number of non-Jews at my own seder table increases. At some seders, the non-Jews are a large minority.

It’s not only intermarriage but the close cooperation and friendship between Jews and non-Jews that is breaking down barriers. Everyone knows about matzah and prays for an end to tyranny. We are getting to see in our own time what the "mixed multitude" might have been like on the eve of the Exodus and why many, inspired by the biblical ideas of freedom and faith, made the journey out of bondage.

Beyond what it means to non-Jews is what the controversy suggests about us: that we are, finally, ready for the theological Big Time. For much of the post-Holocaust era, Jewish thought was mired in a series of isms: literalism, sexism and anti-Orthodox cynicism. To this day, many liberal Jews are still fighting the last war, formulating their Judaism as an answer to ideological limitations that no longer exist. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis has noted, we got bogged down in defining God and forgot about Godliness.

Today’s world hungers for more, for the serious confrontation with spirit and love that our tradition provides. Religion, as the Wolpe controversy allows us to see, is much more than stones and bones, more than archaeology and the limited record of human history. It is also more than anemic notions of faith accepted without question. Faith is in the grappling.

The Times story couldn’t capture why Passover, and by extension Judaism, endures; how it answers the deep desire for the reconstruction of holy time and space, for belief that inspires action without loss of rationality and provides a view of God that both encourages optimism in the face of pain and yet understands the agony of human limitation.

This is the Jewish Big Time. Get ready for it.

Freedom. Empathy. Pain.

My fireplace mantle is stuffed &’9;with get-well cards. They come from people I know and many I’ve never met. One of them might have come from you. In the two months since I started writing about my lung cancer, the cards have been flowing in, plus an equal number or more of e-mails. They touch me deeply.

As I prepare for Passover, I think about putting the cards away. There are so many, they slip and fall off the mantle onto the floor. I’m having 25 for dinner; surely it’s time to pile the cards into a box. The surgery was a while ago, and even my scars are healing.

But no, the get-well cards are coming with me, with my family and our guests, on the tribal journey we take this weekend from slavery to freedom.

How could it be otherwise? When we sit down to the seder, we are told to remember that this matzah and that karpas, these bitter herbs and that charoset, are because of what God did for me when I went forth from Egypt. I’m still not sure that my cancer is "my Egypt," but the cards tell me what God is.

God is empathy. God is the two-sided conversation between the one in pain and the ones who comfort the suffering. When the Children of Israel cried, God found a way out. Without that call and response, we are all slaves.

The question is one of willingness.

In the final plague, the Torah presents an interesting conundrum: God has told the Israelites to paint both the lintels and the insides of their homes with blood, so to be spared the slaying of the first born. Yet the Torah says that on that dreaded night Pharaoh was roused by the crying, "for there was no house where there was not someone dead" (Exodus 12:30)

Well, which is it? Were Jews protected or not? Did the Israelite children die or didn’t they?

My own experience tells me that empathy knows no such divisions. The world of the slave is divided between "haves" and "have nots"; there is a plantation, a water fountain, a wall of stucco and mesh between those who deserve blessings and those who are scorned or damned.

But for those who live in freedom, fate is fluid. It is the great unknown. All that buffers us from life’s hardships is our ability to care; the burdens and responsibilities for each other that we choose to take on with an open, unbounded heart. This is community, and it is our only sane choice. There are no hard divisions between cancer and not-cancer, or as Levi-Strauss said in another regard, between "raw" and "cooked." In freedom, the death of one’s neighbor’s child is tantamount to our own.

I learned that lesson again this week, in a newly horrific way.

Among the 18 dead in last week’s fatal crash of the Aspen-bound private Gulfstream III jet was Ori Greenberg, 23-year-old son of George and Victoria Greenberg. George is president of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue (MJC&S). Since Thursday, every Malibu family has held its children close, for it seems that there is no house where there was not some child dead.

I’ve sat on the temple board with George, who heads Vanguard Media Corp., in Westlake. I know his dignity and class, and how community lives in him. Victoria is a mainstay of MJC&S, part of every committee and mastermind of our High Holiday tent service, which attracts 1,000 worshippers. Their daughter, Rosalia, 11, is one of our stars, with a brilliant glow.

Ori Greenberg was bar mitzvah in our temple, played soccer in the local AYSO, and went to the local public high school. I’ve seen his 15-minute short film, "Havoc," which told the story of a drug bust from the point of view of a young homeless woman. It justifiably earned him the Best Director award at the Santa Monica Film Festival and feature work at the Independent Film Channel.

With young Greenberg were his fiancée Elizabeth Ann Smith, 21, and his Chapman College roommate, Mirweis "Mir" Tukhi, 26, assignment editor at KTTV. At the funeral, Ori’s grieving parents addressed a crowd of more than 350. George and Victoria rose in praise: of community that had restored them in the hours since the plane careened into the Rockies; in praise of the love of Liz and Ori, cast forever in a Gatsby-like glow.

But that was not all. The Greenbergs praised Tukhi and their son. Tukhi’s younger and older brothers, Faheed and Jawad, both spoke at the funeral, praising the friendship between Muslim and Jew that began with a love of Tukhi’s mother’s rice.

"You want to know how to help me?" Victoria Greenberg told the crowd. "Be kinder to those who disagree with you. Love each other more."

The question is one of willingness.