What is art good for?


Still, the question remains: What, in this world filled with strife and need and uncertainty, is the use of art?

The planet’s on the verge of destruction, entire nations are starving to oblivion, man’s cruelty to man has reached new heights, and yet we persist — writers and musicians and painters and sculptors — telling stories in one form or another when we all know they’ve all been told before, that nothing we could invent would rival the truth in its enormity and outrageousness, that on any given day there are bigger, more urgent tasks at hand.

What is the wisdom, I ask myself every day, of working so hard (and we do work hard) to offer the world something it has not asked for and probably doesn’t want?

It is true that I write because I can’t help it, that every artist is compelled by a wanting that is more forceful, more insistent, than good old common sense. But it is also true that I wake up every day to the same question that haunted me the day before: to what end?

Years ago, on a perfect spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I had occasion to sit next to a very elegant, very quiet gentleman at a luncheon on an outdoor patio. He was introduced to me by one of his fawning, breathless fans as “Jack Boul, a great artist, exceptional, really, though he doesn’t like to talk about it, he lives in Maryland, he’s had a retrospective at the Corcoran, and would you believe that Paul Richard, dean of the capital’s art critics and longtime critic for The Washington Post, said his work ‘delivers to the brain bracing little jolts of a strong emotion sensed seldom in contemporary art.’ Can you imagine? Sensed seldom in contemporary art?”

Graciously, if a bit embarrassed, or so it seemed to me, Boul shook my hand, then looked away. For the rest of the afternoon, he listened politely to the conversation but spoke little, giving the impression that he was thinking of other, more significant matters; that he was looking through his surroundings at deeper, more remarkable places. Just when I thought he had had enough of the shallow, West Coast — it’s all about me and my social ambitions — talk that is the hallmark of all such luncheons, I heard the click of a camera and turned to see that Boul was taking pictures — of me, of all people — just shooting away without a word until, satisfied with what he had captured, he put the camera down without an explanation.

“He likes to study things,” the fan volunteered. “The walls in his studio are covered with photographs.”

Weeks later I would receive a picture of myself in the mail: I’m sitting under a tree with very green leaves; it’s a bad hair day, and I have no makeup on, and I’m wearing something dark and simple, which makes me look even more washed up, and yet, this is the best picture of myself I’ve ever seen. It’s more real, more familiar, more I know this person than any image I could find, even in a mirror. I put the picture in a frame directly outside my office.

Is this, I wonder every time I go into and out of the office, what art is for? To capture the truth of a person or a thing? To tell that truth in unexpected ways to people who expect it least?

This month, the Museum of the Holocaust in Los Angeles will feature 17 monotypes by Boul. Titled, “Responses of the Innocent: American Jewish Artists and the Holocaust,” the exhibition also includes works by two other artists, Lee Silton and Rifka Angel, and will run from Dec. 14 to Feb. 27.

Boul’s monotypes are of dark, shadowy figures that linger in the memory long after they’ve been viewed. Eric Denker, senior lecturer at the National Gallery of Art, wrote about them in his book, “Intimate Impressions”: “While the subject of the set is the nightmare of the Holocaust, the more universal content examines man’s inhumanity to man.”

Is this, I ask myself as I sit down to search again for the right words, the right voice with which to tell a story, the purpose of art? To study the nature of man, understand its failings, expose its vices?

Boul was 19 years old, the son of a Russian émigré father and a Romanian mother, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1946. He was born in Brooklyn, had grown up in the South Bronx. When the Army called, he was studying at the American Artist’s School in New York. But the Army sent him to Europe, to a prisoner of war camp outside Pisa, Italy, where he served as a sergeant in the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I remember showing German prisoners of war pictures of the liberated concentration camps,” he says of his time in Italy. “They refused to believe the pictures. ‘You have your propaganda, and we have ours.'”

Back in the United States after the war, he finished art school, became a highly successful painter and printmaker. He taught art at the American University in Washington and later at the new Washington Studio School. He painted landscapes, urban sites, the human figure in its many forms and manifestations.

Mostly, he sought to reveal the core of his subjects, to overcome the physical details that set one apart from another and arrive instead at their collective truth. In 1987, many shows and exhibits and years of teaching behind him, he went to see a film, “Shoah,” and remembered the German soldiers at the prisoner of war camp. Forty years had passed since he heard the soldiers deny the Holocaust.

“I was very moved,” he says of the film. “It showed the cattle cars that transported people to the concentration camps, the furnaces where people were cremated and the fields where the ashes were scattered. It never showed the victims. I remembered the photographs I had seen in Italy 40 years earlier and decided to look for other photos of the camps.”

In the U.S. Archives in Washington, he found hundreds of photographs from different concentration camps.

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“I looked at the photos for days and made drawings. In my studio, I made these monotypes from the drawings. I wanted to make something that would help to keep that memory alive.”

The result was the 17 monotypes that will be on view at the Holocaust Museum. This is only the second time (the first was at the Corcoran) that Boul has allowed the collection to be shown, and it’s due in no small part to the efforts of Mark Rothman, the museum’s executive director, who has made every attempt to craft an exhibition that stays true to the intent of the artist and the merit of the art.

Perhaps, then, this is what art is good for: to bear witness to the truth, no matter how often it is denied? To remind those of us who want to forget? To tell a story — yes, a story that has been told a thousand times before — one more time, to one more person.

“Responses of the Innocents: American Jewish Artists and the Holocaust,” Jack Boul, Rifka Angel, Lee Silton,” runs Dec. 14 to Feb. 27 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 651-3708. http://www.lamoth.org.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

A ‘Clue’ about creation


My kids got Clue for their birthday a few years ago.

I loved this game as a kid. When we started to play, I realized Clue was a great metaphor for creation — the story of how we came into being, the greatest mystery of life. And like Clue, the one thing that is not a part of the creation story is “why”? Why did any of the suspects commit the crime? Why did God create the world? Why are we here in this life?

We cannot and should not look to the Bible for the origin of the universe, but rather, according to Aviva Zornberg, a modern genius of biblical scholarship, we should look to Genesis as “describing the potentialities of purpose…. What is given at the beginning challenges the human to the self-transformations that will him/her, in spite of everything, to stand in the presence of God” (“The Beginning of Desire,” p. 36; egalitarian language in italics is mine).

From the beginning, this existence is intimately connected to our relationship with our Creator. For without the breath of life, the divine gift that enables us to come alive, we would only be dust and dirt, a clump of earth with no distinguishable character. The mystery of life dwells in the fact that while we might get closer and closer to understanding how the world came into being, we will never be able to solve the question of “why.”

For that, we need our faith, our traditions, our Torah and our God. The purpose of religious life, therefore, becomes what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called the answer to the most profound question that faces us. This is not an answer to the question of origin, but rather an answer to the question of meaning.

We are facing a world today that, according to Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, is more dangerous and seemingly out of our control that at any other time in recent history. Our economic crisis and global poverty, Darfur, global warming, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — just to name a few — are all challenges we must confront. And yet the language of creation, the mysterious words of Bereshit come to remind us that all is not lost or hopeless. Since the beginning of time we have found ways to kill and dominate each other; according to the end of the parsha this week, we have been evil and mean spirited since the very beginning. However, the message of God, through the language of the Torah and the lessons of Genesis 1, teaches us that we are meant to be partners with the Divine, meant to figure out different and holier ways to coexist with one another, and that compassion, love, justice and peace will always win out in the end. That is what it means to be created in the image of God, betzelem elohim, as we are told in Bereshit. The road back to Eden winds through all people, and tikkun olam (repairing the world) is our universal path to replanting the very Garden that we were evicted from, back to the place God called tov meod (very good). That is the essence of my theology and how I understand Rabbi David Wolpe’s powerful new book “Why Faith Matters.”

There is a famous midrash surrounding the creation of the human being in Genesis 1 that has always intrigued me. The Torah indicates through the plural language, “Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26), that God consulted with someone or something before creating us. Most of the commentators think that God talked to the angels, the heavenly court, for advice on the creation. However, one powerful midrash from Genesis Rabbah 8:5 teaches the following in the name of Rabbi Simon: “When the Holy One came to create the first human being, Love said, ‘Let the creation occur, for this creature will do loving things.’ But Truth said, ‘Let the creation not occur, for this creature will be all lies.’ Justice said, ‘Let the creation occur, for this creature will do justice.’ Peace said, ‘Let the creation not occur, for this creature will only be contentious and not peaceful.’ What did the Holy One do? God took Truth and hurled it to the Earth.”

This is a confounding midrash, for why did God only hurl Truth to the ground when we see that Peace also argued against creation?

One answer, from the Kotzker Rebbe, teaches that when we are not seeking our own personal truths, then peace will be possible. While this is a good answer, we can go even further. Ultimately, we would like to live in a world with all four of these characteristics: Love, Peace, Truth and Justice (the latter three are what Pirke Avot calls the pillars of the earth). But before we can get there, we must seek to create a world based on love and justice first. From that place, peace can occur and then, if we are lucky, we can identify truth.

That is the meaning of life, the great mystery that God puts before us. Can we live with the love and compassion for all, with justice for all? And just like the game Clue, we might understand the “who, what, where and how,” but we need Divine help and guidance to grasp the “why.” Love and Justice offer us a doorway into answering that question. May we pursue them, live by them and seek to spread their healing power throughout the globe, starting right here in our own hearts.

Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (www.pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.

‘Prayer isn’t boring — you are’


Jews often complain that prayer is boring. Young people resist going to synagogue — and older people drift away from prayer altogether — because they find it to be a chore.

In response to these oft-repeated criticisms, Rabbi Harold Schulweis once offered from the pulpit an admittedly cutting but nonetheless brilliant retort: “Prayer isn’t boring … you are.”

Of course, this aphorism by Rabbi Schulweis, who has served the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in Encino since 1970, was not meant to insult people, nor to turn them away from Jewish prayer. Quite the opposite. He posed a challenge for every Jew to find himself or herself inside the siddur, which is filled with beautiful poetry, meaningful philosophy and provocative theology. At its best, Jewish prayer is an ongoing three-way conversation among the siddur, the person using it and God.

In Schulweis’ words, “Instead of looking outside and criticizing the relevance of a prayer — or perhaps even the process of prayer — look inside yourself to see where you may be lacking.”

Interestingly, many of the Jews who complain that the siddur bores them can listen to a rock song like “American Pie” or “Hey Jude,” or sing the national anthem at the stadium dozens or even hundreds of times without ever complaining once that they’re bored. Great musical compositions perpetually renew their meaningfulness as a person’s life and even his or her day develops. The siddur works the same way. Many of us who pray on a regular basis cannot say, “Baruch she’amar v’haya haolam” (“Blessed be He who spoke and the world came into being”) or “L’cha dodi likrat kalah (“Go, my beloved, to greet the Sabbath bride”) without being a little moved each time.

I know some people in 12-step programs, and they tell me the meetings often start with the same readings week after week. But the readings are rarely boring to alcoholics and other addicts, because everyone in the room is working on his or her own recovery. The guidelines and steps that are recited remind people of their own addictions and compulsions, or at least those of their loved ones.

In a way, Jewish prayer is like another pillar of observant Jewish life: Shabbat. Just as tefilah involves letting one’s creativity conquer one’s boredom, Shabbat is about finding creative enjoyment on a day when cell-phones, iPods and DVD players are treated as hardly more useful than paperweights.

Some people think the real problem with prayer is Hebrew, which alienates English-speaking Jews. I disagree completely. Many, if not most, Israelis find prayer to be boring, and Hebrew is their first language. In addition, services at Reform temples in the United States and elsewhere involve a lot of English, and many Reform teens and adults still find prayer boring. Yet, Hebrew prayers can be moving to English speakers even if they only know the barest details of the meaning. Often, but not always, the key is the tune. Even so, don’t let anyone tell you that you must pray in Hebrew. The siddur isn’t even all in Hebrew. Important prayers like the Mourner’s Kaddish are in Aramaic, and in Eastern Europe, Jewish women used to recite Yiddish prayers called tkhines. So vernacular prayers have a long history.

The answer to Rabbi Schulweis’ challenge is education. The more Jews learn about the pronunciation, order and meaning of services the more likely they are to find significance in them. But Rabbi Schulweis’ point still stands — a Jew who is boring is likely to find prayer boring. Luckily, most Jews, deep down, are not boring — they just need to find a path to access the siddur.

David Benkof is a doctoral student at New York University in American Jewish history. He can be reached at davidbenkof@aol.com.

This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

Shalom Auslander is my failure


A review of Shalom Auslander’s new memoir caught my eye — was this author the curly-haired boy who had been my ninth-grade student at Yeshiva University High

School?

Reading the review confirmed, first, that it was the same person, though now the curls had given way to a contemporary buzz cut, and second, that his writing was to Noah Feldman, another controversial former yeshiva student, what Junior Classics are to Shakespeare.

Then I saw his eponymous Web site, and realized that my initial estimate had been over generous. Self-promotion, biblical inaccuracies, shock value, uber alles. I have no admiration for what my former high school student has done. I can sympathize with his pain growing up, but abuse doesn’t produce pseudo-philosophy of this caliber. Neither does a school.

If Feldman wants acceptance, Auslander wants a book tour and a cheeseburger without the guilt. But shorn of the elaborate gyrations that don’t quite succeed in justifying a lifestyle of pot, pork and pater-bashing, Auslander has hit on a point that troubles every thinking religious person.

It’s a lot easier to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God than a benevolent one. Bad things do happen to good people — all the time — and the believer spends a great deal of spiritual energy putting aside, and keeping aside, creeping doubts in God’s goodness. When I let it, my mind wanders to my first trip to Israel in 1983, when I was accompanied by my 22-year-old sister, and seriously dated a former classmate from Ramaz. A dozen years later, both women would be dead from cancer, and I would be a rabbi, teaching people that there is a good God and a reason for everything. They would forever be connected in my memory to Effi Chovers, my sister’s classmate at Ramaz, who was killed in 1982, in Operation Peace for the Galilee. But God has His reasons.

In my pastoral work, the instances of suffering are multiplied. A couple, long infertile, finally pregnant, struck with a miscarriage; a congregant’s child afflicted with illness; a wrecked marriage leaving both partners savaged — sometimes the emotional effect feels cumulative, and it is very tempting to point an accusing finger upward. I can walk into a wedding, and feel tears fill my eyes from the knowledge of the silent sorrow of so many families around me. And, of course, looming above my life is the spectre of the Holocaust, in which my father’s whole family perished, and whose icy grip accompanied me growing up.

Part of me wonders: Am I blinded by self-interest to take up the cause of God simply because He is not currently aiming his bow at me? Am I dishonest to preach belief in a good God, when so many around me are suffering? When I help comfort a mourner or ease the pain of another human being, am I God’s partner as I preach, and as I dearly want to believe, or am I cleaning up after Him, saving His creatures from His wrath?

But I am not the first to struggle with these questions. From Abraham to Aher, Jeremiah to Job, the Aish Kodesh to Elie Wiesel, those who have seen and understood more than I, have struggled to keep love in their lexicon. And one of the least-answerable post-Holocaust questions is how so many survivors succeeded in rebuilding not only their lives but their faith. My father (z”l) was one such survivor, but his formula was ineffable, nontransferable, to be emulated, but never duplicated, even by a son. And yet I remember the hours he spent, staring out our apartment window, murmuring niggunim, laden with unshed tears. I never asked him about the inner struggles of those moments. I didn’t have to.

In this area, like dieting, you can only adopt what works for you. For Sherlock Holmes it was the aroma of the rose, wholly unnecessary from an evolutionary point of view, that “proved” the existence of a benevolent God. For others it is a personal experience of miraculous salvation. For me it was a chocolate cake.

It was 1985, and I was back in Israel, at a yeshiva. It was my birthday, and I was unutterably lonely. My mother’s care package, having arrived early, was long-since dismembered, devoured and forgotten. It was my first birthday away from home, and nobody remembered. In my mind, I played the maudlin and the miserable to the hilt. I decided to visit married friends in a nearby neighborhood. Their door was open, but no one was home. On the table stood a homemade cake and a note — “Sorry we couldn’t be here in person. Happy Birthday and many happy returns.” That cake did more than sate my sweet tooth. People like that convince me that God is good.

So, too, does the rabbi whom I call upon to answer questions posed to me that I can’t handle myself. He has yet to tell me how inane my queries really are, or that if I cracked open a Shulchan Aruch, I could find the answers myself. And the people of my community who rallied around us when my wife was on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy, or when I sat shiva. From people like these, I extrapolate to God.

This doesn’t answer my questions. It doesn’t staunch my tears. I don’t sleep better. I don’t justify terrible things when they happen to others, and I don’t know why they don’t happen to me. But I know that just as surely as there is inexplicable evil in the world, there is inexplicable good, as well. It’s something to put on the other side of the scale, something to attribute to a good God.

And while I am awake at night I also ask myself: Should I have baked Auslander a chocolate cake?

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., and teaches at the SAR Academy.

In Quest for Meaning


Man is a meaning-seeking animal. Hardly a second goes by in which our mind does not stop its routine activities to ponder the meaning of the input it receives from our senses or from its own activities.

When faced with meaningless observations, the mind invents its own fantasies to pacify its meaning-seeking urges. We find meaning and hidden messages in the position of the stars, in natural disasters, in coffee readings and, of course, in our very existence.

From a scientific viewpoint, “finding meaning” means embedding an event in a cognitive context capable of generating a rich set of expectations. Those expectations are comforting because they make the future appear less bewildering, hence more manageable. A God-governed universe is one such context, social Darwinism is another.

Our mind is a society of expectation-generating contexts that often contradict and constantly compete with one another for attention. For example, the idea of an omniscient Almighty (or even law-governed physics) contradicts the idea of free will, yet most of the time we live happily with this contradiction and, like the particle-wave duality in quantum mechanics, we manage to use the right model at the right time for the right purpose.

As we enter the Holy Day of Yom Kippur, these contradictions intensify because on this day we seek meaning for notions of an existential nature: man’s role in the universe, justice, good and evil, pleasure, sin, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, human suffering and, of course, the role of God in all of the above.

The meaning of human suffering, in particular, has perplexed generations of theologians and has not become any clearer since the time of Job. It has, in fact, become utterly incomprehensible to us Jews in the wake of the Holocaust.

How can one reconcile such infinite suffering with the notion of divine justice and a caring God? Is there a hidden message in such shocks of incomprehensibility? Are they concealed tests of our faith or capacity to forgive? Is God unwilling or unable to interfere?

Christians, so I understand, have a more or less satisfactory solution to these questions; suffering in itself has divine virtue. Suffering somehow redeems us or redeems someone else, or prepares for us some kind of a better life in another world. The whole idea of Jesus dying on the cross to absolve men of sins is a product of this concept of divine power inherent in suffering.

But I find it hard to understand why the suffering of one individual would have anything to do with the redemption of another. As Jews, we are brought up to believe that our deeds, and our deeds alone can shape our redemption as human beings. Therefore, I would feel awfully guilty knowing that another person, however willing or divine, went through hardship or pain to absolve me from responsibilities that are totally mine.

I guess my Jewish and scientific backgrounds stand in the way of my attempts to internalize ideas that Christians find natural and appealing.

Frankly, I think that the connection between pain and redemption — the basis of all sacrificial rituals — may have evolved out of a mistaken interpretation of a Pavlovian, stimulus-response experience at childhood. Conditioned to expect the comforting presence of a loving mother each time he falls and scrapes his knee, a child can easily mistake pain to be the cause of comfort, and from here the road to mistaking sacrifice as a producer of care, forgiveness and redemption is not too far.

But putting aside the construct of redemption, I still cannot buy the notion that suffering carries hidden meaning to us as human beings. Save for the obvious fact that suffering, like any other mental shock, acts as an awakener that provokes a healthy examination of our assumptions about society, our paradigms of good and evil, and the enigmatic role of divine providence, I cannot see a particularly deep meaning in that senseless act of Lady Chance.

How then do I cope with the terrible injustice that befell our son Danny? How do I reconcile the crying contradiction between our intuitive notions of good and evil, reward and punishment, divine supervision, loving God and the brutal murder of the most gentle person I have known — the physical embodiment of all qualities and values one would ever wish to see in a person?

The truth is: I don’t, and I am not even going to try. I know that these deeply ingrained intuitions — however essential for cognition — are but poetic visions of reality, that history occasionally reminds us of their fallibility, and I resign myself to the fact that there is nothing particularly significant about when or how these reminders cross our path. So, as random victims of those reminders, my family and I simply put our minds on the opportunities that our private tragedy has imposed on us, rather than agonizing over a God who slept late on the morning of January 30, 2002.

Oh, God! How sloppy can an Almighty be?

I actually find support for this attitude in Genesis, in the story of the Akedah (Isaac’s binding): “And God tried Abraham, and said to him: ‘Abraham!’ and he said: ‘Here I am.'”

I have always felt uncomfortable with this perplexing, even depressing story of the Akedah. I never understood how people could admire a father sacrificing his son for some God who plays games with his creatures to see how much they love him.

What vanity! The very idea of a God who creates creatures in his own image, then tries them with suffering and guilt is unfathomable. Moreover, the Bible that commands us not to sacrifice children to deities, here praises a person who attempted to do just that — and all on account of some imagined sound saying: “Abraham! Take your son….”

But I have begun to understand the story from a different angle.

Can happiness be taught?


Are you happy?

No, seriously.

Are. You. Happy?

You can’t answer that question, can you? You know what the first two words mean, but you’re not exactly sure what that third word is, even though you use it all the time. “This makes me happy”; “She seems happy”; “Happy Birthday”; “There! Are you [un]happy now?”

And does “Are you happy?” mean are you happy right in this very moment that you are reading this sentence? Or, happy with your entire life? Anyway, what does it mean to be happy? Does it mean to experience constant pleasure? Bouts of joy? Moments of ecstasy? Does it mean to suffer no pain? Never be sad? Never struggle with challenges? Whatever it is, how does one get happy?

It’s a High Holy Days challenge if ever there were one, since if we all lived happier lives, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

So. Are you happy? Or are all these questions making you miserable?

Happiness. It’s the new black.

Actually, the quest is not new. From Adam to Aristotle, Tony Robbins to Tony Soprano, from the Bible to the best-seller lists, philosophers, religious leaders, theologians, politicians — all have dealt in one way or another with what it takes to live a happy life. America, in fact, is the only nation founded upon this: The pursuit of happiness is our inalienable right.

And pursue it we do, with vigor.

Now more than ever before, it seems. If the ’60s were about “Freedom,” the ’70s about “Me,” the ’80s about “Money,” the ’90s about “Power,” in the new millennium we’re recognizing something essential: None of the above, by themselves, can bring about happiness.

Think about it: Anything anyone has ever wanted in life — to be free, to be king, to be rich, to be slim, to be loved — can be boiled down to “one thing,” to quote Curly in “City Slickers”: To be happy.

And never before has the word happiness appeared in so many popular book titles. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” by Tal Ben-Shahar; “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be,” by Abraham J. Twerski; and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” by Chris Gardner and Quincy Troupe, upon which the Will Smith movie is based, to name a few.

Even the world of psychology — which has long studied human suffering — has joined the fray. With the recent founding of “positive psychology,” a new branch devoted to applying empirical methods to studying and creating happiness, it seems everyone — from rabbis to doctors to teachers to coaches — is involved in the quest once dominated by self-help gurus.

But what does it mean to be happy? And how do we get there?

Here is some of what a wide range of writers, psychologists, rabbis and happiness gurus have to say on the subject:

What is happiness?

“Most people have a very fragmented idea of what happiness is,” said Dr. John Drimmer, who co-founded of The Positive Psychology Center of California last year, which offers individual and group psychotherapy, professional training and corporate consulting to help people live lives of purpose and joy and fulfillment. Drimmer said Americans equate happiness with self-esteem — but that’s only a part of it; self-esteem alone doesn’t lead to happiness.

“Let’s say you put all your emphasis into developing oneself. Ultimately, the truth is we’re all going to die,” he said, adding, “Sorry to sound like an existential Jew.”

Instead of happiness, he said, “Well-being is a better word. That’s what I think we can expect, and want, out of life.”

Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar puts it quite simply: “Happiness is the overall experience of pleasure and meaning,” the Israeli-born author writes. In a phone conversation from his home in Israel — he will commute to Boston to continue to teach his positive psychology class next semester — Ben-Shahar said that we tend to confuse pleasure with happiness.

“Pleasure is an important component, but not the only one … we also need our behavior to be personally meaningful, to be personally significant,” Ben-Shahar said.

True happiness lies somewhere between the hedonist’s indulgent lifestyle (live only for today) and the religious ascetic’s lifestyle (live only for the world to come). The Hebrew word for happiness is osher.

“In Hebrew osher means approved — I live a life of which I approve, an authentic life,” Ben-Shahar said.

“Authentic Happiness” is the name of another book, this one by Dr. Martin Seligman, who in 1998 founded the field of positive psychology, which “focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character and healthy institutions,” according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. Seligman’s research, the center’s Web site says, “has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances.” (At www.authentichappiness.com, you can find tests to take using positive psychology.)

One of the best scientific explanations of what it feels like to be happy comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the “Flow” series that began with the 1990 “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)”: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

These moments of flow, or optimal experience, can occur while working; socializing; exercising; reading; being with family, friends, lovers or alone (but probably not while watching TV, which, according to his scientific monitoring, actually produces lower levels of flow). Here’s how he breaks down the phenomenology of enjoyment:

  • We take on tasks we have a chance of completing.
  • We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  • The task has clear goals and immediate feedback.
  • We have a deep and effortless involvement and are separated from everyday worries;
  • We have a sense of control over our actions during the experience.
  • Our concern for self disappears, but emerges stronger after the flow experience.
  • Our sense of time is altered during the experience.

But why are we so concerned with happiness at this particular time — are we so very unhappy now?

Some people would argue that we are not any more unhappy than our grandparents were.

“Nothing changes, because the human condition is eternal,” said Dennis Prager, radio host and author of “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” (Harper Perennial, 1999). “If you would have asked your grandmother if she was happy, she would have looked askance at your question.”

He said her response might have been, “If I had lunch and are my kids well,” then that’s happiness.

Others might say that we think about these questions only because we have the time and leisure now to think about them.

“In a way, there’s never been a time or place in the history of the world in which you have so many people who didn’t have to worry about meeting their basic needs,” Drimmer said. If you’re running for your life, trying to feed your family, evade natural disasters or political terrors, you might not have the wherewithal to ponder, “Am I happy?”

But now — for better or for worse — we do.

And perhaps it used to be that people — people like our grandparents, and their grandparents — thought that if they just had this one thing (food, freedom, wealth, kids, security, their daughter marrying a doctor) then they would be happy.

“Traditionally, people looked for it in more money and prestige, but they [now] realize it hasn’t worked,” Ben-Shahar said.

In other words, some of us have gotten everything we ever wanted, and we are still not happy.

“Jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honor are the three biggies that will take you out of your life,” Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a post-denominational spiritual community in Los Angeles, said, quoting “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:28). “They will destroy your life. I counsel people all the time who have spent so much time pursuing things that don’t make them happy, and they don’t understand why they’re not happy. We spend our whole lives thinking that this next thing will make us happy — whatever the next thing is — it’s very easy for us to fall into that pattern.”

Many rabbis and spiritual leaders believe that unhappiness is the modern plague because we are so disconnected from religion.

“When a man has a path, he is happy,” said Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson, author and speaker from the RazOt, The Lev Eliyahu Institute, who recently lectured on joy at The Happy Minyan in Los Angeles. “There is no happiness like the closing off of doubt.”

“To be truly happy, we need to live as spiritual beings,” writes Twerski, a doctor and rabbi, in “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Being the Best You Can Be.”
He’s not talking about being religious.

“Every person can be spiritual, regardless of the degree or even presence of formal religion, by being the best person he or she can be,” he said.

Even scientists agree that our general disconnect from religion might be what has gotten us to this search for happiness, because religion and religious institutions provide many of the essential ingredients needed to be happy: interconnectedness, community, family, meaning, uplifting experiences, a sense of purpose. But many scientists, who pride themselves on intellectual rigor, say the days of formalized religion are over, despite those benefits.

“The shields that have worked in the past — the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions and habits instilled by social classes used to profit — are no longer effective for [the] increasing number of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “Today it is more difficult to accept their world view as definitive. The forms in which religions have presented their truths — myths, revelations, holy texts — no longer compels life in an era of scientific rationality, even though the substance of the truth may have remained unchanged,” he said.

Maybe a new, intellectually satisfying religion will arise, he said, but “in the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”

Others see our era in more dire terms: It could be, they argue, that ours is an apocalyptic time. “We are on the verge of the messianic era,” said Arjang Zendehdel, head of Dreamality Education & Coaching a center that uses 14 different disciplines, including positive psychology, to support people in discovering their full potential. Zen-dehdel, who was also a host of a weekly radio show in English and Farsi, said the messianic era means intense divine consciousness and awareness.

“People are becoming more and more thirsty, and they’re not satisfied with the way things were,” Zendehdel said.

Is it possible to become happy?

First, scholars in the field argue, happiness is not a static or definitive state of being, it’s actually a process. The question, Ben-Shahar writes, should not be “Am I happy?” but “How can I be happier?”

“The question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point,” Ben-Shahar writes. “We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire.”

And that is the whole point of psychology — or at least positive psychology.

“It’s the empirical study of how people can live rich, rewarding, wonderful lives,” Drimmer said. “Not just individually. How can we create families that are like that and even countries that are like that?”

It’s true that there are some genetic and environmental factors. Some people are born with better temperaments, better parents, better living conditions, better lives. But almost all the happiness research has shown that happiness has little to do with outside conditions.

Viktor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning” (Mass Market Paperback, 1997), catalogued Holocaust survivors who found meaning in their lives, and even Alexander Solzhenitsyn was at times in “flow” in prison. Twerski found conjoined twins who didn’t want to separate because they were happy. On the other hand, every day we read about celebrities — who would seem to have reached the epitome of what we’re striving for — who nevertheless are on drugs, in rehab or on the verge of suicide.

“Many people assume that money is the key to greater happiness. In fact for most people, money has a very small effect on happiness, because their basic needs are satisfied already, and there are much more important causes of happiness,” writes Michael Argyle in “The Psychology of Happiness” (Routledge, 2002).

“Ultimately, happiness is not based on what we have,” Zendehdel said in an interview. “Ultimately, happiness comes from within.”

Levy said she pays close attention to the Torah verse, “V’samachta b’chagecha” (and you shall be happy on your holidays).

“Can you command joy? If you can command it, it must be that joy is an option, that it’s within your strengths to achieve it,” she said. “There’s an aspect to happiness that’s in our power, ‘Sameich Bechelko,’ [Who is happy? He who is happy with his lot].”

Prager takes it one step further. Not only is attaining happiness possible, it is a person’s duty to be happy.

“We’re morally obligated to act as happy as possible,” he said. “I have increasingly less patience for the chronically unhappy. Because almost everybody alive has a reason to be unhappy.”

How can we become happier?

Even though most happiness guides say that they cannot simply “give recipes for how to be happy” (“Flow”), most offer steps toward a well-lived life.

Twerski offers 10: Be humble, compassionate, patient, open to change, choose wisely, make the most of all situations, improve yourself, have perspective, purpose and search for truth.

Prager offers five: Express gratitude, let go of our images, act happy, don’t rely on children for your happiness and practice self-control.

Ben-Shahar offers six: Accept emotion, engage in enjoyable and pleasurable activities, have perspective, simplify, take care of your body and express gratitude.

Zendehdel offers five: Gratitude, perspective, faith that everything happens for the good, spirituality and growth.

All of the lists stress gratitude and perspective, which brings to mind the parable of rabbi Nachum Gam Zu, who always said, despite his misfortune, “Gam Zu Le’Tovah” — it’s all for the best.

To acquire these traits, though, is not as easy as reading a book, taking a class, making a resolution. They must be practiced.

For example, Drimmer explained in an interview three exercises he has his UCLA medical students do.

  • For gratitude: Every night for a month, students must take five minutes to go through their day and think of three things that made them happy.
    “And what we know is that over a period of a month the neural pathways begin to shift,” Drimmer said. “The reason to do it at the end of the day is we know about the nature of memory, and the last thing reflected on before we go to bed is very powerful.”

  • For meaning: The students meditate in class on their week, to find what it was that was most personally meaningful.
    “Why did that matter to you?” He keeps asking them to get it down to an irreversible word: “Invariably the words are different aspects of the same irreducible gem — they are all words about connection and caring and unity.

  • For purpose and using strengths: Each student must ask five classmates to identify their five top positive characteristics from a 24 “Character Strengths” list, and then pick the most common occurrences and see if they can use those strengths the next day.
    Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t offer exercises, but he does advise people to become involved in auto-telic pursuits: “a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”

Which is what they say about mitzvot, or positive commandments: they are a reward in themselves.

So where does Judaism fit into this? Does God want us to be happy? Can a religious person be happy?

There has long been a debate as to whether it is an actual mitzvah to be happy. “Mitzvah Gedolah Lehiyot B’simcha,” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, meaning, it’s a great mitzvah to be happy.

But many debate whether this is a positive commandment in itself, as it comes from the Psalms, “Ivdu et Hashem B’simcha” (worship God with joy). Some say the words simply mean one should be happy when performing a mitzvah, especially since being happy is not counted as one of the 613 commandments.

But Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, one of the early Chasidic leaders, reportedly said, “There is no mitzvah to be joyous, but joy can bring on the greatest mitzvot.” It is also true, he said, that “it is not a sin to be sad, but sadness can bring on the greatest sins.”

Some say the Eskimos have 100 words for snow, but the Torah has many different words for happiness. “Simcha” is the generic word for happiness; “aliz” means joy.

According to Glazerson, who wrote “Letters of Fire: Mystical Insights Into the Hebrew Language” (Feldheim, 1991), many of the words for happiness kabbalistically refer to a certain type of happiness: “Sasson is a sudden unexpected happiness, gila is the happiness of discovery, rina is a refreshing happiness, ditza is a sublime joy, chedva is the happiness of togetherness and tzahala is dancing and rejoicing.”

Hebrew’s Osher, for happiness, has the same root as the Hebrew word for head, rosh. Simcha has the same letters as thought, or machshava. “There is no happiness without the head. It’s all in a person’s mind,” Glazerson said. “If the head is straight, you will be happy.”

In fact, the advent of the Chasidic movement in the 17th century sought to bring a mystic joy — with singing, dancing and prayer — a reaction to what they saw as an overly ritualistic, intellectual Judaism among those who came to be known as “mitnagdim,” or opponents.

The popularity of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 20th century, again, has sought to bring that primal joy of song back to Judaism.

Joy is “what Judaism is all about,” Glazerson said. “How can a person be unhappy if he truly believes in God?”

In “Living a Joyous Life: the True Spirit of Joyous Practice” (Trumpeter Books, 2007), Rabbi David Aaron talks about a prediction from the Zohar mystical text: “It said there will come a time when the Jews will relate to Jewish tradition like cows eating grass, and that this generation will bring ruin upon itself.”

“The Talmud said that when people accept the Torah with joy and happiness, these feelings are guaranteed to be long lasting,” he added. “But when people accept the Torah with anger or feelings of coercion, though they may observe its commandments for a while, eventually they reject them and everything breaks down.”

It’s easy to lose the point in whatever we are doing, Levy said.

“It’s easy to practice a Judaism that’s rigid, it’s also easy to practice in a way that’s mindless, to just get out of bed and not be aware of anything. It’s easy to lose all of it,” she said. “The more mindless we are, the more we act out of fear, or the more we don’t learn that we can’t just show up and expect something to happen. The more passive we are as Jews, the less we’re going to get out of it.”

The question of how to make Judaism more meaningful and relevant is a different story, but everyone agrees that it must be practiced voluntarily and with … happiness.

“For those who subscribe to the morality of duty, finding meaning — leading a moral life — necessitates sacrifice,” Ben-Shahar writes. “Sacrifice, by definition, is not pleasurable (if it were, it would not be sacrifice). The morality of duty, therefore, puts meaning and pleasure against each other.”

Most theologians and scientists agree that religion does provide a structure and opportunity for happiness.

“Religion can provide standards of right and wrong that are not altered by expedience. While it is true that people may distort religion for their own needs, religion can still provide guidelines that help us know how to be more considerate, more compassionate, more spiritual,” Twerski writes.

Both Prager and Ben-Shahar were raised in Orthodox homes and still ascribe to many of the strictures, although they do not call themselves Orthodox.

“Many of the habits that I was taught, or that I practiced as a child, when I was Orthodox, I still keep today,” Ben-Shahar said. “I value them today on a much more conscious level than I did then.”

“The best advertisement for religiosity is a happy religious person; the worst is an unhappy one,” Prager said. “So I make this appeal to religious Jews who walk around unhappy: Either walk around happy, or stop being religious.”

But can an atheist achieve happiness? (Duh!)

Prager doesn’t think so: “If you believe that there is no God, there is no ultimate justice, then everything is pointless. I don’t understand how you can be happy with those beliefs. I just don’t understand it,” he said. But he’s in the minority.

Every person can acquire a spiritual side that is necessary to achieve a state of happiness.

“You don’t have to believe in God or be a religious person to be appreciative or to have great things in your life,” Levy said. “Judaism is just one way to happiness, not the way.” What makes a spiritual person is an “expansive” outlook, she said. “It’s the ability to be aware of your surroundings, it’s the ability to find some kind of connection, to feel connected — whether you’re a person of faith or not.”

For believers and nonbelievers alike, happiness should be a priority. Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”

Ben-Shahar said, “If we do not make the pursuit of our own happiness a priority, we are hurting ourselves and, by extension, our inclination to help others.”

Are we there yet?

Since happiness is not a destination but a lifelong process, it is not possible to achieve Curly’s “One Thing” and then rest on our laurels forever. “I think it’s in our DNA to want more,” Zendehdel said.

Or, to quote Al Pacino’s character in “The Scent of a Woman”: “The day we stop lookin’, Charlie, is the day we die.”



Reb Shlomo Carlebach teaches and sings about the mitzvah of joy in this streaming MP3 audio file.


Tal Ben-Shahar will be speaking in Los Angeles at the Professional Leaders Project Think Tank on Oct. 29.

Not By Bread Alone


“Carb” is a four-letter curse word in the estimation of most L.A. residents. Its nasty connotation came by way of one Dr. Atkins, whose “Diet Revolution” became more widely read than the Bible among many a secular Jew. Seemingly overnight, Atkins’ “prophecy” became an orthodoxy for consumption of food for the grace of that most coveted status: beauty by way of slenderness.

Suddenly carbs were cursed, and pasta, potatoes and, of course, bread became the stuff of guilt and suffering to be avoided like menstruating women on the bimah. In revolutionary proportions, the most nonreligious unknowingly joined in collective affirmation of the words of Parshat Ekev: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

That man should live instead by an In-N-Out protein-style Double-Double, however, was not quite the message. Preceding Deuteronomy 8:3, God explained the suffering He caused the Israelites in wandering the wilderness as a 40-year test of faith. “[God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat … in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but by the word that proceeds out of the mouth of God does man live.”

Perhaps today’s anti-bread movement is essentially spiritual: a collective desire of our souls for greater consciousness and empowerment from within the realm of Creator. To be sure, giving up bread is a subjugation of hardship; no amount of corned beef can satisfy hunger for a fresh slice of rye bread underneath. The triumph in overcoming such attachments for a higher life experience is indeed sacred; seeking a tighter tush rather than a firmer faith is profane. Even if the spark of God within us inspired this widespread affliction of culinary deprivation, our egos haven’t quite caught on.

Carbolyte is a poor substitute for manna from heaven (and a noxiously gaseous one), as are the other artificially flavored and sweetened things by which carb-counting eaters try to satiate. They only add to the diseases of materialism: feelings of inadequacy, of wanting more in a world where you can “never be too rich or too thin.” If only we would recite the words of Ekev, recognizing that “God is in [our] midst, a great and awesome God” (Deuteronomy 7:21), the experience of our own perfection in an abundant reality would be revealed.

The bread battle is spiritual. Long before Atkins or Weight Watchers subjected us to the proverbial wilderness of carblessness, Judaism instructed that we “cast our bread upon the water” as offerings of lowly attachment for the receiving of higher sustenance. So, too, it warned us to temper consumption of yeast, which, like the human ego, causes physical and emotional turmoil when disproportionately swollen. And then there is the connection between the words lechem (bread) and milchama (war) by sharing the same root — explaining the battle between a smaller waist and a chocolate rugelach.

Eliminating bread, according to Judaism, is an ego diet. It is infliction of measured suffering on the greedy, possessive, instantly gratified, animal part of oneself so as to realign with the Godly part. It exercises faith and determination, a return to the experience of blessing. It took 40 years for our ancestors to get this: that they need not struggle nor worry nor want food, or anything else, but rather infiltrate their beings with faith in the providence of their Creator and gratitude for His miraculous offerings.

His manna appeared such that there was never any more or less than what was needed for daily sustenance. Anything leftover rapidly infested with maggots; the only thing they could hold was conviction in God’s presence. When they finally understood that everything needed was imparted by — and only by — the power of the Divine word, they were delivered into a land flowing with milk, honey and fabulous pita.

The war on bread may allow a victory over dependency, but it is in learning to love the enemy after the battle that perfection is truly realized. Manna was never meant to take the place of the wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates and grapes growing in Israel. Once our ancestors were able to fully trust in the sustenance and abundance of an Infinite Source, It restored them to their natural right for physical pleasure. The intention was ultimately that we live our lives in the luxury of beautiful tastes and recognize the blessing of its energy flowing though us as sparks of creation in service of their Supplier.

Man should not avoid bread; quite the contrary: the parsha proceeds with God’s promising our life experience in “a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing.” It describes an abundant existence, in which “when you have eaten your fill” of Mrs. Fields cookies, you will recognize that you have had enough, and “give thanks to the Lord your God for the good … he has given.” Carb-free living encourages the power to transcend attachments to comfort, and strengthens the will to live consciously and intentionally: the Sinai Diet. But the greater test comes in our heeding God’s word, not Atkins’.

The milchama with lechem stops when we can eat it proportionately and spiritually. When we enjoy our fill — rather than demonizing, avoiding or sinfully binging on it — we are redeemed. By the mouth of God, bread was created, as was light, as were we, in His image. Our purest source of nourishment is Divine love, manifest in our capacity to lift up the vital force in all foods through our own utterances of gratitude. The war becomes love when we bless Adonai, who takes bread from out of the earth. With these words, hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we also praise the Creator for taking war out of the world. Ah, to eat a knish in peace.

Using both bread and body to service the Divine, lightness and purity from within their mundanity shine in vital beauty. By mimicking the word of God, we consume the blessing we offer; our souls are fed by sacred words and our bodies are sated and sustained. We remember that while “carb” may be a four-letter word, so, too, is the unutterable name of God, and that’s the furthest thing from a curse there is.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Unmasking Purim’s vital meaning


It’s a classic Jewish tale: Just when we feel comfortable and safe, nahafokh hu — the whole world can turn upside down.

Megillat Esther, read on Purim, reminds us that history is capricious and life is fragile; that willing or not, we must confront our powerlessness and vulnerability, our inability to control everything. Or anything. We’re given some tools to assist in that brutal awakening — masks and flasks — which help us laugh at ourselves as we venture into the dangerous territory of rabbi-sanctioned drunken revelry, of the outrageous, irresponsible behavior most of us work hard to guard against the rest of the year.

On Purim we are instructed (Megillah 7a) to drink ad d’lo yada, until we can no longer distinguish between Haman and Mordecai, evil and good, blessing and curse — an excuse to be utterly confused, an annual corrective to our desperate attempts to exert control over our lives.

But is this really a laudable religious goal? The practice of Purim seems counterintuitive, counterproductive and even dangerous. Why put ourselves through it?

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbah, who, in a drunken frenzy on Purim, accidentally murders R. Zeira, then miraculously resuscitates him after sobering up. A year later, Rabbah again invites R. Zeira to celebrate Purim with him, but R. Zeira blithely refuses this time, saying that miracles are not to be taken for granted (Megillah 7b).

This story is an expression of rabbinic ambivalence to ad d’lo yada — underscoring the deeply problematic nature of Purim for people of conscience and sensibility. Most of us spend our year working assiduously to make order out of a chaotic world — trying to repair broken relationships, to make space for holiness in our work and in our homes; trying to respond to grief with comfort, to cruelty with goodness. Most of us work hard to try to remember — amidst the chaos — that every deed, every moment has the potential to pierce the darkness with some light.

Then Purim arrives each year, mandating that we contemplate a world without God (there is no mention of God throughout the entire megillah), that we entertain our darkest fears about the direction of history (there is no such thing as real security — our individual and collective destinies could change in an instant).

On Purim we are forced to confront the possibility that nothing we do really matters, because history is ultimately arbitrary, and life is therefore unalterably unpredictable. No wonder they tell us to have a couple of drinks …
But the power of Purim is not that it leaves us in a drunken stupor, vulnerable, uncertain and hungover.

The real power of Purim is that we move beyond the costumed debauchery — the ultimate response to nothingness — and respond to chaos with an affirmation of somethingness: namely the human capacity for goodness. One of the central obligations of Purim is not only to give mishloah manot — gifts to our loved ones, but also to give matanot l’evyonim — gifts to the poor. Remarkably, though the obligation is to give two gifts to two people in need, we are taught that even more is expected of us. “One is not exceedingly precautious with money on Purim. Rather, everyone who puts out a hand [in need], we are to give to that person” (Shulkhan Arukh, OH 694:3).

Purim demands that, for one day of the year, we are released from the shackles of cautious discernment and, instead, we give to anyone and everyone who lacks. We give, regardless of what we think or fear the person might do with the money, and regardless of our political perspectives on how best to fight poverty, homelessness and hunger. We give indiscriminately and generously, just because somebody needs.

Why the obligatory openheartedness? Because ultimately the message of Purim is that we can’t control history, but we must control how we treat humanity. Out of the depths of darkness, out of utter nonsense, we have the capacity to dream of a different kind of reality, one in which no person suffers the indignity of poverty, no parent puts her kids to bed hungry, and human beings work devotedly, even indiscriminately, to realize a world of dignity, justice and love.

At IKAR we try to communicate the complexity of this holiday through our Purim Justice Carnival. We embrace the confusion and moral ambiguity of Purim simultaneously with drunken revelry and a renewed commitment to social change.

We play blackjack with cards bearing hunger stats; we spin prize wheels for sweat-free souvenirs; we eat, drink and dance until it hurts. And at the end of the night, each of us ends up with a chunk of money that we give to organizations that are working to address critical local and global social justice issues.

But hunger, AIDS, economic justice on Purim? How do we reconcile those struggles with the obligation to have real simcha, joy of the holiday? The rabbis tell us exactly what it means to really experience the joy of the holiday.

“There is no greater or more wonderful joy,” says the Mishnah Berurah, “than to make happy the heart of a poor person, an orphan or a widow. And in this way, we are imitating God.”

Our commitment to help those most vulnerable fuels our celebration. Our Purim Justice Carnival is an attempt to integrate the religious and the political, the spiritual and the social — and for that reason it’s our best party of the year.

The rabbis teach that even when all the other festivals are abolished in the World to Come, Purim will remain (Midrash Mishle 9:2). Why is that? Because Purim is one holiday that teaches that no matter what life deals to us, we have the power to respond with love, hope, joy and purpose. We embrace chaos and meaninglessness for one day each year, precisely to affirm that that is not the world we want to live in. Then we spend the rest of the year making sure that it does not become our reality.

May we all be blessed this year with the capacity to internalize the message of Purim — to refuse to accept the inevitability of the flow of history, to give with all our hearts, to love with all our beings, and to work with all our strength to bring light, hope and healing into our world.

L’chayim!


Sharon Brous is rabbi of Olmert-Rice-Abbas summit meets low expectations

Kabbalah boom prompts meeting of mystical minds


In Maui, at a New Age gift shop, a woman in a sarong pays for a candle in the shape of the Buddha, a bundle of sage used in Native American ceremonies and a copy of “Becoming Like God: Kabbalah and Our Ultimate Destiny,” by Michael Berg.

At a Baltimore bookstore, a young man wearing a cross around his neck pours over a copy of “Kabbalah for Dummies,” as he sips his Starbucks.

In Lilongwe, Malawi, a white woman ties a red wool string around the thin brown wrist of a young boy.

And the Web site at the Bnei Baruch World Center for Kabbalah Studies gets 2.5 million views a month, translated into 22 languages.

What was once shrouded in mystery and the exclusive domain of educated Jewish males over the age of 40 is now as accessible as the King James Bible. At the same time that more and more non-Jews unite to study and engage in some of Judaism’s most sacred and intimate texts, the schisms among Jews who draw upon the same teachings grow ever wider.

In light of this, the ever-expanding world of Kabbalah scholars are increasingly asking: What are the ramifications of Kabbalah becoming a universal spiritual path? Is there a way to keep it authentic and anchored to its Jewish roots?

These were some of the concerns that compelled Rabbi Yakov Travis of Tiferet Institute in Cleveland to orchestrate an unprecedented forum of rabbis, professors, authors, scholars and spiritual seekers with radically different approaches to Jewish mysticism. Travis is the founder and director of Tiferet Institute’s two-year home-based study program via Web conferencing, “Kabbalistic Spirituality: Principles, Pathways and Practices,” which is designed to foster a serious and stimulating learning community of kindred spirits across the country.

The forum, “Kabbalah for the Masses? The Promise and Problems in Mainstreaming Jewish Mysticism,” was held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego at the tail end of the Association for Jewish Studies annual meeting on Dec. 18 and 19, the fourth and fifth days of Chanukah.

The forum’s goal was to begin a constructive conversation on the contemporary phenomenon of mainstream Jewish mysticism. In a structured format, presentations by panelists were followed by respondents from the academic community, as well as an open question-and-answer session.

Included in the lineup of presenters was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of the novel, “Kabbalah: A Love Story”; Rabbi Berg of Los Angeles, heir to the Kabbalah Centre dynasty; and Tamar Frankiel, dean of students and professor of comparative religion at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles and author of “Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction for Christians.”

Also included were Mark Elber, author of “The Everything Kabbalah Book”; Arthur Kurzweil, author of “Kabbalah for Dummies”; Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Kabbalah at University of Judaism; Rabbi Moshe Genuth of the Baal Shem Tov Center in Toronto; and Rabbi Wayne Dosick of San Diego’s Elijah Minyan.

In the realm of Kabbalah, time and space take on a whole new meaning, so it was appropriate that two of contemporary mystical Judaism’s most beloved and vibrant teachers — Rebbe Zalman Schachter Shalomi, one of the major founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School — were beamed in via live, interactive audio-video Web conferencing.

At a panel discussion on “Kabballah for Non-Jews?” speakers represented a variety of viewpoints. Whereas Giller sees the Kabbalah Centre as an answer to the declaration, “I am not religious, I am spiritual,” Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, professor of Jewish intellectual history at Arizona State University, accused Berg and the center of hawking spiritual wares, hedonism, self-centeredness and material secularism.

Berg’s response was that the center was many things to many people — that it is up to the individual to choose how deeply he will immerse himself in what the center offers.

“We don’t have to study Kabbalah or understand the Zohar [the pivotal texts of Kabbalah] to become better people,” he said.

“I wanted this forum to be as inclusive as possible, to bring all Jews to the table,” Travis said in his opening remarks. Then he half joked, “Even those that are wrong. Even those that have ideas that are the opposite of mine.”

When the laughter died down, he looked around the room.

“Where is the vision?” he asked. “If we want to be a light to the nations, we need to talk.”

There was not only talk but deep listening. There was also storytelling, laughter and an abundance of metaphors. Sparks flew, too. Rabbi Elliott Ginsburg described the experience of such a meeting of minds and hearts as “cognitive whiplash.”

On the subject of Madonna, which was inevitably raised, Kurzweil came to her defense.

“I’d like to defend Madonna,” he said. “The media have made it all a joke. She’s an easy target. Doesn’t she have the right to her own spiritual journey?”

However, most present seemed to hold Frankiel’s view that “it’s intellectually dishonest if someone presents Kabbalah as simply a universal philosophy and not as something essentially Jewish.”

Many of the 102 people at the forum arrived holding strong opinions and concerns about the Kabbalah Centre, with its slick marketing strategies, pop-culture appeal and “mercantile dimension,” yet this was the first opportunity they had to listen to and question Berg.

“If ever there was an occasion to recite the ‘Shehecheyanu,'” said Rachel Miller of Los Angeles, as she glanced at the list of presenters, “this is it.”

Although all the presenters were united by their passion for the study and practice of Kabbalah, the most observable differences lay in their approaches as to how Judaism’s most sacred and intimate teachings should be disseminated.

“The Bnei Noah movement is going to explode in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Genuth, referring to the growing number of Christians who, disillusioned with their religion, have found their way to Kabbalah through the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and the new Ba’al Shem Tov Center in Toronto. Here, the “holiest of holies” is shared with non-Jews within the framework of the seven principles of the Covenant of Noah.

In the esoteric teachings of the Zohar, the work of Jewish mysticism, what you see is only a fraction of what really exists. And what exists at the Kabbalah Centre goes far beyond Madonna and the sale of red string, Berg said. His lineage dates back to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1885-1954), who believed that only Kabbalah can save the world from disaster.

Amy Klein’s bibliographical guide for the perplexed


“To the best of our understanding, God created the universe as an act of love. It was an act of love so immense that the human mind cannot even begin to fathom it. God created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good. But God’s love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough…. God therefore gave man free will.” — “If You Were God” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Mesorah, 1983)
 
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” — “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Pocket Books, 1984)
 
“When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives; We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, our meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves; creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” — “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 2002)
 
“Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life. We were made to have meaning. This is why people try dubious methods, like astrology or psychics to discover it…. When life has meaning, you can bear almost anything; without it, nothing is bearable.” — “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” (Rick Warren, Zondervan 2002)
 
“Tradition teaches us that the soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination. I understand therapy as nothing more than bringing imagination to areas that are devoid of it, which then must express themselves by becoming symptiomatic.” — “Care of the Soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life” by Thomas A. Moore (HarperCollins, 2002).
 
“Many of us go through the rituals of survival with a deeper sense of something greater, or even something smaller. We may crave spiritual insight, or perhaps we yearn for simple pleasures, such as the time to close our eyes and take in the smells of a flower garden, feel the sun shining warmly on our faces, or to relish the comfort of a cozy oversized robe and good novel…. Indulge yourself by prioritizing self-nourishment — everyone benefits when you feel good.” — “The Book of Small Pleasures: 32 Inspiring Ways to Feed Your Body, Soul and Spirit” by Matthew McKay, Catherine Sutker, Kristin Beck (Barnes & Noble, 2001)
 
“God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience…. If we could not temporarily put out of our minds some of the painful moments of our past, how would we find the courage to go on? … But if we would not remember, would we still be us? Those painful moments are such a large part of making us who we are….” — “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2006)
 
“It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however, we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary benefit but for long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years, but lives and eons.” — “The Meaning of Life” by The Dalai Lama (Wisdom Publications, 1992)
 
“Human beings best qualify themselves for the world to come through a combination of studying Torah and good deeds…. Thus even the belief in the world to come is, in Judaism, a motivator to study Torah and to perform good deeds in this world.” — “To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff (The Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia,
 
2002)
“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals we are meant to search as much as to find. After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite: some all-encompassing Truth about the world or even our True selves? The fact is, there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth, we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.” — “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula with Linda Lowenthal (Hyperion, 2006)
 
“Judaism has survived 4,000 years, including 2,000 years without a homeland, without the Temple in Jerusalem, without any common geographical location, without support from the outside. Judaism and Jews survived because of the Torah. No matter where they lived, no matter what historical horrors or joys they experienced, the heart of their faith was carried and communicated through the way, the path and the teachings of the Torah.”

Jews in the Military: High Holidays Under Fire


Who shall live and who shall die.
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.

Ralph Goodman recited those words in a hillside tent in southeastern Belgium. Warren Zundell’s “shul” was a patch of no-man’s-land somewhere in North Korea. For Robert Cirkus, it was a jungle clearing in the bug-infested Central Highlands of Viet Nam. And for Lee Mish, it was Saddam Hussein’s former palace.

The four men have never met, but they share an uncommon bond. They represent four generations of Jewish servicemen for whom the High Holidays — and their signature Unetanah Tokef prayer — took on new meaning.

For all Jews, the words of the emotionally charged Unetanah Tokef are a powerful reminder of mortality. All the more so for Jews serving their country in wartime — such as Goodman, Zundell, Cirkus and Mish — where every day is Judgment Day and where prayer, righteousness and repentance can’t always avert a decree of death.

Here are the stories of these American servicemen who observed the High Holidays not in conventional synagogues, but on far-flung battlefields. The worship services they participated in were often improvised and incomplete. But the jarring juxtaposition of war and prayer, faith and fear, continues to resonate with these men.

A Tent on the Side of a Hill
A Tent on the Side of a Hill
Fays, Belgium
September 1944

“Colonel, the Jewish community wants to observe Yom Kippur. What can you do to help us?”

Ralph Goodman, attached to the 1st U.S. Army’s Headquarters Commandant in Belgium, was unable to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because his unit was traveling.

But Yom Kippur was fast approaching, and the 24-year-old enlistee from Pittsfield, Mass., was determined that the Jewish servicemen, now encamped at a temporary base near Verviers, Belgium, be given a place to pray.

He had already approached the 1st Army’s chief chaplain, who offered nothing except a few prayer books. But Goodman’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Harry F. Goslee, was more accommodating. He ordered a large blackout hospital tent set up on a hillside, with chairs and a portable electric generator.

On Yom Kippur, Sept. 27, 1944, about 25 soldiers and airmen congregated in that tent. Two Orthodox laymen acted as cantor and rabbi.

Goodman sat by the tent flap opening, his gun on his lap. He was juggling several different prayer books, trying to find the correct pages for Unetanah Tokef. He finally located the prayer and recited the words. But what he really was saying that day was, “Please, God, bring my buddies and me home.”

Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see a chaplain he didn’t recognize, a fresh-faced, sandy-haired man about 30, who asked permission to address the troops.

“How lovely are your tents, Oh Jacob,” he began, intoning the words to a prayer Jews say each morning.

He talked about five minutes, thanking the men for allowing him to speak and commending them for assembling a service.

Goodman, who still lives in Pittsfield, thinks about that service often, proud that he and his buddies were able to make it happen. He wishes he could share another Yom Kippur with them.

But 62 years later, he still regrets that he never asked the name of that fresh-faced Christian chaplain who reached out to a group of Jews on the holiest day of their year.

“God bless that man,” he said.

Above the 38th Parallel, North KoreaAn All-Jewish Convoy
Above the 38th Parallel, North Korea
October 1951

Warren Zundell, an orthopedic surgeon with the 11th Evacuation Hospital in Wonju, South Korea, wasn’t eager to attend Rosh Hashanah services. It meant traveling 40 miles on an unpaved, mountainous road to 10th Army Corps headquarters, over the border into North Korea. Zundell, 27, had a baby daughter back in Fall River, Mass., whom he had never seen, and he didn’t want to risk encountering snipers or land mines.

But Zundell was the unit’s only Jewish officer, and the Catholic chaplain on his base was insistent that Zundell escort the convoy.

“There are about 30 Jewish boys around here who want to go,” said the priest, who planned to remain in Wonju at the hospital.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30, 1951, in the priest’s jeep with a white cross painted on the hood, Zundell led the way. A few truckloads of Jewish soldiers, all heavily armed, followed. Perhaps the only all-Jewish convoy ever to travel into North Korea, they arrived safely several hours later at the camp, a war-scarred patch of ground that sported some tents and housed perhaps a few hundred soldiers.

The next morning, a rabbi conducted services in a large tent, with about 300 soldiers, many who had traveled there from other units, sitting on the ground or on boxes. There was no ark, no Torah and no prayer books, except for the rabbi’s.

“I just sat there and listened,” Zundell recalled. “I didn’t think about where I was.”

After services, he traveled back to Wonju with the same soldiers.

Even less enthusiastic about observing Yom Kippur, Zundell was again induced to return to the prayer site. On Yom Kippur day, the convoy again traveled above the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. The scene was identical to what Zundell remembered from Rosh Hashanah, except, instead of 300 soldiers in the tent, there were now 150.

“Where are the other boys?” Zundell asked the servicemen sitting near him.
“Heavy casualties during the week,” one of them replied.

Zundell doesn’t remember his exact reaction; he imagines the service was pretty sad. Afterward they loaded up the trucks and headed home.

Since then, every Rosh Hashanah, the Coral Gables, Fla., resident sits in temple and remembers Korea.

“It never leaves my mind,” he said. “I think about those boys who didn’t make it back for Yom Kippur.”

Central Highlands, Vietnam

A Jungle Clearing
Central Highlands, Vietnam
September 1966

While stationed in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry, Army Spc. 4 Robert Cirkus often didn’t know what day it was. But somehow the 21-year-old draftee from Passaic, N.J., knew the High Holidays were coming. And he knew he wanted to attend services.

A rabbi was dispatched to the forward base camp in the Central Highlands where Cirkus was working as a weapons repairman. Around noon on Rosh Hashanah day, Sept. 15, 1966, Cirkus, three infantrymen and a medic, all strangers to one another, gathered together in a cleared-out jungle area.

The rabbi set up a small ark on a bench in the back of his open Jeep. Inside was a traveling Torah. Cirkus and the others sat on the ground in the hot sun, the air muggy and bug-infested. He wore a tallit over his uniform, holding his submachine gun and his prayer book on his lap.

Cirkus, who now lives in Clifton, N.J., remembers that the service was truncated and that he and the others were not really at ease. They were praying, but they were also alert to every sound, especially gunshots off in the jungle. He knows he wasn’t thinking about life and death. Or about Judgment Day. He didn’t want to think about what was really going on.

Afterward, the rabbi handed out cans of tuna fish, bread, wine and kosher C rations.

“We sat, we chitchatted and we went our separate ways,” he said. “But we knew we were all Jews.”

Until 10 years ago, Cirkus was too traumatized to discuss his Vietnam experience at all. Even now, he can’t talk about all of it. But he’s able to look back on that Rosh Hashanah in the Central Highlands, where, for a short time, five Jews who didn’t know each other sat around together with a rabbi praying.

“I don’t want to say it like it’s jerky, but you felt like you were being watched by God,” he said.

Saddam's Palace

Saddam’s Palace
Tikrit, Iraq
September 2004

September 2004 was a tense time in Tikrit, Iraq, where Special Agent Lee Mish was stationed. Roads were impassable, bridges were blown up and food and water were rationed. Plus, with flights grounded, the rabbi assigned to Tikrit couldn’t leave Baghdad.

Despite these obstacles, erev Rosh Hashanah services were held on Sept. 15. And Mish, 27, a Conservative Jew from Sharon, Mass., who enlisted in the Army nine years ago, walked to Saddam Hussein’s former palace, now under control of the U.S. military.

There, in a large room with marble floors and ceilings and a gold chandelier, a room once used by Saddam’s servants, Mish encountered three other Jews. They included a captain who served as the Jewish lay leader, a sergeant and a civilian contractor.

Wearing kippot, the uniformed men sat around a card table on folding chairs, their guns by their sides. For about 20 minutes, they read from prayer books sent by Hebrew school students in Wisconsin. Mish doesn’t remember the specifics, but he recalls saying prayers for all the soldiers and being aware of Rosh Hashanah’s message of mortality.

“When you’re in a situation where your friends are dying, where people all around you are dying, any time you pray, it hits home more,” he said.

Afterward they shared a bottle of wine and ate some “normal food,” including bagels with jelly. They also read Rosh Hashanah cards that the students had decorated with honey pots and apples and inscribed with messages such as “Be safe” and “Hope you come back soon.” Inside the holiday cards, the students had placed prepaid phone cards.

Despite its informality, that service resonated with Mish, now stationed in Wurzburg, Germany. Rosh Hashanah had always been important to him, a way of confirming his Jewishness. But being in Iraq had given him more time to reflect on death and destruction, and he was feeling more religious while stationed there. Also, he had recently learned from his Iraqi translator, who was born and raised in Mosul, Iraq, that during Saddam’s reign, the Jews in that area were barred from observing holidays in public and were forced to celebrate secretly in their homes. That day, however, Jewish soldiers were praying openly in Saddam’s palace.

“I felt honored,” Mish said.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.

To learn more about today’s Jews in uniform, visit Jews In Green, the”ultimate resource for Jewish service members.”

Saddam Hussein’s palaces have also been the site of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Pesach and other Jewish celebrations, as this Jewish Journal story from 2004 relates.

Are You Listening?


“What’s the most important word in the prayer book?” the rabbi asked the congregation.

The congregants responded with a list of important words:
“shalom — peace,” “bracha — blessing,” “Torah — God’s truth,” “Hashem — God’s name.”

“All very important words,” the rabbi replied. “But there is one more important. The prayer book’s most important word is, “al-ken — therefore.”

“Therefore” connects all our fine sentiments and deep wisdom with the reality of the world. “Therefore” binds us to bring our values out of the vague realm of our subjectivity and into the hard objective world of work, family, politics and power. “Therefore” tests all our spiritual aspirations and visions against the limits of our courage, imagination and resolve. “Therefore” makes religion real.
Every day, someone confesses, “Rabbi, I’m a deeply spiritual person.”

Good, I reply. Where’s the “therefore”? What difference does it make? How does your spirituality shape the way you spend your money, speak to your housekeeper, raise your children? Do you vote spiritually? Drive spiritually? Watch TV spiritually? I am little impressed by those who profess to believe in God. I am moved by those whose faith is behaved. That’s my “therefore” test.

This week we read the stirring declaration of Jewish monotheism, Shema Yisrael. The most sacred words in our tradition, the Shema is the first affirmation a Jewish child is taught, and the last words on a dying Jew’s lips. Even the Shema must be subjected to the test of “therefore.” To do so, I suggest we read the Shema backward. And read it, not as a declaration, but as a set of questions.
“Write them upon the doorposts of your house….” Read your house! What values are written on the walls of your home? If someone visited your home, what would they learn of you from the art on your walls, the books on your shelves, the notices tacked to your refrigerator?

“Tie them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes.” Read your work! To what purposes and ends do you invest your bodily and mental energies? What do you spend your time and strength doing? What energizes you? What exhausts you? What renews you?

“Speak of them, at home and away, morning and night….” Read your words! What do you talk about? What concerns dominate your conversations and dialogues? With what tone of voice do you address the world? With what voice do you speak to those who share your home, your work, your neighborhood?

“Teach them to your children.” Read your kids! What have you taught your children? What have you taught them about success, about the purpose and meaning of life? What have you shown them matters most to you — the pursuit of prosperity or the practice of compassion? The acquisition of precious things or the sanctification of precious moments?

“These words … take them to heart.” Read your heart! What preoccupies your thoughts? What do you worry about? What do you dream about? What do you hope for?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your might.” The theologian Paul Tillich observed that every person, believer or nonbeliever, has a “god.” Our God, he taught, is the “object of our ultimate concern.” So the Shema asks us: What do you love most in life? What is your god? The answer is no mystery. Just look back at the answers to all the other questions. The values and concerns that decorate your home, drive your work, color your words, shape your children and animate your thoughts, those values constitute your ultimate concerns. So what do you worship? What is your god? What sacrifices does your god demand?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening? Are you paying attention to your own choices? Are you conscious of the patterns of your life?

“Hear O Israel….” Are you listening to the voice of your soul, your deepest ideals and principles? Can you open your ears to hear a voice calling you to a life lived differently?

For those of deep faith, the Shema is an affirmation and declaration of loyalty to God. For those of us who struggle with the “Therefore” – with the task of bringing faith into life, it is an unrelenting challenge. Shema for us is God’s most powerful question.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

Converts’ Hardships Expose Truth


“My father didn’t survive the Holocaust to have his grandson marry a shiksa.”

Alison, my classmate from the University of Pennsylvania who is currently in the process of converting to Judaism, gasped at the harshness of the words delivered stoically by her boyfriend’s mother.

He succumbed to intense pressure from his parents to end the relationship, while she was subjected to a cascade of accusations:

“Converts are not welcome in my family.” “No Jewish boy will ever want to marry you.” “You are inadequate to raise Jewish children.”

“I felt like someone was putting a knife through my heart,” she told me. “When you’re so passionate about something, and you know you will never be accepted…. I’ll always feel inadequate.”

As I had recently discovered, Alison’s case was not an isolated incident in Penn’s Jewish community. I vividly remember my first Friday night at Penn. It was a huge event organized by Hillel, and swarms of Jewish students were packed in.

Noticing that I was a freshman overwhelmed by the bombardment of new faces, a junior whom I had never met before took my hand and said, “Are you Laura? I’m Julie. I’ve heard so much about you! If you want, I saved you a seat on that table over there.”

We soon became friends and particularly bonded during our weekly swim in Penn’s pool. One day, as we sat chatting casually in the sauna, she confided to me that although she observes the law according to Orthodox traditions, she technically isn’t Jewish yet.

Julie hails from a small, white Christian town, and spurred by her own spiritual quest, she had found Judaism. We had been close for two months by this point, and I was shocked that she had kept this from me. She explained that she has learned to keep her conversion secret from her Jewish acquaintances, because the reactions have been so discouraging and unwelcoming: “The overwhelming sentiment was that converts are not wanted, and they are a burden. And that’s what I was.”

Intrigued and appalled, I tried to probe the issue. A torrent of emotions and stories poured out, reflecting her relief in expressing her feelings to a sympathetic ear.

“I was taunted, like the fat kid in third grade” Julie recalled. “It was always, ‘Well, you’re not Jewish, so you shouldn’t come to davening.’ Students wouldn’t hand me a bentscher, or they would tell me to step out of the line to wash [ritually], because I was just wasting everyone’s time. Just lots of constant, intentional reminders that I was not chosen to be part of this people as they were.”

Julie’s list of painful interactions went on and on, as I sat in numbed silence, hugging my knees to my chest and absorbing the oppressive heat of the room.

“I have been told not to touch the Torah and to go back to my own religion” she relayed to me matter-of-factly.

“Wasn’t there anyone you could confide in?” I asked.

“I could confide in some more than others, but when it came down to it, no one really cared whether I converted or not.”

“So … how did you cope?”

“I cried and wondered what I did wrong to merit not being born Jewish.”

Just then, someone entered the sauna, bringing in a chilling draft and an abrupt end to our conversation.

I was introduced to Alison several weeks after I met Julie. Again, I discovered she wasn’t born Jewish only after knowing her a couple of months. When I finally mustered the courage to approach her about her experiences converting, I found her surprisingly open as well.

“When I went to shul, people asked me why I was there,” she revealed. “People would ask me to press the elevator button for them on Saturday … to be their Shabbos goy. Why didn’t I just abide by the seven Noahide laws, they asked. There’s no reason for you to convert. They called me a shiksa…. That was very hurtful.”

In addition to justifying their change of faith to their families, friends and local communities, Julie and Alison absorb the added hardships inflicted by the intolerance of the Jewish world they seek to enter. As converts, they feel that they undergo constant scrutiny and consequently abide by the strictest interpretations of Jewish laws and customs.

“I feel like I have to prove myself” Alison told me. “Because I wasn’t born Jewish, I have to do more to make up for it.”

She noted the paradox that it is usually the people less comfortable with their religiosity that give her the hardest time; they feel “threatened” by a convert who is more religiously inclined.

My friendship with these girls has exposed me to what it feels like on the outside of the Jewish community, and it disturbs me how callous and cold we can be to those who sincerely find meaning in the Jewish faith.

“I am not going to fight for [my boyfriend] anymore,” she replied. “I don’t want to be a burden on him…. I love Judaism and have sacrificed so much for it. I really wish people could be more accepting.”

Laura Birnbaum is a student at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance journalist.

 

God Is Gray


“This is heaven,” I announced Sunday afternoon.

Cruising the city (the absence of traffic in itself celestial), sunroof open, exposed shoulders browning. Wild poppies glistening, swaying in a soft breeze scented by orange blossoms; singing along to KOST 103.5 FM:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone,

I can see all obstacles in my way.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.

It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day.

“Heaven,” I said. “Yep,” everyone agreed, celebrating under flawless sapphire sky — free from even the teeniest speck of a cloud — “this is paradise.”

Heaven, paradise — choose a synonym: ecstasy, bliss, rapture. We use such words to describe experiences of perfect, supreme happiness, God on earth. The conditions on Sunday merited all such descriptions, especially that immaculately blue sky. Skies like that burn gloom away.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Gray days certainly have a subtle beauty. But no one calls Seattle paradise, and if Fritz Coleman reported that a cloud was going to remain interminably over Los Angeles, a mass exodus to South Beach would certainly ensue.

I’d probably go, too. I mean, who wants to live under a cloud forever?

How dull. How boring.

Those are the synonyms for “cloudy,” along with: hazy, murky, gray, obscure — not the ideal forecast, to say the least.

What would inspire my sermons in such weather? How would I instill faith in God if I were denied its experience? Because the experience of the Divine is an ecstatic one, right? It is the feeling of rapture, bright, glorious bliss, isn’t it? I mean, no one prays in hopes of reaching an enhanced state of hazy obscurity.

And yet, this week’s parsha tells us that from the day the Israelites erected the tabernacle (the place of Divine presence made manifest on earth) a cloud covered it. Seems they weren’t singing much about sunshiny days, for, “so it was always: The cloud covered [the tabernacle] by day and the appearance of fire by night” (Numbers 9:16).

No need for sunglasses or flashlights near God’s house. More like a mobile home than an estate, the cloud was the original built-in navigation system: When it moved, the people picked up the tabernacle and followed it, “and in the place where the cloud abode, there [they] encamped.”

Meaning, the closer we get to the experience of God on earth, the more overcast it is, and if it starts to clear up, we should move away from the brightness and follow the clouds. Always.

And so I must ask: Are you kidding? What, so heaven is hazy? God is gray?

Maybe. At least, the ultimate experience of God is gray. As in not black nor white, not agony nor ecstasy, not seasonal affective disorder nor carcinoma from sun overexposure; it is the subtle obscurity at the nexus of all those extremes.

According to the portion, God’s presence is made manifest in the middle. We call that dull, murky or boring — or, we can call it balance. See, the ultimate Los Angeles Sunday might be our human definition of heaven, but it is one that is inherently dependent on a day of equivalently dismal, mud-sliding gloom.

Here on earth, that’s how we see things: in terms of their polarities. The big Chief set that up in Genesis: light opposed darkness, day defined night, man contrasted woman. God created all the highs and lows in precise opposition to one another as the essence of our human experience — to be tempered with our spiritual experience. But we lost our way and got stuck in the duality, where our delusional aspirations for perfection and delight led to swings toward equal and opposite desperation. Lost in the realm of heroes and villains, beauty and ugliness, we still think that bad feelings will disappear when bright, sunny days come back around.

From this human perspective, it makes sense that we would equate a Divine day with dazzling, untainted perfection. But God is beyond our mundane experience. He is the source of it. She is the containment of it all. And in recognizing that God is One, we head for the clouds — we welcome the haze.

A cloud sheltered the Divine’s residence among the Israelites every day, and fire illuminated it by night; it is never fully dark nor light in the presence of what is most holy. Always a bit obscured, for how could we possibly apprehend everything or nothing?

God is gray. God is the opaque place in between all of our yearnings for some ultimate and definitive extreme. And while I am still “in heaven” that summer has finally descended upon La La Land, I am well aware that it is only as glorious as it is because it contrasts the nasty cold I kvetched about all winter.

Sunday was a temporary ecstasy for which I will pay with my grief in the fall. But if I can remember to set my sights on the clouds, as few or many as they may be, I will be sheltered by their subtle and eternal protection, predictably guided back to my own center. It may not be rapture, but it will certainly be peace. Wholeness. Shalom. That is paradise. A cloudy day.

Karen Deitsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

Unraveling the Red String


It’s just before midnight, and the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is bustling. Teenagers are hanging out on corners near the pharmacy and suited men and high-heeled women are walking from synagogue to synagogue to attend the lecture of their choice.

It’s the first night of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates when the Jews received the Torah, and it’s customary to stay up all night studying Jewish topics in what’s called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, which literally means a repair (as in tikkun olam). It’s a repair for the fact that the Israelites fell asleep the night before the Torah was given; they were not excited enough, so now Jews, throughout the centuries, have studied, sometimes in a private chevruta but often by listening to scholars speak.

Around this neighborhood — and the city — the standard lectures were being given on topics ranging from the Book of Ruth to Israel, but something off the beaten path was taking place on Robertson Boulevard in a lecture at Anshei Emet Synagogue. The subject was “Kabbalah and the Red String.”

Kabbalah is not often a topic studied by the Orthodox (who believe, according to tradition, that the mystical studies should only be done by scholars older than 40), and this was not necessarily a lecture one would expect to be delivered by Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, who is the head of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary and anti-cult center.

Jews for Judaism was founded 21 years ago “to keep Jews Jewish and defend the community from threats and missionaries.” Its primary purpose has been to train Jews to ward off traditional missionaries, such as Jews for Jesus (which its name seems to parody), messianic Jews, Mormons and Evangelical Christians.

But kabbalists?

At the late-night lecture addressed to some 40 men and women — seated separately on wood benches on the men’s side of the synagogue — Kravitz never mentioned any kabbalah institution by name. Well, not exactly. But add up the references to red string, Madonna, Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, expensive holy water and you can put it all together. The rabbi was alluding to the controversial practices of The Kabbalah Centre, whose L.A. base is on Robertson Boulevard.

“If Madonna can wear a T-shirt saying she’s a cult member, who am I to argue with her?” Kravitz said.

Kabbalah is a library of Jewish mystical writing initiated in the 12th and 13th centuries of the common era in the books of the Zohar. The Zohar tells you the mystical reasons of the commandments, and that when you follow these commandments, you hasten the bringing of the Messiah.

During the hourlong midnight lecture Kravitz discussed why the kabbalah being promulgated by celebrities at the Kabbalah Centre is not the real kabbalah of ancient Jewish mystics. He talked of what true mystical study really is and how religious Jews can benefit from it in their own spiritual practices.

He spoke of what it means to have spiritual kavanah, or intention, when you do something. Spiritual intention is good, he said, but intention without action is meaningless. Take charity for example. One can be meditating kabbalistically on charity, “but if there’s a person sitting opposite you starving to death, you’re commanded to actually feed them.”

Mystical thoughts can enhance spiritual practice, “but the action is always the main thing,” he said. “And without mentioning names, when people take the action out of it, they’re missing the purpose of why we do mitzvot and connecting to God.”

At the center, a common practice is to read letters and words repeatedly, including the Zohar, the original kabbalistic mystical text.

Kravitz earlier told The Journal in a phone interview that he didn’t want to focus on The Kabbalah Centre by name because “I’m not interested in giving them more publicity. It’s giving them credibility — they don’t belong in the paper — every time some star decides to do something with them, they deserve space in a Jewish paper?” he asked, referring to The Jewish Journal. “To me, they’re no different than Mormonism or Jews for Jesus or Scientology. They’re using the terminology to make themselves look Jewish, but they’re not part of it.”

This was not the first time Kravitz has delivered his lecture “Kabbalah and the Red String,” whose advance flyer included questions: “Why are people seeking answers to modern-day issues in an ancient Jewish wisdom? Why has kabbalah left so many disillusioned, angry and confused?”

In the last couple of years, he’s delivered the same talk at synagogues and institutions like the University of Judaism. But Kravitz’s open questioning of the center represents a shift in the notion of what constitutes today’s missionaries and today’s threats to Judaism.

“I don’t think cults have become less of a threat today; there are just different kinds of cults,” he said. “There are psychotherapy cults, freedom of mind cults…. People being pressured to volunteer and get their friends to join — if you’re told that you can’t benefit from the program, that may be a form of manipulation,” he said.

“I don’t need to call [The Kabbalah Centre] a cult. They don’t understand what a cult is. A cult is a group that uses deception and manipulation to keep members in its group.”

Rabbi Michael Berg, co-director of The Kabbalah Centre, was not available for comment as of press time. He has denied in the media that The Kabbalah Centre is a cult and rejects the idea that anyone is being brainwashed. In 2000, he told New Times, “One of the basic teachings of the center is, ‘Don’t accept a word that anyone tells you; you have to come to your own understanding and live with it.’ Unlike many other religious organizations, there’s no coercion. It’s the opposite of that. We’re very open that we need financial support to continue publishing books and running the organization, but there’s no push. It’s more like, ‘If you have a chance, please help us out.'”

Kravitz, of course, is far from being the first Jewish rabbi or academic scholar to denounce the center.

For example, in February, the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies hosted Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought, and chair of Hebrew University’s department of Jewish studies, to discuss “The History of Jewish Mysticism and West Coast Kabbalah.” Elior was much more direct than Kravitz. She said that The Kabbalah Centre is “part of the new age phenomenon, when ideas are for sale. The center would not be spending one day on this if they couldn’t sell it. Kabbalah was once a matter of defiance and freedom of creativity; nowadays it is www.kabbalah.com — not ‘dot-edu’ and not ‘dot-org’ — but commerce. The center is part of the new age, part of globalization. They are trying to couple spiritual grace with material success.”

“The Kabbalah Centres today have nothing to do with the Divine Plan for hidden meaning of the text or with any of that,” Elior said. “They are basically about selling books for people who don’t read them … or for people who believe that by having a red string or drinking holy water they are connecting to the mysteries of the world.”

But not all rabbis and scholars in the Jewish mainstream agree with Kravitz’s dire assessment.

Jody Myers, professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, is writing a book about the popularization of kabbalah in America. She doesn’t believe that there is any such thing as authentic kabbalah, and she points out that The Kabbalah Centre doesn’t claim to be part of the Jewish community. Myers says she neither condemns nor condones The Kabbalah Centre.

In terms of its fundraising, Myers says that The Kabbalah Centre needs to raise funds, as do all Jewish organizations; it’s just doing it differently.

“I think that the American Jewish community puts a lot of pressure on people to raise money. It costs an awful lot of money to be Jewish today,” she said. At The Kabbalah Centre, “there are no membership fees, there is no annual membership, they get money from selling stuff and charging for lectures and classes. And they get money asking people to donate to a good cause, which is them.”

The participants, she said “give their money freely; they feel very grateful for [the center] and they are getting something from them that they are not getting from somewhere else.”

In the past, The Kabbalah Centre has shrugged off its critics.

At one Shabbat service in 1997, which The Jewish Journal attended, center founder Philip Berg sermonized that rabbis who oppose the center “don’t want you to know the truth. They want you to live in chaos. They are the enemies of enlightenment.”

During the last two decades, Kravitz said that Jews for Judaism has worked with thousands of people — people targeted by missionaries and cults and their concerned family members — and in recent years, these have included people from the center. “The people that I’ve come into contact with clearly accuse The Kabbalah Centre of being very manipulative and being very deceptive with their promises,” he said.

What advice does Kravitz offer to those at risk of an unhealthy involvement?

“Always use critical thinking,” the rabbi said. “Always question. Don’t accept what people say because it sounds good at first.”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz will be teaching a countermissionary survival seminar Tuesday evenings through June 27 at 7:30 p.m. To register, call (310) 556-3344.

 

Throw a Party With a Purpose


“I’ll call your bet and raise you two,” the sequin-clad woman said.

“Go for it,” I said, only to see my winnings swept up moments later by a poker-faced dealer.

“You may have won this round,” I told my chip-hauling opponent. “But just wait until after the Motzi!”

Having one son rounding the final stretch of his bar mitzvah year and another warming up in the bullpen, I’ve been privy of late to many a post-game celebration that would have Moses rolling over in his grave: everything from casino get-ups that could rival Caesar’s Palace to midriff-baring Britney Spears clones (in her prepregnancy form) beckoning guests to the dance floor.

How did this happen? How did the guests who came to witness our child take part in a multimillennium-old Jewish tradition end up playing limbo draped in glow necklaces and feather boas? How did our resolve to remain focused on what really mattered evolve into a safari-themed ballroom and five cases of leopard-skin-print kippahs?

The answer is not difficult: We got lost. Lost in intense societal pressure to follow up our kid’s Judaic rite of passage with a killer party. Lost in a sea of products at the local bar mitzvah expo with no apparent link to the Jewish religion. Lost in our child’s insistence that she’s “only been looking forward to having a safari-themed bat mitzvah for her whole entire life!”

It’s not that glitz, glamour and secular themes at b’nai mitzvah are inherently problematic, like in the soon-to-be-released one-upsmanship film, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” but when they’re inadequately balanced with Jewish values we can be left with an empty shell of a party that undermines the entire point of these meaningful milestones.

“The way we choose to celebrate sends a message to our child,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, author of “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998) “It’s not fair to leave our values at the front door.”

Here are some practical ways to help ensure the spiritual core of your child’s big day doesn’t melt away faster than the custom designed ice sculptures at the Kiddush luncheon:

At the Service

Include the whole mishpacha. Whether reading from the Torah or leading songs and prayers, when the whole gang gets involved, the experience becomes exponentially more meaningful.

“A bar or bat mitzvah should be a spiritual, passionate journey for the entire family,” said Rabbi Analia Bortz of Atlanta’s Congregation Or Hadash.

Link the generations. When my son’s bar mitzvah tallit was made, we had a piece of each grandfather’s tallit sewn in, so he was literally wrapped in the traditions of his forefathers as he read from the Torah.

Give them a lift. Praying and partying need not be mutually exclusive. Why not get the celebration started right away?

“Just as we lift the Torah, we lift the child,” said Rabbi Bortz, who gives b’nai mitzvah kids the option of being raised in a chair after reading from the Torah while congregants sing a hearty round of “Siman Tov, Mazel Tov.”

Share the spotlight. When Salkin’s son celebrated his big day recently, he symbolically shared his bar mitzvah with kids from New Orleans who were unable to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah due to Hurricane Katrina.

Shower them with sweetness. Celebrating the sweetness of the Torah by throwing candy (preferably the soft gummy kind) at the star of the show is a festive and fun tradition.

At the Party

Put tzedakah center stage. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on throwaway centerpieces, build your tables’ focal points from donatable items. And you needn’t bail on your party theme to do so! My sports-obsessed son’s centerpieces were built from sporting goods and supplies that he later delivered to a camp for sick children.

Dinner, dancing and donating. Help your child pick a charitable cause of special interest to him or her — or one that incorporates the theme of your party — and set up a collection station at the big event. Guests at a safari bat mitzvah for example, might be asked to bring supplies for a local animal shelter or make a monetary contribution to the zoo.

Feed the human spirit. Becoming an adult in the eyes of the Jewish religion entails a social conscience. Salkin recommends that kids donate 3 percent of their bar or bat mitzvah money to MAZON-A Response to Jewish Hunger.

Hire a party planner. When someone else is taking care of the nitty-gritty details it’s easier to stay focused on what’s really important.

Think futuristically. If during your planning process, you feel the need to snap yourself back into focus, picture your child years from now thinking back on her big day. Do you want her to remember a posh party that could have easily doubled as a Sweet 16 or a spiritual journey that paved the way toward a committed Jewish adulthood?

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1-800-Dreidel

Food for Thought


Vica is tall, blonde and Jewish. She is my interpreter.

It’s February 2005 and I am in Vilna, Lithuania, at the Baltics Limmud Conference. I am here as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ strategic partnership with the Baltics communities to teach subjects as varied as “Judiasm & Sexuality,” “Conservative Judaism” and “The Meaning of Mitzvah” to a Jewish community whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition was decimated by 50 years of Soviet oppression.

Vica translates what I teach into Russian, the lingua franca of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, a remnant from the Soviet era. She is active in the burgeoning Jewish community in Vilna, and comes to Limmud to work as a translator and to participate in learning. Yet she dates a non-Jewish Lithuanian because there are so few Jewish men her age.

When I ask about her Jewish upbringing, she says she didn’t really have any.

“My mother is Jewish and my father is not,” she says. “My mother had forgotten most everything from her childhood and she was not allowed to practice or learn anything, so by the time I arrived she really didn’t know what to teach me. But once we went to shul on Passover, and I do remember the matzahs from the shul. I don’t remember what they were for, but I remember eating matzah once in shul.”

Vica remembers eating matzah. Don’t underestimate the importance of the taste buds. Jews are a smart people. We value good grades and we love a good debate. But at the beginning of all good Jewish learning, there is food.

In traditional communities, the Alef Bet is still taught by feeding Jewish children Hebrew letters covered in honey so they associate sweetness with Torah. After Moses and the leaders of the Jewish people affirm their covenant with God at Mount Sinai and have a dramatic vision of God, they sit down to eat and drink (Exodus 24:12).

On Passover, when the central mitzvah of the seder is to teach our children the story of the Jewish people, we eat. We eat spring and call it parsley. We eat bitterness and call it maror. We eat bricks and call it charoset. We eat poverty and call it matzah.

We teach our children the words, but when our children are denied the story for 50 years, when a mother “has forgotten most everything from her childhood” and “doesn’t know what to teach,” when nothing else remains, matzah, like a stubborn daffodil blooming after a hard winter’s frost, is what Vica remembers.

Why does food work so well?

Scientists will tell you that the senses of smell and taste are most strongly associated with memory. I think eating resembles what learning the Passover story should be — we allow something from outside of ourselves to enter us; we “digest it” and change it (it is we who must tell the story so that our children can hear it) and it changes us and nourishes us and stays with us forever.

The Passover seder is among the most observed holidays in the Jewish world. When other ties with Jewish life have frayed, Passover remains. The food of Passover has much to do with this fact. Too often, Jews feel disempowered to teach their children, or themselves, the Jewish tradition because they feel they do not know enough. But on Passover, the haggadah teaches — “all who are hungry, come and eat.” Everyone can eat. Passover remains.

But Passover cannot be enough. Matzah cannot be enough. During the rest of the year, what do our homes taste like? Will our children remember the taste of Shabbat dinner on Friday night? Will they remember blintzes on Shavuot? Latkes on Chanukah? Honey and Hebrew letters? Will they remember the smell of cooking food to be delivered to a family who is mourning? What will remain beyond matzah?

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

 

PASSOVER: Modern Causes Add Meaning to Seder


 

What is your personal Egypt this year? What do you talk about at the Passover seder when you consider freedom? Passover is a time for remembrance, but it is also a time for making memories relevant, and at many seders in Los Angeles, there is a practice of incorporating meaningful events of the day into the ritual dinner. In light of the past year’s political trials and natural disasters, it’s not hard to imagine a list of today’s plagues, which are visited not just on our enemies in the tradition of Passover, but potentially on us all: flooding, war, terrorism, dependency on oil, famine, fast-spreading viruses, fallen leaders … and the list goes on.

Making memories relevant means incorporating meaningful events of the day into the ritual dinner.

“How do we transform the seder?” Rabbi Lee Bycel asked two-dozen rabbis of all denominations at a recent pre-Passover meeting sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “The seder is a time of challenge and controversy. It’s a time that pushes us with questions. It’s not comfort and convenience and waiting for the meal. For me, what Pesach is about is where are you as human beings? The Pesach story unfolds throughout history; the question is not waiting for God, but are we doing enough?”

As special adviser to the International Medical Corps, a global humanitarian nonprofit, Bycel is devoting much of his time to raising awareness of the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the Sudan, and he told the rabbis that the seder is a time to talk about the genocide, to force everyone to write letters to their senators and representatives, to donate money, to stop the violence.

To that end, the American World Jewish Service has printed up a special Darfur haggadah filled with specific references: “Who knows one?” is answered: “One is the Janjaweed militia…. Four is the deliberate use of rape to destroy and humiliate families…. Six is the over 400,000 people who have already died.”

This modern haggadah will be used at the Seder for Darfur on April 9, as part of the Let My People Sing festival.

The biggest enslavement today?

Addiction, says Rabbi Mark Borevich, the head of Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery facility that treats hundreds of addicts a year.

“I see addiction as the modern-day Egypt, because it’s so pervasive in our community — not just drugs and alcohol, but sex, gambling and pornography,” he says.

Beit T’Shuvah will host three seders for a few hundred people — and at the third one, on Friday night, they will perform their own in-house “Rent”-like musical called “Freedom Song,” about the story of leaving Egypt, then and now. (It will be performed at Beit Teshuva, Friday April 14 and at Craig Taubman’s One Shabbat Morning at Adat Ari El in Valley Village on April 15.)

And it’s not just traditional addiction we need to free ourselves from, Borevich says, but our enslavement to technology and other modern-day ailments. “There’s this constant search for the next good fix. That’s telling me that people are not happy with who they are, and that’s the breeding ground for addiction.”

Some seder leaders apply the personal to the global. David Abel, co-founder of the Jewish Television Network and editor of the managed-growth newsletter The Planning Report, along with his wife, architect Brenda Levin, leads a political Passover liberation seder in their Griffith Park home. They invite as many as 40 guests — a group that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles — Russians, Latinos, Hungarians, Ethiopians, East Indians, Chinese, Armenian, South American and more. Early on Abel asks guests to tell where their grandparents are from.

“This is to show that everyone is sort of an immigrant with a history,” he says.

As the seder progresses, guests read aloud from dozens of excerpts Abel has compiled, including poetry, letters, texts and even NPR audio clippings that “show that this struggle to move from slavery to freedom is a universal aspiration,” he says.

Vanessa Paloma, a performance artist who specializes in the connection between spiritual traditions and contemporary expression, leads a pre-Passover seder workshop on April 9 to teach people how to create their own personal liberation. What do you want to liberate yourself from? A bad relationship with food? Low self-esteem? An unhealthy relationship? She addresses these issues through the seder rituals: Kadesh would be about sanctifying oneself; Urchatz, washing without saying the blessing, is cleansing yourself without speaking; and Maggid, the portion of the evening where you tell the story of Egypt, people journal their own burdens, and create a movement — “of liberation so that we can actually physically reenact what the liberation will look like.”

What’s most important is to use the seder to ask questions — real questions — says Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, professor of literature at the University of Judaism.

“We ask but we’re not asking,” she told the Board of Rabbis. “How many of us, do we ever really answer it? What is a real answer?”

 

A Poem On the Meaning of Passover

“Musings on Seder night.

How Different this night is from all other nights, we asked.

And most of us grew up and we won’t ask anymore and others go on
asking all their lives, like those who ask
“How are you?” or “What’s the time?” and go on walking,
without waiting for an answer.

How different all night, like an alarm clock whose ticking quiets and puts to sleep.

What’s different? Everything’s different. The difference is God.
Musings on Seder night. The Torah speaks of four sons:
one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask.

But it doesn’t mention one who is good nor does it mention one who loves. And that’s a question that has no answer and if there was an answer I wouldn’t want to know it. I, who was all those sons
in different combinations, I lived my life, the moon shone on me needlessly, the sun came and went, and Passover holidays
passed without an answer.

What is different. The difference is God, and his prophet, Death.”

— A reading from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s “God’s Change, Prayers Remain Open Forever,” from his 2000 book, “Open Closed Open” (translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld).

PASSOVER: Try to Avoid Asking the Fifth Question


While there are only four questions posed in the haggadah, most seders struggle with the unasked fifth question, “When are we going to eat?” It is asked, not only by hungry children, but also by adults who feel disconnected to the rituals of their ancestors. As if reenacting the hurried way in which the Israelites left Egypt with Pharaoh’s army bearing down upon them, families today rush through the seder. While they are supposed to be reenacting the Exodus through the rituals of the haggadah, instead, unbeknownst to them, they emphasize the hurried nature of the experience. Whether due to hunger or boredom, Jewish families are fast-forwarding to the food and neglecting the command to “see themselves as if they left Egypt.”

I remember my own childhood seders, when eating prior to the motzee (blessing) over the matzah was strictly forbidden. How could a 7-year-old sit for an hour or more in a seder that was largely done by rote and in Hebrew? I was able to remain focused only because I was mesmerized by my zayde (and slightly terrified by the glare he would give if any of his grandchildren got out of order). If I would dare reach for a carrot or any other food item on the table, an adult hand, like one of the Divine plagues unleashed against the Egyptians, would quickly respond with a light slap on my hand. My family did not know about the rabbinic rule stipulating that after reciting the blessing over the karpas (parsley or any green) at the beginning of the seder that any food grown from the ground may be eaten. With great wisdom the ancient rabbis created this rule in order to avoid the fifth question. Therefore, at our seders today we put carrots and celery on the table for people to eat after the parsley.

Once the question of hunger has been resolved, then the issue of boredom can be addressed. Abbreviating the haggadah is fine, if relevance is found in other ways. Ask your own questions, like “Why is it important to remember the Exodus?” and “When do we feel enslaved in our own lives?” as a means of making the seder relevant. Why are questions so important? Because they reflect interest and concern. We ask questions when we care about things. To make the seder relevant, we must ask our own questions and let the answers (there should be no singular answer) give us new meaning.

Reducing the need for the dreaded fifth question beforehand makes us more relaxed until it’s time for the bountiful food, family inside jokes and the rest of a warm and celebratory evening. The seder guests become sated, coffee is served, conversation is plentiful until the announcement, “It is time for the second half of the seder.” During my childhood seders, we never had to make the announcement, because at some point after the meal my uncle would walk a couple of steps over to the couch and take a nap. Some time later (I have no idea whether it was 15 minutes or an hour) when he would wake up, we all knew it was time for the second half of the seder.

Through classes and discussion groups I have discovered that many families do not complete the seder. “Is there really a second half to the seder?” I am asked. But how is this possible? Without the second half, there are only two cups of wine, no afikomen and no opening of the door for Elijah. Without the second half of the seder, there is no completion — there is no hope. So how can families fulfill these second-half rituals? Don’t serve dessert until the very end.

I want to preface this suggestion with an acknowledgement that it is contrary to the traditional Jewish law to eat dessert after partaking of the afikomen. But for families who do not usually complete the rituals of the seder, I would rather they embrace my suggestion. It has become clear to me that most seders fall apart over coffee and cake. Just as the national anthem indicates for many people the beginning of a ball game, dessert means that it is time to go home. With the coffee cup empty and only crumbs remaining on the dessert plate, people begin to think about the next day.

Excuses begin to be offered: “The children need to wake up for school tomorrow” (I would love for children to tell their parents that Passover should be a day off from school), “I have a busy day tomorrow.” Before the haggadot can be brought out again, coats are on, lips are puckered and another Exodus begins. Therefore, finish the meal, clean up some of the plates and then just as they are expecting dessert, bring out the haggadot again. Be gentle with them the first time — perhaps only 15 minutes. But you can do enough in 15 minutes; eat the afikomen, open the door and welcome Elijah, drink two more cups of wine and even sing a couple of songs at the end of the seder. Finally, bring out the coffee and dessert and enjoy the end of an evening that is no longer rushed. Who knows, perhaps they will enjoy the second half so much that, within a couple of years, dessert can be put back in its proper place.

One of my favorite rituals actually occurs during the second half of the seder. Unbeknownst to many Jews, the Cup of Elijah is supposed to remain empty until the fourth cup of wine (see your haggadah). Rather than just pouring wine from the bottle for the Cup of Elijah, it is our custom to pass the Cup of Elijah around the table and each participant pours some wine from their cup into Elijah’s. We open the door each year at Passover with the hope the Elijah will come to announce the coming of a messianic era, a time when wars will cease, hunger will be nonexistent and peace will reign. But we are partners with God in creating this perfect world. So this year, pass around the Cup of Elijah, ask each person to pour a little bit from their cup and as they do, to think about how they will help to bring about the messianic era. What acts of kindness will they perform, how will they save the environment and in what ways will they contribute to the betterment of humanity? How do we acknowledge and thank God for the blessings of life? By engaging in tikkun olam — the perfecting of His world. The full Cup of Elijah represents the Divine-human partnership and serves as a reminder of what ultimately the Exodus should mean to us.

What should be the goal of your Passover seder this year? Make it more meaningful than last year. Ask more questions to show that you care. Challenge more people to reflect on the lessons of the Exodus. Help expedite the coming of Elijah. When your seder is more than just a rushed meal you can truly feel as if you were redeemed from Egypt.

Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel is spiritual leader of Temple Aliyah.

 

Hineni


I expected to be dealing with an empty nest when my daughter started college. I projected my availability to friends who had yielded my attention during my childrearing years. I dragged writing projects onto my computer’s desktop to await the plane ride from NYU to the rest of my life. Instead, the levees broke in my hometown. I spent the next three months as a relief worker with the Red Cross and the New Orleans Jewish agencies in service to those displaced and/or traumatized by Katrina.

I expected to be dealing with the aftermath of Katrina when I returned to Los Angeles. I imagined myself as an advocate for the restoration of New Orleans, recounting the environmental deterioration, government malfunction, and dire future the hurricane signaled. Instead I was diagnosed with cancer. I now spend Mondays in a lounge chair, with an IV flooding my body with toxic, life-giving chemicals and much of the rest of the time in my bedroom reacting to their impact.

Despite the broken lives and landscapes and the mountains of debris, my time in the South brought personal healing. I am a writer and a psychotherapist. I spent the last 30 years mapping the territory of grief and redemption, a journey begun with wounds obtained in New Orleans. It felt that my personal and professional curricula had been a training program anticipating just this disaster. Indeed, I found that each day, despite tears and fatigue, my experience graced me with the ability to say, ” Hineni” (I am here) to the tasks to which I was called.

In Mississippi, I counseled shelter residents, dished out food, filled out relief forms and orchestrated art therapy for child evacuees. In New Orleans, I led Rosh Hashanah services for a congregation ranging from the barely affiliated to members of Chabad. In Baton Rouge, I led Shabbat services and taught religious school and adult education for those impacted by the disaster. I assisted Jewish Family Service with clinical and administrative work, hosted luncheons for displaced elders and helped with grant-writing and other projects.

Shortly after Katrina, I awaited what was called “deployment” to the place where I would do my Red Cross duty. I chuckled because in the last years “deployment” has had, for this rabbinic student, a spiritual meaning. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, says that we are deployed at birth, sent forth like arrows, to walk in God’s ways and make the world holy. There seemed a connection between my deployments, both in the Red Cross and the mystical sense. In both cases, personal will was superseded by a greater will. I wanted to go to Gulfport, but I needed to await my assignment, determined by the greater need and not my own desire. This is also the spiritual task: to quash the desires that keep us from “walking in God’s ways,” aligning ourselves with God’s will. In both cases, spiritually and professionally, I am challenged to choose paths not determined by the needs of my ego, but by the needs of the place — hamakom. In this case, the place was the Gulf South, but HaMakom is also a name of God. In connecting deployments and HaMakoms, I made my commitment to hineni.

Was I prepared to say hineni, the word that Abraham and Moses said when they answered God’s call? Hineni’s literal meaning is an unequivocal acceptance of what is asked. It also implies a faith that I came to understand more deeply in the Red Cross shelters in Mississippi, where I met people who had waited out the storm and its 30-foot waves on their rooftops and in trees. Their homes reduced to straw, they were living in a room with a 150 others. But there were two phrases I heard from person after person: “This is God’s will” and “I am blessed.” Liberal Jews don’t speak this way. I had to translate.

At first I thought that by saying, “This is God’s will,” they were saying “God did this to me,” implying a God that doles out punishment and reward with a direct hand. This doesn’t work for me. I have seen too many bad things happen to good people.

After tragedy, people want desperately to make sense of what happened. It can be unbearable to live with the discomfort that the workings of the universe are a mystery. But we learn to make peace with the fact that we will never have answers for life’s biggest questions and we accustom ourselves to an ambiguous universe, embracing what lies ahead, without being tormented by the past.

“It’s God’s will,” doesn’t mean “God singled me out and did this to me.” It means, “What will I do with what I have?” Saying “It’s God’s will,” we accept and move on. To say “I am blessed” in the midst of catastrophe implies a commitment to go forward without the torture of second-guessing and self-blame. We choose hope instead of despair. We say ” hineni.”

And now, as I sit, not on the bimahs of congregations to whom I had hoped to bring messages of Katrina, but on the chemo-couch, I am again challenged to say ” hineni.” If I could say it in Mississippi, I have to say it here.

Anne Brener, author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourners’ Path through Grief to Healing” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2002), is an L.A. psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and on the faculty of The Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

Parental Values Do Influence Children


It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.

I admitted to my son that I didn’t understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous “N” word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn’t see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.

By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.

Having an open dialogue — about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets — is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.

The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor — peer pressure.

We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.

We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend’s house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.

As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to — and can’t –control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.

Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.

1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours — at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.

2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.

3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate — essential ingredients for moral behavior.

4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.

5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child’s taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.

6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don’t attack them personally — and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.

7. Create “car talks” when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don’t always have to take place in the car.

Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.

Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

 

ADL Youth DREAM of Promoting Tolerance


At Claremont High School, there is a boy named Matthew Shepard — the same name as the Wyoming college student killed seven years ago in a brutal anti-gay hate crime. Senior Adam Primack often saw his schoolmate get teased, and he also witnessed students chant homophobic slurs during games against their rival school — an all-boys campus.

Rather than watch silently, however, Primack turned to the skills and insights he’s gained as part of DREAM Dialogue, a multiethnic group of teenagers brought together by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to learn to appreciate and respect people’s differences and to take action to promote tolerance.

DREAM is an acronym for Developing diverse, Respectful relationships, Empathy and Action with Meaning through dialogue. The program is a youth leadership project of the ADL’s World of Difference Institute, run by the ADL’s West Coast office.

About 40 teens take part in quarterly meetings, travel to leadership training retreats and design and execute social action projects to promote tolerance. Students have created a mural; a photo exhibition called, “Faces of L.A.,” and a book to facilitate discussion among elementary school children about bullying called, “What Would You Do?”

When Primack saw the homophobia in his own school, he knew what to do. He got permission from school administrators to show an interactive movie to Shepard’s class called “Hate Comes Home,” produced by ADL. The CD-ROM features a dramatization of events leading up to an anti-gay murder at a high school homecoming dance and asks students to go back and make different choices for the characters to try to prevent what happened.

Primack said the whole classroom became involved in the story, asking questions and making choices that determined whether the student would live or be killed. After that day, the teacher who had not taken steps to stop the students from teasing Claremont High’s Matthew Shepard wrote a letter of apology for being a bystander.

Participants say DREAM Dialogue gives them the strength to break through the isolation they feel in a culture where prejudice often goes unquestioned.

“There are so few people who have these ideas, so to meet them is amazing,” said Shirley Eshaghian, who took part in DREAM Dialogue from 2001 to 2005 and is now a UCLA freshman.

Aside from the local meetings, some students also travel to Washington, D.C., joining up with young people from other ADL chapters, visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and meeting with civil rights activists.

“It’s great to be with kids who are like you, who want to make a difference but wonder how one person can make a difference,” said Talia Savren, who went to the nation’s capital as a DREAM Dialogue member in 2000 and now helps facilitate younger students’ meetings. “There are a lot of young minds open to making the world a better place.”

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, a group of about 30 participants gathered at the ADL’s local headquarters on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. During an ice-breaker exercise, students were asked to cluster by race and then by ethnicity. One young woman, a multiracial blend of African American, British and Filipino, called out, “Human race.” All the others joined her.

Jenny Betz, the ADL staffer running the meeting, appeared a little bit exasperated — after all, the exercise was designed to explore self-conceptions about difference — but she was also a little proud.

Betz led a discussion exploring both the useful aspects of categorizing people by race and ethnicity — a way to define identity, heritage and historical connection — and the pitfalls, such as a way to unfairly exercise privilege.

Later in the afternoon, the students and some of their parents watched a one-man, nine-character play that traced the efforts of a Salvadoran American teenager to get a driver’s license. The actor donned different props to depict different characters, including a Polish-accented Statue of Liberty working as a DMV clerk — each conveying their views of immigrants and immigration.

Both before and after the play, a facilitator probed the students’ attitudes toward race and immigration, drawing out family histories of leaving the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Mexico and Iran for the United States. Throughout the day, the students expressed their views forthrightly, uninhibited about stating views that might be unpopular and open to others’ opinions.

The self-knowledge is a crucial pre-requisite to doing the work of spreading tolerance, program alumni say.

“We teach ourselves, then we teach others,” said Neda Farzan, an 18-year-old USC freshman. She was a DREAM Dialogue member four years ago and took part in the “Faces of L.A.” photo project. The images include tattooed white hipsters with guitars, visitors to Olvera Street, merchants in Little Ethiopia, homeless men in Venice and Orthodox children wearing kippot and tzitzit.

Farzan, whose family fled Iran, said DREAM Dialogue has helped her “value our diverse and free society, where people are encouraged to be individuals and cultural identities are preserved.”

“I grew up in Beverly Hills, which is such a bubble,” she said. “If you drive 10 minutes in any direction, you’re in a different world.”

 

Letters


Jack Abramoff

David Klinghoffer’s entreaty and Jack Abramoff’s wounded feelings ring hollow for the same reason: each expects that the fact that Abramoff used purloined funds to better the Jewish community should somehow mitigate the harm that Abramoff has caused (“Sympathy for the Devil?” Jan. 27).

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. One cannot give tzedakah with stolen funds. The very word “tzedakah” has as it’s root the word “tzedek,” which, of course, means “justice.”

There is no justice in stealing from one to give to another, particularly where, as here, there were accolades showered upon Abramoff for his “gifts.” One of the senses of tzedakah is that of giving of yourself from your own resources; Abramoff did neither.

My greater compassion is reserved for Abramoff’s victims: the clients from whom he stole the money, his grieving father who has lost a son, his family who has lost a husband, father and putative provider. Abramoff will have room and board at the taxpayers’ expense; his family will, potentially, have nothing.

To Klinghoffer and Abramoff I would point out that nobody wants to cut off Abramoff’s head; he has already done that.

E. Hil Margolin
Carmel

Jews are not attacking or abandoning Abramoff because he’s Jewish — they’re embarrassed and outraged that he’s trying to wrap himself in the glory and good name of Judaism. “God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing.” Jewish or not Jewish, you shouldn’t need God to send you “hints” when we have things called laws.

Jeremy Sunderland
West Hills

Positive News

I have been meaning to write to you about your “Mensches” article (Jan. 6) since the week it appeared. I have saved that issue as it is so full of positive news about the happenings in L.A. with people and their behavior and actions.

I was hoping to suggest that since you obviously can’t put more than 10 people in at a time, wouldn’t it be fabulous to put this article and types like it in the paper quarterly? We always have a plethora of bad news, why not balance it out more with this type of journalism?

I think it’s so sad that the only feedback you received after this article was printed is how you might have conjugated the word mensches wrong. I want to thank you for doing this article and bringing these people to light. May it make us all think about what the rest of us can do to help and improve our lives and those around us.

Dena Schechter
Los Angeles

Proselytizing

The Journal’s coverage of the bonding of 1,100 Messianic Jews for Jesus and Christian Zionists at The Church on the Way should come as no surprise (“Messianics Gather for National Meeting,” Jan. 27). Jews for Judaism has warned Jewish leaders and Israeli officials that working with evangelicals is a double-edged sword and that The Church on the Way is a Trojan horse.

The Church on the Way has an ongoing messianic outreach and religious services designed to attract Jews. We know of dozens of Jewish families who were devastated after their children were converted to evangelical Christianity by representatives of this megachurch.

Christian support for Israel is a blessing. However, unfortunately, some members of our community deny or choose to ignore the threat that evangelicals pose to Jewish spiritual survival. The essence of the term evangelical is to proselytize.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Jews for Judaism

Misleading Essay

Although I am hardly in the habit of penning letters in support of Bibi Netanyahu, I feel compelled to respond to Harvard student Shira Kaplan’s heartfelt but misleading essay on Hamas and Israel (“Give Peace a Shot,” Feb. 3).

Assuming the role of a modern-day prophetess, Kaplan boldly predicts that if the right-wing Likud leader is returned to office, “like in Netanyahu’s previous term in office, buses will be blowing up in the center of Tel Aviv.”

I served as an American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, when buses were in fact blowing up in the city and would like to set the record straight for those like Kaplan who may have forgotten the recent chronology of terror in Israel.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 141 Israelis were killed by terrorists from September 1993 (the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn) to November 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

During Netanyahu’s three years in power, a comparatively low number of 51 Israelis were killed by terrorists, who perpetrated two attacks, inter alia, in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (16 and five victims, respectively). However, there were no bus bombings in Israel during Netanyahu’s rule.

I am neither Jewish nor Israeli and would never presume to tell Israelis for whom they should vote. However, I do hope that they go to the polls in March armed with both hope and information. Whatever other sins Netanyahu may have committed as prime minister, he cannot in fairness be charged with provoking terrorist bus bombings.

Mark Paredes
Los Angeles

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

 

Television – Bruce Feiler’s Biblical Road Trip


For anyone who’s forgotten that the events of the Bible happened in real places, Bruce Feiler is on hand — and on location — to remind them otherwise. He’s also there for those who haven’t forgotten — for those who find joy, entertainment or even enlightenment in visiting these places through his books.

And now he’s taken his biblical road show to television, through a miniseries airing this month on PBS.

The three-part “Walking the Bible With Bruce Feiler” follows the recent documentary trend of sending a charismatic host to a series of dangerous or hard-to-get-to places. Accompanied on occasion by archaeologists, scholars, Egyptologists, and theologians, Feiler tracks his way through places in the Middle East where the biblical stories of Genesis and Exodus are assumed to have occurred.

Feiler goes to Mesopotamia, to the lush shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the legendary location of the Garden of Eden. He also travels to Mount Ararat, the place that the Bible records Noah’s Ark as coming to rest — and speaks to a Turkish pasha-like figure who is cryptic about whether or not he found remnants of the ark itself. And he goes to the deserts where Abraham walked and into the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham supposedly put his son Isaac on an altar with the intent of sacrificing him to God.

He then journeys to Egypt to scale the pyramids — and look at hieroglyphics that might have mentioned Moses. He also hops a ride on a decrepit Red Sea fishing boat, from where fisherman trawl for “Moses Fish” — a flat flounder-like fish that is black on one side and white on the other. It is called Moses fish, the Egyptian fisherman tells him, because when Moses split the sea he also split the fish in half.

Even though the series was filmed within the past two years, it somehow conveys an ancient feel. Scenes are populated by Arabs wearing long robes and kaffiyehs, congregating in marketplaces where cows run amok. Feiler himself camps out in Bedouin tents (there are no five-star hotels in many of these locales) — where he sleeps on the ground and kneels on a blanket to eat flat bread cooked by his hosts over an open fire. It all seems tremendously authentic, as if not much has changed in 5,000 years.

As a writer, Feiler is no stranger to this territory. In 1998 he set out on his first Bible-inspired adventure, trekking through ancient deserts, mountains, rivers and cities — resulting in the best-selling book “Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses,” (William Morrow, 2001). That’s the book on which the current series is based. He followed that up with two books of the same hybrid adventure-archeology-travelogue genre, “Abraham, a Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths” (Harper Perennial, 2004) and “Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion” (Harper Collins, 2005).

For the PBS series, Feiler returned to some of the places he had written about, but this time, in September 2004, he was accompanied by a BBC film crew and American producer Drew Levin.

“I really feel that these [biblical] stories happened in real places, and the power of television is that it puts you in those places,” said Feiler in an interview with The Journal from his house in Brooklyn. “For me, part of the goal of ‘Walking the Bible’ is to take the Bible out of those black covers and replant the story into the ground.”

Feiler is not biblical scholar per se. It’s more accurate to cast him as an intelligent, curious, educated, spiritual seeker who takes his readers — and now his viewers — on both a journey through Bible lore and his personal journey.

“When I set out, I was interested in scientific questions: Was this the actual rock or mountain [where the story took place]? I still find those questions fascinating [but] very quickly … I became more interested in the meaning of the story,” he said. “‘Walking the Bible’ is in some ways a reluctant spiritual journey.”

Feiler “is not a trained scholar of the Bible, but that said, he nonetheless offers thoughtful insights into the biblical narratives,” said Carol Bakhos, assistant professor of late antique Judaism at UCLA.

His “take you to where it happened” style has won a following among readers, and PBS is betting the allure will attract television viewers as well.

“We wanted to tell a story that would draw the audience into the region,” said Levin. “What I am hoping will be the result of this production is that people will realize there is a place called the Bible, not just a book called the Bible.”

The first episode of “Walking the Bible With Bruce Feiler” premiered Jan. 4 on KCET. Subsequent episodes will air on Jan. 11 and 18 at 8 p.m. Consult listings for replay times.

The Lost Words


“Yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei.” Three words into Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, Yoni stumbled on an unfamiliar vowel. Then, again and again, as he continued reciting the traditional prayer at his mother’s funeral in Jerusalem, he twisted and mangled the words. He frowned in concentration and tried very hard, but the words would not take their proper shape. The life of a secular young man, even in Israel, contains little preparation for the rituals of a Jewish funeral.

I had come to the funeral for Yoni’s sake. He and my son had been best friends when they were in grade school. For me, Yoni was still that tousled-haired kid in the photo squinting into the sun as he stands next to his bike.

It was Yoni who had come to visit his mother one weekend but instead had found only her body. I wanted somehow to comfort this boy turned young man, whose mother had died so young. Instead, I found myself cringing at his tortured recitation.

Why did it matter? After all, religion was not important in Yoni’s home. His mother, an immigrant from the United States, never mastered Hebrew. She certainly didn’t know Aramaic, the main component of Kaddish and Yoni’s stumbling block.

Yoni’s father, a secular sabra, had no use for ritual. Yoni never had a bar mitzvah; possibly never set foot in a synagogue. There was no way he could have been prepared for this moment. And, perhaps, for his family that did not matter.

So why did it matter to me? This prayer that combines Hebrew and Aramaic speaks not of the dead but rather about the God who has created the world “according to his will.” It continues as a thesaurus of hosannas: “Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.”

The language is light years from anything a secular young man in Israel might say or think. For a moment I thought that it might be time for a pop version, one that would roll easily off any Israeli tongue.

One thing I knew for certain: I want my own children to be able to recite the Kaddish without stumbling. That Friday at dinner I told them the story of the garbled prayer, hoping they would get the message without my having to come out and say, “Get it right!”

And it’s impossible to get it right without some practice.

They responded blithely, as if it was no concern of theirs.

“The dead person doesn’t care, anyway,” my youngest son scoffed.

Nevertheless, I sensed they’d gotten the message. But why was that so important? I have so little interest in praising, exalting and lauding any supreme being. And I know that the only afterlife is the memory we keep of the person who is gone. The body at the funeral is but an empty shell.

Perhaps what’s at issue is my own life: I’m a word person. For more than 20 years I’ve made my living by writing and editing. Getting the words right is what I labor to achieve, all day every day. It’s a struggle that often leaves me in despair.

But there’s more to it than that. In the face of the greatest anguish, words fail. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a compulsive sender of messages of sympathy to those far away who have lost someone dear, and I sense that those words give some comfort, if only the reminder that someone on the other side of the planet acknowledges the loss.

But what can one say to the mother of a toddler who has died of cancer; to the father of a youngster who has committed suicide; to the teenager whose father has been killed in a car accident? Words seem an intrusion, a violation of the mourner’s right to grieve undisturbed. Nor can even the most eloquent eulogy offer more than a moment’s balm.

It is here that the ancient formula stands in for mere words, since these can never encompass the loss. The repetition of the set phrases, whose literal meaning escapes most people, is a remedy where words fail. It is a recognition that no words, not even the most beautiful or the most caring, can undo what is done. It is a recognition that at times like these one should not have to seek the words. The mourner has a set role, and the participants have a supporting one, reciting one of the lines with the mourner and completing the prayer with a chorus of amen.

This is how it has been from generation to generation, through the chain of Jewish history. The Kaddish is a way of touching all the mourners who have been and all those who will be. It offers both a sense of community and a sense of continuity.

That’s why we have to get it right.

Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.

 

Culling Your ‘Stuff’ Can Be Painful Task


My Aunt Naomi is overwhelmed.

Now 78, she was widowed three years ago. She lost her husband, but inherited his piles of files, cancelled checks and warranties for current and formerly owned equipment.

Aunt Naomi also has her own collections — beloved tchotchkes that are scattered throughout her expansive home.

Along with feeling overwhelmed, my aunt is very lonely. She wants to move to a retirement community to be around people, participate in activities and have someone else do the cooking (and dust her tchotchkes). However, this idea has Aunt Naomi distressed.

“How can I possibly move to someplace half the size of this house?” she asked. “I have too much stuff; I’ll never be able to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of.”

She’s not alone. A word search for “clutter” on Amazon.com returned 319 titles dealing with the problem of “too much stuff.”

My sister and I were fortunate when we moved our mother from her home to a smaller place. I don’t think I ever saw a stack of papers in mom’s house, and she would no more own a huge collection of tchotchkes than an assault rifle. She was a minimalist when it came to stuff.

But professional organizers exist for a reason, and these experts point to several challenges when downsizing to a smaller home:

  • The quantity of stuff and the daunting task of dealing with it all;
  • The feeling of urgency to get this task accomplished quickly;
  • A painful sense of loss.

This last issue seems especially important for older people.

“Getting old means facing a lot of losses,” my 87-year-old father said. “I’ve lost my independence, my physical strength and functioning and people I care about. It’s not easy.”

Moving from a familiar home and letting go of things owned for years can feel like an additional loss. It’s not just the loss of the objects that has an impact; it’s the connection with the past that these objects symbolize.

I recently came home to find that my cleaning lady had broken a precious, hand-painted bottle that my grandmother had given me when I was 11. Whenever I held this bottle, I felt the special bond I had with my grandmother. It was painful to look at this shattered reminder of her.

It did eventually occur to me that the bottle was, after all, just an object. And I didn’t really require it in order to remember my grandmother and our love.

But the fear of losing such objects and their associated memories is why many people hang on to things, said Peter Walsh, the professional organizer on The Learning Channel’s show, “Clean Sweep,” which helps ordinary people deal with their clutter.

I recently spoke with Walsh about the emotional and practical aspects of downsizing.

“People usually keep things because of fear, security and control,” Walsh said. “But it’s important that you understand that holding onto these objects doesn’t make you who you are, and doesn’t help you control the life you have; that’s really an illusion.

“The goal is to just keep the things that really give your life meaning — the items that bring you the most joy, which you have the best associations with. The objects you hang on to should be a reflection of you, rather than things you feel obligated to keep.”

Walsh said that one needs to acknowledge that trimming back is indeed an overwhelming task, and a very tough thing to do: “As my grandmother always said, ‘The only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time.’ Go through your stuff gradually, maybe over many months’ time.”

To help with the process, he suggested having an organizing buddy. For some people, a friend or professional is a better option than a family member, he said, because of the emotions that get aroused.

On the other hand, if children can take the time, handle the predictable stress, be patient and understanding and help their parent stay calm, going through mementos and photos together can be a very meaningful experience. While my sister and I helped mom go through her photos, artwork and books, we reminisced, laughed a lot, cried a little and learned more about her family history.

It might have been even easier if we’d known some of Walsh’s tips for downsizing:

  • The 1-to-5 Ratio. Go through a collection of anything, and for every five you keep, get rid of one. Once you’ve done it once, go back and do it again — keep five items, get rid of one. You’ll cull down the collection gradually.
  • Reverse Coat Hanger Trick: We wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time. Turn all coat hangers in your closet back to front. In the next six months, when you wear something, put it back in your closet the correct way. At the end of six months, you’ll see what you’ve worn and what you haven’t. Give away what you haven’t worn.
  • Two Garbage Bags Rule: Get two large trash bags — one for giving away, one for trash. Spend 20 minutes every day, once a week, putting three items in the giveaway bag, and one in the trash bag. Immediately have someone take the giveaway bag to your favorite thrift store. Put the other out in the trash.

As my grandmother knew, giving treasured things to family members feels good. Walsh points out that doing so (or giving objects to a local museum or historical society) can help ease the loss of letting go.

A lifestyle with regular sifting through stuff is ideal, Walsh said: “Clutter sucks the life out of your space. As you get older, you need to surround yourself with the essentials, rather than the excess. It’s safer, better for you health wise and easier to maintain. By having less stuff, you live a richer life.”

For more information, visit the National Association of Professional Organizers at www.napo.net.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

What to Ask a Jew


If you’re Jewish, this is not for you to read. Please clip this editorial and hand it off to a close non-Jewish friend. I’m certain some of your best friends aren’t Jews. And thanks for sharing.

Dear Non-Jewish Friend:

Every year around this time your friend disappears from work or school for a couple of days to mark the High Holidays. There are many Jews for whom this is a deeply spiritual, life-changing time that reconnects them to their faith, their people and their soul’s purpose here on earth.

Then there are most Jews.

Let’s assume your friend belongs to the larger group. You assume when he’s away from work on one of those holidays that local newscasters pronounce a different way each year, he’s living la vida Hebrew, cloaked in mystical garments, eyes drifting upward to heaven. You watched “A Price Above Rubies.” You channel-surfed the Chabad Telethon. You assume when we’re among our own, it’s all circle dancing and full-throated chanting.

It is not.

Too many sanctuaries have all the excitement of a physician’s waiting room, minus the excitement. Think of one of those interminable assemblies back in elementary school. After an hour of the fourth-grade orchestra, followed by mumbled student council skits, even the thrill of not having to go to class that day evaporated.

For too many of us, this is the situation come Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Does your friend return to work after the holidays and — when you ask how they were — just shrug? Or does he roll his eyes and emit an “Ugh.” Or is it just an all purpose, “Oh, fine.”

In that case, I’m going to ask you to perform an intervention, a spiritual crisis intervention to stave off insanity.

Insanity is not too strong a word — because entering dumbly into the same soul-deflating, boredom-inducing behavior every year as though this year will somehow automatically be different is the definition of insanity.

Fellow Jews have tried to help by doing what we do best: We’ve formed committees. The committees investigate declining synagogue attendance and lack of enthusiasm among younger Jews, and very often their recommendations are spot-on and well meaning.

And we have innovated: rock ‘n’ roll services, meditation minyans, yoga amidahs (don’t ask), free services, elite services, singles services.

I keep waiting for the press release about the bullock sacrifice on mid-Wilshire. (Maybe at the site of the old Bullock’s department store.)

That ought to juice things up.

There are engaging services out there, innovative or not. If your friend’s rabbi presides over one of them, no need for he or she to take offense here. But the basic trope I hear from too many Jews year after year is that attending their service is more duty than delight.

Your job is to change things. With one High Holiday down and one more to go, you can help your Jewish friend. These interventions typically work around a series of questions. Because you care, but may not know what to ask, here are my suggestions:

Ask them if High Holiday services inspired them.

Be sure to register their immediate reaction. If they squint and screw up one side of their face, take this as a “no.” The truth is, most Jews sit through these services looking either intermittently bored or catatonic. Listen and you’ll hear the stampede of so many minds wandering so far so fast. At some services I’ve attended, the snoring is louder than the cantor.

Ask them, then, why they go.

Why accept the status quo? What do they wish they got out of going? What kind of experience are they looking for?

Ask them how they would improve it?

Is it the liturgy? The melodies? The sermons? Do they feel like a stranger to the Hebrew, words, the ideas?

Ask them if they’ve ever mentioned their boredom to their rabbi?

They might be surprised to find out that their rabbi senses it, can see it in a sea of faces — might even be bored, too. There, perhaps, is the beginning of a solution.

Ask them how involved they are in Jewish life, learning and prayer the other 360 days of the year.

Making Yom Kippur your only synagogue holiday is like making “Koyaanisqatsi” your only cinema-going experience. You need some background, some study, context and preparation. Otherwise you leave scratching your head.

Ask them if they think their ancestors would be happy knowing they are still going to shul, even though it makes them bored and miserable.

Never mind, skip that question.

Ask them why, if these days are so holy, we treat them so lightly.

Are they something we get through or, as we say in Los Angeles, get into?

Ask them what they will do to make next year’s High Holiday services a meaningful and profound experience.

These are questions for you, the non-Jewish friend, to ask. Don’t worry about imposing. Your friends will have plenty of time to ponder them in shul.

 

Face It: Judaism Is Not Hip


This Rosh Hashanah I am praying to escape the tyranny of hip. Hip is infiltrating Jewish life like a migrating plume of acrid smoke meandering its way through our collective body and soul.

I know hip well. I know its insidious nature. I have seen its effect and its damage. I was surrounded by hip. I was taken in by hip. I yearned for hip. I searched for hip. I saw people’s lives and identities consumed by hip. Twenty years of my professional life were spent in the palaces of hip.

I was an advertising agency copywriter and creative director. I was trained to be one of the manufacturers of hip. I would sit in offices and create hip, and then watch all those people lust after the creations. I reveled in hip.

And then one day, it all came crashing down.

There was no earth-shattering event. It was just a moment of realization.

In the ad biz, you win awards for creating hip images. That’s all hip is. An image. A fleeting image. You can’t really describe hip. You can’t put your finger on what it is. What’s hip today is not hip tomorrow. You often here people say, “She’s the hippest person around.”

What does that mean? Nothing.

Absolutely nothing. When I happily left the ad agency business, I used to tell people, “It’s the ultimate liberation. I no longer have to direct my energies into the shallow, ridiculous waters of hip.”

I found salvation from hip in the Jewish world. It was a world of content. Meaning. Real connections to people, the earth, the heavens. It gave me roots into the universe in a way hip could never do.

It was such a refreshing departure from where I had been that I was determined to bring my professional skills into the Jewish world — as well as into other nonprofit organizations.

For years, it allowed me to escape even hearing the word “hip.” Then, hip began to seep out into a few Jewish crevices and corners.

Today, hip is everywhere in the Jewish organizational world. Federations want to be hip. Hillels want to be hip. Israel wants to be hip. Chabad wants to be hip. Aish HaTorah wants to be hip. Synagogues want to be hip. Day schools want to be hip. Jewish publications want to be hip. And the Jewish foundation world is clamoring to create and fund hip.

It used to be that Hollywood was going to be the magic bullet that would save the Jewish organizational world. Now Hollywood has been replaced by hip. At least Hollywood was concrete. It meant a person. Spielberg. Streisand. Seinfeld. But can someone please define or concretize hip?

What is this all about? If Judaism’s image — its brand — has become tarnished, is hip going to save it? Is this the point to which we involved Jews have arrived?

Hip is powerful. As a marketer of Jewish life, I am watching our leaders grapple and bow down to its power.

I am not denying that we have a problem in Jewish life with the products we offer and the images we create. Most are lackluster at best.

But if we think that hip is the solution, we are demeaning the essence of Judaism. We are trivializing its soul. We are convoluting Judaism as much as “haimish” has convoluted it for the past few generations.

Haimish was always an excuse for not being professional. As long as the organization was haimish, it believed it had fulfilled its mission.

Much the same mistake is happening with hip. If the organization is hip, if the offering is perceived as hip, then today the organization believes it is fulfilling its mission.

Hip is not about meaning. Hip is not about depth. Hip is not about the soul. Hip is not about connection to human beings and the world.

Hip is about shallow. Hip is about self-absorption. Hip is about today, this minute. Hip is not about the past and it is certainly not about the future.

This Rosh Hashanah, Jewish organizations need to realize that Judaism is not hip. It’s never going to be hip. It is not supposed to be hip. Judaism has too much depth to ever be hip. Judaism must be perceived as the antidote to hip. The products Judaism offers must be the escape from shallow hip. They must be the refuge, the other road, the real thing.

If we believe that the Jewish masses are looking for hip, there are plenty of places they can fill that need. They can go to the Gap. Now, that’s hip.

During the coming High Holidays, grant us justice and kindness. V’hoshiyainu — save us … from the tyranny of hip.

Gary Wexler is the owner of Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes based in Los Angeles.

 

Go Ahead — Read That Book in Shul


The sounds of the Days of Awe in synagogue: the cry of the shofar, the cantor chanting age-old melodies that go right to the heart and congregants alternatively whispering and shushing each other. Then there’s the gentle click of pages turning to their own rhythm, not in unison with the congregation.

The latter refers to a not-so-secret habit that’s growing in popularity, as an increasing number of people bring outside reading material with them to services. Some do this openly, even encouraged by rabbis, and some tuck a volume into a tallit bag for transport and then slide it into an open machzor, much like the high school tradition of folding comic books into math texts.

These independent readers — who might pull out a book during a particular part of the service in which they lose interest — are likely to be reading serious books, trying to deepen their experience of the holidays. From my experience, it’s not as though congregants are thumbing through airport novels or diet books; these special days require special books.

I’ve spotted interesting titles, from pocket editions of the Talmud to novels by Philip Roth. The book I’ve seen most often (and bring to shul myself) is the classic “Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance and Renewal on the High Holy Days” by Israeli Nobel Laureate S. Y. Agnon (Schocken, 1995). First published in 1937 and in English in 1948, this is a companion to the prayer book, an anthology of texts, teachings, midrash and customs following the order of the service. Agnon, a modern writer who was well-versed in Jewish texts, writes with love of the tradition, seriousness, a sense of humor and joy, and engagement. In his section on tashlich, he tells of how the Jews of Kurdistan would go to a river and jump in, rather than simply shaking the crumbs off of their clothing, so that the water would wash away all of their sins.

Rabbi Arthur Green, in a foreword to the latest edition, suggests that readers open the book and “think of Agnon as an old Jew from a world now vanished who happens to sit down next to you.”

Most of the entries are less than a page long, some run onto a few pages, but the format makes for easy reading when there’s much else going on, like during services. Even returning to this book every year, readers will find something new.

Another anthology of note is “Days of Awe, Days of Joy: Chasidic Insights Into the Festivals of the Month of Tishrei,” compiled and adapted from the talks and writings of the rebbes of Chabad-Lubavitch (Kehot Publication Society, 1998).

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins has compiled a number of anthologies for the holidays, drawing on a wide range of classic and contemporary sources. His “Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information, Contemplation” (Jewish Lights, 2005) is published this season, featuring section introductions drawing on Arthur Green’s “These Are the Words.” Those readers who prefer meditation to prayer, or find that meditation enhances their prayer, will enjoy one of his earlier volumes, “Meditations for the Days of Awe” (Growth Associates, 1999).

Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy’s “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Ties of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Knopf, 2002) isn’t directed toward the holidays, but readers will find comfort and inspiration in her original, personal prayers that touch on a wide range of human experience. Its compact size makes this an inconspicuous choice. She offers a prayer for daily insight:

“Open my eyes, God. Help me to perceive what I have ignored, to uncover what I have forsaken, to find what I have been searching for. Remind me that I don’t have to journey far to discover something new, for miracles surround me, blessings and holiness abound. And you are near.”

“Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World” (Behrman House, 2004) by Rabbi David Wolpe is a first collection of his brief essays that touch upon topics like God, spiritual growth, forming families and life and death. Wolpe proves himself a master of this format: His essays are tightly woven gems based in deep learning and drawing on a huge breadth of sources.

“Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days” edited by Gail Twersky Riemer and Judith A. Kates (Touchstone, 1997) anthologizes original essays by distinguished women scholars, authors and educators, interpreting the Torah readings of the holidays. Each contributor draws deep meaning from the text, and generously shares her wisdom.

For a more straightforward introduction to the themes of the holiday, “Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers, and their Themes” by Rabbi Reuven Hammer (Jewish Publication Society, 2005) demonstrates how the themes of the holiday play out in the service.

Just as you don’t have to be a Conservative Jew to appreciate Hammer’s style — in fact, it’s intended for all Jews — you don’t have to be female to enjoy “Beginning Anew” nor Chasidic to find “Days of Awe, Days of Joy” of great interest.

Another category of shul books is spiritual self-help, books that help readers with their process of teshuvah. “Improve yourself, then improve others,” the sages say in the Talmud (Bava Metzia).

“60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays” by Rabbi Simon Jacobson (Kiyum Press, 2003) is a workbook and a reading book, with kabbalistic, biblical and psychological insights, covering the period from the beginning of the month of Elul to the end of the month of Tishrei. Jacobson urges sincere preparation for all of the holidays and his approach is hands-on, with articles of daily inspiration, meditative quotes and practical exercises.

Each year, tens of thousands make a pilgrimage to visit the grave of the Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in Uman, Ukraine, especially on Rosh Hashanah, and many study the teachings of this charismatic great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, born in 1772. “Crossing the Narrow Bridge: A Practical Guide to Rebbe Nachman’s Teachings” by Chaim Kramer (Breslov Research Institute, 1990) is an introduction to his life work and thought, organized thematically. The author emphasizes the rebbe’s teaching about seeing the good in others, judging all people favorably. Several editions of Nachman’s work are available for those who might prefer to directly encounter his words, in translation.

Not so much a self-help book but more of an analytic work, Aaron Lazare’s “On Apology” (Oxford, 2004) has much to offer related to teshuvah. For Lazare, professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, the process of apology is both simple and entangled, potentially powerful and transformative.

Lazare quotes the talmudic teaching that says that God created repentance even before creating humankind: “I take this statement to mean that the sages who authored this sentiment were acutely aware of the fallibility of humankind and the need for religion’s prescriptions to heal offenses. Repentance (or its secular approximation of apology), therefore, would be so important for sustaining a just and livable society that an infinite and all-powerful God would put it in place before creating mankind.”

“On Repentance: The Thought and Oral Discourse of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik” edited by Pinchas H. Peli (Jason Aronson, 1996) is a compilation of lectures given by the late preeminent Orthodox philosopher, laying out his philosophical and theological premises for teshuvah. For the Rav, as he is still known, teshuvah is not only repentance but purification

On a more mystical note, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s “The Thirteen-Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief” (Basic, 1985) is a remarkable synthesis of Jewish thought, and “Honey From the Rock” by Lawrence Kushner (Jewish Lights, 1999) is a first-rate introduction to the Jewish mystical tradition.

Those interested in adding a modern historical context to the holidays might particularly enjoy two fine new works of Jewish history, “American Judaism” by Jonathan Sarna (Yale, 2004) and “A History of the Jews in the Modern World” by Howard M. Sachar (Knopf, 2005).

And some people just prefer a good novel. Many works of fiction touch on the ideas of the holidays. Elie Wiesel’s latest work, “The Time of the Uprooted” (Knopf, 2005) is a beautifully written work that addresses, among other themes, survival, memory and new beginnings. This season, when so many people have lost their homes, the novel is particularly timely.

Hugh Nissenson’s latest novel, “Days of Awe” (Sourcebooks, 2005) is tied to these days not only by its title but by the author’s exploration, both sensitive and powerful, of God, mortality and love, set in the context of Sept. 11. At the novel’s center is a New York City family, unusually close and facing difficult times. The author creates an unconventional artful narrative, combining elements of mythology, poetry, e-mail, various points of view, descriptions of the mundane details of daily life and spiritual yearnings. This is a novel with great heart.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana likes to recommend “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman (Warner Books, 1994), an imaginative short novel about time and memory, unfolded in vignettes.

And then there’s the Book of Life. May we all be inscribed for a year of health and happiness, blessed with peace.

Marking Tisha B’Av Takes Many Forms


On Saturday night Marci Malat will sit in silence and darkness pierced only by candlelight, listening to the chanting of Eicha, or Lamentations, in her synagogue to commemorate Tisha B’Av. But more than reflecting upon the long-ago destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, she will be thinking about the personal devastation she caused herself and to her family.

“I was always getting loaded. And never showing up to any family event that mattered,” said Malat, 43.

For Malat and the other 70 or so residents of Beit T’Shuvah, a recovery community in Los Angeles, as well as graduates and nonaddicts seeking meaning and introspection, Tisha B’Av is an opportunity to revisit their past and to recommit to change.

Tisha B’Av occurs on the ninth day of the month of Av, hence its name, and begins this year at sundown on Aug. 13. Jews mourn the loss of the temples in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., as well as other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including the end of the Bar-Kochba Revolt (135 C.E.), the expulsion from Spain (1492) and the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto (1942).

Over the years, some communities, including many Reform congregations, have moved away from Tisha B’Av observances, because they believe the Temple is no longer central to Jewish religious life. They don’t want to imply a desire to return to Temple practices, such as animal sacrifice or a priestly caste system. And, while they mourn the tragedies, they applaud the metamorphosis of Judaism into a worldwide congregational religion.

“To commemorate the destruction of the Temple when we have no desire to go back and rebuild it doesn’t make sense,” said Rabbi Jeff Marx of Sha’arei Am, a Reform synagogue in Santa Monica.

Other groups, however, such as Beit T’Shuvah, have found ways to infuse the holiday with new meaning.

“We take the metaphor of destruction and look at ourselves,” Beit T’Shuvah’s Rabbi Mark Borovitz said. “For some people, this is a very, very profound and amazing transforming experience.”

While some focus on individual introspection, others look at external suffering, such as genocide, poverty and environmental devastation.

“The destruction of the Temple may be the most significant symbol in Jewish communal life,” said Lori Lefkovitz, professor of gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and director of Kolot: Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, both in Wyncote, Penn. She believes that Jews have a spiritual obligation to recapture its meaning.

For Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of Ikar, a year-old spiritual community in Los Angeles, that means hosting a traditional commemoration service to make people aware of the original tragedies, while also connecting the holiday to present societal and political issues.

On the evening of Aug. 14, Ikar, in partnership with The Shtibl, an egalitarian minyan, will present a Jewish response to genocide and other atrocities. Participants meeting at the Westside Jewish Community Center will view the film, “Rwanda: Do Scars Ever Fade?” as well as a “60 Minutes” segment on Darfur.

A panel discussion will follow, with speakers, in addition to Brous, including Happy Mutesi, a Rwandan genocide survivor, and Gabriel Stauring, co-founder of StopGenocideNow.org. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of Progressive Jewish Alliance, will moderate.

Brous anticipates a “serious, honest, soulful conversation about dealing with the knowledge that so much of the suffering we read about in Lamentations is a reality today for millions of people.” For her, it’s critical that people emerge from the darkness of Tisha B’Av with a real sense of purpose and with a mandate to act in the world.

Elsewhere, the Calabasas Shul, which will hold its traditional Tisha B’Av service on Saturday evening, also plans special programming for the following day. At noon, at Mount Sinai in Simi Valley, the shul will show “Mourning for What Was, Hurting for What Is, Believing in What Will Be,” a video featuring a panel of rabbis examining the current situation in Israel.

That evening another video, “Finding Your Voice: How to Speak the Language of the Redemption,” with HaRav Mattishayu Salomon and Rabbi Yissachar Frand, will be shown at the home of Calabasas Shul’s Rabbi Yakov Vann. This guide, to be shown in synagogues worldwide, aims to help people leave behind angry, hurtful words and instead, express positive sentiments that foster harmony.

“We are trying to create an understanding of this tragedy that happened over 2,000 years ago and make it relevant to our lives today,” Vann said.

However people connect to Tisha B’Av, “there’s tremendous cathartic power in a communal mourning ritual,” said Kolot’s Lefkovitz, who also founded ritualwell.org, a Web site through which she collects and makes available descriptions of a variety of innovative and contemporary Jewish ceremonies.

“It is our job to take all these classical observances and find the ways in which we can use them to bring sanctity and perspective to our own lives,” she said.

For more information on these Tisha B’Av observances, contact:

Beit T’Shuvah, (310) 204-5200 or go to www.beittshuvahla.org.

Ikar, (323) 634-1870; www.ikar-la.org.

Calabasas Shul, (818) 591-7485; www.calabasasshul.org.

For more Tisha B’Av services, please turn to the calendar section on page 32 or visit www.jewishjournal.com.

 

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