Finding balance at the intersection of yoga and Judaism


Yoga means “union” or “union with the divine.” It doesn’t mean “contortionism,” “hippie commune” or “Lululemon.”

“Judaism” means “monotheistic religion [of the Jews]” or “belief characterized by one transcendent God.” It doesn’t mean “bagels and lox,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “big beard and black hat.”

And “Jewish yoga” certainly doesn’t mean “contorting my body to the shrill soundtrack of a Larry David monologue.” Nor does it mean giving up my Judaism.

Not even close.

My practice weaves yogic teachings and philosophies with Jewish teachings and philosophies. And while I don’t think such a practice is all that rare nowadays, it is sometimes dismissed by people on both sides without much understanding. Disapproving Jews say, “Feh! It’s a Hindu practice and it’s avodah zarah [idolatry].” Disapproving yogis say, “But how can you practice Jewish yoga? Yoga is for everyone!”

Here’s what I can tell anyone who holds either of those disapproving opinions: It works for me. I am part of a growing body of people who recognize deep, logical and undeniable links between yoga and Judaism.

By examining the basic tenets of yoga and Judaism separately, we can better see why so many people are drawn to “yoga with a Jewish twist.”

At its core, yoga is a practice that unifies practitioner with source, human with divine. While we are all human, yogis believe and revel in the notion that the common thread among all things — living and nonliving, animate and inanimate — is the divine. The asanas, or the actual poses, are just a tiny part of the much larger picture of the union that yoga explores.

In “The Yoga Sutras,” Patanjali illustrates the eight limbs of yoga; limb by limb, he spells out exactly what it means to practice — and it’s much more than downward dog and plank pose. In fact, the only real guidance on the actual poses that Patanjali gives is an admonition that they must be “steady, firm and comfortable.” Most of the text is devoted to extolling the proper virtues of a yogi (compassion, peace, honesty), and outlining specific ways to solidify the union with the divine (breathing, focusing energy on a single point, turning inward, following rules to live a pure, proper, balanced, non-disturbed life), with a huge emphasis on the importance of acknowledging, praising and ultimately melding with the divine.

At its core, Judaism is a religion based on the belief, eloquently stated by Maimonides, that “all existence depends on God and is derived from God.” It follows that in Judaism, while inhabiting this temporary body, we are obliged to perform tikkun olam (repairing the world) through the fulfillment of 613 mitzvot, or commandments. The mitzvot spell out exactly what it means to be an upstanding Jew: Recite prayers of thanksgiving for food, do not engage in hurtful speech, give charity, honor your parents, keep your word, don’t covet, etc. By following the commandments, performing acts of reparation and engaging in acts of loving kindness, we indeed become closer with God. And while “poses” are not at the crux of any Jewish practice, there certainly are specific movements that a Jew in prayer performs: bowing, standing, swaying — all in the name of creating oneness with Hashem.

Unfortunately, mainstream “Jewish practice” in the modern world is often understood to take place only in cavernous rooms with stained glass windows, filled with people clad in designer suits and dresses.

Similarly, the phrase “yoga practice” has become largely synonymous in the modern Western world with “asana movement practice.” It evokes images of ripped, toned 20-somethings sweating it out on rectangular rubber mats laid over pristine hardwood floors. In reality, one can practice yoga anywhere: on the bus, in the home, in the middle of that important meeting, during a conflict with a family member … especially during a conflict with a family member. That’s where kshama (patience) and daya (compassion) — two “non-asana” aspects of yoga — are truly needed. Yoga and Judaism, two ancient practices that seemingly share so much, have been narrowly interpreted to a fault. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

To be clear, yoga is not a faith. Yoga is a physical and spiritual practice, and not a religion. Practicing yoga does not mean it must be to the exclusion of practicing Judaism, or vice versa. 

While classes that talk about Ganesh and chant “Om Namah Shivaya” are nice, these themes are just not mine. They don’t tap into my deeply held beliefs as a Jew. What has made my practice more emotionally connecting, meaningful, comforting and enriching has been the introduction and exploration of text, Torah and Jewish prayer into my yoga practice. 

Practicing unity with the divine and fulfilling God’s commandments can (and should) be done simultaneously; if you’ve never done it, try it before you knock it. You might find that both experiences become more profound. Perhaps you’ll see that you can repair the world with a stronger intention and effect greater change. Plus, it just plain feels good.

So practice your vinyasa. Pray. Move. Meditate. Sweat. Study Torah. Keep Shabbat. Live the yamas. Clear your mind. Read “The Yoga Sutras.” Be healthy and prosperous, inside and out.

Namaste and Shalom.

‘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.


Meditating spies


Ah, so much chaos, so little time.

In this parsha we deal with the message of the spies; insecurity leading to depression and fear; rebellion and anger by the people, Moses and God; and several severe punishments, including the major one of wandering in the desert for an additional 40 years and the minor one (in size and scope, but not in significance) of killing the Shabbat wood collector. We end with a collective breath, and more importantly, a call for awareness and attention to the inner workings of our soul, with the final paragraph instructing us about tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our garments and tallitot (prayer shawls), which is said daily as the third paragraph of the Shema prayer.

Why is there so much disillusionment, fear and unsettling behavior in this parsha? And what can we learn from the chaos?

In practicing and teaching Jewish meditation — a central focus of my rabbinate work alongside my passion for social justice and peace — I have come to understand that an awareness of our inner spirit can greatly affect how we interpret events in the world around us, as well as how we perceive ourselves and how Judaism can help ground us in lives of meaning and fortitude. After 12 years of almost daily practice, I understand that each day brings new challenges and new barriers, along with old habits and lifelong obstacles, all of which are trying to thwart my progress.

As we say in the liturgy: Just as God renews each day, so, too, must we renew. And this is what I see happening in Shelach Lecha, albeit in reverse order.

The lack of confidence that the spies bring back — embodied in the famous line, “And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33) — is a classic case of not being fully aware and awake. The fear that the spies bring back, which may have been justified, overtakes them and causes the entire Israelite people to lose faith, lose hope and react with chaotic perplexity.

In meditation, one can begin to develop a sense of connection to God, one’s own heart and the notion that the more awareness we have in our life, the better decisions we are able to make. We don’t read of the spies taking any time to process their findings, meditate on their experience before sharing it; rather, they blow into the camp, rally the fears of the people and cause a scene that cannot be stopped, one that will climax next week with the rebellion of Korah.

I find it fascinating that this one line about the grasshoppers speaks volumes about the inner life of the spies. Their real mistake was not in sharing their fears, but rather in not being present in their sharing, such that they conveyed not only physical fears, but also their own unprocessed and undifferentiated emotional and spiritual fears.

Moses loses control of the people and almost loses control of the whole exodus enterprise. According to the Talmud, the spies, and thereby the entire people, actually think that not only can’t they overcome the inhabitants of the land, but that even God is outmatched.

In a challenging reading of the text, Sotah 35a says that Numbers 13:31, which reads, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we,” should be read, “We cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than Him [God].” They translate the word memenu, as “than him,” rather than the traditional reading “than us.” So, in their fear, the spies not only reject the notion of conquering the land, they reject the whole premise that God is with them at all. Without a sense of presence and consciousness, God is lost to them.

And, it is this mentality that causes the overreaction to the man collecting wood on Shabbat. There is so much fear, so much confusion and lack of confidence that the people, including Moses, don’t know how to respond.

I don’t see this story as one telling us that we should kill all those who break rules on Shabbat — we would all be dead! Rather, it’s a parable of what happens when we don’t bring ourselves fully present to any situation in our lives, including religious practice. When we act out of fear, we don’t make good decisions.

It is for this reason that I see the final portion about the tzitzit fitting in. When we stop to contemplate the higher meaning and value in life, a connection to God and our souls, we find ourselves making more healthy decisions. Reading back the idea of tzitzit into the rest of the parsha, I see it as coming as a corrective to the series of fear-induced decisions that plague the people, leading to chaos, 40 years of wandering in the desert and killing someone for a small violation of a newfound religious practice. By taking time to breathe and notice the tzitzit, we find a way to operate more calmly, with greater confidence coupled with greater humility. This combination is a hallmark of Jewish meditation, one that is signified by the gathering of the tzitzit. Certainly, if our ancestors had practiced a bit more awareness meditation, imagine how differently things might have turned out.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Music lovers get presents for composer Reich’s birthday


Sometime in the 1970s, composer Steve Reich found himself looking for spiritual sustenance.
 
“Like many people in the ’60s,” he says, “I got involved in Hatha Yoga and Northern Buddhist meditation and Southern Buddhist meditation. It did a lot of good for a high-metabolism New Yorker like me. But after about 10 years, I felt ‘something is missing.'”
 
Reich, who turned 70 this week with elaborate celebrations in New York and London, grew up in Reform Judaism, at a time “when Big Bad Reform was really Big Bad Reform,” he jokes. “Religiously speaking,” he says, he was “a blank slate.”
At a certain point, however, he felt that the spirituality he sought might, in fact, be “in my own backyard.”
 
An ardent admirer of oral transmission of cultural traditions, Reich suddenly realized he was “a member of the oldest tradition on earth,” and didn’t know anything about it.
 
So he set out to fill that gap.
 
Today Reich is an observant Jew. He keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and studies Torah weekly. And his growth as a Jew has filtered into his music in works like “Tehillim,” “Different Trains,” “You Are (Variations)” and his collaborations with Beryl Korot, a video artist who is also his wife. But he is adamant that he is not a Jewish composer.
 
“I am Jewish, and I am a composer,” he says. “I don’t write Jewish music. The only true Jewish music is hazanut [cantorial music].”
 
“Setting a Hebrew text is very important to me,” Reich says. “But that’s concert music using a religious text. Stravinsky wrote a mass, and that’s religious music because it’s used in the Catholic Church, but to me Jewish music is one man chanting Torah. The rest is folklore.”
 
Still, Reich won’t downplay the significance of his Jewishness in his life.
“This has made a tremendous improvement in my life,” he says emphatically.
Is there a New York component to his music to match the Jewish component? Reich acknowledges, “Everyone is shaped by when they’re born and where they live,” yet he doesn’t have an easy answer to the question. “Fish swim in the water but they don’t know much about the water. But if you take it away, they’re dead. I think the energy, the rhythmic energy in the music is me — Hashem’s plan for me included that — but New York certainly fueled it. It’s a city of enormous energy.”
 
And true to its form, in October, Reich’s hometown will be resplendent with birthday tributes, including programs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), the Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and a retrospective of his video work with Korot at the Whitney.
 
In addition, Reich’s new opus, “Daniel Variations,” written in memory of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists, will have its world premiere Oct. 8 at the Barbican Centre in London.
 
Reich admits that he is dazzled, amused and delighted by the fuss.
 
“If you’re going to turn 70, that’s the way to do it! I’ve been very fortunate,” he admits. “So many wonderful things have happened.”
 
But Reich is hardly resting on his birthday laurels. Where is he headed next musically?
 
The answer to that question is, he says, a bit complicated.
 
“‘You Are (Variations)’ was written after ‘Cello Counterpoint,’ which is a highly tooled, precision piece,” he says. “When I started ‘You Are,’ I said to myself, ‘I’m just going to do what I know how to do and follow it wherever it leads. I’m going to see what happens.’ I had never consciously had that attitude composing. In the past I always felt I had to set a problem for solving. Lo and behold, the harmonies begin to get very dissonant, and you end up doing something you didn’t know you knew how to do. That is only possible after years and years of work. And it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever written.”
 
As an example of the way that his working methods continue to evolve, he offers both, “Daniel Variations,” the vocal piece he wrote for the Daniel Pearl Commissioning Project of Meet the Composers, and “Sinfonietta,” a recent instrumental piece.
 
“Daniel Variations” uses four texts, two from the Book of Daniel, one from Daniel Pearl himself and a fourth that is Pearl’s paraphrase of a jazz song title from the ’20s.
 
Reich explains, “Whenever you choose a text, the text forces you to do things you might not otherwise do. The whole idea of a four-movement piece came out of choosing those texts, and the fact that it’s about a person who was murdered affects the way I wrote. With a text, you find yourself asking, ‘Bach did this, Stravinsky did this, what have you got in mind?’ And you are forced by the text to make [musical] decisions that if you were writing instrumental music, you might not do.”
 
By contrast, he continues, “The Sinfonietta piece is completely instrumental, a bit closer to my earlier pieces. It’s more repetitive, does things I haven’t done in years. But it fills out the harmonies in ways I wouldn’t have done when I was younger.”
 
In December, Reich will begin working on a piece for Eighth Blackbird, a contemporary music sextet based at University of Richmond in Virginia and the University of Chicago.
 
“They are a flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano and percussion,” he says. “That is an instrumentation I would never write for, ordinarily. I’m going to have them do a recording of themselves, then play against it. I’ve been working in these interlocking pairs for [decades], and I’m still married to it, but I’ll be working with strict contrapuntal ideas that I haven’t thought about for a long time.”
 
Reich’s formula for keeping the music and him fresh after all these years is simple.

Celebrate Rosh Hashanah in India? No Problem


Young Israelis are among the world’s most prolific travelers, gravitating to hot spots like Bolivia, Thailand and India, where the shekel stretches far. Having experienced Pesach in Argentina, surrounded by more than 400 mostly Israeli backpackers, I was curious to see where I might end up for Rosh Hashanah on my around-the-world journey.

I knew that I would be in India, and given that several hotels in Delhi’s Pahar Ganj district had signs in Hebrew, there had to be something going on.

As it turned out, I would be in the holy town of Rishikesh, where ashrams and yoga studios line the Ganges. A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, I had fallen in with an Israeli crowd in Goa who had highly recommended Rishikesh as a place to find the inner spirituality that India is so famous for. Like so many others who visit India, I was looking to find myself, too.

During a challenging night bus ride from Delhi, in which the driver seemed hell-bent on having a head-on with every truck on the road, I found myself chatting up an Italian girl in the seat next to me. When we arrived, I followed her to an ashram outside of town. Naturally, we got horribly lost on the way, but I suppose you have to get lost before you expect to find yourself.

The swami there was world famous, and the Italian girl had flown in from Rome to spend eight months studying yoga and inner bliss. It seemed like just the ticket, so I followed her to a yoga class, where I found myself surrounded by post-high school Californians with immaculate tans in the latest, hippest designer yogaware. The instructor, an American, spoke with an unnerving calmness while the class anxiously took notes.

“Can you repeat clearly how one should position our shoulders during two-minute meditation,” asked one kid, as if nirvana would be the best possible grade at the end of year semester.

It all seemed a little ridiculous, so I quietly backed out the door, grabbed my pack and headed into town.

Unlike the lower Ganges, where the water pollutants are apparently 150 times more than the most dangerous allowable level, the Ganges here flows thick and fast from its source in the nearby Himalayas. A suspension bridge crosses the gray water at Ram Jhula, a popular neighborhood with the holy set. Pedestrians, cyclists, cows and monkeys all make use of the bridge, and as I stepped foot on the other side, I was surrounded by babas, Indian holy men who meditate all day and survive through the charity of the community.

I followed my nose to a wonderful little guesthouse at the top of the hill, dropped my things and went off in search of a beer. Easier said than done, this being a holy city after all, where most restaurants are vegetarian and the chiming of ashram bells echo in the air.

With a little perseverance, I found what I was looking for above an Internet cafe, where the signs were all in Hebrew. Seconds later, I was talking to some girls from Haifa.

“Nu, and where are you going for Rosh Hashanah?” they asked in that friendly Israeli way that makes you feel like a younger sibling.

“Wherever you are, I hope,” I replied.

Turns out there were so many Israelis in Rishikesh, that three different Rosh Hashanah celebrations had been organized. Early the next evening, I met with the girls from Haifa and followed them to the next village of Luxman Jhula, across another bridge. After passing rustic Indian shacks, hundreds of locals getting ready to sleep on the streets, beautifully exotic ashrams and more than a few monkeys and cows, the last thing I expected to see were chandeliers.

A large enclosure had been set up in a field below a hotel, with seats and tables laid out, and chandeliers hanging from the plastic tarp walls, lighting it up. The ceiling was open, the sun was setting and it looked surreally beautiful.

Unlike my Pesach in Argentina, where we had to walk through metal detectors to enter the five-star hotel in Patagonia, this Rosh Hashanah service was open to anybody and everybody, bringing together quite an eclectic mix of travelers.

I turned to talk to a Japanese backpacker, curious how she stumbled upon Chabad, and it turned out she was Jewish, too. By my rough count, there were about 300 people, and this was just one of three celebrations.

We were served a meal of chicken, potato and vegetables after a service that saw uplifting singing and dancing. I wondered how on earth Chabad managed to secure kosher food. But since it was Chabad, I figured it must be kosher. It was the first time I had eaten meat in India, as I was determined to avoid getting sick and was avoiding all meat, eggs and anything uncooked.

At the same time on the Ganges below, a traditional Hindu puja, a religious ritual showing respect to God, was taking place. Floral offerings were made and set forth on the river, young boys chanted holy songs, incense was burned and a gold urn was passed around and touched with reverence by the community, much like a Torah on the way back to the ark.

Never mind the ashrams and the yoga centers.

As I sat beneath the stars, celebrating a new Jewish year surrounded by Jewish backpackers of all nationalities, I decided the Ganges was the perfect place to find myself after all.

Vancouver-based freelance writer Robin Esrock has traveled to 32 countries in the past 18 months, posting pictures and stories on his Web site,

Lingerie and Meditation


“I always say it is lingerie and meditation that have kept me young,” says Michael Attie, a 62-year-old author, spiritual seeker and former owner of Playmates of Hollywood — the world’s largest lingerie store.

Once known as “The Lingerie Monk,” Attie managed to combine his passion for spirituality with 13 years of selling sexy lingerie on Hollywood Boulevard.

I first met Attie when I recorded his mother’s family history, and she told the story of her son inheriting Playmates of Hollywood. Her husband owned the store until 1982, when, faced with declining health, he called his son, who was meditating in the woods of Northern California, and asked him to come home to run the lingerie store.

Michael Attie made the most of it.

“I created the tongue-and-cheek Lingerie Zen Sect, which claimed that the fast way to enlightenment was to meditate in a lingerie store. I had meditation classes upstairs and occasionally I’d do ceremonies in the store, like the Feather Boa Dance.

“Whatever your circumstances are, that’s the perfect setting to investigate the nature of awareness. Since I had a lingerie store, that was the fastest way for me.”

I actually experienced a Feather Boa Dance once at Playmates. The customers dancing through the aisles included hookers, actresses and a senior citizen buying lingerie for her newlywed granddaughter. While we danced, Attie engaged us with a running commentary on the Zen of lingerie.

Attie and I met recently to discuss his recently published book, “Many Ways, Middle Way, No Way: A Guide to Meditation, Spiritual Awakening and Fun” (Neon Buddha Press, 2005). Attie says it’s “an eccentric, nonsectarian, open-hearted, inspirational and de-confusing guide to the spiritual path.”

Attie’s own spiritual quest started in the 1960s when he, along with scores of other young Americans, many of them Jews, spent time in Japanese Zen monasteries and Indian ashrams, searching for gurus and spiritual illumination.

I asked Attie how his own Jewish upbringing related to his spiritual journey.

“My father was a Syrian Jew, which was a very tight community and they all intermarried among themselves,” he said. “He was the first to marry a Yiddish — my mother. Mostly everyone in the community was aghast, ‘Don’t do it! If you marry a Yiddish, you’ll be a slave. If you marry a Syrian, she’ll be your slave!’ He told them, ‘But I love her!’ Perhaps I inherited a rebellious nature from my father.”

“For my dad, being Jewish was mostly a social and cultural thing,” he continued. “He’d go for High Holidays to the Syrian temple in rented rooms on Western Avenue. I had my first disillusionment on Yom Kippur; all the kids were running around on the street and I found my father at the Pig and Whistle, eating a big steak!

“I was bar mitzvahed, but 1950s L.A. Judaism didn’t inspire or stimulate me,” he said. “I go to bar mitzvahs today and can see how Judaism now can hold kids. They are vastly more challenging and spiritual than I remember from my youth.”

In spite of not feeling drawn to the religious aspect of Judaism, Attie is deeply connected to being Jewish. “Of course, the deep spirit of Judaism is part of me; to me that means a sense of humor, a love of art and learning and compassion for all peoples and the planet.”

Attie has found another link to Judaism: playing the accordion with his Don’t Worry Klezmer Band.

“Somehow the Eastern European Klezmer musicians were a deeply Jewish archetype: wandering the Carpathian Mountains, they would appear, play their wild, anarchistic music and disappear, wandering on to the next town,” he said. “In the shtetl one never forgot the fragility of life; the pogrom may be on its way. No music is both happier and sadder; life is blowing on the wind and tomorrow may never arrive. Live for now and enjoy this moment fully.”

I asked Attie what was next for him.

“Amazingly, in my 62 years I’ve seen very little of America and have always wanted to. It seems like my opportunity has arrived. I’m going to get a van, load up my dogs, Rufus and Homer, boxes of ‘Many Ways,’ my accordion and spend a good part of the next year on book signing tours. My life as a klezmer gypsy may just be beginning. Of course, I begin each book signing with the ‘Do the Dharma Polka.’ The audience is invited to sing along.”

On Sunday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m., Michael Attie will read from and sign “Many Ways, Middle Way, No Way” at Dutton’s Brentwood Bookstore, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., (310) 476-6263. To find out about his free meditation instruction and practice, visit www.dontworryzendo.com.

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.

 

How We Worship


Los Angeles Jews. AnJewlinos, if you will.

Who are they?

A diverse group if ever there was one — as multifaceted as the city itself. About 660,000 Jews call the greater Los Angeles home — and that does not include the many more families who are touched by Judaism through intermarriage, culture and civic ties. But numbers don’t begin to portray the range of the Los Angeles Jewish experience, especially at this High Holiday season.

Jews here are as different as snowflakes. From young to old, secular to Ultra-Orthodox; transplanted from Brooklyn, or Israel, or Iran or Russia; practicing Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Greek, Persian and new-age feminist customs. There are traditional families with 11 children and yuppie families with 2.2. There are gay couples and singles and everything and anything in between.

And come the High Holidays, most AnJewlinos, even those who aren’t observant at other times, come out of the woodwork in a Jewish way, at least this once, to celebrate the Jewish New Year.

How do we observe?

Very differently.

Some people prepare themselves spiritually the whole month of Elul, the Hebrew month before the New Year dedicated to repentance. For others, it’s the only time of year they attend synagogue. Some don’t even go to synagogue, but gather informally in a group, or they skip the whole services thing and partake in gloriously sweet meals among friends and family members.

The Jewish Journal has selected 10 narratives, a diverse sampling of lay people that is by no means comprehensive. These are not the rabbis, academics, day-school principals, politicians and others we normally hear from about being Jewish.

Together, their stories paint a picture of the Jews of Los Angeles, and the part that the High Holidays play in their spiritual lives.

The Israeli

Iris Goldstein-Hagay
Age: 47
Lives in Calabasas
Synagogue: Chabad of Calabasas

Iris Goldstein-Hagay says she is the last Israeli you’d expect to find living in Los Angeles.

“I grew up the typical Israeli girl, very proud of Israel. I trained soldiers in the army. I knew history very well — the history of every place in Israel, every flower, every tree. I wore jeans and a T-shirt, long hair with no makeup. I was the typical Israeli girl from the Moshav,” she says, referring to a communal settlement based on a semi-socialist economic system.

As she sits in her bustling real estate office conference room, it’s hard to picture Goldstein-Hagay as an Israeli flower-child chalutznikit, a pioneer from the Jaffa Orange Grove lifestyle. Not with four notebooks of lists splayed out in front of her and a half dozen urgent phone calls to return from Israelis at various stages of purchasing a house. Not with her French-manicured nails and multi-toned ash-blond, blow-dried hair that sets off a deep tan.

“I came here and changed a lot,” she says.

Her first trip to America was with her husband and two daughters in 1984, when she was 26 years old. Like many Israelis during that period, they came for work, and thought they’d stay only a few years to make money. (Today, many Israelis emigrate here with the intention of staying for good). Goldstein-Hagay didn’t want to work in special education, her field in Israel. So after calculating how much she was paying rent for her apartment and how much money the landlord was probably making, she decided to go into real estate.

Four years after coming to Los Angeles, the marriage to her high school sweetheart disintegrated — but her career in real estate was going well.

“The minute you get a check, it’s like drugs to your blood — you get addicted to the business,” she says. “I really love it and I have a lot of passion for it.”

Still, in 1992 she decided to go back to Israel because of her family. But the Moshav girl couldn’t adjust to her home country any longer.

“It was very hard for me to live in Israel,” she says.

She settled in Tel Aviv and worked in real estate, but had a hard time as a single mother.

Besides, she says, “I missed the way of life in America.”

So with $400 in her pocket and another promise to return to Israel, she came back to the Valley she had grown to love and tried to pick up her real estate business. That was seven years ago.

In that time, Goldstein-Hagay has become the No. 5 real estate agent in Los Angeles at RE/MAX real estate agency (she’s in the top 1 percent in the United States), remarried and moved to Calabasas as a “Brady Bunch” with her two daughters and two stepsons (One daughter is now married with two children and also lives in the Valley.)

Goldstein-Hagay is what Israelis call “traditional.” Not Orthodox, but celebrating the basic landmarks of Jewish life, like lighting candles Friday night, having Shabbat and holiday meals, preparing special foods and holding get-togethers. Her parents usually come from Israel for the High Holidays.

For the last three years, Goldstein-Hagay has attended the local Chabad, a 20-minute walk from her house. (She doesn’t drive on the High Holidays.) For her, this season is about commemorating the rituals of her childhood, when she went to shul on the High Holidays.

“It’s probably a traditional habit, something that seems really important to me, even though I don’t keep Shabbat or go to synagogue during the year,” she says.

She explains it another way: “I’m not an American Jew. It’s really hard to explain to somebody what’s an Israeli Jew. I don’t need to go to shul every Saturday to be a Jew,” she says. “I grew up in a Jewish country.”

She estimates that 60 percent of her clientele, which is focused in the Valley, is Israeli — as opposed to 100 percent when she started out.

Goldstein-Hagay lives like many Israelis here do, within a community of Israelis — even if “some of my best friends are American.”

Her neighborhood is not a “little Israel”; it’s more of a network.

“There is a strong Israeli community here, especially if you need something — help or support — if somebody really needs help we get it,” she says.

Goldstein-Hagay visits Israel every so often, and she also works to raise money for different Israeli causes. As chairwoman of the “Larger Than Life” organization, she helped bring 21 Israeli kids suffering from cancer to America. “It’s easy to support Israel from here,” she says.

Will she ever live in Israel again?

“I feel my heart’s there,” she says. Still, “I’m a very realistic person, and I know it’s not for me anymore — my family is here. I already tried to live there, and it was really hard for me economically,” she says firmly. “That’s the reality and I’m very realistic person.”

The Socialist Atheist

Joe Steinberg
Age: 84
Lives in Cheviot Hills
Synagogue: Adat Chaverim

Joe Steinberg says he was always an atheist.

When he attended Orthodox Hebrew School in Chicago in the 1930s he thought the whole thing was “nonsense.” His Polish immigrant parents had sent him there till his bar mitzvah.

“It was terrible experience for me. I was a very smart and curious child, and no questions were ever answered there,” he says, slapping himself on the hand to demonstrate the switch.

It’s not hard to picture Steinberg as that child, because he still has big blue eyes, one eyebrow permanently raised quizzically and a tendency to jump up when he remembers something important or exciting. With a fuzz of white hair on both sides of his head, he looks like elder statesman Yitzhak Rabin, but much more animated.

“I swore after I was bar mitzvah that I would never go into a synagogue again,” Steinberg says like it was yesterday and not 70 years ago. “And I didn’t have to.” His parents kept a kosher home and celebrated the traditions, like lighting candles for Shabbat and holding Passover seders. They attended synagogues only on the High Holidays.

Even in the foxhole, Steinberg kept up his atheism. After he got an undergraduate degree in accounting at the University of Iowa and then a graduate degree from the Yale School of Drama, he was drafted — and got injured in his first assignment at the Battle of the Bulge.

“I was one of the lucky Jews — they saved my leg,” he says, including a long story about this anti-Semitic captain in the Army that ended with a laugh instead of a fistfight. The wound got him discharged, and with his wife, Gladys — another long story about how he started dating his girlfriend’s friend — he eventually ended up in California running a finance company and dabbling in film.

His most noted film fact is that Lee Harvey Oswald, after assassinating President Kennedy, ran into a theater to watch his film “To Be a Man” (which Oliver Stone later licensed for “JFK”).

Steinberg made many friends in the business of like political mind. People like Pete Seeger and Earl Robinson milled about his house. Many of Steinberg’s other friends wouldn’t come around for years because they knew their license plates would be noted, and they’d end up on FBI watch lists. An active member of the Independent Progressive Party, Steinberg hosted fundraisers for the “Hollywood Ten” — who refused to name alleged communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

“Was I nervous?” Steinberg repeated the question about fear of recriminations from the communist-obsessed government of the 1950s.

“What the hell could they do to me? I was a retired officer, shot in battle, the owner of a capitalist company,” he says, sitting up from the couch. “No, I wasn’t afraid at all.”

It was among these people — primarily Jews — he discovered a place to Jewishly educate his two daughters: the kindershul movement, a left-wing Jewish Yiddish-speaking Socialist movement — all things Steinberg was interested in.

“I didn’t want them to go through the terrible regimen I went through, learning by rote with rabbis slapping you on the wrist, learning a language that you didn’t know what the hell you were saying.”

By the 1970s, Steinberg had joined University Synagogue to be with his children and grandchildren (today he has four and one great-grandchild). But he says he left after a social-action interfaith project for low-income housing didn’t get funding. That’s when he joined the Secular Humanist Jews of Los Angeles. Yet this group was not proactive enough for him, so he and two other members founded Adat Chaverim in the Valley, which today has 75 members and a Sunday school with about 20 kids. They hold services once a month, and will have services on both days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

So what’s a Jewish congregation — don’t call it a synagogue — that doesn’t believe in God?

They perform the rituals, like lighting candles, breaking bread and singing songs that speak of the “light within us.” They don’t pray, per se, but speak well of the ill, honor the dead and talk about leading a good and ethical life.

“People say to me, ‘Joe, how could you be Jewish and not believe in a god?’ And I tell them, ‘I don’t care what you believe in. Are you a mensch? It doesn’t matter what you believe or not.’ The thing we’re looking for is to make people menches.”

During the High Holidays, his fellow congregants speak of forgiveness and do tashlich, the ritual of throwing bread in the water that typically represents a person’s sins being cast away.

“It’s a symbol. We’re not asking God to forgive us. He — or she — is not going to sit in judgment. Bull–,” he says, earning a dirty look from Gladys, his wife of 61 years, as she passes by. “You’re going to sit in judgment. The toughest part is to forgive yourself,” he says. “Do I have faith? Sure I have faith. I have faith in my wife, in my kids, in my comrades. I don’t have faith in the unknown.”

The Meditating Jew

Stephen Weber
Age: 57
Lives in Valley Glen
Congregation: Metivta

It’s hard to understand how someone who lost a son could call himself “lucky” or say “God’s been pretty good to me,” but perhaps that’s a testament to Stephen Weber’s faith — or more precisely, his meditation.

Weber came of age in the ’60s, when as a student at USC he heard a talk by Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Baba Ram Dass — who, with Timothy Leary, wrote a book on LSD and spirituality. Until that point, Weber had been a High Holiday Reform Jew from the San Fernando Valley, who hadn’t thought much about religion or God since his confirmation classes.

“It just didn’t strike me,” he says. “The Eastern model of transcendentalism did strike me,” he says.

For three years after college he traveled the world teaching Yoga. That’s where he met his wife, Merryl (now together 31 years), a Jewish woman who was also into meditation. Merryl was from a more traditional family, so they joined the Conservative Temple Adat Ari El in the Valley, where they sent their two children to Sunday school. But spiritually speaking, Weber still got most of his inspiration from his daily hour of meditation and yoga practice.

On an atypically overcast morning, Weber showed off his unusually green, almost tropical garden — more like a small rainforest really than a yard in the San Fernando Valley. As he approaches a wood bridge over a pond, he veers off to get food for the gargantuan goldfish, who wait by the water’s edge.

“They can hear me coming,” he says.

Around the pool and in the garden are Buddha-like statues, surrounded by plants. They’re not religious symbols or shrines.

“Just decorations,” Stephen says.

Sitting by his kidney-shaped pool, Weber could be mistaken for a movie mogul: He’s wearing a black and cr?me palm tree print short-sleeved shirt that hangs loosely over a vigorous stomach, black pants and shiny loafers.

But this is not that kind of pool, and Weber’s not that kind of guy. He’s got a different vibe. Over the soothing sound of a fountain, he speaks slowly and carefully, in an even-keeled, almost affectless voice. His internal metronome seems to tick at a calmer pace.

“I’ve had a spiritual career and a business career,” he says. The business part was the show “Amazing Discoveries,” with Mike Levey, otherwise known as “The Sweater Guy” to those familiar with infomercials.

Weber’s inner and outer life took a sharp turn 10 years ago when his 20-year-old son Adam was killed in a boating accident while vacationing in North Carolina, on spring break from UC Santa Cruz.

After losing his eldest child, Weber soon sold his infomercial company and is now semi-retired, working on various entertainment projects. It was around that time that he got more interested in Metivta: The Center for Contemplative Judaism, then run by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man.

“It was Jewish meditation, and I didn’t know there was such a thing,” Weber says. “Metivta seemed to afford a place for people who were ex-practitioners of other practices like yoga or Buddhism or Zen teachings, but who were looking for something in our own Jewish religion.

He began attending monthly Shabbat services there.

“It’s different than say, Adat Ari El, because there are a lot of elements of meditation and chanting in the services,” he says. “You can stop at one thing and nobody’s going to be after you if you’re not with the group. It’s not like ‘Please turn to Page 173,'” he says, mimicking an announcer.

His son’s death threw him into tremendous grief: “I dealt with it head on. I didn’t try to run. I sat with it. I just sat with it. I would walk at night, till I was so exhausted I would fall asleep.”

Meditation seemed to be the only thing that helped. “I might me miserable but this hour is mine,” he says. “There’s still times, 10 years later, when it hits you sometimes, but not for that long.”

He remains a regular at Metivta, where he will celebrate the High Holidays. “I think it’s a chance to get in touch with the divine and to look at yourself from one year to the next — not where have I progressed, but where am I? Am I on course?”

“I feel that meditation is like God talking to me, and prayer is like me talking to God.”

What does he pray for these High Holidays?

“I try not to ask for personal things. I kind of feel that God’s been pretty good to me, all in all. I feel more like gratitude: Thank you that I don’t live in Louisiana, or near the tsunami, you know. Thanks for the healthy body, material well-being, nice family — I try not to ask for too much.”

“I didn’t think it would be a good tribute to Adam to be carrying around the weight of his death,” Weber says. “He wouldn’t have liked that.”

The Jewish Student

Andy Green
Age: 21
Lives in Westwood
Synagogue: UCLA Hillel Shul

Welcome to Generation Z.

These are the young people, born sometime in the 1980s, who are so adept at computers that even their religious missives go out online.

Before the High Holidays it is customary to ask your friends and family for forgiveness — or mechilah — but Andy Green does it by a massive e-mail.

E-mail?

That’s what Green, a fourth-year UCLA student, is sending out this year to about a hundred friends and relatives.

“Dear friends and family,” he writes. “You and I have interacted over the course of the year, and if there’s anything that I’ve done that has hurt you in any way, or that you want to talk to me about, please do. And I want a chance to talk to you about it and to make up for what I’ve done.”

It’s not that Green has endless time on his hands. He’s been active these last three years at Hillel: The Campus Foundation for Jewish Life, where he’s now serving as student president.

“With the High Holidays happening so late this year, there will be a great opportunity to bring in lot of students that wouldn’t come otherwise, once-a-year Jews, to expose people to our Hillel,” he says. (This year Rosh Hashanah actually falls during the school semester, as opposed to last year, when the first day of class fell on Sukkot, at the end of the High Holiday season.)

That’s how Green sees things, in terms of opportunities to interest students in different aspects of Judaism. He’s no salesman, just idealistic and down-to-earth – and putting his Jewish day-school education to good use.

Green grew up in mid-Wilshire and attended Pressman Academy and Shalhevet High School. His family attends the Conservative Beth Am Synagogue. (During the High Holidays, he and his father attend Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller’s services at UCLA, because his father is an alumnus and also met his mother at UCLA Hillel.)

Green doesn’t like to categorize himself religiously. Looks-wise, it’s hard to tell, because this tall, teddy-bearish guy wears a colored, knitted yarmulke on his head — and Birkenstocks and dress socks on his feet. If pressed, he’ll say “Conservadox,” but he feels more comfortable with the slogan that Los Angeles activist David Suissa once put out on T-shirts, bumpers stickers and billboards: “I’m ashkefardicultrareformaconservadox and proud of it.”

“That captures what I feel,” Green says, adding, “it’s very important to have an open Jewish community, where people can express Judaism in whatever way they feel comfortable.”

Whether that means joining a temple or just being a “cultural” Jew who cooks Jewish food and eats matzah ball soup — “I think that’s beautiful,” he says.

It’s ironic, he says, that UCLA was his first time out of the Jewish “ghetto” — the sheltered life of Jewish day schools and camps, while for many friends, UCLA has been their first exposure to a campus Jewish community.

He spends much of his time organizing Hillel intercultural events, but he also enjoys those late-night conversations that only seem to happen on a college campus — you know, about what the meaning of life is, why bad things happen to good people or defining your own purpose.

“Most people of my generation, when they’re seeking to find an outlet for their spiritual impulse, the first place they’re looking is not the tradition of their parents,” he says. “Judaism is empty for them. But Judaism is not empty — there are so many opportunities to explore.”

Why does this math and econ major devote so much effort to connecting students with Judaism instead of working on his resume, or at least partying with the best of them?

“Because this is what’s important to me,” he says. “I believe that all the interactions I’m having with students at UCLA is the purpose of life — to meet other people and to have life-altering experiences with them. And to explore who you are and have them explore themselves.”

And besides, he confesses, “Partying doesn’t do that as much for me.”

The Kabbalist

Mitch Desser
Age: 46
Lives in Pico-Robertson
Synagogue: The Kabbalah Centre

Mitch Desser originally went back to synagogue to meet a nice Jewish girl.

He was 38 years old and hadn’t really been into the whole organized religion thing — the only times he’d gone to synagogue since his bar mitzvah and Orthodox Sunday school education was on the High Holidays. His parents were traditional.

At Ohr Hatorah, Rabbi Mordechai Finley’s shul on Olympic Boulevard, Desser fell in love — not with a woman, but with Kabbalah.

“I felt a connection, and I knew I wanted to be a ba’al teshuvah,” he says, using the term for a returnee to the faith, which usually implies a more Orthodox path than before. After attending Finley’s classes at the University of Judaism, he started going to The Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, which was right near his house.

Over the last six years — as he’s gotten married and had two kids — Desser has taken one or two classes every quarter, completing eight courses at the Centre, and now attends services on Saturday. He finds Kabbalah easier and more meaningful than the traditions and the ritual of the Orthodoxy he was raised on.

“Instead of it being about dogma and religiosity, it was about conscientiousness and spirit,” he says.

Desser doesn’t seem like someone who’d be particularly into Kabbalah — or any spiritual pursuit. An entrepreneur with a telecommunications and real estate company, the baby-faced, balding Desser, looks like your average middle-class husband, tired after a long day of work, eager to sink into his leather couch with his wife, maybe drink a beer or a glass of wine and listen to see if the kids will stay asleep. As he explains his newfound religious connection, a large flat-screen TV blares “So You Think You Can Dance” in the background.

He talks about what Kabbalah means to him in his lemon-lime living room as he fidgets with a sippy cup filled with Cheerios. His olive-skinned face and blue eyes relax into a waking dreamlike state while he attempts to explain the basics, as his secular Israeli wife, Shani, listens.

“They teach you about consciousness, and the unity of all the people in the world, the connectedness of all the people in the world, wherever they are; they teach you about human dignity,” Mitch says. “As far as how to connect — they call God the light — how you connect to the light is how you connect through human sharing,” he says.

The High Holidays, he says, are a time to plan spiritually: “Rosh Hashanah is the seed for the entire year. It’s when you open up the spirit and allow yourself to get correction — tikkun. Whatever you’re struggling with, it’s time to get connected to the light and learn what your personal lessons are.”

What are the lessons he needs to apply?

He rubs his eyes and thinks.

“I want to work on letting go of my control of the physical reality, to alleviate the everyday worries and tasks,” he says.

He will not be attending the massive Kabbalah Centre High Holiday service — they hold it in different cities, this year in Dallas — where the Rav channels everyone’s consciousness together for a stronger prayer.

Instead, he’ll repair to the familiar Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, and have a traditional meal or two at home with Shani, who grew up secular in Israel, and moved here five years ago when she met Mitch during a visit he took to Israel.

Shani, 32, has her own goals, mainly affecting her children.

“I want the kids to get something, even if it’s just what I got — tradition — to know what the holidays are and to know what they mean,” she says. “So we’ll probably do a little Kaballah and a little tradition.”

She describes herself as privately spiritual: “I don’t have to go to synagogue for that, and if I do go, it’s more for the community than less for spirituality.”

She once went with her husband to a Kabbalah Centre seder — there were 3,000 people there — but it wasn’t for her.

“It was too much praying for her,” Desser says, smiling and touching his wife’s hand. “She just went there for me.”

“I didn’t get it, I think,” she interjects.

“You don’t get any religion,” he says.

“That’s true,” she agrees.

Does it bother Desser that his wife doesn’t share Kabbalah with him?

“Religion is a very important thing,” he says. “I don’t want to tell my partner how to think or feel…. Sometimes I come home and share stuff with her.”

Before he goes to synagogue, “she says things like, ‘You go and pray for me,’ because she wants to make sure she’s covered in case I’m right.”

She looks at her husband and smiles: “Just in case.”

The (Nearly) Intermarried Jews

Amy Levy and Chad Savage
Ages: 37 and 39
Live in Brentwood
Synagogue: Temple of The Arts

In the 10 years that Amy Levy has lived in Los Angeles, she really put herself out there to find a nice, tall, Jewish man. The 6-foot New York transplant attended Friday Night Live, joined JDate, went to Federation events and even worked for five years at a Jewish organization (The Anti-Defamation League).

About two years ago one of her P.R. clients told her he had the perfect guy for her.

“Is he tall?” Levy asked, pronouncing it the New York way: Tawl. Yes, he said. Chad Savage was 6-foot-4.

“Is he Jewish?” Levy asked.

“No, but he is the nicest guy I have ever met.”

The client was wrong about Savage’s height — he’s only 6-foot-2 — but he wasn’t wrong about the TV executive’s personality. On their first date Levy was “absolutely de-lighted” by Savage, as she likes to say.

The subject of religion came up right away.

“We were talking about my sister’s wedding,” Savage explains in a voice that is as steady and calm as Levy’s is vigorous. He mentioned that it “took place in a chapel, and Amy announced: ‘FYI: No chapel wedding.’ That was blind date No. 1,” he says. “I was a little surprised, but she was Amy throughout.”

On date No. 2, Levy — still her effervescent, straightforward self — was having a really good time, and she told Savage that. She also announced: “I kind of want to have a Jewish wedding and kids who are Jewish and the holidays. I’m not very religious and I go to temple mostly on the holidays. But the heritage and the cooking and acknowledging the holidays spiritually is really important to me. How do you feel about that?”

Savage, who takes most things in stride, told her it was OK.

He also admits, “I wasn’t sure where we were going at that point.”

“We were still only on the entrée,” Levy interjects.

“If that,” Savage says. “I appreciated her forwardness, her honesty. So it didn’t scare me.”

Levy’s whirlwind personality didn’t scare him at all, as a matter of fact, and neither did her connection to a Jewish heritage.

In fact, some of Savage’s best friends are Jews. No, really. Although he looks like a white-bread Midwesterner, with a lumbering tallness and a pale skin that probably burns easily, he grew up in Santa Monica next door to a Jewish family that invited him to all the holidays at their house.

“I’ve probably gone to temple more than I’ve gone to church so it was not anything strange to me,” he says.

Levy interrupts: “We invited that neighbor that he grew up next to — I hope they come — as they see their little Chad getting married under the chuppah and break the glass.”

Oh yeah, Levy and Savage are getting married Nov. 6, just two years after they met. Rabbi David Baron, of the Temple of the Arts, where they go for High Holiday services, is performing the ceremony, as well as meeting with them beforehand to prepare them for a Jewish wedding.

Although religion can be a problem for many couples — even those within the same faith — there wasn’t much conflict for them.

“There really were not any issues,” Savage said. He’s already been through the cycle of holidays with Levy.

“We’ll figure out what the rules and morals and things will be for our household together,” Levy says. “We start off with a good spiritual base and an understanding that we are both good people. I think you sort of take it from there,” she says.

They will celebrate Christmas and Easter at his parents house, and have a Christmas tree in their own — although not this year, because they’ll be on their honeymoon.

Will Savage become Jewish?

“I haven’t asked him,” Levy says.

“She may have asked,” Savage says. “But I said no. Twice.”

Levy looks sheepish. A tiny bit.

“I’m just not very religious,” Savage says. “I appreciate the traditions and the community of Judaism, but I have issues with religion in general. Even politically, I’m registered Independent.”

“Don’t worry, he voted Democrat,” Levy says quickly. (It’s one thing to intermarry, but quite another for this liberal Westsider to pull an inverse Marlee Matlin.) Actually, they share similar values and backgrounds: graduates of public school, patrons of the arts, supporters of KCRW, yada yada yada.

“One of the things that I learned at the ADL is to celebrate diversity, and I think that I needed to practice what I was preaching,” she says about meeting Savage.

“I’m not promoting intermarriage or saying, ‘Go out and find someone different, you’ll be happier,'” she says. “But sometimes you end up with someone that you never thought you would.”

“Some people say, ‘Are you marrying a nice Jewish boy?’ and I say ‘I’m marrying a nice boy.'”

The Gay Jews

Robin Berkovitz & Laurie Newman
Ages: 44 and 52
Live in Venice
Synagogue: Beth Chayim Chadashim

Robin Berkovitz has just spent the morning cleaning.

This morning it was the beach in Venice, as part of Heal The Bay’s “Coastal Cleanup Day,” an annual worldwide campaign to rid beaches of debris. Then, in the afternoon, she climbed up to the roof of her studio/garage to clean off the leaves that have been bugging her all summer.

“It’s kind of an Elul thing,” she says, referring to the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah, during which many Jews dedicate themselves to repentance. “I like to do some kind of a physical cleanup.”

On this mid-September Saturday afternoon, Berkovitz looks like she’s put in a hard day’s work — or maybe she always looks that way, with her no-nonsense short, gray-flecked hair, khakis and a T-shirt. As she talks, she’s sitting outside in the backyard with her partner Laurie Newman — between the Spanish-style house and the garage/study. The latter now does duty as a playroom for their 3-year-old, who is evading her afternoon nap. Chubby, impish Eliana is climbing a ladder to pile plastic file boxes into a precarious tower.

A lot has changed since they adopted her from Guatemala three years ago.

“Ever since we had Eliana, I haven’t been as good at making time for myself,” Berkovitz says, echoing most new mothers, even if her family has two mothers. “I haven’t been good at making time for doing my emotional cleanup.”

She’s referring to her Elul practice of reading spiritual books like “Wisdom of the Jewish Sages” by Rami Shapiro, or taking classes at Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue, on Pico Boulevard.

“Now I might read some of those books in shul,” she says. Then again, she may not, just like she doesn’t always fast strictly on Yom Kippur because she’s busy taking care of her daughter. And her Passover seders don’t go on as long because the kids at the table want to go to sleep.

Berkovitz has become more flexible on her religious rituals, just as Newman has learned to accept Jewish traditions in their home.

Both women grew up in Reform households — Berkovitz in Southern California and Newman in New York. Unlike Newman, however, Berkovitz always liked tradition and ritual: “I felt in my bones very Jewish and very interested. I was the only one who liked religious school. No one else did.”

Newman certainly did not. From under her baseball cap, her blue eyes narrow when Berkovitz talks about religion. Newman attended synagogue for what she calls the “fashion-show High Holidays” on Long Island, and only went to BCC eight years ago “to try to meet a Jewish woman.” (Berkovitz has been a member for 20 years.)

In 2001 they held a marriage ceremony under this same bougainvillea-covered trellis they’re sitting below during the interview. Despite their commitment, like many couples, they had some adjusting to do when it came to religion.

Newman, a former chef who works as a senior deputy to state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, says that Berkovitz “made an assumption that because she met me at synagogue I was as active as she was.”

“Or that she was as interested in spirituality as I was,” adds Berkovitz, a lawyer with the Los Angeles County public defender’s office.

Eliana’s arrival merged their religious paths, especially since, like many young children, Eliana loves rituals — and loves the rabbi, Lisa Edwards. And that has caused Newman’s perspective to evolve: “I think there were little pieces of things I really loved growing up, and it if it had been more child-friendly, I’m sure I would have it liked a lot more.”

Through her daughter, Newman is reconnecting to Judaism. “No one’s forcing me to do it. I’m making the choice now. I realize the importance of it for our family.”

Berkovitz adds: “No matter how much good stuff we can transmit to Eliana in the way of feeling good about herself, and making her a strong person (and I think she was that way when she came to us), no matter how much good stuff we give her, she’s going to have to make her way in the world.”

And that includes making her way as a Guatamalan Jew, an adoptee and a child with two mommies.

“I think about the Unetana Tokef,” Berkovitz says, referring to the High Holiday prayer about who shall live and who shall die. The prayer means to her that you can’t predict how your life is going to be. “That’s how I feel about Eliana, that with that kind of supportive, loving and stable environment, she’ll be able to deal with the world.”

The Persian Jews

The Salimpour Family
Live in Pacific Palisades
Synagogue: Sinai Temple

It’s hard to believe that Rosh Hashanah dinner at the Salimpours’ could be more extravagant than this recent Shabbat dinner, but they’re planning for more than twice as many people and plate after plate of additional dishes. For the Salimpours, there’s something almost sacred about food, and the generosity of spirit that accompanies the sharing of food is inseparable from their religious observance.

On this night, one of their twice-a-month Friday night meals, there are at least four different kinds of rice: white rice; whole grain rice; tachin, which are muffin-shaped rice and yogurt patties; and tadik, which is the crunchy rice found at the bottom of the pan that apparently everyone fights over (although not here, since there’s plenty to go around and of course everyone’s watching their carbs). Then there’s the stuff you put on the rice — the ghormeh sabzia green stew of spices with lamb and fesenjoon, a pomegranate chicken stew. There also are assorted items that are not necessarily Persian, such as Cornish hens, stuffed eggplant, breaded sole, an assortment of salads and ziti for the little kids, who, when offered this array of delicacies, will only eat pasta.

The food is laid out buffet style in silver and ceramic dishes on a long, white-clothed rectangular table in a low-lit mint-green room of the same shape. The setting seems tailor-made for people standing around, listening to Kiddush and watching the kids gather to say the hamotzi blessing in a cute day-school English jingle.

There are two-dozen adults and kids — among them the four Salimpour children and their spouses and children, a cousin or two from France and the hosts, Rafael and Farah Salimpour.

On Rosh Hashanah, in this same dwelling, more than 50 will gather for a feast that also will include traditional fare for a Rosh Hashanah seder — including apples and honey, a lamb’s tongue, beets, carrots and other foods to suggest or inspire blessings for a sweet and healthy new year.

The Salimpours are Conservative and pray at Sinai Temple in Westwood. For them, the holidays are about tradition. Obviously, food is a huge part of that, but tradition also means a heritage of 2,000 years in Iran, and 25 in America.

The High Holiday seasons “reminds the whole family that we have a pretty old tradition that kept us together, and by keeping those traditions we have survived, where other nations haven’t,” says Rafael Salimpour, 73.

After an equally sumptuous choice of desserts, the Salimpours are splayed out comfortably in the living room, interlocked with sleeping children and ready to talk about their life.

Suffice it to say, it wasn’t always like this.

Rafael and Farah Salimpour grew up in Tehran, where Rafael, a pediatrician rose to the top of his field as the director of Her Majesty’s Research Institute on Child Health, an unusually high position for a Jew.

One night in 1979, after the Iranian Revolution had begun, he was taken away at gunpoint and dragged to his offices where soldiers were rifling through his files.

“I was very scared,” he says. “In those days it was very easy to kill people.”

But Salimpour confronted the soldiers: “You’ve been here all night — did you find anything?”

The soldiers admitted they hadn’t, and the doctor sent his assistant out for food to make them all a good breakfast of bread and cheese.

Seeing the family patriarch dragged off at gunpoint stayed with the family. And five months later, when they were in America on a one-month visit, they got a call from friends and relatives in Tehran warning them not to return. They decided to heed the advice.

Like many Persian Jews who fled Iran for Los Angeles, that meant leaving a lot behind — in Salimpour’s case a successful career, property and funds upward of $2 million. And exchanging that for life in a foreign country with only the suitcases they’d packed for a month to visit Pejman, their eldest son who was then finishing up high school in America.

“I knew he would be successful here,” Farah Salimpour says about her husband. She insisted he turn down a job in Cleveland to come to Los Angeles, where her sister lived. Good call. Her husband persuaded Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to hire him, despite the hospital’s contention that there were no available openings. He took his American boards, did a fellowship, and then opened Salimpour Pediatric Medical Group, one of the largest pediatric clinics in the city. His fellow practitioners include his two sons, Pejman and Pedram.

Patriarch may not be the word that comes to mind when you look at Rafael Salimpour — he’s trim, quiet and unimposing — and yet what else can you call a man who fled a country at the height of his career and built it up again tenfold? What do you call a man who inspired his four children to become successful entrepreneurs? In a community that has often valued traditional roles for women in the home, the Salimpour daughters are as successful as their pediatrician brothers: Sherri Nikka is a fashion designer with her own eponymous company; she dresses stars such as Tyra Banks and her clothes sell at Neiman Marcus and Barney’s. Nilou, the youngest, is a publicist in Beverly Hills with entertainment, fashion and corporate clients. Besides working with their father, Pejman and Pedram, have set up Nexcare Collaborative — a nonprofit call center that links parents to needed services and referrals, directing many to free or low-cost health insurance. It’s assisted more than 20,000 Southern California families over the last two years.

Why such a commitment beyond their own practice?

“It didn’t have to be this way,” says Pejman, the eldest. “We didn’t have to walk into a new country that allowed us to buy a home, start a business, to go to the best graduate schools. It could have been like other countries where immigrants live in their own separate communities. America took us in with open arms.”

“As doctors, we have a special responsibility to do something for other immigrants,” he says, looking at his father with pride.

Patriarch Rafael sums it up quite nicely: “I could never imagine in my wildest dreams that I would be so successful in America.”

The Charedi

Shana Kramer
Age: 56
Lives in Hancock Park
Synagogue: Kehillas Yakkov (Rabbi Bess’ Shul)

When Shana Kramer was about 5, she had an epiphany. She piped up from the backseat of the car to share it with her parents: “I am so lucky — I could have been born anyone, and I was born a Jew.”

Some 50 years, six children and 21 grandchildren later, Kramer understands how proud her parents must have been at that moment. “Now that I have children — six … married, thank God) and grandchildren, I see how special that was,” she says, seated in her sedate home in Hancock Park.

It’s a typical interior for this neighborhood: shiny hardwood floors, a breakfront filled with Jewish ritual objects, a wall of recessed shelves holding gold-lettered sefarim (Jewish books) and most available mantels adorned with picture frames of children and grandchildren, weddings and other simchas and old-world sepia-toned photographs of bearded rabbis and their European families.

The daughter of a rabbi, Kramer has always been Orthodox — in those days Modern Orthodox, as opposed to European and Chasidic, but today Charedi, or ultra-Orthodox. Over the years, she has, like the rest of the Orthodox community, become more frum (religious) being more careful with modesty, with kashrut and with her prayers.

Her hair is covered by a shoulder-length brown shag shaytl, a wig that might look real to the unpracticed eye. She is wearing a powder-blue turtleneck and a loose knit sweater of the same color over it which cover her collarbone and elbows, just as her navy blue skirt and bone-colored stockings do her legs. The whole outfit highlights the sparkle in her emerald green-blue eyes, and the passion of her rosy cheeks.

She is passionate — but still modest — about her latest project, e-chinuch.org, a Web site that gathers and disseminates curriculum and teaching materials for religious school teachers around the world that is relaunching next month with the help of a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation. Kramer was a teacher for 30 years before she “semi-retired” to create the Web site and to work at Ma’alot, a religious college in Los Angeles.

Teaching is just one passion. Her main one is her family, living in centers of Judaism around the world, from Israel to Baltimore, Monsey, N.Y. and Lakewood N.J. She and her husband of 37 years, Alex, a computer consultant, moved to Los Angeles seven years ago, after about 18 years in Riverdale, N.Y. Aside from missing her family — she prints a four-color weekly family newsletter to keep everyone in touch — Kramer has nothing but praise for the City of Angels.

“Life here is so pleasant and so relaxed, and everything is so pretty, and you’re constantly being invited outdoors,” she says. “I think that people are nicer here. They’re not pressured and rushed and harried, assuming that every confrontation is unpleasant. It makes everything about living here so much nicer and it speaks to my soul.”

Spirituality, for some people, proves a roundabout route with detours and rest stops. But for Kramer, it was more of a straight road, always aiming for a higher plane.

One turning point in her life came after her daughter’s friends got together one Yom Kippur and said Tehillim (psalms) for a barren woman, who then gave birth — the following Yom Kippur.

“The thought that we might have that kind of power in us — to squander it and not take advantage of it is very sad,” she says. “We don’t realize how we can make changes in the world. People should ask for what they want — if they want God’s help they should come together and ask for it.”

These are the things that Kramer will pray for in shul on the High Holidays:

1) a good year — for “kehillas Yisroel” (the Jewish community) and her family;

2) freedom from worry and fear;

3) freedom from illness and suffering;

4) no division and strife;

5) and for the terrible “tsuris in Eretz Yisrel” — trouble in Israel — to abate.

Kramer says the world has changed, from an increasingly worrisome situation in Israel to growing anti-Semitism around the world and even to a hostile anti-Zionist atmosphere on America’s college campuses. There’s nothing like a precarious geopolitical situation “to concentrate your prayers,” she says, referring to kavanah, or the intention one must internally feel to make the prayers meaningful and to direct them to God.

What does she pray for besides ben adam l’chaveiro — between man and man? What are her prayers ben adam l’makom — between man and God?

“That’s a personal question,” she says smiling, even blushing a little, but she’ll try to answer it.

“I do daven for a closer personal relationship to God,” she says, using the Yiddish word for pray. “I want to be more aware more of the time about God. It’s very comforting — it’s good for me.”

And though it’s half a century later, it’s not hard to picture her as a little girl in the car proclaiming her love of being Jewish when she says, “God’s my father in Heaven and I am his little girl.”

The Russian Jew

Aleksandr Berkovich
Age: 38
Lives in North Hollywood
Synagogue: Congregation Mogen David

When he came to America four years ago, Aleksandr Berkovich thought he might work as an opera singer.

After all, he’d trained for this vocation like his father before him, and had spent 10 years performing the main roles in more than 30 operas in St. Petersburg — from Verdi’s “La Traviatta” to Tchaikovsky’s”Queen of Space.”

But on his first day in America, in July 2001, he met with Alla Feldman from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, who put him in touch with Cantor Binyamin Glickman of Mogen David Synagogue on Pico Boulevard. And on his second day here, Berkovich met with the cantor, who convinced him to join the synagogue’s choir. A month later, they began preparing for the High Holidays.

“What do you think about being a cantor?” Glickman asked Berkovich after the High Holidays. “You have a good voice and a good personality and you feel the Jewish music.”

“I don’t know if I can do it,” Berkovich told him.

Over the next few years, Glickman tutored the Russian immigrant. A year ago, Berkovich entered the four-year Cantorial Mechina Program at the Academy for Jewish Religion.

And then, as they say, opera was history.

While Berkovich may not be the “typical” Russian Jewish immigrant — many of Los Angeles’ Russian Jews immigrated to America in the 1970s and 80s, and moved to the Fairfax and West Hollywood environs — his story of leaving the anti-Semitic homeland for America rings familiar: “In the former Soviet Union, in our school, it never gave us the education to feel Jewish. We were Soviet people.”

Yet he was always interested in Jewish history and Jewish culture — which he learned from his more religious grandparents. Berkovich used to listen to his grandfather’s Jewish records (“vinyl,” he calls them).

“I think I felt connected to the Jewish music from then,” he says. Even while still in the opera trade, he’d joined the St. Petersburg synagogue choir and decided he wanted to know more about Judaism.

A sandy-haired man with Slavic cheekbones and hooded light eyes, Berkovich is easy to pick out from the crowd at Starbucks in North Hollywood, where he lives: He’s the only one wearing a tie. It’s a navy diagonal striped tie, and he’s also got on a blue checked shirt and gray checked pants that sort of match. In halting accented English he explains why he and his wife, Regina — Rivka in Hebrew — decided to come to America.

“Russia still has anti-Semitism,” he says. “I felt people knew that I am Jewish,” he says, pointing to his kippah, a black felt one clipped almost imperceptibly amid the pile of thick sandy hair. He once saw graffiti outside his house that said, “Go home” with a Jewish Star.

Berkovich’s brother settled in Los Angeles in the 1990s — his wife had family here — and their parents followed a few years later. Berkovich made the move with his wife and son in 2001. Joining the synagogue choir did not settle the issue of making a living. At first, Berkovich worked as an accountant. He recently became funeral coordinator and cantor at Beth Olam, the Jewish section of Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

The Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education helped Berkovich enroll his son, Emmanuel, 12, in the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge.

“I am very grateful. I have a lot of things, and many people helped us,” he says. “We knew the United States was a free country but we didn’t realize how free. You can do whatever you want and practice whatever religion you want.”

This Rosh Hashanah, of course, Berkovich will be singing in the choir at Mogen David. In attendance will be his family — including his parents, wife and son and his brother’s family — and the clan will gather afterward for a meal.

Maybe it’s the language barrier or maybe Berkovich is not prone to introspection, but when asked if the High Holidays have any special personal meaning, he shrugs and smiles: “It’s a new year. It’s a great holiday. I don’t know how to explain it.”

He searches for the right words: “It’s like living. I like to live. I don’t know why.”

 

Meditate on Shabbat in the Old City


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Minutes from the Western Wall, brilliant bougainvillea grace the courtyard of an Old City apartment encased in Jerusalem’s signature stone. This is where participants in Sarah Yehudit Schneider’s women-only meditation retreats symbolically leave the rest of the week behind to embrace the healing, nurturing powers of Shabbat.

One powerful way to harness these transformative qualities of Shabbat is through stillness.

“Stillness resonates with stillness,” Schneider said. “Hashem ‘rested’ on Shabbat and ceased from creating form and vibration. When we ‘rest’ in silent retreat and meditation, we create a vessel for receiving the precious flow of Divine peace that is uniquely available on this holy day.”

Schneider is the founding director of A Still Small Voice, a correspondence school that provides weekly teachings in classic Jewish wisdom to subscribers around the world. The program has earned the endorsement of many respected leaders, including Rabbi Levi Y. Horowitz, the Bostoner rebbe; Rabbi Noah Weinberg, dean of Yeshivat Aish HaTorah; Rabbi David Refson, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Neve Yerushalayim; and Rabbi Meir Schuster of Heritage House.

Schneider, who says she “has pursued the study and practice of religion, meditation and comparative mysticism since the early 1970s,” moved to Jerusalem in 1981. She has studied at Neve Yerushalayim and with Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, a noted teacher of chasidut and kabbalah.

She teaches privately to individuals or small groups and is the author of “Eating as Tikkun,” “Purim Bursts ” and “Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine.”

Observing traditional halachic guidelines for Shabbat, Schneider said, usually fosters an atmosphere in which to access the “healing, guiding and enlightening potential inherent on Shabbat.”

Taking this experience to a heightened level is the goal of her meditation retreats, which are also halachic.

“There is a whole other wealth of ‘light’ and bountiful resource that … remains untapped. Shabbat is a healer. Shabbat is a counselor. Shabbat is a teacher. Shabbat is a loyal and beloved companion,” Schneider said. “It is a taste of the world to come — a taste of perfect clarity, health, knowledge and ecstatic satisfaction.”

The typical retreat takes place monthly before Rosh Chodesh. It begins two hours before Shabbat candlelighting and continues two hours after to allow for journal writing. Sitting and walking meditations complement traditional Shabbat davening. Save for meditation instruction and meals, when conversation focuses on the weekly Torah portion, the group maintains an otherwise silent environment.

Schneider leads participants through specific meditation exercises focusing on the Shem Havaya — the Ineffable Name — based on traditional Jewish sources. She also encourages participants to label thoughts that arise in meditation and, in a subsequent exercise, to respond to these thoughts with short affirmations or prayers, including the following examples:

All-encompassing prayer for those who come into one’s thoughts during meditation, whether for good or bad: Please Hashem, bring light and love, trust and healing into this place [or into that person].

A potentially helpful prayer for thinking or planning: Hashem, please engrave this thought into my memory so that when I sit down to plan it will be there.

Remembering (positive): Thank you for all the sweet experiences of my life but help me stay in the present.

Remembering (negative): Hashem, help me find a way of healing this memory, perhaps by just letting it go. In the meantime, help me to stay in the present.

These small retreats accommodate four or five guests. Advance registration is required. Fees include vegetarian/dairy meals and modest accommodations. It also requires shared responsibility for clean-up and other tasks. For more information, contact A Still Small Voice, Correspondence Teachings in Classic Jewish Wisdom, at POB 14503, Jerusalem, 91141; phone (02) 628-2988; fax (02) 628-8302, smlvoice@netvision.net.il or visit

Miriam Meditations


When you first move to Los Angeles from New York, it’s hard to immediately jump into the dating scene. In Manhattan, you get used to falling in love almost every other block — so easy is it to bump into yet another adorable woman outside say, the 92nd Street Y, Zabar’s, Makor, the midtown area. This makes for many a lovely stroll there.

You can’t converse so easily here. Sure, I find myself driving right next to many, many terrific-looking single women. At least they look single at the traffic light, applying makeup in their Cabriolet. Sometimes they sing along to their CD player or fix their hair in the rearview.

Can someone explain if I’m picking up the signals: If she’s talking on the phone, does this mean she’s too busy to roll down a damn window and say hello? I’m getting tired of waving my baseball cap.

Too much driving and dreaming makes me practically a native here, I suppose. When I complained to my friend Stuart back East, he said: “Slow down. Pull over. Take a class.”

Jewish meditation groups are popular now in many a yoga temple/locker room, so I signed up. My first instructor, Miriam, offered a unique “practice,” featuring a mix of Torah and hatha. This involved a lot of stretching and davening as a way of bringing us to mindfulness.

Alison, one of my classmates, said breathlessly how Miriam started a whole “Chasidica-aerobica” discipline years ago. I eagerly took to repeating over and over Miriam’s chant, “Om shalom.” I figured I’d attain enlightenment, or giggles.

After a session one evening, Miriam invited me to her little cottage in Venice and showed me how to touch and kiss her mezuzah. She said she liked “doing a mindless ritual every day” — one mindless ritual every day, but at the same time, “be aware” that she was doing it. “To be mindful that you’re doing it mindlessly.”

A fascinating woman, Miriam, and quite unlike most I’ve met here, at least on this side of Mandeville Canyon. A favorite quote of hers, from Abraham Joshua Heschel, was stuck onto her refrigerator in sweeping black calligraphic form: “It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a soul and a moment — and the three are always present.”

I tried for weeks to get my mind around this concept. But I was too busy to live in the present: this is Los Angeles. Even God would have to work his beard off for more exposure if he lived in Los Angeles.

But Miriam’s smile lifted the room like a chuppah. Her shoulders were softer than the pillows our forefathers rested upon in Jerusalem. And she looked beautiful carrying a candle, so I took her to join my family in San Diego for a seder. It’s a rather Reform affair — this year, we used the new “Dr. Seuss Haggadah”:

“One gefilte, two gefilte, three gefilte four/red horseradish, white horseradish/what do you mean you don’t want more?”

On the drive south, Miriam and I stopped to meditate, finding ourselves in our own little bubble of oneness right there at the Self-Realization Fellowship Center meditation garden in Encinitas. We sat on a bluff, the purple ocean and algae down below. After an hour, we reached a point where she said “I’m sorry” to a passing dragonfly. She taught me to let go of just about everything, except my family.

In Del Mar that weekend, Miriam showed us the deep mystery that is the real religious experience. Modern religion kills this feeling, she explained, showing how the triangles of the Star of David symbolize fire and water, with the heart center of it containing an ineffable mixture of the two. Nice.

My parents naturally loved her, and I still have the photographs to prove it. But after our return, via the San Joaquin Hills toll road, something changed. I was trying to sell out, nobody was buying, I had many irons in the fire and was getting burned by every one of them — well, you know. Life in L.A. By Shavuot, she found a new boyfriend, one who she claimed was a monk.

I said to her: “You mean a saint?” (Women often tell me how their previous boyfriends were “saints.”) Miriam said no, Jason was really a monk who lived in a monastery making beer. They were wilder than you think, these guys, she said. That hurt.

I think often now about a midrash that Miriam elucidated and performed for my family in San Diego. This was a “folkloric sentiment” that could point out, she said, the blessing of life. She stood before us, pulling two pieces of paper from her pocket. One said: “The world was created for me.” Which made us feel great. Then she held out the other piece of paper and read it: “I am nothing but dust.”


Hank Rosenfeld will appear on “The Savvy Traveler,” KPCC 89.3, May 18 at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Severe Financial Crisis Hits Metivta


Metivta, A Center for Contemplative Judaism, went into emergency survival mode late last month after the board discovered the organization was out of funds.

"The board is looking intensely at our budget and trying to pare down costs to the absolute minimum to give us a chance to survive for the next couple of months, while our board and community determine what is Metivta’s future, where we will go and what is our restated mission," said Lyle Poncher, Metivta board chairman.

Metivta is an organization dedicated to seeking spirituality in the Jewish tradition through meditation, text study and spiritual practices.

With no funds to pay its staff, the board dismissed Rabbi Rami Shapiro, president and rabbinic head of the organization, who took over a year ago after the retirement of Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, Metivta’s founder. Judy Gordon, the executive director who was hired two years ago, was also let go. Currently, a volunteer staffs the office.

"I think the Metivta board is handling this very maturely," said Shapiro, who plans to continue with freelance writing, lecturing and retreats. "The action that was necessary may look sudden, but it wasn’t. It was simply the bold response of the board taking its responsibility for Metivta’s survival seriously."

While Metivta regroups and tries to determine its future, it continues to operate with emergency contributions from board members. Some of Metivta’s ongoing classes and monthly Shabbat services are continuing, led by lay members.

The Spirituality Institute, a national one-year program for rabbis, cantors and lay leaders, has been placed under the umbrella of the Shefa Fund in Philadelphia, which will serve as the administrator until the program can achieve full independence.

Poncher said the board had been aware since September that Metivta was in severe financial straits, but it wasn’t clear how bad the situation was until a few weeks ago, when it became apparent that Metivta was insolvent.

"Our income did not remotely equal our expenses, and as soon as our board realized that, we stopped," Poncher said. "As soon as we became aware that this was the situation, we put an immediate hold on all operations."

Metivta’s 2001 budget was approximately $650,000, with income coming from grants, membership fees and donations.

In the last two years, Metivta has grown. It went from employing Omer-Man and an office manager to hiring Shapiro, Gordon, a bookkeeper, rabbinic intern and Rabbi Nancy Flam, who directed the Spirituality Institute. The institute supported itself through grants and tuition. The growth was intended to give Metivta a more national reach with institutes and retreats in different regions.

"Everyone hoped — the board, the community, Rami and Jonathan — we all hoped that this would allow Metivta to maintain its health at the local level and also to continue to grow its national programs," said Merryl Weber, a longtime board member.

Poncher said Shapiro, a lecturer and author with a national reputation in the Jewish spirituality realm, "had some wonderful ideas for programming that were very well-developed, but we were unable to find the support for them. Meanwhile we continued having to pay all of our overhead, and that drove us over the edge."

Board members are being very careful in assessing the situation. The professional staff had the responsibility for overseeing the budget.

The board has appointed two accountants from within the Metivta community to analyze the books and an organizational consultant to determine if or where the structure and chain of communication broke down. Among the items being looked at is whether grant money intended for the Spirituality Institute went to operating expenses.

Poncher said he has been in close contact with the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Goldman Foundation and the Righteous Persons Foundation, all of which were major contributors to Metivta.

He said the board is trying to be as open as possible with the Metivta and the greater Los Angeles community in handling the crisis and will reveal whatever the analysis turns up.

"In contemplative practice, it is important that whatever you say comes from the deepest, most honest part of you," Poncher said. "You try to interpret text and relate to fellow students and friends with absolute integrity, knowing at the same time you are human…. In this crisis, by and large, the board and community have exhibited tremendous integrity."

Omer-Man, who remains in retirement in Berkeley, has stepped back in to be a spiritual shepherd to his community during this crisis.

The challenge for his community, he said, will be to "look at the positive in people with whom you might be in conflict, to avoid lashon hara [gossip] and at the same time, to name the things that have to be named."

Omer-Man began teaching Jewish spirituality in Los Angeles approximately 20 years ago, soon after Hillel brought him from Israel to work with Jewish students who were in cults. He perceived the yearning for contemplative spirituality and worked to help students find it in Jewish tradition.

In 1991, he founded Metivta under Hillel’s auspices, and approximately five years ago, Metivta became independent. At the same time, Omer-Man started the Spirituality Institute.

His mission was largely successful, in that meditation and spiritual practice have become more mainstream than when he started Metivta 20 years ago, according to participants.

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel called her participation in the Spirituality Institute a "remarkable experience…. Metivta has been an incredibly important resource to the Jewish community."

For several years, Emanuel hosted a Metivta Shabbat meditation minyan once a month.

"The fact that Metivta exists has made a difference in many worship services at major congregations, including mine," Geller said. The meditation minyan "and the style of prayer at the service influenced other services at Temple Emanuel to be open to silence and meditation as part of regular prayer."

Poncher said that meditation and silence is helping the community through this disappointing and difficult period.

"Meditation isn’t about avoiding the world, it’s about seeing the world and yourself more clearly," Poncher said. "This is a very painful opportunity to do that."

Feast and Help Yourself


“Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage From Birth to Immortality” by Harold M. Schulweis. (UAHC Press, $12.95)

“Finding Each Other in Judaism” distills decades of those quiet, private moments when a curious, wounded or concerned congregant asks the rabbi: “What do I do now?”

How does a rabbi, a master and teacher, a living repository of ancient tradition and modern empathy, translate rituals both compelling and arcane into vibrant, meaningful, relevant life-markers?

Rabbi Harold Schulweis invites us into his study and speaks plainly about the ceremonies that mark Jewish life passages. How can divorced parents overcome their differences and distance when celebrating a child’s bar or bat mitzvah?

“Bar/bat mitzvah events have too often become occasions for acting out post-divorce enmity, wherein children are caught between the tugs of loyalty to both parents,” Schulweis writes. “Yet, some divorced parents have managed to put on a face of cordiality in the presence of the child, the family, friends, and the congregation. In one unforgettable instance, divorced parents who joined to receive the honor of an aliyah at their child’s bat mitzvah recited the blessings, then turned toward each other and embraced. The wonderment of the face of the child and her first smile on the pulpit that day spoke volumes.”

How can a seriously ill person pray?

“Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, ‘Whoever believes in miracles is a fool, and whoever does not believe in miracles is an atheist.’ We are neither fools nor atheists.”

How can we mourn? “Not the wisest/ Not the smartest/ Not the kindest/ Not the most useful/ Not the richest/ Not the most successful/ Not the tallest/ Not the bravest/ But my own.”

At the heart of every ceremony, central to each of the meditation-poem-prayers that Rabbi Schulweis presents, lies the Image of God in which each person is created. In his meditation, “Facing Sickness,” he writes, “My God manifest/ Through unknown researchers,/ Physicians and nurses attending severed wounds,/ Helping recovery./ My God revealed/ Through family and friends,/ Prayers added to my own,/ Transfusing will./ My God/ Within my tradition/ My God whom I do not fear/ In whose goodness I trust.”

God comes into the world through the actions and kindness of one human toward another. In those acts, we bear witness to God’s Image in our moral deeds, the rabbi maintains.

Six short chapters, each similarly structured, discuss the traditional life-cycle events (birth and brit, bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, death and bereavement), events not usually considered life-cycle passages (illness and recovery, divorce) and situations often overlooked as part of public ritual (conversions and family reconciliations). Each chapter opens with a concise and succinct presentation of important rabbinic ideas about the particular event and is followed by a collection of poem-prayers. The meditations are lovely pieces, although occasionally a bit clunky. Not only do they have value on their own, but a piece could help a celebrant personalize seemingly distant and inapplicable rituals.

In the introductory chapter, Rabbi Schulweis develops a demanding yet fulfilling theology: Through rituals we overcome our existential isolation. Reaching out to family, friends, and community, present and past, we develop relationships in which we can imitate God. While we strive to see the Image of God in all, “it is not the face but the back of God that is imitated. God is Imageless, but God’s ways are discernible and emulatable.”

Rabbi Schulweis mourns the great rifts that tear at the American Jewish cultural fabric. There are those who celebrate rites without any real passage (Rabbi Schulweis recounts Kafka’s estrangement from a father who possessed only, in Kafka’s words, an “insignificant scrap of Judaism” and Gershom Scholem’s father’s use of Shabbat candles to light his cigar with an ersatz blessing.)

Then there are those who pass from one stage of life to another with no marker except the calendar, the owners of riteless passages.

Estranged too are the private and public realms. Traditional Jewish liturgy is communal, its language collective and plural. Increasingly, synagogues are asked by congregants to address personal as opposed to public needs.

Rabbi Schulweis suggests that we can integrate the self and community with a sensitive and close reading of Hillel’s legendary aphorism “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I?”

Rabbi Schulweis’ slim volume can help these valiant and necessary efforts. As a supplement to any prayerbook, as a supplement for anyone who prays on these occasions, Rabbi Schulweis has added a valuable and moving text to our shelves.

Exercising the Mind


As we enter the new millennium, fitness professionals are becoming more aware of the movement toward spiritual forms of exercise. Programs like Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and body work are common in fitness clubs and community centers. To keep up with today’s stressful lifestyles, we must do more than increase our heart rates and pump iron to maintain maximum health. Mind and body fitness can facilitate this by achieving inner balance and harmony in mind, body and spirit.

One way to practice mind and body fitness is through meditation. Methods of meditation were used in ancient Judaic times by focusing on certain words or prayers. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has written two books on Jewish meditation: "Jewish Meditation, a Practical Guide" and "Meditation and the Bible."

According to Kaplan, Judaism produced one of the more important systems of meditation. "There is also evidence that during the period when the Bible was written [until approximately 400 b.c.e.], meditation was practiced by a large proportion of the Israelite people," he maintains.

Today, meditation is becoming much more mainstream and has crossed religious barriers once associated with it. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, founder and rabbi emeritus of Metivta, a center for contemplative Judaism, describes meditation as a "profound and demanding practice" which "clears the obstacles in our mind, to help us perceive the underlying realities, the divine."

Meditation produces a state of deep relaxation that has been known to reverse the stress process. Focus is key. By focusing on our breath or a mantra, we are able to quiet our minds and still our constant chatter. Meditation should be thought of as an exercise program. You would not run on the treadmill once a week and expect any results. The same is true of meditation. A regular meditation program of 10 minutes a day will produce psychological as well as physiological benefits.

The following is a basic meditation exercise for beginners:

Sit or lie in a comfortable position.

Close your eyes and relax.

Focus on your breath entering and leaving your body. (Place your hands on your abdomen; feel it expand and collapse with each breath).

At the exhalation, count each breath, from 1 to 10; repeat.

Repeat a phrase that has meaning to you. It could be a phrase from the Bible, such as Deuteronomy 4:15: "Take you, therefore, good heed of your souls." It could also be a single word, such as "Shema."

Continue the meditation for 10 to 20 minutes. If the mind begins to wander, calmly direct it back to the task.

Nighttime Devotion


“Entering the Temple of Dreams: Jewish Prayers, Movements and Meditations for the End of the Day” by Tamar Frankiel and Judy Greenfeld. (Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.95)

Jews have a long history of publishing various types of devotional literature. Historically, just as men and women lived in different religious circles, so too was devotional literature generally, but not exclusively, targeted to one gender.

During the past few years, an effort has been made to retrieve women’s devotional literature and present it to a contemporary Jewish world. Works like the late Norman Tarnor’s “A Book of Jewish Women’s Prayers” and Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s “Out of the Depths I Call to You: A Book of Prayers for the Married Jewish Woman” offer some of the most moving and powerful of the women’s prayer traditions, called techinot. Traditionalist Jewish publishers, such as Artscroll, have catalogues full of devotional novella, short stories, and tales recounting inspirational deeds and lives.

Frankiel and Greenfeld surely did not mean to write a women’s devotional, as such, but they seem to have caught the spirit of that form of literature.

Women’s devotional literature occupied a distinct and important area in Jewish life. In traditional society, women were more or less locked out of both the intellectual traditions of the beit midrash and the communal prayer traditions of the beit tefilah. But Jewish women even then were not passive, not content to let their intellectual and spiritual juices just quietly simmer away. Instead, through devotional literature, private prayer, home ritual and the like, they created for themselves an important and vibrant arena.

Hence women, and men writing for a women’s market, developed a devotional literature for the relatively uneducated. These women certainly knew Jewish ritual and prayer, but not in depth and not through the intensive study that the traditional Jewish world would have most boys aspire to. So a literature grew that finds an echo in Frankiel’s and Greenfeld’s book.

“Entering the Temple of Dreams” has a melange of purposes: part exegesis; part introductory mysticism; part meditation technique; part self-guide in the conduct of home liturgy, with a dash of New Age technique; Chassidic-style storytelling; and religious apologetics.

One senses two hands at work in this project, with perhaps different agendas. Frankiel, an academic, writer and active teacher in the Los Angeles Orthodox community, seems to provide the traditionalist approach. Greenfeld, apparently the model for the movement choreographed to the five-part bedtime prayers, is a cantorial soloist (and obviously not Orthodox). A point of unity seems to be a shared sense of mystical experience, a concern with dreams as a portal to mystical experience, and a common quest to find a woman’s religious voice as part of Jewish life. It is gratifying to see such collaborations across denominational lines.

In the first chapter, a conceptual framework is given, with a brief outline of how Jewish sources have viewed sleep, dreams and the like. Unfortunately, it is also the most confusing chapter, blending apologetics with citations from scientific sleep research. Sometimes the notes are more illuminating than the text. At other times, they make blanket statements without citing any source at all.

But this is not an academic or even a scholarly book. It is an attempt to reintroduce a powerful prayer ritual to an audience of spiritual seekers. As such, it draws from those components of Jewish religious life that seem to have the greatest resonance these days: mysticism and kabbalah.

For their endeavor to bring to a wider, generally uninformed Jewish population the great wonders and beauties of Jewish religious life and ritual, Frankiel and Greenfeld deserve accolades. Particularly strong are the chapter-by-chapter exegeses of the bedtime prayers: while perhaps drawing a bit too heavily from Zohar, their short, well-written and moving explanations of these five different prayers are a good introduction to the structure and sense of Jewish prayer from a Chassidic-kabbalistic perspective.

The Hebrew typesetting, translations and transliterations of the five prayers are very well done. As such, this would be an easy book to keep by the bedside precisely for what it teaches: not only how to say the bedtime “Sh’ma” but why it is not just for kids but for all of us, as we wander off into our nighttime lives of dreams, angels and wistfulness.

The book is not without its problems. The technique and psychological material reads like so many of the other free-ranging meditation, mystical, spiritualistic, New Age books that populate the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. This is a good book to read in bits and pieces, and somewhat selectively. Some of it works, but not all. Perhaps a dose of Jewish rationality, so speak, would have helped focus the book a bit better. Nevertheless, for what it does offer, Frankiel and Greenfeld give us a book that can be turned to repeatedly — in fact, nightly.