Turn the Tide


One of the best things about being the editor of a Jewish paper is I get to meet a lot of Jews.

Looking back over the past year, I see it’s a fascinating perk of the job.

Just in the past two weeks, for instance, I danced (poorly) at the Chabad Telethon when the tote board hit $3.4 million, met with two powerful state legislators, hobnobbed with celebrities and entertainment industry machers, lunched with Israeli diplomats and Jewish professionals and educators, cocktailed with Israeli diplomats and Persian businessmen — you get the idea.

Old, young, secular, black hat, poor, rich, gay, straight, engaged, apathetic, famous and, in one case, infamous: When I say I meet a lot of Jews, I mean a lot of different kinds of Jews. It is a pleasure too few of us enjoy. As Jewish life in Los Angeles has grown and diversified, it has also become increasingly particularized.

Part of this phenomenon is reflected in the recently released National Jewish Population Survey, which shows that a majority of Jewish institutions serve a minority of Jews: synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and federations draw about 40 percent of the Jewish population, and the number of truly active participants is probably far less. That means there is a minority of Jews engaged in what we call, with increasing optimism and inaccuracy, "the Jewish community." Yet most Jews remain outside.

Even among Jews who do, as the jargon goes, "affiliate," the distance among them is great. Of this there is no measurement in the NJPS, but I can tell you anecdotally it is a common phenomenon, and a sad one.

There are 600,000 Jews in Los Angeles, and most of us get to know only one kind among them. Because we are not just Jews, but human, our knee-jerk reaction to these other Jews is to regard them as the Other. The natural result of joining one group is to look askance at all the ones you opted out of. When I told some people I spent last Sunday evening with Chabad, they regarded me as either a dupe or a traitor. I’ve told others about the preschool at Kol Ami, a gay and lesbian synagogue, where children (many adopted from the four corners of the world) discover Judaism as a faith of warmth and inclusiveness — and you’d think I was speaking of the Amalekites. The Jewish communities of greater Los Angeles rarely touch, and even more rarely interact. Many of us don’t approve of the Other, as if we are viciously competitive teams in a regional league, and our common sport is Jewish.

So there are two problems here. On the one hand, we have divided ourselves into Jews on the inside of Jewish life and Jews on the outside, the affiliated and the unaffiliated. On the other hand, within the affiliated groups, we have divided ourselves from one another.

"Do not separate yourself from the community," said the sage Hillel, "and do not be sure of yourself until you are dead." Every day I see any number of examples of us doing just the opposite.

What we don’t seem to understand is that while Judaism may offer immutable rituals and beliefs (itself a notion open to challenge), humans by nature approach faith and ritual as part of their journey through life. The extent to which we become partners in shaping and encouraging someone’s journey to be a Jewish one depends on how open we are to understanding and participating in the Other’s journey. If you want to pull your friend out of the mud, said a great rabbi, first you have to step into the mud yourself.

The nature of religious experience in our postmodern world is personal, mutable and somewhat mysterious. As our choices and freedoms expand, our varieties of Jewish experience will become even more varied. We will have to fight against our instinct to disparage the new and different. Few among us adhere to a form of Judaism that some other Jews, at some point in history, didn’t regard as treif.

Without stretching beyond our immediate Jewish community — whether that community is a mega-shul, a mini-shtiebel, a social action group or a choir — we are unwittingly participating in the diminishment of Jewish life. "If you stop dialogue and debate, you start talking to yourself," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, "and that is the first sign of insanity." It is also a ticket to self-righteousness and extremism, something we’ve seen enough of in 5763.

Meeting Jews is easy — this town is full of them. Meeting and getting to know and appreciate different kinds of Jews is a challenge, but a crucial one.

Try it once this year.

Shanah Tovah.

On The Road


Here’s what you miss when you go on an organized mission to Israel: You miss the closed-top market in Rosh Ayin, where sellers out-shout
each other over megaphones, "Underwear, girls’ underwear, three for 10 shekels."

If you participate in an "emergency weeklong mission" — where you eat in your hotel and other tourist spots — you might miss the fresh souk limonana (a thick, icy, Slurpee lemonade with grated spearmint) and the toasted cheese and tomato sandwich cobbled together on fake kosher-for-Passover "bread" made from matzah meal, and the guy who sells them to you while making fun of your Hebrew — which has somehow deteriorated to your first-grade teacher’s bad American accent.

"Are you a new immigrant?" he asks, and you’re amazed at his chuzpah-like optimism, his complete faith that even at times like these he believes — perhaps correctly? — someone would still move to Israel in its perpetual state of war. You want to tell him you’re a tourist, because you hope it would make him feel almost as good to know that at least people are still visiting Israel, but it’s more complicated than that.

"I used to live here, but now I live in Los Angeles."

"You lived here? What happened to your Hebrew?"

"It will come back soon," you tell him, and hope that like your sleeping pattern, somehow, your language will adjust.

If you went on a "solidarity" mission to visit terror victims/Hebron/Ramallah — depending on which political group you’d like to bolster — you might miss the sandwich guy’s friend, who takes you by the elbow and steers you to the bitan ha’lo ye’uman (the unbelievable stand) of cloths from India. He has gauzy, colorful curtains, tablecloths, napkins and runners embroidered in gold and silver, which sell for $100 at Pottery Barn in the United States, but are on sale today for 20 shekels ($5). You quickly buy the last red ones before the Israeli woman does, and convince the busy merchant (who’s eyeing the two teenage girls on Pesach vacation) to sell you the blue-and-gold pillowcase without the bulky pillow.

"But it’s my last one," he says.

"Exactly, then why do you need a floor sample?" you think is what you said in Hebrew.

You hand him the 30 shekels even though you’re positive he’s ripping you off; despite what Eric Idle says to Graham Chapman in "The Life of Brian," Middle Easterners don’t like to bargain all that much. But you have to leave the incredible booth before your house will look like Calcutta, and because you have to catch the train to Tel Aviv since you promised people at home you wouldn’t take buses.

If you were on a tight security mission to Israel to meet with mayors and ministers and hear the speeches of the particular group that sponsored you, you might miss the experience of trying to tremp (hitchhike) from the gas station where your friend drops you at instead of leaving you at the deserted train station. You might not know that rush of excitement at the possibility of getting a free ride with a cool couple or family and learning the secret of what Israelis talk about these days. But you wouldn’t miss much because the only people stopping are skeezy Israeli men who ask as their car slows, "Where do you want to go?" because they’d probably go out of their way to take the American girl in the short dress even if it wasn’t en route. No thanks, you tell the third guy and flag a cab.

If you spent your week in Israel visiting tourist sites in a van, you would definitely miss the Yemenite cab driver in Rosh Ayin who tells you he has 10 children — eight daughters and two sons – and 21 grandchildren, who all came to his big house (four bedrooms!) for Pesach, where he had his yearly custom of slaughtering a sheep for the seder.

"The sheep costs 400 shekels ($85) and it’s worth it," he explains at your exclamation of horror as he discusses the different parts of the sheep. "I give the head to the slaughterer, as a reward," he tells you, adding that for himself he keeps the innards — kidneys, liver, etc.

He came to Israel from Yemen with his parents ("May they rest in peace") when he was 6, and moved to Rosh Ayin, which was mostly Yemenite, until foreigners started moving in some 10 years ago. "At first there were big conflicts," he explains to you, dangerously taking his eyes and hands off the wheel to turn around and gesture the clasped hands sign of confrontation, "because they always think they know better than us, but in the end we learned to live together."

The kippah-wearing driver doesn’t talk about politics with you except to say that some of his kids are religious, some aren’t, but he doesn’t care, "as long as they’re happy." Maybe he would have talked politics, if you hadn’t already arrived in Tel Aviv.

If you went on one of the many missions to Israel, it wouldn’t be a bad thing, though you’d probably miss out on actually experiencing Israel — but I guess it would certainly be better than not going at all.