Obituaries: Oct. 28-Nov. 3, 2011


Esther Irene Alexander died Oct. 4 at 103. Survived by daughter Marsha (Allan) Muller; 1 grandchild; sister Sylvia Broday. Hillside

Fay Amster died Oct. 11 at 91. Survived by daughters Linda (Jack) Goldman, Arlene Saretsky; 3 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Sheila Rose Amsterdam died Oct. 11 at 84. Survived by husband David; daughters Fiona (Tommy) Steele, Lisa (Matthew) Friedman; son Joel (Amy); 9 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Judith Ann Arnold died Oct. 10 at 68. Survived by husband Myron; son Brian (Naomi); 1 grandchild; sister Sandra (Arthur) Skop. Mount Sinai

Martin Baer died Oct. 11 at 80. Survived by companion Mary Levy; son Alan.

Yetta Bates died Oct. 15 at 98. Survived by daughter Marlene Berman; 2 grandchildren; 5 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Edward Norman Blair died Oct. 11 at 65. Survived by wife Lucille; daughters Xenia Bianca, Bonnie Maria (Eric) Mauilleron; 2 grandchildren. Hillside

Elaine Breslow died Oct. 11 at 65. Survived by husband Warren; son Jamie; 3 grandchildren; sister Barbara (Ron) Lerner. Hillside

Virginia Conae died Sept. 30 at 93. Survived by daughters Shirley (Mark) Wold, Madeline Gordon; son Martin; 8 grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Margaret Danies died Sept. 23 at 97. Survived by daughters Eileen (Joel) Yager, Emily; 4 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild. Malinow and Silverman

Renee Diamond died Oct. 10 at 80. Survived by husband Arthur; daughter Stefanie; son David (Amy); 5 grandchildren.  Mount Sinai

Howard Deutsch died Sept. 22 at 93. Survived by wife Grace; stepdaughter Diane (Steve) Siegel; stepson Kenneth (Evelyn) Hausman; 3 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Martin Feldman died Oct. 13 at 81. Survived by daughter Wendy (David) Perlmutter; son Alan (Barbara); 3 grandchildren. Hillside

Herman Fleisher died Oct. 10 at 90. Survived by daughters Debra (Michael) Buter, Judy Levy;  2 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild. Hillside

Eugene Foxman died Oct. 11 at 86. Survived by wife Judith; daughters Sarah (Tim) Pattison, Alice (Burton) Cusner, Sophie (Devin) Cutler; sons Ernest, Alan (Irene) Magat, Eric (Cindy) Scott, Dana (Cheriel) Magat; 20 grandchildren; 5 great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Phyllis Friedel died Sept. 19 at 82. Survived by daughters Randi Sherman, Lynn Gellman; 4 granchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Beatrice Gersh died Oct. 9 at 87. Survived by sons Robert (Linda), David (Susan); 5 grandchildren; brothers Leon, Charles Aberle.  Hillside

Josephine Hortense Gorman died Oct. 8 at 91. Survived by son Robert (Beth) Owens; 2 grandchildren; sister Rochelle Lowenfeld. Hillside

Rose Green died Oct. 10 at 84. Survived by daughter Deborah (Ross Redding) Steinberg; sons Stephen (Leinaal) Kineret, Mitch Reed Steinberg; 6 grandchildren. Hillside

Bella Greenberg died Oct. 12 at 93. Survived by husband Seymour; daughter Sandra (Ric) Royce; son Lawrence (Arlene); 6 grandchildren; 14 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Sylvia Greenberg died Sept. 24 at 89. Survived by husband Nathan; daughter Linda Miller; son Steven (Roberta); 2 grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Sylvia Greenberg died Oct. 13 at 97. Survived by sister Caryn Manabach. Mount Sinai

Gladyce Karlin died Sept. 29 at 91. Survived by sons Andrew, Robert, Peter; 4 grandchildren.  Malinow and Silverman

Gerry Katz died Oct. 5 at 96. Survived by daughter Sandy (Stan) Melnick; son Brian (Karen) Franklin; 6 grandchildren. Hillside

Bruce Klein died Oct. 10 at 47. Survived by wife Laura; daughter Samantha; sister Karen (Ira) Chazan. Malinow and Silverman

Monte Krimston died Aug. 20 at 77. Survived by wife Fran; daughter Joan (David Korduner); son Josh (Celine); 5 grandchildren. Hillside

Ruven Kurtz died Oct. 13 at 65. Survived by daughter Limore; son Amir (Jenn); 3 grandchildren; sister Ahuva (David) Erez. Mount Sinai

Frederick Levine died Oct. 6 at 84. Survived by wife Helen; daughters Julie (Mark) Wasserman, Lori (Mark) Wyman; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Anina Louis died Oct. 4 at 62. Survived by motHer Rochelle; father Manuel; brother Craig. Malinow and Silverman 

Elizabeth Meyers died Oct. 9 at 100. Survived by nephew Leon Metz. Mount Sinai

Joel Miller died Oct. 5 at 61. Survived by sister Ronnie Gerstein.

Paul R. Miller died Sept. 14 at 82. Survived by son Steven; sister Diane J. Sweet. Riverside National Cemetery

Leonard Pill died Oct. 4 at 91. Survived by wife Marceline; daughters Andria (Louis) Senini, Deborah Taggart; son Robert (Trisha). Hillside

Roselyn Poe died Oct. 8 at 85. Survived by sister Frances Linsk. Malinow and Silverman

Sylvia R. Radiloff died Oct. 10 at 86. Survived by daughter Nancy (Daniele) Capisani; son Steven (Milla); 4 grandchildren; sister Loretta Berker. Mount Sinai

Jacqueline Resnick died Sept. 26 at 78. Survived by daughter Pamela Rosenthal; 1 grandchild.  Hillside

Dan Ross died Sept. 26 at 94. Survived by daughter Carol (Robert) Edmonston; son Steven (Mariane); 1 grandchild.  Hillside

Lina Rouss died Sept. 28 at 91. Survived by daughter Ellen; sons Jeff (Sylvia), Larry (Debbie; 9 grandchildren; 5 great-grandchildren. Hillside

Rose Rudis died Oct. 12 at 92. Survived by daughter Esther; sons Alfred (Ruth), David (Pauline); 5 grandchildren; 4 great-grandchildren.  Mount Sinai

Beverly Ryan died Oct. 6 at 79. Survived by daughters Ruth (Michael) Weintraub, Claire (Sandy) Warshaw, Kathryn Hicklin, Deborah Lipson; 7 grandchildren; 1 great-grandchild; sister Patricia (Dwayne) Hough; brother Ronald (Grace) Hendrick. Mount Sinai

Morrie Sage Schrage died Oct. 7 at 80. Survived by sons Lenny (Tema), Joe (Kimberly), Mike (Cathi); 8 grandchildren; sister Helen. Mount Sinai

Ruth Schreiber died Sept. 25 at 88. Survived by daughters Lori (Evan) Klase, Nancy (Steve) Marcus; 4 grandchildren; 3 great-grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Leonard H. Stein died Oct. 11 at 77. Survived by son Jason (Keri); 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Marilyn Sternfeld died Oct. 2 at 82. Survived by daughters Ruth (Martin) Knapp, Sharon (David); sons Jeffrey (Janice), Thomas (Barbara), Paul; 9 grandchildren.  Hillside

Shirley Strozenberg died Oct. 13 at 103. Survived by daughter Helen; son Abraham.

Minnette Talpis died Oct. 14 at 91. Survived by daughter Marcie (Mark) Feldman; 2 grandchildren. Mount Sinai

This time, I remember


We’re sitting around my parents’ dining room in Century City for Shabbat dinner, and the conversation veers toward our childhoods in Iran.

My cousin, who’s a few years older than I (though you’d never guess it by looking at her, because she has that remarkable ability to forgive the world instantly for all its cruelties), is talking about the big house on Shah Reza Street where I grew up — how grand and magnificent it had seemed to her in those years, how every time she came over with her parents and sisters, she felt awed and startled by the vast garden with the many pools, the high, forbidding walls of yellow bricks, the outsized halls and heavy velvet drapes and 12-foot-high French doors that opened onto tiled balconies with wrought-iron railings.

Across the table from her, another cousin, this one from the other side of the family, concurs. “We were scared to talk or move or, God forbid, play there when we came over,” she says. “That just wasn’t the kind of place where you did silly childish things,” she says. “It seemed like everything that happened there was serious and important and dramatic.”

They go on like this for a few minutes while my mother fusses with the dinner.

They’re playing that “Do you remember?” game I dread because I’m so bad at it, because I don’t remember anything — ever — unless I’m writing about it; it’s like I read a book of stories once and memorized every line, and after that I stopped seeing or learning anything ever again. So I never participate in these reminiscences and certainly never encourage them; I try to slip away unnoticed when the conversation begins or, if that’s not an option, I explain that I’ve been in a coma my whole life, I’m brain-damaged, yes, I’m sure I was there, right along with you, when all this happened but I might as well have been on Mars for all the impression it’s left.

Except this time, I know exactly what they’re all talking about.

I remember the house — every corner and back door and hidden stairway in it, every ancient tree and life-sized statue and fresh-water pool in the yard, every rusted metal gate, razor-wired brick wall, secret passageway and narrow tunnel and dark alley. I remember all the rooms, the kitchens, the servants’ quarters. The French, hand-carved furniture, Czech crystals, Persian rugs, Italian marble floors. To me, it had the aura of a place in decline — a fortress of pride and vanity, built with the kind of care and attention that implies unwavering faith, unabashed arrogance, a certain confidence in one’s immortality.

Built by my grandfather when his children were very young, it had stood stalwart against the decades and the many turns of history, resisted the carnage of time and the pull of entropy, the many upheavals in the city’s constitution, the decay of the streets, the onslaught of traffic, the mass immigration from the countryside to the city. And yes, it was indeed the scene of great drama and outsized stories, not the kind of place that tolerated childhood. So when my forever-young cousin turns to me with a bemused smile and asks, “Do you remember?” I can actually say “Yes, I do remember, this one I remember well.”

What I can’t say is how shocked I am to learn that we all have such similar impressions, all these years later, of the house on Shah Reza Street. That I never thought anyone else would remember the place as I did, never knew how much of what I remembered was factually correct. I never knew how much larger, more theatrical that house had become in my imagination, how different — smaller — I would find it when I went back to Iran.

It’s been 30 years since I saw the house, I want to say, and this is the first time I realize that other people saw it as well, and perhaps in the same way. It’s been 30 years since I left Iran, and I still know I’m going back some day, because I have to see that house again, to stand before the yard door and discover if it’s indeed 12 feet high, or if I’ve imagined it so, to ring the doorbell and see if I can hear its chime echo up and down the street. Everything else I knew or thought I knew about Iran has changed with time; even my sense of belonging, my sense of familiarity with the people and the language and the customs of the place, has faded beyond recognition, but somehow, I know it will all come back the minute I see the house, that I will recapture all my lost memories, be able to tell truth from fiction, to put together the many pieces of myself that now lie across the landscape of time.

I would go back to the house some day, I’ve always thought, and no matter how old it’s become, how many other families have lived in it and how many changes it has undergone, I will walk into the first floor hallway and smell my grandfather’s cigarette smoke, climb the steps to the second floor and find my older sister, so quiet and innocent the teachers call her “the holy mother,” listening to Barry White while she does her math homework. I will walk into the bedroom where the three of us girls sleep and see my old bed just where I left it the day we flew out of Iran for what turned out to be the last time. I will open the closets and find my old clothes, pull the drawers and rescue my plastic dolls from their 30-year slumber.

My childhood. My parents’ youth. My little sister with the hazel eyes and the red hair and the tiny hands holding popsicle sticks as she walked around the house on scorching summer afternoons, the orange ice melting against her impossibly white skin. My beautiful aunt with the dark brown eyes and the short, short skirts, the red patent-leather boots, the fearlessness with which she announced one day she was going to America — “to New York, or L.A., or whatever,” she said — to study.

Half an hour into the meal, my mother has finally finished running back and forth into the kitchen, bringing out a new dish every three minutes and chiding the kids for not eating enough, all this dieting will make you sick your bones will hollow out you won’t be able to study your skin will turn grey hasn’t anyone warned you about the dangers of malnutrition?

“You have,” my little niece whispers quietly, “just about every week.”

My mother ignores the response, sits down at the table and overhears the conversation about the house. She puts a plateful of rice in front of my younger son and says, as casually as if she were still talking about food, “They tore it down.”

The others are too engrossed in the chatter to take note of what has been said, but I turn to her and ask, “What’s been torn down?”

“The house,” she says. “They tore it down.”

She has said this too matter-of-factly, with too little emotion, so I don’t believe we’re talking about the same place.

“What house?” I ask. “Who’s ‘they’?”

At the other end of the table, my cousins and sisters have stopped talking; my daughter, who’s been taking Farsi lessons at UCLA and is therefore more attentive than usual to family talk (what she calls “Persians’ strange stories”) is looking at me as if to glean the importance of some house being torn down somewhere in the world.

“I don’t know who ‘they’ are,” my mother says. “But they tore down the house on Shah Reza Street. My brother drove by the other day and saw it was all gone, the whole place has been leveled, probably a while ago already.”

For a moment, no one speaks. I don’t know what the others are thinking but for me, the news has repercussions greater than can be processed in the course of one evening or one whole day. I’m not sure what it means, or why I hadn’t been told sooner, or why my parents don’t seem particularly disturbed by this.

I don’t know why my sisters don’t ask, why my cousins slowly pick up the conversation and go on in the same vein, playing the “Do you remember” game about a place that, until minutes ago, had been eternal, everlasting, my true North.

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

Young Manhattanite’s diary of old is new again


In New York, even our trash is full of treasure.

One fall morning in 2003, Lily Koppel left her Riverside Drive apartment building, a bit late for work at The New York Times, and was struck by the sight of a large dumpster outside the entranceway. Piled high were about 50 old steamer trunks plastered with vintage labels of stylish hotels and cruise lines. When her curiosity drove her to climb right into the dumpster, passersby didn’t seem to notice, but her doorman warned her to get down. But she instead tried prying open the trunks, and soon was excavating a flapper outfit, beaded evening purses, a psychoanalyst’s files, matchboxes from Schrafft’s, a gold tube of lipstick in “Bachelor’s Carnation,” an official Mah Jongg card — clues to life among a certain set in the 1920s and 30s.

Koppel pulled out what she could, called The Times to send a photographer and then tried contacting the New York Historical Society, aware that trash collectors would soon be coming for this unburied treasure. Then she climbed back in and hunted some more.

She learned that her building was expanding its bike room and had cleaned out an area where these trunks, whose owners had moved on, had sat unopened for decades. Amid the chaos, a building porter told her that he had found a young girl’s diary and gave her the small book with its crackling leather cover and chrome lock. None of her scavenged items affected her like the diary; the young girl’s voice transported her to another era, yet was strangely familiar.

The diary sat on Koppel’s night table for several years, and she’d read it often. The diarist, whose name, Florence Wolfson, was inscribed inside, received the book on her 14th birthday, and wrote a few lines in it every day from 1929 to 1934. To Koppel, Wolfson seemed more sophisticated than her years, overflowing with passion, daring and intense feelings; full of literary ambition and craving adventure and romance. This potent whiff of another life reminded the young Chicago-born reporter of her own experiences in getting to know New York. Both women were painters as well as writers who felt the need to create beauty while trying to carve out their own paths.

“I felt like we almost could have been the same person, separated by 75 years,” Koppel says in an interview.

The only clues Koppel had to the identity of her doppelganger was a newspaper clipping tucked inside announcing that Wolfson had won a state scholarship at age 15. Through an encounter with a private investigator who contacted Koppel after a story of hers appeared in The Times, she was able to trace the writer, through birth records and telephone books, to her winter residence in Florida. Three years after she first climbed into the dumpster, Koppel called Florence Wolfson Howitt and told her that she thought she had some things that belonged to her. Howitt was astounded that this reporter had tracked her down and that she had the red leather diary she had long forgotten about.

After they met, Koppel wrote a story about the diary for The Times, which generated much attention, including calls from literary agents and editors who suggested that Koppel write a book. Working with the diary entries and long interviews with Howitt, Koppel has crafted a textured and intimate coming-of-age story and a very uptown portrait of Jewish life, “The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal” (Harper).

Some of the diarist’s entries have the feel of a writer with the expectation of a future reader — that she wrote these sometimes-cryptic notes to herself but also hoped to share her dreams and inner life.

Florence’s prose “possessed the literary equivalent of perfect pitch,” Koppel writes.

The book presents a meeting of selves between the young Florence and the woman she would become. The daughter of immigrant parents — her father became a prominent doctor, her mother a sought-after dressmaker, the beautiful and independent Florence went to lunch and tea at Schrafft’s and dancing at the El Morocco and the Hotel Pennsylvania. She rode horseback in Central Park, summered in the Catskills (her arrival at the Spring Lake Hotel caused a stir, as though a movie star had arrived), wandered for hours at the Metropolitan Museum, attended Hunter College, where she served as editor-in-chief of the prestigious publication, “The Echo,” and hosted a literary salon in her parents’ apartment. After receiving her master’s degree, she sailed to Europe, where she had a romance with an Italian count, among others.

While she rebelled against her parents’ expectations — they wanted her to marry a nice Jewish doctor — she did end up fulfilling many of their wishes. In fact, she eloped with her husband just as he finished dental school. They first met when she was 13 and on summer vacation in the Catskills, where he was working. His father, a rabbi, came from her mother’s village in Europe. Their first kiss is mentioned in the diary.

“Florence’s metropolis was a vast theater, like one of the lost wonders of the world. It was alive with writers, painters, playwrights and jazz. Ideas and art mattered. People rushed to the city because the mere thought of it burned a hole in their souls. My New York seemed out of tune, on its way to become a strip mall filled with Paris Hilton look-alikes,” Koppel writes.

When Koppel first visited Florence in her Westport, Conn., home, she found her “unexpectedly glamorous.” Florence greeted her and soon sat down to reread her words, pausing to read out loud lines like “Have stuffed myself with Mozart and Beethoven — I feel like a ripe apricot — I’m dizzy with the exotic.”

“You’ve brought back my life,” Florence told Koppel, and then wondered how she had led an ordinary life, rather than the creative endeavors she imagined.

These days, the two women get together every few weeks and have done appearances together in connection with the book, including the “Today” show. Koppel now sees Florence as a best friend, confidant, guide, the Jewish grandmother she never had.

Koppel asks, “How often do you get to know someone as a young woman and then meet them at 90?”

When I met Koppel in her lower Manhattan loft — she left the Upper West Side several years ago — she quoted lines from the diary with ease. A reclaimed trunk from the dumpster serves as a coffee table and two others are piled against a wall. She brings out the actual diary, a hand-sized book whose leather cover is peeling, its brass lock still in place. The pages — with five entries for each of five years on each page — speak of adventures, and now, represent a deep connection between two writers.

The diarist has outlived all the friends and lovers in the pages. Her husband died two years ago.

Florence wrote a lot for magazines early in her marriage and contributed the foreword to the book. There, she answers the question that immediately arises for readers: How does she feel, at 92, about having her intimate thoughts, once under lock and key, exposed to the public?

“Young Florence would have agreed that this is a positive. She would have said, ‘Go for it.’ It has been fun, it has added zest to my life, it has brought back some of the passions of my youth and made me feel more alive than I have in years. I am probably one of the most excited old women in the world.”

In a telephone interview, she said that when she first saw the diary again, she could hardly believe that she wrote it. Now, she really appreciates the respect she is garnering.

Before I left Koppel’s apartment, she pulled out a tangerine bouclé coat with a flared skirt and a single Bakelite button, its Bergdorf Goodman label still intact, and slips it on. This vintage find from the dumpster looks brand new and fits as though it were made for her.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Passover in Palestine — memories of seders in an Israel on the cusp of statehood


On the eve of Passover 1948, Rabbi Moshe Saks, known as Bud to his family and friends, was stationed in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, trying to figure out how to get Passover supplies and ammunition to the embattled Haganah soldiers in the Makor Haim neighborhood.

A rabbi from Baltimore who had served as a chaplain for two years in the U.S. Army during World War II, Saks arrived in Palestine in November 1947, with his wife, Frances. He planned to study for a doctorate at Hebrew University under the G.I. Bill. When the War of Independence broke out later that month, he instead became a quasi-social worker and chaplain for the fledgling Haganah military organization.

“It was a time when the very existence of the Zionist movement was in doubt,” says Saks, now 87 and living in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem, his home since 1974. “But it was also a period when people felt they ought to be here. As for me, there was no model in which to think of this task the Haganah had given me. But they wanted me to go from place to place and talk to people.”

Makor Haim was the frontline of defense for southwest Jewish Jerusalem, as it was surrounded by large Arab villages and far from the city’s other Jewish neighborhoods. Saks had been involved in sending a convoy of supplies from Talpiot to Makor Haim, but the British Army turned back the convoy. As part of his responsibilities, Saks was told by his superiors to prepare a seder for the remaining members of the community and soldiers stationed in Talpiot.

Several days before the holiday began, Saks and his wife came across Shmuel Yosef Agnon, or S.Y. Agnon, the Hebrew fiction writer who had been living in Talpiot since 1924 and continued to do so, in defiance of the British. Agnon was in his yard, trying to uproot a tree with some help from a neighbor. On the spur of the moment, Saks asked him to lead the seder that would be held at HaYozem, the local pensione that was functioning as the Haganah’s headquarters in Talpiot.

Agnon, the celebrated novelist, didn’t have “the feel for leading a group of young people in a seder, and his Hebrew wasn’t as beautiful as that of the young man from the Old City who led the second shift,” Saks says. “But he was such an important role model and writer.”

There also wasn’t much in the way of food or matzah either, Saks remembers. Given the siege of Jerusalem that had begun in December 1947, and lasted until July 1948, the mayor of Jerusalem, Dov Yosef, had instituted a rationing program intended to save the city. For Passover, however, a convoy made it through carrying Passover supplies, and a special ration was instituted for families, including 2 pounds of potatoes, half a pound of fish, 4 pounds of matzah, 1.5 ounces of dried fruit, half a pound of meat and half a pound of matzah flour.

As Zipporah Borowsky, another young American who had arrived in Palestine in 1947, wrote in a letter to her parents in New York: “In a way, I am lucky, not having to wait in the long lines for the meager rations of meat and fish that are being distributed to the heads of families. But, we did get a small ration of potatoes, margarine and wine, and, with all the stuff I’ve been saving from packages you’ve sent, I should be fairly well-stocked for the entire holiday.”

Borowsky, who now has the last name of Porath and lives in Savyon, outside Tel Aviv, collected her memories and letters of that tumultuous first year in a book, “Letters From Jerusalem 1947-1948” (Jonathan, 2005). In the letter to her parents written after the seder, she says that everybody in Jerusalem had guests for the seder, what with 100 drivers in town who brought the last convoy to the city, and hundreds of soldiers far from home.

She attended a friend’s family seder, where “the herbs were truly bitter herbs, plucked from the fields, like the greens we now eat with our daily fare. The charoset tasted every bit like the Egyptian bricks it was supposed to represent — although, in these times, there’s no way of knowing what it was made of…. Despite the terrible food shortage, a meal of sorts was served, simple but plentiful, with kneidlach [matzah balls] made from something that tasted like nuts.”

When the youngest child at the seder, a 5-year-old boy, asked the four questions, Porath writes, he didn’t “merely recite … but asked them, in the most natural way … as if he really didn’t understand and wanted to be told why a seder in besieged Jerusalem was different from any other.”

For Danny Angel, now 79, whose family’s bakery eventually became the largest in Israel, what stands out from that particular Passover was the fact that there were no eggs or vegetables.

“We lived in Bayit Vegan, and we went into the fields nearby to pick marrow, to serve as the green on our seder plate,” says Angel, who was 19 and a Haganah soldier in Jerusalem throughout the entire war.

It was a difficult Passover, Saks remembers. A leading Haganah soldier was killed in Makor Haim on the eve of Passover, adding to “the mood of the seder; it was a very painful experience,” he said.

Within weeks, of course, times had changed, and the establishment of the state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948. In November 1948, the Saks’ had their first child, Noam, and returned to the States in 1949 until their aliyah 25 years later. Tzipporah Borowsky returned to the U.S. briefly as executive assistant to the Israeli consul general in New York, and later married Joseph Porath, then Israel’s assistant military attache, returning to live in Israel, where “the Passover seder in our home was very much Israeli style, with an American accent.”

For Saks, and his son, Noam Zion, who has lived in Israel since 1973 and raised his own family in Talpiot, Passover has always been a holiday of tremendous ritual and historical importance.

Teens can learn from Shoah survivors


Kids these days all have tsuris; everyone has stress. A computer breaking down, not having cell phone service, getting grounded, and not getting a new car for a 16th birthday are all things that upset teenagers and stress them out. Yet, these are probably the worst of their problems.

When a teenager gets a bad grade on a test or a parking ticket, he or she may think it’s the end of the world. For some of us, a “problem” is getting seven presents for Chanukah, not eight. However, 70 years ago, these so-called “problems” would have been luxuries for the millions of Jews and other minorities living, and dying, during the Holocaust.

I met one of those Jews, Dana Schwartz, through the Holocaust Memorial Project, a program sponsored by the California State Assembly. The goal of the project is to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive by having local high school students interview Holocaust survivors living in California.

At first, the project seemed like a good idea for community service. It was not until I sat down on a chair next to Schwartz in her Beverly Hills home and listened to her speak that I realized how much more I was getting out of this experience than just a few hours of community service.

In 1939, at the age of 4, Schwartz and her family were taken from their Polish home and sent to a ghetto. By the time the war ended, less than 1 percent of the Jews of the Lvov ghetto had survived. Each day there, when she wasn’t hiding from the Nazis, she watched Jew after Jew get tortured and killed. Soon, the Nazis started rounding up the Jews and took them to the railway.

Their destination was unknown to Schwartz at the time, and she did not want to find out. We now know these trains were, of course, taking the doomed Jews to concentration camps where almost all would die.

Schwartz and her parents hid in all kinds of places to stay away from the Nazis, most of the time under an apartment building. The days and weeks passed, but soon Schwartz and her mother were lucky enough to get false IDs, which allowed them to pass as Catholics. The two escaped and hid in another town, watching its Jewish population go from roughly 50 percent to zero. They ate mainly bread and water in that town until the war was over.

A few years later, they went back to their hometown and heard horrific stories about what happened to their friends and family, including Schwartz’s father, who was killed while she was in hiding. Schwartz couldn’t even go to school until years after that, due to her fears of Germans and her mental state from the horrors she had witnessed.

Soon thereafter, Schwartz and her mother were again fortunate enough to receive affidavits to come to Los Angeles, and she’s been living here ever since.
After interviewing Schwartz, I realized how fortunate I am to have freedom.

We’re fortunate to not go to bed each night unsure whether we will ever wake up. We’re lucky we don’t get scared each time a man walks in our direction, and we’re lucky we don’t live in fear that someone will find out we are Jewish and kill us.

What amazes me the most about Schwartz is how optimistic she is after going through the atrocities of the Holocaust. She still has pride in her Jewish heritage and won’t let anyone take that away.

“I want to survive in spite of Hitler and others who wanted to destroy us,” Schwartz said. She often speaks at schools. “I speak for those who can’t speak.”

The lessons that Schwartz, and the war itself, have taught me are to treasure each day and never take anything for granted. I feel as if I have much more of a Jewish identity now. Although we can never undo the Holocaust, we can still keep its story alive and keep the stories of the survivors alive too. It is especially important for my generation to know this history, for to most of us it is just history, not real people like Dana Schwartz.

Jonathan Kuperberg is a sophomore at Agoura High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

My December visit with ‘lady’


“Agha isn’t here,” Khanum says as soon as I walk in through the door. “I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

Agha is her husband — dead for 35 years and buried in Iran — but she speaks about him as if he were just out running an errand.

“No point waiting around for him,” she tells me with characteristic bluntness. “Go home and do something useful.”

We’re in her room on the third floor of the Ocean Towers Convalescent Home in Santa Monica. Khanum has lived here for nearly 10 years, ever since she broke her hip and had to have it replaced by a young Iranian doctor who called all his female patients “Khanum” (Lady), because they were old, and he meant to show respect — and because this way, he didn’t have to remember their names.

Depending on whom you ask, Khanum is somewhere between 97 and 104 years old. She has bad eyes and trouble walking — what with the hip replacement and all — and she gets tired easily, but she’s otherwise in fine health.

She needs constant care, which she resents wholeheartedly and refuses often. Her mind is in good shape most of the time, but lately her short-term memory has been lapsing for hours at a time. When this happens, she can tell you about all the people she knew and places she had been to in her 20s and 30s, but she won’t recall when she last ate, or what day it is, or what the person she’s been talking to has just said.

She becomes young again, a new bride in her husband’s house, unwavering in her love and her loyalty to him.

“I’m not here to see Agha,” I tell her. “I’ve come to see you.”

I realize she has confused me with one of the many callers who used to knock at her door day or night in Tehran in the years before her husband died. They never called ahead of time, or asked permission to visit, because they knew they would not be welcome: they were either selling something, asking for money, collecting a bribe or hoping to enlist her husband’s support in some decades’ old feud with a family member.

I kiss her on both cheeks and ask how she’s doing.

“Why do you want to know?” she responds, still suspicious.

To my embarrassment, I feel relieved that Khanum hasn’t recognized me yet, that she doesn’t remember how long it has been since my last visit. So we sit — Khanum in her wheelchair, I on the edge of her hospital bed — for a while without speaking. The small television that hangs from the ceiling is tuned to one of the many Farsi-language satellite stations based in Los Angeles. Persian music blares from someone’s radio next door.

It’s only 6 p.m., but the December sky has been dark for nearly an hour.

“No self-respecting woman would be out on the street so late at night,” Khanum chides me.

Ocean Towers is one of many establishments of its kind in Santa Monica — a gray, seven-story box of a building with cement walls and a flat roof, situated, for practical reasons, within a 10-block radius of St. John’s Hospital.

We’re only 12 blocks away from Third Street Promenade with its trendy shops and overly aggressive street performers, but we might as well be in Tehran: There are three Iranian restaurants within walking distance of this building, three grocery stores, an Iranian kosher butcher shop. There is an Iranian bakery around the corner, two hair salons and an electronics store that promises — in big, bold letters painted on the windows — to crush any competitor’s price anywhere.

On the third floor, all the residents are Iranian. So are some of the doctors and nurses, the nutrition experts and physical therapists. The arrangement seems to be as much by design as by coincidence, but it suits everyone just fine. Most of the residents here know each other from the years in Iran — before the revolution forced them out of the country and sent them to a place where youth and beauty are revered above wisdom and tradition; where children are allowed to disobey their parents, or dishonor them by marrying out of their faith, or divorcing their spouses or entrust the care of their elders to strangers in bright purple uniforms who come and go every eight hours.

The visitors, too, know most of the patients. They come often, and bring Iranian food and magazines and candy. They arrive early and leave late, sometimes staying all day with a spouse or a parent because they can’t bear the guilt of what they have done to their loved ones, because they remember what it was like back in Iran, how the elderly were cared for at home, how they used to look down on people in the West — the way they tossed their parents away when they were of no more use, locked them up in nursing homes and forgot where they had put the key.

Dinner is at 5:30 p.m., and after that the latest hold-outs go home. The nurses’ shift changes, and dusk settles onto the bare hallways and narrow beds with plastic mattresses. Then the ghosts come out.

“Do you miss Agha?” I ask Khanum.

When I first started writing, I sat with Khanum for hours at a time, asking questions. I was 21 and on leave of absence from law school. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I knew some stories from Iran, and had begun to write them. They were scattered pieces of people’s lives, bits of conversations I had overheard through the years, rumors that had been whispered too many times and taken on a reality that may or may not have been deserved.

Almost all the stories, however, were about my own family: we were — still are — unusually open, among Iranian Jews, about our past. Others are more guarded, more aware of the consequences of revealing themselves in a society built as much on appearances as on facts, a society where truth will, far from setting you free, most likely close a thousand doors and come back to haunt you for good.

Composer Martin Bresnick’s classically unique style turns 60


Please don’t think that Martin Bresnick is having a “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” moment.
Sure the acclaimed composer and teacher celebrated his 60th birthday last month with a series of concerts and the release of a new CD of his music, “The Essential Martin Bresnick,” performed by a gang of his former students, centered on the Bang on a Can All-Stars and his longtime academic home, the Yale School of Music.

But he’s not the “grand old man” nearing retirement taking a retrospective look back at a parade of his students through a Vaseline-coated lens of memories.

“Well, there is a little bit of that,” Bresnick says, leaning back in the booth in a midtown diner where he has been sampling the apple pie. “But I don’t think of myself in that role. For most of my teaching career I haven’t been that much older than my students. It’s only recently that students stopped calling me Martin. I’m not an authority figure, and our work revolves around a sense of communal discovery.”

Bresnick likes to cite a famous Zen koan about teaching: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

But he is also highly attuned to the teacher-student interplay. He cites as an example his own studies with the great composer Gyorgy Ligeti (coincidentally, also a Jew).

“He was one of the greatest composers of our era,” Bresnick says. “You learn from what he said about things, but also from what he did. I had that as an example. It’s a way of saying, ‘I am a real composer and people who study with me know that.'”

And it is as a composer that Bresnick wants to be known. He doesn’t downplay the importance of teaching. On the contrary, it is an integral part of the ethos in which he was raised by his Yiddishist, socialist family.

“Teaching for me has always had a strong social component,” he says. “It’s part of giving back. I came out of a working-class family in the Bronx and was given a tremendous opportunity by others. I had it ingrained in me that you serve and have to share.”

That’s a lesson he was taught growing up in the Amalgamated Co-ops.

“I had a very devoted secular Jewish upbringing,” Bresnick says. “My family were dedicated Yiddishists, I was sent to the Arbeiter Ring [Workmen’s Circle] elementary school. My family ran the gamut politically from anarchist to liberal Democrats. I can still read Yiddish, and my aunt, Phylis Berk, is a well-known Yiddish singer. My mother, at 85, is still a professional storyteller who travels around the country talking about life in the shtetl.”

It was a wonderful milieu in which to grow up, but not so hot for learning classical music, he admits.

“When I was little, my parents had very few classical records,” Bresnick recalls. “I could memorize very quickly. Somewhere out there is a disk with me singing snippets of ‘Barber of Seville’ and ‘The Nutcracker,’ which were the two classical records they had at first. But they recognized that I had a talent, and they got me a couple of records when they could. The first time I ever heard a woodwind quintet was when I saw one live at the age of 9 on a school trip. I was completely dumbfounded by the bouquet of timbres.”

It was the beginning of a career and a calling.

“I would listen to a Beethoven symphony when I was 7 and feel that I understood what was intended,” he says. “I had some comprehension of the point of [writing] a symphony. And I felt, ‘I can do it too.’ I think I understood that it had something to do with what it means to be a human being.

“Music for many people at that age is a wonderful refuge. It offers them an ordered world. As a composer, you are making a world.”

On the other hand, Bresnick was also participating in the world around him. As a teenager, he played rock guitar, graduated from the High School of Music and Art at 16 “as the youngest beatnik ever,” he adds with a laugh, and was in grad school on the West Coast by 20. He saw Jimi Hendrix live, still admires Cream as “a great chamber-music group” and gigged as a working musician.

Even today, Bresnick “listens to everything,” and his own compositions have a uniquely American eclecticism.

“It’s Ivesian,” he says, citing the great American maverick, Charles Ives, “It’s totally democratic; everybody’s got a right to belly up to the table and contribute.”

Bresnick is a composer who can juxtapose the repetitive structures of minimalism with Stravinskian harmonies, who can use a Willie Dixon blues riff as the jumping-off point for a Brahmsian chamber piece, who can write movingly for marimba and orchestra.

If you ask him if there is any musical style that he would reject out of hand, he smiles and says, “I’m ready to accept almost any influence into my domain. My ‘border guards’ may ask them to show their passport first, though.”

He admits to excluding only one major late-20th-century movement.

“I’m not that interested in conceptual art,” he says. “Most of it has revealed itself to be poorer conceptually than any physically based art. I believe in the line from William Carlos Williams, ‘No ideas but in things.’ I like the pleasures of the physical world, and if I can embody something in the world of music, that’s good enough.”

Above all, he wants to be known as a composer first and foremost.

“No question about it,” he says emphatically. “I’ve never thought of myself any other way. I love teaching and I’m glad to be well-regarded as a teacher, but I have no doubt of my own self-identity.”

Anyone who hears Bresnick’s music, live or on disk, will agree.

“The Essential Martin Bresnick” featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars, is available on the Cantaloupe Records label.

Theater: Troy vs. ‘Tsuris’


“How should I prepare?” asks playwright Mark Troy after agreeing to an interview the following morning about his new play, “Tsuris,” opening Friday, Dec. 22, at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake. “Should I wear a blue tuxedo?”
Although he is not a standup comedian and says he has a “pathological fear of being in front of an audience,” Mark Troy is always “on.”

When asked whether he is Jewish, Troy responds, “You will be needing proof of that?”

Actually, there is no need for such proof from Troy, whose last name may conjure images of Hector fighting Achilles, but whose latest play is about battles of a more contemporary nature — among Jewish spouses, parents and their children in Florida.

Troy has written many plays about Jews, including “Join the Club,” which just played at a Malibu festival and revolved around the decision of a 35-year-old man to get a circumcision. Another play, “Getting to Bupkus,” focuses on a 12-year-old Jewish boy who runs away the night before his bar mitzvah and comes back 12 years later.

Their storylines may remind one of TV shows and films from the past, the first calling to mind the “Sex and the City” episode in which one of Charlotte’s dates decides to test out his newly circumcised penis on multiple partners, and the second bringing back memories of “The Bar Mitzvah Boy,” the film that every 12-year-old Jewish boy has seen.

Troy’s new play, “Tsuris,” also has a familiarity to it, but that doesn’t mean that his dialogue lacks freshness. Troy has his characters rattle off humorous lines like, “Florida is like dog years; you times everything by seven.”

Troy is not suggesting that everyone living in Florida is preternaturally ancient, but rather that “something slows you down” and you end up replicating your grandmother’s habits — going to K-mart, going to the pool, then another pool and, most of all, eating dinner at 4 p.m. at Bagel Palace or Bagel Nosh or Bagel Land.

At these bagel emporia, elders may even utter adages such as this parody of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech: “They say every man should have three wives. When he’s in his 20s … there’s the lustful wife. Then in midlife, he has the motherly wife. Then in his final golden years…the companion wife…. Thank God I’ve found in Irma Messersmidt the lustful whore I’ve been missing.”

“Tsuris” plays Dec. 22 through Feb. 3 at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake.

Overcoming Germanophobia During the World Cup


It was more than six decades ago that the Germans were trying to kill me on a nightly basis. Every evening, my family and I would stand at the bottom of our garden in London and listen to the buzz bombs approaching.

Many were shot down, but many more pierced the defensive guns. And when those flying bombs — progenitors of the guided missile — ran out of fuel, they fell to earth, destroying houses, killing neighbors and turning streets into rubble. They whined, and then they were suddenly silent. It was that terrible silence that indicated they were about to drop.

During the heaviest bombardments, we would spend the night in the concrete shelter we’d built at the bottom of the garden. And this went on throughout the blitz.

Now more than 60 years later, I had finally plucked up enough courage to visit Germany for the first time. Once again, they tried to kill me, but this time it was with kindness.

I must admit that in countless trips to Europe, I had carefully avoided visiting Germany, having no desire whatsoever to see the Fatherland that had left me with such dark memories. But then came the summer of 2006, and as a football (soccer to you) devotee, I headed to Germany to cover the World Cup for a Southern California radio station.

At the airport, everything was ultramodern, well lit, clean, efficient — “Like a giant Ikea,” one of my companions quipped. All pretty run of the mill until my entry into Nuremberg.

I’m a dual citizen with U.S. and British nationalities, so when I travel in Europe I do so on my Euro-British passport. It’s less complicated.
Not this time. The German passport control officer smiled, took one look at my British passport and politely asked me to step into a private room, where I was confronted by two British policemen in uniform.

With thousands of British fans expected in Germany for the “fussball,” the police were ready. English soccer fans have been known to imbibe alcohol excessively and then behave in a most disorderly fashion.

Some 70 British police officers had been loaned to Germany for the duration of the World Cup to help the local cops identify and detain the names on England’s “1,000 most-wanted thugs” list, who were to be made decidedly unwelcome in the Rhineland.

A few minutes later the constables admitted I was not an “undesirable” and then politely sent me on my way. And so I headed into the medieval city of Nuremberg, whose name carries such freight for anyone who was around in World War II — and for Jews so much more.

Bavarian history is steeped in anti-Semitism. Hundreds of Jews were massacred in the 13th century. And in the 20th century, the Nuremberg name was placed on a restrictive set of laws that marked the beginning of the end of life and liberty for Germany’s Jews.

In the ’30s, it was the place where Hitler displayed his might to the world, the scene of his most fervent rallies — the Nazi national shrine where filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl captured the frenzied Fuhrer in her 1934 propaganda movie, “Triumph of the Will.”

It was also in Nuremberg that from 1945-1949 the most heinous war criminals had their day in court. Where the “I was following orders” henchmen — Hess, Ribbentrop, Goring, etc. — tried to defend their bestial behavior. And finally, it was also a city that was totally decimated by British and American bombers. Now it had risen from the ashes to act as a World Cup host city.

Here we were in a downtown area known as “The Fan Zone,” and on a gorgeous summer’s afternoon, thousands of young Americans strolled happily through the streets, their faces painted red, white and blue, wearing the Stars and Stripes as a cloak, with some dressed as Capt. America, George Washington and a handful sporting Nixon and Elvis masks.

It was as if I had walked into a bizarre fancy dress party — an unreal carnival as the fans marched through the streets chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” before the American team took on Ghana. (They lost, in case you didn’t hear.)

It was hard to realize that 70 years ago, these self-same streets were filled with strutting, swastika-clad Germans in a preamble to what turned out to be the bloodiest chapter of a bloody century.

This summer, the Germans were on their best behavior, acutely aware of the need to project the image of the new Germany — friendly, hospitable, open, tolerant — greeting all comers, no matter their race or color, trying their best to demonstrate that at last, Germany is a nation just like any other: little Germany, normal at last.

German flags hung from houses, shops and car windows. Germans unselfconsciously sang their national anthem before their games. Germans painted their faces in their national colors, just like the Americans, the Brits, the Portuguese and the French, and they appeared to be enjoying themselves extraordinarily with good spirits and a complete lack of über-nationalism.

A local journalist explained: “There is such a history with our flag. Before the World Cup if you had a flag in your window, it meant you were a right-winger, possibly even a neo-Nazi. This is the hot topic being discussed on local talk radio every day.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told The New Yorker that the World Cup had finally enabled Germany to “reflect a beautiful sense of normalcy.”
A Jew can visit Germany today without that nasty feeling that a greater percentage of the population here wishes him ill than in any other European country.

It was impossible not to share in the Germans’ newfound delight in their relaxed position in Europe and their new image in the world. Unlike their former ally, Austria, which has somehow managed to sell the world on the idea that it too was a victim of Nazism, rather than an enthusiastic participant, Germany has confessed its sins, made its mea culpas and paid its reparations to the victims worldwide and to Israel.

Germans have made an attempt to educate their children about their awful history in the last century, and they have the most stringent anti-hate laws in the world. Expressions of racism, supernationalism or discrimination are jumped on quicker here than in any other country in Europe, certainly more than France and more than England.

In 2006, Germany is a beautiful country with nice people. Go and enjoy. While Germany didn’t win the World Cup, it reached the semi-finals, quite an achievement. But a far greater one was to run a World Cup without serious scandal or unpleasantness and to show the world that Germans know how to have fun.

“We were so serious before,” a German fan told me before I left, “but now we’ve shown that we can party. And we’ve surprised the world.”

Museums and Memorials Can Be Found Across Nation

I had limited time to check out Jewish museums in Germany, but there are many. There are museums and memorials around the country in Frankfurt, Munich, Buchenwald, Dachau, Wannsee and Bergen-Belsen.

What should not be missed is the Jewish Museum in Berlin (www.jmberlin.com) at Lindenstrasse 9-14, which tells the entire history of Jews in Germany. The subterranean museum designed by American architect Daniel Libeskind, who was born in Poland and is the child of Holocaust survivors, offers a unique underground series of hallways that house the Axis of Death, the Axis of Exile and the Axis of Continuity, chronicling the history of Jews in 20th century Germany. It also offers rocking horses and crawl spaces for kids, and an exhibition of household goods and personal family photos supplied by survivors of pre-war Jewish families, along with recordings of the voices of Max Reinhardt and Albert Einstein.

During the World Cup, there was even a special tribute in the museum garden to Walther Bensemann, a German Jewish businessman who brought soccer to Germany. He died in l934.

The museum is closed for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Christmas Eve.
Back on the streets of Berlin you can wander everywhere with a Jewish cultural map in hand, pinpointing memorial sites, shuls and cemeteries. You can also simply be a normal tourist and partake of the goodies at Gabriel’s Heimisch Bakery and Cafe on Konstanzer Strasse, Bagels and Bialys on Rosenthaler or the Kosher Beth Cafe on Potsdamer Platz Arkaden on Alte Potsdamer.

Déja Date


They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but I’m thinking that when you meet so many strangers in so short a time, familiarity might just breed comfort. You see a guy’s picture 20 times, you begin to feel you know him. Maybe the first time he wrote to you, you weren’t sure about him — maybe he even creeped you out — but a year or two later he practically seems like family (possibly that family member you want to avoid, but family nonetheless).

Maybe that’s why when Eric writes me, his picture appeals to me. He reminds me of someone. Someone … someone like … him!

It takes us a bit before he realizes that we’ve gone out before. It was two years ago — that’s 10 years in dating time — and we actually went out twice. (I guess I wasn’t the one-hit-dating wonder then that I am now.)

Eric wants to know now if I’d like to go out again. Now, two years later. I’m not sure. I can’t recall much about Eric. But maybe that’s because I don’t possess the best memory in the world. OK, my memory is about as good as a stoned amnesiac’s. There are entire years of my life I’ve blocked from my mind, shredded like crucial government documents.

I do remember, though, where we had dinner on the second date. (I’m drawing a complete blank on the first, though. Actually I sincerely doubt we had two dates, but I have to take his word for it — I always have to take other people’s words for the past). I remember that he kissed me. I remember he had a cat. And I know that I was allergic to cats then and still am.

But here’s what I don’t remember: I don’t remember what else was going on in my life at the time; I don’t remember why exactly I didn’t like him, and I don’t remember how exactly it ended.

So here’s the real question. Is timing everything? Is context anything?

Are we malleable, whimsical creatures whose predilections are determined only by the season, our moods, the placement of the moon in the sky?

Or is there a solid core inside, a hard drive of basic preferences and tastes that consistently governs the choices that we make? Are our instincts infallible?

I am someone who goes by instinct. Like most people, I like to think that I have good instincts. On the other hand, my relationship track record might suggest otherwise. My instincts, I suppose, have not always been right.

So in the name of being less picky, I decide to go out with Eric again.

There is a comfort level to our phone conversations that I usually don’t have with strangers. I suppose it’s because he’s not exactly a stranger. He knows things about me that I don’t know how he knows except that I must have told him. He knows that I surf, he knows that I’m allergic to cats (“still?”) and that he really liked me the last time, but I just wasn’t interested.

I’m hoping that when I see Eric, it will all come back to me. That I’d be like one of those characters in a miniseries who is jolted into recovery by the sight of her loved one.

No such luck. When I see Eric, I see why I didn’t recognize his picture in the first place — he doesn’t look like his picture. He does look like someone I might have gone out with already, but then again, maybe not.

I’m checking my instincts, taking my emotional temperature and getting nothing. “No pulse, doctor.” Not a blip on the EKG. Flat-lining.

So I do what I always do in these memory-failure situations. I decide to start from scratch with Eric, find out about him. It goes well, apparently, because he asks me out again. I can’t find a reason to say no — not a good reason, not if I am going by something other than mere instinct.

But what else is there? We live by our gut, our instincts, our heart, whatever you want to call it. Perhaps intuition can be warped, perhaps it needs to be refined, therapized, cauterized, redirected, reshaped — but should we ignore it? To ignore it is to go out on a second — actually fourth — date with a man you don’t like. You don’t know why you don’t like him, you can’t put your finger on it, but you also know you don’t have to put your finger on it.

You can, in the end, just act like a brat and get into some stupid spat with this man you’ll never see again, simply because you’re there in this situation despite your own good judgment.

So I slam down some money, walk out and screech out of the parking lot like a getaway driver, and then I realize that I didn’t remember Eric for a good reason: He wasn’t memorable.

This time I’ll remember him — I hope — or at least I’ll remember this: My intuition may not be good, but for now, it’s the best thing I’ve got.

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

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The Leah Doll


Tante Mina sat on her couch and slowly tore away the wrapping. When the paper fell and she saw the porcelain doll her nieces had molded, painted and dressed for her, her breath caught in her throat and she let out a little gasp. As Tante Mina continued to stare at the doll, Mali, my mother, told her 81-year-old aunt about the next step.

“Now you have to name her.”

“Her name is Leah,” Tante Mina said right away. Mali looked at her twin sister, Tova, slightly stunned.

“Tante Mina, how did you do that so quickly? It usually takes people a little while to let the doll’s name come to them.” Mali said.

“No, her name is Leah,” Tante Mina said again, “she looks exactly like my sister who died in the Holocaust, her name was Leah.”

Mali and Tova slowly sat down.

“My sister, Leah, had black hair, freckles and the same face as this doll,” Tante Mina said.

“Do you have a picture of her?” Tova asked.

“No, the only picture exists in my mind, and now here she is,” Tante Mina said gesturing to her heart and then to the doll sitting in her lap.

My family talks about everything. We laugh, giggle and involve ourselves in one another’s lives. But for everything that is talked about and laughed at, there is the same equivalency of things not being said. For all of our plans and hopes, my family’s past is never mentioned. It is known, understood and remembered but never talked about. It’s a past farther back than how I’m related to a certain person. It’s all the stories of my relatives who lived and died during the Holocaust.

When I was younger I would ask questions about why some of my great aunts had never had children, and my mother would start to answer and then emotion would take over. Her eyes would start to water as she quickly explained how their bodies never recovered from what happened during the war. I was given the facts but the details were hidden behind tears and sadness that my family would rather repress then delve into again and again.

Of course, growing up, I learned in school what the Holocaust was and heard all of the horrible stories about what happened during those dreadful years to millions of Jews. The most education I received on the subject outside of school was through a trip to the Museum of Tolerance, and from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” which my mother made me go see with my dad.

There is the famous saying when it comes to the Holocaust — never forget. As long as we never forget, these horrible things can never happen again. However, there is a distinct difference between never forgetting, and remembering and honoring the lives lost.

The Holocaust survivors in my family, like Tante Mina, don’t mention the hardships they endured or the family they lost. It is something that they keep inside, never forgetting, yet never revealing. The faces of their lost loved ones, like Tante Mina’s sister, Leah, exist only in their memories, growing fuzzy with time yet always hovering near them.

When my mother called me and told me about Tante Mina’s doll, I could hear the emotion in her voice: “Isn’t that weird, of all of the choices of doll molds, of hair colors, eye colors, styles of clothing, it all turned out to be the image of the sister she lost in the Holocaust. A sister we didn’t even remember existed in the first place.”

Leah now sits on Tante Mina’s dresser in the Jewish Home for the Aging. A small, freckle-faced doll with black, braided hair, a straw hat and a beautiful green dress, a sense of loss behind her green painted eyes yet an aura of hope around her. She’s a constant reminder of the sister she had and serves as a guiding force, watching over Tante Mina as time passes, a presence to remind her that she has never, and will never, be alone.

An amazing connection can exist between past and present that, if strong enough, will present itself in ways never thought possible. This mystic connection graced my family when a doll was created that, unbeknownst to those who created her, also had a past.

There is so much sadness, pain and secrecy in the past that holds onto people’s souls for the duration of their lives. Although it is hard to recount these memories of loss, it is such an important first step to remembering and honoring — the past of who lived — while also being dedicated to not forgetting those who died.

Caroline Cobrin is a writer living in Van Nuys.

 

Holy Toledo!


My husband’s family hails from Toledo, Ohio, a city that proudly claims kinship with Toledo, Spain. That’s one reason I didn’t want to miss this Castilian hill town 42 miles southeast of Madrid. There’s also the fact that El Greco’s “View of Toledo,” a spectral view of the city’s spires by moonlight, has long been one of my favorite paintings.

What I didn’t know until recently is that Spain’s Toledo contains — along with spires, damascene jewelry and scrumptious marzipan — a treasure trove of Jewish memories.

Back in 1200, under the benign rule of a Catholic king, Toledo housed some 12,000 Jews, who contributed mightily to the city’s dynamic intellectual life. Of the many synagogues that once dotted the winding lanes, two have survived. Both were converted into churches following the expulsion of Jews from Spain, but they now have been preserved as national monuments.

The 14th century house of worship built by the wealthy and powerful Samuel HaLevi is known today as the Transito (Assumption) Synagogue. Its grandly carved bimah and magnificent ceiling are still intact.

Equally impressive in its way is the Sephardic Museum located in what was once the women’s gallery. It contains Jewish antiquities, many borrowed from Israeli collections, and there’s also heartwarming video footage of modern Jews celebrating holidays and life-cycle events: proof for Spanish visitors that Judaism lives on.

This is worth underscoring, because the guards on the premises have little sense of exactly what they’re guarding. When I asked in my best schoolgirl Spanish if there were any modern synagogues in Spain, all I got was a shrug.

The second surviving synagogue on the street now called, Reyes Catlicos (Catholic Kings), is the austerely beautiful Santa Mara la Blanca, dating from the late 12th century. It was built in the Moorish style, with stately rows of white columns reaching upward into rounded arches. High off the ground, above the archways, long-ago artisans etched lacelike patterns into the plaster.

I had heard that when this synagogue became a church, the Jewish symbols among the plaster adornments were obliterated. But there remained, I was told, a single Magen David as a token of what once had been.

Naturally, I set out to find it. Again, the guards and other employees were of little help. One acknowledged that the star existed but wouldn’t budge from her post at the gift shop cash register to point it out.

Finally, persistence paid off. Above the first pillar to the right of the doorway, and some 25 feet off the ground, we saw the faint but visible six-pointed star representing our people.

As we strolled along Reyes Catlicos, a bilingual sign promising information about Jewish Toledo led us into a narrow alley, Calle del Angel. Here we found Casa de Jacob, a spacious, modern store selling Jewish ritual items, kosher foods from Israel and serious Jewish texts in Spanish, Hebrew and English. It also offers a map detailing the archaeological remnants of Jewish life within Toledo’s ancient walls.

According to David, the pleasant young man behind the counter, Casa de Jacob is unique in Spain. It’s lovingly operated by David’s family, most of whom believe they descend from Jews forced to accept Catholicism at the time of the Inquisition. (He said his father’s brother, however, is still in denial.)

Our chat with David allowed us, as we moved on to Toledo’s magnificent cathedral, to feel a little more at home in this very Catholic place.

Later, as we watched the sun set over the city from the spot where El Greco had painted his masterpiece, I was feeling profoundly affectionate toward my surroundings. Holy Toledo, indeed!

The map can be viewed on the Web at www.jewishtoledo.com, and the store’s informative and wide-ranging site can be found at www.casadejacob.com

 

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting


 

When attorney David Karp reminisces about his time in the Cub and Boy Scouts, the good memories come flooding back. He remembers taking long nature hikes, making close friends and fashioning a pinewood derby car from a block of wood, four nails and four wheels. The Scouts, he said, taught him how to work well with others, play fairly and know right from wrong — qualities that have served him well as an adult.

After the birth of his son, Samuel, in 1990, Karp decided that he would one day introduce the boy to the joys of scouting. But Karp wanted to touch more lives than just Samuel’s. Through the Western Los Angeles County Council Jewish Committee on Scouting of the Boy Scouts of America, he has found a way successfully to combine his two great loves: scouting and Judaism, both of which shape his ideas, values and conduct. In the process, Karp, a Reform Jew, has done more than perhaps anyone in Southern California to bring local Orthodox Jews into the world of scouting.

“Once I accepted that I wanted to make a place for Jews in scouting, it was only a matter of time before I decided we had to be inclusive of all Jews,” said Karp, who headed the Council Jewish Committee from 2002 to 2004 and remains treasurer.

Under his direction, Karp said he and other council members helped oversee the creation of a Boy Scout troop and later a Cub Scout pack at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Subsequently, Karp’s efforts have helped lay the foundation for other shuls to form scouting units.

“David Karp made it possible for us to have this program,” said attorney Yacov Greiff, scoutmaster of Troop 613 at Shaarey Zedek. “Aside from personal kindness and modesty, exemplary menschlichkeit and tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish community, he deserves particular recognition for going out of his way to reach across sectarian lines.”

Karp also helped make it possible for Orthodox Jews to participate in the Kinnus weekend, an annual committee-sponsored event that attracts hundreds of Jewish scouts and their families from the Southland and beyond. At the suggestion of several religious Jews, Karp and others approved the serving of strictly Kosher meals, offered Orthodox Shabbat services and set up an eruv, or boundary, which permits the carrying of supplies and other goods during the Sabbath. The result: Orthodox Jews now account for more than half of Kinnus, participants, up from zero in 2001.

“David’s been instrumental in uniting the three Jewish denominations into one identity as Jewish scouts,” said Jeff Feuer, cubmaster of an Orthodox pack sponsored by Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “In my personal opinion, it’s best if we work together and understand and learn to celebrate our differences.”

As a professional mediator, bringing together Jews under the banner of the Scouts has come naturally to him.

“I suppose I’m a facilitator,” said Karp, who is now a Boy Scouts of America district chairman for the East Valley. “I like to find common ground.”

 

David Karp

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Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

Senior Moments – Great-Grand Marshal


As I walked through the grounds at the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), I noticed a man in a wheelchair reading a magazine. It was called “Life Extension.”

I had to laugh. Someone must have strategically placed this magazine, like a prop, for the interview I was about to conduct. Talk about life extension! My subject, Sylvia Harmatz, could be the poster child. She’s 107 years old.

And for the sixth year in a row, Harmatz will be grand marshal of the Dec. 4 Walk of Ages, a 5K walk/run to raise funds for the JHA’s vital services.

She called JHA “a haven for people who have nowhere’s else to stay, like me. I sometimes wonder how in the world can they like so many people? They are so good to everyone!”

Since so many people seem interested in living forever, Harmatz is, of course, repeatedly asked: “What’s your secret?”

She smiles sweetly, showing great patience: “I don’t know.”

She doesn’t eat meat, but she does like candy, “because I need something to replace the meat.”

I told her my 14-year-old son would like that strategy. She laughed.

We sat a moment, and then Harmatz said, “You know, my husband lived to 104.”

In fact, Sylvia and Louis Harmatz were married for 80 years.

“He was very much in love with me,” she told me, with a smile.

I said maybe it was love, not a special diet, that contributed to their longevity.

“I think so,” Harmatz agreed. “We were very close. He wanted to be with me all the time. He never walked with me that he didn’t hold my hand. He was afraid I was going to run away from him, because I always walked so fast!”

The couple, who met at a dance in Brooklyn, married in 1921. They continued to love dancing and had a chance to waltz together after they moved to the JHA in 1994.

“We were always together,” Harmatz recalled. “He used to get up at night and cover me [with a blanket], to make sure I wouldn’t catch a cold. He took care of me. And I don’t know why, because I was always very strong and independent. I guess he noticed that I needed to be taken care of. When he passed away, I reassured him that I wouldn’t be long, that I’d be coming to meet him soon. But it hasn’t been that way.”

Harmatz laughed, but looked a little sad.

Born in Hungary in 1898, her earliest memories are of her father, a rabbi.

“He took me everywhere with him,” she said. “And I remember him teaching the children who couldn’t speak Hungarian, so they could learn too. I loved to sit and listen to him.”

Harmatz had her fourth birthday on board the ship to America.

Life was hard in this new country, says Harmatz, but she has fond memories of her parents’ relationship.

“My mother was very beautiful and they were very much in love. I used to know when they were going to have relations because [my father] used to leave his yarmulke on the bed.” Harmatz said with a laugh. “He was telling my mother, ‘Don’t forget, I’ll be there tonight!'”

Her father died at 42, leaving his wife with nine children. Harmatz started working at 13 to help out, then went to night school to become a nurse.

After marriage, she became a homemaker, raising the couple’s two daughters. There are now five grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

In 1935, Sylvia and Louis decided to come West, and settled in Hollywood. “I used to go downtown for seven cents on the Red Car!” Harmatz said.

Her political involvement as an avid Democrat goes at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt. “Politics was my piece de resistance!” said Harmatz, who would go door-to-door seeking donations. “I knocked at a door once and [asked for] a dollar. The woman says, ‘No I’m a Republican.’ So I said, ‘You don’t have to apologize to me, all you have to do is change your affiliation!'”

One thing that pleases Harmatz about being the grand marshal is riding in a convertible. In fact, last year when it rained on the parade, someone suggested they put up the top, but Harmatz wanted it left down.

“I’m not a fussy person, but I do like a red convertible,” she said, laughing. I asked her if red is her favorite color. “Yes, I like red. In fact, I’m going to be buried in a red dress with polka dots.”

Harmatz has been interviewed by CNN, local newspapers and radio stations. I asked if she likes being a celebrity.

“It’s not important to me,” she said. “I like it because it’s helping the Home. I want the Home to have everything they need. They asked me, ‘What do you want for all your trouble?’ I said, ‘I want a little plaque that says: You too can be involved.'”

For registration and sponsorship for Walk of Ages VI, call (818) 774-3100 or visit www.walkofages.kintera.org.

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.

 

Culling Your ‘Stuff’ Can Be Painful Task


My Aunt Naomi is overwhelmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This last issue seems especially important for older people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hava Flashback


“Bar Mitzvah Disco” (Crown, 2005) is part-coffeetable book, part-cultural relic, part-archive and wholly embarrassing.

Authors Roger Bennett, Jules Shell and Nick Kroll discovered in one long B.S. session that nothing quite engaged their friends, Jew and non-Jew alike, as a trip back down memory lane to the day of their or their friends’ bar or bat mitzvah. They started a Web site where people could post photos and memories, www.barmitzvahdisco.com, and that Web site became this book. It was, the authors explain, “an opportunity to tell the story of a generation” — and to embarrass people. Polyester suits, Farrah-bangs, tables of overfed relations, braces and acne — did we mention the word embarrassing? Along with plenty of photos — which are telling and even strangely brilliant divorced from the context of a bar mitzvah album — there are funny and poignant contributions by, among others, David Kohan, Sarah Silverman, Jonathan Safran Foer and Gideon Yago.

 

Maccabiah Games Bring Golden Times


When amateur soccer player Michael Erush went to Israel in July to play for Team USA in the 17th World Maccabiah Games, he was hoping to come home with gold. But following the Israeli team’s victory, Erush was content with the American silver-medal win.

“I always want to do the best,” the 22-year-old said. “We had one of the best Maccabiah men’s soccer teams, and we lost to a very good Israel team.”

However, his Maccabiah experience didn’t end with the medal ceremony. Erush extended his stay after an Israeli soccer franchise was so impressed with his level of play, that he was offered a 10-month contract for the following season.

He is currently shopping around for other offers, but his dream of turning pro could eventually become a reality in Israel — due to the Maccabiah Games.

“I’m still looking to different career paths,” said Erush, a research assistant for an private firm. “I might go back to school and get my MBA, or I might go play soccer…. I just want to keep my options open.”

Erush was one of more than 7,000 Jewish athletes from 55 countries, stretching from Brazil to India and Australia to Finland, who gathered this past summer in Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games. In the first games in 1932, 390 athletes from 14 nations participated. Now, the games are the third-largest sporting event in the world, outside of the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. Held every four years, this summer’s Maccabiah Games, which took place July 10-21, were the largest since its founding.

Competitions took place in approximately 30 categories, including track, tennis, swimming, baseball and even chess. The most dominant countries were Team USA and Israel. The American medal count was 222, with 71 gold, while Israel won 593 medals, 227 gold.

The hope of the organizers is that the games foster a sense of Jewish unity, awareness and pride among the athletes from around the world. In that spirit, this year’s games were the first to feature delegations from China, Macedonia and Grenada.

More than 90 athletes from Southern California were represented in such sports as track and field, basketball, volleyball, soccer, rugby and water polo. Among 20 medalists from the Southland, six won gold; nine, silver; and four, bronze. Some athletes took home multiple medals.

It was “an unforgettable experience, absolutely breathtaking,” said Danielle Arad, 17, of Yorba Linda who won four silver medals in the open swimming competition. “The hospitality and open arms that we received from the common citizens and Israeli athletes competing in the games allowed me to feel at home.”

For Shirin Lisa Golshani, 17, a Beverly Hills resident, walking into the packed stadium with Team USA during the opening ceremonies in Ramat Gan and being surrounded by Jews who had come from all corners of the world “was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

Golshani, who brought home silver and bronze from the girl’s youth karate competition, said that it “made it all the more greater of an experience because I was able to share it with my second family from karate.”

For USC graduate and businessman Ari Monosson, this year marked his second trip to the Maccabiah Games. During his first games in 2001, the 27-year-old runner won both a silver and a bronze medal. And while his dreams for gold this year were did not come true, his silver-medal win with the U.S. 4×400 relay team in no way diminished the experience. Monosson said there is nothing quite like the Maccabiah Games, and he recommended that Jewish athletes try out for the next games.

“Participating in them will be a life-changing experience,” he said. “There are moments and memories that you will cherish for the rest of your life.”

For rugby player Kevin Armstrong, 26, the long journey began with a discouraging setback. He broke his arm in the first 20 minutes of the first game. However, he still enjoyed both watching his team take a silver and being surrounded by Jews from around the world.

“On the field, it was business as usual, but off the field, it made the world seem very small, [especially] when you realize how people from across the world are very similar to you,” said the Angeleno.

Injuries and illness nearly kept Santa Monica residents Melody Khadavi and Fran Seegull from the games. The volleyball players each missed a month of practice in the United States due to different maladies, and when they landed in Israel, the combination of jet lag, hot temperatures and long days spent touring before the games caught up with them. But perseverance and antibiotics pulled the pair through the competitions to beat Canada for the bronze.

In the junior competitions, the gold-winning junior baseball team included Los Angeles resident Noah Michel. Alexander Hoffman-Ellis of Santa Monica High School helped the boys junior basketball team cruise to a gold. The girls junior soccer team brought home the gold with the help of coach Wendi Whitman of Long Beach.

For Erush, the next move is still up in the air. The soccer player said that may include the next games.

“Who knows,” Erush said. “I would love to win the gold and have silver, too.”

 

Family History at the Holiday Table


Reconnecting long-lost family often begins with a relative’s random comment during a holiday gathering as generations gather around a dinner table. The holiday season is an ideal time to share roots and traditions, and to begin a family history project, adding lasting links to the chain of Jewish identity and continuity.

At a family gathering in Israel, Ingrid Rockberger heard a relative say that an American cousin had visited family in Sweden. Something clicked, as she vaguely recalled meeting some Swedish cousins in London, as a young child, some 50 years ago. This was the catalyst for a family reunion reuniting the Israeli, British and Swedish branches.

Decades ago, my aunt in Florida said, quite offhandedly, that her grandfather repeatedly claimed that “Talalay was our name when we left Spain.” She added that no one believed it, and most laughed at the idea of our Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking family having such origins.

Decades went by before I began to search, but I never forgot her comment.

Mogilev, Belarus, has been the focus of my search — from there we immigrated to America and elsewhere. I’ve located far-flung branches in several countries.

However, my quest for a Sephardi connection continued, and I discovered a number of Sephardi-named families in the city, adding to the possibility.

In 2004, a Spanish researcher discovered a 1353 archival document, signed by a kosher winemaker with our rare name. In October, I’ll return to Barcelona to continue the search in several archives.

While memories fade and older generations pass, writings and images survive, preserving family lore. Make sure to share these with extended family, and include copies as gifts for new babies, bar/bat mitzvah and weddings.

In June 2005, genealogy sites received 11 million hits, and that marketing survey didn’t even include JewishGen.

According to www.ancestry.com, the world’s largest genealogy Web site, a recent poll indicated that 73 percent of Americans are interested in their roots. Susan King, head of www.jewishgen.org, the largest Jewish genealogical Web site, recently announced the Web site, which receives millions of hits, counts some 160,000 subscribers from around the world, and is joined by some 5,000 new people monthly.

A proliferation of specialized books, online Jewish genealogy classes and special projects have inspired and assisted researchers in preserving family history.

Even without spending a lot of time on the Web, there’s a lot you can do during the holiday season to pique interest in genealogy during the High Holidays:

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Shabbat – Prepare a Meal, Preserve a Memory


In our family, Shabbat is always a potluck. Three generations bustle about very different kitchens, recreating recipes passed down l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. And while I consider myself a fairly accomplished cook, I find myself regularly calling mom: “How come my brisket is so dry?” “Why is my kugel so temperamental?” “Why doesn’t my tsimmes taste like yours?” And as much as I like asking the questions, she loves answering them.

As our family gets older and the thought of losing them looms large, it’s a rewarding pleasure to spend time recording sweet moments, including favorite family recipes.

Instead of scrapbooking, think of it as cookbooking. Include recorded impromptu conversations in the kitchen, family photos and stories.

Pamela Hensley Vincent’s “Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook” (Overlook Press, 2004) pays tribute to her family, preserving memories through recipes and family photos.

“When you sit down to write about people you love, it just flows out of you,” Hensley Vincent said. “I visited haunts both magical and sorrowful, and as I went along, I recognized the cookbook was a scrapbook locked away all these years.”

As Hensley Vincent began gathering and trying to recreate her family’s recipes, she realized that when she cooked their dishes it was as if they were in the kitchen helping her.

“My father, Jack, could cook anything,” she said. “When he came home from work he couldn’t wait to get in the kitchen. When you grow up around that, you can’t help but love cooking.”

One vivid family memory straight out of my mother’s own recipe box happened one year, just before Thanksgiving, when my parents had been perusing their favorite farmer’s market and impulsively bought a giant bag of pecans. “I didn’t know what to do with all those nuts,” she said.

She opened the Herald-Examiner and there she found a recipe for pecan pie from her favorite columnist. My mom said, “I figured I listened to Dear Abby about other things, why not this?”

Jack’s Roast Chicken With Giblet Stuffing

Adapted from “The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook.”

1 4- to 5-pound chicken

Coarse salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for rubbing on bird

Paprika to taste

1 celery stalk, with leaves, coarsely chopped

1 to 2 cremini mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1 medium-sized onion, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 14-ounce can of chicken broth

2 cups Pepperidge Farm Seasoned Bread Crumb Stuffing Mix

Preheat oven to 450 F. Remove chicken livers and giblets; thoroughly clean inside of cavity under cold, running water. Pat inside and outside dry with a paper towel. Place bird on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Lightly sprinkle cavity with salt and pepper. Rub outside with olive oil and paprika. Place bird in refrigerator until ready to stuff.

In a saucepan, heat olive oil. Lightly brown giblets and liver for one to two minutes. Remove from saucepan and set aside. In same saucepan sauté celery, mushrooms, onions and garlic. When they start to soften and clarify, return giblets to pan, but reserve the liver. Pour chicken broth over vegetables and giblets; bring to a simmer. Cover saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes. Add liver to pan for last two minutes. Remove liver and giblets from pan and allow them to cool. Chop coarsely.

Put 2 cups of stuffing mix into a bowl. Add chopped liver, giblets, vegetables; toss together. Remove chicken from refrigerator and place stuffing loosely inside. Secure with two pins and string on each end. Place in oven. Immediately reduce heat to 350 F. Cook 20 minutes per pound. When finished, remove from oven. Let chicken cool for five minutes before carving.

Serves four to six.

Dear Abby’s Pecan Pie

This recipe appeared in Dear Abby’s advice column every year at Thanksgiving. The original recipe called for 1 cup each of corn syrup and sugar. My mother, Celia Levitt, adapted the recipe to make it less sweet, thinking it would be a bit healthier. Sometimes she used far less sugar than this.

3/4 cup light corn syrup

3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1/3 cup butter, melted

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 9-inch unbaked pie crust

1 heaping cup pecan halves

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, combine corn syrup, sugar, eggs, butter, salt and vanilla; mix well. Pour filling into unbaked pie crust and sprinkle pecan halves over top. Bake 45-50 minutes or until center is set (toothpick inserted in center will come out clean when pie is done). If pie or crust appears to be getting too brown on top, cover with foil for the remaining baking time. Remove from oven and cool.

Serves eight to 10.

 

Books – ‘Love’ Tries to Solve Mystery of the Heart


“The History of Love” By Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, $23.95).

“The History of Love” is the name of a book within Nicole Krauss’s remarkable new novel of the same name, “The History of Love” (Norton). The inner novel has had a life of its own, written in Yiddish in Poland and thought to be lost, translated into Spanish in Buenos Aires, unbeknownst to the author, and later into English in New York; it drew on real love and also inspired love. If this were a love letter rather than a novel, it would be a chain letter, broken but ultimately reconnected.

Leo Gursky, a retired locksmith living alone in New York City, who makes a daily commotion in some public place to be sure that he doesn’t die without being noticed, is the unlikely romantic who’s the original author of “The History of Love.” He wrote it while living in Poland, when he was very much in love with a girl named Alma. Jews weren’t safe in their town of Slonim, and he lost Alma, who left for America before he did, and he gave the manuscript to a friend for safekeeping.

Years later at age 57, Gursky, after a heart attack curtails his work; he begins a new book, writing daily. He muses: “At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.”

Gursky is a man whose suit doesn’t quite fit, who’s always late (“I’ve always arrived too late for my life”). A magnet for small mishaps at inopportune times, he’s cranky and lonely, although still a poetic observer. “Story of my life: I was a locksmith. I could unlock every door in the city. And yet I couldn’t unlock anything I wanted to unlock.”

Also living in New York is a young girl named Alma, who understands that she’s named after every female character in a Spanish novel her late father gave to her mother. Her parents would read to her from the book, inscribed with the words that this would have been the story her father would have written for her mother had he been a novelist. Years later, Alma’s mother is hired to translate the novel into English. Excerpts of it appear throughout the book.

Masterfully, Krauss ties together the stories of Gursky and the young Alma as each searches for clues about “The History of Love.” For Gursky, the manuscript oddly reappears, with the names changed into Spanish. The far-reaching literary puzzles involve Alma’s younger brother, who has messianic impulses; Gursky’s son, a well-known writer who doesn’t know of his father’s existence; Alma’s young friend Misha, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who learns English by memorizing Beatles songs; and ghosts from Gursky’s past. Krauss’s overarching “The History of Love” is about loss and the transformative force of love; it’s also playful, wise and funny.

Her highly praised first novel, “Man Walks Into a Room,” published in 2002, is about a man who loses his memory. That was a daring first novel, not the more usual coming-of-age story. Beginning the book when she was 25, she wrote from the perspective of a 36-year-old man. Here she inhabits the voices of an old man and a 14-year-old girl, portraying each with convincing power.

Memory is still a theme for Krauss, and as she says, it’s probably one of the things she’ll be writing about as long as she writes. In “The History of Love,” Leo Gursky is overflowing with memories; in many ways, he lives in his memories. But he has no one to share them with.

Krauss has spoken of being really in love as she wrote this, and how that feeling is evident on the page. For her, writing is “a kind of reflex.” She says that her writing has evolved from the tightly-reigned-in prose of her first novel, where she cared a lot about the sentences, to greater expansiveness. Gursky’s voice, she explains, “allowed a kind of openness and honesty felt in the moment.”

Krauss, who began publishing poetry when she was 19, still writes beautiful sentences; her pages are full of energy.

The 30-year-old author, who lives in Brooklyn, is married to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” is also recently published. Although several critics see parallels between their work, she declines to talk about him, preferring to keep their professional lives separate.

Film rights to “The History of Love” have been optioned by Warner Bros., with David Heyman set to produce and Alfonso Cuaron (known for “Y Tu Mamá También) as director.

On Monday, June 13, at 7 p.m., Nicole Krauss will read from “The History of Love” at Dutton’s Beverly Hills Books, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 281-0997.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

 

‘Down’ on the Valley


“I still feel uncomfortable going back to the Valley,” 43-year-old filmmaker David Jacobson said. “To this day, I associate it with my childhood sense of feeling lost and lonely in a stark landscape. When I begin going over the 405, my spirits just start to drop.”

Jacobson’s acclaimed new film, “Down in the Valley” — which opens the Los Angeles Film Festival June 16 — draws on his memories of desolation without and within. His parents divorced when he was 2; his older brother died in a car accident when he was 13; and the introverted boy suffered nightmares and fear of the dark upon moving into a Van Nuys tract home next to the 101. “The freeway, which we heard day and night, was an ominous presence, a violent place where hurtling steel rushed past you like bullets,” he said. “We played in empty, weedy lots.”

Jacobson’s isolation was exacerbated because he discerned no historical or cultural continuity with which to connect. Since his family was secular, he said, he had no Jewish education to help him feel part of a community and guide him through rites of passage. His bar mitzvah, in a sense, was moving in with his father after his brother’s death.

His memories led him to create “Down in the Valley,” starring Edward Norton as a delusional man who claims to be a cowboy with a mysterious past. Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Norton) drifts from the Tujunga Wash to a Chasidic neighborhood as he pursues a dangerous friendship with two latchkey kids who regard him as a hero. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a rebellious teenager, and 11-year-old Lonnie (Rory Culkin), who suffers a crippling fear of the dark, also wander aimlessly through vacant lots, strip malls, freeway overpasses and fast-food joints.

Like the director’s previous films, “Criminal” (1994) and “Dahmer” (2002), “Valley,” in part, is a disquieting portrait of a man unable to function within normal society. So it’s jarring to meet the bespectacled director, who seems more like a nice Jewish boy than the creator of distressing, if lauded dramas. He is mild-mannered and friendly, despite spending 16-hour days trimming “Valley” after Cannes reviewers called it “breathtaking” but overlong. (Variety called him a “prodigiously talented” filmmaker.) Without a trace of bitterness, he said his work places him on the margins of American independent cinema, which veers more toward the quirky than the profoundly disturbing.

It was while braving multiple rejections for his understated serial killer film, “Dahmer,” around 1999 that he started writing his latest film in France — one of the many places he has lived to escape the Valley. He currently lives in Hollywood.

Since he had identified with the isolation of Dahmer’s youth (but not with his perversities), he decided to “return to the personal in an even more direct way, by exploring my childhood,” he said.

Jacobson wrote much of “Valley’s” first draft in an 18th century rococo library in Paris: “Had I been in Los Angeles, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to deal with it, so having all that physical and emotional distance helped,” he said.

While writing, Jacobson attended a series of classic Western films, and the myths and images flowed into his story. “I wanted to depict the parallels between the bleak vistas and lifestyles portrayed in the Westerns and the modest West where I lived,” he said. “Growing up in the Valley, there was this sense of solitude, the constant fear of attack and the need of a hero to save me.”

To capture flat Valley spaces that retain old West emptiness, Jacobson decided to shoot the movie in anamorphic widescreen. But while scouting locations, he discovered the kind of childhood scenarios he remembered had moved to the North Valley. In Arleta, he found the tract home with cinderblock and overgrown palm trees that served as the children’s house. Harlan, for a time, inhabits rural Sunland, where bucolic ranches also harbor “abandoned junky cars, power lines and trailers — a weird netherland that’s both urban and rural,” he said.

While scrolling through the images in a dim Los Angeles editing room, Jacobson said the story eventually became less about the Valley than children left alone to complete rites of passage. “When they are left to their own devices, it doesn’t usually have the best ending,” he said.

The 263 movies in the Los Angeles Film Festival, June 16-26, of which The Jewish Journal is a promotional affiliate, include three Israeli films focusing on women’s issues: Raphael Nadjari’s “Avanim” depicts a young wife’s resistance to a claustrophobic, male-dominated culture; Eran Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride” tells of an Israeli Druze who cannot return to her village once she crosses the border to marry her Syrian fiance; and Anat Zuria’s documentary, “Sentenced to Marriage,” traces three Orthodox wives’ battles to divorce abusive husbands. For tickets and information, call (866) 345-6337 or visit www.lafilmfest.com.

 

Soothing Music Memories


When Len Lawrence was sitting shiva for his father 12 years ago, he found himself longing for some Jewish music to help soothe him through that difficult time, but he just couldn’t find the right songs.

Now that Lawrence is general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, he has remedied the situation for others who might feel the way he did. The result is “Scores of Memory,” a CD of traditional and contemporary compositions produced by Mount Sinai and Craig Taubman.

“What I wanted was music that touches people’s souls and hearts in many different ways in their time of need,” Lawrence said.

The CD includes songs by Taubman, Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The latter has special meaning for Rabbi Jerry Cutler of Creative Arts Temple.

“My father was an Orthodox rabbi, so we grew up in a very traditional home where we would hear such music as Carlebach’s all the time,” Cutler recalled. “For someone who has lost someone and their mind is in a state of riot, if they put the Mount Sinai music on, they can start remembering beautiful times from many years ago.”

Lawrence said many people around the country have written to thank him for the CD, which Mount Sinai offers free to both its clients and anyone who requests the music.

In the introduction to “Scores of Memory,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote: “From the depths of our souls, we bring our grief, our joy, our doubts, our hopes, our being in music. From the moment we are born, there is something in us that responds to the cadence and rhythm of the song.”

Cutler views the use of music at a funeral or time of mourning as a very personal decision. “I always say, whatever the heart dictates.”

For more information, visit www.mt-sinai.com.

 

L.A. Visit Excites Shoah Survivors


 

For Israeli Shifra Fyne, 83, this week’s journey to Los Angeles will be her first time leaving Israel in 56 years, and her first trip ever on an airplane.
Yehuda Goldstein is making the same trip. He hopes to reconnect with John Gordon, an L.A. resident he met last year in Israel. They think they grew up in the same pre-World War II neighborhood in Budapest.
Avi Levie, originally from Slovakia, hopes to find his sister, Erna Muhlstein. They were separated after the war and he thinks she might be living in the United States.
Fyne, Goldstein and Levie are among 20 travelers coming to Los Angeles in association with Cafe Europa, an international social club for Holocaust survivors that started in Los Angeles with funding from Jewish Family Service and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Last year, a group from Los Angeles made its first voyage to Israel to meet with Cafe Europa members there. This year, a group from Israel is making the trip to Los Angeles, also for the first time.
Cafe Europa’s weekly meetings, held in a variety of settings, allow survivors to recapture the joy that was brutally taken from their youth. On a recent sunny Sunday in Tel Aviv, some 75 Cafe Europa members gathered at the elegant and spacious Golda and Yehuda Zucker Senior Citizens’ Day Center, with its outdoor fountain and garden that could have been drawn out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Participants included Helen Segev, a 76-year-old grandmother with red-tinted hair, who stepped outside the noise of the dance hall to recount what happened to her at age 14. Segev, the middle of three daughters, was grabbed by the Gestapo while her mother — powerless to help — hastily escaped with the rest of the family. She rolled up her sleeve, showing the number tattoo she received in the concentration camp.
“Most of the people here are survivors that had been hidden,” she said in English with a Flemish accent. “Most hadn’t survived the camps like me.”
The tattoo near her elbow has faded to a soft blue over the years, and the numbers have merged together.
Segev prefers to look forward, especially to the L.A. trip.
“I am beyond excitement,” she said.
“Varda!” she yelled, pointing to a woman across the courtyard, “She’s another one I convinced to go to L.A.”
Cafe Europa began in Los Angeles in 1986. The Tel Aviv club opened in 2001 to serve that city’s 30,000 Holocaust survivors. During its inaugural weeks, the Tel Aviv club scheduled lectures and various talks, but that didn’t last long, because the seniors preferred to dance, said Marilyn Fefer, projects coordinator for the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, which sponsors Cafe Europa.
For three and a half years, the Los Angeles and Tel Aviv clubs communicated face-to-face by videoconferencing. Then, last year, the L.A. group sent 14 survivors plus staff and lay people to meet with their Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv. There they toured Masada and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum as part of their weeklong visit.
Not long after, the Israelis were asking when they could go to Los Angeles — even though the average age of the would-be travelers was 75. Group members are paying most of their expenses, although outside organizations are helping, just as they do with regular Cafe Europa events.
In Los Angeles, the visitors will be hosted at Jewish homes. Over their nine-day stay, they’ll meet with schoolchildren, tour museums and rekindle memories with their L.A. counterparts — as well as visit area attractions such as Universal Studios.
“Café Europa is about life,” says Susie Forer-Dehrey, associate executive director of Jewish Family Service, the agency that brought the two groups together. ”It allows survivors to learn from each other and gives them a comfortable place where they don’t have to explain the past. Everyone in the group understands.”
The two groups will commemorate Yom HaShoah, including a visit to the Holocaust memorial by artist Bernard Baruch Zakheim at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuaries. This year’s remembrance will mark 60 years since the Russian army entered the Auschwitz death camp and shut it down.
Those dark years contain dark memories for 75-year-old Channa Dercin. She resisted talking at first, preferring instead to listen to the singer at the mid-April Tel Aviv social. Dercin’s story was tough. One brother left to Lodz ghetto as a volunteer laborer for the Nazis, thinking that would save his family. He was never heard from again. Her father died in the ghetto of starvation — he gave his food rations to the children. All the remaining family members ended up in work or death camps or both. Dercin’s mother died just after liberation.
As for Dercin, she’d injured her knee while collecting logs in the forest near the Bergen-Belsen death camp. A Nazi SS officer saw her limping and threw her to the ground, knocking her unconsciousness. Some time later, two men picked her up and threw her into a wagon while on their rounds collecting the dead. She was dropped off among the dead and dying at an infirmary. There she met a local Polish woman who would later help reunite Dercin with her family members. One of Dercin’s brothers survived, but she never saw her four other siblings again.
Dercin had been willing to share her story, but she was more interested in watching the chicken dance and the kissing dance, in which a man held an unfolded napkin and waved it in the air. He then danced around several women and dropped the napkin in front of one woman. They both went down to their knees and kissed. Then, the woman took the napkin, and began dancing around the men.
Maybe these seniors haven’t found eternal youth, but for these survivors life is something to make the most of.
For more information go to

Tell Me a Story


 

When I was growing up, my family’s Passover gatherings were a joyful blend of holiday traditions, over-eating, stand-up comedy and most important of all — storytelling by our “tribal elders.”

For example, I was always moved by one of my Grandma Lena’s stories from the Great Depression.

“So many people were hungry,” she said. “Occasionally, I would come home from work and find a strange, unshaven man dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table. Your great-grandmother Leba would be serving him an entire meal — from soup to dessert. It scared me that she let strangers into the house when she was alone; she was a tiny, frail woman. But when I asked her how she could this, she simply said, ‘How could I not do this? He was hungry.'”

I never knew Leba Klein, but when my grandmother shared such memories, I learned something real about my ancestors.

I only wish we had recorded those stories.

Passover is a time for families to gather, to enjoy each other’s company and to recall the story of our shared ancient history.

It is also the perfect time to preserve your family’s greatest treasure: the memories and stories of your own family elders.

That’s why this Passover (or Mother’s or Father’s Day), you should create a family project to interview your oldest relatives.

Recording these stories means that they will be available for future generations. Plus, you can avoid regret. I’m constantly hearing people say things like, “We kept meaning to interview my grandparents, but we just didn’t have time. Now it’s too late.”

Also, every person should have a chance to tell his or her life story. One shouldn’t have to have survived horrible experiences, or accomplished the extraordinary, or be a celebrity to have this opportunity.

When we take the time to ask a parent or grandparent to tell us about their past experiences, and truly listen to them, we are acknowledging them for who they are, and for the life they have lived. They deserve this.

And finally, involving children in this interview process creates a meaningful connection between them and their family elders, something that doesn’t often happen these days. They will learn about their roots from a real person.

Not sure where to start? Here are some tips:

1. Get an audio cassette recorder or video camera and tripod. Bring a lot of tapes and back-up batteries. Get an external microphone, so that the recording will be clear. (Get advice from Radio Shack or Fry’s for a microphone that will fit your specific machine and will capture the sound most effectively. Pay extra for a good one.) Be sure to test your equipment before you conduct the interview. Try out different locations for the placement of the microphone to capture all important voices.

2. Plan a family gathering, where the entire family can commit to a few hours together. That in itself is a challenge, I know. But it’s worth it.

3. Determine the best interview subjects. Usually, this would be the eldest relatives who can not only talk about their own lives and experiences, but who also know the details and stories about your ancestors. You also want to choose people whose memories are intact. (My mother’s dementia would sadly rule her out now as an appropriate interview subject.)

In many families there are Talkers and Listeners. Some of the Talkers are great storytellers; some of them are just dominating. Listeners rarely speak up family gatherings.

With Talkers, your job is to manage the conversation, so that the interview moves along. Having a list of interview questions will help.

With Listeners, your job is to make sure they know that you truly want to hear about their life and experiences. Make sure they have their moment in the spotlight by asking them a specific question, and kindly telling anyone who interrupts to please wait their turn.

4. Before your gathering, have everyone in the family write down a list of questions to ask. There isn’t room here to give you an entire list of such questions, but you want to cover every generation that these interview subjects can speak about — their ancestors, grandparents, parents and the subject him or herself.

Your questions should trigger memories and details about different aspects of a person’s life: For example: names of important people, their personalities, the home, the city or town, daily activities, work, education, their experiences of being Jewish, how the family interacted, what they did for fun, what were their challenges and the events and times.

Ask all of the children in the family to make up questions, too. Depending on their ages, children often want to know grandparents’ favorite toys, what school was like or how their grandparents met.

5. Someone may have to play “director” and make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk and that people aren’t talking all at once (the result on your tape will be gobbledygook.)

6. Remember, this is something that deserves your family’s time and energy. The payoff is a precious experience and a record of your heritage. Have fun!

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and owner of Living Legacies Family Histories. She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net.

 

Card-Table Tales


 

I confess that most of my childhood Passover memories have nothing to do with the Passover story itself. How could they when seders were family dramas enacted against a backdrop of matzah and gefilte fish? Like most American Jewish kids, I started out observing the proceedings from a card table, fidgeting while the grown-ups read from the haggadah.

I remember my cultivated Grandma Lil, relishing dunking her finger into her cup and flicking wine out while reciting the 10 plagues. She always tried to avoid the eyes of my Grandpa Herman, her ex-husband. I think the tyrannical Herman, an esteemed ear-nose-and-throat doctor, had been one of her private plagues. But love Herman or not, Grandma tolerated him at seders. The didact in Grandpa Herman embraced the lecture component of seders. He had a little notebook full of Pesach cartoons and poems that he called a Children’s Haggadah. He dragged it out every year to show us the same poems and pictures. My grandmother just rolled her eyes. We kids humored him.

I also remember heated arguments about the Vietnam War, with my then-hawkish, young, dentist father vs. his UCLA sociology doctoral-student brother and Berkeley undergraduate sister. My father’s brother had a long, hippie beard that shook like a burning bush when he shouted, “We’re killing innocent children in ‘Nam!” My father’s sister’s breasts shook (she must have burned her bra during a protest at People’s Park) and cords stood out on her neck when she yelled at my father: “You’re sounding like one of the pigs.”

My father’s genial father stepped in with his Yiddish-accented English and said, “Quiet, we’re trying to have a seder here. What will the children think?”

He motioned at me, age 6, and my sister, age 4. The seder went on.

As I grew older and more responsible, I was allowed into the grown-up sanctum, the actual dining room. I felt almost adult as I carried steaming bowls of matzah ball soup, cleared the dishes and conversed with my elders. At age 15, as I cleared the dinner plates from the grandparent section of the table, I heard my sweet, widowed, little Grandma Bea sucking the marrow from a thick chicken bone. Suddenly, tyrannical Herman screamed at her from across the table, “That’s disgusting! You’re not living in the shtetl anymore. You’re nothing but a peasant.”

Grandma Bea ignored him and sucked louder.

“I’m done now, Sharon dear,” she said. “You can take my plate.”

I scooped up her plate and tried to dash for the kitchen. Grandpa Herman grabbed my forearm, fixed his blue eyes on mine and said, “I hope you won’t behave like her in polite society.”

I wanted to cry. But I followed my grandma’s example, ignored him, and walked out. Although Grandpa Herman’s rages were getting scarier with age, I learned to cope.

My Grandma Lil, tyrannical Grandpa Herman, genial Grandpa Fred and my father are all gone now, but these seder memories remain. I try to view even the painful memories as a blessing. Growing up, these experiences taught me that despite difficult relatives and challenging situations the seder must go on — the story must be told, the wine must be drunk and the songs must be sung. Doesn’t that somehow seem like a metaphor for the Jewish people’

My once wild-bearded sociologist uncle is now a retired college professor with very little hair remaining on his head. He conducts the seders much like my father did before him, and my grandfather before him. His past political outrages have been muted by time. But somehow the seder remains the same.

Now that I’ve graduated to near the head of the dining room table, I sense a lot more people around me then I did in the card table days. I feel the presence of all the dead relatives I remember from childhood on, and see a new crop of children sitting at the card table. From generation to generation, in my mind’s eye, everyone is around the table. That’s the power of seder I hope to pass on to my own children.

Sharon Rosen is a mother of three and is currently working on her first novel.

 

Catskills Memories


 

For Rita Lakin, memories of the 1950s at Grossinger’s, the famed Catskills resort, bring up thoughts of three five-course kosher meals per day, plus a runway-length buffet for guests who missed breakfast — served one hour before lunch. Then there were the Saturday night shows that featured a Hollywood headliner, a dance team and a comic.

Her new musical, “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s,” fetes the businesswoman behind the food and the entertainment, Jennie Grossinger (1882-1972). As the show opens, it’s a Saturday night in the 1960s, and Grossinger (Barbara Minkus) must entertain her own guests when headliners Judy Garland, Alan King and Red Buttons are detained by a blizzard. She and her family spontaneously decide to put on their own play, outlining the history of the hotel, which was “Las Vegas before there was Vegas,” Lakin said.

We learn how Grossinger and her parents turned their failing Catskills farm into a summer boarding house, circa 1920, for Jews seeking refuge from sweltering New York City; how the hotel blossomed into an American institution, largely because of Jennie Grossinger’s talent for booking top entertainers; and how stars such as Garland played the hotel, as did numerous comics who got their big break there.

The character of Sheldon, an amalgam of these comics, spouts shtick as thick as a deli sandwich.

“A woman came up to me today and said, ‘How do I lose weight at Grossinger’s,'” he says. “I said, ‘Go home!'”

“Saturday Night” was conceived in the 1980s when television writer-producer Lakin (“Dynasty”) and the late Doris Silverton unsuccessfully pitched a TV series set in the Catskills.

“We felt that onstage we’d have a much better chance of doing something so Jewish,” Lakin said. So they visited the by-then-closed resort, interviewed Grossinger’s children and signed on composer Claibe Richardson and lyricists Ronny Graham and Stephen Cole.

Cole, who also wrote the book, incorporated Grossinger’s lore: how waiters danced with the single women; how the owners once smuggled a dead patron out of the resort (in the musical she’s danced out in a conga line); and how the workaholic Grossinger was “married to the store.”

The character is loosely based on the real businesswoman, and her daughter, Elaine Grossinger Etess, said she recognizes the “spirit” of her mother in the play.

$15-$30. Opens March 26 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hollywood. For tickets, call (323) 851-7977.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Confusing


 

I am a senior citizen. I’m 82, look 65 and feel like 40. It is a very confusing time of life. People assume that you are over the hill. You know that you are still vital and have the ability to contribute to society.

At the age of 50, I classified myself as lower-middle age. As the years rushed by, I accepted middle, middle-age and then upper-middle age.

At 82, I can no longer fool myself with artificial classifications. I am old. I am a senior citizen. So what?

Senior citizenship is not necessarily bad. Nice people rise to give you their seats on buses and in public places. I always refuse the seat but will accept it for my more fragile wife.

Theaters offer me a discount on tickets. Financially, I don’t need a discount, but I gladly accept it. There are some small feelings of guilt as I observe younger, and perhaps poorer, couples paying full price.

Guilt also appears for me in restaurants as I timidly display my two-for-one coupon. The guilt is not deeply seated.

My family loves to chide me about my preference for restaurants that offer these coupons. I just can’t escape my memories of childhood poverty. Who ate at restaurants in Chicago’s West Side ghetto?

Joining other seniors at a restaurant can be a harrowing experience. There are always a few seniors who lag way behind the cute gal leading us to our seats. Some seniors reject seats that face a wall. Others in the same party demand a window seat. Of course, the restaurant temperature is too cold or too hot.

Some seniors have as much difficulty deciding what to eat as Eisenhower had deciding when to land at Normandy. We always have food left over to take home. We mark the cartons to be sure we take home our own leftovers.

You do not want to be present when the owner comes around at the end of the meal to declare our coupons invalid. We seniors are confident. We have seen too much of life to give up without a fight. Meek and mild we are not.

There is a sad aspect to dining with a senior who has lost a spouse. You want to pay their bill as a gesture of love. They insist on paying their fair share. You have to accept that pride demands that they pay for what they ate. Sometimes you adjust their share so they pay less than normal. They rarely know what you have done.

Dining brings up cruising. On a recent cruise, they asked what couple had been married the longest. The winning couple was to get a bottle of champagne.

The wife and I won with our 58 years. The champagne we gave away. But winning brought up many wistful memories.

I am very happily married. Yet I can’t explain where the years went. What happened to the skinny kid who was discharged from the Army on March 1 of 1946 and married two days later on March 3? Was it 58 years since we had that fabulous wedding attended by 10 people? How could it be that we have a daughter who is 55 years old?

You cannot spend time and energy wondering where the years went. They are finished.

Seniors must concentrate on now. Enjoy life now. Do what you can within your abilities. Life is precious and good. Tomorrow will come at its own speed.

 

A Holiday Redemption


 

When my wife left me last year, I was not prepared for how lonely Christmas could be, nor did I realize how Jewish it would become.

Last Dec. 24, I was alone in the Sherman Oaks townhouse we once shared. I did not buy a Christmas tree; there was no joy in my home that such a tree could magnify. All the Christmas ornaments were hers, so there were no blinking lights, holly or front door wreath; she was very good at creating Christmas cheer.

My large Irish-Catholic clan (sisters, Anne and Mary; brothers, Matthew, Mark and John) means large Christmas gatherings. But schedules last Christmas meant we would not all be together until Dec. 26 at my parent’s home. So last year, I caught the Christmas Eve vigil Mass alone at St. Charles in North Hollywood. It can be a painful place; I was married there three years earlier, but then again, it’s also where three of my nephews, plus my twin brother and I, were baptized, and where my sister, Mary, was married. My fresh, sad marriage memories were muted by joyous thoughts of other Christmases.

After Mass, I drove to my oldest, closest friend’s Fairfax District home for Christmas Eve dinner. It was a small affair, just me, him, his longtime girlfriend and her widowed mother. There was something comforting about his door’s mezuzah that Christmas Eve.

I woke up Christmas Day morning with no tree, toys or eggnog, and I understood how Jewish children could feel left out on Christmas mornings as non-Jewish neighbor kids ride new bikes and try out other presents. Like Jewish kids, I had no gifts that morning.

But I had Sinai Temple. The Conservative Westwood synagogue’s Mitzvah Day attracted 105 young Jewish volunteers to clean a beach, play with abandoned dogs, visit elderly Christians in a nursing home and feed Los Angeles’ poor. They gathered in the underground parking lot of that Pico Boulevard Ralphs near Century City, where Leslie Klieger, Sinai’s ATID young adult group director, greeted me, as did Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei.

I briefly interviewed him in the back seat of volunteer Lida Tabibian’s parked SUV. The tape recorder was not working, which was embarrassing in front of the rabbi, who asked if everything was OK. I mentioned my divorce and he listened — a much-appreciated act of Jewish empathy for a broken Catholic on this Christian holiday.

Last Christmas morning, rain soaked downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, and the poor were wet and hungry. Inside a rescue mission were Klieger, Tabibian and other young Jews doing good for people far worse off than a tape recorder-challenged journalist whose wife had left him. With the mitzvah done, Klieger, Tabibian and I went back into Tabibian’s large SUV so I could interview them for my mitzvah story.

Tabibian mentioned the Mitzvah Day’s large turnout and said, “Isn’t it wonderful what we’re doing here?”

What could I say? My wife had left me. My savior was born yet I didn’t feel saved.

But Tabibian’s rich Persian smile, her dark eyes alight at the joy of doing mitzvah, and that phrase, “Isn’t it wonderful?” briefly stopped my grief. Suddenly, with her question, Christmas Day started to glow a little.

Beauty and wonder at Christmas are not always under a tree or in a song or at Mass. Sometimes, beauty and wonder can be heard when a good-hearted woman asks you, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

For dinner that Christmas Day, I went to Izzy’s Deli in Santa Monica and met a friend, both of us alone, but now, not lonely.

This Christmas Eve, I may check out a Pico-Robertson Shabbat sermon. On Christmas Day, I might look in on Temple Israel of Hollywood’s dinner for the poor at a nearby church, or maybe attend the Skirball Cultural Center’s Theodore Bikel Yiddish concert in the evening.

I grew up in Studio City (yes, south of Ventura Boulevard). Except for two gauntlet years at Encino’s Crespi Carmelite High School, I was a public school Catholic, surrounded by Jewish friends and Jewish student role models. The first girl I ever kissed was Jewish. The best man at my Catholic wedding was Jewish — the same man my wife asked to tell me our marriage was over.

From my first crush to my first kiss to being praised by Steven Spielberg to my divorce to this newspaper, Jews have been there for me. And last Christmas Day, when I looked at the young Jewish volunteers in that underground Ralphs parking lot, in a small way I was home again; among my Studio City own, spending part of Christmas with cool Jews. I was broken, yes, but not alone.

 

Singing Klezmer Isn’t Hard to Do


Neil Sedaka is a punctual, polite musical legend, and at 65, he still likes being a mama’s boy.

“I do. I like being protected,” Sedaka said. He grew up in a loving Sephardic/Ashkenazic home in Brooklyn, where he practiced piano for hours. It was a sheltered Coney Island Avenue universe in which, “my sister fought my battles in school,” Sedaka said. “To me, the raising of a voice was very jarring. My mother told me that everything I did was perfect.”

When it comes to catchy tunes with perfect melodies, the world often has agreed with Mama Sedaka (now 88 and living in Ft. Lauderdale). And while having Andy Warhol paint your portrait and seeing one’s songwriting skills praised in Bob Dylan’s recent autobiography are great, it is the Yiddish songs he grew up listening to that now claim Sedaka’s melodic soul.

His CD, “Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish,” cost less than $10,000 to produce, prompted a Carnegie Hall concert last summer and is now coming to the Wilshire Theatre this weekend — complete with a klezmer band. The show’s second half will be from Sedaka’s own large repertoire, with the show’s first half dedicated to Yiddish tunes such as “My Yiddishe Mamme” and “Shein vi di L’Vone” (“Pretty as the Moon”).

“I grew up on these songs. I wanted to do something that was close to my heart,” Sedaka told The Journal in telephone interview from his Park Avenue apartment. “But I have to tell you that this CD has taken a life of its own.”

Since dropping out of Juilliard in 1958, Sedaka’s 1,000 songs have included nearly 50 hummable and singable hits, including “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Calendar Girl,” “Stupid Cupid” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” A product of Manhattan’s 1960s Brill Building songwriting factory, his music has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Cher, Sheryl Crow, ABBA, David Cassidy, Mandy Moore and The Monkees. A hit single this year came out of “American Idol” — Clay Aiken’s rendition of “Solitaire.”

“It’s a big body of work,” Sedaka said. His high baritone voice prompted a compliment decades ago from fellow Las Vegas Hilton staple Elvis Presley. “He said to me that when he was in the Army, he would go to the jukebox and sing the ‘Sedaka songs,'” he said.

Sedaka has had a noteworthy place in American music for four decades; he became a comfortable perennial who did not let himself turn into a tortured titan like Sinatra or a forgettable one-hit wonder like The Imperials, Haircut 100 or Luscious Jackson.

One does not cringe when VH1 asks “Where Are They Now?” of Sedaka, because he usually has a hit somewhere, including at least one Billboard chart-topper each decade since 1958. Even while touring the Great Wall of China, the songwriter marveled at his Chinese guide singing one of his songs on the tour bus, the tour guide then refusing to believe Sedaka when he identified himself.

His hit-making consistency and songwriting discipline also have made him a man entirely lacking in public scandal. His work is remembered more than anything else, overshadowing even his enviable 42-year marriage to fellow New Yorker Leba Strassberg. The couple, who met in the Catskills, have two children — daughter Dara, a recording artist, and son Marc, an L.A. screenwriter — and twin granddaughters, Amanda and Charlotte.

He also finds Israeli audiences enjoying him when he sings Hebrew versions of his hits; his decidedly “charitable” last name (tzedaka means charity), he said, “has been very helpful.”

Yet, Sedaka admits that for all the pop hits he has written and heard played, hummed or sung in elevators, supermarkets and cocktail lounges, writing pop music is not bubblegum and can require as much elaborate creation as a Bach symphony.

“The hardest thing is to write a simple melody,” he said. “I do wish that I could write something a little more complicated, but it’s not me; it’s not my makeup. I’m very disciplined. It was kind of a long, long career. It never went to my head.”

His evergreen tunes (before Aiken, Elvis recorded “Solitaire”) means Sedaka has not had to work the ’50s hits revival circuit.

“I love oldies, but I never had to do those shows,” the songwriter said.

Sedaka’s choice of rock ‘n’ roll and pop over classical notes initially irked his mother, who saw her baby as the next Arthur Rubinstein. When someone suggested that young Neil, with his unique high voice, become a chazan, his mother dismissed that, too, insisting he would be a concert pianist.

But success smiled on his mother’s dashed dreams when at 19, his songwriting brought in royalties of $42,000.

“I bought her a mink stole,” Sedaka said. “That made the difference. We call it her Hadassah tallit.”

Neil Sedaka performs Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m, and Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $35-$55 with an eight-ticket limit. For more information, call (323) 468-1770 or go to