“The Narrow Straits of Our Lives”

“How different this night is from all other nights!”  The familiar singsong of Mah Nishtanah reverberates in Jewish homes throughout the world on Passover eve.  What Seder would be complete without the beloved Four Questions chanted by the young and the young-at-heart?  These questions are the literary device that introduces the maggid, the embellished Exodus narrative that is the essence of the Pesah celebration.  Put another way, the Passover Seder is the quintessential Jewish storytelling experience.

“How different this night is from all other nights!”  Let me share a true story that I will tell at my own Seder this year: Eleven Muslim leaders visited Los Angeles last week under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State and the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles. The visitors were prominent imams, academics and journalists from diverse Arab countries—Algeria,Egypt, Mauritania, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Morocco, and Iraq.

None of them had ever visited the United States, and few spoke English. The focus of their three-week, multi-city American tour was interfaith dialogue.  They were here to learn about religious life in the United States, meet with religious leaders engaged in interfaith work, and explore the impact of religion on American political life.  The Board of Rabbis has hosted similar groups in the past, and we were pleased to honor this request from the International Visitors Council.

We arranged for the eleven Muslim leaders and four translators to tour Temple Beth Am, their first visit to a synagogue.  Rabbis Adam Kligfeld and Susan Leider were gracious hosts, taking a Torah scroll from the Ark and patiently answering questions about the Bible and Talmud, Jewish life and thought.  The visitors’ tour continued at the Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, where we welcomed our guests and directed their attention to the beautiful Jerusalem stone in the lobby.  I used the opportunity to mention the Jewish community’s special bonds with the land, people and state of Israel, knowing full well that this would stimulate a lively conversation later in the program.

Following time off for Muslim prayers, we gathered in a meeting room for further discussion. I fielded questions from the guests as a small group of rabbis and Federation leaders began to arrive for a private kosher/halal dinner.  An imam from Iraq (he prefers to call it Babylon) turned to me and said through a translator, “Rabbi, I am having a difficult time reconciling what you are saying about Judaism with what I know to be true from what I have learned on the Internet.  I have read a very important Jewish book called ‘The Protocols’ and it clearly shows that Jews are scheming, hate-filled people who conspire to take over the world.  I know this to be true from my studies, and I know that this doesn’t agree with what you are saying about Judaism as a peaceful religion and Jews as a non-violent people.”

At that fateful moment, colleagues in the room noticed my face turning multiple shades of red and purple.  As I paused to gain my composure, I recalled the Midrash of the four children in the Passover Haggadah.  Was my Iraqi guest like the wicked child who deserves to “have his teeth set on edge” due to his malicious nature?  Or was he more like the simple child who asks a simple question out of ignorance?

I looked into the imam’s eyes and saw no malice.  So I thanked him for his query and calmly explained that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a virulent anti-Semitic tract that has brought great pain and suffering to my people.  It is a dangerous fraud that circulates widely throughout the world, especially in Arabic translation.  “This notorious treatise proves that you cannot believe everything you read, especially on the Internet,” I explained.

I offered to send him an article in Arabic that refutes “The Protocols.”  He responded by noting that the problem was not with him, but with so many others who believe in the truth and veracity of this forgery.  The issue is widespread and overwhelming, he argued.  I turned to him and replied, “We change hearts and minds one relationship at a time.  You are here, so I begin with you, and then with your ten colleagues in this room.  We work together from there to change the world.”

Following this dramatic interchange, we adjourned for dinner and more animated dialogue.  I approached my Iraqi guest, shook his hand, and thanked him again for his question.  He asked me to send him books on Judaism in Arabic.  And he agreed to read the article in Arabic countering the lies and falsehoods of “The Protocols.”  I have sent him that document, and in so doing, opened an email dialogue that I hope will continue well into the future.

In each generation, every individual should feel as though he or she had actually been redeemed from Mitzrayim (literally “from the narrows”).  My experience this week gives me a wholly new, unanticipated perspective on the narrow straits of human existence.  We redeem our lives, and our world, one small step at a time.

Hag Pesah Same’ah – Happy Passover

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the Executive Vice President, Board of Rabbis of Southern California – Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

VIDEO: Message from people of Israel to people of Gaza

Message to the residents of Gaza from the people of Israel

Danielle/Dahlia of Jewlicious.com narrates

Here is the English:

Dear Residents of Gaza,

This is a message from the people of Israel.
We do not hate you.
We do not rejoice in your suffering.
We are not happy when we see your children cry.
We allowed shipments of medical supplies to enter Gaza and some of your wounded are being treated in Israeli hospitals.
These are not the actions of an enemy.

We are your neighbors.
All we want is a life of peace and prosperity for your children, and ours.
Please urge your government to stop their violent actions against us.
Show to the world that you are committed to peace and a better life.
There is no glory in death; only widows and orphans, blood and tears.
For peace is not a dream but can become a reality.
We know you yearn for a better future.
Yet, acts of violence against your closest neighbor is not the appropriate way for a better life.

May God bless you.

Please excuse my flawed Arabic.

Thank you.

Listening with our ‘third ear’

Sometimes you hear something that you get right away and then you forget it; other times, you hear something that you don’t get right away, but then, when you “get it,” you can’t forget it.

Recently, I heard something that I didn’t get right away.

It came from an Orthodox married couple who live in the hood and who invited my kids and me for Shabbat lunch. At first, I was mostly focused on a display of Mediterranean salads that could have been photographed for the Museum of Modern Art.

Once I started paying more attention, however, I noticed that my hosts were talking about something called the third ear. It sounded like worn-out hippie schmaltz – this notion of tapping into our “third ear energy” to bring more harmony into our lives, and to the world.

I was hearing that the third ear is really our hearts, but that we need to teach our hearts to think, so that we can listen through it. The result is what’s called “thoughtful emotion,” an emotion that lets us safely open up to new experiences.

It sounded really cool, but it still reeked of spiritual schmaltz. I wasn’t getting it – I needed more. A few weeks later, at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, I got more.

I got a little music.

You see, the man who was doing the Kiddush, the blessings and the dvar Torahs at the Shabbat table is a reggae-African-roots rocker named Maimon Chocron, and he’s the lead singer of a band called Mongoose. The woman, who waxed passionately about the third ear and who created the culinary panorama on the Shabbat table, is his wife, Jennifer.

At the Temple Bar, she was again in schmooze-hostess mode, but this time, instead of a few Shabbat guests, there were a couple-hundred Mongoose fans.

Yamulkes, beards, dreadlocks, miniskirts, other rockers, a few wigs – I even saw some Caucasian Americans. In a tight space that could have doubled as an underground blues bar in Mississippi, the crowd rocked to the mystical rasta rhythms of the 10-piece Mongoose band, which featured two African American vocalists, a bassist named Ronnie “Stepper” McQueen and Maimon, in his Charlie Chaplin hat, working the crowd.

Everyone was there to hear Maimon’s new collection of songs, which are in a CD titled – take a guess – “Third Ear.” Nothing on this night seemed obvious.

After songs on “Coming to Pray” and memories of hell (“1945”), and the occasional interspersing of Hebrew lyrics, Maimon would belt out a festive riff in Arabic that I recall hearing at my parents’ parties in Morocco. There was a soulful love song, and a song on police terror. And, out of nowhere, a whimsical song in French about a Chassidic rabbi. Just when you thought you had Maimon figured out, he’d tickle your ear with something odd and delicious.

I started to get it. Maimon was listening with his third ear. He didn’t pander to please, but neither did he perform to please himself. His thoughtful heart knew just what to give to keep the crowd alive and guessing. Maybe it was his way of getting the crowd to listen with their own third ears – and hear something new.

When I got home and went over the lyrics from his CD, I started to get it even more. His songs were imbued with “thoughtful emotion.” Open up but don’t fall. Bend but don’t break. Make a prayer, but don’t forget to see that everything around you is a prayer, too.

But get this. There is no song called “Third Ear,” not even a mention of it in the CD liner notes. That’s either an enormous blunder, or brilliant marketing. If you ask me, I think they figured out that the surest way to kill a movement is to call it a movement – and then hype it.

For now, the Chocrons are letting the hype come to them. Although they’ve lived in the hood for many years, their gigs have been mostly in Santa Monica, where Maimon and the Mongoose band had a four-year run in a local club and developed a fan base affectionately called the Mongooseheadz. If things go as planned, they hope to be performing soon at The Joint, a hard-edged music bar in the heart of the hood, across the street from that other icon of edgy street life – Eilat Market.

My favorite part of this story is when I asked them how they came up with the phrase “third ear.” I was expecting a story about some mystical revelation that bubbled up during a meditation with jasmine-scented candles and Chassidic chants. Instead, they told me it came from the friend of a girl who was visiting from Texas. Honest. Someone they barely remember gave them an idea for how to name their new music, and possibly a lot more.

It’ll be interesting to see if this “third ear” idea catches on. When you see Maimon and Jennifer’s laid-back enthusiasm, you get the feeling that if a small group of followers get turned on by their music and spread the message a little, that’ll be OK with them. And if a few Jews reconnect with their Judaism through this path, that would be even better. I just hope they write a book soon; I can think of many of us who could use another ear.

But this obsession with making things bigger and more popular is my problem, not theirs. One of the things you learn when you live in a cozy hood is that not every great idea needs to go global, not every movement needs to go mainstream.

Sometimes, a small movement for a small group of people is just fine, even if we don’t “get it” right away.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

The ‘Yearning’ for Torah learning goes to TV

Do you want to be happier?

Do you want to have greater love and intimacy in life?

Do you want greater self-awareness?

And did you know that you could find all these things in the wisdom of Judaism?

That’s the premise of “The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings with Irwin Kula,” a two-hour PBS show airing Dec. 10 on KCET. Based on Rabbi Kula’s new book, “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (Hyperion, 2006, with Linda Lowenthal), the program is one of the first that PBS has given to a rabbi or Jewish leader teaching to the masses.

Kula, who is the president of CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Leadership, also hosted public television’s 13-part series, “Simple Wisdom With Irwin Kula.” He is one of a number of Jewish leaders trying to bring Jewish teaching to the mainstream, including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, Rabbi Harold Kushner and conservative talk show host Dennis Prager.

“Can we take Jewish wisdom public?” Kula said in a telephone interview with The Journal.

In the past, the Torah has been used to make Jews become better Jews, but “this is really seeing Torah as a technology to become more human.”

In the program, Kula, wears a knitted kippah on his longish silver hair and an open blue sports jacket; he walks on a stage in front of a live studio audience and discusses the “messiness” in life: life’s disappointments, conflicts, dissatisfactions — what he calls yearning.

“If we don’t have something to yearn for, some dents in our life to fix, some messiness, some crucial quality of our life is missing,” Kula tells the audience. “Yearning can be a path to blessing.”

Like other mass-market purveyors of “wisdom,” Kula has a number of catchphrases, such as “The more we allow ourselves to unfold, the less we will unravel,” and “We can want it all and always be finding enough,” but his message is one that particularly fits these new uncertain times — in which he believes much wisdom does not address.

“There’s a lot of bad messages being given,” he said, such as the conventional religious message that your behavior can improve your life, or the New Age wisdom that problems are illusions and life is actually perfect.

But Judaism knows life shouldn’t be perfect, he says, using the story of Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.

“I love Eve, because she understood that Paradise is not all it’s cracked up to be!” Eve teaches us, he continued, “never to fear the messiness. The messy spaces in our lives are our greatest teachers.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula will appear on KCET on Dec. 10 5-7 p.m. He will also appear on the “Today” show on Dec. 12 and Dec. 25.

There’s A Message in the Sounds of the Shofar

The approach of Rosh Hashanah always takes me back in memory to my bar mitzvah, which took place on Shabbat Shuvah — the Sabbath of Repentance that comes
between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Two weighty questions preoccupied me that day in 1964. One: what did it mean that God called Jews and the world to “repent” or “return,” because all of us had “stumbled in sin?” The prophet Hosea, whose words I chanted that morning, insisted in God’s name that God cared about how we treated one another, and that we could all do better.

He promised that God would help us do better if we turned to the task. I marveled at this promise. It was and remains a great mystery to me.

The other big question on my mind that September day in Philadelphia was whether the Phillies, under manager Gene Mauch, could hold on to their position atop the National League and win the pennant for the first time in my life.

The optimists among my friends took victory as a near-certainty. The Phillies were six games ahead. Things looked really promising.

The pessimists warned that the team would blow it. It turned out that they were right. The Phillies lost 13 of the next 20 games.

This, too, was a mystery to me. Was it bad pitching, bad managing, bad luck? Maybe it was fate.

I bring up the connection between Rosh Hashanah and the Phillies because it gets to the heart of what the Jewish holidays mean to me each fall. In a word: it’s not fate. How things go is largely up to us, even if we do not control the circumstances of our lives.

The New Year is a time at once joyful and solemn for Jews, because it marks a new beginning for each of us. It carries the assurance that we all do get a second chance and urges us to seize hold of it.

The world, too, can be better than it is — a hope desperately needed this year. We have witnessed so much suffering in the Middle East and elsewhere — so little peace for Israel or Iraq, Darfur or the Congo.

I can still chant by heart, thanks to months of practice for my bar mitzvah, Hosea’s promise that we can change this: “The person who is wise will consider these words. The person who is prudent will take note of them. For the paths of the Lord are smooth. The righteous can walk on them.”

Hosea urged Jews more than 2,500 years ago to “blow a shofar in Zion” so as to call the people to turn and return. Jews still blow a ram’s horn at Rosh Hashanah for exactly the same reason. We need to hear loud and clear, again and again, the message to which it summons us.

Many interpretations have been given to the notes struck by the horn, but the one that means the most to me is this. The shofar’s first sound, tekiah, is a wake-up call. It calls us to attention. Look around, it says. Things are not OK. Your work is needed to set them — and yourself — right.

The second sound made by the shofar is called shevarim, or “breaks.” The world is broken. The horn imitates its cries, preventing us from stopping up our ears or our heart.

Teruah, a series of short blasts one after another, gives us marching orders. Change requires small steps that each of us has to take modestly but with determination. Overreaching will not work.

The shofar-blowing ends with a return to the first notes, longer this time — a “great tekiah.” It lets us know what victory sounds like. We can change our ways. So can the world.

Honesty compels each of us to concede that we’ve tried before to turn things around and haven’t managed it. Experiences of failure haunt all of us, not just fans of the 1964 Phillies. That’s why we need Rosh Hashanah each year to remind us that this beginning can be different.

May we all heed the shofar’s call this year and prove that the world, which so needs fixing right now, can be made better — and that we can make it so.

Professor Arnold M. Eisen is chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

You can listen the

Trouble Mars Pope’s Trip to Auschwitz

Eleven years ago, at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, misunderstandings between Poles and Jews ran so deep that even a rabbi’s desire to say the Mourner’s Kaddish reportedly disturbed some Polish politicians.

In fact, there were so many debates over the tenor of the event that two separate ceremonies were held: one for Jews, the other arranged by the Polish government.

At last Sunday’s visit by Pope Benedict XVI, not only was Kaddish recited, but a whole new Catholic sensitivity to Jews was on display — even as Poland struggles to battle xenophobia and anti-Semitism, sometimes from Catholic sources.

When meeting former inmate Henrik Mandelbaum, who was forced to burn the bodies of his fellow Jews in the Birkenau crematoria, the normally reserved Benedict kissed him on both cheeks.

Poland’s chief rabbi, U.S.-born Michael Schudrich, said Kaddish in the presence of the pope and the country’s top elected leaders, and recalled those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the gas chambers.

Forced in his native Germany to join the Hitler Youth as a teen, Benedict said: “The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth.”

But Schudrich noted that the pope “stopped short of decrying anti-Semitism, and although his visit was a wonderful gesture to us all, not mentioning anti-Semitism was a glaring omission.”

The chief rabbi’s sentiments were echoed by a number of Jewish observers, including Auschwitz survivor Kalman Sultanik and Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

The pope’s visit came at a time when Polish-Jewish relations are soaring. The country has the largest number of and best-attended Jewish festivals in Europe, countless Catholic-Jewish initiatives and massive government financial support for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, expected to open in Warsaw in 2009.

However, the specter of anti-Semitism has not been erased in the country that was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities before World War II.

Less than one month ago, an extreme-right Catholic party whose politicians have a long history of anti-Jewish and anti-gay positions joined the coalition government at the request of Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz.

The League of Polish Families is presided over by Roman Giertych, the country’s new minister of education. Giertych is formerly head of the All-Polish Youth, whose members have been photographed giving the Nazi salute, according to media reports. The league has its roots in the National Democratic movement, which advocated violence against Jews in the 1930s and was led by Giertych’s grandfather.

In dozens of interviews, Jews and non-Jews said they worry that Giertych’s rise had empowered the small segment of Polish society that is intolerant and xenophobic.

Several high-profile acts of anti-Semitism leading up to the pope’s visit upset Poland’s Jewish community, estimated at up to 10,000 in a country of 38 million.

Schudrich was, for the first time in his 15 years in the country, assaulted Saturday coming out of synagogue, when a man hit him in the face and attacked him with pepper spray, shouting, “Poland is for Poles.”

The previous Shabbat, some young men shouted anti-Semitic slogans at the rabbi and other worshippers.

Schudrich connected the ascension of Giertych and the league, which garnered 8 percent of the vote in the 2005 parliamentary elections, with these events and other recent incidents, including anti-Jewish threats sent by text message to Jewish student leaders and the stabbing of an anti-fascist by skinheads in Warsaw.

“There is a price to letting in extreme rightists into the government. It empowers xenophobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic members of society,” Schudrich said.


Throw a Party With a Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Party

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac

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The Lost Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why we have to get it right.

Esther Hecht is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem.


Rosa Parks’ Message for Today

There’s been considerable coverage these last days of Rosa Parks, whose death a full half-century after the brief episode that rendered her an “icon” calls to mind a long-ago time. But there’s been little evocation of the events and circumstances that earned Parks her iconic status, still less to the overriding moral of the story.

The year is 1955, the date is Dec. 1 and the place is Montgomery, Ala. On that day in that place, a 42-year-old black seamstress named Rosa Parks left the Montgomery Fair department store late in the afternoon for her regular bus ride home. There were 36 seats on the bus, and all of them were soon filled. Twenty-two black people took the rear seats and 14 white people sat in the front. When a 15th white passenger got onto the bus, the driver called for the four black people in the row just behind the 14 seated whites to move to the rear, where they would have to stand. That was not merely the custom in Montgomery; that was the law. And when Parks refused to give up her seat, the driver, exercising his emergency powers to enforce the segregation codes, arrested her. She was taken to the police station, where she was booked, fingerprinted and jailed.

Martin Luther King Jr. later would describe what Parks did that day in these words:

Mrs. Parks’ refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She was not planted there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that [bus] seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.

When Parks’ mother learned of her daughter’s arrest, she immediately contacted E.D. Nixon, the long-time president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and perhaps the most politically potent black man in Montgomery. Nixon knew well that Parks was in immediate physical danger, because there was real risk to those who dared to violate the race laws. Nixon, in turn, called Clifford Durr, a white southern patrician lawyer, a Rhodes scholar and co-sponsor of the legendary Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Together they went to the jail and posted bond for Parks. And together they proposed to Parks that here, at last, were the makings of a case that could shatter the laws of segregation throughout the South. Soft-spoken but plainly not timid, Parks, then secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, consulted with her mother and with her husband, a barber who was terrified at the prospect of converting this isolated incident into a political cause. But Parks nonetheless decided to go forward, and late that Thursday evening, a black woman named Ann Robinson, a professor of English at Alabama State, the youngest of 12 siblings and the first to have gone to college, learned of what had happened and convened the Women’s Political Council, most of whose members were active in King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That very night they mimeographed a leaflet that said, “The next time it may be you, or you or you. This woman’s case will come up Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses on Monday in protest of the arrest and trial.”

And that is what happened on Monday, from the early morning buses that were normally full of black maids on their way to work through the day — throughout the whole day.

That same afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded, and King was elected its president. That Monday evening, a crowd of perhaps 10,000 blacks gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church, and King, 26, delivered his very first political address.

“There comes a time,” he said, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression…. We are here because we are tired now.”

And his tired congregation, swollen to nearly 40,000 former bus riders, walked to work or stayed home or rode in one of the 150 cars whose owners lent them to the boycott. Through the cold months of winter, they persisted. When the police harassed them, they persisted; when King was arrested, they persisted; when his house was bombed, they persisted — and they did not stop even when the entire leadership of the boycott was arrested.

Through the winter, through that spring and summer, through the fall and on into a second winter, for 381 days, the blacks of Montgomery prayed with their feet, miles each way, each day. And finally, on Dec. 20, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of the U.S. District Court declaring the laws requiring segregation of the buses unconstitutional.

The moral — these many years later — is not immediately obvious. Yes, it’s about what one person can do, but it is about much more than that. It’s about leadership and about community organization. King without Parks might not have become who he became, but Parks without Nixon and Durr and Robinson would not have become an “icon,” and none of these would have so powerfully entered the American story were it not for 40,000 tired blacks, ordinary heroes who conquered their fear and ignored their fatigue and did not break.

So, what shall we do about the persistent, grinding poverty that still exists in our country, that came into view so emphatically in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? What in the world does Rosa Parks lying in the Capitol Rotunda mean unless we organize to address that question?

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).


A Surprise Might Attract More To Shuls

In many synagogues across the country today, the $64,000 question is the same: How can we get more people to come more often?

Unlike the old days of quaint ghettos and neighborhoods, Judaism has become a choice. Synagogues today compete against Starbucks and other distractions, as much as they compete against themselves.

So how can we better compete?

Everyone seems to agree, whatever the denomination, that we should make the synagogue experience more enjoyable, more engaging, even more spiritual. You want to feel like you got something more than the fulfillment of an obligation.

As someone who’s been immersed in consumer marketing for 20 years, I want to throw one little insight into the mix, and invite anyone who’s interested to build on it.

If there’s one thing in marketing that piques interest, it’s the element of surprise. For synagogues, however, this is easier said than done, because so much of a prayer service is based on repetition. And repetition itself has an emotional benefit: It makes us feel safe and comfortable.

But still, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could add a dash of anticipation — a sense of pleasant unpredictability — to the synagogue experience?

One way would be to not get stuck on the same prayer melodies. Why not have our chazans constantly mix it up?

I was invited to an ultraliberal Ashkenazi Friday night service recently, and out of the blue came this hard-core Sephardic melody that my grandfather used to sing in Morocco. It blew me away, because I hadn’t heard it in years. It was totally against type.

It’s hard to overstate the delight of discovering a new melody or rediscovering an old one. I have a friend who would sometimes sing “Lecha Dodi” to the tune of “Michelle, Ma Belle.”

You don’t have to go that far. You could have a repertoire of three or four melodies for each prayer, and decide on the spot which one to sing. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the standard melody of “Ein Keloheinu,” it’s like a double shot of Valium. I once heard a Chasidic version of that prayer that really brought the words to life.

You get the picture. Mix it up, add, delete, go as far as you can without creating a shul mutiny.

Melodies can surprise and delight the heart, but what can surprise the mind? Most synagogue sermons connect with the calendar, either with the Torah portion of that week or with a specific holiday. It would be silly of me to challenge that imperative, but I do think there is an opportunity to break with the calendar, not just to surprise but to inspire.

We make a big deal about keeping the lessons of our holidays in our hearts at all times. So why couldn’t we pull the holidays out of their time zones and make them more visible throughout the year? In the same way that we can mingle our timeless melodies, why couldn’t we mingle our timeless holidays?

For example, any given Shabbat could honor a different holiday, and weave it into the discussion of the weekly Torah portion. I can envision a very powerful sermon on the subject of Yom Kippur — one month after Yom Kippur — that would play up the continuing relevance of the Day of Atonement.

At the beginning of an actual holiday, why not create a miniceremony that would honor the previous holiday?

When we’re so used to going forward, it really gets people’s attention to go backward, especially when it makes sense. We all have a tendency to go through our holidays and then put them away in storage. Wouldn’t it make sense to keep bringing them back, to follow up and make sure that we are still living their message?

We have such creative minds in our spiritual leadership that I can see a constant flow of holiday ideas at odd times of the year. If Rosh Hashanah is about personal renewal, why not surprise people by celebrating that holiday idea in the middle of the year? When it’s not Shavuot, why not celebrate the spirit of Shavuot with a Torah learning day? During the summer, why not do a spirit of Chanukah event for tikkun olam?

In other words, keep people on their toes and challenge their expectations. Bring back not just the biblical past, but the experiential past that we can personally relate to — our holiday treasures.

Ultimately, whether it’s through changing melodies or going back on holidays, people would get the comfort of the familiar, but they would also look forward to a touch of the unexpected. And who knows, they might even hold off on Starbucks for a few hours. What’s another boring latte?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.


The Legacy of a Folk Hero

As fate would have it, back in 1961, while at Columbia Records making my third folk music album, I invited my friend, Bob Dylan, to play harmonica on the LP. It was I who introduced Dylan to John Hammond. The influential Columbia Records executive produced albums for legendary jazz artists, among them Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman.

At this point, Hammond was turning the spotlight on folk music at Columbia, signing Pete Seeger and myself; the Clancy Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel were to come. Dylan has remained with Columbia for more than 40 years, certainly a remarkable partnership.

Bob and I had an unusual bond. We were both folk singers, but as friends, each knew the other had a weakness for the music of Buddy Holly. I was from Texas and knew Buddy, so Bob and I had lots to talk about. Our other passion was this new musical adventure.

Folk music came with lots of “structure,” both musical and moral. There was plenty of gospel music — which accounts for the early evidence of Christian musical influence noted by writer Andrew Muchin. Our heroes in folk were Woody Guthrie and Seeger. And, as Dylan’s autobiography, “Chronicles,” points out, we were armed with Woody and Pete’s “take no prisoners” ethic:

1 — Tell it like it is.

2 — Use few if any production frills.

3 — Be a “stand-up-on-your-own” artist.

“Artist” is the word. After interpreting traditional music and its connection to gospel, bluegrass and country music, Dylan and others of our acquaintance in New York City’s Greenwich Village began to create contemporary “new folk.” Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Joni Mitchell and the rest of us threw in our two cents, as well. The most successful of these was Dylan, acoustic or electric.

Dylan’s work was both spellbinding and consequential. He helped to inspire a generation to march into the South in the name of civil rights. Many young men listened to his words and then burned their draft cards, putting themselves at some risk.

The term “generation gap” was born, fueled by the rift within families. Draft-age males left home and fled to Canada to avoid going as soldiers to a foreign war that they believed our nation was fighting without provocation.

Dylan asked moral questions that had never before been asked in popular music, turning his smoldering gaze on congressmen, senators, warlords, lawmen, professors — in other words, the establishment.

With so direct a message and so revolutionary a reach, Dylan rattled cages. And, he laid down the gauntlet to these citizens of the future to dismiss the easy answers of the past.

“Don’t trust anyone over 30” not only entered the vernacular; it also became words to live by. Dylan was gifted with the courage and skill to ask profound questions and the ability, through his popular music, to get others to hear those questions.

And it seemed proper, even inevitable, to fans and admirers that Dylan the philosopher, the voice of a generation, also would become Dylan the leader. It seemed like the natural progression for those whose consciousness was so recently raised.

They wanted the questioner to answer the questions. They summoned Dylan to attend their marches, write articles and, verily, to run for president. Dylan did not see things that way. He envisioned no role for himself along those lines. Besides, Dylan had a young wife and a stepdaughter — and soon would add his own sons (and eventually another daughter) to a burgeoning family.

But what he preferred not to be doesn’t diminish what he was. Dylan’s great creativity, strength and resolve — his artistic powers — were never wasted; his opportunities never lost. He spoke to our souls with every bit as much depth as the ancient philosophers.

Nearly three generations after his celebrity burned so brightly, the essence of his ongoing musical contribution still shines strongly, though perhaps more sporadically, and sometimes more ironically, more wistfully. He’s still doing concert tours; he writes books; and he remains a subject of public fascination, as the spate of articles, biographies and documentaries demonstrate.

I don’t see him fading from musical prominence any more than Frank Sinatra became irrelevant after his own early glory period. And the ongoing Dylan legacy was never just about music, but also about social justice.

He has never ceased to be a spiritual and musical seeker. And thankfully, here in 5766 and 2005, Dylan and his muse are alive and well.

We can be proud that he was so well grounded in Judaism, as well as folk music tradition. Both have served him well. And (I believe) he has served both traditions faithfully in return.

Carolyn Hester, a leading performer in the ’60s folk-music scene, has, like Bob Dylan, continued to write, perform and record music. With her husband and musical collaborator, Dave Blume, the Los Angeles resident also has raised two daughters and managed Cafe Danssa, a longtime Israeli folk-dancing venue.


Tightrope of Life

In the days of communism’s fierce grip on the Soviet Union, there lived a Chasidic Jew named Reb Mendel Futerfas. Reb Mendel repeatedly put his life at risk with his efforts to promote Jewish education behind the Iron Curtain and for some 14 years was incarcerated in prisons and labor camps for his “crime” of teaching Torah. While in the Siberian gulags, he spent most of his free time studying and praying, but he also interacted and conversed with other prisoners — some Jewish, some not. Among these prisoners was a circus performer whose claim to fame was his incredible skill as a tightrope walker.

Reb Mendel would often engage this man in conversation. Having never been to a circus, Reb Mendel was totally baffled by the man’s profession. How could a person risk his life walking on a rope several stories above ground? (This was in the days before safety nets were standard practice.)

“To just go out there and walk on a rope?” Reb Mendel challenged incredulously.

The performer explained that due to his training and skill, he did not need to be held up by any cables and that, for him, it was no longer all that dangerous. Reb Mendel remained skeptical and intrigued.

After Stalin died, the prison authorities relaxed their rules somewhat and the guards told the prisoners that they would be allowed to stage a makeshift circus on May-Day. The tightrope walker coordinated with other acrobats in the camp, but there was no doubt that his famous tightrope act would be the highlight of the show. The tightrope walker made sure that his friend, Reb Mendel, was in the audience.

After all the other acts finished, the lights came down; everybody waited with baited breath. The tightrope walker climbed the tall pole to the suspended rope. His first steps were timid and tentative (after all, it had been several years) but within a few seconds, it all came back to him. With his hands twirling about, he virtually glided across the rope to the pole at the other end, and then, in a flash, made a fast turn, reversed his direction and proceeded back to the other side. Along the way, he performed several stunts. The crowd went wild.

When he was done, he slid down off the pole, took a bow and went running straight to Reb Mendel.

“So?” he said. “Did you see that I was not held up by any cables?”

A very impressed Reb Mendel replied, “Yes. You’re right. No cables.”

“OK. You’re a smart man. Tell me, how did I do it? Was it my hands? Was it my feet?” the man asked.

Reb Mendel paused for a moment, closed his eyes and replayed the entire act back on his mind. Finally, Reb Mendel opened his eyes and said, “It’s the eyes. It’s all in your eyes. During the entire time, your eyes were completely focused and riveted on the opposite pole.”

“Exactly!” said the performer. “When you see your destination in front of you and you don’t take your eyes off of it, then your feet go where they need to go and you don’t fall. OK, now one more question. What would you say is the most difficult part of the act?”

Again Reb Mendel thought for a moment. “Most difficult was the turn; when you had to change direction.”

“Correct again!” he said. “During that split second, when you lose sight of that first pole, and the other pole has not yet come into view, there is some real danger there. But… if you don’t allow yourself to get confused and distracted during that transition, your eyes will find that pole and your balance will be there.”

This special Shabbat — the bridge between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — is referred to as “Shabbat Shuva.” In this week’s Haftorah, we hear the words of the prophets — exhorting us, pleading with us, beckoning us to improve the quality of our lives; to even change direction if need be.

It is also noteworthy that this week’s Torah portion — in which we learn about the events that transpired on the last day of Moses’ life on earth — is called “Vayeilech Moshe” (And Moses went). The commentaries point out that even on the last day of his life, Moses was on the move — walking forward, achieving, growing — making the most of every precious moment of life. Moses’ message to us being that so long as we have a breath of life, there ought to be “Vayeilech” — explorations of new horizons, journeys to new frontiers.

How do we walk this tightrope called “life” without stumbling? The answer is: by establishing clear and proper goals and remaining focused on those goals like a laser beam.

The Torah provides us with a road map to a meaningful and fulfilling way of life. It sets down goals and defines purpose.

When you know what your purpose and destination is, and you do not take your eyes off that pole, then you know where to put your feet. Even when things turn, and we momentarily lose sight of the pole, we need not despair. Shabbos Shuva teaches us that a change of direction ought not to send us plummeting. On the contrary, we can and should shift gracefully with changes of circumstances, catch our balance and let the next pole come into view.

Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski serves as the executive director of Chabad of the Conejo and dean of the Conejo Jewish Day School.


Kids Page

The Summer Fast

In the middle of summer, when it is the hottest, we are told that we cannot eat or drink for one whole day. It was on the ninth of Av that the Romans burned Jerusalem and destroyed our Temple. Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av) falls this year on Sunday, Aug. 14. The fast begins the night before at sunset.

The rabbis say that the Temple fell because of “senseless hatred” among fellow Jews. Solve the word search and discover the hidden message. It will tell you what senseless hatred is. Put the words you need to find together in the right order so that you will know what not to do.

__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __









Cool Collages

What you need:

1. Photo of someone or something dear to you: a family member, a pet, a friend, a teacher, a place, a favorite activity.

2. Magazines

3. Scissors

4. Construction paper

“Love Me Later” is a storybook about a Jewish boy named Abe. He spends an afternoon discovering life — exploring his backyard. The author, Julie Baer, has illustrated her book by creating intricate collages. You, too, should spend an afternoon exploring this book and then doing the collage activity that Julie has created just for you.

You Are Not Alone

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I first read the opening words of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I closed the book to wonder if it was true. Were all happy families alike and unhappy families unique? So many years later, as a pulpit rabbi, I still disagree.

In parshat Naso, we are introduced to the rituals concerning the sotah, a wife who is suspected of adultery. If a husband becomes jealous and suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, he is to bring her to the priest who concocts a truth serum mixing dust from the sanctuary floor, water and a few dissolved curses. If the wife is innocent, she remains healthy after drinking the bitter water. If she is guilty, she suffers a miscarriage.

At first, the practice seems uncomfortably similar to the trials of seventeenth century Salem. However, one wonders if the ritual, which appears to humiliate a woman publicly, is also in a quiet way trying to protect her. Reading it, I cannot help but think of Tolstoy’s myth that all happy families are alike, while unhappy families are each desperately lost and alone.

The sotah ritual takes an unhappy family, one where there is great potential for anger and abuse, and draws them out of their private homes into a sacred and safe space. The message is that the husband is not to take matters into his own hands. In verse 12 we read: “If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him….”

Rashi understands the “him” in this verse to refer to God. With this insight, suddenly, the infidelity becomes a crisis between the adulterer and God as opposed to husband and wife. It is not about the spouse.

In verse 14 it is written that a spirit of jealousy comes over the husband, as if the jealousy came from an outside source, and is out of his control. Rather than allow the situation to escalate more and more out of control within the walls of their home, the husband’s suspicions become a public concern, and how it is handled becomes a priestly matter. Their pain is taken out of their house, and brought into God’s. The husband is not alone in his jealousy.

The wife, also, is not alone. The Talmud explains that before giving her the waters to drink, the priest tries to find excuses for her, saying: “Wine can be responsible for much, or frivolity can be responsible for much, or childishness can be responsible for much…. He tells her of the affair of Reuben with Bilhah, and the affair of Judah with Tamar. Both of them, he tells her, had confessed their deeds and were not ashamed. What happened to them in the end? They inherited life in the next world” (Midrash Raba).

Often a congregant comes to me when their family is in crisis. Perhaps there is jealousy, anger, sickness, infidelity, and/or abuse. I find that so much time and energy is spent being stunned that this could happen. Little if any strength is left for building a healthy future. I find people have more trouble forgiving their partner for breaking the illusion of happiness than forgiving for whatever actually happened. When sadness strikes, people feel as if it is only happening to them, when, in truth, a rabbi may have heard similar stories from a number of families — each traveling with their own private well of deep, deep pain.

On Friday nights, the bimah is often filled with people receiving blessings for a wedding, a birth, birthdays or anniversaries. However, never would a couple come before the ark, in front of their congregation, to receive a blessing of guidance when their marriage is suffering. How humiliating. We rarely ritualize bringing our pain to God. We bring our families’ happiness, but pain is kept dangerously to ourselves.

In Jewish Women International’s Needs Assessment: A Portrait of Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, it is written: “The myth that Jewish families are immune from abuse enables a system of missed cues, thereby preventing appropriate intervention. Jewish women themselves often delay seeking help or more often never seek help at all.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that 25 percent of women have been raped or abused. The American Journal of Public Health said that one-third of all teens report experiencing some type of abuse in their romantic relationships including verbal and emotional. The Jewish community invests so much into the making or wanting shidduchs, however we invest terribly little in infusing holiness into the daily labor of maintaining those coveted relationships. It is true that we cannot go into people’s houses like the priests of old who would be invited to inspect plagues on the walls. However, we can invite people into our house, into the synagogue, by acknowledging that pain exists, and by creating avenues by which families can bring not only their joy, but also their most burdensome sorrow.

All happy families are not alike, living in Camp Happy, while the rest are on the outside all alone. Pain is inevitable to every family, and so to remain healthy, try to stop being surprised by your sadness. Stop thinking, “Why did this happen to me?” and instead think, “I guess now is when this happens to me.”

Use that same energy to think creatively. Use that same strength to invite God to turn your bitter waters sweet and curses into blessings.

Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.


Kids Page

Count the Days

On Friday, May 27, we will celebrate Lag B’Omer. We remember the students of Rabbi Akiva who used to hide from the Romans in the forest and secretly studied Torah. If Roman soldiers came along, they would whip out their bows and arrows and act as if they were hunting.

In Israel, children light bonfires and play with toy bows and arrows as part of the celebration.

Shield Thyself

Like Rabbi Akiba’s students, you can have a tree branch shield.

First, you must go out into the forest (or to your backyard). Find two curved branches and use tape or thick string to make them into a hoop.

Now tie a long string to the hoop. Stretch it to the other side and loop it. Now stretch it

to another spot on the hoop and loop it.

Keep on doing this and it will start to look like

a bicycle wheel, and then like a dreamcatcher

or spider web. Keep on doing this until there is

no space left between the string.

Passover Again?

On Iyar 14, which falls this year on May 23, some people celebrate a holiday called Pesach Sheinei, or, The Second Passover. This was for people who, for reasons they could not control, were not able to bring the Pesach offering to the Temple. Decode the message to describe what this holiday was for these people. (Hint: It’s what everyone wants when they mess up the first time around.)

Here is the message:

t evdxbs djtbdv

A=t,B=c, C=d, D=s, E=v, F=u, G=z,H=j…

Do the math!

Can you solve this?

A X 3 = B

B + 3 = C

C/3 = 4

4 – D = E

E X 3 = A

What are A and D?

(Hint: It has to do the meaning of one of the words in Lag B’Omer.)


First Lady Jostled in Jerusalem

She may have brought a message of American goodwill toward Muslims, but Laura Bush spent a potential high point of her Middle East tour fending off protests from Palestinians angered by U.S. policies — and from Israelis, too.

After arriving from Jordan, the first lady toured Jerusalem on Sunday, traveling from site to site under heavy Israeli police and U.S. Secret Service. In lieu of speeches, she spoke to her media entourage of the need to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“What an emotional place this is, as we go from each one of these very, very holy spots to the next,” Bush said. “We’re reminded again of what we all want, what every one of us prays for,” adding, “What we all want is peace.”

Some want more. When Bush arrived at the Western Wall, demurely dressed, to place a written prayer in the cracks of its stones, she found herself facing off with dozens of Israeli demonstrators who chanted that the United States should free Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. jail for spying for Israel.

From there, it was up to the Temple Mount, for a tour of one of Islam’s most revered sites, the Dome of the Rock. Most worshipers looked on incuriously, but there was heckling from Palestinians angered at a Newsweek magazine report — later retracted — that U.S. interrogators had flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to torment a Muslim prisoner in their custody.

“Quran, Quran,” hissed one woman.

The Islamic terrorist group Hamas even posted a notice against the first lady on the Internet.

“We in principle don’t reject anyone’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque [compound], but we see in the visit of Mrs. Bush an attempt to whitewash the face of the U.S., after the crimes that the American interrogators had committed when they desecrated the Quran,” it said.

Having earlier voiced regret at the Newsweek report and the Muslim rioting that has been linked to it, Bush took a more positive tack on the Temple Mount, marveling at the beauty of the shrine. She also voiced hope for the U.S.-led “road map” to Israeli-Palestinian peace, which has been tested by renewed fighting in the Gaza Strip but which President Bush hopes to bolster by hosting his Palestinian Authority counterpart in the White House on Thursday.

“The United States will do what it can in this process,” Laura Bush said. “It also requires the work of the people here, of the Palestinians and the Israelis, to come to the table…. What we all want is peace and the chance that we have right now to have peace, to have a Palestinian state living by a secure state of Israel, both living in democracy, is as close as we’ve been in a really long time.”

Bird’s-Eye View


One day, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar was riding his donkey along the coastal road. He was enjoying the beautiful scenery and reviewing in his mind the wonderful study session he had with his rabbi at Migdal Eder, when he encountered a man who was extremely ugly.

“How ugly you are,” said the startled rabbi. “Are all the people in your city as ugly as you are?”

The man responded calmly, “What can I say? Go to the artisan who crafted me and tell him that his handiwork is ugly.”

Upon hearing that, Ben Elazar realized that he had gravely sinned and begged the man to forgive him. But the man refused to forgive him until Ben Elazar spoke to the Creator. The rabbi ran after the man a long way until they came to a town. The town’s people called out: “Welcome, rabbi.”

The man asked the people, “Whom are you calling rabbi?”

The people pointed to Ben Elazar.

“If this is a rabbi,” said the man, “let there be no more rabbis among the Jews.”

Eventually the man forgave the rabbi after a public apology, and Ben Elazar had learned a humbling lesson.

I have always understood the reply of the man as one of acceptance: “This is who I am, this is how God created me, I am not as lucky as you, but you have to accept me.”

But today I read his words from a totally different point of view.

He is not talking with self-pity but with pride, and he does not regard the rabbi as better, wiser or luckier. The man Ben Elazar encountered drew upon the wisdom of Job who said, in reference to the weak and the poor: “Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?”

What the man was telling Ben Elazar was that they were equals, that they were peers and that the same Creator who created the rabbi in his image also created also the “ugly” man. So who is a truer image of God?

The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?

We are human beings, created in the image of God; we talk and communicate, smile and cry, laugh and get depressed. We feel pity at the sight of a helpless animal and frustration when we can do nothing to help. When we realize how similar we are, the road is open for understanding and for appreciating the unique gifts and talents of every human being.

In this week’s parsha, we read about the purification process of the leper. According to the rabbis, the sin of the leper is the sin of judging the fallacies of others and making them known to all, and most of us, like Ben Elazar, are guilty of engaging in this kind of judgment. The leper is rejected and alienated in order for him to experience, even for a short while, the pain he afflicted upon others by judging and rejecting them. When his process of purification is completed, the Torah commands that “the priest shall order two live clean birds … to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered … and he shall take the live bird … and dip … in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered … and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.”

This ceremony is shocking and powerful. The bird is an analogy to the neshama, the soul. The slaughtered bird is the person who was offended by the leper, as our sages have taught us that insulting someone in public is tantamount to murder, and the same follows for gossip and calumny.

The live bird, representing the leper, is dipped in the blood to signify that he is stained by that sin. It is sent free in the open country to tell the leper that on one hand he is now cleansed and free to join the community, but that on the other hand he should always remember his past actions and avoid such behavior in the future. He is also told that once he spread the word, it is very difficult to retrieve it and undo the damage, since it is like a bird that can fly freely everywhere.

Let, then, the clean bird of our soul fly free and unstained in the open country, and let it see, from a bird’s-eye view, only the good and positive in our fellow human beings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.


Brand Israel


What do you think about when you hear the word Israel?

Chances are if you’re like most Americans, when you hear Israel, you think war. Ask most Americans to free-word associate with the word “Israel” and they’d probably say: terrorists, Palestinians, danger and conflict.

At best.

At worst, oppression and ethnic cleansing.

But there are people out there who are trying to change that.

One of them is Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21c, a California-based media advocacy group that tries to promote Israel “beyond the conflict,” its Web site says. On the site (www.Israel21c.com) are articles primarily about technology, health and business — anything but the conflict.

“Our modern brand is in trouble,” Weinberg told a group of Los Angeles Jewish leaders who gathered last week to discuss branding and advocacy on Israel at the Israeli consulate.

The brand he talks about, of course, is Israel. In America, “Israel is better known than liked,” Weinberg said, referring to a recent Young & Rubicam survey that measured Israel as a brand, to discover people’s emotional attachment to it.

Mainstream Americans — especially college students — have a lot of emotions toward Israel; attachment is another story. Weinberg’s point: Change the subject.

“The ‘Israel-Palestine Conflict’ is a no-win hasbara war,” said businessman Jonathan Medved, the main speaker of the morning. “Whoever sets the terms of the debates wins. If we continue to argue only on this turf, then even the best ‘ambassador’ is doomed to failure.”

This message wasn’t exactly popular with some meeting participants, who spend much of their time on campus battling pro-Palestinian groups and engaged in the hasbara, or advocacy, wars.

But, if you accept Medved and Weinberg’s logic, what is a pro-Israel advocate to do?

They do not advise putting all the advocates out of business. They do believe in changing the mix — taking the focus off the conflict.

Medved is the founder and general partner of Israel Seed Partners, an Israel-focused venture capital fund of $262 million. In 2004, he said, $1.46 billion was invested in Israel (up 45 percent from 2003), with 55 percent of the total dollars invested from outside Israel.

Of course foreign investment is good for Israel; and it also may profit investors, as well. After all, Israel is a hotbed of technology, creating everything from computer chips to voice technology.

But can changing the subject from the conflict to technology really help?

Medved said it reaches out to core constituencies in America.

“It speaks to Jews, makes them proud and mobilizes them,” he said, noting that a technology pitch also appeals to Christians, the Asian community and the business community.

The concept, of course, is to appeal to Americans’ self-interest, be it business, health or technology, and have them associate Israel with those concepts.

How will this help, though, on campus, where the battle is about the conflict?

Medved has one word: Divestment. He tells a story about a meeting at Carnegie Mellon University on how to divest from Israel. One student stood up and said something to the effect of, “Wait a minute. Do you mean I have to stop using my computer? My credit card? My voice mail? Forget it!”

The point is: Americans are too invested in Israel to divest. Consider that Teva pharmaceuticals is the largest distributor of generic pills in America, or that most laptops contain a chip produced in Israel — it wouldn’t be easy to boycott Israeli products. (Although, as someone at the meeting pointed out, divestment could target specific industries, like the military. And just targeting tourism could have a devastating effect.)

It’s not only about defending against divestment, Medved said. It’s about encouraging investment before the subject becomes divestment.

Medved advocates hosting investment lectures at business schools, science schools. Forget the social sciences, he said.

Israel certainly is about more than the conflict. It’s about great food, innovative art, cutting-edge music; it has pioneered in fields of democracy, religion and the judicial system (although it certainly has farther to go on all these fronts).

Would an American form a better opinion of Israel after learning that Israeli technology produced his computer chip or provided her affordable medicine or developed their uncle’s artificial heart or manufactured my cheap Gap clothing? (OK that last one’s not technology, but it’s important to me.)

I don’t know.

The truth is — and I suspect Medved and Weinberg would agree — the conflict in Israel is the elephant in the room that must be addressed. And the peace process is the best hope Israel has for improving its image.

On the other hand, people are tired of hearing about the conflict. And Israel is about so much more than the struggle. So a campus event addressing another subject — from Israel’s venture-capital opportunities to Israeli films — might not alter perceptions, but it could inspire a second look or a deeper one. It might make someone willing to listen.


Bias Colors UC Santa Cruz Department


On Oct. 21, 2004, the women’s studies department at UC Santa Cruz sponsored a talk by Hedy Epstein about “The Question of Israel/Palestine,” in which she compared Israel to a Nazi state and excused suicide bombings. Epstein’s “credentials” for speaking on the topic included her membership in the International Solidarity Movement, an organization linked to terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and whose leaders have openly endorsed an armed struggle to destroy Israel.

In contrast, the Santa Cruz women’s studies department declined to cosponsor a talk on campus about the same topic two weeks later by Nonie Darwish, a journalist and Arabic translator who spent the first 30 years of her life in Egypt and Egypt-occupied Gaza. Instead of demonizing Israel, as Epstein had done, Darwish directed her criticism at the Arab world, which in her estimation is conducting a campaign of death and destruction against Israel for the purpose of turning the world’s attention away from heinous human rights violations taking place within the Arab world, itself.

Whereas Epstein did not touch on any topic directly relevant to the academic discipline of women’s studies, Darwish spent a significant amount of time addressing the oppression of Muslim women and calling for reforms which would raise their status in the Arab world. Why, then, did women’s studies sponsor Epstein but refuse to sponsor Darwish?

The evidence suggests that the department endorses Epstein’s message but not Darwish’s. For instance:


• In May 2000, women’s studies sponsored a week of events “in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for human justice.” (From the departmental newsletter, The Wave, Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 2000.)


• In May 2001, as part of the Women of Color Film and Video Festival, co-sponsored by the women’s studies department, a video was shown detailing the plight of two Palestinian women political prisoners who were, according to the festival program, “detained, tortured, mentally, physically and sexually terrorized by the Israeli occupier for their unquestioned beliefs in the moral, historic and basic human rights to resist the Israeli occupier/colonizer on their land.”


• Last March, the department sponsored a talk by Dalit Baum, an Israeli lesbian feminist who founded an organization against “the occupation of Palestine” by Israel.

During that same period of time, no talk or event was ever sponsored by women’s studies that condemned Arab violence against Israeli citizens or focused on human rights abuses in the Arab world, particularly of women.

Moreover, a survey of the 11 professors who have appointments in the UC Santa Cruz women’s studies department reveals that more than half have publicly expressed anti-Israel bias: Four faculty members, Angela Davis, the current chair of the women’s studies department; Gina Dent; Carla Freccero, and Jody Green, are signatories of a petition calling on the U.S. government to cut off military aid to Israel and demanding that the University of California divest from Israel and from all U.S. companies that sell military equipment to Israel.

Two faculty members, Bettina Aptheker, previous chair of the women’s studies department, and Helen Moglen, have signed an open letter to the American government calling for the withdrawal of all American aid to Israel. Aptheker wrote an article for The Wave (Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 2002), in which she expressed her personal sympathy for Israeli and Palestinian “anti-occupation activists” and praised the refusal of Israeli reservists to serve in the “occupied territories.”

Whereas all Americans have the right to any political ideology, faculty at a public university do not have the right to abuse their position so as to indoctrinate students. The academic freedom rules of the University of California 1934-2003 state: “The function of the university is to seek and to transmit knowledge and to train students in the processes whereby truth is to be known. To convert or make converts is alien and hostile to the dispassionate duty. The university assumes the right to prevent exploitation of its prestige by those who would use it as a platform for propaganda.”

The university’s mission is to be a free marketplace of ideas, a forum for critical analysis and discussion. When the political ideology of faculty members translates into a departmental bias which promotes political propaganda without critical analysis and omits other perspectives, the university is failing in its primary mission.

By exploiting the prestige of the University of California to legitimize their own personal political biases, the faculty of the UC Santa Cruz women’s studies department brings into question its academic integrity and diminishes the prestige of the entire university. But the real losers are the students, who are denied access to a truly diverse and well-rounded education because of departments like Santa Cruz’s women’s studies.

Leila Beckwith is a UCLA pediatrics department professor emeritus and member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.


Listen Well


A number of years ago we spent a family weekend in Palm Springs. I asked my kids what they wanted to do. First mistake: Never ask your kids what they want to do on vacation. It’s guaranteed to be something you can’t do.

My daughters answered, “Let’s go ice skating.”

I looked at them and said, “I don’t know how to ice skate.”

They looked at me incredulously and said, “That isn’t a problem, just learn.”

With such an answer I couldn’t refuse their request.

As I was trying to keep my balance on the ice and not break any bones, an old lady screamed from the side of the ring: “Hey mister, you really don’t know how to skate.”

What a brilliant lady, I thought.

But then she screamed instructions: “Bend your knees more.”

She didn’t let up. Suddenly she screamed, “What is wrong with you, can’t you hear me?”

I suddenly stopped, ran into the wall and looked right into her eyes, begging for compassion, and said, “Lady, it’s hard trying to learn how to do this at my age.”

She looked at me without any compassion and said, “You should be ashamed giving such an answer. I was a teacher for 50 years. The one thing I know is that you can learn anything in life if you do two things: One, put your mind to it, and two, listen well.”

Those words of advice are essential as one learns this week’s Torah portion.

From the very opening word in this week’s parsha one realizes concentration is crucial if one is to achieve any understanding. The medieval commentator, Rashi, wondered why the Torah opened this portion with the words, “And these are the laws,” and not simply, “These are the laws.” He answers that whenever a portion of the Torah begins with the expression, “these,” it signals a discontinuity with whatever preceded it. But whenever the wording “And these” appears, it connects the present discussion with the previous one. The discussion of Revelation at Sinai from last week’s reading, notes Rashi, connects with this week’s Torah reading. Just like the Ten Commandments took place at Sinai, so, too, this portion devoted to civil laws was also taught at Sinai.

This, however, is most perplexing, for where else was Torah taught if not at Sinai? The late 20th century rabbinic thinker, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his masterful work, Pahad Yitzhak, suggests that the connection between the two Torah portions addresses popular confusion. If you ask people what comprises a religious duty, they answer: praying, fasting etc…. But if you would ask, if giving food to the poor or assisting one’s fellow man is a religious duty, they will say: “That is morality not religion.” They have a distorted view, argues Hutner, that religion contains only ritual laws, but laws that concern our interaction with others are not of religious consequence.

It was this very point that led the 19th century commentator on Rashi, the Be’er Yitzhak, to note that revelation at Sinai involved a tremendous miracle. Rashi had commented that when God revealed the Ten Commandments, it occurred in two stages. The first stage was something man can’t imitate. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said all of the Ten Commandments in one utterance.” God said each of the commandments at the very same moment. But then there was stage two: “He went back and repeated each and every commandment by itself.”

The Be’er Yitzhak wonders why God had to reveal the commandments in such a fashion. He answers that God said all of the commandments together so that no one should think that any one commandment is more important than any other. You might think that the ritual laws, which are Nos. 1-4, are more important since they are listed first. Of course custom requires that we list items and something has to be No. 1 followed by No. 2, etc…. The message, however, is that all commandments, whether they deal with God and man, or man and his interaction with his fellow man, are equal in God’s eyes.

Not long ago I met with a young man who is in the music business. In an almost confessional fashion he told me, “Rabbi, I am not that religious.”

I answered him, “I don’t know if you are religious or not, but please don’t get the word ‘religion’ and the word ‘observance’ confused.”

He was shocked, and asked what I meant.

I said that just because one is observant and keeps all of the ritual laws, that doesn’t make one a religious human being. A religious person is one who observes both the ritual and moral laws. Ritual observance alone doesn’t make one a religious individual.

When the woman at the ice rink said to me, “Remember, listen well for when you do you really can achieve anything,” she was, in effect, summarizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim: Listen to the words of Torah and you can achieve a just society.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.


Divine Protection


As the train pulled into the Iraqi border police station, the lanky Jewish boy at the window became more and more nervous. The bulging

package under his robes felt heavy like lead. As the train came to a full stop and the passengers were ordered to line up on the platform, he moved automatically with them, dragging his feet. His fingers wanted to touch his precious and dangerous cargo, but he knew he should not make any suspicious move.

He worried the officers might find out that he was running away from Baghdad and the Iraqi army in order to go to Israel; the mere thought of the consequences of being discovered sent a shudder down his spine.

His friends and relatives warned him not to take his tefillin. “So you’ll skip a couple of days. You’ll find tefillin in Israel,” they said. They kept reminding him that he had to blend in.

He looked just like any other native Iraqi, except for the incriminating tefillin hidden in his garments. The familiar soothing words of the ancient psalms sprang to his lips and he chanted them in a silent prayer.

He thought back to a time in Baghdad when he managed to outwit a group of Muslim teenagers, shabbab, who challenged him to recite the shuhadda, the Muslim declaration of faith, to prove he was a Muslim. A smile passed his lips as he recalled how he slightly altered the Arabic words so as not to denounce his faith.

He knew he might not be so lucky next time, so he left for Israel to escape the persecution and discrimination.

His line of thought returned to the platform when he noticed an officer, who was frisking the passengers, getting closer and closer. Four more people, three, two….

“Mustafa, telephone,” a yell came from within the station.

“Wait here and do not move until I come back,” Mustafa ordered as he hurried to answer his call.

Moments later he returned from the station and resumed his inspection, skipping three people and starting one passenger after the tense boy who could not believe his luck.

“I have no doubt,” my father said, “that the Divine providence was there with me because I was faithful to my Judaism and Zionism.”

The personal exodus story of my father, who after spending several months in transition camp in Tehran, came to Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces with pride for many decades, is for me a story that is closely connected to this week’s parsha.

The Israelites’ ultimate test of faith, the test that will determine their eligibility for redemption, was the Pesach sacrifice.

According to the Bible, the lamb was an Egyptian idol. Slaughtering and roasting it was enough of a provocative act, but the Israelites were asked to go one step further. They were asked to mark their doorposts and their thresholds with the lamb’s blood as if declaring, “Here lives an Israelite. I do not believe in your idols, come and get me.”

There was a great danger that the grief-stricken and frustrated Egyptians would turn their rage against the Israelites instead of addressing the real source of the problem: their own ruthless dictator. However, the Israelites did not shy away from fulfilling the commandment and, as was promised, God protected and did not let anyone take revenge on them. This is the real meaning of the word Pesach — protection (Isaiah 31:5).

God promised the Hebrew slaves that if they would trust him as their redeemer and protector and proudly display that faith, they would be saved from the wrath of human beings.

Although this kind of direct connection is less evident today, it is still our duty that when we remember the national and personal exodus and its message, we inculcate in our children the love and pride of their values and faith, and teach them to strive for a world of peace and harmony.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.


Bracelet Bandwagon


Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve — wear it on your wrist. And with the new Shalom bracelet, you can. The Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles is distributing 25,000 of the blue elastic bands adorned with a white dove and the word “Shalom” throughout the community.

It carries a simple message: Israel wants peace.

Yael Swerdlow, director of media relations at the consulate, said the target audience for the bracelets is a universal one.

“They are for anyone who wants peace,” Swerdlow said. “We are getting requests from all over the country, from yeshivas in New Jersey to human rights activists that vilify Israel. It’s an opening to dialogue.”

The public relations department at the consulate came up with the idea for the bracelets using Lance Armstrong’s yellow “Livestrong” bracelet as their inspiration. Bracelets are all the rage this year, with the yellow bands leading the pack. Although unlike the free blue Consulate bracelets, the yellow ones sell for $1 in Nike stores with profits benefiting cancer patients. Similar bracelet campaigns include several varieties of pink bracelets that support cancer research. They include the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer foundation bracelet (five for $5), the Melissa Etheridge bracelet (one for $5), and Target’s Share Beauty, Spread Hope bracelet (10 for $10).

Jewish organizations may have been ahead of the craze. AllforIsrael.org is currently selling silver memorial bracelets, engraved with the name of victims of terror, for $2. Hillel and various synagogues nationwide began selling the bracelets in 2003, a concept created by the Israel Solidarity Fund in 2000.

“People wear this jewelry to make a statement,” Swerdlow said, “and we hope to make ours.”

To get your Shalom bracelet send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, 6380 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1700, Los Angeles, CA 90048. Attention: Consul Yariv Ovadia.


Voting With an Open Mind

With a couple of weeks left before we choose our next president, I’ve been reflecting on how the process has affected me, both as a Jew and as an American.

The biggest thing I have learned is that certain emotions have the power to close my mind and make me intolerant. Because I’m crazy in love for Israel, I’m a blind supporter of President Bush. His evangelical, visceral connection to Israel is what I’ve been yearning for for as long as I can remember. No matter how hard other presidents tried, it just wasn’t the same.

Thus, it was not a great leap to convince myself that Iraq was the right war at the right place at the right time. If anything contradicted my view on this subject, I would easily dismiss it. Whatever confirmed my view, I just lapped up. Supporting Bush just felt good.

So when I was invited last week by the American Jewish Committee to speak on the U.S. election in the context of Jewish and Israeli interests, I figured it would be a no-brainer. I was introduced as the right-wing speaker who would “balance out” the left-wing speaker who came next. All I had to do was just give my spiel on why they should vote the way I would.

There was only one problem: I wasn’t so sure anymore. A day earlier, I got ambushed by a story in the Oct. 10 New York Times Sunday Magazine. Call me crazy, but I read something diametrically opposed to my beliefs, and it made sense. Too much sense. The possibility that I might have missed the boat on Iraq gave me this odd mixture of sick-to-my-stomach and utter fascination.

So there I was in front of a big crowd, all expecting a pro-Bush rant. What’s a shaken-up right-winger to do? I decided to jump and put myself at the mercy of my true feelings.

I shared my story. I told them that there was something more important on my mind than simply who to vote for on Nov. 2. I explained how my beliefs were shaken by a magazine article. My talk became not about the value of a vote but the Jewish value of keeping an open mind.

In a nutshell, the article, “Kerry’s Undeclared War,” which profiled Sen. John Kerry, made a compelling case that a loud, dramatic war on terrorism is more likely to backfire than a more subtle yet lethal approach. I was intrigued by the idea that high drama might feed the neurosis of a suicidal, pathological enemy. It didn’t necessarily change my mind — it still might — but it did something more important: it opened it. In a potent way, the challenge to my strong view made me feel more alive, more Jewish.

It also made me realize how I let my emotional connection to Israel and to Bush sucker me into the vortex of easy, simplified partisan battles; how I’ve let it close my mind.

Sometimes I think that our first goal in life is to look for things that make us feel good. With life and the world around us so often chaotic and dangerous, we prefer to look for whatever will assuage our insecurities, rather than anything that might challenge our views and force us to confront our inner doubts.

There is a theory in organizational behavior that says when you interview someone for a job, most people make their decision in the first few minutes and spend the rest of the time trying to confirm it. This is what seems to have happened to America in this election season.

The large majority of people quickly made up their minds and now look for confirmation that will make them feel good about being right. The national pastime has become to dig in our heels.

Keeping an open mind while still having strong views is uncomfortable. It’s not sexy or dramatic. It requires us to live with paradox, to accept being challenged, to push ourselves.

I was challenged by a magazine article and forced to dig deep and deal with my discomfort. But as a committed Jew, that was the point: What is the Jewish way if not to go deep?

Did our ancestors not dig deep when they debated for 600 years to interpret God’s message and give us the Talmud? Did they not show us that we can have a point of view without being dogmatic? That there is divinity itself in the difficult acts of engaging, exploring, challenging and, ultimately, connecting with each other?

The sages of the Talmud did not write to make us feel good. The arguments and counterarguments and counter-counterarguments that crowd its 40 volumes is what has kept Judaism alive until today. And if we follow its paradoxical example of principled open-mindedness, we will always feel alive as individuals and as one community.

The problem is that our need for easy comforts has trumped our deeper need to grow by gaining knowledge. The right-winger who only watches Fox TV is only getting her daily fix. The liberal who only reads Tikkun magazine is feasting on candy that will nourish his self-righteousness. We consume comforting opinions and then repitch them to each other like walking commercials.

We are left with a strident, superficial national debate that more closely resembles a boxing match. What matters most is not whether I gain new knowledge, but: Who won the debate? Who landed a knockout punch? Will my side win?

The most startling fact in the New York Times article was that Kerry could not go too public with his real view on fighting terror, because it might be unpopular and hurt his chances. Never mind that it would deepen the debate and show sincerity; the point is only to win.

Some of my ideological friends say that when the stakes are so high, we cannot afford to be too open-minded. For the Israeli settlers who adamantly oppose the evacuation of settlements, open-mindedness is not an option. For the Bush supporters who are adamant that his way is the best way to fight terrorism, being open to alternate views is simply showing weakness.

My view is the opposite: The higher the stakes, the deeper the debate must go. Ultimately, the danger of a dogmatic, simplified debate is that it leads to dogmatic, simplified solutions.

By digging in our heels and closing our minds, we only encourage our leaders to feed us lollipops. The more undecided, open-minded and probing voters are, the deeper the candidates will go; the deeper the solutions will be.

In the Jewish tradition, deep debate is integral to our survival. It leads not only to better ideas but also to a more vibrant religion and a healthier nation.

But the heart is a powerful drug. I’ve seen in the past year how my emotional connection to the Holy Land has turned me into someone I always try not to be: close-minded and intolerant of dissenting views.

There are certainly some things I will always feel strongly about, but I will not let those feelings turn off my mind.

I still don’t know who I’ll vote for, but I know now that I won’t let my heart do it alone. And I confess, that feels pretty good.

David Suissa is the founder and editor-in-chief of OLAM magazine and the founder of meals4israel.com. You can e-mail him at editor@olam.org.


Our Future Lies Rooted in Ourselves

The last time my name appeared in The Jewish Journal, I had just been dubbed the “Milken Idol” for winning a public-speaking contest with what

The Journal termed a “stirring pro-Israel speech” that called for “Zionist solidarity.”

In that speech, I said that “there are no more excuses for apathy, complacency or passivity” and spoke of how we must empower Israel to stop a “sick, repulsive enemy.” Looking back more than half a year later, I do not know if I truly understood how significant and imperative my message was.

Since making that speech, I have traveled to Poland with March of the Living and visited Israel three times. I now understand.

This past weekend Duke allowed the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) to hold its annual conference on campus. When it became clear to me that the president of the university thought hosting a group that would not condemn terrorism affirmed the value of free speech and “dialogue,” I struggled with how I would react.

I found an apologetic attitude toward terrorism on campus. The editorial in our school paper supported the PSM’s decision to not condemn terrorism by ludicrously explaining that “if the PSM were to take a stance on the legitimacy of suicide bombings and other militant acts as a means for a solution, it might alienate a segment of its members.”

I stayed in contact with members of the American Jewish Congress and StandWithUs, joined Duke Friends of Israel, became active with the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, helped the Joint Israel Initiative with ads for the school paper and joined the Duke Conservative Union, the only non-Jewish student group that condemned and protested the school’s decision to host the conference.

I engaged anyone and everyone in debate and tried to contend with the widespread mentality that believes supporting the underdog is an “educated” point of view. I was invigorated in my outrage when I walked by signs telling me that by virtue of being a Zionist I supported ethnic cleansing.

In the week before the conference, faced with a campus rife with ignorance and no strong collective Jewish voice, I still did not know exactly how I wanted to respond.

I decided to attend a PSM workshop, spend some time at the Freeman Center and then join the protest against the hatefest on its final day.

At the conference, I found the group’s messages abhorrent and reprehensible. It was also painful it was to see some PSM organizers wearing Magen Davids and sporting anti-Israel T-shirts and passing out materials with anti-Semitic slogans. When a Jewish PSM organizer with a chai around her neck walked into the room and stood next to me, I was so repulsed that I had to leave the conference.

I’m a product of Los Angeles Jewish schooling, yet by some divine error I ended up at a campus that was not only devoid of any Jewish identity, but also hosting a divestment campaign.

Yet I keep thinking back to the girl with the chai as a lucid reason of why I ended up here. The image makes clear to me that my role as a Jew in a world that is growing more and more anti-Semitic is not to try and eradicate hatred of Jews from the earth.

My role is to help my Jewish peers be proud and knowledgeable members of this community, so that I never again have to attend an anti-Semitic campaign organized by Jews.

Our survival boils down to one thing: our peoplehood. It is the intangible quality of Judaism that made two Australian girls invite me to Shabbat dinner on the first day of school, even though nothing I was wearing would have identified me as Jewish.

That quality is the thing that allows for Sinai Temple to have a successful program helping our fellow Jews in Argentina and for Milken to have an exchange program with Jewish Mexicans. It is the thing that empties out dozens of El Al jets so that under the cover of night, persecuted Ethiopian Jews can become Israelis. It is the raid on Entebbe. And it is the indescribably beautiful thing that makes Israel an open country to any and every Jew.

The PSM has reinforced the sense of urgency I expressed seven months ago. Anti-Semitism is not the stuff of the 1930s we read about in our history textbooks. It is the story of my past weekend, it is in this morning’s newspaper, it is the truth of many world leaders, and it is not going away.

The PSM showed me once again why the future of the Jewish people does not rest with converting uneducated hypocrites into reasonable human beings.

Our future rests with ourselves — a future rooted in the Jewish people, a future where we continue to be the people God chose and blessed from all others, a future where every Jew recognizes Israel as the physical manifestation of their religion, and a future in which we continue to disappoint every person who dreams of our end by continuing to be the most educated, charitable, successful and cohesive group of people in the world.

Ease Your Kids Into Holiday Services

I was tired, I was bored and I hated wearing pantyhose. I stood up and sat down at the right times, and even hummed along to the some of the prayers. But in my head I was replaying scenes from my favorite movies and wishing I was home playing video games.

Ah, the High Holidays. The mere words conjure up memories of long services, uncomfortable clothing, endless Hebrew passages, Mom and Dad dozing off, semi-fasting against my will, and, most of all, not quite taking in what the holidays were all about. What can I say? I was a kid.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more accessible to your kids. Find out if your synagogue offers special children’s or family services. I remember my childhood synagogue had separate services for kids. Our rabbi would illustrate important holiday concepts by telling entertaining stories about a character he called "Charlie Brownstein." We saw the shofar up close, sang fun songs and sat with our friends. Every Rosh Hashanah, I still wonder whether Charlie Brownstein has been inscribed in the Book of Life.

If your synagogue does not offer such alternatives, keep your child’s limits in mind. If the services are rather lengthy, you might consider taking short breaks with your children, so they aren’t overwhelmed or bored. (I met my closest Hebrew school friends in the bathroom and lobby areas during the High Holidays!) Besides giving your children a breather, these breaks can be an opportunity for them to meet other kids in the Jewish community.

If you feel your children are too young for services, some synagogues offer other kinds of children’s programs. A few years ago, I volunteered to help with one such program. I read holiday-related picture books to a group of rambunctious 6-year-olds. Afterward, all of the volunteers put on a Rosh Hashanah puppet show for the kids, using characters from Disney movies. Who knew that Snow White and Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" were Jewish?

Hebrew-heavy services can be alienating to young kids if they don’t speak the language or know some of the prayers. If you know the prayers, you might try saying or singing them to your kids ahead of time, so they recognize them during the service. As a kid, I can recall singing along to the Shema for the first time and feeling a sense of belonging.

If "dressing up" is an issue, nip it in the bud early. I remember the endless fights my mom had with my little brother, who insisted on wearing jeans and a T-shirt, rather than the adorable suit my mother picked out weeks before. Take your children shopping, and let them have a say in choosing their holiday outfits. Remember, if a garment is itchy or uncomfortable in the store, expect it to be 10 times worse on the big day.

Make the holidays more personal by explaining them to your children. Tell stories from your own childhood memories of synagogue. For Rosh Hashanah, talk about your hopes for the New Year. For Yom Kippur, talk about the things for which you’d like forgiveness. Clearly, you may not want to share all your reflections, but encouraging your children to express some of theirs will help them understand what both holidays are all about.

Create your own holiday rituals. When I was in second grade, a religious-school teacher served my class apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. She even sang a song about it, which I remember to this day. For Yom Kippur, try breaking the fast with foods your children like, to create a positive association with the holiday.

When it comes to fasting, you probably know what’s best for your children. If they are mature enough to handle the fast, be sure to explain why we fast on Yom Kippur. It’s probably best not to force them to fast, if they are resistant. I was told that I had to fast. The result? I hid in the closet and chowed down a bag of Doritos. I avoided fasting for several years after that because of my resentment. The old "because I said so" doesn’t carry a lot of weight, and kids may rebel, as I did.

Finally, remember that your kids are going to take cues from you. If you zone out or sleep during services, your kids will get the message that the High Holidays are unimportant. Find a way for your children to take an interest in at least one aspect of the holidays, be it the shofar, the food, a song, a charismatic rabbi or talking to God. If you can establish a connection, the High Holidays will become a meaningful and permanent part of your children’s lives.

This is a reprint of a Jewish Journal article published Sept. 14, 2001.

Bush Says Magic Word: Israel

What’s in a word?

President Bush one-upped John Kerry by uttering the word "Israel" in his speech Sept. 2 accepting the Republican presidential nomination, but it’s unclear whether the simple mention of the Jewish state will have any effect on Jewish voters.

"Palestinians will hear the message that democracy and reform are within their reach, and so is peace with our good friend Israel," Bush said to loud applause from delegates at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Speculation was rampant for weeks that Bush would speak of Israel, largely because Sen. Kerry (D-Mass.) did not when he accepted the Democratic nomination in July.

There also was talk that Bush would speak about international anti-Semitism to catch the attention of undecided Jewish voters.

But in the end Bush said nothing more than Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), did in his Boston convention speech, when Edwards suggested that a change of president would bring the world to America’s side and ensure "a safe and secure Israel."

As the campaigns move toward the final stretch, each believes it has the stronger message to the Jewish community and anticipates making a thorough effort to reach what is considered an important voting bloc.

Republicans have been touting inroads into the Jewish community this election season, and the buzz at the Republican convention focused on how larger numbers of Jews are likely to back Bush for four more years. By making only a perfunctory reference to the Jewish state in his speech, some say, Bush may have missed an opportunity to woo Jewish voters.

Nonetheless, Republican Jews were gratified by Bush’s comment, suggesting that the mere mention of Israel — in an address where every word is carefully considered — was important.

"The silence of John Kerry in his acceptance speech says a lot to the Jewish community," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). Brooks said presidential candidates’ speeches are closely analyzed, while speeches by vice presidential candidates such as Edwards are of secondary importance.

Jewish Republicans said Bush’s comments had to be seen in the larger framework of the convention, which included formal Jewish outreach events by the campaign, an appearance by Vice President Dick Cheney at an RJC event and significant comments about Israel and Jews in former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s convention speech.

Giuliani was the key conduit to the Jewish community, using his Aug. 30 speech to attack Kerry’s record in the Middle East.

"In October of 2003 he told an Arab-American Institute in Detroit that a security barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories was a ‘barrier to peace,’ " Giuliani said. "OK. Then a few months later, he took exactly the opposite position. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post he said, ‘Israel’s security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense.’"

Giuliani also referred to the 1972 terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, in which a paralyzed Jewish American passenger was thrown into the sea.

Democrats downplayed Bush’s Israel reference.

"It’s window dressing," said Jay Footlik, the Kerry campaign’s senior adviser on Middle East and Jewish affairs. "If I were the Republicans, I would be talking up Israel as well in an attempt to draw support from our community."

Footlik said he felt voters weren’t counting who had said the word "Israel" more, but were taking a more sophisticated look at the candidates’ policies.

The battle for the Jewish vote likely will resemble a football game for the next two months, as Republicans work on offense to raise Jewish support and the Democrats play defense to maintain levels of Jewish support they traditionally have enjoyed.

Based on recent polls, Democratic operatives appear confident that the shift of Jewish voters to Bush is not as profound as Republicans have suggested. After Labor Day, they believe, the conversation will shift back to domestic policy, where Kerry has an advantage in the Jewish community.

They also note that they have had only several months to showcase Kerry to a national Jewish audience, while Bush has had almost four years.

But some advisers in the Democratic camp are urging Kerry and Edwards to say more about Israel and the Middle East, believing Kerry’s speech to the Anti-Defamation League in May did not do enough to prove his understanding of Israel. The Kerry campaign reportedly is receptive to calls from the community for Kerry or Edwards to do more outreach out to Jews.

Republicans acknowledge that they have had an easier argument to make to the Jewish community this election cycle, preaching "conversion" rather than working to prevent "converts." They also seem to have the support of the upper echelons of the campaign, including campaign manager Ken Mehlman, who is Jewish, as they tout issues of concern to the community at high-profile events.

Both sides say grass-roots efforts in key battleground states with significant Jewish populations — such as Florida, Ohio and Michigan — will be the focus for the rest of the campaign. Advertisements geared toward the Jewish community, and spending efforts from advocates for both candidates, are expected to start soon.

Mayor’s Race Role

With Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa’s entry into the 2005 Los Angeles mayor’s race, the competition for Jewish votes will accelerate.

Jews are attentive, high-propensity voters. Nearly one in five Los Angeles voters are Jewish (with only 6 percent of the population). If past history is a guide, however, the Jewish vote will play a more important role in the expected runoff between the two top candidates than in the multicandidate primary.

During the Tom Bradley years (1973 to 1993), Jews voted consistently for him against conservative candidates. Since Bradley left office, however, Jewish voters have dispersed in city elections. Loyal Democrats in state and national politics, Jews are less predictable in city campaigns.

As the Republican electorate has shrunk, Los Angeles voters increasingly will be choosing among different types of Democrats, anyway. The three leading contenders: Mayor James K. Hahn, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and Villaraigosa have won lots of Jewish votes in the past.

How will they do next year? And what about Councilman Bernard C. Parks and Valley state Sen. Richard Alarcon? In a sense, all the candidates are heirs to the progressive, Democratic, interracial vision of Bradley.

We do know that in the post-Bradley era, Jewish voters have given considerable support to Jewish candidates in the mayoral primary. In 1993, Jews gave a combined 52 percent of their primary votes to Joel Wachs and Richard Katz. In 2001, Jews gave 49 percent of their primary votes to Wachs and Steve Soboroff.

These examples bode well for Hertzberg, as the only Jewish candidate in the primary. On the other hand, none of the previous Jewish candidates made it to the runoff.

We also know that Jewish voters are more than willing to vote for non-Jewish candidates. In 2001, Villaraigosa led all primary candidates with 26 percent of the Jewish vote, powering him to a first-place primary showing. Villaraigosa was particularly strong in 2001 among Westside, liberal Jews, although he did very well among Valley Jews, as well.

And Hahn has been no slouch with Jewish voters. In 1997, he was opposed for re-election as city attorney by Ted Stein and won 60 percent of the Jewish vote. He has done well with Jewish voters in all his citywide races.

Parks has been cultivating the Jewish community since his election, with frequent references to the Bradley coalition. He will be competing with Villaraigosa for Jewish voters who favor cross-racial politics and with Hahn on public safety. Alarcon will compete with Hertzberg for Valley votes.

If Jewish voters scatter in the primary, with the most liberal Jews backing Villaraigosa, and moderate and conservative Jews supporting Hahn; a majority, regardless of ideology, backing Hertzberg, and others for Parks and Alarcon, then the greatest impact of the Jewish vote will be in the runoff election between the top two primary finishers.

For Bradley, holding and increasing his Jewish support from the primary to the runoff was the difference between making it to the mayor’s chair and bitter defeat. In 1969, his Jewish support in the primary did not translate into the runoff, where Sam Yorty’s scare campaign drove many Jewish voters away from Bradley. In 1973, Bradley held and greatly expanded his Jewish primary base into the runoff, and the rest is history.

In 1993, Richard Riordan, running on public safety, went from a paltry 21 percent of the Jewish primary vote to nearly half in the runoff, helping him to defeat Michael Woo. In 2001, Hahn outdistanced Villaraigosa in the runoff, with a tough anti-crime message and harsh advertising.

Hahn’s Jewish backing more than tripled from the primary, from 16 percent to 54 percent, while Villaraigosa rose from 26 percent to only 46 percent. These final Jewish totals exactly mirrored the overall city result of the runoff election.

In both cases, the winning candidate led with law and order and made the opponent appear to be an untested too-liberal choice. Even though Jews are, among white voters, surprisingly liberal, local elections tend to bring out their concerns about crime and other issues that make them more of a center-left constituency.

The most likely candidates for the two runoff spots are Hahn, Villaraigosa and Hertzberg, although nothing can be said with certainty. Those who don’t make the runoff will also have an impact in whom, if anybody, they endorse in the runoff.

Hahn’s greatest re-election asset is likely to be public safety, and his popular police chief, William Bratton. He can make the case that he has turned the troubled LAPD around and held the city together against secession (which Jewish voters strongly opposed).

This will appeal to Jewish voters, as will his generally moderate style and his long experience in Los Angeles government. The scandals at city hall, on the other hand, will hurt him among reform-minded Jewish voters.

Villaraigosa has long cultivated the Jewish community, has a very strong base among progressive Jews and ran a strong race in 2001. His biggest challenge will be to erode Hahn’s edge on the public safety issue. However, his dynamic personality and the fact that as a councilman he has more experience at city hall than he did in 2001 make him a viable crossover candidate for Jewish voters.

Hertzberg is well-known and well liked among Jewish voters, especially in the Valley, where Hahn has been hurt by his campaign against secession. He has the least city hall experience of the three leading candidates, but has great experience in state government and in public policy. He can appeal to Jewish voters with his tremendous energy, his ideas and his reformist ideology, and if he makes the runoff, being Jewish won’t hurt.

It’s going to be a real horse race.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. His new book, “The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles,” was just released by Princeton University Press.

Racist Repeats Election Stratagem

The Republican primary victory on Aug. 5 of white supremacist James Hart in Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District is eerily familiar to Southern Californians.

It seems like a page out of the 1980 playbook of Tom Metzger, the Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who won the Democratic nomination for Congress in San Diego County against the then-entrenched Republican incumbent, Rep. Clair W. Burgener.

Because the popular Burgener, a soft-spoken conservative, was considered such a shoo-in for a fifth term, no well-known Democrat wanted to oppose him. Why be a sacrificial lamb? So the campaign for the Democratic nomination started as a contest for the party privileges that go with becoming an official, albeit losing, Democratic nominee.

Insider party privileges, such as winning an automatic seat on the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee and having the right to appoint members to the Democratic State Central Committee, drew party worker Edward Skagen into the race. Bud Higgins, another political unknown, similarly was eligible for these low-profile prizes.

Metzger, better known and not yet well understood, changed the dynamics of the primary election. He received 33,071 votes, or 37.1 percent of those cast in northern San Diego County, southern Riverside County and all of Imperial County. That was enough to come in ahead of Skagen by 392 votes and to win the Democratic nomination in what was then California’s 43rd Congressional District.

Well-known Republicans in Tennessee similarly believed it pointless to challenge Democrat John Tanner in this election cycle. He is in his eighth term, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and is a leader of the so-called "blue dog" Democrats — moderates who joke that they’ve been squeezed so hard by the left and right wings of the party, they fear turning blue.

Although write-in candidate Dennis Bertrand sought to stop Hart in the primary election, Hart triumphed with more than 80 percent of the vote in a district that covers 19 counties in northwest Tennessee.

The political parties were reversed in the California and Tennessee scenarios, but the cynicism is the same.

What motivated Metzger and what now drives Hart were opportunities to get media for their message of white supremacy. The fact that we read in newspapers across the nation about the Tennessee candidate proves the publicity value of the congressional nomination.

Metzger probably didn’t expect to beat Burgener, any more than Hart really anticipates unseating Tanner. For Hart, the reward will be all the attention he can stir up for the discredited Nazi theory of eugenics — that some racial groups are genetically superior to others.

I became press secretary to Burgener’s campaign in 1980, after Metzger won the Democratic nomination. It quickly became apparent that there were two major problems with which we had to contend. The first was that news reporters thought that it was unusual, offbeat, even a matter of human interest, that a real live Ku Klux Klansman was running for office in California. It was sort of a "man bites dog" story, interesting because it was different, without much thought given to what that difference was all about.

The second problem was that Burgener didn’t want to say anything about Metzger. The congressman’s first instinct was to ignore Metzger, so as not to build a tent for his opponent.

That strategy might have worked against an unknown, but Metzger already knew how to command media attention. The task for Burgener was to define Metzger and white supremacy for San Diegans. Tanner will have a similar responsibility in Tennessee’s general election campaign.

Ultimately, Burgener came to understand that Metzger was a symbol who needed to be confronted and not simply a political opponent. The campaign got hold of a documentary film about the faces of hate, in which Metzger’s group was pictured, and in which Metzger said some intolerant things. Burgener’s campaign held a screening for the media, and Metzger and some followers thought they could make light of it by showing up uninvited in Nixon masks.

After the media heard on film the kind of hatred that Metzger and his followers spewed about African Americans, Mexican Americans and Jews, suddenly having a Ku Klux Klansman as an official Democratic nominee from San Diego didn’t seem like a human interest story anymore. Reporters demanded of Metzger whether he really believed in the hard-core hate he had been filmed spouting in the documentary, or did he believe the softer line he had been taking in the campaign?

Metzger was unmasked, and from that day until Election Day, stories focused not on how unusual Metzger’s philosophy was but on how un-American it was.

To illustrate that Metzger was outside the mainstream of American politics, the Burgener campaign adopted what it called the "Hatfield and McCoy" strategy. It found rival Democratic and Republican candidates, some of whom were long-time political enemies, and had them stand together at the same lectern to endorse Burgener.

A typical formulation was, "We never agree on anything else, but when it comes to this election, we can agree — enthusiastically. We urge everyone to reject the hatred of the Ku Klux Klan and vote for Clair."

To their credit, Democrats were willing to put aside partisan differences and urge the reelection of the Republican incumbent. In Tennessee, the test will be whether Republicans will be willing to return the compliment.

Burgener won the contest with more than 86 percent of the vote — the outcome no surprise. The Ku Klux Klan and the racist doctrine of white supremacy were dealt a resounding rejection at the polls.

After the election, Metzger went on to become the leader of the White Aryan Resistance, eventually losing millions of dollars in a court suit brought against him for instigating the beating death of an Ethiopian student in Oregon.

The leadership of our mainstream political parties meanwhile vowed that in the future, they would prevent the hijacking of their congressional nominations by extremists. For a quarter of a century, they were mostly able to keep that vow — up until now.

Donald H. Harrison is editor of the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage.

‘Shrek 2’ Writer Gets His Happy Ending

Before David Weiss came to Hollywood as a 24-year-old screenwriter hopeful, the elders of his church put their hands on him to entrust him with a Godly mission.

"It was my idea. They sent me to Hollywood as a missionary," the "Shrek 2" screenwriter said over sandwiches at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. "The idea was to write projects that glorify God."

Now, 20 years later, Weiss is married with two children and has a different kind of mission and a different kind of life. He is no longer a born-again Christian but an Orthodox Jew who davens daily at Westwood Kehilla, wears a kippah and washes his hands with a blessing before he eats. He no longer toils without pay in the Hollywood trenches. He still dresses casually in khakis and sweatshirts, but with credits like "The Rugrats Movie(s)" and 2001’s "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" under his belt, he is a much sought-after screenwriter.

Professionally, too, he has veered somewhat from the mission he came to Hollywood for. Weiss doesn’t feel he has to make movies that glorify God anymore. Now he’s concerned with creating family-friendly films, that, among the jokes and gags, contain universal truths — and if they are Jewish universal truths then so much the better. He is proudest of his credits on 1991’s "A Rugrats Chanukah" because it tells the Festival of Lights story to a wide audience. This summer he is going to be a senior fellow at Jewish Impact Films, a new program to teach novice filmmakers how to make short films about Israel and Judaism.

In his personal life, he still wants spread the word of God, only his mission now is to help fellow Jews "catch a joy in their tradition, their heritage and their birthright," he said. He wants them to use his professional success as an enticement to get them thinking about Shabbat, tefilin and God.

"I love that now when I run into an unaffiliated Jew, they say ‘Wow, you keep Shabbos?’ and they want to talk about it," he said. "I think people are more likely to accept your invitation for Shabbos dinner if you have some kind of substance in your professional life."

So far, it’s his credit on this summer’s record-breaking "Shrek 2" — which has earned him write ups in The Jerusalem Post, the Ventura Country Star and Aish.com — that have perhaps given Weiss the most "professional substance" of his career.

"Shrek 2," an animated film about a galumphing green ogre and his ogress wife, Fiona, surpassed "Finding Nemo" as the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Although it is not a Jewish film, it is easy to see its Jewish themes. With its perverse twist on the typical saccharine-endeding fairy tales, the film has a strong anti-assimilationist message: Shrek has a choice to shed his green lumpy skin and his skanky swamp and assimilate into the materially wonderful, aesthetically pleasing society of "Far Far Away" as a handsome prince, but he chooses to remain true to his real identity as an ugly grumpy ogre.

"It was not intended to be a subliminal message to the Jewish community," said Weiss, who explained that that part of the story was already present in the film before he was called in to write on it. "Really the theme is ‘be yourself.’"

But Weiss injected the film with a Jewish theme of his own, which he learned in an "Introduction to Judaism" class taught by Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, the principal of Ohr Eliyahu school.

"He said [in Judaism] ‘Love means what’s important to you is important to me,’" Weiss said. "That has served me incredibly well in my marriage, and it plays out overtly both for Fiona and Shrek. Shrek wanted to take the magic potion and be a handsome prince because he thought that was what Fiona needed to be happy. He wanted it for her sake."

Like Shrek, who grows to accept himself as he was, it took a while for Weiss to reach the point where he felt comfortable with Judaism. He was raised Reform, but found the community he was in was more social than religious and he was plagued by a "search for meaning."

"I had a lot of questions about the meaning of life, and the inherent terror of death and nobody [in his Jewish community] really cared about that much," he said. "God was not that big in the synagogue, and a religion without God doesn’t make that much sense."

As a teenager, Weiss found the answers he was looking for among Christian friends, who introduced him to their God. At first he couldn’t get himself to accept "JC" (his term), but gradually "grew to love God passionately," so much so that he became a youth leader in the church.

He became a ba’al teshuvah (returnee to Judaism) as an adult, after meeting Orthodox Jews. He loved that they actually kept the laws of the Bible.

"I assumed my Christian friends would find that absolutely fascinating — and they were [fascinated] while I was still in the church," he said. "Really naively and stupidly, I thought they would say ‘Let’s go over there’ [to Judaism], but it was mostly like ‘JC is the only truth.’"

But Weiss does not regret his church experience.

"It bought phenomenal meaning and purpose to my life, and it was a huge stepping stone to Orthodoxy," he said.