Judaica studio Mi Polin casts Polish Jewish history in bronze


When Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar opened their email inbox several weeks ago, they found a message from a customer who had bought one of their bronze mezuzahs as an engagement gift.

“The connection my family now has with the past was so overwhelming that it made my wife cry,” the customer wrote. “It will now be proudly displayed in our home and I will make sure every visitor knows the story. This bronze will truly be eternal.”

Czernek and Prugar are the founders of Mi Polin, a Polish design studio specializing in the production of contemporary Judaica. For their Mezuzah From This House series, the pair traveled across Poland searching for traces of mezuzahs in the door frames of homes where Jews once lived. From the depressions left in the frame, Czernek and Prugar produce a plaster cast they then use to create a bronze mezuzah engraved with the traditional Hebrew letter shin and the address where the original mezuzah once hung.

“We decided to use bronze because it is known from antiquity,” Prugar told JTA. “It is completely resistant to external conditions, does not rust. Without any problems our mezuzah will survive 1,000 years. Our casts are eternal.”

One of the bronze mezuzahs made by Mi Polin from a trace of an old Polish mezuzah. (Mi Polin)A bronze mezuzah made by Mi Polin from a trace of an old Polish mezuzah. Photo courtesy of Mi Polin

Last year, Czernek and Prugar traveled to Sokolow Podlaski, a small town about 60 miles east of Warsaw. They stopped by the building at 4 Wilczynskiego St., which housed a kosher butcher shop before the Holocaust. The old door frame wasn’t there anymore, but amazingly, Czernek and Prugar found a door from the house lying nearby in a dumpster that had a trace of a mezuzah.

Orie Niedzviecki, a Canadian lawyer whose grandparents came from Sokolow Podlaski, bought two mezuzahs made from depressions found there by Czernek and Prugar. One he gave to his parents, the other to a niece who had just moved to Israel.

“The idea that this mezuzah is now in Israel along with some members of my family, and hopefully myself soon, provides some link to the past as the Jewish people move forward to its inevitable future as a free nation in its own homeland,” Niedzviecki said.

Though some 3 million Jews lived in Poland prior to the Holocaust, most Poles do not realize that the marks still remaining on door posts were likely the spots where Jews had hung their mezuzahs. When the doors are replaced, one of the last traces of the Jewish inhabitants of those homes often disappears as well.

Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar making a plaster cast from the impression left by a mezuzah. (Katarzyna Markusz)Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar making a plaster cast from the impression left by a mezuzah. Photo by Katarzyna Markusz/JTA

In the town of Ostroleka, Czernek and Prugar last year found a home with traces of 10 mezuzahs. During a renovation, the owners had stripped them out and burned them, not understanding their significance.

“In contrast to synagogues and cemeteries, mezuzah traces are the least visible part of the material legacy of more than 3 million Jews who once lived in Poland,” said Krzysztof Bielawski, who runs the Virtual Shtetl project at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. “Few people are turning attention to them. Helena’s and Alexander’s design is not only a documentation of the traces, it shows that each mezuzah is linked to the history of specific individuals.”

Mi Polin has also produced a crystal mezuzah for the blind, with one of the Hebrew names for God written in braille. They are also working on a spice box used in the Sabbath-ending service Havdalah that is based on the shape of the Tower of David in Jerusalem.

Czernek and Prugar have produced 25 bronze mezuzahs from casts made in over a dozens cities and towns across Poland. They also take special orders from Jews abroad who wish to have mezuzahs from casts made in towns where their families once lived.

For each cast they make, Czernek and Prugar send information about it to a local museum or municipal office to educate local residents about the Jewish legacy in their particular town and to increase the likelihood that more mezuzah traces can be found. They also organize training workshops to teach tour guides how to locate former Jewish sites around Poland.

“We are working so that each of our products is not only a thing,” Prugar said. “We want to give some content, message, special meaning for each of them. Judaism is full of different meanings. It is tangible through our items.”

Homemade sufganiyot recipes to brighten Chanukah celebrations


Chanukah has always been a joyful holiday for children and adults.

A good story about a victory and a miracle, great food like doughnuts and latkes, but more than anything, the chanukiyah — the menorah — whose light gives the holiday an atmosphere of magic and mystery.

I’ve been living in Jerusalem all my life. The most fascinating tour of the city is a chanukiyah tour in the ultra-Orthodox religious neighborhoods. Here, the chanukiyah is placed outside, to the left of the entry door, in a glass case that protects its candles from wind and rain. On the right of the entry to the home is the mezuzah, so upon entering a home at Chanukah, which this year begins the night of Dec. 16, we are surrounded by commandments.  

Traditionally among observant Jews, each family member lights his own chanukiyah. Walking through narrow Jerusalem alleys, we enjoy the lights of thousands of Chanukah candles. The sight fills the heart with a sense of magic and brightens the soul.

The chanukiyah is there to advertise the miracle that took place more than 2,000 years ago when Judah Maccabee and his people found a small pot of oil that was supposed to light the menorah for one day but miraculously kept it lit for eight days.

That’s why the holiday period is eight days. It’s also why the shape of the menorah changed from holding seven to eight candles (or oil lights), plus an extra candle, the shamash, which is used to light the rest of the candles.

The mitzvah of Chanukah is to advertise this miracle, and if we want to advertise it, we need people to see it. We place the chanukiyah in a place so people on the street can see it (the best time is from sunset until there are no more people on the street). Traditionally, we light the chanukiyah with olive oil, as in the Temple, but any other form of light will work.  

Winter holidays are holidays of light and fire. Many years ago, there was no electricity, and candles were expensive. Darkness makes us afraid and depressed, and the lighting of the chanukiyah helps to lighten the atmosphere. The family comes together to light the candles, sing songs and make blessings, and this atmosphere fills the heart and home with joy.

Because the whole story is about oil, it makes sense that traditional Chanukah food is connected to oil.  

North African Jews eat sfenj, a type of fluffy doughnut that is usually served with honey or a date syrup. Europeans eat sufganiyot (doughnuts), which have their origins in Germany. All around the world, there are many versions of latkes (potato pancakes), which are fried in oil. 

I decided to share with you three great recipes for the holiday: a traditional recipe for sufganiyot using a yeast-based dough, a quick and easy five-minute recipe for sufganiyot and, of course, strawberry jam for the filling. 

If you ever come to Jerusalem during Chanukah, I hope you will go to all the places my mother used to take me to when I was a little girl. And, of course, you are more than welcome to cook and dine at my place. Happy Chanukah!

CLASSIC YEAST SUFGANIYOT 

  • Strawberry Jam (recipe follows)
  • 1 1/2 ounces fresh yeast or 2 envelopes  active dry yeast 
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 7 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pinch salt
  • Oil for frying
  • Powdered sugar

 

Prepare Strawberry Jam; set aside.

Crumble yeast into mixer bowl. Add milk, whole egg and egg yolk, mixing well. Add flour, granulated sugar, melted butter and vanilla; stir to combine. 

On a lightly floured surface, knead mixture for 10 minutes. Add salt, and knead for one more minute.

Place mixture in bowl; cover with plastic wrap. With a fork, make holes in the plastic wrap. Place bowl in a warm place to rise until mixture doubles in size, approximately 3 hours. 

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to a thickness of about 1 inch. Cut into rounds with a 4-inch-diameter cutter. With oiled hands, shape dough into balls. Allow the dough balls to rise for 20 minutes.

Heat a deep pot of oil to 350 F. Carefully place the doughnuts in the hot oil. Fry until golden brown and floating, then carefully remove from oil and place on paper towels.

When cool, using a pastry bag with a small tip, inject doughnuts with Strawberry Jam, and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

QUICK AND EASY SUFGANIYOT

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 cups yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
  • Oil for frying
  • Strawberry Jam (recipe follows)
  • Powdered sugar

 

Mix together the first seven ingredients.

Heat a deep pot of oil to 350 F. Carefully place spoonsful of the mixture in the hot oil. When golden brown and floating, carefully remove and place on paper towels.

When cool, using a pastry bag with a small tip, inject doughnuts with Strawberry Jam, and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

STRAWBERRY JAM

  • 4 1/2 cups strawberries, rinsed, well-dried and quartered
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3 cups granulated sugar

 

In a wide pot, bring to a boil strawberries and lemon juice; add sugar. Cook over high heat until sugar dissolves and mixture returns to a boil. Reduce heat, and cook for 1 hour, uncovered.

To check for doneness, place a drop of mixture into a glass of iced water. If it holds together and forms a clear shape, it’s ready.

New Yorker told to remove mezuzah sues landlord


An Orthodox Jewish man from suburban New York City sued his landlord for demanding that he remove the mezuzah from his apartment’s doorpost.

Arye Sachs of North Babylon on Long Island filed a lawsuit this week in Brooklyn federal court, the New York Post reported.

In the lawsuit, Sachs said his landlord ordered him to remove the mezuzah several times and then evicted him, saying “This is a Christian residence.” The mezuzah was missing after he returned home from a trip last month, according to the Post.

The lawsuit calls the mezuzah, a family heirloom that came from his Holocaust-survivor grandfather, a “priceless, irreplaceable protector.”

Sachs in the lawsuit credits the mezuzah with his successful recovery from three strokes and an amicable divorce.

At last, Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews is dedicated


Krzysztof Sliwinski, a longtime Catholic activist in Jewish-Polish relations, gazed wide-eyed at the swooping interior of this city's Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Nearly two decades in the making, the more than $100 million institution officially opens to the public this week amid a month of high-profile, state-sponsored events marking the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“It’s incredible, incredible, incredible how things have changed,” Sliwinski told JTA. “I remember commemorations of the ghetto uprising under communism when only a few people showed up. How good it was that we were optimistic.”

Sliwinski organized Jewish cemetery cleanups and other pro-Jewish initiatives under communism, when Jewish practice and culture were suppressed by the regime.

In 1995, then-Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor, appointed him post-Communist Poland’s first official ambassador to the Jewish Diaspora, part of the state’s unprecedented outreach policy.

On Sunday, both Sliwinski, now 73, and Bartoszewski, 91, joined hundreds of local Jews and other VIPs as Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, unveiled a mezuzah at the museum’s main entrance.

“This museum is in the heart of what was Jewish Warsaw,” Schudrich told JTA. “It is in the heart of what was the Warsaw Ghetto. Now it will be in the heart of what will be the future of Polish Jewry. It is a bridge from the past to the future.”

Reflecting this symbolism, the mezuzah was made from a brick from a building in Warsaw’s prewar Jewish quarter, the area that the Nazis turned into the notorious ghetto and where the museum now stands.

A huge flattened cube with a shimmering facade — broken by a dramatic gap that symbolizes both the biblical parting of the Red Sea and the rupture caused by the Holocaust — faces the monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising.

“I am one of the few here who witnessed the unveiling of the ghetto monument in 1948,” Bartoszewski told guests following the mezuzah ceremony. “If anyone had told me then that this could be happening now, I would have said they were crazy.”

Designed by the Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamaki, the striking building with undulating interior walls is in fact still largely empty. The museum will inaugurate its cultural and educational programs on Friday, but its core exhibition — an interactive narration of 1,000 years of Polish Jewish life — will not be installed until next year.

“The museum is a part of the history that it tells,” Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett, the New York University professor who is overseeing the design of the core exhibition, told JTA. “It speaks to the renewal of Jewish life in Poland, to the enormous Jewish presence in Polish consciousness.”

On the eve of World War II, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, with 3.3 million Jews making up one-tenth of the country’s population. More than 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust; thousands more survivors left in the wake of postwar pogroms. Still more departed in the 1960s amid anti-Semitic campaigns by the Communist regime.

But with the fall of communism, there has been a revival of Jewish life in Poland and a movement by Jews and non-Jews to reclaim Jewish culture.

“Imagine, the idea for this museum arose in 1996, just a few years after the fall of communism,” Kirshenblatt Gimblett said. “The many efforts of the last two decades to renew Jewish life, to recover the Jewish past, and to foster open debate and dialogue about the most difficult moments in the history of Poland and Polish Jews have created the momentum and support for this initiative.”

The only permanent part of the exhibit installed to date is the dazzling reconstruction of the roof and painted ceiling of an 18th century wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec, now in Ukraine. So stunning that it has been compared to the Sistine Chapel, it features a wealth of brightly painted folk designs combined with Jewish symbolism: lions, griffins, Zodiac signs, birds, flowers, unicorns and much more.

Financed by the Polish state, the city of Warsaw and numerous Jewish and non-Jewish private donors, the development of the museum suffered setbacks and delays over the years due to political and organizational issues as well as funding shortfalls. The very idea of such a museum in Poland, which many Jews regard as a vast Jewish cemetery, was long a hard sell.

Over the past decade, however, Polish-born Jewish philanthropists such as Americans Sigmund Rolat and Tad Taube passionately took up the cause. Taube Philanthropies and the Koret Foundation collaborated to provide the largest private commitment to the core exhibition of the museum, a total of $16 million since 2007.

“The Taube Foundation and the museum share a similar mission: to understand not only how European Jewry died in the Nazi genocide, but how European Jewry lived in Poland and created a prodigious civilization over many centuries,” Taube told JTA. “This knowledge is not a betrayal of Holocaust memory. In fact, we honor Holocaust memory by reclaiming our rich, long and varied existence in Poland.”

Taube and others say they are hopeful the museum and the story it tells can have a long-term impact: on local Jews, local non-Jews, and the Jews from the United States, Israel and elsewhere who are expected to visit.

“The idea of there being an authentic Jewish community in today’s Poland is notoriously met with bewilderment and often sheer disbelief,” said Katka Reszke, the author of “Return of the Jew,” a new book about young Jews in Poland today. “The museum — its staff, its narrative and its programming — must be prepared to confront this skepticism and the often difficult questions coming from foreign Jewish visitors.”     

Swiss diplomat Simon Geissbuehler, a historian who has written several books on Jewish history, called the museum and its mission “an important step forward.”

Still, he added, “We don’t have to have illusions. It will not change everything immediately. There are those who don’t want to recognize this part of their history. But I hope the museum will help.”

Mezuzahs set ablaze in haredi Orthodox Brooklyn section


Eleven mezuzahs were set afire in a residential building in Brooklyn in an incident that New York City police are treating as a hate crime.

The vandalism occurred Monday afternoon — the day Israel observed Holocaust Remembrace Day — in public housing located in the predominantly haredi Orthodox section of Williamsburg.

No suspects have been apprehended in the crime.

“The Hate Crimes Task Force has been assigned to it and is treating it as a bias crime,” Paul Browne, the New York Police Department’s chief spokesman, told The New York Times. “The fact that they are all religious artifacts, we’re treating it as an anti-Semitic crime.”

Mezuzah case goes to federal court in Chicago


A federal trial involving a condo association that removed mezuzahs from residents’ doorposts opened in Chicago.

According to the law firm Much Shelist, which is representing the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis, the dispute is between Shoreline Towers condominium association in Chicago and residents of the building who say their mezuzahs were repeatedly removed from outside their doors by the association. A building rule adopted in 2001 prohibits “objects of any sort” outside the entrances to residents’ units.

Ironically, one of the plaintiffs chaired the committee that drafted that rule.

The plaintiffs, who are from two separate families living in the building, say they tried to resolve the issue directly with the board, but eventually filed complaints of religious discrimination with the city’s Commission on Human Relations, the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the state’s attorney general.

Since then, both the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois have passed laws protecting the display of religious objects on residential property, but those laws are not retroactive. 

The case, which is being tried before the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and opened Monday, will also invoke the Fair Housing Act, which plaintiffs’ attorneys say is quite rare.

A similar case in Texas led to a state bill signed June 17 requiring homeowner associations to permit religious displays on residents’ doors, including mezuzahs. Florida passed a similar law in 2008.

Texas governor signs mezuzah law


Texas Gov. Rick Perry has signed a law that would require homeowner associations to permit religious displays on residents’ doors, including mezuzot.

Perry signed the bill at the end of the Texas legislative session on June 17; it reportedly had been unclear whether he would sign the new law.

According to the law, the religious item must be under 25 inches and remain in the doorway.

The law was introduced after a Conservative Jewish couple was ordered to remove a mezuzah from the door of their rental apartment and then fined when they refused. The couple sued to be allowed to keep the mezuzah up and lost; they moved from the building when their lease was up. They then turned to Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman to help push the bill through the Texas legislature to prevent the same thing from happening to others, according to the Houston Chronicle.

In 2008, Florida’s state Legislature passed a similar bill.

Briefs: Weiss proposes city funds divestment; D.A. rejects marijuana raid case


Weiss Proposes City Funds Divestment

If Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss has his way, Los Angeles soon will join a growing list of American communities divesting from companies that do business in Iran.

“We are referring to it as a terror-free investment policy,” said Weiss, who last week introduced a measure focusing on the city’s public employees’ pension. “We are focusing on the threat to the world from Iranian nuclear terror. Make no mistake: That is what they are up to.”

Weiss’ measure would end investments by the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System in foreign companies involved in Iran’s energy, defense or nuclear sectors. It is unclear how much would be divested.

Last week, the California Assembly passed a similar bill that will require divestment by the public employees’ and teachers’ funds, which combined invest an estimated $3.4 billion in companies doing business in Iran. AB 221, introduced by Assemblyman Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon), has been sent to the state Senate for approval.

Also last week, Florida became the first state to sign divestment into law. Several other states, including Illinois and New York, are considering similar legislation.

“This is a movement, and we are bringing the message that Iran is a potential nuclear threat to the United States and its interest and allies,” Weiss said. “Israel is one of many reasons to be concerned about a nuclear Iran. Frankly, it is in the interest of almost any country you can think of to see that Iran is not successful in developing a nuclear weapon. Yet, many overseas companies are still doing business with Iran. This measure will disincentivize that.”

– Brad A. Greenberg, Staff Writer

D.A. Rejects Marijuana Raid Case

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has rejected a case against the operator of a Van Nuys medical marijuana pharmacy that was raided in April by police who allegedly desecrated a mezuzah at the shop.

After responding to a burglary at Karma Collective and finding cannabis-containing baked goods, Los Angeles police arrested 23-year-old Diana Hahn, one of several operators of the collective, which under state law sells marijuana to patients with doctor recommendations. Police had maintained that pot in edible forms was not protected by Proposition 215 – the Compassionate Use Act – or subsequent legislation.

The district attorney had until last Tuesday to file charges against Hahn, who was out on $100,000 bond. Her attorney, David Kestenbaum, said he would still pursue a grievance filed with LAPD regarding alleged ill behavior against Karma operators. They claim police treated them like criminals and not burglary victims and that officers lowered a mezuzah and removed its sacred parchment; police have denied this.

– BG

Chabad Cafe Makes Waves in Malibu


The recently mounted mezuzah on the front door of a soon-to-be opened restaurant in Malibu is symbolic for many reasons.

It marks the first kosher eatery to open in the seaside community. It also symbolizes Chabad of Malibu’s first foray into mainstream life in a city of surfers and celebrities.

Chabad has been cultivating its surf town persona since 2001, purchasing several buildings and a house across the street from the Malibu Pier. A sign posted in front of the property portrays the silhouette of a Chabadnik riding a surfboard.

But good waves aren’t enough to attract the sun-imbued to Chabad’s way of life. So resident Rabbi Levy Cunin decided to open the recently renamed Malibu Beach Grill, hoping to tempt more taste buds than tefillin.

"Obviously, this is not Pico-Robertson," Cunin said. "And while we are offering kosher food, that doesn’t only mean matzah balls and gefilte fish. There will be beef and chicken here, too."

The restaurant is poised to open during the first two weeks of September. Workers have been scurrying about the building, taking measurements and sterilizing. Meanwhile, a temporary banner posted curbside reads, "Malibu Grill … It’s All Good."

Not so to the restaurant’s former occupants, whose last day at the location was Aug. 8.

For eight years, Malibu Chicken rented the space from Chabad, and now it claims it was evicted for a kosher restaurant that will profit from its clientele, which includes stars Adam Sandler, Barbra Streisand, Jim Carey, Meg Ryan and Pierce Brosnan. But Chabadniks say they always intended to create a kosher restaurant on the property.

"It’s not right. We were here for a long time," said Sharon Caples, who ran the restaurant with her brother, Sean Caples. "And now they are going to profit from the clientele we built up over so many years."

However, Cunin said it had always been Chabad’s intention to open a kosher restaurant in Malibu.

"And it was very difficult for me to tell Malibu Chicken that they needed to find another location," he said. "What can you do? It is not like I was closing an animal hospital."

For many, it’s the end of an institution.

Eric Gross, a local surfer, ate at Malibu Chicken a couple of times a week. He said after practically growing up on the food, saying goodbye was no easy feat.

"I used to sit and talk to the owners every day. And I’m not sure how a kosher restaurant will do here. It’s not like there are a bunch of people in Malibu searching for kosher food," said the 25-year-old, who works in a neighboring office building. "Besides, I think a lot of people are still angry about what went down."

Sean Caples’ frustration still causes a slight crack in his voice, but he would not comment about the restaurant for legal reasons. His sister, who managed Malibu Chicken, said she attempted to convert the restaurant into a kosher establishment, although several months of contacting rabbis and attempting to work with Chabad proved fruitless.

"It’s very hard to convert a restaurant to a kosher restaurant when you’re not Jewish," Caples said. "We even called on a rabbi in the Fairfax region to help us. But we were evicted before we could even begin to start the process."

Cunin agreed that converting to a kosher restaurant is especially difficult if the owners are not Jewish.

"You can’t just expect someone to have a kosher restaurant because their arms are being twisted behind their back," Cunin said. "It has to be something in your heart. Something you willingly want to do."

The rabbi does not plan to run Malibu Beach Grill. He has entered into a partnership with a Jewish businessman who will contractually own the restaurant.

However, Chabad will still charge rent and take a percentage of Malibu Beach Grill’s gross receipts. Cunin said generally 10 percent is an appropriate amount for tzedakah (charitable giving) purposes.

The search for a new Malibu Chicken location continues for Sean Caples. He still has the surf and kayak store above his former restaurant. But Cunin said Chabad’s board plans to lease the space to a new business that will still keep the surf and kayak theme.

A dry cleaners on the property adjacent to a Hebrew school will remain the only business independent of Chabad if Capel’s kayak store is evicted.

Sharon Caples said she and her brother are not certain whether they will pursue litigation should the Malibu Beach Grill be identical to their former restaurant.

"It’s just been a slap in the face to us," she said. "And the Malibu residents have been so kind over the years. We’re just sad to say goodbye."

But the greatest hurdle for Chabad has yet to be cleared.

"Malibu is a very spiritual place," Cunin said. "And I hope people come and see what we’re doing here. I’m interested in learning about surfers and their spirituality."

"I’ve always liked a good challenge," he continued. "And it is amazing how much we have in common with the people here in Malibu."

Test-a-Jew


Back in high school, I had a crush on a Protestant girl, Joan Reid. She told me that her mother encouraged her to date — and even marry — Jewish guys because: a) They’re smarter and work harder; b) They make great fathers; c) They don’t get drunk and beat you. I told Joan her mom was absolutely correct, and then spent the rest of the year attempting to leverage that information into getting Joan’s bra off. But I digress.

The fact of the matter is, Jewish men are in demand, not just among Jewish women, but among non-Jewish women, as well. Similarly, there are non-Jewish men who have a thing for Jewish women. All well and good. The problem is that some of these gentiles are signing up on Jewish singles sites like JDate and raiding our people. They’re going Hebrew fishing.

Oh, sure, some of these "pretenders to the faith" will admit up front that they’re not Jewish, but many will not. It’s false advertising. Bait-and-switch. They’ll get a Jewish man or woman to fall in love with them, and only then reveal their dark secret. Shame! But, assuming this matters to you, what can be done about this treachery? Nothing. How can one determine if said potential romantic partner is, in fact, a Jew? One can’t. That is, one couldn’t — until now.

Fellow Jewish singles, no longer will a non-Jew take advantage of your good will and trusting nature. No longer will non-Jews toy with your affections. No longer will you give yourself, body and soul, to a, for want of a better word, Lutheran, only to find out that he or she grew up in a household in which the only time "Jew" was even mentioned was in conjunction with the terms "devil horns," "owning show business" and "killing our Lord."

Yes, our days and nights of uncertainty and betrayal are over. For, as a public service to my faith, I have created a fool-proof means of determining whether your potential life partner is one of the Chosen People. Now, admittedly, I am still perfecting and fine-tuning my Test-a-Jew creation. But, just to get you started, here is a brief sampling. Feel free to try them on your dates. But I beg you, if they answer incorrectly, can’t answer correctly immediately or get a glazed look in their eyes, run!

Test-a-Jew Sample Questions

1) Abba is:

a. The secret code word for getting into the hottest bar mitzvah parties.

b. A Swedish band famous for cheesy music that’s still popular, God knows why.

c. The Hebrew word for "father."

2) Mezuzah is:

a. The personal form of "Youzuzah."

b. A small parchment scroll written by a scribe and affixed to the doorpost, containing the first two paragraphs of the Shema.

c. The sound made in the throat when ingesting a matzah ball that’s too dry.

3) "Gut Shabbos" is an expression meaning:

a. Good Sabbath.

b. Shabby Guts.

c. We still own show business — pass it on.

4) Which of the following sentences uses the word shpilkes properly?

a. Did you shave your shpilkes today?

b. I had shpilkes before my big job interview.

c. Would you prefer some of the chocolate or the coconut shpilkes?

5) Which of these best describes Haman?

a. The villain of the story of Purim.

b. The last name of the one Orthodox Jew who plays professional hockey.

c. The menu term immediately preceding "cheese sandwich."

6) Kashrut is:

a. The condition immediately preceding bankruptcy.

b. Jewish dietary laws.

c. His real last name before he became "Neil Diamond."

I think you’ll agree with me that a test like this will do much to weed out the Jew-pretenders. If this situation is left unchecked, trust me, one day you’ll wake up to find your kids have blond hair, straight noses and think a shnorer is someone who makes a lot of noise in his sleep. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You’re welcome.

Mark Miller has written for TV, movies and celebrities, been a professional
stand-up comedian and a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He
can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net.

Door to Holiness


So what’s with the blood on the doors?

In this week’s Torah portion of Bo, we learn of the final steps leading up to the liberation of Israel from slavery in ancient Egypt. On that fateful night, God dealt the final blow to the Egyptians by smiting the firstborn of each of their households while sparing the firstborn of the Israelite households — precipitating total Egyptian surrender.

"They [the Israelites] shall take some of its blood [of the Paschal sacrifice] and place it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses…. When I see the blood I shall pass over you; there shall not be a plague of destruction upon you when I strike in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 12:7-13).

A simple question: Did God really need a sign on the door in order to know which home was inhabited by Israelites and which not?

Well, the suggestion goes, perhaps God didn’t need any extra demarcation, but you know, with it being such a busy night and all, perhaps the Malach Hamavet (Angel of Death) needed that extra marker while making his sweep through the neighborhood.

But let’s be real about this. This is not some scene out of a Hollywood movie where the wrong guy is taken out at the wrong time. Surely the real Angel of Death doesn’t use painted street addresses to locate his mark.

So again, what’s with the placing of the sacrificial blood on the door? And for that matter, why the door? Why not the window, the stoop or the rooftop?

Let us take a moment here to analyze the concept — the symbolism — of a door. The door creates privacy, in addition to providing shelter and protection. The door is what separates the public person from the private person, the external self from the internal self. In the privacy of one’s home is where all of the facades and inhibitions tend to fall away, allowing the best (and sometimes the worst) of what a person has to offer to come to the surface.

By way of example, some people can be very patient on the outside — all smiles and cheerful when in public, and yet, when they come home, it’s moody-broody time; no patience for the kids, no tolerance for the spouse, not a smile anywhere in sight. On the other hand, some people can be very quiet, withdrawn, reserved and uptight when in public, but barrels of fun and laughter when within the confines of their own homes. The door is where that transition — from the superficial "you" to the real "you" — tends to take place.

Our Judaism asks of us: What sort of doors do you have? What transpires on the inside of those doors? Is there a spirit of sanctity and holiness on the other side of that threshold? Are there Jewish books on the shelves? Are there kosher products in the cupboard and in the fridge? Are the Shabbat and Jewish holidays celebrated therein with joy, meaning and depth? Are words of Torah shared? Are prayers recited? Only you and the Almighty truly know the answers to those questions.

There is a great deal of discussion about how Jews ought not shy away from behaving as Jews on the outside (as well there should be), but sometimes it behooves us to address the issue of not being lax with our Yiddishkayt on the inside — where it really counts.

The Talmud tells us that "there was a great custom in Jerusalem" that whenever a family sat down to a meal, they would tack a cloth on to the door of their home. This served as a sign to all strangers and passersby that it was mealtime and that anyone who was hungry or so desired was welcome to walk on in and partake with them.

What is posted on our proverbial doors? Do we have a symbolic "welcome mat" at the door, or is it more like a "do not disturb" sign? Do we welcome the opportunity to be hospitable and benevolent to those in need of comfort, friendship or sustenance? Or do we (figuratively speaking) slam those doors in the faces of rabbis or needy individuals who seek entry to the sincerity of our hearts?

One of the most beautiful and enduring of all biblical precepts is that of the mezuzah, which is posted on the right doorpost of a Jewish home. The mezuzah testifies that this home is truly a Jewish home; a home where holiness, modesty, decency and goodness are a way of life — even (if not especially) behind closed doors. The mezuzah represents God’s presence in the home as well as His protection over all who reside therein. It is not merely a nice Jewish ornament. Indeed, if we only appreciate the mezuzah for its facade — its external appearance — rather than its internal spiritual meaning and we’re not too overly concerned about whether the scroll contained therein has been scribed in accordance with the Torah’s instructions in that regard, then we’re missing what it is that a Jewish door is all about. A Jewish door is where the facade is supposed to end and where truth and authenticity are supposed to begin. It’s not what the mezuzah case looks like that’s most important; it’s what’s inside that really matters. What is the true essence of the matter?

So, what was the significance of the Israelites’ marking their doorposts with the blood of the Passover sacrifice? It was not an address or a door marker. It was their testimony that they were truly ready to leave Egypt. They were devoted — inside and out — to God and to Moses, indeed to the point of self-sacrifice. And that was why their homes were truly untouchable by the Angel of Death. For the blood on the doorpost was there — not for God’s benefit or for His messenger’s benefit — but for the benefit of the Israelites who finally understood what it was that separates Jew from Egyptian. It’s all in the door.

Aromatherapy Miracles


“American Pie” star Shannon Elizabeth may appear to have perfect skin. But Michelle Ornstein knows that everyone, even stars, have bad skin days. And when they do, they turn to this Israeli-born spa owner for help.

“Everyone breaks out. Teens, movie stars, homemakers. People who break out from everything come here,” said Ornstein, running her fingers through her thick brown curls.

Nestled between Crescent Heights and Fairfax on the oh-so-hip Melrose Avenue, Enessa derives its name from the Hebrew word nes (miracle). “To me, aromatherapy is the miracle of the essence,” Ornstein said.

To walk into Enessa is to relax. The stone mezuzah in the doorway welcomes you to serenity. Freeway road rage and smog-related stress give way to calming water fountains and copper leaf inlays in the cool cement floor. The spa’s clean lines and open spaces reflect Ornstein’s skin-care philosophy. “Cleanse, hydrate and moisturize,” said Ornstein, who returns to Israel every few years. “Keep it simple.”

Simple and natural. Aromatherapy, originally practiced by ancient Egyptians and Greeks, is the art of using essential oils (concentrated plant, flower and herb extracts) to enhance well-being. The oils, absorbed into the bloodstream, help the body release toxins and impurities. Based in this practice, all of Enessa’s treatments and products are 100-percent natural. “Synthetic oils and chemicals clog pores and stay in your body. Essential oils are released in six hours,” said Ornstein, who herself has sensitive skin and is allergic to most commercial cosmetics. “Imitation products may smell like aromatherapy, but they lack the actual healing properties,” she said.

Ornstein found topical antibiotics and Retin-A too harsh, so she created her own line of organic products. She now sells over 30 different skin-care secrets. The “Friends” make-up artist hooked Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox and Brad Pitt on Enessa products and all three male “Friends” stars use the aftershave moisturizer.

My luxurious hydrating facial ($70 for 45 minutes) started with the lavender cleanser, followed by a bio-exfoliant scrub, a generous application of cypress oil facial nourishment and a delightful calming mineral mask. She also applied clove oil for microcysts (I now swear by this miracle zit zapper), rose oil eye treatment (great for moisturizing lips, too) and the indulgently moisturizing rose geranium hydrosol.

Many of the products that Ornstein sells at the spa are Israeli influenced. “I import a lot from Israel, like the Dead Sea salts I use in my body polish and mineral mask,” she said.

During facials, she employs a softening gel and nylon strips to open pores. Though most American spas use steam for this procedure, Ornstein finds the Israeli gel method more effective. “With steam, pores go from one extreme to the other, shutting immediately after the steam is turned off. With the gel, the pores remain open, so I can concentrate on one area of the face at a time,” she said.

Ornstein, of Yemenite descent, imported another Middle Eastern beauty secret to Los Angeles: threading. Enessa is one of the few spas nationwide to provide this ancient hair removal treatment. Knotted threads are used to remove facial hair by the root, without disturbing the skin. “Waxing can remove a layer of skin, causing irritation and sun exposure. Threading ($15-$65) is less invasive and the hair grows back thinner,” she said. Salma Hayek is not Ornstein’s only threading fan. Thanks to Ornstein, my eyebrows look fantastic.

Ornstein’s heritage plays a large role in and out of the spa. “Celebrating the holidays, having a Jewish home, it’s really important to me,” said Ornstein, who attends services at Baba Sale in the Fairfax area, keeps a kosher home and is hosting a large family seder this Passover.

It is difficult to balance business and family, the successful businesswoman admits. Married in 1996 by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz of Chabad of the Marina, Ornstein and her husband, Steve, an auditor, now reside in the Miracle Mile with their 18-month-old son, Daniel. “I’ve cut down on my time in the spa. I don’t want to miss out on the most beautiful thing in the world,” said the proud mother, who pulls out an album overflowing with family photos.

Now in its fifth year, the spa has become a haven to celebs and Chasidim alike. Enessa’s full line of treatments includes facials, body polishing, waxing, threading, massage and acupuncture. Although Ornstein downplays her celebrity clientele, this Hollywood hot spot is a long way from her humble beginnings.

Eighteen years ago, she worked out of her tiny Los Angeles apartment. “I’d advertise in the local Israeli newspapers, and women would climb the stairs to my place to get their legs waxed,” she said.

“In Israel, skin care is number one. Everyone gets a monthly facial; here it is treated more like a luxury than a necessity,” said Ornstein, who moved from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan at age 13.

Ornstein discovered her skin-care passion while attending Beverly Hills High. “I broke out horribly at 16. I tried everything, nothing worked. And my first facial was traumatic,” said Ornstein, who then took to wandering aisles at the health food store. “I read the labels on all the jars to figure out what might help. I’d go home and make my own masks,” Ornstein said.

She enrolled in a local beauty school after graduation, but trained in aromatherapy in a Tel Aviv academy. “In Israel, I learned natural solutions for problem skin, how each plant and herb possess their own unique power,” Ornstein said. “I also learned that everything affects your skin. Your lifestyle, your diet, acupuncture, exercise.” She looks to Israeli folk dancing, salsa dancing and yoga for release.

With Ornstein’s help, I leave Enessa feeling pampered, relaxed and complexion glowing. And like so many of her celebrity clients, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

For more information on the spa and its products, visit

Sephardic Survival


“Survivor” as inspiration for Jewish programming?

It seems strange that the divisive show where deceit, backstabbing and empty promises are de rigueur would serve as the inspiration for a Shabbaton that stresses the importance of religious and cultural continuity. Yet Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR) has seized on this pop culture phenomenon and infused it with a positive spin.

STARvivor 2, STAR’s follow-up to its popular STARvivor Shabbaton, is set for Dec. 7-9 at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu. The first STARvivor, held last April in Malibu, separated 20 teens into three tribes — Issachar, Levi and Judah — complete with their own tribal banners. After Shabbat, the tribes squared off in timed, Jewish-themed competitions: in one, the tribes squeezed juice from grapes into a cup and then recited the “Kiddush,” while another had them build a makeshift home in order to affix a mezuzah.

“You’re basically competing with MTV,” said STAR Media Director Abraham Raphael, 29, who developed the Shabbaton idea. “You want to make sure that whatever you do is going to be sophisticated and exciting.”

Locally, there have been few, if any, events geared toward Sephardic youth outside of synagogues. As a result, many Sephardic teens end up choosing between assimilation or participation in an established system of programs steeped in Ashkenazic traditions.

While there has never been a formal Sephardic population study in Los Angeles, rough estimates by Sephardic organizations place the number somewhere between 75,000 and 150,000, and most agree that the population is dwindling.

“You see a desperation among parents who want to get their kids involved,” Raphael said.

It’s this growing assimilation and loss of Sephardic culture that prompted philanthropist Hyman Jebb Levy to found STAR in 1998. The organization reaches out to students, from elementary to senior high school, with year-round social and recreational programming that emphasizes Sephardic community involvement, the preservation of traditions, and a pride and love for Israel.

“We try to incorporate something in the ritualistic aspect of Judaism, always in the Sephardic minhag [custom],” said Rabbi Brad Schachter, 31, STAR’s executive director. “Whatever it may be, this is how the Sephardim do it.”

Taking another cue from “Survivor,” campers were also videotaped during competitions and at tribal council, where each tribe selected one person to give an impromptu speech about Jewish survival. The resulting footage fueled parents’ demand for a second STARvivor.

“When people saw what we did, they said ‘I want my kids on that. I didn’t realize it was going to be that good.’ Now it’s on to round two,” Raphael said.

During next week’s STARvivor 2, the campers will be separated into four tribes — Simon, Levi, Judah and Issachar — and face all new competitions.

Thankfully, the similarities between the Shabbaton and the television series end when it comes to food. STARvivor 2 will serve authentic kosher Sephardic cuisine, whereas “Survivor” contestants have had to consume such Third World delicacies as grubs, rats and cow’s blood.

STARvivor also differs from other Shabbatons in that it has set a cap at 40 students.

“If you have too many kids it becomes impersonal,” Schachter said.

Danit Namvar, 14, said STAR won over both her and her friends during the Shabbaton by giving the campers a voice.

“At other camps they lecture you, but with STARvivor we get to do fun activities and talk about issues. The people who didn’t go heard how much fun it was, and now they want to go,” Namvar said.

Schachter, who is Ashkenazi, said he welcomes the opportunity to reach out to kids and is more than comfortable working with Sephardim. During a seven-year stint in Israel, Schachter spent four years living in the Old City, where he often sought out Sephardic minyanim.

“Even though I’m not a Sephardi, I feel very connected to their heritage, their history and their passion for Judaism,” said Schachter.

“As far as the customs, I’m learning more and more every day,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to get across, teaching [Sephardi] their own customs that unfortunately have been lost over the generations.”

Despite STAR’s plethora of entertaining activities, it isn’t always fun and games. In March 2000, Levy’s daughter passed away following a battle with cancer. STAR took 30 Talmud Torah students from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood to visit with Levy as he sat shiva. The sight of the students brought tears to Levy’s eyes.

“We brought them in, and they saw the Sephardic traditions of mourning,” Schachter said. “This was an opportunity to teach them.”

For more information about STARvivor 2, call (818)
782-7359, or visit www.lastar.org .

A-door-able Art


In these patriotic times, everyone — from the fashion industry to the jewelry industry — is capitalizing on the American flag motif.

So it should come as no surprise that someone believes that Jews will want to display the flag too, in the most unlikely of places: religious articles.

Judaism.com is offering the USA Mezuzah case, a pewter- or gold-finish scroll-holder, featuring the Stars and Stripes of the American flag. “For those who love America as much as they love Jewish tradition,” the Web site advertises.

“The USA Mezuzah expresses our sentiments as American Jews,” writes Shlomo Perelman, president of Judaism.com “The American flag symbolizes the freedom to live without fear — One nation under God. By attaching a mezuzah to the doorposts of our homes, a Jew protects the lives and property of those who dwell within. The USA Mezuzah demonstrates our commitment to Jewish tradition while affirming our allegiance to this country that we love,” he adds.

Designed by American artist Robin Kimball as a response to the events of Sept. 11, the 4-inch by 1.5-inch-wide mezuzah is made from a cast of polymer clay, will hold a 2.75 inch scroll and sells for $49.95. (10 percent of all sales will be donated to the United Jewish Communities Relief Fund for relief of Sept. 11 victims.)

Perelman says he expects that other products that blend American patriotism and Judaism will soon hit the market.

Up next: Flag phylacteries?

An End to Denial


The Borough Park section of Brooklyn is one of America’s most visibly Jewish neighborhoods.

On several residential blocks of one- and two-family brick homes, almost every front door has a mezuzah. Modestly dressed women push strollers, while girls in dresses and boys in tzitzit and kippot play on the sidewalks. Sixteenth Avenue, one of the main drags, is lined with religious study centers and yeshivot, small synagogues and Judaica stores.

And in the middle of it all is an agency that runs a treatment program for Orthodox Jewish pedophiles.

Orthodox pedophiles?

For years, most people in the Orthodox world assumed their religious way of life and tight-knit communities insulated them from problems rocking the larger world, like sexual abuse.

There is still a great deal of resistance to discussing the issue, and a lingering feeling among many victims and advocates that Orthodox institutions are more concerned with protecting the reputations of men accused of sexual abuse than with believing or helping victims.

But fueled by a combination of factors — recent scandals, a growing cadre of Orthodox psychotherapists in whom Orthodox Jews feel comfortable confiding, and American society’s growing openness about sensitive social problems — that sense of insularity is eroding.

Among the indicators of change:

In the wake of public allegations last year that Rabbi Baruch Lanner, a high-ranking professional in the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, had sexually abused more than 20 teen-age girls, the O.U., which had been accused of protecting Lanner, underwent an investigation by an independent commission, made some key staff changes and vowed to implement policies to prevent future abuse.

Four years ago, at the request of the Brooklyn district attorney’s, ofice, Borough Park’s Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services — which already treated Jewish survivors of sexual abuse — created the first-ever treatment program specifically for Orthodox sex offenders. More than 30 people, half referred through the criminal justice system and half through rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, have received evaluation or treatment through the program; more are on a waiting list.

At its convention this year, the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents 1,100 mainstream Orthodox rabbis, held an open and detailed discussion about sexual abuse, led by Dr. Susan Shulman, a pediatrician who served on the O.U.’s commission investigating the Lanner scandal and who lectures frequently about sexual abuse.

In the aftermath of two publicized cases of pedophilia — one concerning a rabbi teaching at a day school and another concerning a kosher butcher — the Chicago Rabbinical Council recently created a special beit din, or rabbinical court, to address sexual abuse. The court, which has four rabbis from different sectors of the local Orthodox community, consults with a team of psychologists, social workers and lawyers.

According to David Mandel, chief executive officer of Ohel, Orthodox schools and other institutions increasingly are hosting workshops educating parents and teachers on how to prevent abuse against children and how to identify the symptoms indicating that a child may have been abused. In the past year, Ohel participated in more than 12 seminars or conference sessions on the topic, about twice as many as in previous years.

Sexual abuse is hardly unique to the Orthodox community, and many who work in the field say there appear to be far fewer incidents in the Jewish community than in American society as a whole.

Problems like victims’ reluctance to come forward, difficulty proving cases, and a tendency of people not to want to believe accusations are vexing issues in any community. Even when caught, sexual abusers are difficult to treat, and many experts say they must be watched vigilantly because they never fully recover.

But there are certain aspects of Orthodox life that make such problems especially challenging.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the wall of silence and denial.

"We’re a community that would like to believe that our religious lives prevent these problems," said Rabbi Yosef Blau, a spiritual guidance counselor at Yeshiva University’s rabbinic seminary and someone known as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse.

Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies and sociology at the City University of New York, said the presence of sexual abuse "calls into question some of the deeply held values of Orthodoxy — mainly that if you maintain a strict attachment to Jewish tradition and values, somehow that would insulate you from all that is evil in society."

In addition, there is a historic Jewish tendency, particularly acute in the Orthodox world, to keep quiet about sensitive issues for fear of publicly scandalizing the community.

Many Orthodox Jews also fear that embarrassing information could jeopardize future wedding matches for individuals and their families.

Another obstacle is that the many demands of an Orthodox lifestyle — and the fact that Orthodox Jews must live within walking distance of synagogue — make Orthodox communities tight-knit. That can make it hard for a victim to come forward, particularly if the abuser is prominent or well liked.

When the perpetrator is a rabbi or other respected member of the community, victims have an even greater difficulty, given Orthodox Judaism’s reverence for rabbinical authority figures.

"If a kid goes to a parent and says, ‘My rebbe did something to me,’ the parents tend to believe the rabbi, not the child," Blau said.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that most Orthodox institutions lack a formal system for preventing or reporting abuse.

Rabbi Gedalia Schwartz, chief presiding rabbi of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and the Beit Din of America, a national rabbinical court under RCA auspices, urges victims to go to the police as well.

"Some might say, send [the abuser] to another community," Schwartz said. "That’s no good because if he goes to another community he will do the same thing."

However, some communities do just that.

In her RCA speech, Shulman told of an anonymous rabbi who impregnated a student while he was principal of a school for Jewish girls with learning disabilities. When he was fired, he moved to another community where he is "still a prominent rabbi."

Despite the remaining challenges, some in the Orthodox world find solace in the fact that the topic is now on the table and that some treatment programs are out there.

"People are discussing a topic that truly wasn’t discussed," Ohel’s Mandel point out.

Ask Wendy


His Cheatin’ Heart

Dear Wendy,

My best friend discovered that her husband has been having a long-term affair. First she wept on my shoulder, then she asked me what I thought she should do? Is there a right answer to that question? She and her husband have three small children whose lives must also be considered.

Friend Indeed

Dear Friend Indeed,

The only right answer for now is that, as her best friend, you will stay by her side and support whatever decision she makes. But once that moment passes, it’s time for her to pack her bags — period. Or his.

This may be an oversimplification, but I believe that people fall into two categories: those who cheat and those who don’t. Those that do tend to do so again — especially if their transgression was of the long-term variety. If the wronged party doesn’t lay down the law, the transgressor knows, consciously or unconsciously, that he can get away with it again. Anyone who has seen a 4-year-old in action is familiar with this axiom. At the end of the day, your friend needs to ask herself: Do I still respect and trust my spouse? There can be only one answer to that question. And a marriage without respect and trust is no marriage at all, even if the family is still intact.

Unkosher Gift

Dear Wendy,

We received a beautiful mezuzah and scroll as a gift. Our sofer (scribe) pointed out that although written on kosher skin, some letters were written backwards, several words were in the incorrect order, and the heksher on the plastic wrapping was counterfeit. We do not want to offend the gift-giver but we feel obligated to alert her and the synagogue that sold it to her that the parchment is not kosher. What do you suggest?

Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

Would you worry about telling someone their tires had been found to have a defect and were being recalled? I suggest you choose your words carefully and remember to express your appreciation. Beyond that, your friend and her synagogue store should be grateful for the information. Someone should be ashamed of himself — or herself — and it isn’t you.

Women Pallbearers

Dear Wendy,

At every funeral I attend I see only men bearing the casket. Does Judaism prohibit women from being pallbearers?

Curious

Dear Curious,

If ever there is a time when people cling to custom and ritual, it is at the end of life. Part of the ritual of death is to follow traditions already in place; male pallbearers happen to be one of those traditions. (In Jerusalem, another such tradition is that children, no matter what their age, do not go to the cemetery when a parent is buried. Go figure.)

There is no halachic reason a woman cannot be a pallbearer. According to my rabbi, this minhag (custom) was likely established as a matter of muscle: women were not considered strong enough to carry the casket. But even among the Orthodox community, the long-held tradition is being uprooted, one piece at a time. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Ohr Torah Institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat, has broken ranks and decreed that it is permissible for women to be pallbearers for other women. If you are a member of a Conservative or Reform community, you have most likely already witnessed this shift.

Ask Wendy appears on the third week of every month. Send letters to Ask Wendy at wbadvice@aol.com or 954 Lexington Ave. Suite 189, New York, N.Y., 10021.n

Ulterior Motives?

Dear Wendy,

My daughter was 10 years old when I married for the second time. My new husband never wanted to fill the role of stepfather; in fact, he paid very little attention to my daughter. But now that we’re divorced (after 17 years of marriage) he calls her frequently and lavishes gifts on her. Recently he bought her a car. What do you make of the alliance and what do you think I should do?

Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

If he can’t have you I guess he’s decided to settle for your daughter. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

The good news is that you’re divorced from him and no longer need to give a second thought to your ex-husband’s motives. Even if they are rather transparent. Your daughter is another matter. It isn’t everyday that someone offers to buy you a new car. On the other hand, this may be your daughter’s way of getting back at you while getting what she never got from your ex when he was her father. Without making a federal case of it, ask your daughter what is going through her head. Talk to her about your concerns — are there strings attached here? — but don’t let the discussion turn into an argument. You are no longer married to this man. Don’t let him come in between you and your daughter; and, whatever you do, don’t let your ex draw you back in. You divorced him for a reason, didn’t you?