September 25, 2018

Mother’s Day

When the sandbox is overturned
And the cucumber shoots are heavy with tiny crystals
I chant summer summer summer
And walk upstairs
This is how it is now:
I lose my patience over and over
Only to find it waiting for me
Calling me
Not by my name
But by the name mother.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher based in Portland, Ore. She currently is working on a memoir. Her second poetry book, “Fruit Geode,” will be published by Augury Books in October.

ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Gal Gadot

Gal Gadot on being a Mom

Gal Gadot cuddles with her daughter Alma, now 6, in an Instagram photo. Said Gadot: “How to be a mom in 2017: Make sure your children’s academic, emotional, psychological, mental, spiritual, physical, nutritional and social needs are met while being careful not to overstimulate, understimulate, improperly medicate, helicopter or neglect them. … How to be a mom in literally every generation before ours: Feed them sometimes.”

Thank you, mom – from the Jewish Journal staff

Rob Eshman, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Sari Eshman

 

At every age you are a rare beauty and a rare soul … and I’m a lucky son.


David Suissa, president

Meme Suissa

 

I’ve never seen Bob Dylan in a recording studio. But I can just imagine. He probably knows just what he wants. He can speak the engineer’s language, tell the bass player how to improve a rhythm, make changes on the fly, fix a lyric, add some harmonica when he feels like it. He’s in creative heaven. Within a few hours, a “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Dirt Road Blues” is born.

That’s sort of my mother in the kitchen. The difference is she weighs more, she doesn’t sing, she doesn’t wear sunglasses, she has no angst, she doesn’t smoke or drink, she has no help and, once she’s done creating her art, it immediately gets consumed.

What remains from her creations is not a lifetime of playing and listening, but a lifetime of memories. More.


Ryan E. Smith, managing editor

Ryan Smith (right) with his mom and brother in an undated vacation photo

 

My mom always has been my chief navigator, both literally and figuratively. When I was young, she was the chief architect of our family’s annual summer RV adventures, the one who made sure we didn’t get lost en route to the Grand Canyon or the Liberty Bell or Nova Scotia. As I got older, I realized she was my moral compass as well, trying to pass on the values she developed growing up on a farm in rural Ohio — kindness, decency, hard work, patience and love.


Michael Janofsky, editor

Michael Janofsky with his mother Bernice

 

I love baseball, and part of the reason is my mother, Bernice Janofsky, did, too. when I was young, we had season tickets to the Baltimore Orioles. My parents and I attended hundreds of games, and at every one she – not my father – would keep an official scorecard, tracking hits, runs, errors, strikeouts, the works. This is a photo of us, around 1985s. We probably went to a game that night.

Danielle Berrin, senior writer

Danielle Berrin and her mother in 2010

 

This photo was taken in 2010, during one of my mother’s visits to see me in Los Angeles. Though she lived in Miami, she grew up in Southern California and missed it desperately, so whenever she would visit she would spend at least a month with me and we lived together as roommates. That evening we went to the Hollywood Bowl for their Fourth of July show and it was a classic California night: outdoors, velvety weather, good food and wine, and entertainment. Looking back, I notice how when my mother and I were photographed together we were always in a tight embrace. Anna Jarvis, who founded Mother’s Day in the early 20th century, selected the white carnation as the holiday’s official flower. Why? Because, she explained in a 1927 interview: “The carnation does not drop its petals, but hugs them to its heart as it dies, and so, too, mothers hug their children to their hearts, their mother love never dying.”


Eitan Arom, staff writer

Eitan Arom as a child with his mother

 

I was a momma’s boy. There’s no denying it. But from my post, hiding at her feet, I got my first good look at the world and thought, “I might put myself out there, take a stab at things.” I found what she would call, in her psychotherapist’s lingo, a “secure base of attachment.” These days, I stray far from my base, but I always know where headquarters are.


Esther Kustanowitz, contributing writer 

Esther Kustanowitz with her mother

 

My mother was also a writer, but – unlike me – she was also relentlessly organized. She tried to help me organize, usually to limited effect. But I have found myself returning to one trick she taught me: when ever you make a to-do list, make the first item “make a list”; then, when you’re finished with the list, you already have one thing you can cross off the list to make you feel accomplished. I’ve told that story many times, and I still have friends who send me photos of their to-do lists, with the first item – “make a list” – crossed off. It’s not her only legacy, but making those lists (and seeing the photos of my friends’ lists) has become an act of memory and tribute.


Tess Cutler, video producer

Tess Cutler’s mother and sister in 1988

 

This is my mom (with a perm), circa 1988 with my older sister Chelsea. I’m the bump in her shirt. My mother has driven cross-country (numerous times), flown thousands of miles – across oceans and continents (on a whim), canceled tennis matches (which is the kicker), for my sister and me. She always says, “I never thought I’d have kids.” But look at her, a world-traveling mother. Happy mother’s Day, I love you.


Jeff Hensiek, digital content manager

Jeff Hensiek with his mother Linda and sister Jill

 

I don’t know how she did it, but my mom made sure I was everywhere growing up. Baseball, soccer, football, boy scouts, choir – you name it. I will never be able to thank her enough for all of the opportunities she provided for me. Happy Mother’s Day.

DIY: Dressing up clay pots with shaving cream

Photos by Jonathan Fong

Clay pots are a staple of outdoor gardening, but let’s face it, they can be a little dull. While there are many ways you can dress them up, here is a simple painting technique that creates a marbleized pattern thanks to good ol’ shaving cream.

What you’ll need:

– Clay pots
– Chalky finish paint
– Paint brush
– Shaving cream
– Plate
– Acrylic craft paint
– Skewer
– Plastic gloves
– Paper towels

1. Paint a base coat of any color on the clay pots using chalky finish paint and let it dry for at least an hour. Chalky finish paint, available at crafts stores, does not require a primer and dries to a matte finish. The matte finish is important because the paint that will be applied later would rub off if the finish were glossy.

2. Apply shaving cream to a large plate or baking dish and spread it with your fingers. You don’t need too much. The layer of shaving cream should be only about 1/2-inch thick.

3. Place drops of acrylic paint randomly on top of the shaving cream. I use paint specifically designed for outdoor patios because it withstands the elements. It is sold in crafts stores, usually right next to the clay pots. Choose two or three colors.

4. Dip a skewer into the shaving cream and run it through the paint vertically and horizontally to create swirls in the paint. Don’t swirl the paint too much. You want to create distinct swirls rather than have the paint mix and become muddled.

5. Place the clay pot at one end of the plate and roll it across the shaving cream and paint. The shaving cream acts like a “cloud” to support the pot as it rolls and picks up the paint. Wear plastic gloves to avoid getting paint on your hands.

6. After the pot is covered in shaving cream and paint, let it sit for about an hour so the paint adheres to the pot. If you don’t have the patience to wait, that’s fine. The paint still adheres since the base coat is matte, but the color won’t be as intense.

7. Blot off any excess shaving cream with a paper towel. Try to use numerous clean towels as you blot so that excess paint that transfers to the towels does not go back onto the pot.

8. Let the marbled pots dry for about two hours before handling and using them. When they’re ready, fill the pots with moss, succulents or any other plants — or display them on their own to showcase their newfound beauty.

What to do in Los Angeles this week: May 12-18

Paul Simon in New York in 1975. Photo by Edie Baskin

FRI | MAY 12

SKIRBALL AFTER HOURS — “PAUL SIMON: WORDS & MUSIC”

Partake in this rare opportunity to see the exhibition “Paul Simon: Words & Music” at night. Celebrate the enduring legacy of the iconic singer-songwriter with a tour of the exhibition led by museum director Robert Kirschner, a full cash bar and local food trucks. 6 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

FRIDAY NIGHT SERVICE WITH COL. KOBI MAROM

Retired Israel Defense Forces officer Col. Kobi Marom will talk about “ISIS and the War Against the West: How to Counter What May Be the Greatest Terrorist Threat in Modern History.” 7:30 p.m. Free. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (626) 773-0251. templeetzchaim.org.

SAT | MAY 13

AUTHOR ARIEL LEVY

Ariel Levy

Ariel Levy’s memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” is about a woman overcoming loss and seeking reinvention. Levy leads the reader through the story of how she built her unconventional life, resistant of traditional rules, and then watched it fall apart. 4 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. booksoup.com. Levy also will lead a program at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 14, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Reservations recommended for the Skirball event. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

SUN | MAY 14

THE GREAT LAG B’OMER PARADE

The origins of Lag B’Omer, a minor holiday between the period of Passover and Shavuot, is the subject of many theories. No matter why it began, celebrate the day with a concert, parade and fair. There will be rides, carnival games, live music, kosher food and more. Special guests: Uncle Moishy and Eli Marcus. 10 a.m. Free. Pico Boulevard between Doheny Drive and Robertson Boulevard.  (800) 242-2239. lagbomerla.blogspot.com.

WORLD’S LARGEST MOTHER’S DAY CELEBRATION

The Los Angeles Jewish Home will host the 23rd annual World’s Largest Mother’s Day Celebration, honoring the home’s mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers on the Grancell Village and Eisenberg Village campuses. Enjoy a brunch while listening — and dancing — to the Skye Michaels Orchestra. 10:30 a.m. $25 (ages 12 and older); $12 (ages 5-11). Free for Jewish Home residents and children younger than 5. The Los Angeles Jewish Home Grancell Village campus, 7150 Tampa Ave., Reseda; Eisenberg Village campus, 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. (818) 774-3324. denise.horowitz@jhla.org.

TUES | MAY 16

THE GUARDIANS SPRING KICKOFF PARTY

Dust off your cocktail attire and help raise money for a great cause while enjoying great company, drinks and live music. All proceeds benefit The Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. Space is limited; priority will be given at the door to members and pre-sale ticket holders. 7 p.m. $18; $30 for two; $20 per person at the door; free for members. Tickets available at eventbrite.com. The Peppermint Club, 8713 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 479-2468. laguardians.org/events.

WED | MAY 17

“FIFTY YEARS OF UNITED JERUSALEM?!”

Hosted by the Rosenberg Cultural Center and Rabbi Steven Silver, come explore Jerusalem. At the half-century mark of the reunited Jerusalem, what are the prospects for peace and reconciliation? What will the next 50 years bring? After lunch, enjoy a screening of “Jerusalem,” an immersive experience that will take you on a journey through the beautiful and beloved city. 11 a.m. $14; $12 for members. Temple Menorah, 1101 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-8444. templemenorah.org.

THURS | MAY 18

STEVE SOBOROFF

Steve Soboroff, the vice president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, will discuss “Policing, Philanthropy, Prisons and Politics” at the Executive Speaker Series breakfast. Soboroff has a lot of experience in public policy and has much to share about his many endeavors. 7:30 a.m. $25 for members, $30 at the door; $35 for nonmembers, $40 at the door. El Caballero Country Club, 18300 Tarzana Drive, Tarzana. (818) 774-3332. theexecutives.org.

“EXAGOGE”

The Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) presents Theatre Dybbuk’s reading of “Exagoge,” which is inspired by the first recorded Jewish play that was written in the style of a Greek tragedy by Ezekiel the Poet in the second century B.C.E. Only 269 lines of the original play exist; these lines were used to create this full-length theatrical production. Rich in movement, music and poetry, “Exagoge” relates the experiences of refugees, immigrants and the disenfranchised from the 19th century to today, highlighting the inclusive nature of the Exodus narrative. All proceeds will be donated to the ACLU of Southern California. 7:30 p.m. reception; 8:30 p.m. show. $20. The Box, SIJCC, 1110 Bates Ave., Los Angeles. sijcc.net.

‘Happy’ not part of Mother’s Day for everyone

Rabbi Amy Bernstein and her daughter, Eliana Bernstein. Photo by Gold Wong Photography

Years ago, as I was checking out at my local grocery store, the clerk gave me a rose and wished me a Happy Mother’s Day. I choked back tears, grabbed the last bag of groceries and shoved the cart toward the nearest exit.

At the time, I had been trying to conceive at age 37 and, after many failed attempts, was very worried that it wasn’t going to happen. As a lesbian and someone who didn’t have $40,000 in the bank to start adoption proceedings, I was terrified that I would never become a mother. I hated Mother’s Day with a particular kind of passion that year.

The truth, though, is that Mother’s Day always has been complicated for me. As an adoptee, the holiday brought up deep feelings about the woman I would never know who gave birth to me and who gave me up to give me a better life than the one she could provide. It triggered sadness for the newborn I had been, lying in a hospital bassinet with no mother for my first five days of life, but it also filled me with gratitude for the woman who eventually became my mom.

When I was young, I was very close with my mother. She was affectionate, funny, strong, beautiful and committed to many righteous causes. As a child, I did all of the usual things kids do for their mothers on this holiday — I made tacky, awful tchotchkes for her in school, made terrible drawings into cards for her and, later, bought her things she didn’t need and pretended to like because I bought them special for her with my own money.

My parents divorced when I was 8, so it was on me and my younger sister — who also was adopted — to make Mother’s Day special for our single working mother. We would make her breakfast in bed, bring her our gifts and smile as she cried reading our cards. Mother’s Day always was textured but OK back then.

It took many therapists and knowledgeable friends to help me understand that my mother suffers from borderline personality disorder with narcissism as a large component of her personality. As my sister and I individuated and as our mother’s options dimmed, she became more difficult and even cruel. I would go for long periods of time without contact with my mother and carried a great deal of guilt and anger about our relationship, which was so fraught with pain.

Wise mentors and teachers helped me to understand that my mother loved me as best she could and that the problem lay within her own tortured childhood (at the hands of her mother) and not with me. It is a lesson I struggle to relearn all the time — again and again and again.

I have never spoken about this publically but feel it is time, as my mother has suffered a massive stroke and no longer can be hurt by what I write or say. We have been estranged for years after a particularly vicious incident, and Mother’s Day once again is terribly painful for me.

I write this for all of the people who dread this holiday for so many reasons. There are women who desperately want to be mothers and can’t for whatever reason, mothers who grieve for lost children, people who were close to their mothers and are trying to figure out how to live in the world without them. There are those of us who long for what we’ll never have with our mothers, who love them as only children can love a parent and who feel deeply betrayed by them at the same time.

As the mother of a beautiful 13-year-old daughter, I treasure the tacky tchotchkes, the terrible drawings made into cards, the gifts my daughter buys me with her own money that I actually do love because she bought them special for me. I cry every year as she sits at the foot of the bed watching me read her cards.

This Mother’s Day, I ask that we not assume that every woman we encounter is a mother, that not every one of us wants to talk about our mothers, and realize that many people find this day particularly painful. It’s a lesson I’ve learned about every holiday — we serve each other best when we assume people’s relationships to loaded days and times are loaded.

If we can approach everyone on days like Mother’s Day with well wishes but with no assumptions, if we can regard one another with a deep and loving curiosity rather than a blithe “Happy Whatever,” we open up the possibility of allowing people to be seen and acknowledged as we honor the complex set of contradictions that make human life so difficult and so interesting.

Our tradition tells us that God created human beings because God loves stories. This Mother’s Day, may we regard each person we encounter as someone with a story, and may we have the courage to tell our own.

More Mother’s Day stories:

Sharing wisdom from the mothers we’ve lost

Searching for my broken heart


RABBI AMY BERNSTEIN is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Searching for my broken heart

Julie Mayerson Brown and her mother, Ruth Mayerson Photo courtesy of Julie Mayerson Brown

My mom died last summer. Although she was elderly, she was in pretty good shape, so her death, while not untimely, was unexpected.

We sat in the rabbi‘s office and shared stories to prepare for the memorial. Everybody laughed. Everybody cried. Everybody except for me. I felt nothing. After the meeting, I asked to speak to our rabbi alone. I told him something was wrong with me. I felt no emotion — no sadness, no loss, no heartbreak. He said I was in shock.

“I’m not in shock,” I said. “I feel fine.”

“It’s sort of like being in shock,” he explained. “Your subconscious is not ready to deal with the loss of your mom.”

I had trouble with this explanation. “I’m sorry, rabbi, but that doesn’t make sense. I should be devastated. I should be sobbing. I cried more when my dog died.”

“It’s normal,” he assured me. “Your broken heart is somewhere. Give it time; you’ll find it.”

I left feeling skeptical. In a daze, I went through the motions, playing the role of dutiful daughter. I took care of arrangements, hovered over my father, prepared food for visitors, wrote my speech. At the service, I spoke with confidence, laughing in the right places and not crying when I should have. The tears of people in front of me, some who didn’t even know my mother, failed to move me. All I wanted to do, what I needed to do, was take care of everyone else.

The Friday night after the memorial, we went to services. We said Mourners Kaddish and I tried to cry. Nope. People visited me, brought treats and gave comfort. It was nice, and I appreciated it, but still no tears. Yom Kippur came and went. Nothing. I took my mother’s things home with me — her nightgown, her cuddle pillow, some half-used cosmetics, the red scarf she wore every day because she always was cold. It held the faintest scent of her.

I prepared myself for the worst Thanksgiving of my life and my birthday the same weekend. The proverbial first “fill in the blank” without my mom. We ended up having a wonderful Thanksgiving. And my birthday, well, I don’t really remember it.

I stopped searching. Maybe I was the kind of person who would weather the death of a parent without feeling loss. Maybe I was so relieved not to be worrying about her anymore that the relief outweighed the sadness. Maybe I didn’t care as much as I thought I did. Oh, God, maybe I should go back to the rabbi or see a therapist.

I had a plant of my mom’s. It was ugly. I think it once had been two plants that she stuck into a pot of dirt without much thought. One piece was a wispy fern and the other a more hearty-leafed thing. I liked the pot, so I brought it home intending to plant something that flowered. But the ugly plant my mother created seemed healthy, so I left it alone. I did nothing to it, only a bit of water now and then. It thrived. Ugly as ever, it just kept living.

Then one day, my dogs made a plaything out of it. I went outside and found my mother’s ugly plant knocked over and ripped apart, the wispy fern shredded, the hearty leaves scattered across the grass. I stared at it for a moment or two, and my eyes filled with tears.

The tears ran down my cheeks like streams of melting snow. The sob that came out of me scared away the birds, and my heart broke apart. I frantically gathered what was left of my mom’s plant and tried to find one root that could be salvaged. I yelled at my sweet dogs who had torn up the plant because I had left it where they could. It was all my fault. My fault the plant was dead. My fault my mother was gone.

Intellectually, I know that’s ridiculous. My mother was old. She had many health issues. But I’m a second-guesser, a “what if” kind of girl. What if I had done just one thing differently?

Now the tears come easily — when I see her handwriting; when I walk by Chico’s and think, “Mom would love that top”; when I see her little soap dish and remember how she washed her hands; when I bake the cookies we used to make together; when I scroll through pictures on my phone and her big smile lights up the screen.

Mother’s Day is coming. Another “first.” The first Mother’s Day of my life that is not about my mom. I cry just thinking about it.


JULIE MAYERSON BROWN is an author and freelance writer. To read more of her articles and her blog, visit juliemayersonbrown.com.

Sharing wisdom from the mothers we’ve lost

The “Wall of Wisdom” Photo by Esther D. Kustanowitz

Because I lost my mother six years ago, Mother’s Day hits me differently every year.

First, there’s the rage over the onslaught of emails reminding me to make plans or reservations or purchases to show my mother how much I love her. (If only I could.) That feeling yields to grammatical frustration over the name of the day, where the apostrophe goes or if there should be an apostrophe at all: “Mothers Day”? “Mothers’ Day”? “Mother’s Day”? After a while, it all looks wrong.

This is the kind of editorial debate I would have had with my mother, I recall, noting the beginning of the next emotional transition into something approximating the fusion between deep sadness and calm reflection.

I miss my mom often even without national days, but as Mother’s Day photos appear on Facebook, I’ll be thinking about the last decade or so of my mother’s life, when her illness left her profoundly uncomfortable with the prospect of being photographed. I wish I had more photos with my mother.

The Jewish tradition does “immediate grief” very well, especially in the first year after a loss. The community supports emotionally uprooted mourners, and Jewish holidays also provide built-in liturgical opportunities, like the Yizkor service, to remember those we’ve lost.

But beyond a year of grief or Jewish calendar celebrations, there’s a more mundane, longitudinal kind of grief, a mostly dulled type that enables us to be more functional, but can be energized to a fever pitch at any moment by dozens of triggering stimuli that even the mourner herself may not be consciously aware of. And one of those stimuli is very likely the media push around the so-called Hallmark holidays, including Mother’s Day.

I am not alone, of course. It is the natural order of things for children to lose their parents, and although it is universal to the human condition, the grief experience is also remarkably personal and individualized. There’s no one way to grieve or to be comforted: Some find themselves healthiest in solitude, while others rely on the support of friends, family or community.

I mourn privately and publicly. There are moments that I share with very few, my nearest and dearest only. And there are those I write about and convene community around. Last year, as Mother’s Day approached, I felt the need to convene. Reaching out through my local network and the Dinner Party network — a group of mostly 20- and 30-somethings who have experienced significant loss — I invited friends and friends of friends who had lost their mothers to my home for brunch. The idea was to provide a safe space to celebrate our mothers, to sample the flavors of our respective and diverse childhoods, and to share the wisdom that we learned from those who gave us life. I called it the “Remembering Our Mothers (Day) Brunch.”

I set the table with flowers, orange juice and champagne, chips and dips, as well as French toast and chocolate chip pancakes that recalled the Mother’s Day breakfasts my brothers and I used to prepare for our own mother (for years before she told us that she didn’t like chocolate chip pancakes).

Nine people from different backgrounds came to my house, bearing breakfast treats of their own in answering my call for “foods of calm, comfort and connection”: bagels, yogurt parfaits, a potatoes au gratin dish, fresh breads and a fancy cheese platter. The wall was designated as a “Wall of Wisdom,” where I invited guests to put up a Post-it, bearing specific pieces of wisdom from their beloved mothers. Sayings included “Crumbs have no calories,” “Never go out without lipstick,” “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and “Make your own music.”

Once underway, the brunch was a bit of an emotional journey. In the room were women (unintentionally, this event was all women) who had varying years of experience in mourning their personal losses. For some, the loss was decades old; for others, only a few months had passed. About half of them knew me, but the others walked into a stranger’s house, not knowing what to expect. This was an act of courage for them and an act of trust in me, that I would create a safe space to embrace them, to provide them with comfort and community.

This was an act of courage for them and an act of trust in me, that I would create a safe space to embrace them, to provide them with comfort and community.

There was no official program. We milled about the space, in and out of conversations with other guests, writing wisdom on the wall, eventually sitting down with our food in what became a sharing circle.

Seeing a look of panic come over one woman’s face — not everyone is ready for a group-therapy type situation that comes out of nowhere while she is eating a bagel — I made the sharing optional. I am used to telling stories about my mother and about her death, I told the group, but they should feel free to talk or not talk, according to their comfort level. In the end, everyone spoke, although some longer than others, and there was a lot of supportive back-and-forth that made it feel more organic, like more of a conversation than a group confessional.  

When I was younger, I might have looked at that gathering of honest and emotionally raw people and hoped or predicted that it would lead to magical long-term friendships, forged in grief and expanding beyond that. While some of my connections with guests deepened, others walked in, got what they needed and walked out. But that’s OK with me.

Sometimes these spaces are one of a kind, with circumstances binding us intensely for a short period of time before we all rejoin the flow of mostly anonymous humans making their way in the world. This is not a failure of the space itself, which fulfilled its purpose marvelously; it’s part of the transition back from intense grief with a dedicated space to a less-rooted grief that isn’t contained by a space and time, but follows us as a dull hum in our daily lives.

Some communities are temporary, but give us exactly what we need at exactly the right time.

The Joy in Motherhood

Pexels

We wrote essays and memorized poems about the saintliness of mothers, their selflessness, their sacrifices. Every Mother’s Day in elementary and middle school, we stood up and read to the class a new ode to the person who had given up her youth and good health, her freedom and grand ambitions — her self, really, though in those days women had no “self” outside of motherhood — to give us life and make sure we kept eating and breathing. Thank you, Mother, for relinquishing body and soul.

It made sense in a devastating, heartbreaking way, especially if you were a girl, meaning that your very existence was a detriment to any mother’s value, and more so if you were one of a number of girls, each birth another nail in the poor woman’s coffin, and now she was going to have to love and care for you, anyway, make sure you looked good and behaved well so you, too, could wear a crown of flowers one day in your mid- to late teens, become a wife and, nine months later, a mother.

And if you were a boy? There was a story we read every year, about a son who, in a rage and very self-servingly, beats his mother to death and buries her in a ditch. For reasons that escape me now, he has occasion to dig her up later, long teeth and hair and smooth, fleshless bones, only to find that her heart is still beating with, yes, love for the murderous son. I may be wrong, but I could swear there was even something about the mother being worried that the son was tired and thirsty from the physical exertion of burying and exhuming her.

This was motherhood as martyrdom — which, we know, is always a privilege, more so if the suffering is greater — something that you earned through sacrifice and devotion, that you aspired to knowing how you would end up. Because of how you ended up.

“I was 15 years old when I gave birth to my first child,” my own grandmother once said. “I went home with that baby and didn’t emerge again until I was an old woman with 10 children.”

We do, in fact, turn our backs on life as we knew it once we become parents.

She wasn’t lying, not even exaggerating. To her eternal credit, she also raised a great many orphans and abandoned children, cared for the poor and the sick of all ages, fed and clothed and counseled every stranger who knocked on her door. Later, as an “old woman,” she even found time to buy and sell land, make a good bit of money on her own, jetting between Tehran and Tel Aviv, New York and Los Angeles. Hers was a meaningful and memorable life, the kind of existence that creates lasting good. I know this. I hope she knew this.

But after the day I heard her speak of her — stolen? squandered? perhaps the word is “surrendered” — youth, I’ve never been able to think of her without a quiver of heartache. I keep seeing her as a teenage mother, the girl in those black-and-white pictures in the homes of her children, white skin and dark eyes and that pomegranate-red lipstick so favored by’50s movie stars. I see her turn her back on me and walk through a door. I see the door close.

It wouldn’t be much to celebrate, this Sisyphean practice we mothers engage in, one generation after another, often without question. Forget those of us in the First World who marry late and hire Third World help and have access to health care and technology; we couldn’t fathom the hardships the majority of mothers suffer every day just to keep their children alive. And yet, even we know this is as hard a job as any. I certainly don’t begrudge us the odes or Hallmark cards on Mother’s Day — celebrated this year on May 14 — or any other. But I also know they don’t tell the whole story, and that’s a crime — it perpetuates a sense of victimhood on the part of many mothers and guilt on the part of their children, especially their daughters.

We do, in fact, turn our backs on life as we knew it once we become parents. In many ways, more than any of us would be able to imagine ahead of time, we do surrender our old selves at the door, forfeit the big wide world and the possibilities it may offer, in favor of a small house with walls and a roof.

But these walls we surround ourselves with are covered with vines of Poet’s Jasmine that bloom, delicate as a breath, every morning, releasing into the universe the everlasting scent of youth and beauty and hope. And this roof we capitulate to opens up every night to reveal a flood of stars. And whether we have one or a dozen children, whether they’re our own or others’, sick or healthy, obedient or not, this house they pull us into is called Joy. 

DIY: Not your garden-variety Mother’s Day bouquet

Mother’s Day is a week away. Are you ready?

Mothers love to receive flowers, but they love them even more when you personally arrange them. (And they’ll love you even more, too.)

If you’re in a time crunch, this quick and easy arrangement is simple to create using some supermarket flowers and a keepsake box. It’s a beautiful way to honor the moms, sisters, aunts and bubbes in your life.

What you’ll need:

– One bunch of flowers
– Keepsake box
– Plastic trash bag
– Floral foam
– Knife
– Scissors

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1. Keepsake boxes are decorative containers used for storing small knickknacks. They are available at discount stores such as Ross and Marshalls for less than $10. They come in a variety of styles; the one I’m using in this example is an upholstered damask box from Ross. And this bunch of flowers from Trader Joe’s was $9.99.

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2. Line the keepsake box with plastic so water does not damage the box. I recommend just cutting the corner of a plastic garbage bag and placing it in the box. Don’t worry if the plastic extends past the edge of the box. You can trim it later.

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3. Trim a block of floral foam so it will fit inside the keepsake box. Floral foam is available from crafts stores such as Michaels and Jo-Ann. Be sure to buy the floral foam designated for fresh flowers instead of silk flowers. Soak the floral foam in water until it’s completely saturated and place it in the box within the plastic liner.

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4. Cut the stems of the flowers to about 3 to 4 inches and insert the stems into the floral foam. The floral foam keeps the flowers hydrated. When you’re done, look at the arrangement from every angle to make sure the flowers completely hide the foam. It’s that easy. Happy Mother’s Day!


Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at jonathanfongstyle.com.

Florist secrets for a perfect Mother’s Day arrangement

Mother’s Day is this Sunday, which means many people will be making a trip to the florist. Or, because of the lower cost and greater convenience, some of us will be picking up flowers at the supermarket instead. That’s what I do. But rather than presenting the flowers in the cellophane bag they come in, I arrange the blooms in a vase so it looks like I ordered them from a high-end florist. 

Creating your own floral arrangement from supermarket flowers can save you a lot of money. The flowers for this project, which I bought at Trader Joe’s, cost about $20, and the glass vase from Michael’s was less than $3. Yet the finished arrangement could easily retail for $80 to $100 — or even more — at a florist. 

If the thought of putting together your own floral arrangement scares you, don’t worry — it’s pretty easy. I learned by sticking my fingers into arrangements florists delivered to the office where I used to work to analyze how they were assembled. I’ve also had the privilege of working with several top-notch florists in Los Angeles, who have shared their tricks of the trade with me. They swore me to secrecy, so, naturally, I’m passing their tips on to you. 

Get the right proportions

One secret very few people know is there’s an ideal proportion of vase size to number of flowers. I usually work with a 1:4 vase-to-flower ratio, meaning the diameter of the flowers should be approximately four times the diameter of the vase. For example, I wanted the flowers in my arrangement to be about 12 inches across, so I selected a vase that is a little more than 3 inches in diameter. This ratio makes your arrangement look full. If you use a larger vase with the same volume of flowers, the arrangement can appear skimpy. 

Create a support grid

Go monochromatic

Mix textures

Prepare the stems

Separate flowers by type

Another trick I use when arranging flowers is to keep the different types of flowers separate. Like the child at mealtime who won’t let his potatoes touch the peas, I keep each kind in its own section in the vase. This makes floral arranging so much easier, because it takes the guesswork out of how to combine the arrangement. And again, I find this type of arrangement also looks more modern and high-end.

Fill in gaps with greenery

After you’ve filled the vase with flowers, you might still see a few empty spots here or there. Fill these gaps with greenery, using leaves or succulents from your garden. (Just be sure that only the stems are submerged in water.) Bushy blooms like hydrangeas also make great fillers. 

Hide the stems

If your vase is transparent, you will see the stems in the water, and seeing submerged stems is a no-no in professional arrangements. They need to be covered up. One florist friend calls this “hiding the underwear.” Many florists cover the stems by lining the inside of the vase with large leaves. It’s a great look, but the leaves will contribute to bacteria growth. The simplest solution is to wrap a ribbon around the outside of the vase, adhering it in place with double-sided tape. Of course, if your vase is opaque, you don’t need to hide your stems. Still, wrapping a ribbon around the vase can add a nice finishing touch.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

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Typical Jewish mother

There is the joke, “What’s the difference between a pit bull and a typical Jewish mother?” The answer: “The pit bull eventually lets go.”

I’ve heard people say, “My mother is the typical Jewish mother.” I have an Italian friend who says his mother is the typical Italian mother. All groups have their typical everything. But what does this mean?

My wife is not the typical Jewish mother. She knows much better than I do how to let go. She doesn’t hang on and nudge our kids to death like the stereotype suggests. That’s why they tend to confide in her more than they do me. I’m much more the worrywart. I’m much more the typical Jewish mother than she is. I’m also more annoying. That’s because my mother was much more a typical Jewish mother than my wife’s mother was. 

My mother must have asked me 10,000 times when I was going out if I was going to wear a sweater. “You don’t have to wear it.  Just carry it.” One time, she actually said to me, “I hope you’re smart enough to button up if it gets cold.” My mother had a great fear that the temperature could drop 100 degrees at any given moment and a new ice age would be upon us. 

She also worried about me not being able to find lunch when I went out for the day. You would have thought I lived in the Sahara desert, where the next restaurant was 4,000 miles away.   

I grew up in New York City, where the trains and buses run 24/7. She would always tell me that my father and she would come get me any time of the day or night if I couldn’t get home. She always worried that I didn’t have enough money to get home. “Do you have enough money to take the bus?” The bus was 25 cents.  

If there were a reality show called “Extreme Worry,” my family could have cleaned up.  You’d have middle-aged Jewish women and men competing with each other about who has it the worst and who has the most heartache from their families. And, of course, who has had more operations and diseases.

My mom said she was dying at least once a week and would tell me, “One day, I won’t be here anymore.” She was right about that. She’s been gone about 17 years. I miss her a lot. 

I went through a period where everything she did annoyed me. I guess I was the typical Jewish son. I was in therapy for years complaining about my overbearing mother and my weak father. I spent thousands talking about how I got shafted and how I was misunderstood. My therapists never suggested that I try to understand what my folks might be going through. My mother would ask me, though. As a teenager, I couldn’t have cared less. “What about me?” I’d shoot back. It was all about me. All I could think back then was, “Why do these people have to annoy me so much?” 

What I did learn from all the therapy is that I like to complain a lot. Where I fault my therapists is that they never gave me a solution. We never talked about forgiveness. They did a lot of head-shaking and agreeing with me. I’m not saying all therapists are like this, but mine were. Here I am again, complaining. Not about my parents, but my therapists. 

Then one day, I lucked out. If you live long enough, it’s possible to change. Out of nowhere, I was gripped with something called empathy. It came on like a bad flu. All of a sudden I thought, “Gee, my parents probably didn’t have it all that easy. It must have been hard on them.” Then I thought, “Maybe I wasn’t such an easy kid to deal with.” When I look back at it, I admit I gave my parents a lot to worry about. Soon after this realization, I had another thought. “It must have been so hard on my parents when I moved from New York to Los Angeles.” I was an only child. My parents, not being big world travelers, must have felt a little like those parents in the old country, when their kids got on the boat to go to America. Somewhere deep down, they probably thought, “This might be the last time we ever see him.” 

And so, with that thought, the love my parents had for me came flowing through. The dam had broken. I finally realized, in my 50s, how much my parents really cared for me, and how much they really loved me. I also think having my own kids made it easier for me to feel what my parents must have gone through. Hopefully, my kids won’t have to wait until they’re in their 50s to realize how much we love them. And it is more than they could imagine. But I still think Los Angeles gets cold out at night, and they should wear a sweater. I know I do. 

Mark Schiff is a Jewish comedian, actor and writer living in Los Angeles.

Foster families enjoy day of Foster Mother’s Day festivities

Local philanthropist Jeanne Pritzker was swept up in a whirlwind of chaos on Mother’s Day, conducting interviews with major news outlets, answering questions from volunteers and waiting for the arrival of buses that, over the course of the day, would drop off more than 2,500 foster families to The Willows community school in Culver City. 

Unfazed by the mayhem at the seventh annual Foster Mother’s Day celebration, which Pritzker first hosted in 2008 at her Topanga Canyon home, she reveled in what it takes to be a certain kind of parent.

“What we’re celebrating today is foster parents, because a lot of times they don’t get publicly thanked,” said Pritzker, a mother of seven — including one foster child — and the founder and CEO of the nonprofit Foster Care Counts, which sponsored the event. 

The May 10 celebration itself included catered lunch, live music, spa treatments, boutique shopping, carnival games and family portraits, not to mention partnerships with heavy hitters Disney, Wolfgang Puck and Nestle.

At the boutique, by far the most popular spot, foster families were able to shop racks of clothing, shoes and accessories and take home a bag’s worth of items. A sign that read “Boutique full: please come back in 15 minutes” was permanently posted outside as a line of foster mothers, and some fathers, stood waiting to get inside, giving it the appearance of a trendy nightclub. 

“I wish I was skinny; I would get up all in this,” mused Helen Langley, a foster mother from South Los Angeles, while admiring a short leather skirt. 

Her arms were full of clothes, while one foot was clad in a sandal, the other in a gladiator stiletto. Hobbling to the next rack of clothes with the newly acquired skirt in hand, she said she fostered and eventually adopted six children, ages 7 to 18. On this Mother’s Day, a wardrobe’s worth of new clothes was the perfect way to celebrate.

Karen Weimer, a foster mother who adopted two kids, ages 6 and 9, one of them with special needs, made her way to the boutique after a visit to the spa, where she received some special pampering. She flashed her newly manicured nails. 

“My daughter picked out the color,” Weimer said proudly. “Chartreuse.”

The boutique and spa shared space in the school’s auditorium, making it an easy transition for mothers to jump between shopping and pampering, with Latin jazz serenading in the background.

Indicating that many foster mothers are single — like herself — Weimer said, “It’s really nice to get out.” 

A foster mother with stick-straight hair was sitting in a barber chair nearby, getting her hair done by Tomas Zamudio, a student at Paul Mitchell The School in Sherman Oaks. Working for just an hour and already on his fourth mom, Zamudio was ecstatic to be a part of this event, especially because his own mother died two years ago. 

“What they do is amazing,” he said as he used a flat iron to add waves to the mother’s hair. “This is our pleasure.”

One building down, in the reading room, an 11-year-old volunteer named India Spencer was emphatically reading “Honk!: The Story of a Prima Swanerina” to two mesmerized younger girls. 

“I love reading, and I love kids,” she said. “That’s why I do this — because it’s important to me.”

In the next room, Adam Beechen was signing copies of his graphic novel “Hench,” accompanied by his mother, Judy, who came from Arizona just for the occasion. (Literacy nonprofit The Book Foundation gave away more than 2,000 backpacks filled with books during the event.)

“Comic books taught me how to read, so anything that encourages reading, I’m all about,” the author said as he signed a copy of his book for a young boy with big brown eyes.

A family photo booth at the event was a big hit, too. 

“A lot of foster families don’t have the opportunity to take a photo together,” said Courtney Paulson, a volunteer who was working the booth. 

Families were able to select costumes from racks full of fun possibilities and even coordinate according to a theme. Many were opting for royal get-ups, selecting Renaissance-style dresses and fur-lined robes.

At one point, a family of three generations — grandmother, parents and a 6-year-old granddaughter — came out camera-ready, adorned in royal duds and masquerade masks. The grandmother, Madeline Roachell, assistant deputy director at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, donned a sparkly gown and said, “Usually, I’m not a big fan of attending events, but this one is really special.” Although not a foster mother herself, she did raise a relative’s children, so the event resonated.

Just around the corner at the face-painting station, one young boy was getting his face painted red and white. “You’re getting Spider-Man!” guessed a 7-year-old boy who was next in line and swung his balloon sword in the air as he announced he would be getting made up as Batman. Later, the two superheroes were seen on the playground, balloon-sword fighting together.

Amid these scenes, Pritzker, who attended with her husband, Tony, was busy multi-tasking, splitting her time between speaking to media and working the event — which drew more than 300 volunteers and the likes of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass — diverted yet composed, in a way only a mother can be. 

“Motherhood means taking whatever knowledge you have to teach, embracing as many kids as you’re capable of, and helping them to transition to adulthood as successfully as possible,” she said.

Turn your floral bouquet into homemade potpourri

Who doesn’t love receiving a bouquet of fresh flowers, whether it’s for a birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day or just because? The sweet smells always brighten your day and add a burst of joyful color to your home. It’s too bad, then, that arrangements typically wilt in about a week. But here’s good news: You can preserve the flowers so they last forever. Just dry them and turn them into potpourri. As someone who once thought that potpourri was just a category on “Jeopardy!” I was surprised how easy it is to make.

Step 1: Dry the flowers


Dry whole rose buds by hanging roses upside down for several weeks. 

I like the idea of preserving some of the flowers in their entirety as well as taking some apart to dry the individual petals. The combination of whole flower buds and flaky petals provides a gorgeous texture to the finished potpourri. It’s easiest to dry larger petals, like those on roses and peonies. For flowers with small petals, like carnations and chrysanthemums, I recommend drying the entire flower bud rather than just the petals.

To dry whole flower buds, hang the flowers by their stems upside down, tying them to a clothesline with string or twist ties. Allow them to air-dry indoors for two to three weeks. When  they’re completely dry, the buds will snap off the stems, and you will be left with beautiful flowers that have the look and feel of vintage paper.


Dry rose petals in a conventional or microwave oven.

Drying petals is much faster. Place the petals in a single layer on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet, and heat in an oven at its lowest temperature, about 180 F. Crack open the oven door to allow moisture to escape. After 30 minutes, turn the petals over, and heat for an additional 30 minutes. When oven-baked, the petals turn crispy, and their color actually intensifies. (Oven times vary, so if your petals aren’t completely dried after an hour, keep checking their “doneness” in 10-minute increments.)

If you’re in a hurry and can’t wait an hour for them to dry in the oven, you can also microwave your petals. Place the petals between two paper towels and microwave them at full power for one minute. Remove the petals from the microwave, turn them over, and zap them for another minute. Instant dried petals!

Step 2: Add botanicals and other elements


Dried herbs and botanicals complement the flowers in your potpourri.

Once your flowers are dried, it’s time to add other elements to create the potpourri. What you include in your mixture is completely up to your taste and imagination.

Start by looking in your own backyard for botanicals that are available to you for free. Think leaves, tree bark, pinecones and twigs. Rinse them well to remove dirt and bugs, and dry them in the oven for an hour.

Next, consider adding fragrant herbs like lavender or rosemary. I know when I’m walking my dogs, Fosse and Gershwin, around the neighborhood, I can never go by a rosemary plant without running my fingers through the stalks. I just love how it smells. Best of all, lavender and rosemary retain their shape and fragrance when dried, so they work really well in potpourri.

You can also raid your pantry for aromatic spices. Cinnamon sticks, star anise and cloves lend delightful fragrance notes to your potpourri while adding interesting shapes and textures.

When making potpourri, I also like to add nonbotanical filler elements. Costume jewelry, wooden thread spools, seashells, and even vintage keys help to personalize the potpourri and make it unique. Choosing modern and unexpected fillers (Legos, anyone?) can also help keep the potpourri from becoming too froufrou.

Step 3: Mix it all together

Once you’ve gathered your ingredients, place them in a large bowl and stir everything together with a wooden spoon. The proportion of florals to botanicals is up to you, but I like about three-quarters of my mixture to be flowers. The ingredients you choose probably already have some scent, but if you want to enhance their natural fragrance, select an essential oil that will tie all your elements together. Essential oils — with scents such as lavender, almond, orange and jasmine — are available in most health food stores. Just add several drops of the oil to the mix. Then display your potpourri in dishes and bowls throughout your home.

Making homemade potpourri is a great way to preserve your beautiful flowers, as well as the memories associated with receiving them. So the next time you receive a lovely bouquet, save the petals. Love may not always last forever, but the flowers certainly can.


Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” ”Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects on jonathanfongstyle.com.

Letters to the editor: Mother’s Day and dueling narratives

Love You Forever, Like You for Always

This is perhaps the most heartfelt piece I have ever read about motherhood (“The Language of Pleading Eyes,” May 9). It brought tears to my eyes, but not to worry, they were tears of joy for your amazing family and mother. Happy Mother’s Day to your mom and all of our mamas … they first give us life, then nurture, teach, and guide us as we make our own way in life. After we leave home, they are then there to comfort us. Thanks for a wonderful story that now is forever in the Book of Life.

Peter J. Strom via jewishjournal.com

My mom suffered three strokes; the last was massive and finally took her. This is an excellent article. Thanks for sharing, made me laugh and cry. I loved the line, “Parents can push our buttons because they installed them.” My mom definitely pushed mine, but it made her who she was. 

Pam Woodward via jewishjournal.com


Navigating Those Narratives

David Suissa’s article “Paralyzing Narratives” (May 9) hit four nails on the head. I believe that David could have added one more, however.

No agreement with Israel signed by the Palestinians, Iran, or any faction of radical Islam, will be worth any more than the piece of paper signed by Hitler that Neville Chamberlain waved to the world in 1938, shouting “Peace In Our Times.”

Agreements signed by countries and organizations who have a centuries-old culture of hatred, which is ingrained in all subsequent generations, will be totally self serving, and only instill a false sense of security.

Michael Gesas, Beverly Hills

David Suissa’s analysis of Palestinian narratives is interesting, but to suggest that he has captured the totality of their narrative — and discovered how it prevents them from good faith negotiations — is naive. Ultimately, the narratives he relates are his, not theirs.
Before paraphrasing, he ought to have read a book written by two teams of Israeli and Palestinian social scientists, “Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine.” It presents both narratives on facing pages — the left side relates the Israeli version of events, the right, the Palestinian version. The writers’ goal isn’t to figure out who is more correct; indeed, there is fairness and chauvinism on both sides. Understanding becomes possible only when one suspends disbelief in the other’s narrative.

We Jews always point out — and rightly so — how the Arabs’ failure to acknowledge our worldview prevents honest engagement. It is arrogant to suggest that we are permitted to dismiss theirs, or to present it in the simple version that Suissa offers.

Alan Paul via email


May Her Memory Be a Blessing

Reading about these women’s stories brought back feelings that I have always tried to suppress on Mother’s Day, but it gave me a better understanding of myself (“When a Mother Dies,” May 9). I lost my mother when I had just turned 13, she died of brain hemorrhage at age 46, it turned my life upside down, and I was full of insecurities. I really believe when my father died of a heart attack at 50, a broken heart contributed to his death, as my mother was the light in our lives. I had a strong understanding of each daughter’s reaction.

I wondered if I have been a good enough mother to my three children as I had few memories of my own mother.

I do feel blessed to be around for the birth of my first grandchild, and hope for many more!

Mandy Koren via email


Praise for Our Young Protectors

Great story (“Two L.A. Soldiers Shine in Service of Jewish State,” May 9). Only the Israeli Defense Forces preserves Israel from the hatred of its neighbors, and to hear about such enthusiasm and dedication in the young troops does my heart good. I served three years in the U.S. Army 40 years ago. Different time and different place, yet my time in the military was certainly the most formative time in my youth. My son-in-law has now served in the U.S. Army for around 10 years, including tours in Iraq. Liberal or conservative, American or Israeli, we must all be proud and grateful for our young people who defend us against the evil that is still all too common in this world.

Christopher Arend via jewishjournal.com


correction

A story about Pamela Mayers-Schoenberg and her photography exhibition “The Vermont Project” (“Vermont Avenue Communities on Display in Santa Monica,” May 9) implied the project is ongoing. It was completed in 1998. The same story mischaracterized comments by Los Angeles Times art critic Leah Ollman. Ollman’s comments were about a different body of work by Mayers-Schoenberg.

The language of pleading eyes: A Mother’s Day story

“The music of his life suddenly stopped.” So reads a line in Chaim Nachman Bialik’s powerful poem, “After My Death.” 

My mother’s music suddenly stopped 30 years ago, but she is still alive.

At the age of 53, Elaine Wolpe, a university administrator, fundraiser and — most taxing — mother of four boys, suffered a stroke, a cerebral hemorrhage. Since that time, she has been almost unable to speak.  

Before her stroke, my mother was the emotional center of a voluble and intellectual family. A president of the local Hadassah, active in a variety of community events, a rebbetzin in a large synagogue, her most adroit diplomacy was mealtime management. At our table, especially when we had others over to dinner, we (the four boys and my moderating father) would quip, argue, try to outdo each other, make heroic efforts to make the others laugh (special points if their mouths were full), and my mother would remind us to be kind to the hapless guests. Trained as a teacher, she taught each of us to read when we were small, and she made our dinner herself, despite volunteer commitments, every single night.  

This is not to say she was never sharp-tongued herself. Once my older brother Paul brought a girlfriend home from college. In the middle of dinner, he reminded my mother that she had promised to get him an electric blanket for the cold Philadelphia winter nights. Arching her eyebrow (my mother had eloquent eyebrows) she looked at my brother’s girlfriend and asked, “Do you want dual controls on that?”

I was in rabbinical school when everything changed. My mother screamed out my father’s name, collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. She spent weeks in a coma, then awoke. After an extended vigil in intensive care, she was periodically alert.  Her right side was immobile, and although she could make sounds, she could not really speak. It was as if her spirit was in there, trying to emerge, yet unable to force its way through. Her soul kept bumping up against walls it could not see, like a firefly in a glass jar. 

In time, we brought her home. Progress was slow. There were other effects of her stroke: emotionality that resulted in tremendous rage; the bewilderment of being betrayed by her own body. But those agonies were small compared to her inability to explain what she felt, to give voice to what was going on inside. Expressive aphasia impairs or destroys the ability to speak and process language. Syntax is garbled, the wrong words present themselves, simple expressions are mislaid in the mind and cannot be retrieved.

Occasionally, a word would emerge to explain the horror of her condition. Early on, after a good deal of struggle, she managed to pronounce something she had been trying to say for some time: “Prison.” She repeated it again and again with a sort of mantric regularity. Prison. Prison. Prison. 

Prison alternated with a nonsense word, a common symptom among victims of expressive aphasia. For almost a year, “kisskove” served as the catch-all for anything she wished to say. In moments of tenderness or fury, when words are just whips we use to lash or the cords we use to draw close, kisskove served as well as any other.


From left:  Gerald; Elaine, holding baby Danny, Paul; Steve; and David in a Wolpe family portrait. circa 1965.

Realizing at times just how wearying it could be on everyone to hear the same sound, my mother herself would make fun of it, raising and lowering her voice, wringing a few laughs from a situation at once tragic and absolutely ludicrous.  Gradually, over time, the word became less frequent, and then disappeared altogether.

Isolation became etched into my mother’s expression. Surrounded by those she loved, she was alone.  Hers is the language of pleading eyes. So often, we simply could not understand. The words of Rabbi Hama Ben Hanina in the Talmud proved apt: “God’s gift of the power of speech was as important as the creation of the world.” 

Decades have passed since the moment my mother’s words were stolen from her. Five years ago, my father died.  Not only did we all lose a wonderful, warm and eloquent man, but my mother lost the one who could give voice to her memories. My father knew more and shared more than anyone else; although he was frequently wrong, he was the likeliest to guess correctly what she intended to say. When he left, she not only lost her life mate, but her conduit to the world.  

Where is the mother’s voice in our history? In the Torah, we have moments when we hear the voices of our matriarchs and of Hannah and Naomi. But those moments are few; the voices of our female ancestors have been largely lost to us because their insights and ideas were not written down as were those of prominent men. Mothers determined much of our history in the way they raised children and in the influence they had on their husbands and communities, yet all too little was recorded of their teachings. The great Baruch Epstein, author of “Torah Temimah,” writes of his mother’s frustration in being barred from learning and teaching Torah. I have experienced the voice of my own mother disappearing, not through neglect or bias, but from tragedy.

The ability to follow a conversation, to read, to form clear opinions — all of these abilities were victims of my mother’s stroke as well.  Sometimes, even today, my mother is sharp as can be, nodding in agreement to a point, or vigorously disagreeing with a “No!” At other times, she cannot follow what is happening and lapses into resigned silence.

When I am with her, I recount what she has done for me in the past. In my mind, as in the memory of my brothers, my mother still stands, eyes covered, illuminated by Shabbat candles. She is spreading a white tablecloth, carrying a plate.  She is laboring over the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. My mother is the one who tried to get four boys to dress for synagogue (my father, the rabbi, left early to lead the service), and somehow got us there. 

Not always easy. Once, sitting next to her in synagogue, I saw on her face a look of amused despair. “What?” I asked. “Look down,” she said. I looked at my shoes. “I understand wearing two different socks, but David, this is the first time I have seen someone wear two different shoes!” One was black and one was brown. I weakly protested that I got dressed when it was barely light out. She, um, didn’t buy it.


Elaine Wolpe, March 2014.

Once, when I was in high school, I asked her if she deprived herself of anything for us. She pointed to my oldest brother, “This is my fur coat.” My second brother, “Here are my diamonds.” To me, “You are my precious gems.” And my younger brother, “And this is my fancy car.” She instructed us that she was so tired of hearing “Mom” all day long, that after 6 p.m., we were to call her “Matilda.”

My brothers and I all have memories of sitting next to her in synagogue, playing with her jewelry, asking for candy to keep us quiet, sitting at attention when my father spoke. My mother was very solicitous of my father’s dignity. If someone whispered while he was speaking, they had to endure a glare that would derail a freight train. Dress inappropriately, run in shul or fail to honor the rabbi and you would endure the full — and considerable — weight of my mother’s disdain. 

Each year, as Mother’s Day approaches, my brothers and I think anew about all she once was, and how much we lost when she was so grievously diminished. But certain moments remind us that the stroke did not steal her soul.

A few years ago, after my father died, the four of us gathered in Philadelphia for her birthday. We took my mother out to dinner in a local restaurant. After the meal, my brothers and I pulled out our credit cards. My mother looked at us with scorn, and loudly said, “No!”

We were shocked. Surely she didn’t think that we would let her pay for us? Dutifully, we put our cards away. She looked at us again, and crowed triumphantly, “Dessert!”

The Talmud speaks of honoring parents as the most difficult mitzvah. It can be burdensome; as comedian Roseanne Barr memorably reminded us, parents can push our buttons because they installed them. Some find it challenging, because parents can be unkind, heedlessly invasive, bruising in one way or another to their children. But it is also difficult to be near the sadness at the end of life, to share in the grief of a parent unable to fend for herself, a parent whose pain is palpable at each moment, in each look, with every unspoken word.

I could cry when I realize how hazy my memories have become of her speaking. Still, without speech, a lot of extraneous communication is burned away. My mother cannot relate many of the specifics of her day, and she grasps and remembers only a bit of what we tell her of ours. For all the essential tragedy of the second half of her life, however, she has given us the blessings of a Jewish mother — worried, warm, involved, emotionally intense, filled with expectations and standards and fire and dreams.  

And in return, through the quiet and pain of her life, her children and grandchildren never fail to tell her how much we love her.


David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.

Honor trumps love

Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is a good time to return again to the fifth of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother.”

The Ten Commandments are the most important demands God makes upon the Jews (and upon members of any religion based on the Jewish Scriptures). These are the commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai.

Even those who do not believe in God would acknowledge that any society whose members adhere fully to the Ten Commandments would be a very decent society, undoubtedly the finest that ever existed. They would also have to acknowledge that whoever wrote the Torah deemed the creation of such a society as dependent upon honoring parents as it is dependent upon banning murder, stealing and adultery.

Of course, there are exceptional instances when honoring a parent is morally impossible. The Torah itself notes this in another verse: “A man shall fear his mother and his father [note that mother is listed here first, as the equality of parents is assumed by the Torah] but you shall observe my Sabbaths.” 

This has always been understood to mean that if one’s parent demands disobedience to another of the commandments, God’s commandments take precedence. And there are times when honor becomes morally impossible when the parent him or herself is truly evil, just as there are evil times when lying and stealing and adultery (consider the case of Irene Opdyke, the Polish Catholic woman who became the mistress of a Nazi in order to save Jews) become morally acceptable, even necessary. 

In our time, however, the connection between honoring parents and maintaining civilization is not widely recognized. Indeed, many of the best-educated parents do not believe that their children need to show them honor, since “honoring” implies authority figure, a status they reject. 

In addition, many parents seek to be loved, not honored, by their children. Yet, neither the Ten Commandments nor the Torah elsewhere commands us to love our parents. This is particularly striking given that the Torah commands love of our neighbor, love of God and love of the non-Jew who resides among us. 

The Torah understands that there will always be individuals who, for whatever reason, do not love their parent(s). Therefore, the Torah does not demand what may be psychologically or emotionally impossible. But the Torah does demand that we show honor to our parents — and it makes this demand only with regard to parents. There is no one else on earth whom the Torah commands us to honor (the rabbis later added teachers).

So, then, why is honoring parents so important? Why does the Torah believe that society could not survive if this commandment were to be widely violated?

One reason is that we, as children, need it. Parents may want to be honored, but children need to honor parents. Children who grow up without honoring their parents grow up, for all intents and purposes, fatherless and motherless. A father and a mother who are not honored are essentially adult peers of their children who happen to live in the same house and pay the bills. But they are not parents. 

No generation knows better than ours the terrible consequences of growing up without a father. Fatherless boys are far more likely to grow up and mistreat women, commit violent crime and act out against society in every other way. Girls who do not have a father to honor — and, hopefully, to love as well — are more likely to seek the wrong men and to be promiscuous at an early age. 

Second, honoring parents is how nearly all people come to recognize that there is a moral authority above them. Those who resent the idea of acknowledging a moral authority over themselves reject this and often reject the commandment as well. There are many such people.

But those who understand the moral necessity of people honoring a moral authority above themselves understand that this begins with children — and society — honoring parents.

Of course, for Judaism, the ultimate moral authority is God, who is therefore higher than even our parents. But the Torah, the Ten Commandments and later Judaism all understood that it is very difficult to come to honor God without having had a parent, especially a father, to honor. Sigmund Freud, an atheist, theorized that one’s attitude toward one’s father largely shaped one’s attitude toward God.

There is one more reason why honoring parents is fundamental to a good society. Honoring parents is the best antidote to totalitarianism. One of the first things totalitarian movements seek to do is to break the child-parent bond. Thus, under communism and Nazism, the importance of reporting one’s parents to the authorities was instilled in young people from a very early age. 

For this reason as well as all the others enumerated here, I worry for our society. Child-parent bonds, especially child-father bonds, have been weakened, and are often nonexistent; the parental role is increasingly usurped by the state; and parents increasingly seek love rather than honor.

Only one of the Ten Commandments — honoring parents — provides a reason: “So that your days will be lengthened in the land I give to you.” 

Why? Because without widespread fulfillment of this commandment, society will not long endure.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Moving and Shaking: Foster Mother’s Day, ‘Woman of the 21st Century’ award winner named

Jeanne Pritzker Photo courtesy of Foster Day Counts

More than 1,200 youths and their foster parents from Los Angeles County participated in Foster Mother’s Day on May 12, a day filled with food, carnival games, arts and crafts, and a clothing boutique and beauty.

Local philanthropist Jeanne Pritzker, whose family owns the Hyatt hotel chain, founded the nonprofit Foster Care Counts — which has been putting on Foster Mother’s Day in L.A. for the past five years — and was among those in attendance. The event was held at the Topanga Canyon home where she lives with her husband, Anthony

The organization aims to improve the lives of children in foster care and those transitioning out of the foster system by providing financial support, operational participation and public exposure to foster care organizations. The Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation has provided support for Foster Care Counts in addition to Jewish-related causes. 

Attendees included U.S. Rep. Karen Bass; cast members of the forthcoming ABC Family television show “The Fosters”; and news anchor Christine Devine, who has reported on issues of concern to the foster care community. More than 300 volunteers participated, and Nestle, ABC, Wolfgang Puck, Paul Mitchell, Jouer Cosmetics and Atlantic Express, which donated buses that transported the foster families to the Topanga Canyon site, were among the sponsors. 

The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and community-based organizations, including Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, were partners on the event.

“It’s really about acknowledging foster parents and foster mothers and the important and fantastic role they play with youth who need families. This was a day to nationally recognize those mothers and parents who play such a critical role in our community and often are overlooked,” said Winnie Wechsler, spokesperson for Foster Care Counts.


Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services recognized the contributions of two outstanding members of its board of directors — Mimi Feldman and Lori Wolf — during a ceremony on April 25.

A West Los Angeles-based agency that serves children living with special needs, Vista Del Mar awarded Feldman the Ruth Shuken Humanitarian Award. Wolf received the Visionary Award during the agency’s Women of Excellence awards luncheon. 

Feldman has sponsored events, including “dances, parties and celebrations” for clients of Vista Del Mar’s residential treatment program, according to a spokesperson. She has also donated a computer laboratory to its Baron School for Exceptional Children.

Wolf, meanwhile, is the third generation of her family to be “actively involved with Vista’s efforts on behalf of children,” serving as the co-chair of the agency’s leadership council and as assistant treasurer of the board, helping to raise money for the organization and more, the agency spokesperson said.

The event was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, with KCBS/KCAL co-anchor Kaj Goldberg serving as master of ceremonies. 


The Women’s Guild Cedars-Sinai, which raises money to support innovation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, has named Victoria Reggie Kennedy the recipient of its “Woman of the 21st Century” Award. 

Kennedy, a private sector attorney with public service and political experience, is the co-founder of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. The institute, named for her late husband, is dedicated to educating the public about government, invigorating public discourse and more. Kennedy is president of its board of directors.

The award was presented to Kennedy during the Women’s Guild’s annual spring luncheon, which was held at the Beverly Hills Hotel on May 3. It was in given in recognition of her advocacy efforts. 

Attendees included philanthropist Geri Brawerman; actress and Women’s Guild member Morgan Fairchild; Women’s Guild President Lorette Gross; Women’s Guild Executive Vice President Gina Furth; event chairs Linda Zale and Daniele Worth-Ochoa; and fashion designer David Meister

Among the afternoon’s highlights was a fashion show featuring Meister’s designs and Fairchild’s presentation of the award to Kennedy.

Moving and Shaking acknowledges accomplishments by members of the community; comings and goings at synagogues and organizations and more. Got a tip? E-mail it to ryant@jewishjournal.com.

Cleveland-area march draws attention to unsolved murder

More than 200 people participated in a community walk in suburban Cleveland to bring attention to the unsolved murder of Aliza Sherman, a Jewish mother of four.

The marchers who gathered Sunday in Beachwood, Ohio, on Sunday, Mother’s Day, carried balloons past the home of Sherman before moving on to the Cleveland Clinic building where the slain fertility nurse had worked. There they released red balloons in her memory, each clipped with a card including the phone numbers of the Cleveland Police Department and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.

Sherman was stabbed to death March 24 minutes after completing a meeting with her divorce lawyer at the Erieview Tower in Cleveland; she was stabbed 11 times in the tower’s parking garage. Police have yet to arrest a suspect.

Event organizers encouraged participants to call the Cleveland Police in order to keep the case alive.

“We’ve been following up on all the tips and leads that have come in,” Sgt. Sammy Morris of the Cleveland Police told JTA earlier this month.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: May 11–17, 2013

SAT MAY 11

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN

Known as “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” the five-time Grammy-nominated Feinstein covers classics from musical theater as well as the songs of Frank Sinatra and other standards. $40-$85. 8 p.m. California State University, Northridge, Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. (818) 677-8800. valleyperformingartscenter.org.

SUN MAY 12

WORLD’S LARGEST MOTHER’S DAY CELEBRATION

Spring wouldn’t be the same without the nationally renowned annual Mother’s Day program at the Los Angeles Jewish Home. A Sunday morning brunch as well as an afternoon of entertainment and festivities on both Jewish Home campuses honors all mothers. Sun. 10:30 a.m. $25 (12 and older), $10 (ages 5-11). Los Angeles Jewish Home, Grancell Village, 7150 Tampa Ave., Reseda; Eisenberg Village, 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. (818) 774-3324. jha.org.

MON MAY 13

“THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI”

Author Helene Wecker combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology in her buzzed-about debut novel. “The Golem and the Jinni” (Harper) tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899 — a golem, who is created out of clay to be her master’s wife, and a jinni, a being of fire trapped in a copper flask for thousands of years, who is released by a tinsmith in Manhattan’s Little Syria. Mon. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. booksoup.com.

TUE MAY 14

BURT BACHARACH AND MITCH ALBOM

The legendary songwriter and composer, whose new memoir, “Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music,” offers a candid backstage look at show business and his personal struggles, appears in conversation with best-selling author Mitch Albom (“The Time Keeper,” “Tuesdays With Morrie”). Tue. 8-9:15 p.m. $22-$70. Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. (818) 243-2539. alextheatre.org.

ANVIL

Made up of middle-aged rockers — including frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner — this Canadian band released more than a dozen albums of loud, distorted and overly masculine rock music to relative obscurity over the course of three decades. In 2008, acclaimed rock doc “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” catapulted the band into the public’s consciousness. Anvil and Kemical Kill open for British speed-metal group Motorhead. All ages. Tue. 8:30 p.m. $40-$46.50. Club Nokia, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 765-7000. clubnokia.com.

SHAVUOT (TUESDAY-WEDNESDAY)

The Jewish Journal has highlighted 10 ways for Angelenos to celebrate the annual festival marking the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. All-night study sessions across the city include the joint Tikkun Leil Shavuot with Temple Beth Am, American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and PicoEgal; IKAR and Jewlicious’ “Revealed and Concealed,” a night of learning and celebration in Pico-Robertson with Rabbis Sharon Brous and Yonah Bookstein; Valley Beth Shalom’s “City of Angeles-Envisioning a New L.A.,” featuring appearances by mayoral candidates Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel and lectures led by Rabbi Ed Feinstein; and Temple Israel of Hollywood’s “Blintzes, Bible, Banter and Borrekas.” Tue.-Wed. Various times, places and prices (most events are free). 

WED MAY 15

MARC MARON AND JUDD APATOW

This Writers Block Presents event features two of comedy’s most successful stars sharing the stage. Maron — creator of the podcast “WTF!” and star of the new IFC show “Maron” — talks with Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Freaks and Geeks”) about his new memoir, “Attempting Normal,” which charts the ups and downs of his professional and personal life. Wed. 7:30 p.m. $25 (general), $15 (students with ID). Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 655-0111. writersblocpresents.com.

THU MAY 16

COMMON CHORDS

World-renowned klezmer violinist Yale Strom and famed Pakistani singer-guitarist Salman Ahmad lead this gathering of accomplished musicians from different cultures and religious traditions. Common Chords combines rock, klezmer, jazz, bhangra, Indian, Sufi and qawwali music into a hybrid executed by Ahmad, Strom, vocalist Elizabeth Schwartz, tabla master Samir Chatterjee, bassist Mark Dresser, dhol player Sunny Jain, accordionist Lou Fanucchi and saxophonist and flute player Tripp Sprague. The evening is part of Skirball’s new concert series, “Journeys and Encounters,” featuring collaborations between musicians of diverse genres. Thu. 8 p.m. $35 (general), $30 (members), $25 (full-time students). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

FRI MAY 17

“STATE 194”

Participant Media’s new documentary from producer Elise Pearlstein (“Food, Inc.”) begins with former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plan in 2009 to demonstrate that his people were deserving of United Nations membership. Since then, they’ve made progress, but the political quagmire between Israel, the Palestinians, the United States and other parties — and Fayyad’s recent resignation from office — might destroy the opportunity for peace. Fri. Various times. Laemmle Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 478-3836. laemmle.com

A mitzvah called shmooze

In a crummy economy, people are always looking for good investments — a promising stock, a real estate opportunity, a star mutual fund. It’s really not that different in the “mitzvah economy”— donors and do-gooders are also looking to squeeze the maximum amount of goodness out of every charity investment.

On that note, I’d like to share with you a mitzvah that has a ridiculously low investment and an incredibly high return.

It’s a mitzvah called shmooze.

I think of this mitzvah every time I’m stuck in freeway traffic and I call my mother in Montreal. Nine times out of 10, especially during the long winter months, the first words out of her mouth will be (in French): “Ah, mon fils, je pensait justement à toi!” (Oh, my son, I was just thinking of you!). 

You see, my mother has this quirk when it comes to phones: When she hears a ring, she always picks up. She’s not big on screening calls. She doesn’t make those quick calculations of whether such and such person is worth talking to. I’ve never asked her this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she shmoozes with telemarketers who pitch her great deals on ink toners.

Ever since my father passed away 10 years ago, the ring of the phone in my mother’s home has come to symbolize the promise of human contact. Whereas for me it might mean an unwanted interruption, for my mother it is a welcomed trumpet that announces the interruption of loneliness. 

I try to interrupt that loneliness as often as I can. It helps that our conversations are light and breezy and require little concentration on my part. It’s as if we have this unwritten agreement that if she’ll go easy on me with the questions, I’ll stay on as long as she likes (or until I get to my “meeting”).

Sometimes I’ll be in a silly mood and make her crack up. I might tell her something funny one of my kids said. Occasionally, we might talk about a serious family matter, and she’ll weigh in with her suggestions (read: orders).

But typically, we’ll just shmooze about family stuff: How are the kids doing? (Baruch Hashem.) Is Noah getting taller? (I think so.) Who’s cooking for Shabbat? (I don’t know yet — probably Mia.) Did you tell the housekeeper you won’t need her next Wednesday? (I will, I promise.) Do you speak to your sister? (All the time.) And how about your brother? (Yes, on e-mail.)

From my end, I will lob back questions about her health (“How’s your knee?”) or I’ll ask about Shabbat plans (“Will you be with Judy, Sandra or Samy?”). Our favorite subject, of course, is travel, and it consists mostly of two questions: “When are you coming to Montreal?” and “When can you come to Los Angeles?” 

After about 15 minutes or so, we’re usually ready to wrap up. We throw in a few words of caution (Me: “Please watch the steps!” Her: “Please be careful!”), some tender sentiments (“Kiss everyone” and “I love you”), and, voilà, it’s, “Goodbye Meme, I’ll speak to you very soon.”

But as I run off to another meeting, Meme hangs up and goes back to an empty house.

The difference, though, is that now, in that empty house, the words of our conversation will echo pleasantly in her consciousness. She’ll be thinking about all the good stuff we talked about. That’s because words that interrupt loneliness have a time-release quality. They keep ringing gently in one’s ears long after the phone has stopped ringing.

I invest 15 minutes in sweet shmoozing, and, in return, I get hours of motherly joy. Wouldn’t you call that a good investment? 

The truth is, you don’t have to be related to someone to offer good conversation — in fact, it could be an advantage not to be related. So, I wonder: How many elderly Jews are there in our sprawling community who spend their days alone and could use a good shmooze?

Why not twin those elderly Jews with younger Jews who could put a spark in their day with some lively conversation? 

It’s a mitzvah that works both ways: The elderly have great wisdom and stories to share, which could enrich anyone’s day.

Los Angeles seems like the perfect city to try this idea out — there are plenty of elderly at home alone, and there’s certainly no shortage of cell phone-addicted shmoozers stuck in traffic.

The beauty is that it’s simple. No event planning, no shlepping — just a phone call. Multiply that by a few thousand calls and that’s a lot of loneliness interruption.

Every community can start their own schmooze project. You need a good organizer, of course, to recruit people and coordinate all the vetting. But the basic idea is not complicated: volunteer “shmoozers” get a short list of willing elderly “friends” to call on a regular basis.

In the meantime, don’t wait for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day to call your parents or grandparents, or anyone else you know who can use a good shmooze. Especially for people fighting loneliness, one little call can brighten up a whole day.

Like my mother would say, now that's a bargain.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Tales from a mother: The Jewish wedding

Every time my son, Jonathan, left for school, for camp, for college, I felt a heartbreaking sense of loss. That’s because your main instinct as a mother is to keep your child as close to you as possible. But your main job as a mother is to prepare your kids to separate. It’s the cruel catch-22 of parenting.

I am generally an outspoken person, but with Jonathan I often kept my feelings to myself. He announced that he was going to work in London for a year. What I said was: “Oooh, that sounds wonderful!” What I was really thinking: “You’ll be looking the wrong way and get hit by a bus, you’ll get chronic bronchitis from that miserable climate, and you will learn to think of toast as a meal!”

The only good thing about working in England is that the Brits know zilch about Jewish culture, so whenever Jono wanted to visit he could just make up a holiday. “I’ll be out next week. I have to be with my family for the first five nights of Kishka.”

When he got here, Jono told us that things with his girlfriend had gotten “serious.” Oh, my God! A WEDDING! “I have dreamed about this day for years! This is the best Kishka present you could have given me!”

That was a big fat lie. The fact is I’d be perfectly content if Jonathan stayed single forever. That way I wouldn’t have to share him on holidays, I would remain the leading lady in his life, and I wouldn’t have to watch him making googly eyes at some trollop! But there’s a rumor going around that I might die someday, and I didn’t want my child to be alone. He called a few weeks later to describe the wedding plans: a huge, traditional, black-tie affair in New York after he moved back from London. “Oooh, that sounds wonderful!” Oy!

I took a valium and spent the rest of the day on the phone with the Yenta Brigade. “Are they out of their minds? It’s too big, it’s too formal, and it’s too Jewish. … What do you mean ‘It’s not my wedding?’ Why does everyone keep saying that?” 

I said nothing to my son about my concerns. For starters, why black-tie? In our artsy, hippy crowd we don’t wear tuxes and evening gowns. And why the huge guest list? People are not going to fly in from all over the world for a glass of champagne and some chopped liver.

Most importantly, I’m not comfortable with all that traditional Jewy stuff — a rabbi saying prayers, a Hebrew marriage contract, and 100 baby-blue yarmulkes from UnderTheHuppah.com. Our family is not observant in any way. We are secular Jews who believe in the time-honored ancestral values of eating out, going to the theater and bargain shopping. But, again, I kept quiet.

Things got frantic. I had to buy a gown, we had to fly to New York, and my husband Benni’s huge Danish family was coming in from Copenhagen. I figured we’d take them out for Chinese — as an introduction to Jewish culture. And then things went from frantic to insane: Benni’s brother was coming with his two ex-wives, and they were all staying in the same room with one king-sized bed. And now you know why the Danes are considered the happiest people in the world!

I found a beaded gown at a yard sale that still had a $1,200 price tag on it. I paid 20 bucks, and kept the tag in case I wanted to resell it on eBay. Benni dug out his old tux from 1967, which still fit perfectly — as long as he didn’t button it or zip up the fly. 

To my surprise, people did fly into Manhattan from all over the world, and everyone looked magnificent in their evening clothes. I got a shiver when Benni’s very assimilated Danish Jewish family put on yarmulkes for the first time in their lives. 

Four young men carried the chuppah, which was draped with the bride’s late father’s prayer shawl. When the music changed, Alisa, the bride, entered wearing her great-grandmother’s lace wedding veil. And when my son looked at her, I felt that same sense of loss that I used to feel when he went off to school, to camp, to college. Only this time, he wasn’t coming back.

Then — just like in “Fiddler” — Jonathan broke the glass and everyone shouted “Mazel tov!” We danced back up the aisle, and we kept dancing, eating, drinking, laughing and crying the whole night. And all the things I worried about — the formal attire, the big crowd, the Jewish stuff — turned out to be all the things I liked best about the wedding. I am so glad that I did a mother’s job and kept my big mouth shut!

Humorist Annie Korzen is an actress (“Seinfeld”), writer and speaker. She is the author of “Bargain Junkie: Living the Good Life on the Cheap.”

The mishegoss of mom, shmaltz-free

Anybody who has trod the boards knows that little blitz of stage fright that can flood through an actor when a member of the family is in the audience.

Jane Press, author and star of the play “My Mother’s Keeper,” has long since dispensed with any such anticipation. Her mother, Della, attended the play’s world premiere last year at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, Calif., and — at age 83 — will make the journey south to see its L.A. premiere at the Electric Lodge in Venice this weekend. Press’ daughter, Monica Steiner, also saw the play in Carmel, mere weeks before giving birth to the playwright’s first grandchild, Colin Steiner. 

But even when she doesn’t have kin in the seats, Press spends her evenings at the theater surrounded by family. “My Mother’s Keeper” is a memory play about four generations of the author’s family, from her great-grandmother all the way down to Press, who is a character in the play both as her adult self and — played by a different actress — as 11-year-old Janie. 

“The interesting thing is that, as we go along in rehearsals, I see my grandmother and my mother coming through. The actors start to channel them,” Press said. “At one point, I play my great-grandmother and she comes through me. It’s a very interesting experience. I keep saying to the director, ‘The angels are circling.’ ”

Perhaps, but they’re not always particularly angelic.

While Press can talk about the mishegoss with which all colorful families — Jewish or otherwise — must deal, “My Mother’s Keeper” presents the “mish” (as Press calls it) as both funny and quite painful. The play spans nearly 100 years, jumping between the early 1900s and the present day. An event from 1914 involving Press’ great-grandmother Lina Moscowitz sets off a cycle of damage and dysfunction that will filter down through subsequent generations. Press says she wrote the work — the first she has written after decades of acting — in part to “break the chain.”

“A major theme of the play is the blessings and curses that are inherent and inherited from, in this case, mother to child,” Press said. “I specifically looked at the mother-daughter dynamic, which is just as specific as the father-son dynamic. However, everyone has or had a mother. That’s what makes this play universal.”

If “My Mother’s Keeper” is our guide, then Press’ own dame was a piece of work. The opening monologue finds Press making reference to the abusive relationship between Joan and Christina Crawford alleged in the memoir “Mommie Dearest.” As depicted in the play, Della is selfish, controlling, hard-hearted and physically abusive to her children, who call her “the police woman.”

During an interview, when she speaks of her mother — Della Press, née Thelma Colodny — Jane calls her “Della” more often than “Ma.” Even so, things have changed. 

“She’s mellowed a lot. She’s a real doll now,” Press said of Della. “I’m the only one of her four children who speaks to her or who has any relationship with her. Old age is a great leveler, and when your children become adults and won’t have anything to do with you, I think that got her attention.” 

That understanding between mother and daughter was hard won. For Press, breaking the chain took years of therapy and recovery through 12-step programs. 

“We are so fortunate to have such wonderful tools available to us,” she said. “I finally felt strong enough to be able to address the issues I wanted to share. And I wanted to give voice to this whole generation of women that are being portrayed in ways that I think can be deeper, stronger, more accurate and funnier.”

Ah, yes, funny. 

For all its emotional thorniness, “My Mother’s Keeper” is intended to provoke guffaws and tears in equal measure. Press’ Grandma Ida and her cadre of mah jongg-playing Brooklyn bubbes are built for laughs, but they are depicted exactly how the then-adolescent Jane Press remembers them. Ida Colodny — the funniest of them all — was the equivalent of a stand-up comedian, a woman constantly enlisted to tell jokes at large social and family gatherings. In fact, one of the props used in the play is a plastic bag filled with punch lines that actually belonged to Colodny. The actress who plays Ida rummages through it and gives young Janie — and the audience — a sampling of the now-legendary Ida wit. 

“She was very beloved in Brooklyn,” Press said. “In those days, before TV, they had large gatherings in all our houses. We have a black-and-white picture somewhere of people dressed up all around these big round tables and they’re all turned toward the camera and smiling, and there are cigarettes and ashtrays and cigars, and everybody’s having a great time. They used to have big get-togethers, big luncheons and dinners, and my grandmother was the entertainment.”

The play depicts the tender and very close relationship shared between 11-year-old Jane and Grandma Ida, but director Robin McKee, who has been with “My Mother’s Keeper” since its inception, insists that the play is shmaltz-free.

“I don’t like sentimentality,” said McKee, who is not Jewish. “Whatever kind of sentimental stuff was in there, we’ve been able to weed out. I think I helped bring a sort of concept to it. It was a beautiful series of memories and scenes. By reordering scenes and connecting ideas, we were able to find a shape to the piece that leads to an emotional truth.”

During the play’s Carmel run, Press and McKee heard from numerous audience members who insisted that the exploits of the Moscowitz and Colodny clan closely mirrored the “mish” of their own families. And these comments came from families who were Irish, Asian and Indian. The humor may be Jewish, but the experience of being part of a big, crazy family is universal, McKee said.

Press, who lives in Monterey, hopes to take the play to New York eventually. They have sent “My Mother’s Keeper” to Tyne Daly in the hopes of interesting her in the role of Grandma Ida. 

As for the L.A. run, which will last through June 16, the timing — and particularly the opening — is by no means coincidental.

“We have two shows on Mother’s Day, and it’s the perfect Mother’s Day experience,” Press said. “But I don’t recommend it for children under the age of 9.”

 

“My Mother’s Keeper” plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Sun., May 12: 3 p.m., 8 p.m. Through June 16. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. $28. (310) 306-1854. electriclodge.org

Mother’s Day: The gift of responsibility

On Mother’s Day last year, I was already a couple of months into my pregnancy. Still, there could not have been a concept more foreign to me than the idea of being a mother. I was slow to comprehend the impending reality of motherhood, which I knew rendered me different from many women in my position — a realization that left me feeling alienated. Barely able to contain their excitement at having successfully begun the process of fruitful multiplication, many women by this point have already chosen names for their unborn babies and stenciled them on nursery walls, or purchased maternity clothing for a body whose changes are visible only to the woman herself, if at all. Some people even begin parenting classes immediately, frantically stocking their homes with baby gear about which they will one day say they can’t imagine living without. 

It would be an understatement to suggest I found neither joy nor comfort in such impulses. While it’s true that the pleasure I experienced upon learning I was pregnant remains one of the most deeply happy and moving moments of my life, my pleasure was intensely private. I experienced it quietly and intimately. And yet truly it never seemed quite real to me. Over the course of my pregnancy, no matter how large my body grew and no matter how searing its physical difficulties, I felt disconnected from the biological fact that I was going to be a mother. My husband and I spent hours talking about the incomprehensibility of what people call the miracle of childbirth — a miracle so mundane that it happens thousands of times a day to people all over the world.

Given its immutable pervasiveness, one would expect that pregnancy would be the most natural and comforting scenario in which a woman can find herself. Yet hovering alongside my joy was an unshakable feeling of horror that seemed to come from the realization that I knew virtually nothing about the next phase of my life. Certainly I was only enriching my life, adding to it rather than substituting one identity for another. Still, I imagined a precipice on which I was perched. Perhaps the fact that I was pregnant became most real to me when I learned that I was going to have a son — learning the sex of the fetus put flesh on the bones of any baby dreams I had dreamed.

But as the initial excitement mellowed, I was suddenly crushed under the realization, again, of how little I knew. It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea how to comb a little boy’s hair, for example, and that I was already poised to disappoint him in so many ways. To complicate matters, no amount of perusing the Web for guidance on what kinds of bottles or baby carriers to use would reveal the secret for discovering the perfect one. It became apparent to me that despite my breadth of scholarly knowledge in my professional life, I was lacking some crucial real-world insights, and I feared this lack would most certainly contribute to my son’s inevitable future delinquency.

As it turned out, the basic things come simply, proving the madness of our worrying. My son’s hair, for example — he was born with an abundance of it — fashioned itself into a dark, jutting faux hawk within hours of his escape from my womb. Five months later, I have little need for a comb. Still, the first couple of months as a new mother comprised the most difficult period of my life. Women are forced to learn quickly in these first weeks despite the emotional and physical residue of labor and childbirth, which is much more violent than anyone ever admits. But how can we be surprised? The world itself, wild and waste, came into being violently, through an ordering of chaos. But one day I woke up and realized that much of the turmoil had become more memory and less physical reality. And a new realization set in.

A few weeks ago I gave a talk at the University of Alaska Southeast as part of an honors symposium focusing on transgenerational trauma and memory. The symposium, organized by my friend and colleague Dr. Sol Neely, was built around a book by Gabriele Schwab called “Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma.” Schwab, a German woman, explores the trauma of both victims and perpetrators of collective tragedies, focusing specifically on the ways in which we — both individually and collectively — pass on violent histories for our children to inherit. I begin to question what kinds of violent histories and traumatic memories I am in a position to pass down to my own son. The nature of traumatic memories suggests that they are buried deep within the psychic archive, but given that we unknowingly transmit these histories to our children, every day I feel compelled to keep thinking through the question of my responsibility to my son. 

My own academic research on the writing of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas reminds me that I am not just infinitely responsible in an abstract kind of way. I am responsible not only for my son, but also for his responsibility. Strangely, I feel delighted underneath a burden so immense. The relationship of the parent and the child is the ethical relationship par excellence. As others have found, becoming a mother teaches me more about the nature of responsibility than any textbook or philosophical conference. And this is what I have always, insatiably, set out to do: to learn. I realize now that my concerns about whether I could comb my little boy’s hair or select the right cup holder for our stroller were masking more somber issues. What, exactly, is the nature of my responsibility to my son? What kinds of violent histories will I pass on to him? How do I teach him to respond ethically to these histories?

The Torah is full of advice for children in terms of how and how not to treat their parents. We are told to honor our parents, to refrain from disrespecting them, to fear them. The talmudists elaborate on this idea and tell us not to smite our parents, curse them, or rebel against their authority. The punishments for rebelling against these admonitions are often excruciating, sometimes calling even for death, though the talmudic rabbis seem to have found such pronouncements to be a bit harsh. Still, the biblical regard for how children should treat their parents is unflinchingly clear, even if honoring one’s parents is referred to as the most difficult mitzvah.

The teachings become murkier with regard to parents’ responsibilities to their children. In fact a cursory reading of Jewish texts might lead one to believe that the Torah has little interest in delineating the responsibilities of parents in relation to their children. Certainly (and thankfully!) there is even less interest in mapping out various forms of capital punishment in response to parents who fall short in their responsibilities. Yes, of course, we’re told (by way of both Torah and talmudic texts) to teach them the ways of Torah and mitzvot, to impart to them the story of Sinai, to marry them off to other Jews, to circumcise our sons. But sometimes I wonder if the immensity of the parental responsibility to children isn’t somewhat downplayed. In fact, I’m not convinced that honoring one’s parents is the most difficult mitzvah in light of what it means to teach our children the way of Torah, a far greater challenge given that it cannot, in one lifetime, ever be fully taught.

The big question, of course, has to do with what it means to begin to teach Torah — because all we can do is begin to teach Torah. The talmudic story of the convert addressing the great Hillel (who admonishes the man, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others”) has long been the lens through which I understand Torah. If we learn nothing else in Torah, we learn the value of responsibility, of the value in treating others with kindness, and dignity, and respect. But responsibility also means taking account of the histories that we inherit and the legacies of suffering and violence of which we are a part, regardless of our proximity to them. Responsibility means beginning to acknowledge them.

I may not have participated directly in slavery or in the Native-American genocide, but as an American I inherit the culpability for these violent moments in our shared history. They are part of my national legacy, and if teaching Torah means teaching my son to be responsible and to respond ethically, then it means teaching him how to take ownership of these kinds of events. It means teaching him to be the kind of person who insists that such violence does not become part of a future legacy.  The American novelist William Faulkner famously said the “past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s important to me that my son understand this idea so that he cannot but respond to the call to responsibility to which, in Levinas’ words, we are all summoned.

The transmission of personal histories of violence and trauma can be more complex. It’s strangely easy to acknowledge my responsibility for events to which I am only indirectly connected. And it becomes even more complicated when a history of violence contains moments where one is both perpetrator and victim. As I sift through the remnants of my own childhood, a couple of key moments are difficult to forget.

When I was little, my sleep difficulties were no less pronounced than they are today in my 30s. I have vivid memories of being alone in the dark of my room, waiting for the house to quiet so that I could walk the halls and experience being in my home as if I were the only one. On one such night, I walked quietly down a carpeted hallway and heard my father’s voice call out from my parents’ bedroom. “Stop. Don’t move or I’ll kill you.” I couldn’t have been more than 7 years old, but I knew that this was the voice of trauma, a trauma that took the shape of both victim and perpetrator. My father, a veteran, incurred serious PTSD from his time in the Vietnam War, particularly his time on Ap Bia Mountain, in what would notoriously be named the Battle of Hamburger Hill. There are very few honors that he didn’t receive — medals for honor, valor, bravery. But he was also wounded physically on this hill. He lost friends and fellow soldiers. He lost the young man he once was. In some ways, I don’t think he ever fully came home. And though he has shared stories with us throughout our lives, we, his family, can never truly be there with him. And this is part of what I have inherited — sadness, because I will never be able to connect with my father on this fundamental level, because I will never really know him since I will never understand the trauma that has shaped him. His memories are violent, and they both are and are not ours. Such is the nature of inherited histories. He shared them with his five children often, but as is the case with testimony, what remains unspoken — what is impossible to say — becomes the dominant mode of narrative, the mode that says the most. And so I knew, that night in the dark hallway, to be still and to wait until I heard the deep breaths of sleep resume before I crept along.

Wartime scenarios are particularly complex, as soldiers can become ensnared in the role of both victim and perpetrator. I grew up under the shadow of this tension, and because of that I’m conscious of the ways I’ve inherited the violence. Schwab’s book talks briefly about how children of people coming from one violent or traumatic event often focus their energies on other traumatic events. It’s as if trauma or violence becomes embedded in a child’s identity, and knowing that the trauma of their parents is inaccessible, they reach for an understanding of one to which they are less directed. Here my very early fixation on the Holocaust makes even more sense. My parents were wildly successful in creating a fun and happy home for their children, but as we grow older my siblings and I cannot help but identify the ways in which we also have been shaped by my father’s complex history.

As I marvel how the multiple facets of my life and identity have been molded by the histories that precede me, I begin to take even more seriously the burden of responsibility that accompanies motherhood. I think lately of a passage by Alicia Suskin Ostriker in “The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions”: “I vowed that my son would not, if I could help it, be a soldier or a violent man. I hoped he would be a gentle person and good lover. I wanted to love him in a way which would increase and multiply, a ripple effect, when he undertook his life in the world. This too I suppose was a form of control, a mother trying to influence the course of history through her son.” I cannot help but find resonance in her words, but I would also add to them.

I want my son to say, “Here I am.” But I know that I have to show him how to do that, how to say that. I have to model what it looks like to be responsible not just for my own actions, but for the history that I have inherited as a human being, an American and a Jew. 

Monica Osborne is a writer and professor of Jewish studies with the Glazer Institute at Pepperdine University.

Learn to listen to your own kid, not the voices in your head

There is some unwritten statute of limitations on how long one can whine about a crappy childhood, a negligent parent, a few too many chicken pot pies, summers with the grandparents, days spent on Greyhound buses and with dubious caregivers and creepy neighbors. There is just a moment in an adult’s life when the complaining and sad-sacking about how our parents got divorced, or lost custody, or bailed, or otherwise stank up the joint is just kind of pathetic. Let’s face it, that moment had come and gone for me.

Then I had a child myself, and twinges of pain in that amputated leg known as my relationship with my mother started to send fiery jolts into my nervous system. I thought I would get a do-over (as opposed to my childhood, which was a do-under), but instead I got something unexpected: When my son was around 18 months old, I started to freak out. Whatever it is that made her look at the job of motherhood the way an angry teenager views a Friday night shift behind the Frialator, whatever she had, maybe I caught it. 

This is the day, I would think, driving my toddler to day care, or swinging him at the park, or slipping a Grover T-shirt over his giant, blond head, this is the day it happens. This is the day I start to suck at this. This is the day I start to hate it. This is the day of reckoning, when I realize that I’ve been judging my mom for not enjoying my company or any part of raising me, but I’m no better. And this is the day the symptoms start manifesting in me. This is the day I realize that while I see other mothers having moments of both great struggle and magical, indescribable delight, I will only experience the former, because there are just some bullets you can’t dodge.

When I started to panic about my ability to be a parent, it wasn’t about physically being there or providing, it was about something else; it was about the ineffable ability to enjoy my child, because as sure as I won’t forget the phone number of Haystack Pizza down the street, or the smell of the back of a city bus during Indian summer, or the look of abject boredom on my mom’s face across the dinner table, I also won’t forget the feeling of being a tedious wretch, a burden that was ruining everything.

Here’s where having an OK childhood rescues you. Most new moms, I gather, realize early on that the venture isn’t wholly exalted.

They catch on to the reality that normal might mean 17 thrilling, awe-inspiring minutes in a 12-hour day of parenting. Kids can be annoying, they can dawdle, they can cry uncontrollably at what to us is nothing (the green cup is dirty, here’s the yellow one; see you in 27 minutes when you have come back from the brink of insanity). They can be scary, flying off couches and spiking high fevers. They can be, as a matter of course, a bit dull, unless watching the same video of a garbage truck dumping a bin of trash into its hopper repeatedly on YouTube is somehow gratifying for you.

It was about a month into my panic when I turned the ship around. And by the ship I mean my Honda. My son, on the way to day care, uncharacteristically moaned from his car seat, “Don’t want to go to school.”

We pulled over into the parking lot of an Albertsons. I stared back at him.

“Want to ride train,” he said. A tear fell onto his puffy coat.

That was the moment, wedged between a meth-head blasting classical music from his station wagon and a Mini-Cooper glinting in the sun, that I became not a women running from a fear that she will fail at parenting, but a woman running toward one simple day at the mall with her baby. And off we went to the indoor mall in Sherman Oaks with the Ladybug train that runs past the chain stores all day long. Phoning day care to say we wouldn’t make it, cancelling any plans I had for that day, I knew that nothing could make me happier, and in knowing that, I was at least partially free.

If I love being with this boy, even just to share a Wetzel and ride a rickety indoor train for hours, if I love this more than anything else I could possibly imagine doing today, then I can stop worrying. If I had been playing tag with the bogeyman that was “turning into my mother,” this was one very small, yet somehow enormous, “NOT IT.”

No one in my family is sentimental, and I think that’s OK. I don’t have a baby book for my son, I didn’t keep track of when he got his first tooth or tricycle.

That’s why lately, pregnant with my second boy, when I have syrupy thoughts about the baby I can only just now feel moving and kicking, it’s like a million cars turning around in a million parking lots. I love you already, I think, as I rub my hand over my stomach. Sappy. However, when I find myself thinking that this little being is good company already, and enjoying him even now, before he is born, I feel myself turning and turning in the right direction.

In a way, it’s not about my own mother anymore. I may not honor her, specifically, but as I think about that commandment I think the best I can do is to honor motherhood in general, and I can only do that by letting myself get better at it as I go. It’s on me now, as it has been for a very long time.

It’s on me to know that sometimes it’s OK to be less than thrilled with the minutiae of motherhood, the ordering of diaper cream online, the scraping of uneaten carrots from an Elmo plate. It’s OK.

As long as there are days, and they will come when I can’t predict them, when my main function in this life is not to drive my babies forward, but to turn them around. If I can find supreme usefulness in sitting on a train to nowhere, just staring at my baby as he stares into the world, just taking him in and letting the smell of his hair and the feel of his chubby hands fall into the pages of the baby book in my mind, I am not just avoiding becoming my mother, I am getting to stop at all the stations she missed. “All aboard,” says my son to the mall conductor. All aboard.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me” (Penguin). She blogs at ExploitingMyBaby.com.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: May 3-May 13, 2011

TUE | MAY 3

“PRISONER OF HER PAST”
Follow Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich as he sets out across the United States and Eastern Europe to uncover why his Holocaust survivor mother believes the world is conspiring to kill her. The documentary explores a little-known disorder: late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder. A Q-and-A with Reich and producer Joanna Rudnick follows. Tue. 7:30 p.m. Free (RSVP required). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2498. museumoftolerance.com.


WED | MAY 4

“OUT OF THE WILDERNESS”
Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s department of interreligious affairs, discusses 40 years of Catholic-Jewish relations with the Rev. Patrick Desbois, president of Yahad-In Unum, an organization that facilitates meetings between Catholic bishops and Jewish Orthodox leaders. Holli Levitsky, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Jewish studies program, moderates the discussion. Wed. 6:30-8:30 p.m. Free (RSVP required). Loyola Marymount University, Hilton Center for Business, Room 100, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 338-7664. ajclosangeles.org.


THU | MAY 5

MOTHER’S DAY BRUNCH
New York Times columnist Alina Tugend, author of “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong,” speaks at today’s annual brunch. Attendees are asked to bring toiletry items that will be used in Mother’s Day baskets for women in shelters and transitional living facilities. Thu. 10 a.m.-noon. $40. Stephen S. Wise Temple, Zeldin-Hershenson Hall, 15500 Stephen S Wise Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-8561. wisela.org.


SAT | MAY 7

LOS ANGELES JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
A Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) and a Protestant nurse (“Inglourious Basterds’ ” Mélanie Laurent) struggle to aid thousands of Parisian Jews following a mass arrest by police in July 1942 in the L.A. premiere of “La Rafle” (“The Round Up”). Also tonight, the Chicago crime drama “Polish Bar” stars Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) as Reuben, a strip club DJ and drug dealer who questions his life when his Orthodox cousin arrives. Other films screening during the citywide festival include the French comedy “He’s My Girl” (May 8), “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” (May 8), the 2011 Oscar-winning short documentary “Strangers No More” (May 9 and 11) and the Civil War documentary “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” (May 10). Through May 12. Sat. 8 p.m. $12 (adults), $9 (seniors and students). “La Rafle,” Laemmle Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. “Polish Bar,” Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (800) 838-3006. lajfilmfest.org.

AVI BUFFALO
Frontman Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, a 20-year-old Long Beach native and Habonim Dror alumnus, kicks off the Getty Center’s “Saturdays Off the 405” summer concert series with his acclaimed indie pop band. DJ Kevin Bronson also performs. Sat. 6-9 p.m. Free. Getty Center, Museum Courtyard, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-7300.  getty.edu.


SUN | MAY 8

MOTHER’S DAY CELEBRATION
The Los Angeles Jewish Home hosts its annual brunch for mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers. The celebration of motherhood at the Home’s Grancell Village and Eisenberg Village campuses includes live music, dancing, clowns, and arts and crafts. Sun. 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. $20 (general), $8 (children, 5 to 11), free (children, 5 and under). Grancell Village, 7150 Tampa Ave., Reseda. Eisenberg Campus, 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. (818) 774-3344. jha.org.


MON | MAY 9

“THEIR EYES WERE DRY”
On May 15, 1974, three Palestinian terrorists, disguised as Israeli soldiers, infiltrated the Lebanese border and stormed a school in Ma’alot, where 11th-graders were spending the night. Following a two-day standoff, 21 students were killed and 71 people injured. Director Brandon Assanti reflects on the Ma’alot massacre in his new documentary, screening at theaters citywide. This one-night-only event concludes with a musical tribute by the all-star Cantors Assembly, originally featured in the film “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” singing songs that celebrate Israel Independence Day and commemorate the children of the 1974 incident. Mon. 7 p.m. $12.50. Various locations. theireyesweredry.com.

YOM HAATZMAUT CELEBRATION AND CONCERT
English, Hebrew and Yiddish mix with folk, soul and gospel as the Santa Barbara-based quartet Soul Aviv performs in celebration of Israel’s birthday. Tonight’s event also features children’s crafts and activities. Israeli dinner available for purchase. Mon. 6 p.m. Free. Alpert Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 426-7601. alpertjcc.org.

A NIGHT OF MUSIC AND MEMORY
Pay tribute to those who defend Israel, and celebrate the birth of the Jewish state with Cantors Joseph Gole and Arianne Brown, Aryell Cohen and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Sgt.
Benjamin Anthony of Our Soldiers Speak. A candlelighting ceremony commemorating fallen IDF soldiers features Sinai Temple’s David and Angella Nazarian Youth fellows, USYers, Sinai Akiba Academy students, IDF Maj. Roy Levy and musician Justin Stein. Mon. 7:30-9:30 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3246. sinaitemple.org.


WED | MAY 11

“TEEN BULLYING”
CBS/KCAL news anchor Pat Harvey moderates a discussion on teen bullying with guest speakers Gail Rolf of Friends of Project 10; Daniel Solis of the Gay Straight Alliance Network; Holly Priebe-Diaz, an intervention coordinator with LAUSD; Sara Train of The Trevor Project; Bev Meyer of the Fairfax High School Safe School Ambassadors Program; and a student from Fairfax H.S. Wed. 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Free. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8503. ncjwla.org.


THU | MAY 12

STAND-UP FOR ISRAEL
Celebrate Israel Independence Day with laughter. Comedian Joel Chasnoff, who toured with Jon Stewart and Lewis Black of “The Daily Show,” draws on a mix of personal anecdotes and keen observations of Israeli life for his act. In his irreverent memoir, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” Chasnoff recounts his eye-opening experience in the Israeli army as a tank gunner. Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 445-1280. wilshireboulevardtemple.org.

Rhea Kohan: No one spits in her kids’ Kasha

Sunday afternoon at the Kohan home is one of those classic portraits of familial bliss: Children are screaming, singing and scurrying about, clamoring for attention, eager to play, while the adults assembled in the kitchen are trying to have a coherent conversation. Clearly, a tall order.

“Chris backed up an off ramp!” Jenji Kohan exclaims as she bursts into the kitchen 20 minutes late for the interview, in jeans and a T-shirt, her two sons in tow. “There was an accident in front of us, and we would have literally been on another hour, and so he backed up the off ramp.” Charlie, 11, is ecstatic at his father’s heroics: “My brother and sister were like, ‘Yeah, go Dad!’ ” This being the Kohan household, an ordeal on the freeway is nothing if it begets a good story.

Jenji and Co.’s arrival brings a swirl of energy into the room —Charlie wants to perform his latest magic trick (he’s telepathic), and Oscar, a playful, teasing 5-year-old, is hungry. “Have some cheese and crackers,” his grandmother, Rhea, directs with classic motherly insistence. “Would you like some cereal? Some raisins?”

Jenji and David, Rhea’s two writer offspring (son Jono is a music entrepreneur and day trader) have gathered today at The Journal’s behest to talk about their mother in honor of Mother’s Day. A novelist by profession, among her notable accomplishments is the fact that she managed to raise three well-adjusted, unpretentious children in Beverly Hills.

“Sorry, is this disrupting?” Jenji asks. 

Well, yes, but the chaos of different characters all descending upon the family kitchen is where this family’s story begins. And even though the Kohan children — twins Jono and David, 47, and Jenji, 41, are all grown up with sizable homes of their own, their parents’ home is still family ground zero. It is here, amid a blend of California modern and deco interiors, that their talents were incubated and nurtured — the original writers’ room.

In fact, the drama that unfolded within these walls launched four enviable Hollywood careers: Buz Kohan, the family patriarch, is a television writer for variety shows and specials with 13 Emmys to his credit; Rhea is an author of three novels and a screenplay; David is the creator of the eight-season hit sitcom “Will & Grace”; and Jenji is the brain behind Showtime’s wickedly subversive comedy “Weeds.” A mere 10 minutes in their midst and it becomes obvious why so much of David and Jenji’s success flows from family spectacle, literally and creatively: Both modeled their career choice on their parents’ vocation, and both have found endless inspiration filtering their own refracted experience of family and turning it into entertainment.

Watch any episode of “Will & Grace” and you’ll see that the relationship between a gay man and a Jewish woman who are roommates is really a kind of created family; on “Weeds,” the nuclear family breeds dysfunction and darkness but also unmatched loyalty and love.

So it makes sense that when asked to reflect on their personal and professional bonds with their mother, such an event would take place in their childhood home — a house not only thick with their history, but with their telling of it. Yet it is also a place grounded in normalcy and ordinariness — celebrity visits were frequent, but decidedly absent were any orgiastic, drug-induced parties. Thanks to Mom, Hollywood success was celebrated but not subsuming.

Looking back, Rhea sits at the table confident and queenlike. She is all color: Titian tresses, sapphire eyes, creamy white skin. She wears a rosy blouse, an emerald leopard-print scarf and bright blue sandals — not one for understatement. Her novels “Save Me a Seat” and “Hand-Me-Downs” are, first, about a woman who struggles with pursuing a career and raising her children, and, second, a story of how a family matriarch born in the “wrong” generation tries to realize her own potential through the celebrity of her offspring. A third novel, “Low Heart in the Hole,” is currently sitting on a publisher’s desk.

“Why isn’t Jono here?” Jenji asks her mother with a slight edge in her voice. “You have another child.” Jono, the 6-foot-tall eldest son, is the only nonwriter in the family, and his siblings’ perceptible distress at his absence is the only topic that even hints at a sore subject the entire afternoon. Luckily for the Kohans, any sensitivity, deep or shallow can be remedied with a joke.

“Did it not occur to you?” Jenji presses, while they pose for photographs. “Do you not like him?”

Rhea, who earlier had quipped that her daughter’s confrontational nature scares the you-know-what out of her (“she’s psychologically scary”), is, by this point, fed up.

“He’s my FAVORITE!” Rhea snaps. “You know, there was a ‘Mama’ cartoon I used to put on the refrigerator, which said, ‘Here comes my favorite — and then the other two.’ ”

The threesome resolves to complete the family circle by printing a digital photo of Jono, which Rhea holds in her lap. But the prospect of getting a decent photo is fast becoming a Sisyphean task as the writers chafe under the camera’s glare, looking sort of like aliens who have just landed on the wrong planet. It’s fittingly comic: Jenji and David stand awkwardly opposite each other, fidgeting and leaning, unsure whether to smile or run script, as Rhea sits daintily beneath them, beaming.

Every few minutes, one of Jenji’s kids cuts in with a dire question or to jump on top of her, but mostly, Buz keeps them entertained in the bedroom.

“She’s amazing when she’s not actually your mother,” Jenji says with a sly smile and an eye roll. “All my friends love her.”

David, who plays quiet and patient to his sister’s bellicosity, laughs.

“If you ask her for advice, there is nobody wiser,” he says of Rhea. “But if she foists her advice upon you, that’s the ‘Jewish mother’ thing.”

“It’s the complete lack of boundaries,” Jenji says.

“Complete lack of boundaries?!” Rhea asks incredulously. But she is more amused than annoyed, chuckles lightly and shrugs it off.

Her own upbringing was more rigid: Rhea grew up in a traditional Jewish home in New York. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a school principal, who moonlighted as head of the local yeshiva. They kept kosher, went to shul, and their greatest aspiration for their daughter was for her to marry well (she didn’t, according to them, though her now-48-year union with Buz has since proved them wrong). Rhea rebelled by studying chemistry and taking an apartment in Manhattan after a broken engagement.

“When I got married, my husband was unemployed, so my parents were very unhappy,” she recalls. “When he first came to my parents’ house, my mother wouldn’t let him in the living room. But he never bored me, and he was so talented.”

David, Rhea and Jenji Kohan

That experience didn’t stop Rhea from inflicting the same expectations upon her daughter.

“I was told to go to Caltech and sit on a bench and meet someone,” Jenji says wryly. “We weren’t supposed to do what we’re doing. David was supposed to go to medical school, and I was offered a condo if I went to law school.”

“Writing was a fallback position,” David says. “If we can’t get real jobs, we know we can always do this. That’s what our parents did.”

Rhea had intended to work in the sciences and ended up a novelist. “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht — know what that means? Man makes plans, God laughs.” She likes to joke that her novel “Hand-Me-Downs” is about her foremost maternal wish, which was for her children to grow up and make her look good.  “I wanted my children to grow up and have jobs where they would never have to come and ask me for money.”

By that measure, Rhea can rest easy. But she also deserves credit for keeping them in check, imparting to her children that success is no excuse for self-absorption — it’s how you put food on the table. And it was Buz who spent long hours on television sets to support the family, while Rhea stayed at home, how her children preferred it.

“When I got the galleys back from one of my books, Jenji picked it up and dropped it on the floor and said, ‘Big deal! Do you ever go into bookstores? There are thousands of them there!’ ” Rhea says that whenever she left the house for work, Jenji would conveniently get sick and call her from the nurse’s office. So much for working moms.

“They say there are book Jews and money Jews,” Jenji says. “We were raised book Jews; it was about intellectual and educational and personal achievement. It wasn’t about accumulation.”

“It was always like, things stayed for a long time,” David recalls. “Houses stayed, cars stayed, wardrobe stayed — nothing really changed.”

That’s not to say the family didn’t have its mishegoss — Jenji, for instance, was something of a rabble-rouser.

“I was not an easy kid; I got in trouble a lot,” she says. But rather than condition her otherwise, Rhea embraced her daughter’s quirks, even encouraged them.

“Omigod, I got suspended once from school for telling a headmaster I wouldn’t take his ‘bureaucratic bull——,’ and she took me to Hollywood Boulevard the next day and bought me a James Dean poster, because I was her rebel without a cause.”

Now David and Jenji are both parents themselves, and although there are neurotic behaviors they’d like to avoid, most of the time they can’t help but model their mother’s style.

“There are so many times when you catch yourself in a moment where you know that you are absolutely duplicating your parents in every way, on every level,” David says. “A chromosomal tic is happening.”

“I find more quotes that I use, more than her lecture style,” Jenji says. “Like, ‘Don’t let anyone spit in your kasha.’ ”

“If it feeds you, go out with it,” Rhea adds.

“No. That I will not repeat. I want my daughter to have a little self-esteem.”

Rhea Kohan is anything but stereotypical, though her children say she has some deeply refined neuroses: Overbearing? Check. Neurotic anxiety? Check.

“She’s always nervous that something bad will happen. Always,” Jenji says. “And that was imposed upon us, and it’s been a real struggle to not impose that fear onto my kids.”

“It’s like that Philip Larkin poem,” David says, “ ‘They f—- you up, your mom and dad, they don’t mean to, but they do.’ ”

More than fame or flashiness, storytelling is the Kohans’ cherished currency. It is their way of encapsulating life but also of living it. Issues are handled with humor; discipline comes with a bon mot. Being clever is more important than being a bigshot. And writing isn’t some haphazard genetic imperative or self-aggrandizing gift, it’s a primal urge.

Not that it should be too primal. Rhea does have one major boundary she hopes her children will respect (even if they don’t), and that is: Don’t air your religious angst.

“I’m very conscious of not doing anything that puts down Jewish people,” Rhea says firmly. When David once presented her with a “Will & Grace” script that mocked Orthodox Jews, she disapproved, and the scene was rewritten. After Jenji was discouraged from enrolling in rabbinical school because of her marriage to a non-Jew, she created a character who pursued the rabbinate to avoid war deployment. Rhea disapproved; this time, the scene was not rewritten. “I don’t like anyone to be critical of Jews or Israel. I’m very pro-everything-Jewish. To me, Israel can do no wrong.”

Rhea being so traditional, you might think that her daughter’s intermarriage troubles her, which it did, at first, but that’s over. “It’s the only marriage in the family that worked out,” Rhea admits. “Both my sons married Jewish girls, and both have been divorced.”

As if on cue, Jenji’s youngest son walks into the room: “Oscar, are you Jewish?” Rhea prods.

“Ken!” he shouts with a big, giddy smile.

In their Jewishness, the Kohans are something of an anomaly in Hollywood. Because they’re seriously, openly and comfortably Jewish. Jenji’s family belongs to two shuls, a chavurah group, and her kids attend Jewish day school and summer camp; David is a member at Sinai Temple and IKAR, and shares his mother’s pro-Israel political zeal. And every Friday, as they’ve done since childhood, the family has Shabbat dinner together.

“I think most of the the Jews out here [in Hollywood], they’re f———[cowards],” David says. “They want to stay away from [Jewish identity], they feel like it’s gonna alienate them. And I was always pushing for more — what’s particular can be universal. Like, why on earth would Seinfeld never declare what he was?”

He looks at his mother and says, “You instilled in me that being Jewish is not something to be ashamed of — it’s something to be absolutely proud of.”

Rhea smiles and nods, then offers one last story: “When I was 10 years old, I began to wonder if, indeed, Judaism was the right way. And I remember doing a lot of reading about it and decided that yes, it is the right way…”

“There is no right way,” Jenji cuts in (as much as she says she hates political correctness, she is the one to tip the scales in favor of fairness).

“Well, to me, being Jewish was the most logical,” Rhea continues. And, without a hint of reservation, she adds: “I just felt that on an intellectual level the Jews were way superior to every other religion. And I feel that way to this day. And I would say to my children, if you ever get lost, you look for a house with a mezuzah on the door, and that’s the door you knock on.”

Calendar Picks and Clicks: April 26-May 6, 2011

WED | APRIL 27

“COMMUNICATING COMMEMORATION”
Oren Meyers, a visiting communications scholar from the University of Haifa, discusses the interrelations between Yom HaShoah broadcasts on Israeli television and radio and the shaping of Israel’s collective memory. Wed. 4-6 p.m. Free. UCLA, 6275 Bunche Hall, Los Angeles. (310) 825-9646. international.ucla.edu/israel.

VALLEY RUACH BEER TASTING
Sample Belgian beers and compare them with their American and Canadian counterparts. Organized by Adat Ari El’s young professionals organization, the event’s hosts will review the rich history of Belgian brews and provide a lesson in how to taste beer. Attendees are welcome to hang around after the event to sober up. Snack food included with the price of admission. Wed. 7:30-10 p.m. $7 (members), $10 (general). Encino location e-mailed to paid RSVPs prior to the event. (818) 980-3282. valleyruach.org.

SUSAN MCKEOWN & LORIN SKLAMBERG: SAINTS AND TZADIKS
Irish vocalist Susan McKeown and Klezmatics lead singer Lorin Sklamberg perform songs from their 2009 album, which draws on Yiddish and Gaelic traditions in its exploration of love, death, betrothal and betrayal. Guitarist Aidan Brennan accompanies the duo. Wed. 8 p.m. $30 (general), $25 (members), $20 (students). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4599. skirball.org.

“INTRODUCTION TO ISLAM FOR JEWS”
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, leads tonight’s discussion, the first of a three-part series at Beth Chayim Chadashim. Wed. 7-9 p.m. $45 (general), free (BCC members). Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6000 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.


FRI | APRIL 29

“MUSICAL OF MUSICALS (THE MUSICAL!)”
This long-running off-Broadway hit is a melting pot of musical bliss that references (and parodies) a who’s who of Jewish musical theater composers: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, and Kander and Ebb. Through May 8. 8 p.m. $12-$15. Dow Arena Theatre, Pierce College Performing Arts Theater, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. (818) 719-6488. piercecollege.edu.


SUN | MAY 1

“THROUGH YOUR EYES: HOLOCAUST MEMORIALS AROUND THE WORLD”
Today’s Yom HaShoah commemoration includes an exhibition of Holocaust memorial photographs, as seen through the eyes of L.A. community members, and excerpts from the documentary “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” moderated by Cantor Joseph Gole of Sinai Temple and Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple. Sun. 10-11:30 a.m. Free. Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuary, 6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley. (800) 600-0076. mt-sinai.com.

“IN THEIR OWN WORDS: DIARIES FROM THE HOLOCAUST”
John Loftus, a former U.S. government prosecutor and Nazi hunter, delivers the keynote during today’s Community Wide Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park. The event also features “From Father to Daughter: The Legacy of Carol Deutsch (Antwerp 1894-Buchenwald 1944),” an art exhibition courtesy of the American Society for Yad Vashem. Buses leave from the Federal Building in Westwood at 1:30 p.m. and from the Bernard Milken JCC in West Hills and Valley Beth Shalom in Encino at 1 p.m. Free transportation available by pre-registration only. Sun. 2:45-4:45 p.m. Free. Pan Pacific Park (north end), 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 280-5010. lamoth.org.

“CHAPTER TWO”
Widowed writer George Schneider and divorced actress Jennie Malone must overcome their individual pasts if they hope to have a future together in this comical yet tender look at courtship and marriage. Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play appears as part of the Celebrity Staged Play Reading Series. Sun. 2 p.m. $16 (general), $14 (members, seniors, students), $12 (senior, student members). Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 556-5225. westsidejcc.org.


MON | MAY 2

“BESA: ALBANIAN MUSLIMS WHO SAVED JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUST”
Albanian Muslims, driven by a moral code known as besa, rescued 2,000 Jews during World War II. Through portraiture and personal stories, veteran photographer Norman Gershman reflects on the honor, faith and altruism of Albanian Muslims for this Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum-produced exhibition, which opens tonight. Mon. Through Aug. 19. 7 p.m. Free (RSVP required). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2498. museumoftolerance.com.


SAT | APRIL 30

YIRAH: AWE-INSPIRING WILDERNESS ADVENTURES
TorahTrek, which connects wilderness, spiritual practice and Judaism, has formed a new group for 20- and 30-somethings to meet regularly for hiking and backpacking. Today’s 4.2-mile hike to the multitiered, 150-foot Escondido Falls — the highest waterfall in the Santa Monica Mountains — starts off easy but increases in difficulty (includes stream crossings). Sat. 3-6:30 p.m. $8-$15 (sliding scale). Escondido Canyon Nature Area, 27200 Winding Way, Malibu (meeting place). (443) 722-4294. torahtrek.com.


TUE | MAY 3

“PRISONER OF HER PAST”
Follow Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich as he sets out across the United States and Eastern Europe to uncover why his Holocaust survivor mother believes the world is conspiring to kill her. The documentary explores a little-known disorder: late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder. A Q-and-A with Reich and producer Joanna Rudnick follows. Tue. 7:30 p.m. Free (RSVP required). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 772-2498. museumoftolerance.com.


WED | MAY 4

“OUT OF THE WILDERNESS”
Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s department of interreligious affairs, discusses 40 years of Catholic-Jewish relations with the Rev. Patrick Desbois, president of Yahad-In Unum, an organization that facilitates meetings between Catholic bishops and Jewish Orthodox leaders. Holli Levitsky, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Jewish studies program, moderates the discussion. Wed. 6:30-8:30 p.m. Free (RSVP required). Loyola Marymount University, Hilton Center for Business, Room 100, 1 LMU Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 338-7664. ajclosangeles.org.


THU | MAY 5

MOTHER’S DAY BRUNCH
New York Times columnist Alina Tugend, author of “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong,” speaks at today’s annual brunch. Attendees are asked to bring toiletry items that will be used in Mother’s Day baskets for women in shelters and transitional living facilities. Thu. 10 a.m.-noon. $40. Stephen S. Wise Temple, Zeldin-Hershenson Hall, 15500 Stephen S Wise Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-8561. wisela.org.

A daughter tells her mother’s story of the Holocaust

A Los Angeles native and child of a Holocaust survivor, Tema Merback has written “In the Face of Evil,” a unique kind of Holocaust book — a novel written in the first person from her mother’s perspective. 

In relating the true story of what her mother faced during the war, Merback says that the narrative form she chose was missing from the canon of Holocaust books.

“Every survivor writes a memoir, but they are not pieces of literature,” she said. “That’s why I turned to the novel form, [so it] wouldn’t turn people off, would inspire them, hold them.”

On April 29, Merback and her mother, Dina Frydman Balbien, will appear at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. They will discuss, read from and sign copies of the book.

The book begins in the summer of 1939, when Balbien was 10 years old, and follows the girl through her life in the ghetto, to a labor camp and Auschwitz, where her family was killed.

Merback self-published the book in 2010 — it took her two years to write — and the descriptiveness of the prose reflects not only Merback’s talent, but Balbien’s inability to forget what she went through.

“Although I have tried at times to put the war behind me for both mine and my children’s sanity,” Balbien says in the book’s prologue, “like the tattoo that I bear, it is burned into me and has colored every moment of my life.”

Almost Mother’s Day

I’ve really done it now. A year ago I got engaged. I made good on that promise in late July, and we have been on a honeymoon ever since.

Well, the honeymoon is over, folks. I’m here to tell you that I’m pregnant. Actually, I’m not much of anything, but my better half is pregnant. My wife went and got herself in trouble. Mother’s Day has taken on a whole new meaning at my house this year.

She feels pretty lousy. She says it’s like having a hangover all the time. When we were in London, we noticed that the TV weather reporter had about 100 ways of saying “cold, windy and rainy.” I told Amy that she was going to have to get more creative with her physical complaints if I had to hear about it for the next nine months: “Night and morning nausea giving way to constipation in the afternoon. Expect some extreme fatigue in the early evening hours and a 60 percent chance of food aversions tonight. Dizziness expected all day tomorrow.”

I feel fine. Thanks for asking. Never better.

Whatever the problem, I know that I got her into this mess, so I’m going to have to clean it up. This morning she pointed a finger and said, “You did this to me.”

“Yes, but you wanted me to.”

She can’t believe anyone ever has a second child.

We decided to keep this news to ourselves for as long as possible, but it’s not so easy to do, especially as she doesn’t fit into her pants. We avoided seeing our parents to the point where it was getting just plain rude. We had plans with her father and started to work on a viable excuse a week ahead of time.

“Should I get sick?” I asked.

“No, I could have a work thing come up,” she said.

To be fair, we were afraid that my mother’s heart might actually explode from joy, so you could say our self-imposed silence was due to health concerns. Our plan was that I would go over to see them on a regular basis, and they’d think that they’d seen her, too. A classic misdirection. That scheme worked fine, but we had to explain to friends that she wasn’t drinking wine at dinner because (we said) she was taking antibiotics for a sinus infection. The next time my mother called, we said we couldn’t get together because of the nonexistent sinus infection. That poor little kid is going to come into a family of such accomplished liars.

We watched a DVD called “Life’s Greatest Miracle.” The little troublemaker is about 13¼8 inches long now and looks more like the creature from the movie “Alien” than it resembles either of us, with black dots for eyes, webs for hands and buds where the legs ought to be. All the cells are getting assigned jobs, not unlike choosing up sides for a softball game: “You play left field, you be a kidney.”

Now that I’m pregnant, I see children everywhere. I assume that they’ve always been there, but they must have been in hiding until recently. Let me tell you, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be, these little babies. They are the most helpless mammals on the planet. Baby zebras can run with the herd. Junior’s not even here yet and already it’s got a lot of catching up to do.

Everyone is playing the “Guess the Sex” game. Amy gets so excited whenever anyone expresses an opinion. “A little girl!” she shrieks and waves her hands and her eyes get big and wet. She gets just as excited either way. “A little boy!” Then she polls me, and I continue to have no “gut” about it at all. Of course I’m very excited, but my opinion doesn’t make a bit of difference. We’ll know soon enough. Bring it on. I can’t be expected to jump up and down for seven more months, it just ain’t dignified.

Everyone has been so congratulatory (“Your boys can swim!”) and so encouraging. My favorite response came in an e-mail from a friend back East that said: “Now your life begins again.”

We’ve got seven months to go and already we’re knocking wood and interjecting “God willing” and “God forbid” into the front of sentences. They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and there aren’t any in the maternity ward either.

The baby is due on Thanksgiving Day. I put it in the calendar on my computer’s Outlook program and synched it up to my Blackberry with one of those pop-up reminders so I won’t forget. “Thanksgiving” is going to have a whole new meaning at my house this year, too.

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

J.D. Smith is expecting @ www.carteduvin.com.