The most overlooked resource in fighting violent extremism? Moms.

This article originally appeared on Zocalo Public Square.

When 19-year-old Akhor Saidakhmetov started hanging out with two older men and talking about waging jihad in Syria, his mother took away his passport. Later, when he begged to get it back—admitting that he wanted to join the Islamic State—she hung up the phone. Mothers like her may be the first, last, and best approach to stopping militant recruiters, but law enforcement often leaves them out of their counterterrorism efforts in the U.S. and Europe. 

There are three different approaches a country can take against violent extremism and terrorism: prevention, repression, and intervention. Mostly, Western countries rely on prevention and repression. They focus on containing the active extremist movement through law enforcement operations or they finance large-scale educational and advocacy programs directed at those deemed to be at risk of violent radicalization. However, Western governments often overlook more targeted deradicalization programs (sometimes called “off-ramps”) that engage the families and the immediate communities of individuals deemed to be falling under the sway of extremist narratives. 

Two years ago I founded GIRDS, the German Institute for Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, which works worldwide to figure out how to intervene when people become radicalized. I first became interested in the topic growing up in a small suburb of Berlin where neo-Nazi skinheads were an accepted part of the youth culture. I went away to university and then on a Fulbright to study violent extremism and counterterrorism. Since then, I have been working as a family counsellor to develop deradicalization programs, including specially designed family counselling programs for relatives of Jihadi fighters.

As governments increase the pressure on extremist groups through sting operations and raids, some members begin to crack, facing a choice to withdraw from the group (which they might want to do, if given a path to do so) or escalate their commitment by doing something violent. Intervention programs aim to provide that first path, allowing wavering members of an extremist cell a way out. A key ingredient of such programs is the debunking of appealing extremist narratives. We strive to destroy the “jihadi cool” by having someone say, “I’ve been there… And it sucks.” In the end prevention and repression are much more effective when complemented by such targeted intervention programs.

If we want to prevent future attacks, we need to recruit family and close friends of potential attackers into the counterterrorism effort and provide them with specially trained experts. In almost all previous attacks by lone actors or members of small terror cells, someone in the attackers’ close social environment recognized a disturbing change in their behavior. Sometimes this close relative or friend even knew about the attack plans.

Frequently these families or friends are desperate to get help and advice on what to do, despite their mixed feelings about betraying a loved one, but law enforcement rarely offers a strategy for making this seem possible.

In every country that has introduced a dedicated family counselling hotline and support program against violent radicalization to date, these programs were almost instantly overwhelmed with calls and requests for help from families of individuals from all different stages of radicalization. This indicates the high demand and the success in reaching out to the affected families once they are offered specially designed programs and neutral third party counsellors.

Designed and conducted correctly, these programs empower families and communities to counter the appeal of violent extremism. We work by reaching out to the gatekeepers—family and close friends. Because these gatekeepers know their friends and relatives best, they also know what might have motivated them to join the radical group and what drives them. These gatekeepers also have the legitimacy to suggest alternatives and bring in other solutions. But for that they need help and strong support networks. 

Mothers are essential gatekeepers. Most of the mothers I have worked with who have lost their children to ISIS or other terrorist groups have noticed something changing about their child, but were mostly alone without any outside help. When these families contact me from around the world what I hear almost every time is the urge to understand what is happening and how to do something about it. Many parents act on their own, take away passports, lock their children up, or move with them into another town. These reactions are understandable but are counterproductive and can further push the radicalization process.

There is a common saying amongst Jihadis: “Allah tests the ones he loves,” meaning that any obstacle on the path to martyrdom will be seen as a proof that one is the chosen one. In addition, recruiters and the Salafi-Jihadi ideology explain to those drawn to terrorism that these signs of rejection by their own family are a natural consequence of the perfect truth they have found. The biological family is superseded by the spiritual one—the ummah— and in this way even your own mother can be labelled as “infidel” and part of the enemy.

When a mother comes to us she is assigned a trained case manager. Together they will analyze the child’s situation and try to identify the “radicalization recipe.” What is driving the son or daughter towards ISIL? Together they will design a step-by-step plan, identify external partners, and build support networks around the family. The counselor will teach the family de-escalation techniques to reduce frustration, fights in the family, and bullying in school. They will bring in positive alternatives addressing the motives of the son/daughter. Does he or she want to help women and children in Syria? The mother might suggest that the youth work with a Muslim charity, or do a fundraising campaign with a legitimate organization. Also, the mother will get constant risk analysis from the counselor so that they will be able to decide if and when to bring the matter to law enforcement. The counselor is a bridge between the family and all relevant external partners.

To connect mothers to one another, we’ve built a community called Mothers For Life, which exists mainly online but also has met a couple of times in person When we wrote an open letter to ISIL in the summer 2015 and the group responded the same day on Twitter, we knew that they were afraid of the parents’ power to block their recruitment efforts. This letter contained the feelings and questions mothers around the world had when their beloved ones were taken away against their will—in stark contrast to the fundamental values of Islam. We wanted to pose questions designed to dissolve parts of the ISIS narrative. After receiving letters from imprisoned fighters saying they have realized what they did to their own mothers and want to leave jihadism behind, we knew it worked. 

Mobilizing mothers fixes another hole in the law-enforcement strategy. Parents in the Mothers for Life network have told me that they do not have a problem in principle with cooperating with law enforcement agencies, but that they have lost trust in them. Sometimes intelligence and police surveilled their children and did nothing to stop them from leaving. Sometimes the mothers were treated as terrorists themselves during house searches. At other times they have even been charged by courts with providing material support to terrorist organizations despite doing everything they could to get their children back. Sometimes I have to explain to the authorities what the role of the families is, that they are allies and want to help, that they should be respected and seen as partners, not suspects. 

Mothers for Life is currently active in 11 countries (U.S.A., Canada, France, U.K., Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Norway). Most of the parents involved have their own national organizations to support other families. GIRDS experts are based in six countries (Germany, France, England, U.S.A., Canada, and Denmark) and have trained experts and advised governments around the globe on how to counter violent extremism. Most recently I was asked to train probation officers in Minneapolis on deradicalization interventions and to conduct risk and radicalization evaluation studies for a number of defendants.

ISIS itself has announced that taking away its territory in Syria and Iraq will not defeat its brand and core ideas. It will continue to recruit and shift its tactics and strategy to overseas terror attacks. That makes it all the more important for Western societies to counter ISIS’s appeal and that of other violent extremist and terrorist organizations, and there can be no more effective fighters in that cause than the families and immediate communities of those disaffected youths tempted by the perverted promise of martyrdom. 

Daniel Koehler is the founder of GIRDS. As a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism he trains experts and advise governments around the world helping families to turn away their beloved ones from violent extremism. 

Helping mothers have it all

The much-discussed article in the July/August Atlantic magazine begins with a story that likely will be familiar to any working mother. The author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, is at an evening work event talking to very important, very professional people, and all that’s really on her mind is the plight of her teenage son, who’s floundering at home without her. At the time, Slaughter was serving as a top official at the State Department, working under Hillary Clinton, who famously wrote “It Takes a Village,” but Slaughter’s greatest preoccupation in that moment was with mothering, and despite all her professional success, she was still wondering how to be a successful working woman.

Welcome to the club. Or, should I say, I’m with you, sister.

Slaughter’s article, aptly titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” addresses a certain sector of women — the well-educated, ambitious, talented and highly likely to advance type. The women who succeed, but nevertheless don’t reach the top of the work chain, largely because of excruciating choices that they find themselves compelled to make: Volunteering at their kids’ school versus traveling with the boss. Being there at 3 p.m. for pickup and soccer delivery versus writing an extra exposé. It’s not that men can’t face these dilemmas, too; it’s just a fact that most don’t feel they need to at the same level.

Slaughter, an academic specializing in foreign affairs, admits that her two-year term working in the 24-hour work cycle of
government was an eye opener; her life at Princeton, despite a full teaching load, administrative duties and prolific publishing, allowed her flextime that most jobs don’t.

I remember the day I came back to work as a newspaper editor after the brief weeks of leave I took when my husband and I adopted our infant daughter. A parade of women dropped by my office to congratulate, and console, me. Life had changed for the better — and the worse, they advised. Welcome to the world of eternal guilt, was the message: You will never again feel you’re completely giving your all to your work, nor will you, as long as you continue to work, ever feel completely sure you’ve done enough for your child.

There is no single answer to the work-life balance when it comes to children — I have found that it’s a day-by-day process of trying to avoid the tipping point. Each woman finds her own way.

Today, as our daughter is about to turn 17 and I see her slipping away toward adulthood, I still feel the pull. Now it’s not so much about being a necessary presence anymore — she can drive herself where she needs to go — but I still need to be a presence in her mind, so that she knows I can be there quickly when needed. That I am there for her. And that’s what still haunts me as I stay extra hours at the office.

Slaughter writes of the deference people in her office felt for an Orthodox Jewish man who made a point of leaving early on Fridays to observe Shabbat with his family. And, she noted, no such respect would likely be given to a mother who simply wanted to skip Saturday meetings to spend time with the kids.

The gift of Shabbat turns out, for me, to be the resounding message of Slaughter’s piece. Shabbat teaches us that, religiously observant or not, we ought to set aside some special time — time to interact, to find peace, perhaps even joy, in our lives — time that is not work time.

I often hear younger women today talking about “feminism” as if it’s a bad word. A big part of what many of my generation fought for over the past three decades was the ability to achieve what men have — executive offices, respect and equal pay. And feminism represented that movement, for us. Today’s young women want something more — to avoid the guilt of the balancing act, as well as, perhaps, the identification with a sisterhood. They imagine a working world defined by a kind of human-ism that is not gender-defined.

And they share this vision with many younger men who are, as well, more drawn to engage with their own children. Willing to change diapers, to get home in time for dinner and to find some flextime.

What we all need, Slaughter argues, is what flextime allows: valuing that other part of our lives. Shabbat’s regularity offers this to us, but we also must assume the mantle throughout our lives. To believe that a deep breath can benefit all parts of our lives, including our interaction with our children, our spouses and friends, and even our workplace.

Jonah Lehrer, who writes brilliantly about the science of the brain, explains in his new book, “Imagine,” how great creativity often occurs when the mind is at rest. Plowing through those extra work hours without a break is not always productive; in fact, it’s often over that glass of beer, or in the shower, that the light bulb turns on. Perhaps even at the moment of stopping to watch your child play.

Lehrer’s brain science offers the answer to what true work-life balance might look like. If we can close the door on the office and go home — without turning on the computer and checking our phones and e-mail obsessively — we might find clearer minds in the morning to get it all done. We also might appreciate our families and friends more.

But as working women, we can all begin, at least for now, by taking a lesson from Torah: by requiring Shabbat observance — secular or religious — for us all. So you’re not just thinking about where you wish you could be, but can actually be there — in the present.

Segregated school affair: Fathers arrive in jail, mothers fail to show

Thirty five men, fathers to Ashkenazi girls attending an illegally segregated school in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel, arrived at the Ma’asiyahu prison Thursday evening to serve a two-week sentence.

Parents of European, or Ashkenazi, descent at the all girls’ school don’t want their daughters to study with schoolgirls of Mideast and North African descent, known as Sephardim.

The Ashkenazi parents insist they aren’t racist, but want to keep the classrooms segregated, as they have been for years, arguing that the families of the Sephardi girls aren’t religious enough.

The Supreme Court rejected that argument, and ruled that the 43 sets of parents who have defied the integration efforts by keeping their daughters from school were to be jailed on Thursday.

Read the full story at

Cooking lessons

Pour three cups of rice into a bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water. Stir the rice in the water, making sure you don’t crush the grains, then throw out the water. Repeat five times.

I’m 9 years old — in my mother’s kitchen on the second floor of our house in Tehran. It’s mid-morning, early summer, but the heat is already oppressive.

I’ve been out of school for a week. I spend my days playing in the yard with my two sisters and with the occasional cousin who comes over for a visit. I harass the gardener to let me water the lawn, even if there’s no need for it, sit with the maid in the narrow strip of shade in the servants’ yard and watch her soak our clothes in enormous pewter tubs that she has filled with water, soap and lavender. When she’s not looking, I dip my hands, up to the elbows, in the cool water and watch the soap bubbles coat my skin.

The sixth time you fill the bowl, don’t throw the water out. Put a piece of rock salt in it and let the rice soak overnight.

My mother is 26 years old. Every summer, she teaches my sisters and me things every woman needs to know. We’ve learned to sew buttons and hems, to crochet and knit, to iron shirts and dresses. This year, she’s teaching me how to make rice, because she’s going to Israel with her sisters for two months. One of them is having surgery in Tel Aviv, and the others are going to take care of the patient while she recovers.

This is the first time since she’s been married that my mother will travel without my father, but she tells me she’s not afraid, she’s actually excited, looking forward to what she thinks will be a great adventure.

The next morning, bring half a pot of water to a boil on the stove. Pour out the saltwater from the soaking rice, and add the rice to the boiling water in the pot. Add two tablespoons of salt and a tablespoon of oil. Stir the rice once, making sure you don’t crush the grains.

In Tel Aviv, my mother and her sisters rent an apartment by the month. There are four of them, plus the one who’s had surgery, and some cousins who live in other parts of Israel and come by for extended visits. It’s like they’re kids again, my mother writes in her letters to us, living together on Simorgh Street, without husbands or kids or the weight of their daily routine back in Tehran.
In the pictures she sends, my mother’s always laughing. Her hair has grown longer; it has blond highlights from the sun. She looks happy, and confident, and younger than I’ve ever known her.

Let the rice cook in the boiling water, with the pot uncovered, for seven to eight minutes. Take a grain or two out of the water, blow on it till it’s cool, then test it between your front teeth. Make sure you wait till the rice is cooled off, or you’ll burn the tip of your tongue. If you can bite into the grains without much resistance, turn off the flame, put up the pot and pour the rice and the water into a large colander.

When she comes back from Israel, my mother talks more loudly, more openly, than she had before she left. She laughs more easily, as well. In Israel, she says, women are not expected to be quiet and solemn all the time.
She has bought herself a red leather bag. She says that in Israel, she felt “at home” for the first time in her life. It had to do with being surrounded by other Jews, instead of living as a minority and feeling threatened all the time. But it also had to do with seeing the way other women live in other parts of the world — all those young girls who put on uniforms the minute they finish high school, who pick up a gun as if they were boys, file away to the army, to the desert, to war.

Let all the water drain out of the rice, then toss it gently in the colander to make sure the grains are not stuck together. Be careful you don’t crush the grains.

After that trip, my mother stops teaching her daughters how to cook or do housework.

“Don’t waste your life making rice,” she tells us. “Go to school and find a career and become something you can be proud of.”

She starts taking painting and piano lessons, talking about moving to America, where women are not expected to be solemn and quiet all the time.

Rinse the pot till it’s clean. Pour a cup of water, a third of a cup of oil, a pinch of turmeric and a teaspoon of tomato juice into the empty pot and put it back on the stove, with the flame on high, till the mixture comes to the boil.

Through college and graduate school and the first five years of married life in Los Angeles, I never make Persian rice again. I’ll start only after my children are born, and then without much confidence.

I cook every day, almost without exception, because I can’t stand the thought of feeding my kids out of a jar, but I’m always torn when I’m in the kitchen, always thinking there are better things for me to do, better ways to use my time. I should be working, or playing with my kids, or helping them learn to read, to ride a bike.

When the mixture is boiling rapidly, pour in the rice from the colander and arrange it in the shape of cone. Lower the flame, wrap the top of the pot in a kitchen towel, cover the pot and let the rice cook for at least an hour. Before serving, sprinkle a mixture of water, saffron and oil onto the rice. When you spoon it onto the platter, make sure you don’t crush the grains of rice.

Mom: Resist

When stuck with a rebellious child, gluttonous and thieving, the Torah has a tidy solution: Kill him. Or her.

For those of you excited by this opportunity to practice a new mitzvah, be mindful that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) adds, “The case of the wayward and rebellious child never was and never will be.”

In other words, the rabbis couldn’t find a single, relevant example of a parent acting on this advice. They also concluded that, in the future, they never expected or wanted to see this sort of reaction by parents either.

In this way, the tradition both recognizes the impulse to do violence, and then brings us to our senses and to our obligations.

Still, it’s tempting sometimes, isn’t it?

I used to teach classes to parents of children in elementary school. The moms would arrive at my office like butterflies, wearing bright colors and alighting gracefully in their chairs. They talked a lot and shared stories of their week. We laughed and had fun.

When I started teaching classes for parents of preteens and teenagers, it felt as though the lighting had changed in the room. The moms wore darker clothes and darker expressions. Their mouths were tense little lines. They raised their hands to speak and didn’t speak much.

They were beaten up and humiliated, like an NBA team defeated by a high school squad — a sure sign of a mom at her wit’s end because of a sharp-tongued daughter.

“What happened to my sweet child? Someone took her in the night! This new child, the changeling, doesn’t like me and isn’t too likable herself. In fact, she acts like a bitch. She reminds me of the girls I didn’t like in middle school. Why is she so uncooperative, so rude, so dismissive?”

Sheepishly, they reported the insults hurled by their daughters.

“Mom, the reason you’re so strict is because you have a lot of personal problems. And everyone we know knows this about you. And they talk about it all the time.”

“The reason you won’t let me go to the mall with my friends is that you weren’t very popular when you were in middle school and you want me to be an outcast, too.”

Why would they talk like this?

Aside from dangling then withdrawing the carrot of a more permanent solution, the Talmud tells us: “Every parent has an obligation to teach his or her child how to swim.”

Our children don’t belong to us. Our job is to raise our children to leave us. This means that after all that SAT prep, when they finally do get into college, we want them to stay there without phoning twice a day because they are not crazy about their roommate or because they can’t get the course they want. And we don’t want them coming home after one semester with a stomachache, or because the food is better at home or the bed in the dorm isn’t Tempur-Pedic.

I talk to parents about normal child development. When children are small, they beg you to come into their room and stay there as long as possible, especially at night. When they are teenagers, they get angry if you even look in their room, or enter without permission, especially at night. When they were small, they embarrassed you by screaming in the supermarket; now you embarrass them by singing, ever, or being too friendly, to anyone. They act this way because they are making space to grow away from you, to form their own identity.

As they should.

Don’t look to teenage girls to remind you of your worthiness, dignity or charm: Both their hormones and their spirit tell them that this is the time to begin to separate from parents.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “straits,” or “narrow places.” For mothers of girls, the preteen and early teen years are your Mitzrayim. Eventually, when they turn 16 or 17, you’ll get to the Promised Land: Your old friend will be waiting, but now she’ll be a fine young woman. She’ll be nice to you again and you’ll be proud of her and she’ll be proud of you.

But until then, what to do? In my classes, I say to the parents over and over in every way I can think of: Don’t take eye-rolling as an insult. Think of it this way: At least they are listening. Don’t take any of this personally. Although they may be taller than you are and are certainly more quick-witted, they aren’t doing this to hurt you. What they are doing is not only normal, but necessary.

What about the Fifth Commandment, you ask, honoring parents? When children are young, Jewish law states that we must teach them to be respectful and kind, thoughtful and compassionate.

When you’ve got teenagers, honoring mother and father means doing it yourself. Honor yourself. Treat yourself with dignity. Even if your teenager makes you feel like dirt. Don’t join the attack. The rabbis tell us that we will be called to task in the world to come for every legitimate pleasure available to us of which we did not partake. Admire, nurture and delight yourself. Don’t look to the eye roller to do it.

How to celebrate Mother’s Day in Egypt?

For part of the answer, it’s appropriate to look to your partners in parenting.

Dads and significant others, you are on call today. Say to this beleaguered mom: “You look beautiful.”

Calling this normal-looking person beautiful helps counteract the propaganda of a culture that tells your daughters they need to look perfect.

Then tell her again, in private, and be specific. She works round-the-clock and she’s tired and cranky and hard on herself. Mother’s Day is the right time to remind her in detail how amazing you think she is.

And Moms, you should talk to other moms. Remember Mommy and Me? When you got to check in with fellow travelers about the proper color and consistency of baby poop, and how to manage sleep deprivation and no sex. Remember how you calmed each other down and laughed and commiserated? There aren’t many support groups for mothers of teenagers so mothers are alone, scared and ashamed — and unaware that it is just as bad next door. This Mother’s Day, find a private spot and call a friend who has a teenage daughter. Kvetch, laugh, remind each other that everything with children is just a stage. Take the long view. And have a pleasant Mother’s Day.

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles. She is the author of the best-selling parenting book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Penguin, 2001). She is currently writing a book for parents of adolescents, “The Blessing of a B Minus.”


Comforting Mothers Without Mothers

“My childhood skidded to a stop on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of my 15th year, with my mother’s first mammogram results,” writes Hope Edelman in her moving new book, “Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become” (Harper Collins). For Edelman, her mother’s illness and subsequent death from cancer two years later in 1981 were the beginning of a journey of loss, self-exploration and eventual emotional redemption that has spanned nearly a quarter-century and spawned three well-received books on the subject.

“I wanted to find ways to help women cope, and even thrive in the absence of a mother,” says Edelman from her home in Topanga Canyon.

A native New Yorker who graduated from the Northwestern School of Journalism, Edelman first explored “mother loss” while studying creative nonfiction writing at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1980s. She discovered that, other than a few pieces of clinical work gathering dust in university archives, women seeking guidance and reassurance had few resources.

Her first book, “Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss,” published in 1994, fused her own experiences with research and with excerpts from interviews with hundreds of women. She received thousands of letters from women who heard their voices expressed in her pages. The book became a New York Times best seller that sparked dialogue and helped pave the way for a more open discourse on the subject.

In the midst of this success, her own life was about to change dramatically — a seismic shift that would inspire her next major book project.

Edelman was living in New York in 1996 when she began dating Uzi Eliyahou, an Israeli high-tech executive based in Los Angeles. Seven months into their whirlwind long-distance relationship, she discovered she was pregnant. Within the year, she was married, living in Los Angeles and the mother of Maya, now 8 (Eden, 4, followed a few years later).

Through this experience, Edelman became convinced that as a motherless daughter, she faced a unique and different set of challenges that she wanted to share with both laypeople and medical professionals.

She was motivated in part by a disturbing interaction with the first gynecologist she saw after becoming pregnant. When faced with Edelman’s particular concerns about coping, as a pregnant woman, with the loss of her own mother, the doctor just wasn’t interested.

“Let me know when you get it figured out,” he told her.

She later heard similar tales of insensitivity from other women.

Edelman hoped that in her book she could help doctors and psychologists develop empathy for the experience of the motherless mother.

“As with most of the women I interviewed, the big question that arose was, ‘How will I know how to be a mother?'” Edelman says.

Other issues that loom large for soon-to-be or new mothers include the fear of dying young, the anxiety of losing a loved one and the desire to give their children an emotional security they did not have themselves.

“I’m about to reach the same age my mother was when she died,” Edelman says. “And that looms large.”

In the course of her research, Edelman discovered that becoming a mother often brought the pain of her mother’s passing into the forefront, but that the process of pregnancy, birth and childrearing can be healing. Even so, there’s a multigenerational effect to account for.

Since most women keep photographs of their late mothers prominently displayed in their homes, the pictures spark curiosity, and discussion.

“We talk about my mother often and openly,” Edelman says.

Another unexpected result of motherhood has been reconnection with faith.

“My mother was the center of Jewish identity in our house,” Edelman says. “When she died, our family’s connection to Judaism loosened.”

According to Edelman, the mother typically serves as “kinkeeper,” the one who brings friends and family together for holiday meals and rituals.

“When a Jewish woman loses her mother, she loses the most important role model for how to sustain a Jewish home.” Edelman says. “You are suddenly without the person who is primarily responsible for cooking Shabbat dinner or preparing the seder. We became religious orphans when my mother died.”

It was her older daughter, Maya, named for Edelman’s mother, who helped bring the family back into the Jewish fold. Edelman and her husband enrolled Maya in school at Chabad of Topanga. Maya soon came home bursting with knowledge about all of the holidays. “She wants to observe all the holidays,” says Edelman. “It’s a connection I only recently made,” she added, explaining that the process of Jewish ritual and community has helped heal the wounds of her mother’s premature passing.

Edelman is pursuing a variety of writing projects, but doesn’t want to overlook a main theme of her work: the importance of spending meaningful time with your family.

“There were far too many 14-hour days in the past three years,” Edelman says. “I’m enjoying spending more time with my husband and children.”

Hope Edelman regularly holds one-day Motherless Daughters writing workshops For more information, visit

Party Pooper

My college friends Jordy and Michelle are throwing a party — a birthday party for their 1-year-old son. That’s right, my former party ’til the break of dawn dormmates are hosting a luau for their little one. This should be good.

I walk into the Hawaiian-themed rager and am overwhelmed. It’s like Tot Shabbat with leis. There are a dozen kids playing on the floor. How do my friends even know this many crawlers? Where did they find them? I can only imagine they rented them from the party store along with the tiki bar and folding chairs. And who are all these new mothers?

A pretty girl who’s pregnant with her second asks if I know Jordy and Michelle from Mommy & Me.

I respond by downing a stiff drink.

Yes, they have beer and margaritas and try to make the party feel normal for nonbreeding adults. But that’s just it. Normal parties don’t try to be anything “for adults,” because adults are the only people there. But this party has babies on board.

I look around the Romper Room to see if my other single friends are freakin’ out. Nope. The girls are cooing over the pint-size noisemakers and the guys just seem to be happy that they’re no longer the only bald ones in the room.

Maybe it’s me.

I just don’t get why people throw parties for 1-year-olds. The kids don’t remember it, the adults don’t enjoy it — and let’s be honest — all anyone really cares about is what’s in the goody bag. (A sand pail, plastic sunglasses and Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Flavored Goldfish. Score!) It’s not that I don’t want to watch a 12-month-old get chocolate butter-cream cake on his face, it’s just that….

OK, fine, I don’t want to watch a 12-month-old get chocolate butter-cream cake on his face. I don’t want to hear about the adoooooorable thing he did for the first time yesterday. And don’t get me started on watching the birthday boy open his presents. Moses floated down the river with nothing more in the world but the basket under his backside, but this kid now owns two walkers, a Radio Flyer and a mini-NASCAR ride-along — just to get from one side of his playroom to the other.

I don’t want to judge. Jordy’s in accounting, Michelle’s a teacher, and they love their suburban townhouse, kid in the family room, dog outside, “Honey, I’m home” life. I’m happy for them; I’m just not sure how to act around them. Half the time, I need an English-baby talk dictionary just to understand them.

When it comes to kids, there’s a Red Sea-style parting between the haves and the have-nots. My friends have become parents. Grown-ups. That used to be another word for alien. And maybe that definition still holds. I don’t know who they are anymore. Someone has secretly replaced my pals with Folgers Crystals.

I can no longer relate to them; our lives are worlds apart. We have nothing in common. I make men wiggle; they watch “The Wiggles.” I hit the bottle, they heat up a bottle. To me, a pump refers to a high-heel. To them? Don’t ask.

We interrupt my wallowing to bring you birthday-party baby races. That’s right. Relay races with diaper-clad kids. After cake and gifts, the proud fathers line up their tots at one end of the room, their kids’ bottles and mothers at the other. The first one to cross the bottle line wins. Maybe it’s exploitation, but it’s not as bad as something King Solomon suggested.

And it made me look.

In Lane 1 is Mike “the birthday boy” Berger. Lanes 2 and 3 have the Stevenson twins. Madison “the rookie” Rosen warms up in Lane 4. The defending champ from the last birthday bash is Aidan, who fills out Lane 5. Bets are placed, rules established and the kids are off. On your mark, get set: Crawl!

Aidan doubles back in the wrong direction, one of the twins stops short and starts to cry and birthday boy Mike crawls across the finish line first. I hear Jordy shout, “That’s my son!”

That’s when it hits me: My friends may have a kid, but they’re still the same crazy people they’ve always been. It’s not the kids who have made things awkward; it’s my reaction to them.

Which is something I vow to change. I enjoyed my first, first birthday. Or at least more than I expected to. It was fun to see Jordy and Michelle; it was tremendous to see them so happy. They really seem to like this parenting thing.

And maybe, someday, I will too.

But not anytime soon. To Jordy and Michelle, a good night is one the kid slept through, but to me — don’t ask.

Free-lance writer Carin Davis can be reached at


Making Sense of My Mother’s Death

Recently, I was working at my school office planning a day of classes and interviews when I was notified of an incoming call from New York. It was my cousin, Shion, a hospital chaplain and a fine rabbi.

“Have you heard the news?” he asked.

I thought his voice sounded pensive and without waiting for an answer he went on to say, “There has been a fire, your mother didn’t make it and your father is in the hospital.”

I was completely overwhelmed. I literally stopped breathing and felt as if I was going to faint. After a while I took some deep breaths and exhaled slowly.

I could not get out of my chair nor could I speak. I wondered how this could be. My 81-year-old mother lived at home with my father and a home health worker. She had been bedridden for seven years and recently, through immense therapy and physical effort, she had begun to take small footsteps and could walk with a walker each day for a short distance.

Living close to Long Beach airport, I tried to find the earliest flight to New York. I was in luck and there was a flight a couple of hours later. I ran home, prepared my small carry-on bag and headed for the door. My wife met me as I was leaving.

“Are we going out for my birthday?” she asked.

As I recounted the devastating news I began to cry, and so did my wife.

For the next four to five hours on the plane ride to New York, my mind worked overtime. Was my father still alive? How did the fire start? Was the house completely burned? Was anyone else involved?

My son and daughter met me by the gate. Zayde was alright and was in a small motel room with my brother from Connecticut. I was relieved on hearing that my father was released from the hospital. At 81, he has been married to my dear mother for almost 60 years. They were inseparable. They produced nine children, all of us are teachers, rabbis or community activists. We all are graduates of religious seminaries and are married with children and grandchildren. We consider our good fortune due to the hard work of our esteemed and beloved parents.

I arrived at the motel. My brothers and sons-in-law plus some grandchildren were there.

“Thank God I am alive,” my father said.

It is only because Chanie, my niece, was in the home that he was able to run for his life. Chanie and her baby were there visiting when the home health worker called “fire!”

The house was engulfed in flames.

“Get some water,” my mother called from her bed.

But by the time my father came with a bucket of water the room was full of dark smoke and flames. The firefighters, who were not from the area, arrived but they could not find a fire hydrant. My father screamed and wanted to enter the home but was restrained.

After the fire was over, the firefighters who inspected the home came out and said that the fire had consumed the entire home but strangely the bed in which my mother was in was fully intact and her body was not burned by the flames. She had died in less than 60 seconds from smoke inhalation.

The fire inspector said that the regular fire station, just a few blocks away, was closed for the day due to physical exams. He offered an explanation for the confusion and the haphazard actions of the firefighters who answered the call.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

There is a story that when God assigned jobs to his angels, he told the Angel of Death to do his work. But the angel protested saying, “I don’t want to be blamed for taking a life. I’ll be hated and cursed.”

“No,” God Almighty answered. “People will never blame you. They will blame the firemen, doctors, police and the public servants. They will even hire a lawyer to prove it.”

I know that when the time comes, nothing or nobody can extend life or take life. There is a time for everyone.

During the night the daughters and sons began to arrive from Michigan, Connecticut, France, England, Israel, San Francisco and Southern California. Grandchildren arrived from Chicago, Philadelphia and Florida. So many beautiful souls all grieving for a great matriarch.

My mother considered herself a quiet lady, putting her husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren before her. She told my dad, the president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, a rabbinical council for 600 rabbis, to do his work. My mom encouraged him to travel — to Israel, Washington, D.C., Bangkok, Thailand, Germany, England, Switzerland, Italy. You name a country and my dear father had been there, performing a spiritual service, all with the help and encouragement of our dear mother.

As the day went by, hundreds of rabbis, teachers, judges, newspaper editors, businessmen, police chiefs and the mayor of New York came by to express their sorrow. Children also came by and joined in the services being held in honor of my mother. The head rabbinical court rabbis came to pray while the former chief rabbi of Israel personally called — crying and trying to give comfort.

There is a saying, “There are those that can speak about the dead and really have nothing to say, while those that cannot speak have much to say.” Sadly enough, the family experienced both groups.

How do I make sense of this tragedy?

I, for one, found comfort in a short but powerful e-mail I received from an unknown mother. It read: “After finding out about your mother I will try to be the best Yiddishe mother possible. I will be better than ever.”

How comforting were these few words that gave meaning to the death of a Yiddishe mother, transferring her heroic sacrifices to the next generation of mothers.

This article was written on a lonely plane ride home from New York to California.

Rabbi Eli Hecht is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita.

Q & A With Jewtopia Creators Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson

“Are you interested in a 29-year-old Jewish girl?”

I’m standing in the foyer of the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood talking to Bryan Fogel, the co-writer/co-producer/co-star of “Jewtopia” — a play that parodies dating, JDating, interdating, rabbis, Passover seders, Purim, Chanukah bushes, bar mitzvahs, shofar blowing, other types of blowing, goyim, Asian fixations, synagogue memberships and, most of all, Jewish women and their overbearing mothers — when this overbearing Jewish mother shamelessly accosts Fogel outside his dressing room to peddle her daughter to him.

“I tried to bring her today, but she couldn’t come,” the gray-haired woman continues, describing her daughter, eventually extracting Fogel’s information from him (“It’s on the Playbill,” Fogel says).

The whole exchange was all the more surreal because we had just spent the past two hours watching a play in which she could have been one of the characters.

That seems to be the thing about “Jewtopia:” it skewers Jewish stereotypes, and still leaves most of the subjects of the satire laughing (like the aforementioned unfazed pushy mother).

The two-hour play tells the story of Adam Lipschitz (Sam Wolfson), a Jewish guy facing extraordinary parental pressure (normal for Jewish parents) to marry a Jewish woman, who meets up with an old friend, Chris O’Connell (Fogel), a Christian obsessed with meeting a Jewish woman. They strike a Faustian bargain: Sam will help Chris pass as Jewish if Chris helps Sam find a Jewish woman to marry.

When The Journal first saw “Jewtopia” on opening night last May, it was originally set for a six-week run. Nine sold-out months later and 40 minutes shorter, the play is about to hit its 150th performance. Fogel and Wolfson, together with Clear Channel Communications, are taking “Jewtopia” to Chicago in April and, if all goes well, they plan to open in Boston, Miami and New York within the next year.

The Jewish Journal: What do you think of this “Jewtopia” phenomenon?

Bryan Fogel: When we wrote “Jewtopia” we were hoping it was funny, that people would have our sense of humor and our sensibility — but statistically, [knowing] L.A., we were holding our breath — and we were prepared to be $80,000 in debt.

Before the opening weekend we did a marketing thing with JDate and The Jewish Federation and other singles groups, and from that point on it just took off. Once the [Los Angeles] Times review came out [last May] we sold 1,500 tickets. From that Friday on, we were sold out two months ahead of time. It was just totally bizarre.

JJ: How do you account for the popularity of the show?

Sam Wolfson: Who knows why people laugh at what? [At] our show last night one-third of the people were between 20-30, one-third were between 30-60 and one-third were between 60-80 years old. [Comedian] Jan Murray brought like 12 people with him. They laughed as much as the 20-years-olds.

There’s been this wild age crossover.

BF: There’s our generation, and my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, who stayed where they were born. There was never any issue that they weren’t going to marry a Jew; our generation is the first generation — and I think it’s similar for Christianity, too. I love being Jewish, but I think that our generation is the first generation that crossed that line between being a cultural versus a practicing Jew. I think that our generation has started to question all that.

SW: A perfect example of why people are going nuts for it: This woman, she must’ve been 70 or something, and she said, “My son married a Mongolian [a character in the play meets a Mongolian woman]. I can’t believe it! How did you come up with Mongolia? This is my life!”

BF: We had the founder of JDate, Alon Carmel [and he said], “This is my Mongolian wife — she’s Japanese, and this is my half-breed child.” My character Chris [is based on my sister’s husband] — he had the same military/hunting/fishing background; he converted, and he’s more Jewish than she’s ever been.

I think that what’s working — everything we’re doing is in really, really good fun. The whole show comes from a love of Judaism. I love being Jewish. We’ve taken some stereotypes and turned them on their head in a way that everyone can identify. What we’re doing is not spiteful, it’s not coming from any other place but this zany, irreverence for our culture. When the Buddist says at the seder, “We can stop suffering and reach enlightenment, and the grandfather asks, “Stop suffering?” it’s about a love for our culture, and I think that the audiences love it. We’re pleasing most of the people. There’s always one person who says this is offensive. But I think that people can say that we’re not making fun.

JJ: People either love it or hate it. What offends people? And does this bother you?

BF: In my opinion, 97 percent love it. That 2 or 3 percent who hate it, I think that’s a small percentage. It seems to be the older people, or observant, who think we take it too far, that it reinforces Jewish stereotypes.

SW: These jokes have been going on for 100 years and suddenly we’re responsible for perpetuating it?

BF: Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, this self-deprecating humor is Jewish humor, so when I hear that they are offended, I think they would be offended by Jackie Mason, too.

SW: I do feel like if a lot of these jokes were done by those guys — if it was in “The Producers” they [audiences] wouldn’t think twice. It’s OK if it’s an established comedian, but not from two punks who haven’t done it before. Nobody likes everything. But the fact that people who don’t like it really don’t like it — I think that it means we’re doing something right.

JJ: Speaking of offensive, I thought the play was a bit misogynistic. (Are Jewish women really that bad?)

BF: I don’t think the play is misogynistic at all. There’s no gray area in the play — we just decided to make everything zany and over-the-top. Obviously in real life you don’t get peed on [as Sam does on one of his 150 JDates] but I don’t think that the stereotypes are directed at Jewish women…. Just overall craziness, rather than anything grounded in reality.

SW: Stereotypes are so ridiculous. We made a conscious decision never to make the Fran Drescher-type, “Friends” Janice-type. In terms of presenting the Jewish girl … when I’m on the phone [making dates with 150 Jewish women] I’m happy about it! I’m excited! I break down because I’m broke and haven’t had sex for six months…. We never wanted it to be “Jewish women are bad and evil.”

BF: It’s coming from the two guys that wrote it, and the single dating world. My mother is my best friend. There was nothing in our writing spiteful. Sam’s last three girlfriends have been Jewish.

JJ: Go Sam! Perhaps misogynistic is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s just uneven — skewering Jewish women and not Jewish men.

BF: We did write about Jewish men. He has the pressure of marrying a Jewish woman. These two guys have a lot of flaws. You couldn’t look at these guys and think they’re the ideal guy.

SW: No Jewish women were harmed when writing this play.

JJ: What is the message of this play? Is Adam’s statement at the end, that “we’re all people and we should all get along,” a statement in favor of intermarriage?

BF: It’s a reality, that last monologue, that for better or for worse, it’s more grounded in the real world. In the ideal world, I’d find a Jewish girl and you’d find a Jewish guy, but the importance has diminished because there hasn’t been the threat of persecution — that we have to stay together or we’ll die. If I could just find a Jewish girl that I was into, wouldn’t my life be easier. Well, that’s not as exciting.

SW: I’m sure it’s the same for everyone and every religion. It’s a part of the culture, I guess.

JJ: Has this gotten you more dates?

SW: Well, it hasn’t been bad. We have both met girls through the show.

JJ: Bryan, would you go out with that girl whose mother was peddling her the day I saw the show?

BF: I would certainly entertain the idea.

“Jewtopia” plays at 8 p.m. (Thursdays-Saturdays) and 3
p.m. (Sundays) at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.
Tickets are $27.50 and can be obtained by calling (800) 595-4849 or visiting .

Look at Our Living Room!

They need to talk more! They are being too quiet!"

That was the frantic, whispered assessment of Beverly Pomeranz, casting director for the new A&E series, "Makeover Mamas," as she watched the reaction of Ross and Jennifer Misher upon seeing their newly redecorated living room for the first time.

In "Makeover Mamas," two mothers-in-law conspire to redecorate a room in their childrens’ house. A designer helps them, but all decisions are made by the mothers. The children aren’t allowed to see the room until it is finished.

The Mishers — and their mothers, Cookie Schwartz of Florida and Simone Kleinert of Beverly Hills — are the stars of the first "Makeover Mamas" episode.

The Mishers and their mothers-in-law were selected through the help of The Jewish Journal. Back in April, The Journal assisted Pomeranz in recruiting candidates for the show by running an item in Keren’s Corner. The Mishers responded to the notice, and A&E redecorated their living room at a cost of $1,500. (Jennifer Kleinert Misher happens to be the sister of Michelle Kleinert, The Journal’s marketing and communications director.)

Redecorating the room meant three days of merry mayhem in the Westwood home, as crew members manipulated the various cameras, lights and other equipment to show off the house at its best. The living room was touched up to make it look more like a kitchen.

Numerous scenes — such as the one in which the mothers say goodbye to the designer — were shot several times, until everyone understood that it wasn’t going to work if everyone talked at once.

By the time the Mishers saw the room, they were restless, having spent the day camped out at the house of Jennifer’s sister. They entered their home blindfolded, three hours after they were scheduled to do so.

Members of the crew, who weren’t actively involved in the filming, lined up against the kitchen cabinets, holding their breath and anxiously straining to get a glimpse of the couple’s reaction to the makeover.

When the blindfolds were removed, the Mishers stared at the room, and said it was….

Well if you want to find out what they said, you’ll just have to watch the show.

"Makeover Mamas" will air on A&E on Sunday, July 6, at 5:30 p.m.

Material Instincts

Every day before Dina Goldstein (not her real name) leaves
the house to take her two young children to day care and herself to work, she
grabs two bagels and two boxes of orange juice. After buckling the kids into
the car, she gives them the bagels and the juice, and they eat breakfast in the
car on the way to school.

“I just don’t have time to get them ready, myself ready and
feed everyone before I leave the house,” said Goldstein, who works as a
religious day school teacher.

Like Goldstein, many women find maintaining a family and a
job overwhelming. With over 75 percent of women in the United States between
the ages of 25 and 54 working outside the home (according the International
Labor Organization), it is very likely that at some point most women will have
to do both things concurrently. While women choose to work for a variety of
reasons, for many in the Jewish community, a woman’s employment is not a matter
of personal fulfillment but of financial necessity.

With high tuition fees, synagogue dues and mortgages in the
Jewish neighborhoods, maintaining a presence in the community is difficult to
do on one income alone — meaning that the husband is no longer the sole
breadwinner in the family.

But many women find that their careers give them not one job
but two — their paid employment and their nonpaid work inside the house, which
seldom diminishes with the onset of employment. Few will say that the feminist
ideal of “having it all” is viable unless certain sacrifices are made. Finding
ways to produce calm out of the chaos requires innovation, skill, organization
and lots and lots of help.

“The ‘superwoman’ is a myth,” said Tova Hinda Siegal, a
Pico-Robertson midwife who is on-call seven days a week while raising her six
children. “It’s tremendously tricky to try to do everything.”

One of the ways that some women try to balance both job and
family is by finding careers that allow them to work from home, which gives
them close access to their family while still enabling them to bring in some
extra money. While there is not necessarily the same kind of career advancement
available to those who do not work in an office, many say that the sacrifice is
worth it.

“It’s a hugely satisfying feeling to know that I can be
there for my kids when they need me, because I know how stressful it is for a
mother in an office when her kids have an odd day off,” said Judy Gruen, a
mother of four, Journal contributor and  Pico-Robertson writer on domesticity.

Other women make sure that their husbands are picking up the
slack, and that paid help in the house is not a luxury, but a necessity. “I
think it’s more important to have part-time help in your house than to buy new
clothes,” Siegal said. “People who are working should not be fighting with each
other over who does the laundry.”

Siegal also said that it’s up to a woman to train her
husband to do his share of the work.

“I think you have to tell your husband, ‘No, it’s not a good
idea to sit while I’m in the kitchen cleaning up,'”she said.

“In our house we made a rule that whoever cooks does not
have to clean up,” she continued. “That is an equitable division of labor. I
also think it’s fine that a mother gets up in the middle of the night to nurse
her babies, but in the morning, the father should get up and take the baby out
for a few hours and let her sleep. The husband should not feel that when he
does something he is doing his wife a favor. Both need to feel that they are
contributing to the family’s welfare.”

Even with a spouse’s help, keeping your household together
requires careful organization for it to run efficiently. Esther Simon, a Santa
Monica mother of seven and a professional home organizer, said that there are a
number of things one can do to help this process.

“You need to create a clutter-free home, where everything
has a place,” she said. “You should also have a family calendar day planner
where you write down what you want to do each day and what things need to be
done during the week, and then you work out what things can only be done by you
and what things can be done by someone else. Only you can give love to your
child; someone else can wash the floor.”

Simon also suggests laying out all your children’s clothes,
preparing breakfast and putting backpacks by the door the night before to
minimize the rush in the morning.

There is one upside to trying to do everything. “Working and
taking care of a family definitely keeps you out of trouble,” Siegal said. “You
just don’t have the time for anything else.”  

7 Days in the Arts


Monique Schwartz has people talkin’ about our mommas. No need to organize a posse though. This is actually kind of Schwartz’s way of doing that herself — to analyze and combat stereotypical depictions of Jewish mothers in film. Her documentary “Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema” screens today as part of the Laemmle’s “Bagels and Docs: A Jewish Documentary Series.”

10 a.m. Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, including other screening dates and times, call (323) 848-3500 or visit

The wacky duo is at it again, only this time they’re being sponsored by Muslims. Thanks to the Iranian Muslim Association of North America (IMAN), the comedy duo of Rabbi Bob Alper and Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed continue their goal of “building bridges in troubled times through laughter,” tonight at IMAN Cultural Center.

7:30 p.m. $18 (in advance), $20 (at the door). IMAN Cultural Center, 3376 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 202-8181.


It’s been 10 years since “The Quarrel” hit theaters, and this morning, the Sunset 5 hosts a special screening of the film about two old friends reunited after the Holocaust and the differences and disagreements that still separate them. Following the screening, the film’s writer-producer David Brandes moderates a discussion on “Good and Evil in Islam and Judaism” between Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and Dr. Khaled M. Abou Fadl. Proceeds benefit The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.

10 a.m. $12 (general), $118 (sponsors). Laemmle’s Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 556-5639.

Panic grips your heart as you realize you only have only 27 days left till Chanukah. We know, that lunar calendar’ll get ya every time. But fret not, dear readers. For today is the Contemporary Crafts Market. Jewish trinkets and tchochkes are yours for the buying at this gift extravaganza. So quit the kvetching and head on down.

Nov. 1-3, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. $6 (adults), free (children 12 and under). Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 285-3655.


We know there’s a pole-vaulting joke in here somewhere, but we’re pretty sure the folks involved in the two one-act plays that make up “Folk and Race” have got that covered. So instead, here are the basics: Act One is the dramatic interpretation. It’s a play about a Jewish pole vaulter who hides his religion to gain a spot on the 1936 American Olympic team after his better is kicked off for being Jewish. And Act Two is a parody of Act One, a la Mel Brooks. Take the leap and check it out.

8 p.m. Nov. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 and 19. $12. The Theatre District at the Cast, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 651-5862.


Bursting with fruit flavor is Jewish artist Rebecca Newman’s latest exhibition “Between the Branches.” The 17 new drawings continue her study of Southern California tropical tree species, everything from bananas to bougainvillea. They’re on display now at TAG, The Artists’ Gallery.

11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Friday), through Nov. 9. TAG, The Artists’ Gallery, 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 829-9556.


Things we can learn from (818), a non-profit “dedicated to furthering the education, production and distribution of filmmaking in the San Fernando Valley”: 1. “Valley film” is not a euphemism for porn. 2. The Valley has already made important contributions to the world of film. 3. It’s a worthwhile trip over the hill this week for the Valley Film Festival, screening 16 films, including four from Valley residents and one from Israel, called “Raging Dove.”

Nov. 1-7. El Portal Theatre, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For information call, (818) 754-8222 or visit


The UJ’s series “In Their Own Words: Conversations With Writers” continues tonight when Journal arts and entertainment editor Naomi Pfefferman interviews author Dara Horn. Horn will discuss her first novel “In the Image,” a story that examines the nature of good and evil, and the presence of God.

7 p.m. $15. University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 440-1546.


So you think the ballet “The Nutcracker” just conjures up Christmasy images of Sugar Plum Fairies. Not if Akiva Talmi, the kibbutz-bred producer of the esteemed Moscow Ballet, has his way. He pushed his ballet to informally dedicate its 2002 season to” celebrating the contributions of Jewish cultural heroes of the former Soviet Union,” who had to downplay their heritage to succeed back in the U.S.S.R.

Nov. 7-9, 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee. Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd.,Long Beach. (213) 480-3232.

Better With Age

"You’re the oldest of all my friends’ moms," my son, Danny, 11, tells me.

Like I don’t know this. Or have a card for senior discounts or billions of cells that have lost their elasticity to prove it.

A year and a half ago, I was a trendsetter. The Wall Street Journal reported that many women — women who already had children or even adolescents — were short-circuiting a potential midlife crisis by giving birth to another child. "Nationwide," the paper stated, "the number of women between the ages of 40 and 44 giving birth again is up 23 percent since 1995."

But now, according to Time, I’m an aberration. The article states that the ticking of the biological clock, like the ticking of the crocodile in "Peter Pan," portends trouble, as fertility begins to decline at age 27 (along with brain cells, which expire at the rate of 50,000 per day).

The magazine reports, with statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, that by age 42, 90 percent of a woman’s eggs are chromosomally abnormal. As a result, one in five women age 40 to 44 is currently childless, and only a small percentage by design.

Some of us older moms had no choice. I, for instance, didn’t meet my husband until I was 34. And though we moved quickly and dutifully in fulfilling the biblical injunction (Genesis 1:28) to "be fruitful and multiply," I was pushing 43 when my fourth son was born.

In retrospect, those early years were the easy ones.

For here I am at age 54, where biologically and psychologically I should be at that peaceful stage of life with near-grown children.

Instead, I am working "24-7-365," as my son, Jeremy, says, as drill sergeant, chauffeur, caretaker, social secretary and nonstop negotiator for boys now 11, 13, 15 and 18. And knowing that, when my youngest graduates college, I’ll be eligible for Social Security and a room at the Jewish Home for the Aging.

"You’re a lot younger than Sarah," my husband, Larry, says, referring to the first Jewish mother and matriarch. "She had Isaac at age 90."

"Yes, and what was her reaction?" I answer. "She laughed — because she knew, even 3,716 years ago, that giving birth as an older woman is antithetical to nature, gravity and sanity."

But just because science (or divine intervention or luck) can stretch the limits of a woman’s childbearing years, that doesn’t mean it’s right or desirable.

"Would you rather be young and stupid or old and exhausted?" a friend of mine asks.

"That’s like asking if I’d rather have 12 weeks of round-the-clock morning sickness or 24 hours of excruciating back labor," I respond.

And like the subjective and morally ambivalent values clarification answers, there’s no right response to this childbirth conundrum.

Yes, the Bible, in Ecclesiastes 11:6, exhorts us to "Sow your seed in the morning and don’t hold back your hand in the evening." Talmudic rabbis have interpreted this to mean that we should bear children when we’re young and produce more when we’re older.

Yes, easy for him, the undoubtedly male author of Ecclesiastes, to say. A man who, I’m sure, never had to drive a car pool or repeatedly tell his children not to slurp their sodas, pummel their brothers, throw balls in the house or pierce their ears.

But life is full of conflicts and compromises, risks and restrictions. And not all women have control over when — and if — they can give birth.

As the Rolling Stones sing, "You can’t always get what you want."

Though that doesn’t stop our children from trying.

"Mom, can you drive me to Century City on Sunday?" asks my son, Gabe, 15.

"Gabe, my life is devoted to your well-being," I answer.

"As it should be," he says, only half-facetiously.

But, in truth, whether a trendsetter or an aberration, as an old and exhausted mom, I take pride in knowing that I can still muster up the enthusiasm to drive to Century City and back, to help build a medieval castle out of Styrofoam, to spend the day on the soccer field and to plan a third bar mitzvah.

I take pride in knowing that I, along with my husband, have raised four solid citizens and four committed Jews.

And I take pride in being the oldest mom in Danny’s fifth-grade class.

Because, as the Rolling Stones continue, "If you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need."

Hollywood Mitzvahs

When one person helps another person, it’s a mitzvah. When 1,500 people from 30 different organizations join together to help out in over 50 volunteering projects, it’s Temple Israel of Hollywood’s (TIOH) Mitzvah Day.

The April 29 event attracted volunteers of all ages from both religious and secular organizations. Other Reform synagogues included Congregation Kol Ami and Beth Shir Shalom, and Conservative Knesseth Israel of Hollywood and Orthodox Congregation Shaarei Tefila joined in. St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, Hollywood United Methodist, St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal, Hope Lutheran, Fifth Christian Science, New Life Four-Square Gospel, Oriental Mission Church and the Orange Grove Friends Meeting were among the diversity of churches that sent volunteers to join in the mitzvah-making. Secular groups helping out ranged from the Daughters of the American Revolution to the Mothers of East L.A.

Together, members of all these groups collected food, books and furniture for distribution and delivered flowers to nursing homes. They joined with the Achilles Club, a group of disabled runners who need assistance to keep running and collected clothes for A Place Called Home.

Event chair David Levinson remembered the temple’s first Mitzvah Day two years ago, a solely TIOH affair. "That was all great, but I thought, let’s do this alongside the rest of the city, let’s make this a community-building day as well."

Also changed from previous years were a few of the groups that volunteered — groups that previously had received help. Both Covenant House, which provides shelter and outreach services for homeless youth, and Beyond Shelter, which assists families in breaking the cycles of poverty and homelessness, sent volunteers to Mitzvah Day projects after last year’s projects helped them. "It’s so much more dignified this way," noted Levinson. "It’s not just rich people helping poor people."

Buoyed by sponsors including Toyota and Strouds, and fed by Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and In ‘N Out Burger, the volunteers worked throughout the day. Many will return often to help before next year’s Mitzvah Day, and that, says Levinson, is the point. "We’d like to see this be a catalyst for activities throughout the year," he said.

Chinese Box

So there’s a fairy-tale wedding: a thousand guests in a flower-filled ballroom, a dozen violins playing Mozart, a grainy-voiced singer belting out an old Persian love song. The bride is 20 years old and ravishing, of course, but she’s also blessed with charm and charisma, the kind of exuberance that turns heads and drags stares behind her. She’s been breaking hearts since she was 14 years old and walked into a cousin’s wedding in a frilly white dress and a wide lace headband. Now she dances on stage, next to the singer with the forlorn music, and the crystal beads on her wedding gown glow like fireflies in the dark.

The groom has class and pedigree. He’s smart and kind and, yes, so in love with the girl on stage he can’t stop smiling at his own good fortune for meeting her. For years he’s been the target of young girls’ desire and their mothers’ designs.

"Look at him," a woman says the night of his wedding. "Green eyes and more money than God."

So there’s a fairy-tale wedding, and the bride wakes up to a sky full of sunlight and laughter and the promise of everlasting joy. In the old country, where luck was believed to be contagious, she would have been the woman asked to grind sugar cones over the chuppah held above other brides’ heads, the one grandmothers touched hoping her luck would rub off on them, that mothers held up as an example of success and good fortune.

In the old country, luck was a light reflecting off some women’s foreheads: you were born with it, or you were doomed to what was called a "dark forehead."

But in America, luck is a many-faceted creature. It’s like those lacquered Chinese boxes that hide many other, smaller ones inside them.

Each day after her fairy-tale wedding to the green-eyed prince, the girl with the beaming forehead opens one box and reaches in to seek its treasure. She finds good friends and a devoted family, an ever-widening horizon, a daughter as smart and beautiful as her parents. She finds other children, other kinds of success. Then she finds a son.

He has the most striking pair of eyes anyone has ever seen, a face that is impossible to turn away from, severe disabilities that will mark him for life.

The girl with the beaming forehead stares into the little box in her hand and wonders at the forces in the universe that have brought her this gift. Her little boy is smart enough to know and understand everything that goes on around him, alert enough to engage the attention of anyone he chooses. But he can’t walk and can’t put his thoughts to words and he even has trouble, when he likes a red flower his mother has put in his hand, closing his fingers around the stem.

The girl with the beaming forehead could close the box and store it away out of sight. Or she could run with it — to the safety of her home, where many a woman has been known to endure misfortune and loss. She takes a moment to catch her breath. Then she nestles the box in her hands and brings it out into the light: see what this day has brought to me, she tells the world. Watch what I can do with this kind of luck.

She puts her little son in a stroller and takes him to a school at UCLA where they’ll teach him to speak through a computer and communicate through painting. When the school runs out of money to keep teaching him, she gathers her friends, the other moms at the school, and raises money beyond anyone’s expectations. When he’s too old for this school and she can’t find another like it, she gathers her friends again and this time builds a school. Day after day she opens the little shiny boxes hidden in the darkness of larger ones and reaches in to find her fortune.

In the years since the little boy with the stunning eyes is born to his fairy-tale parents, many a tragedy and much good fortune will occur in the lives of everyone who knows them. Still the girl with the Chinese boxes manages to remain the great source of inspiration to them all. This is my life, she says without fear or shame or even the slightest indication that she may bend. These are my children.

I don’t know what this girl, and other mothers like her, would have done in the old country. I can’t imagine they would have acted differently, that they would have been more afraid, weaker, less capable than they are here. We are, if nothing else, a resilient people. We have lived with more "dark foreheads" than we should have, and we have come through it, if not unscathed, then certainly not defeated.

I don’t know what they might have done in another place, but every year when they pull their friends together and spearhead another effort on behalf of the little boys and girls who can’t hold flowers in their fists, every time they inspire hundreds of mothers with healthy children to drop their own daily concerns and lend a hand to long-established American institutions still in need of aid, every time I see the light they cast into the lives of friends and strangers who have crossed paths with them and their children, I think that it was luck — the other children’s, their mothers’, the institutions’ that have benefited from her strength — it was their luck that brought these mothers from the old country and into the new one.

Maybe each one of us is a little Chinese box nestled within the course of others’ destinies.

The Enrichment Foundation for Handicapped Children, a California nonprofit corporation, was founded by a group of concerned parents dedicated to improving the lives of handicapped children and their families. For more information, call (310) 470-1972.