#myLAcommute There’s a world of people who are different from me


KEVIN L.

I’ve been in L.A. for three years. Taking public transit taught me that there’s a whole world of people who are different from me. It opens your mind to cultures you don’t know. 

Grand Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard

#myLAcommute is a project of Zócalo Public Square.

Combating an Israeli-American identity crisis


A year after Irit Bar-Netzer arrived in Los Angeles from Israel, she had her first son. That was 37 years ago, and that’s when the dilemma began.

“I wondered back then: How am I going to raise my children? As Israelis? Americans? Who is going to help us raise our kids? We didn’t have Grandma and Grandpa around. What’s going to happen to their identity?” 

It was by no means a new dilemma, however — in some ways, not even to her. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Bar-Netzer remembered how she felt growing up in Israel as a child of immigrant parents who didn’t speak Hebrew very well. 

“The children used to laugh at us because we spoke Hungarian and not Hebrew,” she said. Still, she ended up speaking Hebrew to her first son in America because, she said, “It was easier and natural for us.”

Bar-Netzer, a psychologist who has worked with children for years, related this story during an Oct. 11 seminar at Temple Judea in Tarzana that was sponsored by Ma Koreh, a project of Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) that is spending the next year providing lectures to Israeli parents. Conducted in Hebrew, the intimate gathering — the first in a series — was attended by 16 parents of young children and featured Bar-Netzer and child psychologist Ernest Katz. 

BJE Associate Director Phil Liff-Grieff said, “We want Israeli-American families to connect better through the organized Jewish community. We want them to understand that it is a tool in their toolbox for raising their kids here.”

The program is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and is done in cooperation with the Israeli-American Council and Sifriyat Pijama B’America, which provides books written in Hebrew to young children. 

Although many of the parents at the recent event said they insist on speaking Hebrew to their children, they wondered if that’s enough to keep their kids “Israeli” and how important it is to send their kids to private schools in order to maintain their Jewish-Israeli identities. And while many agreed that not all aspects of Israeli characteristics are welcomed, they do want their kids to maintain some of the values and traditions they were raised on. (The famous Israeli chutzpah was not one of them, according to participants.) 

One father of a 4-year-old described the problem like this: “When my daughter asks me, ‘Am I an Israeli?’ I am confused. I don’t know what to answer her. I do want her to take the good things from both cultures: the Israeli and the American — because there are good things and bad things in each culture — but how do I do that?”

His wife, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 8, said she experienced the issue herself as a child. 

“Throughout my childhood, my parents spoke to me in English and I know they meant well, but today I know it was wrong. I never knew what I was. Israeli? American? Americans always thought that I’m an Israeli and Israelis thought I’m an American, so I was confused about my identity, and I don’t want my kids to go through that as well.”

Not that simply speaking a certain language solves the problem.

One mother of three said she insists on speaking with her children in Hebrew, even though they often answer in English. “I struggle with it every day,” she said. “Each time I speak to my son in Hebrew, he says, ‘I was born here. I’m an American. It won’t help you.’ It’s a constant conflict. How do you deal with that?”

Bar-Netzer said she believes part of the parents’ challenge is not only their children’s identities, but also their own.

“The conflict is huge, and you need to think what is right for your child,” she said. “You have decided to come here and raise him here; now you have to decide what’s important for you and what will be best for him. The fact that you had come here ready to listen and discuss it means that the subject is important to you and your children will benefit from that. When I came here, 38 years ago, there was no such discussion on how to raise Israeli children.”

While Bar-Netzer and Katz didn’t offer answers to the many issues the parents raised during the 1 1/2-hour meeting, they suggested that parents make a list of what is important for them and what’s important for their kids. 

“Learn to listen to your children and see what they need. You should send your children a clear message. That is the most important thing. You don’t want to confuse them by questioning their own identity,” Bar-Netzer said. “As long as it’s good and right to you as parents, it will be good for your children as well.”


UPDATE [10/19/15]: This article has been changed from its original form to protect the names of parents at the event.

LAUSD Mandarin immersion program expansion sparks backlash


“It’s really been an L.A. story,” said Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board member Steve Zimmer, who is in the middle of a classic Los Angeles conflict that reflects the city’s many cultures and tensions. 

The dispute is taking place in West Los Angeles, in an area encompassing parts of Venice and Mar Vista. The people who ran a popular Mandarin immersion program at Venice’s Broadway Elementary School wanted to expand to both Mandarin and Spanish immersion and move to a new building, proposed to be built on the Mark Twain Middle School campus in Mar Vista, a few miles west. The new building would cost $30 million.

Broadway is near the Oakwood section of Venice, a working-class Latino and African-American area that has been known for gangs but is now rapidly gentrifying. Mark Twain is located in an area that is both working-class Latino and multiethnic middle class. The Mandarin immersion families come from all over the city, drawn by the quality of the magnet program. Many parents, some affluent, drive their children to school. Families living around Mark Twain, fearing traffic, objected to moving the immersion program.

It got so ugly that Superintendent Ramon Cortines canceled plans for the new building on the middle-school campus. Now the immersion program’s parents are furious.

The importance of the conflict extends beyond Venice and Mar Vista and is extremely relevant to the Jewish community, which places a high value on quality education.

Supporting the Mandarin immersion program is part of Zimmer’s effort to make the LAUSD attractive to middle-class families, including Jewish parents who may be nervous about sending their kids to schools where minority students are in the majority. Zimmer, who is Jewish, told me the public schools “have deep, authentic and strong roots in Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”

The Mandarin immersion program was the idea of Broadway Elementary School’s principal, Susan Wang, along with several parents, including some with roots in Taiwan. Wang, a native Mandarin speaker, came to the United States from Taiwan as a teenager. She graduated from UCLA and has been with the LAUSD for 20 years, 13 of them teaching severely autistic children.

In 2010, the Mandarin program opened at Broadway with two classes of 24 students each.

The program was so popular that it was expanded to four classes a year later. Students spend a half-day in English-speaking classes and the other half in classes where only Mandarin is spoken. The goal of immersion supporters was to create a track for students to travel from elementary to middle and finally to Venice High School, which has a foreign-language magnet program offering instruction in Italian, French, German, Japanese and Spanish, as well as Mandarin.

Zimmer said such creative teaching would attract a wide range of students to Los Angeles public schools. “If we make it about instruction, some of the other tensions recede, because families are saying, ‘This is the best instructional model for my kid,’ ” Zimmer said.

That’s been the case with my family. My daughter, Jennifer Doliner, and her husband, John Doliner, enrolled their oldest daughter, Anabelle, in the predominantly minority Emerson Middle School, where she received a rigorous academic education. When I picked her up after school, I enjoyed watching the Latino, African-American, Caucasian, Asian-American and, I bet, other ethnicities, head for home. It was the multicultural L.A. that so many people talk about but seldom see. Anabelle attends the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, a magnet with an intense academic program that prepares students from all over Los Angeles for a university education. 

Her sister, Lila, attends another LAUSD school, Ocean Charter. Charters are public schools, but operate independently from many district rules — and are exempt from teacher’s union contracts.

After a determined search for academic programs they felt were right for their kids, Jennifer and John have managed to keep them in public schools.

When enrollment opened at Broadway, parents waited all night to get their kids enrolled in Mandarin immersion. “We knew Mandarin would outgrow Broadway,” said Zimmer, who began looking around for another site. He settled on the campus of Mark Twain, a middle school with a declining enrollment.

The West Mar Vista Residents Association objected. Zimmer, the group said, sprung the project on the neighborhood without consulting its residents. The school’s enrollment would add more than 560 students from all over the city to the Mark Twain campus, making it a “commuter school,” with hundreds of parents dropping off and picking up their kids every day, the association said. “The school is proposed to be built in an already traffic gridlocked part of the city on about half of the Mark Twain Middle School play field,” a statement from the association says. Association leader Saeed Ali did a study, which found there is plenty of space in underutilized Westside schools for the immersion program without it being shifted to Mark Twain.

Immersion parents are “beyond upset” over Cortines’ decision to cancel construction of the immersion school building on the Mark Twain campus, parent Jennifer Pullen told me in an email. “LAUSD is losing families … at an alarming rate, yet a program that is academically challenging, innovative and growing with parents camping out all night to get a spot in one of the four kindergarten classes (and quite a few end up on the wait list) is being drastically reduced in size.” She noted that Cortines is reducing the number of kindergarten classes — in which students start the immersion process — from four to two.

Cortines happened to drop into Zimmer’s office while I was interviewing the school board member. He told me he had instructed aides to look at other sites for expansion. “There shouldn’t be one place for Mandarin, or one place for French or one place for Spanish; there should be multiple places,” he said.

There’s no end in sight for this particular L.A. story. I know this from covering many such stories in the neighborhoods and in the schools.

I don’t like traffic, either. I’m trapped in the nightmare of parental pickups when I fetch my granddaughter Lila at Ocean Charter. I arrive early to find a parking place, and nervously try to avoid colliding with stressed and rushed moms and dads when I pull out. But I also know the value of imaginative programs such as Mandarin immersion, Spanish immersion and others.

If Cortines and the school board want to help the public schools, they should encourage and expand such innovation instead of cutting back.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Designer embraces the bright, bold


“I like meaning,” Karen Frid-Madden declared as she walked through the downstairs of her one-of-a-kind Santa Monica home, which she designed in collaboration with family members. It’s a space that reflects lives deeply and thoughtfully experienced, and it’s a far cry from the detached minimalism that’s often splashed across the glossy pages of contemporary design magazines. 

It’s also a space that perfectly represents this designer, who has come to include so many different cultures in her work through Bikasa Designs — a business she created after starting her own line of shirts featuring pre-Columbian symbols. 

A collection of hamsas are mixed in with select items of children’s art inside a pale aqua niche by the front door. Opposite the home’s main entrance, a bronze-painted, Moorish-inspired pointed arch frames the de facto living room, which Frid-Madden, 46, more specifically calls “the music room,” in reference to an upright piano and jumble of instruments gathered on the floor atop assorted vintage kilim rugs. Ornately carved, stark-white wooden dining chairs upholstered in hot pink and turquoise fabrics surround a long dining table that’s ideal for large, festive gatherings.

Art on the multicolored and wallpapered walls includes pieces by her friends, such as renowned artist Patssi Valdez, who was a founding member of the groundbreaking Asco Chicano collective from East L.A. that made waves in the 1970s art world; and Larry Hirshowitz, whose black-and-white photographs of brooding Australian rock icon Nick Cave and Buena Vista Social Club singer Omara Portuondo are on display. The home’s open plan highlights the show-stopping kitchen in which Frid-Madden chose magenta countertops, lime green cabinets and tangerine-colored accent walls. 

“Architecture reflects who we are as a people and as a society,” said Frid-Madden, a native of Mexico City with a cascading thicket of long, curly, sandy-blond hair and hazel-green eyes. It’s a philosophy she’s learned through many channels during her eclectic career and rich family history. 

Frid-Madden is the daughter of Israel Frid, an architect in Mexico City; her brother, Alejandro Frid, is an architect in Tel Aviv. (The name “Frid” is the Spanish spelling of the surname more commonly known to Americans and Europeans as “Fried” or “Freed.”) Her grandparents were young children when they emigrated from Eastern Europe between the two world wars, during a period of what turned out to be major economic expansion in Mexico.

She grew up in a Spanish-Yiddish multilingual environment, with enough Hebrew to be admitted to Hebrew University. But her linguistic learning curve was steep when she arrived in Jerusalem as a college student. That said, she thrived learning Hebrew, as well as English and other languages. 

Living in Israel “was my experience translated to all these different cultures. What it is like to be an Italian Jew? To be a Honduran Jew?” She completed a degree in history and philosophy while traveling extensively, including spending time with Bedouin communities. This was essentially a continuation of her family life in Mexico, because her father, she said, “gave us the love of other cultures, and we traveled a lot.”

She returned to Mexico in 1994 to work with a government agency that protected indigenous people’s sacred sites. Encouraged by UCLA professor James W. Wilkie, whom she met in Mexico, she relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a doctorate in Latin American studies. She didn’t plan to stay in Los Angeles, but changed her mind when she met the man who would become her husband.

Frid-Madden didn’t complete the doctorate, but instead explored other avenues, such as joining the cultural affairs staff of the Consul General of Israel in L.A. and working at the Iturralde Gallery, which was an important dealer of Latin American art. She even dipped her toe into the fashion world, starting a line of shirts with bold color motifs and pre-Columbian symbols to tie into her ongoing cultural research into Latin American cultures. 

Broadly speaking, however, these professional experiences were all part of a wider search to “blend my artistic side with my academic side,”  she said. 

When her father encouraged his daughter and son-in-law in 2010 to replace their compact one-story Sunset Park-area bungalow with a larger home to better accommodate the couple and their two daughters, now 9 and 10 years old, and have room for guests, she agreed. It helped to have architects in the family; over the course of one weekend in Tel Aviv, Frid-Madden’s father and brother together designed what would become the framework of the new Santa Monica residence. 

Envisioning and logistically orchestrating the home’s interior design and exterior color scheme brought Frid-Madden to what felt like her calling. She thought about light and color, and, wanting to reflect her family’s heritages, shaped a home that recalls the brightly hued modernism of famed Mexican architects
Ricardo Legorreta and Luis Barragán, along with nuances of Jewish Diaspora and Israeli life.

Disappointed with the color choices in the U.S., Frid-Madden traveled to Tijuana to buy exterior paints that best matched the chromatic splash of Frida Kahlo’s famed La Casa Azul in Mexico City. After she finally found the traditional “Colonial blue” she was looking for, Frid-Madden then spent hours at the
Tijuana paint shop blending the right pink and marigold shades to bring back to California. 

Frid-Madden takes in the view from her Santa Monica home. 

Family members agree that Frid-Madden’s career path makes perfect sense for her: a woman who intensely engages with other cultures and individuals, whose skill set, sensibilities and curious eye dovetail perfectly in the field of interior design. “It’s a little bit of everything,” she observed. “You get to know people. You have to build for the client, because they’re going to live there. It’s a long process.”

Under the firm name Bikasa Designs (bikasadesigns.com), which she formed the same year she began planning the new house, Frid-Madden has created interiors for clients mostly on the Westside, as well as at properties in Echo Park and Highland Park. She also transformed her family’s weekend home in Pioneertown, an artistic desert enclave located near Joshua Tree. She makes a line of pillows and cushions using textiles from indigenous makers around the world, too. 

“You should live your life with integrity,” Frid-Madden said. From her standpoint, this means taking risks rather than prioritizing what someone else might like down the road to optimize resale value. 

“Be brave, and go for it. It’s scary.” She paused for a beat. “Well, for other people,” the designer said, as she stepped out onto her dazzlingly blue roof deck. 

Israel is: A departing reflection


Israel is…

Where I visit once a year even though I have no family there. Where I found myself. Where I went from being Jew(ish) to a proud Jew. Where those around me share a similar family past of pogroms, emigrations, anti-Semitism, and perseverance.

Where I ate my first Bamba and learned the word “sababa”. Where I am treated as a younger sister by all, for better or for worse. Where I am welcomed into a new home every Shabbat. Where a former ambassador modestly asked me personally for PR advice. 

Where my Ethiopian friend’s family came first to seek refuge and now thrive as true Israelis. Where the red alert was called “shachar adom” (red dawn) until a seven-year-old child named Shahar came home crying to her mother because she heard her own name being used as a warning of an impending terrorist attack. Where we don’t think twice before revealing the intimate insides of our purses when entering malls. Where my friends spent an entire day trying to send food to hungry soldiers on the front lines. Where hopeful politicians meet to advance the peace process. Where if an alien landed on earth and read a newspaper, they could easily assume that this country is larger than the African continent. Where it takes fewer than six hours to drive from the very top of the country to the very bottom. 

Where I ran to the bomb shelter every time I heard sirens wail. Where children sing when the air raid siren goes off so they do not hear the boom of the explosion. Where the sound of ambulance sirens was changed so people could differentiate between the two emergencies. Where I heard fireworks and worried they were rockets falling. Where even in a state of war, life goes on because it has to.

Where over 30,000 people gather at a funeral of a soldier they never met. Where over 350 Israelis in one day visited the family of a murdered Palestinian teen to pay their condolences. Where a country channeled frustration into positive actions as they visited injured soldiers in hospital beds. Where a song created by terrorist intended to demoralize Israelis became the ironic hit of the summer. Where my friends had to go to two of their friends’ funerals in one day.

Where eighteen year-olds serve in the army and go back to school only once they know the meaning of risking their lives for their country. Where ex-pats sacrifice their financial desires for their ideological needs. 

Where meals begin with many salads and end with hot tea with spearmint. Where the rarity of bacon in the home is not only a religious, but also a traditional norm. Where Hebrew unites the atheists and religious alike. Where wine overflows the cup at the Shabbat table. Where the slippery Jerusalem stone beneath my feet reminds me of those who have walked in the Old City before me.

Where teenagers stay out until sunrise because their parents have bigger things to worry about. Where the non-existence of lines reflects an attitude of togetherness more than an attitude of individual survival. Where an assertive woman will preach her political views to the whole train. Where the history of the family’s hummus recipe can begin a heated political discussion of cultural appropriation. Where you understand the feeling of words like mamash, stam, and davka, but cannot translate them into definitive English words.

Where the record stands for the highest number of solar-powered water heaters, scientists, and engineers per capita. Where gay individuals are not condemned, but celebrated. Where seven year olds are trusted to lead their five-year-old brothers and sisters on the busses. Where the whole bus looks after these children as if they were their parents. Where one walks alongside an Armenian priest as the Muslim call to prayer fills the streets of the Old City. Where the shopkeepers in the markets can bargain in ten languages each. Where baby steps are made to move from tolerance to acceptance, and finally to understanding. Where I refuse to give up on the two-state solution even if it is on life-support.

This article was written based on Natalie Portman’s “Israel Is” excerpt from Alan Dershowitz’s book, “What Israel Means to Me”.

Eliana Rudee is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. Follow her @ellierudee.

Paideia Conference Considers Jews in a Multicultural World


Recently, I attended a three-day conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. The brainchild of Barbara Spectre, an American-Israeli-Swedish philosopher who has led the program since its inception, Paideia brings together young Jews for a year of intensive study. Imagine in an American context a Wexner Jewish Heritage Program leadership retreat that is sustained for 10 intensive months. By now, Paideia has several hundred alumni working, living and creating throughout Europe. They were returning to learn, celebrate and renew.

Paideia’s origins are an act of penance by the Swedish government, which chose to apologize for the ignominy of its wartime predecessor’s involvement in Nazi gold by contributing to the Jewish future.

A word of history: Postwar Sweden’s national myth held that Sweden was neutral during the war, not taking sides. Actually, its neutrality, like that of

Spain and Switzerland, was determined by the Germans to serve their own needs. Germany had had the power to conquer each country but chose not to. Switzerland provided Germany with vital access to foreign currency; Spain was essential for information and Sweden for trade. Throughout the war, Sweden profited handsomely from its relationship to Nazi Germany; late in the war, it understood that it had to position itself for the postwar world and an all-but-certain German defeat, hence the mission of Raoul Wallenberg, who, operating under cover as a Swedish diplomat, worked for the American War Refugee Board to rescue Hungarian Jews.

In the late 1990s, Sweden was implicated in the trail of Nazi gold, and, recognizing the shame of its record, it chose a creative response: In a very public act, it gave a $10 million grant to advance Jewish studies in Sweden. Spectre, a charismatic and brilliant American-trained philosopher who had lived her adult life in Israel and came to Sweden only when her husband, Philip, was chosen in 1999 as Chief Rabbi of Sweden, was asked to direct the program. She established a training center for young adults, primarily from the lands of the former communist countries — some reclaiming their Jewish roots; some newly discovering their Jewish origins, however distant and faint, and exploring their options in depth; while others are non-Jews interested in Jewish culture and Jewish life.

Students spend a year in Stockholm, where they are taught the classical texts of Judaism, Jewish history and Jewish culture, living in intense dialogue with one another and with their very distinguished faculty from Israel and Europe. It is a rigorous academic program but not purely academic in its intent. It aims to enrich the mind and transform the soul. Learning is for learning’s sake, but also in service of a newly acquired or newly deepened Jewish identity. In recent years, with the participation of international organizations such as Lynn Schusterman’s ROI Community, Pears Foundation JHub of London, and Shawn Landres and Joshua Avedon and their Los Angeles-based think tank Jumpstart, the Paideia project incubator trains its own graduates and other emerging European innovators to la to launch and grow new projects in their home countries that can be instrumental in reinvigorating Jewish lives.

The effect of this program is to magnify the impact of Paideia’s impressive students. Unfailingly intelligent, they are also courteous and curious, willing to engage text and ideas, confident in their skills and their rootedness in their countries of origin, but willing to move creatively and imaginatively from those roots in many other directions.

American Jews who encounter this program and its students must rethink our all too conventional opinions about European Jewry. Time and again, we hear that Jews in Europe had such a glorious past and such a tragic end but are doomed to be without a future. Anti-Semitism, now at best only slightly masked as anti-Zionism, makes their situation ever more precarious.

Yet Paideia’s students are neither on a suicide mission, nor are they without the option of assimilation and successful participation in European life and culture. They have chosen to embrace their Jewish identity, not to enhance it and flee to a haven elsewhere in Israel or the United States, but to remain in diverse parts of Europe, where they will make much of it.

It is too early to determine the magnitude of the process that is taking place, but not too early to name it: Dis-assimilation — the deliberate decision to turn one’s back on the process of assimilation and to reclaim oneself, reimagine oneself as a Jew.

They are not primarily exploring religious options — few are attracted to Chabad, which offers them a prescriptive Jewish religious life that negates their own cultural identity and a Chabad rabbi who is where he is because he has assured the powers at 770 headquarters that he will remain unchanged by the world he encounters. Rather, their direction of return is cultural, historical and intellectual. They will find new ways of engaging the religious traditions of the Jewish people, and it will not be imposed from without, but created from within, indigenously and imaginatively, as serious Jews exploring all dimensions of Jewish life.

Each morning, the conference began with a beit midrash in which Paideia students and alumni examined classical texts, much as students might do in any traditional setting, yet the conversation was anything but Orthodox, and Jewish ideas had to compete in the marketplace of world literature and philosophy as well as in the experience of this 20-something generation. The day was marked with lectures and workshops by some leading European, Israeli and American intellectuals — Jews and non-Jews — and by probing responses by Paideia’s alumni and students.

The keynote address that launched the conference was presented by Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, a Hebrew University professor and chair of Paideia’s Academic Council — of which I, too, am a member — and whose spirit, together with Spectre’s, shapes the entire program. His topic was the theme of the conference: Jews in a Multicultural Europe.

The question he raised is perhaps the most urgent of our generation: How do we live with the other? This is a question quite critical to Europe but also central to Jewish life in Israel and the United States. He offered four options, each rooted in Western tradition, contrasting a tolerant society, an open society, a pluralistic society and a multicultural society.

John Locke offered us a vision of a tolerant society; confident of the truth he held, Locke insisted that others have the right to be mistaken. Locke offered a pragmatic argument against religious coercion. If the church’s – synagogue or mosque – aim is to save the other, to convince the other of the veracity of one’s own faith position, dialogue is essential to bring the other to one’s own point of view: conversion by persuasion.

Contrast that with John Stuart Mill, who wrote not of a tolerant society, but of an open society, where multiple points of view are acceptable because none of us has a monopoly on truth. In the clash, in the dialogue, in the engagement between multiple points of view, society advances closer to the truth.

Isaiah Berlin, the great British Jewish philosopher, spoke not of a tolerant society or an open society but of a pluralistic society, in which we encounter different forms of life, different forms of society, different standards and different norms. Because human life is by its nature finite, no single life can encompass all good. Berlin rejected the very notion of a unified scale of truth.

Still, pluralism is distinct from relativism; relativism holds no values, while pluralism embraces a multiplicity of values, each with a validity of its own.  How does one live with the other? Pluralists must be willing to tolerate those cultures that are willing to give the same space to others that they expect others to give to them.

In contrast to all of these, multicultural societies experience different cultures standing side by side. Affirming the value of the other, they support them and allow them to flourish.

The existence of the other impacts my own form of life. Halbertal said:  “I have to explain myself and understand myself in the light of the other.” The presence of the other enriches our own lives just by being the other.

Jewish philosopher that he is, Halbertal was most powerful and most original when he spoke of the theological dimension of multiculturalism.

Conventionally understood, monotheism insists on the oneness of God — one truth, one understanding: “You shall have no other gods beside Me.” This is, Halbertal argued, “a firm, jealous, ungenerous form of monotheism” if it is not balanced by another of the Ten Commandments.

“You shall not make a graven image …” God is not only unique. God is also transcendent. No body can fully capture the transcendent God in a single system. God cannot be concretized, and thus all believers must also have a sense of their own theological humility. We know only so much; much more remains unknown and unknowable.

The deepest function of worshiping one God, of worshipping the same God, Halbertal argued, “is to relativize the absolute claims. The opposite is the case with the religions of our time, which absolutize relative claims.” In the Middle East — and elsewhere — the very notion of the sacred transforms a political conflict into a religious one, and, when it does, claims become absolutized, and compromise impossible.

In a true multicultural society, there are different cultures standing side by side, affirming the value of the other. Unlike the tolerant society, because they affirm the value of the other, they are not just going to tolerate it as a practical, tactical step, but they will celebrate the other, for the other reinforces the sense of self and expands the possibility of what the self can become.

Clearly, Halbertal was offering young Jews an honored place in the newly emergent Europe, just as he was offering Jews in his own country another way of understanding how a Jewish state can aspire to embrace and to celebrate the diversity of its own citizens. He also offered us, American Jews who have moved beyond the melting pot, another way of understanding our culture in a globalized world.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

Concerts celebrate Ash Grove’s golden legacy


Ed Pearl, 70, silver-haired and feisty, will forever be associated with the Ash Grove, the folk club he opened 50 years ago with a $5,000 investment, despite the fact that the venue’s been closed for a quarter century.

“My life,” Pearl said, “has been a series of fortuitous accidents. And,” he ruefully adds, “not-so fortuitous.”

The Ash Grove’s golden anniversary is being celebrated this weekend at UCLA with two all-star evening concerts at Royce Hall and two and a half days (Friday through Sunday) full of concerts and workshops exploring the club’s legacy in bluegrass, blues, theater, women’s culture, poetry, leftist politics, gospel music and activism.

To call the Ash Grove, which sat at 8162 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood from 1958 to 1972, a mere folk club would be to oversimplify. Culture, politics, art, activism and music all converged in this West Coast outpost for all folk-related artists: Odette, Guy Carawan, Phil Ochs, the Limeliters, Bud & Travis, the Stoneman Family, Tom Paxton, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and John Fahey, among them. It was a haven for authentic blues, where the durable duo Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry first met; where Magic Sam played his last gig; where Albert King, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, the Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf all played. Flat-pick master Doc Watson first encountered bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe there. Taj Mahal, the Chambers Brothers, the Kentucky Colonels, Ry Cooder, Canned Heat, Spirit, Linda Ronstadt and Kaleidoscope all gestated at the Ash Grove.

It was also a space for Lawrence Lipton’s poetry and jazz shows; comic monologist Hugh Romney (before he became Wavy Gravy); where Dalton Turbo read; where Holly Near first sang; where Michael McKean and David L. Lander performed with the Credibility Gap; where the San Francisco Mime Troupe and El Teatro Campesino stopped in Los Angeles. It was an embarkation point for busses bound for the southern Freedom Rides. Civil rights, voting rights for 18-year-olds, women’s rights, anti-Vietnam activism, migrant worker’s concerns were all part of the Ash Grove.

Pearl’s activism was no accident. He grew up in Boyle Heights, between Boyle and Lincoln, near County General Hospital. The area had blacks, Armenians, Croatians, Italians, Mexicans and, of course, Jews.

“I’ve always been multicultural,” Pearl said.

The neighborhood’s famous Breed Street Shul — off of what is now Cesar Chavez Boulevard — was one of the largest synagogues west of the Mississippi in its time. When asked if he was raised observantly, Pearl shrugs, “My cousins went to the Breed Temple. My bar mitzvah was at the smaller Menorah Center, north of Wabash Avenue.”

His father’s family left Ukraine after the failed revolution of 1905 and fled the subsequent Russian persecution to Cairo. Pearl’s father was trained as a mechanic and became a tool and dye maker for Lockheed. His mother, of Russian-Jewish stock, was carried to America as an infant and raised in St. Louis.

Socialist and communist thinkers were seldom far from Pearl’s boyhood; this alarmed his assimilationist mother. His first brush with activism came in junior high. Gerald L.K. Smith, the infamous anti-Semite, was scheduled to speak at a nearby high school. Pearl organized a large walkout at his own school. The action worked; Smith was cancelled.

The demonstrators all faced expulsion, though, and gained reentry to school only after public apologies. Pearl was the lone holdout.

“Dan Margolis, the radical lawyer, intervened,” Pearl said. “He rescued me. I wouldn’t apologize; it drove my mother crazy. I had to sleep out in the garage. He talked with the school and they let me back in, and I eventually apologized.”

“That’s my brand of Judaism, ” he added, with a twinkle in his eye.

Pearl entered UCLA at 16. He joined a committee that tried to present blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger on campus. The administration fought it and Pearl — with some coaching from fraternity and sorority debaters — became spokesman for the group. While the effort was ultimately futile, Pearl held his own as a speaker.

“Only later did I find out why I was chosen: I was the only one who wasn’t in the Communist or Socialist Parties,” he said.

Pearl wound up booking Seeger into Santa Monica High School. In the ’60s, he also booked the Santa Monica Civic for attractions too big for the Ash Grove: Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Ravi Shankar. The club was the one mandatory folk venue west of Chicago.

“I met Dylan in New York in 1961,” Pearl recalled. “He knew all about the Ash Grove, and he said he dreamed of coming out here more than anything. So, I had him booked, and he called me up and said, ‘Ed, I’ve got a chance to make a record for John Hammond at Columbia Records. What should I do …?'”

UCLA ethnomusicology student Barry Hansen, later to become Dr. Demento, worked the sound and the lights at the club. Blues scholar/journalist/broadcaster Mary Katherine Aldin worked in the office. Guitarist Bernie Pearl — Ed’s brother — headed the club’s music school with David Cohen. Blues harmonica titan George “Harmonica” Smith taught Taj, Rod Piazza, James Harman and Louie Lista at the Ash Grove. Mick Jagger personally thanked Pearl after a night at the club.

Attorney Barry Fischer, a UCLA law student in the late ’50s, found the Ash Grove a rare showcase for the international folk music he was playing. With his Ellis Island Klezmer Orchestra, Fisher would spearhead the local Yiddishkayt concerts and festivals.

“In the repressive atmosphere of the ’50s,” Fischer said, “what is now called world music was seen as slightly subversive. I studied ethnomusicology and was playing Balkan, Slavic, Russian, Eastern European music, and there weren’t many outlets for that. I worked with Mike Janusz, an extraordinarily gifted linguist. He spoke many languages and organized great vocal ensembles. One of this weekend’s workshops will be a tribute to him.”

Legal scrapes were also part of the Ash Grove’s legacy, and Fischer’s legal acumen was utilized by Pearl.

Experience at international camp broadens perspective


As I look at a picture from the summer of 2007, I wish with all of my heart that I could go back and relive it. This picture contains a group of campers, each with a big smile on his or her face, glowing with happiness to be surrounded by their new best friends.

From a distance, these children look so different, as if they were each cut out of a separate magazine to form one colorful collage. Each child comes from a different ethnic background and speaks a different language at home. But here at this camp with their new friends, they have created a temporary home, where it is not necessary to speak a common language.

As a counselor at Camp Kimama in Michmoret, Israel, I learned that the only connection these children from all over the world need is their passion and love for Israel. Camp Kimama is Israel’s first international camp, where Jewish children spend two weeks forming a multicultural group of friends and exploring the different worlds that these friends come from. I spent one month of my summer working at Kimama, every day discovering more about myself and my fellow Israelis, Jews and Zionists.

The first day of the first session of camp can be summed up in one word: overwhelming. I had never been more confused in my life. The camp was full of nervous campers, overprotective mothers and a feeling of pure chaos.

I quickly realized that in order to communicate with all of my new campers, I would have to repeat everything I said in Hebrew and in English and make sure that every camper who didn’t speak those languages would have someone to translate for them. Can you imagine having to teach camp cheers to 60 energetic 10-year-olds in more than three different languages?

By the end of the day, my legs felt like Jell-O, my voice was nonexistent and if I had not fallen asleep within seconds of getting into my bed, I would have questioned myself about why in the world I gave up part of the freedom of my summer vacation to work at this seemingly crazy job.

Throughout the next few days, I began to learn the ropes of working at Camp Kimama and soon grew to love the environment, the campers (who I already cared and worried about as if they were my own children) and my fellow staff members. Somehow as a camp we managed to form a beautiful family and create a home away from home for the campers as well as for the counselors.

I began to realize this during the first Shabbat evening of the first session. Shabbat at Camp Kimama was one of the most unique and relaxing Shabbats I had ever experienced. Throughout the week, the entire camp is bustling with excitement and energy, as each age group runs from one activity to the next. I remember being so busy that by the time each day ended, it felt as if the day had lasted an entire month.

Once Shabbat finally came, everybody cleaned up, put on their best clothes and gathered on the grass overlooking the beautiful beach at Michmoret to welcome the much-needed resting day of Shabbat. As I looked around, I took a few moments to myself to absorb the faces surrounding me, because I knew that seeing such a diverse group of people come together for a Jewish holiday was not something I would see many times in my life.

Working at this camp was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I am used to seeing Zionism from the perspective of either the Israeli community or of the Jewish American community, however, this time I saw it from a completely different standpoint.

In United Synagogue Youth (USY) we are sheltered by the limitations of a variety of people. Last summer, after I came back from my trip to Israel with USY, I was sure that having friends from New York, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey meant that I had expanded my horizons as much as I possibly could.

Never would I have thought that a group of Jewish friends — my campers — could consist of children from China, Thailand, California, France, Israel, Florida and the Philippines. I can truthfully say that working at Camp Kimama this summer has changed my outlook on life as a Jew, as an Israeli and as a teenager.

Sivan Ron is a senior at Beverly Hills High School. She plans to join the Israeli army next year.

Speak Up!

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

Bratz : They’re cool, hot and controversial


Depending on whom you ask, Bratz are odd-looking multiethnic dolls with big eyes and skimpy clothes – or they’re, like, the coolest things ever.

The dolls — with their “passion for fashion” demonstrated through midriff-baring tops and micro-miniskirts — have been criticized by many parents as being overly sexualized and therefore bad examples for little girls.

But ask a 6- to 10-year-old girl about them, and she’ll say they’re sooooo awesome. The sales of Bratz nearly rival that of Barbie — topping more than $2 billion by 2006 — and now, with the wide release last summer of the live action Bratz feature-length film, they’ve secured their place as pop-culture icons for the pretween set.

Bratz were created in 2000 by Isaac Larian, an Iranian Jewish immigrant turned toy entrepreneur, who had set out to create an anti-Barbie. Legend has it that Larian was turned off by the swollen-head prototype a designer showed him, but his then-11-year-old daughter, Jasmin, was enthralled by it.

Thus, the first of the Bratz pack, Yasmin, was born. Soon afterward, her totally multicultural BFF (that’s “best friends forever”) followed, including Jade, Cloe and Sasha — all of whom are characters in the live-action film, which is scheduled to be released on DVD Nov. 27.

Unlike Barbie — with her WASPy blond hair, penchant for pink and lame steady boyfriend, Ken — Bratz represents a different type of feminine ideal. They reflect the mixed messages that are fed to young girls today: a “girl power” mantra combined with a tarty, sexed-up image, a la Britney Spears. With ethnicities ranging from Asian to African American to a unique blend of Jewish Latina, the dolls trumpet their message loud and clear: It’s OK to be yourself, as long as you look totally hot when the boys are around.

Perhaps it is no accident that this new, aspirational doll had a Jewish creator. After all, back in 1959, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler — the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants — created Barbie.

Back then, assimilation was not the dirty word it is today; it was a goal. As such, Handler, a savvy businesswoman, convinced her husband to turn his Lucite and Plexiglas furniture-making hobby into a lucrative business. It resulted in the creation of Barbie, the ultimate American fantasy: the leggy, buxom blonde who remade herself as the notion of the ideal American woman and changed with the times, from stay-at-home mom to the uber-careerwoman who does it all and still looks good.

Still, despite Mattel’s attempts to diversify the line, Barbie has had trouble keeping up with the times. Larian’s dolls speak to the girls of the 21st century, a time when the melting pot has given way to multiethnic stars like Jessica Alba and a hybrid like Chrismukkah is practically a national holiday.

That Larian — a Sephardic Jew who arrived in the United States at age 17 with $750 in his pocket — is this new arbiter of kiddie cool also reflects the normalization of Jewish culture in American society at large, where today, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has a national television show, bagels can be bought coast to coast and Yiddishisms like “oy vey” are a part of everyday American dialogue.

But somehow muddled up in the Bratz phenomenon is the notion that image is everything. And many don’t approve of the tarted-up image they see.

In her latest book, “Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad to Be Good,” author Wendy Shalit takes Bratz to task for its overtly sexy image.

Decrying the come-hither fashions of Bratz Babyz — a spin-off of the original Bratz line — and the emphasis on looking hot in the Bratz books, Shalit agues: “If a little girl is young enough to be coloring and wearing glitter stickers, then she’s probably still too young to be worrying about boys and looking hot.”

“I think it’s a very confusing time, and Bratz is reflecting this confusion,” Shalit said. To really get at the root of the problem, she said, “we need to address the whole ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’ philosophy, which many mothers continue to believe in.”

Even Sean McNamara, director of the Bratz film, saw the challenges in transforming pint-sized plastic hoochie-mamas into wholesome, real-life teenage girls.

McNamara, executive producer of the Disney Channel TV hit, “That’s So Raven,” was unfamiliar with Bratz when he was approached to direct the project, so he took a trip to his local toy store.

“I was blown away,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There were two full walls of Bratz stuff. But when I saw them, I thought, ‘These aren’t cute dolls — they look like sluts.'”

“Bratz,” the movie — while keeping its stars clothed and chaste — bends over backward to hit home its message of diversity, often resorting to cliche.

Half-white, half-Asian Jade, for example, is a science geek who, under pressure from her parents to be a good little girl, totally rebels by secretly wearing the hottest fashions. Then there’s half-Jewish, half-Latina Yasmin — played by 25-year-old Nathalia Ramos, herself the daughter of a Spanish father and a Australian Jewish mother — who inexplicably has a mariachi band in her kitchen and sings “La Cucaracha” with her grandmother (played by Lainie Kazan), whom she inexplicably calls Bubbe.

The movie centers around the four Bratz as they enter high school, totally sworn to be BFF. Soon, however, thanks to the devious Meredith Baxter Dimly — the queen bee who is not only the school president but the daughter of the principal — they are forced into cliques that tear them apart.

With Meredith employing the divide-and-conquer thing, Sasha soon hangs only with the cheerleaders; Cloe is a jock; and Yasmin, the loner, gets saddled with the label of “journalist.” (As if!)

Two years later, thanks to a massive food fight and an all-important talent show, the girls are brought back together. Without giving away too much of the plot — which borrows liberally from far better teen movies — the Bratz, with their awesome performance and their totally hip style, break down the barriers at Carry Nation High.

But with all the “likes,” the “omigods” and the rampant commercialism — after all, a love of makeup and shopping are what bind these girls together — what kind of message is Bratz sending to young girls?

Larian, traveling in Africa at press time, was unavailable to comment. Back in 2005, however, he told Business Week magazine, “Kids don’t want to play with Barbies anymore.”

One has to wonder: Is that necessarily a good thing?

East meets West over Shabbat sushi


Akira Mizutani, a tall, willowy Japanese man who’s been living in Los Angeles for 12 years now, has long, flowing, jet black hair that hangs loose to his waist — and on this night, his mane is topped with a yarmulke.

Because tonight, like all Friday nights at the Glendale home he shares with his wife Liza Shtromberg, it is sushi-Shabbat dinner.

“Kosher sushi Shabbat” Shtromberg clarifies. “No eel or shellfish.”

Shtromberg, a successful Los Feliz-based jewelry designer and proprietor of the shop LS, was born in Moscow, moved to Israel with her family at age 9, then settled in Los Angeles at 16, where she finished high school at Hollywood High. She met Mizutani, now a landscaper, about a decade ago when he was a chef at the Japanese cafe Mako. Now they have a 5-year-old daughter, Hannah, who speaks three of the family’s four shared languages — English, Japanese and Hebrew (Russian is the one she’s not yet fluent in).

“We chose the name ‘Hannah’ because it’s both a Japanese, Hebrew and an American name,” Shtromberg says.

Then Hannah, a spirited child with bright, purposeful eyes and a raspy voice, chimes in, explaining how to pronounce her name in all three languages: “Hah-na in English, Chanah in Hebrew and Han-ah in Japanese,” she chirps.

Mizutani, the chef tonight — “all nights,” Shtromberg laughs — brings food to the table, which is cluttered with all the typical Shabbat accoutrements: sterling silver Kiddush cups, Israeli candlesticks that serve as a canvas for the Jerusalem cityscape, sweet kosher red wine. The women wear tallit draped over their heads and around their shoulders; Akira adjusts his yarmulke. There is no actual sushi being served tonight, as Mizutani didn’t make it to the fish market; but the meal is nonetheless authentically Japanese, one to satiate any sumo wrestler. There are bowls of steaming, sticky white rice; Chinese miso soup; Japanese Cabbage slaw with miso-sesame dressing, plates of Karagi and chicken Tonkatsu (rather than pork), as well as dried seaweed and Yaki Soba sauce.

“Akira was neutral in the religion department, so we never had a conflict over how to raise Hannah,” Shtromberg says.

“Not neutral,” Mizutani says. “Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah — I like it for the tradition, not the religion.”

“So Hanna’s being raised a Reform Jew. She’s Japanese and Jewish — she’s American,” Shtromberg says.

After Hannah was born, the Mizutani-Shtromberg household made it a point to gather for Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

“I wanted Hannah to have some taste of Jewish tradition; and now, even if I’m out of town, she’ll say on Friday, ‘Oh, it’s Shabbat!’ It’s become part of her consciousness,” Shtromberg says. “And it’s a way of bringing the family together. I wanted my brother to come and see Hannah regularly. But he’d really come for Akira’s food!”

“Mama, can we do the prayers now?” pleads Hannah, who’s presiding at the head of the table with a tiny juice-filled Kiddush cup in hand.

We light the candles, cover our eyes and say “amen.” Then Shtromberg leads the blessings over the bread and the wine. Before digging into the food with our chopsticks and/or silverwear however, there is one last blessing. We put our hands together, and we chant in unison:

“Itedakemas”.

“That’s ‘let’s eat’ in Japanese,” Mizutani explains.

“It’s ‘betavon’ in Hebrew,” Shtromberg says.

“What’s ‘betavon’ mean, mama?” Hannah asks.

“Itedakemas!” Shtromberg says.

Laughter all around.

After dinner, Mizutani clears the table and settles in to watch the Lakers; Shtromberg curls up on the couch to enjoy the herbal tea she brought back from her travels in Barcelona. This is a Shabbat ritual, she explains.

“It’s my official time out, the only time throughout the week that, no matter what’s going on, I have time to relax,” she says.

As for Hannah, whether she likes it or not, it’s time for her ufuro, her bath.

For more information on LS, visit

Language institute helping Ladino revival


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Time for the last dance at folk dancing venue


This week marks the closing of Café Danssa, a mecca for folk dancers in Los Angeles for 41 years. For much of that time, Danssa was a slice of Israel, or on some nights a slice of Greece, the Balkans or Brazil. In its early years, it was a pilgrimage point for dance aficionados and amateurs alike; in later years, it was a pickup joint for singles or a destination for anyone who just wanted to pick up their feet and move for joy.

Danssa’s founder, Dani Dassa, envisioned the business as an international meeting place, where people could enjoy each other’s culture without thinking about their differences.

“Through dance, people of differing cultures and politics were united with their hands and feet,” Dassa, 78, said in an interview this week.

The renowned Israeli folk dance teacher and choreographer moved to Los Angeles with an entrepreneurial spirit to get others involved in the medium he cherished.

But the Dassas are but half the story. My family, the Blumes, have run Café Danssa for the last 31 years — a decent span by any reckoning. And our family place of business has been Los Angeles’ most prominent and, by far, the longest lasting folk dance cafe.

For most of this time, Danssa’s formula for success was the product of the dynamic relationship between the club’s founder and its later owner, my father, Dave Blume. Dassa used his charm, dance talent and dark, lean and handsome looks to make folk enthusiasts clamor for a dancing place they could call their own.

Dad was his complement, with his Buddha-like placidity and hostility to any form of physical exertion. Dassa instantly recognized the virtues of Dad’s solid business sense and ever-present sense of humor. The two remained close until Dad’s death last March.

Café Danssa opened for business in December 1965 on a nondescript block of West Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard. The name of the business was a morphing of the first three letters of Dani Dassa’s first name and the last three letters of his last name.

Dassa, a native Israeli who’d fought in the War for Independence and the 1956 Sinai campaign, and who was at heart a dancer, aspired to bring the art of dance to the masses, especially to Jews in America.

A front page story in the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times proclaimed Café Danssa’s arrival, and soon after, the entire second-floor space was packed to the brim with elaborately clad traditionalist folk dancers and a bunch of out-of-place Beverly Hills socialites in fur coats.

The ethnic music blared and bounced off the cinder-block walls, one of which was painted with three shadow-like images of Dassa line dancing and the other depicting the biblical scene of Rachel at the well. The décor never got complicated; Dassa hung strawberry pots upside-down as light fixtures. They’re still there.

Dassa offered Israeli, international and Greek nights, occasionally working with other teachers/partners. Because the kitchen was unable to keep up with the demand for the homemade falafel and hummus, he bought property less than two blocks from Café Danssa in hopes of opening a space that could house both an Israeli nightclub for live music acts and a restaurant.

But his new partner backed out of the deal, leaving the Dassas with the burden of keeping two businesses going. It was too much, so Dassa sold Café Danssa to a customer named Lori Anderson to pay off the debt accrued from the construction of the new building. Then his new business, Jericho, was gravely undermined by the 1973 war in Israel, which dried up much of the cross-cultural commerce.

The new Café Danssa owners did not last, and soon the business was up for sale again. On Dec. 31, 1975, my parents, Dave Blume and Carolyn Hester, became the new owners. They had plans to turn it into a nightclub to feature their own musical endeavors.

Dad was a jazz pianist and Grammy-nominated composer, best known for writing the hit pop tune, “Turn Down Day.” My mother was a central figure among the folk music scenesters who emerged from Greenwich Village in New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s. She’s also known for helping launch Bob Dylan’s career by hiring him to play harmonica on one of her albums.

The Blumes were not folk dancers. But then, as my mother said, they also never had it in them to make people feel bad: “David kept saying, we’ll make the change in six weeks, but then that became six months, then a year.”

The customers warmed to the new ownership, and business began to pick up. Dad quickly concluded that Dassa should be invited back to Danssa. The Israeli dance equivalent of a rock star, Dassa to this day still has the magnetism to make women swoon.

Dad on the other hand, was a master of puns and a formidable manager of egos, and he took a laid-back approach to handling the desires of the customers, as well as the competitive squabbles among dance instructors. Dad would tell us not to take it personally when people would try to get in without paying admission, because as customers, “it was their duty to try to sneak in as much as it was our duty not to let them.”

My brother, Howard Blume, recalls that, “on some nights, people would literally be lined up outside the back office waiting for an audience with Dad either to seek his advice, tell him their troubles or just commune.”

Dad, a nondrinker otherwise, kept a bottle of cognac in his desk, which was consumed only as part of a friendship ritual between him and Dassa. The cognac bottle is still there today, only now Dassa has inscribed his own name as well as, Dad’s, Mom’s, mine and my sister Amy’s on the bottle in Hebrew.

For years, Dassa and two of his children, David and Dorite, each taught Israeli dance at Café Danssa. Although Israeli dancing remained the breadwinner for the nightclub, Balkan and Greek nights continued through the early ’80s. Café Danssa continued its reputation as “the first stop for Israeli immigrants when they land at LAX,” and the crowd was a mix of tan, Israeli men in tight pants trying to woo beautiful California girls.

The King of Hearts; Celebrating diversity


All About Atidim

“As Henry VIII told each of his six wives, ‘I won’t keep you long’,” promised Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, as he addressed some 300 guests at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The Nov. 16 occasion was a benefit for Atidim, an innovative Israeli project to assure an education for promising youngsters from the country’s poorer development towns and thus help close the social and economic gap between Israel’s haves and have-nots.

Gillerman assured his audience that the recent battles against Hezbollah in Lebanon had been a success and had changed the rules in the Mideast diplomatic game.

Joining the ambassador on the speaker’s rostrum were Rabbi Eli Hirscher, Skirball founder Uri Hirscher, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch, and Israeli industrialist Eitan Wertheimer.

The only disappointment was the no-show of megabillionaire Warren Buffet, who called in sick.

Metuka Benjamin, co-organizer of the event with Anette and A. Stuart Rubin, received a standing ovation, as did two Atidim-aided graduates, one from Ethiopia, the other from Russia.

Conversation at the Circuit’s table was enlivened by Rochelle Ginsburg, principal of the Stephen S. Wise Temple elementary school, and her physician husband Eli.

As master of ceremonies, actor Michael Burstyn kept the action moving and concluded the evening on a high note by leading guests in singing “Jerusalem of Gold.”

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

King of Hearts

Larry King and his friends showed the world their determination to provide health care to all no matter what their economic circumstances when the Larry King Cardiac Foundation hosted “An Evening with Larry King and Friends” at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was a feast for the eyes and the palate and the heart and there was something for everyone as King and wife Shawn Southwick-King hosted the gala, entertaining the group with playful banter and true stories and incidents in their life.

“Entertainment Tonight”‘s adorable Mary Hart acted as emcee, bringing a whole lotta smiles and sunshine to the proceedings that honored Los Angeles’ own “movie star” mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, Eva (the men couldn’t get their eyes off her) Longoria, beloved and uber-generous philanthropists Alfred and Claude Mann, and renowned cardiologist Dr. Enrique Ostrzega. Athlete extraordinaire Lance Armstrong was on-hand to present the Corazones Unidos (United Hearts) award to Longoria, who thanked Armstrong for being there for her and acknowledged her deep admiration for him as someone who has triumphed in the face of personal adversity.

Three fortunate families bid $15,000 a piece for a personal portrait done by legendary American artist Peter Max.

The event featured entertainment by Il Divo, and raised more than $700,000 in funds to support the partnership forged earlier this year between the LAC+USC Healthcare Network, COPE Health Solutions, the Los Angeles County division of the American Heart Association and the Larry King Cardiac Foundation.

A Woman of Valor

It was a nonstop kvellfest when civic leader Rita Brucker received the Coastal Cities “Volunteer of the Year” award by the American Cancer Society. Brucker was recognized for her 35 years of outstanding service as one of the founding architects for the “Reach to Recovery” program helping breast cancer survivors. Proud son Barry Brucker, Beverly Hills City Council member, who attended the event with his wife, Sue and father, Charlie, stated, “I was amazed at the number of breast cancer survivors who credited my mother for being an integral part in their survival … it was very emotional and we are very proud.”

Celebrating Diversity

The evening was as diversified as its cause Nov. 19 at the star-studded black tie Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s (MMPA)14th Annual Diversity Awards — “Celebrating Diversity – Creativity and Talent That Shine.” The event, honoring artists for their exceptional achievements in film and television, benefited The Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s Educational and Development Scholarship Fund, that helps talented and dedicated students, and upcoming filmmakers, seeking entry into the film and television professions.

Jarvee E. Hutcherson, executive producer of the 14th Annual Diversity Awards and president of MMPA, said, “We are very pleased to honor a very select talented group of artists every year at The Diversity Awards, each of whom our organization feels have broadened the creative landscape in the film and television industry through their visionary work. With this year’s theme … we are recognizing the foundation laid by both artistic leaders and the emerging depth of dedicated young artists, behind and in front of the camera, who are bringing to this industry, a vision and talent indicative of only greater things to come in the future.”

MMPA’s Educational Scholarship Fund provides financial assistance and technical support to young filmmakers bringing diverse stories to the screen.

All’s Well

Three women were honored at The Wellness Community of West Los Angeles’ annual Friends of Wellness luncheon at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The women, Judy Bernstein, Shirley Blitz and Lynda Levy have given of their time, their hearts and their spirit to helping fulfill the mission of The Wellness Community.

“Their efforts have helped bring hope and support to countless people with cancer,” said Ellen Silver, executive director of The Wellness Community -West Los Angeles,
More than 265 people attended the event that featured a heartwarming presentation from cancer survivor and Wellness Center participant Karen Sabatini and a presentation with authors Carolyn and Lisa See.
For more information about The Wellness Community-West Los Angeles, visit www.twc-wla.org.

Jewish Weddings in Space


Joss Whedon’s quirky space Western, “Serenity,” features outlaws who act like Wild West gunslingers, an assassin who forces his victims to commit hara kiri, a telepath who inexplicably goes berserk, a Buddhist planet — and Jewish nuptials in space.

Based on Whedon’s short-lived 2002 TV series, “Firefly,” whose fan base helped spur the movie, “Serenity” revolves around the outlaws’ attempts to discover the telepath’s true identity after she beats up everyone in a bar.

Enter hacker broadcaster Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), who plays the bar’s security tapes for the renegades — as well as a video of his wedding to a bimbo android. In one of the film’s funniest moments, she looks on robotically as Krumholtz (CBS’s “NUMB3RS”) ecstatically stomps on a glass at the end of the Jewish ceremony.

Mr. Universe is not the first member-of-the-tribe character the non-Jewish Whedon, has created, says Jewhoo Editor Nate Bloom; his titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a sidekick named Willow Rosenberg, among other multicultural pals.

Whedon said he created “Serenity,” which opens Friday, as a kind of “Wagon Train” in space. That’s about how Gene Roddenberry described his conceit for the original “Star Trek” series. But unlike “Trek” and many other sci-fi works, “Serenity” depicts real, rather than invented, human religions. So while a Jewish wedding in space may sound offbeat, hey, just think of it as the final frontier for the Diaspora, though don’t expect bubbe to approve of the intermarriage android thing.

Still’s ‘Waters’ Run Deep


In James Still’s “A Long Bridge Over Deep Waters,” a Catholic Cambodian asks an elderly Jew, “Why don’t you believe in Jesus?”

The senior citizen replies that she regards Jesus as “a revolutionary Jew,” not the savior — and that she would rather argue with God than feel awe for Him.

The debate is typical of “Waters,” a series of intense encounters between 57 members of 10 Los Angeles religious communities produced by the multicultural Cornerstone Theater. It’s the culmination of the company’s four-year faith-based theater cycle, which staged eight projects on creeds from Mormon to Baha’i. According to Cornerstone’s Lee Lawlor, “‘Waters,’ is a ‘bridge show’ incorporating all the groups, in our tradition of building bridges between diverse communities.”

With so much ground to cover, Still found “Waters” initially “overwhelming.” The 46-year-old playwright grew up Methodist in a Kansas town and did not meet many minorities until his church exchange program with a synagogue when he was 15. Yet he understood what it was like to be ‘the other,’ given that he was gay. “I yearned to find out if anyone else felt they were on the margins, or hated, or invisible,” he said.

Cornerstone’s faith project drew him, in part, because “it’s scary now for minorities to discuss religion in this country,” he said. “There’s pressure to talk about faith as one thing only, and that is Christianity.”

To structure the sprawling “Waters,” Still drew on Arthur Schnitzler’s classic play, “La Ronde,” in which scenes are connected by protagonists moving from one sequence to another. To create his characters, he conducted more than 1,000 hours of interviews; a “spiritual restlessness” among some Jews inspired the fictional Alan, who is secular but considers synagogue after his mother’s death. Other characters include a Hindu who clashes with her Muslim roommate; an all-American family of atheists; and a lesbian Jewish mother, Connie.

Actress Lisa Robins, who plays Connie, feels spiritually challenged by her role. Like her character, she is a Jewish single mother who has explored other religions but is investigating Judaism now that she has a child. “But Connie has much more of a commitment to the religion,” she said. “When I say onstage that I believe in God, I’m actually wondering, ‘What do I believe.’ It’s awkward.”

Still intended awkward moments to occur throughout “Waters:” “The play is about how faith both unites and divides us,” he said.

“Waters” plays at the Ford Amphitheater June 2-12. For tickets, call (323) 461-3673.

 

For the Kids


The Good and the Bad

This year, the 17th of Tammuz coincidentally falls on the 17th of July. The 17th of Tammuz (the 10th Jewish month) is a fast day — no eating, no drinking. Why? Because on this day, a few thousand years ago, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem. Three weeks later, the Temple was destroyed.

The rabbis tell us something a bit curious about this day: it is associated with the word tov (good).

Here is a hint: It has to do with the gematria (numerical value) of the word (Remember: alef = 1, bet/vet = 2, gimel = 3, etc.). The rabbis say that what looks bad now can always be turned to good.

Shakespeare Festival/LA

Pershing Square (downtown Los Angeles) and South Coast Botanical Gardens (Palos Verdes).

July 15-20 and 22-26, downtown Los Angeles; July 31, Aug. 1-3 and 6-10, Palos Verdes . Featuring Shakespeare’s "The Merry Wives of Windsor." And if you bring canned food for the Food for Thought Project, you get free admission.

(213) 481-2273, www.shakespearefestivalla.org

Ho’olaule’a 2003

Alondra Park (adjacent to El Camino Community College). July 19-20. All-day entertainment by performing groups representing Hawaii’s multicultural heritage. Enjoy highly diverse food that represents Hawaii and its people. A two-day event filled with Polynesian arts, crafts, music, dance and fun. (949) 458-0933, www.hiccsc.org.

Japane wish American Reflections


If there is such a thing, I am your typical Japanewish
American Princess.

My Mom is Japanese American, my Dad is ethnically Jewish
and, in a wonderful embrace, I came to be. Growing up in a town in which racial
and religious combinations were not the norm, my two heritages naturally
blended into one. Kamaboko (fish cake) and matzah ball soup were just as normal
to me as they were odd to everyone else. On several occasions, my brother and I
would joke about being double-teamed by our parents, whose academic standards
were sky-high. Mom and Dad seemed to be the only ones on the block who
strategically transformed games of report cards and SAT scores into two-on-one
situations. But no matter how much I still accuse them of being ruthless, they
didn’t team up to be mean — they just wanted us to be the best we could be.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Mom and Dad when they
decided to marry — particularly Dad. Sure, he was committing himself to Mom.
But what he was really committing himself to was a lifetime of fish heads and
pickled weeds (as he calls Japanese food), chopsticks and a New Year’s
superstition — if you don’t arrive for breakfast by 8 a.m. sharp, you’ll have
an unlucky year. He was entering a world in which strong opinions weren’t
always vocally expressed, and oishikunai (unappetizing) dinners ruined entire
evenings. Life was all about the family — and all about the family meal.

Dad likes to tell me that he and Mom were like night and
day, that their looks, foods and personalities didn’t match up. But what
mattered most did match. Beneath the superficialities, they discovered
deep-rooted similarities like the centrality of family, the value of education,
a curiosity about the world around them and a strong belief in doing the right
thing. No matter how odd a couple they might have seemed to others during their
high school and college days, they in fact belonged together.

Like Dad, Mom also encountered another culture. Visiting
Dad’s family meant stepping out of her house, into his, where food was half as
important and conversation was twice as loud. Mom tiptoed between bursts of
song and unrestrained vocalized opinions at the dinner table. But no matter how
much her culture initially clashed with Dad’s, it was nothing that time
couldn’t resolve.

In fact, in time, the two cultures cross-sectioned so much
that they eventually flipped sides. In a cabinet beside my parents’ bedroom, an
otafuku (a charm symbolizing motherhood) sits next to a Sandy Koufax mug. The
great marriage of Japanese woman to Jewish man displayed in our own bookcase!
And yet the irony of this odd juxtaposition is that Sandy Koufax was Mom’s
childhood idol and otafuku was omiyage (a souvenir) Dad brought back from a
trip to Japan. If cultural harmony can exist inside a cabinet, it sure as heck
can exist in the world — can’t it?

Mom and Dad didn’t raise my brother and me in the Jewish
religious tradition. To make up for it, Dad likes to remind us that we are in
fact Jewish — even if just by culture. He loves to point out Jewish-sounding
names like “Schulman” and “Leibowitz,” tell me I get my “good looks and poysonality”
from hi, and comments after whistling “Nice Work If You Can Get It” that the
Gershwins — two Jewish guys from New York — “could sure write ’em!” He also
never misses the opportunity to nudge me and say, “How about finding a nice
Jewish boy?” I think most of the time he’s just kidding — but I’m not always
sure.

Since there aren’t very many Asian Jews, I often wonder if
my unusual ethnic combination is simply weird. After all, it’s not every day
that I run into an edamame-eating Woody Allen movie-lover like myself.

 In the hope to discover I’m not alone, I’ve recently
scrounged for Asian/Jewish history. I discovered that three groups of Jews from
Spain, Portugal, Iraq and India lived in the Indian cities of Kerala and Bombay
during the 19th century, and Persian Jews lived in Kaifeng, China, as far back
as the 15th century.Â

In both India and China, cultural mixing took place — the
Jews of Cochin developed a version of the Indian caste system, and the Persian
Jews intermarried so much that they became physically indistinguishable from
the Chinese. Not to mention the Jews who fled from concentration camps to China
during World War II. These Asian Jews, and particularly the offspring of
intercultural marriage, must have felt what I feel now — both joy and distress
for being different.

My problem lies therein. I hate standing out in a crowd,
proving my American nationality, and justifying my nonreligious Jewishness. I
hate the discrimination, the classification, the ambiguity. But I love being
different. I love telling folks I am both Japanese and Jewish, that my nose may
be small and cute, but my hair is wild and frizzy.

After ranting to a friend about the absence of Japanewish
history, he in turn replied, “But that’s what makes you so interesting.”

I’m almost convinced I don’t really need a history, that I’m
strong enough without one. Put it that way, and I realize I’ve been running in
circles for the missing puzzle piece, not realizing that the puzzle was already
complete. But maybe the exercise has been good. Maybe I’ve just been running
through the cycle of self-discovery like everybody else.

Sure, I hope to find my place somehow, sometime. And if it’s
in a Japanewish American homeland, even better. But, until I find it, I’ll just
keep wandering. It’s too hard to know everything. And anyway, isn’t life more
exciting when you don’t? Â


Ellen Fuji is an L.A. native, a freelance writer and an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Toy Vey!


Monica Garcia had her daughter-to-be in mind when she designed a modest line of Barbie clothing while she was pregnant last year.

“Barbie is a slut,” she says. Some people “want a doll that’s dressed appropriately.”

Garcia, who converted to Judaism four years ago, started the line of handsewn, brightly colored clothing when she was pregnant last year.

The clothes move Barbie from flirty to frummy.

Unlike much of the standard Barbie line, most of the clothes are loose fitting and made out of cotton and satin. The clothes often have details such as bows or buttons.

“I didn’t like the way Barbie was dressed,” says Garcia, who has about 100 customers — equally split between Jews and Christians.

Garcia, who currently works as a longshoreman in Los Angeles by day, hopes to add a line of accessories such as hats and purses — and maybe one day create her own doll.

When asked what that doll would look like, Garcia said, “She would not be blond. She would be a brunette with nice brown eyes.”

Garcia’s clothes are available at $19.95 at “>www.heroicproductions.com as
well as at “>www.jewishsource.com.

Family Values


Gurinder Chadha was having one of those surreal multicultural moments you get in L.A.

The Punjabi Brit was munching a bagel at Nate ‘n’ Al’s when two elderly Jews walked in and ordered Chinese chicken salad. “I just thought that was hysterical,” says Chadha, whose charming film, “What’s Cooking?” centers on four families – Jewish, Black, Vietnamese and Latino – celebrating Thanksgiving on one block in L.A. “This Jewish deli was selling something called a Chinese chicken salad, which you never see anywhere but California, and these elderly Jews were clearly relishing it.”

Not surprisingly, the Jewish family in “What’s Cooking?” eats Chinese chicken salad along with the turkey. (And, of course, kugel.) Fare on the other Thanksgiving tables includes pho, tamales and macaroni and cheese – all devoured between family crises.

While most U.S. films expose the conflict in diversity, Chadha’s comedy-drama is celebratory. “I wanted to make a classic American family movie, but I wanted to people it with Americans we hardly ever see on screen,” says the director, a jovial former BBC radio journalist who reports her age as “sort of 30’s, late-ish.” “If you choose to see it that way, it’s quite a subversive film. Using food as the metaphor, you discern that everything can be accommodated on the Thanksgiving table in the same way that culturally anyone can be called an American.”

“What’s Cooking?” began simmering for Chadha during her first trip to L.A. in 1994, when she was promoting her first feature film, “Bhaji on the Beach,” another story of identity and eating in the Diaspora. (Bhaji is a popular Indian food in the UK, similar to vegetable tempura.) In between screenings, she wandered the streets and was astounded to discover a city that was vastly different from the L.A. she’d seen in Hollywood films. “I saw storefronts with Hebrew and Korean signs,” she says. “I saw billboards in Spanish and people reading The Forwerts.”

The clincher was the Thanksgiving dinners she attended with her French-Japanese-American husband-to-be – notably the one with sushi at his mom’s house. Chadha asked for the Tabasco and decided she wanted to make a film about this kind of America.

Chadha’s films depict the rich duality of the Diaspora, because she grew up in one herself. Until the age of 3, she lived in British colonial Africa; after Kenya achieved independence, her father searched for work in London, only to be laughed out of a branch of Barclay’s Bank because he wore a beard and turban.Her family ultimately found haven in the colorful, West London neighborhood of Southall, “a fantastic place that was to the Punjabi community what Fairfax was to L.A. Jews,” Chadha says.

At home, she ate daal and chapati, read teen zines and complained when her grandmother made her turn off the telly for evening prayers. Chadha and her sister rolled their eyes when grandma pointed to every trashy TV villain and blurted: “He’s a Muslim!” After school, young Chadha took her British classmates to eat free meals at the local Sikh temple.

At 14, she went through a rebellious phase when she decided that everything Indian was bad. “There are all these pictures of me at weddings, wearing dreadful polyester flares while everyone else was in glamorous, shiny gold brocade,” she recalls, laughing.

But by the late 1980s, Chadha was wearing Indian fabric with her Doc Martens and filming a significant, controversial docu-mentary, “I’m British, But – ” about Indian immigrants.

She obtained the funding for “Bhaji,” her first feature film, from the very bank that had spurned her father 30 years earlier.

To research the 41 characters in “What’s Cooking?” Chadha and her husband, co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges, interviewed family and friends who belonged to various ethnic groups. Her mother-in-law’s close friend, Doreen Seelig, a history teacher at Venice High, was a primary source for the film’s Jewish family.The fictional character of Ruth Seelig, played by Lainie Kazan, is deliberately written against the stereotype of the pushy Jewish mother, says Chadha, who lives in London and Redondo Beach. In the movie, the Jewish mom quietly struggles to accept the fact that her daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) has brought home her lesbian lover, played by Julianna Margulies, for Thanksgiving. Relatives eat rugelach, argue over the propriety of circumcision and note who’s Jewish on TV.

Production designer Stuart Blatt recreated his Jewish mother’s mustard-gold kitchen for the Seeligs, while actor Maury Chaykin played the Jewish dad as his own, recently deceased father. Chadha, who insisted that real, edible food be present for every take (the cast went through 35 turkeys), discovered that she liked kugel.

She also discovered some real similarities between Jewish and Punjabi families: “Everything is about marriage, babies and family,” she says. “And interfering relatives.”

The revelation proves the point she’s trying to make in “What’s Cooking?”: “That difference isn’t so different,” she insists.

“What’s Cooking?” opens today in L.A.

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