Letters to the editor: North Korea, Howard Stern, nachas and more

North Korea’s Familiar Struggle

I am writing to give you a heartfelt thanks for the cover story on the human rights situation in North Korea (“Holocaust in the Hermit Kingdom,” Jan. 24). I was born in the United States, my parents are South Korean immigrants, and in my family tree, I have relatives who are in North Korea, most likely dead, maybe some are alive.  I first heard about Shin Dong-Hyuk several years ago and it was nice to get a recent update on him. Most importantly, I want to thank you for being a concerned citizen of the world, and for bringing this travesty to greater awareness. Thank you and please extend my thanks to the writer of the cover story as well. He did a wonderful job.

Yurie Ann Cho via e-mail 

I just had to respond to the excellent article “Auschwitz in North Korea” (Jan. 24). I first became aware of this situation when Shin Dong-hyuk was interviewed on “60 Minutes” a few years ago. Americans (Jews) should do whatever we can to try to put a stop to it.  There is an excellent book, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, called “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson. It is the hardest book I have ever read.  [It is] about a camp in North Korea, I highly recommend it. Thank you Jewish Journal for making your readers aware of the cruelties Kim Jong-un is inflicting on his people.

Barbara Polisky via e-mail 

For the Love of Stern

As a fellow Stern superfan, I am always overjoyed when I read your columns about Howard, especially because I know you “get it” (“Howard Stern’s Secret, and Ours,” Jan. 31), and so few who do “get it” are willing to step up, and even more so, you did it before it was popular to do so. I know that your work has been acknowledged on the Stern show and one thing I would give anything to see would be Don Buchwald or Gary granting you a one-on-one interview with Howard for the Jewish Journal.

Ron Rimmon via e-mail

Thank you so much for making me feel vindicated after so very long.

Forever, whenever I mentioned Howard Stern, how funny, brilliant, and great he is, I was met by rolling eyes and disapproving words, to the point that I stopped bringing his name up.

Yes, he is the greatest interviewer today.  And Jay Leno, who I once thought was the greatest stand-up comedian of our time, is the worst interviewer in the media.

And I always loved when someone called to complain about how “the Jews” rule the world and own the media. Howard would ask them, “Do you think anyone gave them anything?  Don’t you think they worked for it?  Instead of griping about it, why not go out and make something of yourself, and work to take it back.”  I loved that, even if he is only half-Jewish … (I’m joking.)

By the way, don’t forget Robin, who really makes the show work.

Marvin Bluth via e-mail

A Month Later, Praise Still Flowing … 

I loved your editorial on “Wolf of Wall Street” (“ ‘The Wolf’ and the Jewish Problem,” Jan. 3). You raised important questions that tie into the national debate of wealth inequality. Will you be publishing more on this subject? I certainly hope so. I’ve only started reading your paper in the last few years.  The range of discourse is unlike any other publication and I love that. It would interest me to read the opinions of your various columnists and others on the issue of wealth and responsibility. I’m not a member of a temple and haven’t found a rabbi to be in awe of since Jack Stern at Westchester Reform Temple, where I was confirmed. I’m now thinking the Jewish Journal can be my guide!

Bruce Green via e-mail 

Nature vs. Nachas

Thank you Dennis Prager for writing “What is Nachas?” for the Jewish Journal (Jan. 24). If parents get nachas from their children, the children realize it and it has a positive effect on them. Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber are not behaving in a way peaceful to their parents, but in accepting country music’s Pinnacle Award last November, Taylor Swift said, “My parents are not just crying, they are bawling at this point,” and Swift’s mother gave Swift’s father a hug on hearing her daughter say this.

A lack of nachas can have a snowballing effect on parents and children alike. Cyrus and Bieber and their faimilies figure to have rough sledding finding peace. The opposite of peace can be war and wars usually get nastier the longer they go on. The behavior of Cyrus and Bieber will probably worsen.

Joe Colville, Torrance


The correct contact information for Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Jan. 10 Shabbat Shira,  the Shabbat of Song event (Calendar, Jan. 3),  is (310) 409-4634, tebh.org. 

What is nachas?

The traditional wish that Jews offer fellow Jews is “May you have nachas from your children.” Nachas is understood to be pride and joy. And for most Jews, pride and joy from their children is the greatest blessing in life.

Let me give an example.

Having been in public life for more than four decades, I am regularly stopped by strangers. Most simply say, “I just want to say hello,” or, “I really enjoy your show,” or “Can I get a picture with you?” Occasionally, the individual will speak a little about one of the issues of the day, or his or her life. And, here’s the point: If the person mentions what college his or her child attends (or attended), I am certain that I am talking to a Jew.

In 40 years, I don’t recall one non-Jewish stranger ever telling me (without my first asking) what college his or her child attends. In fact, whereas Jewish audiences laugh heartily  when I mention this experience, non-Jewish audiences are stone silent. They don’t understand what I’m talking about.

This difference is very significant. Having been raised to believe that one’s greatest goal and one’s happiness are largely dependent on nachas from children, I assumed that this is how everyone thinks.

It’s not.

True, some ethnic groups besides Jews think this way. But most non-ethnic Americans — that is, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (and Catholics) — do not. It is probably safe to say that America was founded and had its culture shaped by people who did not regard pride and joy from their children as the most important thing in life.

A non-Jew (WASP) man who has worked for me for more than a decade has a son who attended Harvard University and Stanford Medical School. I have never heard the father volunteer this to anyone.

So, which culture has it right?

As hard as it is to rethink something deeply entrenched in one’s psyche, I think American culture has had the healthier attitude. And I think in part it is because, over the generations, we have redefined the original meaning of nachas. More on that later.

Here are my reasons.

First, preoccupation with nachas easily renders the child a means rather than an end: Your purpose, my son or daughter, is to bring me nachas through your achievements. A very successful Jew whom I know well told me that his life changed when he took a psychology course as an undergraduate at an Ivy League college. He realized that he was, in his words, “a nachas machine.” That realization, fair or not (I think it was fair), shaped his life emotionally and psychologically.

Think about it. It may sound great to have nachas from your child as your greatest wish. But it may not sound as great to your child. The purpose of one’s life has to be something beyond being a source of nachas to one’s parents.

But nachas should not be entirely discounted either. Seeking to earn a parent’s pride is often the greatest spur in life to achieving something with one’s life. 

Second, if nachas from children is the greatest thing in life, what is the goal or purpose of those who cannot have children? Is theirs a pointless life?

Whenever I think about this issue, I think of George Washington. He had no children. Was his life devoid of purpose — or of nachas, for that matter? Or Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rabbi, the head of Chabad? He, too, had no children. 

And what about those who, through no fault of their own, were not blessed with an achieving child? Are their lives pointless?

Third, the drive for nachas too often becomes a person’s way of establishing his or her own self-worth. In many cases, the drive is not even really for nachas; it is for prestige. “I am the father (or mother) of a Yale grad, of a lawyer, of a doctor.” Sometimes, listening to parents at a dinner conversation, I feel as if I am witnessing a sort of duel — who can outshoot whom in listing the accomplishments of their children?

Fourth, when nachas is essentially synonymous with the prestige of the university one’s child attended and the job he/she now holds, the most important accomplishments of life — such as moral character and the making of one’s own family — are rendered secondary in importance. Here’s a good way to help ascertain whether nachas means character or prestige: How angry and disappointed would you be if your child cheated on one test, thanks to which he/she got into Harvard?

Fifth, the truth is that what college your child attends says little about you and, other than having the brain matter and the self-discipline to study hard, it doesn’t tell much about your child, either. There are wonderful people who attend prestigious colleges, and there are at least as many conceited fools — who will awaken one day to learn that few people (besides their parents) give a hoot what college they attended.

Perhaps, as I noted earlier, at least part of the problem lies in our having mistranslated nachas. The word actually means “rest,” not “pride and joy.” And in that sense, we should all wish for nachas. Having peace from our children — knowing they are taking care of themselves, living a moral and responsible life that includes, hopefully, taking care of their own family, and having a peaceful relationship with us — that is worth hoping for.

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

One more time with nachas — gift that keeps on giving

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives.

Anyone who has planned a bar mitzvah can easily recall the stress of preparing for that milestone, not only for the boy who is constantly reminded to practice his parsha, but also for the mom who is usually behind the scenes, negotiating with the caterer, revising guest lists and hoping the balloons don’t drop too early in the evening. As a mom who has gone through her own case of pre- and post-bar mitzvah stress disorder three times, I hope to offer some comfort and reassurance that after all these efforts and antacids, the bar mitzvah anniversaries are a piece of cake.

That’s right, I said anniversaries. Don’t panic: These do not involve any ostentatious table centerpieces, party favors or the cha-cha slide. They only require an annual reprisal of the role of Torah reader, while the parents sit back and kvell. It only took a small bit of encouragement by my husband to convince each of our sons to agree to do this. Why not get our money’s worth out of all those lessons, after all? For us, this practice has made the original bar mitzvah an unexpected gift that keeps on giving.

Our sons are now 16, 18 and 20, and watching them step up to the bimah for their annual readings has given us major infusions of good old-fashioned Yiddishe nachas. Each year, we watch them stand a little taller, more confident in who they are, more firmly rooted as young men in the Jewish community. We are awed by their continued growth physically, spiritually and emotionally. And frankly, some years we are simply relieved that we have survived another year of their adolescence.

In our experience, the minute a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he grows faster than bamboo. The growth seems unstoppable, even frightening. This makes the first anniversary, at 14, the most physically striking. Each boy required a much larger suit and impossibly larger shoes. Their faces were also losing any residual boyish plumpness. And none of us worried about a potentially embarrassing high note cracking through the baritone that had in one year settled in for the long run.

More than that, these anniversaries allow us to sit back and mark our sons’ personal achievements, as we quietly reflect on their singular paths to adulthood. While we have sent them to Orthodox Jewish schools for their entire lives, they have each made it clear that they are individuals and will make their own choices about the way in which they will manifest Jewish values in their own lives. Like all kids, they’re a little bit like Frank Sinatra, insisting they do it “my way.”

And like nearly all parents, we’ve endured the confusion, commotion and occasional turbulence of the teen years. We’ve worried about them, argued with them, lost sleep over them. We easily remember our own teen years and the aggravation we caused our parents, although our kids don’t seem to believe us when we tell them that we were once teenagers, too. (How could anyone remember such ancient history, like before the Internet was invented?) Despite their skepticism, we really do understand that they need to carve their own paths in life. Our job is to keep loving them, encouraging them and even disciplining them, while praying that they will find a comfortable and purposeful place in the world. We pray that they will hold our values dear, even if their adolescent psyches are wired to fight us from time to time.

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives. We do not alone take credit for this. Each has benefited from caring, committed and wise teachers who have helped them see the enduring truth of Judaism in a way that kids sometimes need to get from someone not named “Mom” or “Dad.”

Too often, the bar or bat mitzvah seems an end point or culmination of Jewish education. This is a profound loss, because teens absolutely must find ways to feel independent and distinct from their parents. Too often, they can get in trouble during that search, and this is exactly the time when they need to have their essential Jewish values anchored in place through ongoing involvement with Jewish education, values and community life.

We know we’ve been blessed with kids who have chosen to make Jewish values their own. In fact, because my husband and I came to Jewish observance only as young adults, our kids are light years ahead of us in Jewish knowledge. (Sometimes, I need to ask for translations during dinner discussions. Alas, my public high school didn’t offer Aramaic as a foreign language.) And I know our special anniversary “celebrations” won’t last forever, since kids have this maddening habit of growing up and moving away. So I have to savor these opportunities while I can, watching my young men stand up and lead the congregation, while I sit back and smile in gratitude and wonder.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.” Read more of her work at www.judygruen.com.