London Orthodox, non-Jews face off over planning laws


Non-Jewish residents of the heavily haredi Orthodox-populated London neighborhood of Hackney have launched a campaign to prevent Orthodox Jews from changing city planning regulations.

A group named Hackney Planning Watch recently produced a flyer warning: “Your neighborhood is in danger! Want your neighbor to extend their home to cover the whole of their back garden? Want to wake up and find a school has moved in next door?”

The flyer is part of the group’s fight against the bid of a largely haredi Orthodox rival group named Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum to receive control over planning in the neighborhood, which is home to a rapidly-growing community of 20,000 Orthodox Jews and to non-Jews as well, according to the British daily newspaper The Guardian.

The two groups, Hackney Planning Watch and Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum, are vying for control over planning regulations as part of the government's “big society” policy of handing planning control to local communities.

The Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum – which is led by haredim and some non-Jews – seeks to approve major extensions to lofts and to build over gardens to house a rapidly growing population.

But the Hackney Planning Watch, which reportedly is led by secular academics and trades unionists, is seeking to block such changes. Jane Holgate, a leader of Hackney Planning Watch, said she has been accused of anti-Semitism for her opposition to the plans; a claim she rejects.

A Stamford Hill Neighborhood Forum leaflet accused Hackney Planning Watch of double standards, showing a loft extension built in the street where some of its leaders live. It asked: “Is it one rule for themselves and one rule for the ethnic communities?”

Any planning forum must be approved by the local council of Hackney.

The Magic of Mimouna


Go back a few centuries and picture yourself on a small street in a Jewish neighborhood in Casablanca, Morocco, as the sun is starting to set.

You’ve just finished the late afternoon prayers on the last day of Passover, and as you head home, you see Arab grocers setting up shop and laying out butter, milk, honey and, most importantly, flour and yeast. They are doing what their ancestors did for generations: helping the Jews of Morocco prepare for the ancient tradition of Mimouna, a night when the Jews celebrated the end of Passover by opening the doors of their homes to their neighborhood.

After sundown, Jewish men would rush to gather all the supplies — either by purchasing them or receiving them as gestures of good will from local Arabs — and bring them home, where the women would prepare elaborate sweet tables.

These tables were laden with delicacies, but the star of the show was a thin, mouth-watering Moroccan crepe called the moufleta, which you would roll up with soft butter and honey. Please trust me when I tell you that to this day, few things in life are as perfect as a couple of hot, sweet, tender moufletas — right after you’ve come off a strict eight-day diet of dry matzahs.

Moufletas were not the only sweet things floating in the Arabian moonlight on the night of Mimouna. According to folklore, Mimouna was known as the ideal night to meet your sweetheart. It was a night when doors and hearts were open, and young men and women, dressed in their finest, would move and mingle like butterflies from one party and sweet table to another. (I know, it sounds a lot more romantic than speed dating.)

The free-flowing and joyful atmosphere that made you feel the promise of finding love was not a coincidence. The night of Mimouna was all about bringing good fortune into your life. After eight days of prohibitions, Mimouna was the night you broke free, the night anything was possible.

For the Jews of Morocco, Mimouna was the Jewish holiday that celebrated optimism.

All night long, people would give the same greeting over and over again: “Terbach,” an Arab word that roughly means, “May you win and be fortunate.”

The word “mimouna” itself combines the Hebrew/Aramaic root “mammon,” which means riches, with the Hebrew word “emunah,” which means faith. Have faith in your good fortune: If Mimouna ever becomes a big deal in California, I bet the California Lottery would salivate to sponsor Mimouna parties.

As many of you know, the mainstreaming of Mimouna has already happened in Israel. The tradition has morphed from magical nights among neighbors to loud daytime barbecues in public parks, where politicians of all stripes come to sell their wares. I’m guessing the politicians want in on the good Mimouna vibes, which might explain why they’ve made it a national holiday.

From what I hear, the rabbis in Israel also got involved. They were afraid that people would rush out to buy their moufleta ingredients before the holiday was officially over, so they nudged Mimouna into the bright sun of the next day.

These rabbis obviously have no feel for romance — Mimouna is for the moon, not the sun. My memories of Mimouna nights in Casablanca can never mesh with the notion of an afternoon barbecue in a public park. Even though I was only a child, I recall feeling this mysterious, nighttime magic in the air. Even the nervous rush after sundown to gather the goods and prepare the sweet tables were part of the excitement.

But the magic of Mimouna was not just the sweet tables and the Arabian nights. There was something else.

When I talk to Sephardic Jews today who spent a big part of their lives in Morocco, they go on and on about Mimouna. It’s like they’re talking about an ex-girlfriend they were madly in love with and wish they had married. There’s a sense of nostalgia, yes, but also of loss — a loss of what that one night represented.

It’s true that they have tried to take Mimouna with them. In Montreal, where I grew up and where there is a large Moroccan Jewish community, people drive to fancy Mimouna parties all over town until the early morning hours. Even here in Los Angeles, there are Mimouna parties sprinkled all over the area, especially in Moroccan Jewish homes.

But everyone knows there’s something missing. You could serve the world’s greatest moufletas (my mother’s), wear a gold-laced caftan and have a live Middle Eastern band, and there would still be something missing.

It’s the neighborhood.

Mimouna represented the love and intimacy of a neighborhood. There’s nothing like popping in to see 10, 20, 30 different neighbors on the same night, most of whom you see all the time — especially when you know your great-great-great-grandparents probably did the same thing in the same place.

According to tradition, Mimouna itself came out of a neighborhood need. Because many Jewish families in Morocco each had their own Passover customs, Passover week was the one time of the year when families would usually not eat in each other’s homes.

Mimouna was a way for the neighborhood to dramatically make up for this week of limited hospitality — a night when things got back to normal, and everyone invited everyone.

If Passover was the holiday that drew you in — toward yourself, your home, your family — Mimouna was the holiday that blew you away, back to the neighbors, your friends, your freedom, your dreams, maybe even your future love.

Many years later, I find myself living again in a Jewish neighborhood, and I can’t help wondering if my moving here had something to do with my memories of another neighborhood.

Especially on that one magical night of the year, when the moufletas were hot, the doors were open and everything was possible. l

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)


It’s one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There’s a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool,elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don’t really feel their presence.

I’m talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico — commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini — has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you’ll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad — a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building — and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it’s an easy answer: Chabad doesn’t make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on “giving you” a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there isn’t a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He’s a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn’t just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles — with an emphasis on the Westside — but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He’s like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn’t faze him. He thinks there’s a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there’s a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I’ve rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn’t heard of “Schwartzie”; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it’s a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat “dinner for 30 strangers” at Schwartzie and Olivia’s (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer’s Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don’t get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over “profoundly important” issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko’s on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There’s no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It’s the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I’m guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Mayor implores people of faith to fight homelessness


“Local communities have to provide services and supportive housing. We can’t be a city that grows in one part and leaves people destitute in another,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a crowd of more than 300 at Leo Baeck Temple on Sunday.

Teachings from the Torah, as well as triumphs on the football field, set the tone for a conference on homelessness, which also included County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Ed Edelman, retired county supervisor and special representative for homeless initiatives for the City of Santa Monica; L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl; and a panel of agency leaders, ready to enlist the conference participants in a wide range of activities.

“Homelessness is curable and we must cure it,” Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen said in his welcoming remarks. “Jews know too well the experience of being strangers and outsiders. We have lived in countless places where there were no homes for us.”

More than 90,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, about 15,000 of them in downtown’s skid row.

“Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being America’s homeless capital,” the mayor said, adding that the city is also home to 262,500 millionaires.

The mayor emphasized that homelessness is pervasive throughout the county.

“We have 15 council districts and 87 neighborhood councils, and at the end of the day we have to articulate a common vision…. Every neighborhood has the responsibility to bear the challenge of homelessness,” Villaraigosa said, citing studies showing that contrary to residents’ fears, property values do not fall, nor does crime increase when supportive housing is provided for the previously homeless.

Rosendahl cited a recent survey that had found scores of homeless people in West Los Angeles as well as Venice. Yaroslavky, emphasized that religious communities, which share a vision and passion for social justice can play a key role.

“The county has allocated $100 million for homelessness,” he said. “At one point that was as unlikely as UCLA beating USC in football. For the first time in my career, the political landscape is right for tackling this issue.”

A panel of directors of programs that provide services for the homeless provided the audience with specific programs that could use their services.

Adlai Wertman, the CEO of Chrysalis, which finds jobs for as many as 2,000 homeless people each year, left a career on Wall Street to work with the homeless.

“Why?” he asks. “First and foremost because I’m a Jew. I’m a wannabe rabbi. I spend four or five hours a week studying Torah; it was hard for me to read about the duty of taking care of the poor and the hungry without taking action.”

The New Direction Choir, composed of previously homeless veterans who’ve worked with the New Directions orgainzaton, had earlier provided concrete evidence through song and testimonies to the successes of their programs.

“I am a member of this congregation,” said Toni Reinis, executive director of the New Directions. “So I have to cite something. Our tradition teaches us that the recognition of injustice is not sufficient. Awareness must be followed by action. Real tzedakah is only committed through our acts of righteousness.”

Reinis urged members of the audience to stop by the Veteran’s Village Diner on the grounds of the Veteran’s Administration in West Los Angeles, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.

Joel Roberts, the CEO of PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, introduced Mary Erickson of Imagine LA, a group whose goal is to help every faith-based community in Los Angeles to “adopt” one of the city’s 8,000 homeless families for a two year period.

The conference was spearheaded by Ralph Fertig, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. Fertig, who has long been active in the struggle for human and civil rights, joined Leo Baeck two years ago because of its tradition of social justice programming. The ex-Freedom Rider and civil rights lawyer approached the temple’s rabbis in the hope of engaging the congregation in issues of homelessness.

“We decided a conference would be the perfect opportunity to get our members’ sleeves rolled up,” said Rabbi Leah Lewis, who was also a key organizer.

“We though this could be a launching pad for more involvement.”

After the presentations, Edelman and Fertig urged everyone to sign up as volunteers. Their exhortations were echoed by Lewis in her concluding remarks.

“The Chanukah season is our time to re-dedicate ourselves to stand up for what is right,” she said. “The Macabees were not deterred by the enormity of their task. Like the Macabees, we move forward one step at a time. For us at Leo Baeck, partnering with all these agencies is our congregational first step.”

“There is no community or city or region in the country that has dealt successfully with homelessness without the full participation from religious communities of all faiths standing up for community responsibility,” said Torie Osborn, Villaraigosa’s senior adviser on homelessness.

“I’m especially delighted about the religious community coming together with the city and county,” Chasen said as the congregants moved to an adjoining room where tables were covered with snacks, literature and sign-up sheets.

“The remarkable thing is that both Mayor Villaraigosa and Supervisor Yaroslavsky came,” he said. “The city and the county have not always worked together on homelessness. It’s a great sign of successes to come.”

In the ‘hood, the treat is no trick


If you’re one of those people that took the kids out on Halloween, there’s a good chance you avoided Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods like Pico-Robertson.

Because believe me, they don’t trick or treat in the hood.

This is not a polite refusal to partake in something foreign, like, say, some ultra-Orthodox might respectfully abstain from celebrating Thanksgiving. No, this is an assertive, purposeful rejection. Halloween is seen as the crowning achievement of secular emptiness. You celebrate, glorify, trivialize and idolize something as deep and holy as death, and in return, your kids get to gorge on KitKats and day-glow jawbreakers.

In the same way that the hustle and bustle on the day before Shabbat gives you a good sense of what the hood is about, the eerie silence on the night of Halloween tells you just as much. There might be a wild Mardis Gras-type carnival happening a mile up on Santa Monica Boulevard, but in the hood, the only costumes you’ll see are on the Chasids coming out of Chabad.

In fact, several of my neighbors use Halloween to get a good deal on Purim costumes. Apparently, Halloween has become, in retail terms, bigger than Christmas. So on the day after Halloween, you can get some real bargains on costumes, even some that you can use a few months later on Purim.

The analogy with Purim is instructive. On the surface, they share a certain symmetry: Lots of silly fun around crazy costumes. But you don’t need to dig too deep to see that in many ways, they are polar opposites. While Halloween itself has a religious ancestry — a day certain Christian groups would celebrate “all the saints” — today it is devoid of any spirituality, and has evolved (devolved?) into an occasion to celebrate ghosts, goblins, witches, skeletons and other symbols of evil and death.

Because American commerce can mainstream just about anything, by the time it filters down to our children, Halloween becomes a commercial extravaganza where parents can “bond” with their kids while picking out a $49 costume at Kmart, and then go trick or treating for simple carbs on local streets. In America, even the ghoulish can be made to appear wholesome.

Purim is harder to trivialize, because the rituals themselves are so connected to the religious component. The bad guy is not a spooky mystery — he’s got a name (Haman). The religious text that we read on Purim (the Megillah), tells us to turn the tables on our enemies after our victory, so we put on costumes to look like them. We put on great parties because the text also instructs us to partake in “feasting and gladness.” And to top it off, even the candy and the munchies (mishloach manot) that we exchange with each other and donate to the poor have a direct connection to the holy texts.

In other words, while Halloween revels in the fear and symbols of death, Purim celebrates the holiness and glory of survival. Is it any wonder, then, that observant Jews would rather wait for Purim to have a costume party with their kids?

My problem is that until I moved to the hood a few months ago, my family and I were living in what could be called the Halloween capital of the world (West Hollywood). So naturally, a few weeks ago the kids started asking about our trick or treating plans for this year. It wasn’t easy to give them an answer.

I must admit, though, that I’m conflicted on this subject. As a grown up, I find the Halloween rituals empty and idiotic, not to mention unhealthy. But there’s the problem of this little voice that reminds me of how much I loved it when I was a kid — how my brother and I would spend weeks preparing our Batman and Robin costumes, and how we got such a kick walking with my father (an Orthodox Jew) in the neighborhood instead of doing our homework, and then getting free candy!

So what do I tell the kids? Real Jews don’t trick or treat? Wait until Purim? I know you did it last year but now we’re in a new neighborhood?

I talked with some perfectly coiffed frum supermoms of the hood, and just as I suspected, they all said pretty much the same thing: Halloween is a non-issue. Nobody tricks or treats around here; it’s a vile, dumb holiday. (Hey, who am I to argue?)

A few days before Halloween, though, I got an inkling that my new neighborhood might still, somehow, come to my rescue.

Lately my kids have been spending a lot of time with new friends they have made on our block. On the Shabbat before Halloween, I overheard one of my kids bring up the subject of trick or treating with these new observant friends, and I saw how they got virtually no reaction. I think this might have had an effect, since the subject didn’t come up for the next 24 hours — but I was certainly not out of the woods.

So I conspired with a supermom who is helping me plan a Halloween Seduction Prevention program for the big night. First, a weeknight play date (that’s a big deal), not too much fuss on the homework (also a big deal), roasting kosher marshmellows from Pico Glatt in the backyard (memories of summer, a really big deal), and, for the piece de resistance, TV watching on a weeknight! And if things get desperate, maybe we’ll do an art project and make some scary masks.

By the time you read this, the big night of ghosts and goblins will have come and gone, and I will know if the kids bought my Halloween hood alternative.

Either way, I can’t wait for Purim.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Life in the ‘hood: Gino Tortorella, hairdresser to the Jews


After 30 days of spiritual feasting, repenting, praying and partying, I think this is a good time to head into the hood and meet my buddy Gino Tortorella.

I love Gino because he’s entertaining in a Martin Scorsese sort of way — he looks like a cross between Joe Pesci and Danny Devito, with that thick New Joisey accent — and because he’s a Catholic who’s had the chutzpah to spend most of his adult life surrounded by Jews. You see, Gino and his hair salon have been a fixture in the heart of the Pico strip (a few doors down from Pat’s restaurant) since the time Richard Nixon was president (1971), so you can imagine that this man has a few things to say.

And, thank God, he does love to talk.Gino TortorellaToday, he’s looking across the street, where Hymie’s Fish Market used to be, and he’s reminiscing. Apparently, Hymie’s used to be a real hot joint back in the late ’70s. According to Gino, the food was so good (alas, it included shrimp and lobster), and the Jewish owner/hostess (“Mama” Elaine) was so well liked, that “all the stars would show up,” even big Jewish stars like Barbra Streisand and Milton Berle.

There’s no question that Gino’s got a thing for Jews. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that for the better part of 40 years, Jewish women have accounted for 90 percent to 95 percent of his hairdressing business.

He didn’t always cut hair. After being raised in a Catholic orphanage on New York’s Lower East Side, where he was shining shoes on Delancey Street at the age of 8, he lucked into a cook’s job at an Italian restaurant when he was 15. As he recalls it: “I was a bus boy; the chef dropped dead one day, and they gave me the job because the head nun at the orphanage had taught me how to cook.”

But cooking was not to be his calling, because he wanted a “more normal life.” So at 19, he learned the art of hairdressing, and has never looked back.

For several years, Gino was one of Manhattan’s hairdressers par excellence, with salons uptown and downtown, and a wealthy Jewish clientele (“Jewish women like to look good”). But his first wife, a Chinese American from whom he recently divorced, wanted to move to Los Angeles with their daughter. So to “keep the peace” and stay close to his daughter, he followed along and moved to a place he knew nothing about.

Since he didn’t yet have his California hairdresser’s license when he arrived in 1971, he started off by cutting hair on a federal Army base in El Segundo. But one question kept nagging at him: Where are all the Jews?

A buddy from New York told him to “go look in Beverly Hills,” but he found the rents there too high. So one thing led to another, and next thing you know Gino’s on the phone with the owner of a tiny building on West Pico, an Orthodox Jew who ended up becoming his friend and landlord — for 35 years and counting.

A lot has changed in his neighborhood and for Gino over the years. In his heyday, when he used to advertise his salon in the local Jewish paper as “The Boys From New York,” he would have “seven cutters, three shampoo girls and three managers working all the time.”

He attributes his successful years to a discriminating clientele (“I gave them Beverly Hills service without the stuffiness”) and to an obsession with cleanliness (“My customers never walk on hair”).

He felt close enough to his Jewish clientele that he even remembers going on Friday nights to hear the sermons of Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who was related to one of his clients. Although this was a far cry from his working with Sister Rose Maria of Thousand Oaks to help with her Christian missionary work in Africa, he recalls fondly the rabbi’s universal message that “we should all get along.”

Today, it’s just Gino and his second wife, a Japanese American named Kay, who run the salon, where relics of his heyday — a mini disco ball, 1,000 pictures (including one of Pope John Paul II), tchotckies and an old TV — are everywhere. When you consider how quiet the business is these days, you wonder how Gino stays so upbeat. He realizes that the neighborhood has changed; he calls it more “ethnic,” but when pressed, he elaborates and says it’s “more religious.”

Obviously, the trend toward wigs among the newly religious has not been good for business. When I ask him why he thinks the business is down, he admits that it might have to do with him not getting any younger; that it’s not like the old days, when he could attract the hottest talent in town. But the “r” words (retirement and relocation) are both out of the question. In fact, having recovered from a recent stroke, the fit and trim Gino has been doing some strategizing.

A couple of hot-shot religious hairdressers recently approached him and told him that they would be willing to work there, and bring their clients with them, if he would close on Shabbat. This notion intrigues him, and as he walks past the empty hairdresser chairs to offer me another coffee, you can tell that he’s feeling an old fire light up.

When I tell him that I must leave because it’s almost Shabbat, he smiles, the kind of smile that must wonder what it would be like to not have to work on the hairdressers’ busiest day of the week, for someone who’s never had a Saturday off in his life.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Live from the ‘hood: we’re gonna party like it’s 5667


I love Judaism. It’s got answers for everything. If something bothers me, I just ask a million questions; I dig a little and, voila, I’m enlightened.
 
One thing that bothers me is how so many Jews go bonkers on Simchat Torah. If you’re not sure what I mean, come visit my Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the eighth night of Sukkot. It’s not quite Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnival, but you get the picture. This is the night when Grey Goose and Johnny Walker own the Pico strip.
 
As Torah scrolls are paraded inside the many shuls, a wild and crazy euphoria sweeps the strip. You’ll see Talmudic types rediscovering their rowdy inner selves, and Orthodox teenagers carousing in posse formation. There are even tourists from the Valley coming to check out the action. This is not a party, it’s the mother of all parties.
 
And please don’t think that I’m trying to coolly exclude myself from this holy balagan. My vocal chords will probably never forgive me for what I have done to them during a few Simchat Torahs past, some of which I can only faintly recollect.
 
Still, I do remember a little voice inside of me asking some uncomfortable questions, such as: How Jewish is all this rowdiness? Where is the depth and dignity so prevalent in other holidays? Can hard partying really be an expression of Torah joy?
 
I can see going a little nuts on Purim, when we celebrate a seminal victory that saved the Jewish people, but going bananas on a day of Torah?
 
So I decided to do some digging.
 
The first thing I uncovered is the special significance of the number eight. In our mystical tradition, just as the number seven alludes to time and to the cycle of nature, the number eight transcends time. It represents the day beyond days, when normal rhythms and boundaries do not apply. Simchat Torah, which falls on the eighth night of Sukkot, and celebrates something that itself transcends time (Torah), is ideally suited to break ordinary boundaries. Now stay with me; the plot thickens.
 
The explosion of joy on Simchat Torah is also the climax of a remarkable cycle of Jewish holidays that links the Torah with the liberation of our bodies and souls, by way of our emotions (I warned you). At Passover, our bodies are liberated from slavery and bondage, but this liberation is not complete until the holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the gift that gives purpose to our liberation: the Torah. This revelation is so mind-blowing that we learn the fear of God.
 
Six months later, a similar holiday pas de deux completes the cycle. The holiday of Sukkot liberates not our bodies but our souls, by freeing us from the bondage of materialism. This liberation, again, is not complete until we embrace the Torah, this time courtesy of Simchat Torah. By now, the Torah has earned our trust, so it inspires not fear but love for God’s eternal gift. There’s no fear without love, and no love without fear. Thanks to Simchat Torah, this holy cycle of liberation is now complete, and we can go party.
 
Is it any wonder, then, that we go a little over the top on Simchat Torah? On a day that transcends time, when we’ve liberated our souls, our love of Torah and our single malts, how could we not have a celebration to end all celebrations?How could we not get even a little rowdy?
 
It’s as if God is throwing us a party and picking up the tab, telling us that if we’re so madly in love, it’s OK to get a little carried away. Come to think of it, God must be pretty happy with us. Really, could you think of another people that reserves its most joyous day of the year to celebrate … a book! And raises it really high like a professional athlete raises a championship trophy?
 
You can bet that in my new neighborhood, this book will be raised really high.
 
Nothing Jewish is done halfway here. If Simchat Torah takes the joy of Judaism to another level, then I must live in the Simchat Torah of neighborhoods.
 
On the big night, I’ll probably start by watching grown men dance on tables at the Pinto shul, and then meander my way to the B’nai David parking lot, where Chabad usually throws its annual bash. With one of my kids on my shoulders, and the others ready for their annual Torah song and dance, I’ll then face an embarrassment of riches: killer celebrations at Aish, Beth Jacob, YICC (Young Israel of Century City), Mogen David and many more.
 
Wherever we end up, though, I don’t think I’ll be too bothered if people get rowdy, as long as their souls are liberated.
 

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Sheinkin Street meets superhighway


Sheinkin Street is not what it used to be.

At least that’s the common sentiment among those who remember the street’s heyday in the late 1980s to mid-’90s, when the neighborhood was Israel’s bohemian center — hip, funky, free-spirited, and on the vanguard. It is often dubbed the Soho of Israel, or, in L.A. terms, Israel’s answer to Melrose. But in the last decade more commercial fashion chains have moved in, and the young, rebellious artsy crowd flew south to Florentine.
 
But Michael Simkin, CEO of C-Do Networks, who describes himself as a “little Jew from Liverpool,” believes that Sheinkin still retains enough of its eccentricity and bustle to perpetuate its mythic status.
 
“Sheinkin is a symbol of what is going on in modern secular Israel,” he explains, sipping coffee at a Sheinkin cafe. And he wants to share those qualities with the rest of the world, so he’s created a Web site: www.sheinkinstreet.com.
 
Offered in both Hebrew and English, the site is an “e-street” — part magazine, part online community, as well as event guide, map and online shop — and it may be the first of its kind for a single street. Ironically, the site has turned Sheinkin into brand name by highlighting its noncommercial icons: fashion boutiques, street jam sessions, the tattoo parlor, the record shop and the generally weird people walking around, particularly the Breslav Jews, who have made a hub for themselves on the street.
 
Simkin made aliyah to Israel about two years ago from Great Britain because, he said, “here I’m just a human being, as opposed to a Jew.”
 
His offices these days are right off Sheinkin, and his staff is quickly becoming Sheinkin lore. Video and photo director Arnon Maoz strolls around Sheinkin almost daily to make punchy clips about the passersby, shoppers, celebrities, shops, store owners, and landmarks that have made Sheinkin the legend.
 
“Oh, it’s you again? The Sheinkin Street people?” store owners sometimes say, with more delight than annoyance. The “Sheinkin Street people” remind them that the locale is still cool, even though so far the site has generated more online publicity than online business for them.
 
Sheinkinstreet.com is an experiment, a news-oriented way of doing e-commerce, but the one-stop information and shopping center may be a risky business strategy.
 
“We broke the rule in terms of Web sites, which says either have an information site or business site, but not both,” Simkin says.
 
Indeed, the mix of elements can be a bit overwhelming: The boutique and designer shops on Sheinkin can serve as a unique online warehouse, particularly to Jews abroad eager to “try on” Israeli trendiness, but the effectiveness of the virtual shop is easily trumped by magazine content. Since its launch in May, over 120,000 unique visitors have visited the site, but less than a dozen online purchases were made.
 
Simkin is not too bothered.
 
“I treat my business somewhat as an artist,” he says. His philosophy is to bring reality to the Internet, and he sees “reality Internet” as the next trend in cyberspace. He cites Google Earth as one example of literally bringing one location to cyber users’ fingertips, but he goes further by focusing on one location.
 
Once he nails down all the kinks, he plans to set his lens on the streets of the Big Apple for the big buzz and bucks.

Pico-Robertson: Live in the Hood


David and Deena Brandes’ house burned down on June 29. It was a small, three-bedroom house on a quiet street in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where they havelived for several years with their young daughters, Aviva and Noa.
 
On that day, David was having lunch in his study. His kids had gone off to sleep-away camp a day earlier, and he was about to start on a writing project that was behind schedule.
 
That’s when the doorbell rang. It was the house painter, and he told David that there was smoke coming from the roof. David asked the painter to get a garden hose while he called 911 and quickly grabbed some framed family photos, which he brought to the next-door neighbor.
 
When he returned a minute later, the smoke inside the house had become “billowy white.” While the painter tried to spray water, David grabbed more family photos, this time with a wet towel on his face, and he again brought them to his neighbor.
 
When he returned, a ball of fire tore through the ceiling. By now, instead of billowy white smoke, there were hundreds of surreal, ash-grey “floaters” orbiting throughout the house. The first of 13 fire trucks had already arrived, and one of the firemen asked David to immediately leave the house.
 
In all the commotion, with fire sirens blazing and neighbors starting to gather on the street, David had forgotten about Ripley, his golden retriever mutt. It was too dangerous for him to re-enter the house, so he yelled for the dog while a fireman looked inside. After a few minutes, from seemingly out of nowhere, Ripley quietly appeared. He had been hiding under the dining room table.
 
Outside, a neighbor had already alerted David’s wife, who was on her way over. While the firemen worked quickly and diligently to control the fire, David’s personal doctor, also a neighbor, showed up. His first words to David were something to the effect: “Please move into our house tonight.”
 
As he recalls it now, over a Diet Coke and a cellphone ringing with calls from insurance agents and adjusters, David’s initial emotion was not one of devastation, or even deep loss, but simply shock. When someone had suggested that he and his wife should still go on a cruise they had planned, the idea seemed so ludicrous that he couldn’t answer. The first night, when they were sleeping at their friends’ house, he remembers having his eyes open all night, and feeling as if his system had “shut down.”
 
When his hosts asked him if he wanted privacy, he replied that privacy was the last thing he wanted.
 
He was realizing how closely his house and his life were intertwined. His house was the sanctuary where his family was happy and safe, and where he had the peace of mind to do his writing, which is how he makes his living. This sanctuary, which had walls full of memories, was now ripped apart.
 
It didn’t take long for the sense of shock to give way to a sense of deep gratitude. David and Deena received so many offers to “stay at our place” or “eat at our place,” so many Shabbat invitations, so many messages reaching out to help, they had to be careful not to offend anyone when they kept saying “Sorry, we’re already invited, but maybe another day.”
 
It seemed that every time they turned around, a neighbor would offer something. A meal. A coffee. Clothing (they were lucky that the kids had taken a lot of their clothes to camp). Household items. Anything and everything.
 
Thanks to this outpouring of support from friends and neighbors too numerous to name (including fellow congregants at Beth Jacob Congregation), during the past two months of their ordeal — and it has been an ordeal — at no time did David and his family ever feel alone.
 
As I reflect on this story, part of me is in awe at the power of a neighborhood to rise to the occasion during a time of crisis. When the Brandes house came down, the same conviction that animates one to go to synagogue on Shabbat or drive a kid to school was there to help shelter a neighbor. I love that.
 
Another part of me looks at what happens in this neighborhood every day, when there is no crisis, no emergency, nothing special going on. I think of a neighbor calling from the market to see if anyone needs some challah; or another neighbor offering to take the kids to the park; or yet another neighbor letting a father know about a Shabbat drop-in party for his teenage daughter, and the list goes on; and I love that, too.
 
We’re in that time of year when Judaism seems larger than life. The Book of Life. The Days of Awe. The Day of Atonement. It’s easy to get caught up in the high drama of these big days, and forget that our Judaism lives and breathes during the quiet little days, after the big show is over and we all go home.I remember that before his house burned down, my friend David would always tell me about the little things he loved about his neighborhood — those quiet, everyday gestures among neighbors that accumulate over the years to create a real community.
 
He didn’t need the drama of a fire to know he was surrounded by an extended family. He knew it all along.
 

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Live in the hood: ‘last time the shoulder no good’


If you want to get the full flavor of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, there’s no better season than this time of year. When mainstream Judaism talks about the HighHolidays, they usually mean one or two days of Rosh Hashanah, and then the Big Day a week later. In the Hood, they don’t talk about days, they talk about the Month.
 
Think of the Month as 30 days of religious dominoes, from lighting the first candle of Rosh Hashanah to passing out after the last shot of vodka at Simchat Torah, and in between, a whirlwind of shul-going, spiritual atonement, sukkah-building, carousing and, of course, lots and lots of food.And in this part of town, you can’t say food, especially kosher food, without saying Pico Glatt.
 
When one of the Perfectly Coiffed Frum Supermoms came over a few weeks ago to work with my new nanny on creating a super kosher kitchen, every third word out of her mouth was Pico Glatt.
 
Before you actually enter Pico Glatt, which is across from Factor’s Famous Deli (“celebrating 58 years!”) and next to Paul’s Tailoring (“I’ve been here 26 years!”), you have the option of perusing a collage of overlapping fliers on the entrance doors. There’s one for Shira Smiles that covers up one for Milano Collection Wigs, which is next to fliers for David Sudaley Music, Rabbi Noach Orlevek (“Secrets of Successful Living”) for bubble.com (Juicy Bite flavour) and, among others, one for Bamboo mats to cover the sukkah (“lowest price guaranteed!”).
 
When you do enter, the first thing that hits you is an explosive aroma of competing spices. If the word ethnic had a smell, this would be it.The second thing that will probably hit you when you enter Pico Glatt is a shopping cart. You see, the first turn around the first aisle is in a constant state of gridlock, so I would suggest the alternate route eastbound between the checkout counter and the cereal display.
 
The interior look of Pico Glatt can best be described as “Busy Closet.” As you navigate the narrow aisles, you might come across a display of a new Cabernet Sauvignon, right next to a case of pre-powdered Latex gloves, just behind bottles of Downy fabric softener (Spanish only). If you wanted to put a positive spin on this look, you’d call it “Deliciously Random.”
 
Should you experience any frustration from either the gridlock or the difficulty of locating items, it’s quickly alleviated by the joy of watching Persian women order their meat from Hispanic meat cutters. (“If I keep it in the refrigerator for tomorrow, it’s OK?” “Last time the shoulder no good”).
 
The Persian influence is definitely happening at Pico Glatt. Nestled among the gefilte fish and chopped livers are prominent displays of Persian rice, Persian bread (Tehran Sangak) and several varieties of dried fruit and nuts. A brand of rice (Aftab Basmati) comes in bags of thick, rope-like material that they probably used in Mesopotamia, and that I might use as an art project with the kids.
 
If you’re like me and you like your advertising raw and innocent, keep an eye out for the signs at Pico Glatt. There are two in particular that have stuck to my neurons: one for Milky (“enjoyed 75 million times a year in Israel”) and one for an Israeli food product (Pikante Salads) that actually promoted “more weight”.
 
The nice thing about randomness is that it’s cool if nothing makes sense. For example, right below (and I mean right below) a big sign that says SUSHI is a beautiful display of fried chicken breasts, a meat-spinach-bean dish and Persian rice (day-glo orange). In fact, when I finally located the sushi, it was in-between small containers of sugar-coated almond slivers and saffron rice puddings. I bet you the Perfectly Coiffed Frum Supermoms don’t see the charm in this kind of scavenger hunting.
 
There is a little sign that says “If you need help reaching or carrying an item, please ask an employee to help.”
 
Notice that the sign says nothing about finding an item. Anyhow, good luck trying to figure out who the employees are, since most of the employees I saw looked just like the customers.
 
It’s true that there’s nothing like the conveniences of the modern supermarket: bright lights, wide aisles, clean layout, big selection, easy parking and, of course, perky people in uniforms who help you find everything you need.You won’t find perky at Pico Glatt. But if you want to really feel your Judaism, if you want to taste the “bottom of the cholent” where the rice is sticky and everything is real, you could do worse than this old-world food market on the edge of the Hood, with the big Month fast approaching.
 
Think of the Month as 30 days of religious dominoes, from lighting the first candle of Rosh Hashanah to passing out after the last shot of vodka at Simchat Torah.
 
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

A ‘Nice’ Idea Blossoms Into a Group of ‘Niceaholics’


Debbie Tenzer was having lunch with several girlfriends when the conversation got heated. “We all had such different views on where the country was headed. There was so much anger and so much scary news in the post-Sept. 11 world,” she says, recalling the devastation from hurricanes and the tsunami, terrorism threats, difficulties facing Israel and escalating deaths in Iraq. “I wished I could pull my head in and hide like a turtle.”

But that’s hardly what Tenzer, a mother of three and marketing consultant, decided to do.

She thought to herself: “I can’t single-handedly end world hunger, but I can donate some cans to a food bank. I can’t fix the entire school system, but I can donate my kids’ old books to the library.”

So she did, and her kindness was empowering.

“I realized that if you have the ability to help other people, you’re in a pretty good place,” says Tenzer, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 29 years. “It’s not always easy, because basically, we’re selfish creatures, many of us struggling every day. We have to make a choice, and it starts by doing just one nice thing.”

Tenzer decided that every Monday, she’d do something nice for others.

“It’s the hardest day of the week,” she explains, “so I wanted to start off with something I could feel good about, a personal victory,” even if it was only a five-minute gesture like making a card for senior citizens in nursing homes.
Her friends were inspired by her idea, so she sent an e-mail to 60 of them with her suggestions for kind acts they could easily do, too.

One year later, her idea has evolved into a Web site, DoOneNiceThing.com, with thousands of visitors and a weekly e-mail that reaches people in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Israel, Japan and Slovakia. Her self-funded site reinforces the idea that small acts of kindness can create lasting results and suggests simple deeds that appeal to both adults and children without usually asking for money.

She credits them with cheering up hundreds of hospitalized children, donating countless books to schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as backpacks to foster children who were literally carrying their belongings from home to home in a garbage bag.

“What kind of message does that send to them?” Tenzer asks rhetorically.
The ideas are often sent to Tenzer in the more than 200 weekly e-mails she receives from the site’s members, whom she calls “Niceaholics” because, Tenzer cautions, “you get hooked.”

Operation Feel Better, for example, encourages people to make or buy cards that she then sends to hospitalized children. “So far I’ve gotten 1,000 cards from all over the United States and as far away as China, and they’re still trickling in,” she says. The figure includes about 20 from her 14-year-old daughter.
“I brought some to UCLA Children’s Hospital and sent others to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis.”

Pulling out a big batch in a manila envelope, she adds, “These are on their way to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where sick children of all faiths lie side by side.”

Pointing to a wall in her home office that’s covered with pictures, Tenzer says, “These are some of the heroes who are making life better.”

She begins to cry as she talks about Mallory Lewis, with whom she spent the day at Fort Irwin near Barstow, the last stop before many of the soldiers are deployed to Iraq. “Some of the people we met were killed in the war. Maybe the last smile they had or their last taste of childhood was because of Mallory,” she sobs, noting that Lewis, the daughter of puppeteer Shari Lewis, performed with Lamp Chop for no fee.

“I’m not usually so emotional, but these people remind me of a higher purpose in life,” she adds. Getting teary-eyed again, she points to a picture of a young man who quit his job at a law firm to teach at an inner-city school, where he spent his free time helping students fill out college applications.

“Every one of them went to college because of him,” she said.

While some of the “nice people” Tenzer has recognized are spearheading grass-roots efforts or starting nonprofits to help the homeless, disadvantaged children, AIDS patients, abused animals or drug addicts, others are honored for simply making people smile. Bob Mortenson, for example, a retired man in his 70s, takes a walk every morning carrying a bag of cookies so that he can share something sweet with workers in his neighborhood. And on her way home from work as a gynecologist, Karen Gross has a daily ritual of dropping off treats at her local LAPD and Fire Department stations.

The one thing all the honorees have in common, Tenzer says, is their reaction to being praised.

“Every single one of them says something like, ‘Oh no, not me. Other people do so much more than I do,'” Tenzer says. “This is the sign of a truly kind person.”

When the kindness hits close to home, she’s especially grateful and pleasantly surprised.

“You won’t believe this,” she says, explaining that her younger son, Ben, a college junior who’s spending the semester in Barcelona, was recently pickpocketed. But within days, a taxi driver had found what remained of Ben’s wallet, including his credit cards and ID, and called his university in the United States so that he could arrange to return it.

“There really are a lot of nice people out there,” Tenzer says with a smile.
She attributes her sense of tikkun olam, healing the world, to her Conservative Jewish and Zionist upbringing in the Bay Area, values that she and her husband, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, have instilled in their children.
“I was always taught that we have a responsibility to other Jews and to the whole community,” she says, praising her parents for being role models. “Tikkun olam is in my soul. It’s just a reflex. It’s what’s expected of us.”
But she’s careful to point out that her site embraces people of all denominations and backgrounds.

“My goal is to unite people, not point out our differences,” she says. “I never ask people their faith, but it often comes out.”

Still, she admits that about half of all the people featured on the site are Jewish: “And I’m proud of that.”

Like her honorees, she’s also proud of her accomplishments, but won’t take all the credit. “It’s not all me by any means,” says Tenzer, who’s now working on a related book. “I just lit a match to get some light going out there. It’s the people all over the world who are keeping it going.”

Chabad Expands in Vegas


Across the parking lot of the neighborhood pub/casino in the Summerlin suburb of Las Vegas, Jewish residents, community leaders, local officials and passersby stood in the 110-degree heat recently to watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new Chabad shul.

The imposing $4.5 million structure, built from Jerusalem stone, stands at the corner of an outdoor shopping mall, not far from a day spa, French bistro, lakefront clubhouse and residential communities that boast one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the United States.

The new shul is a testament to the Jewish community’s growth in the area, which already houses another equally large Chabad campus close to the Las Vegas Strip.

Chabad of Summerlin, located about 12 miles northwest of the Strip, first made its appearance in the community about 10 years ago, when it held Shabbat and holiday services in a storefront. The number of congregants grew over the years, until some people had no choice but to pray standing in the aisles.Rabbi Yisroel Schanowitz, the shul’s rabbi, hopes that the new Chabad of Summerlin will “continue the growth of the Las Vegas Jewish community and also build strong youth activities.”

Chabad recently hired a couple from New York to assist with youth programming to make the shul experience in Las Vegas more holistic and diverse. They now have the facilities to do so: classrooms, offices, social hall, kitchen and a mikvah.The woman’s balcony of the new shul overlooks the spacious sanctuary and the delicate woodwork of the ark of the Torah.

At the opening, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) addressed the crowd, sharing her positive experiences with Chabad and praising it for its contributions to Las Vegas.

While Jewish tourists are more likely to use the Chabad campus near the Strip for services, Schanowitz believes that Chabad of Summerlin is more likely to draw visitors seeking to make their home in Vegas.

“There has been interest from people in Los Angeles to relocate here,” he said. “When they find out there is an active Chabad center, it helps their decision to move.”

For more information, visit www.chabadofsummerlin.com.

Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Oy! What A Ringtone!

A company is bringing Yiddish humor to the masses with new ringtones. MyNuMo, a California-based company that enables users to publish mobile content and sell it, announced this month that it will provide “yentatones,” Yiddish and Jewish humor ringtones voiced by San Diego actress Martha Kahn.

— Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Welcome to the Neighborhood


Like most L.A. residents, we’ve moved many times over the years. From Santa Monica to Culver City, Marina del Rey and then Westwood, it’s not easy to pick up and move 10 or 20 miles with everything you own. At least, that’s how we felt until a little over a year ago, when we made the 7,582-mile move to Jerusalem.

We rented an apartment, and after two months, we started looking for a place to buy. We were used to the traditional wooden ranch-style home with big yards, a garage and a fireplace, set in a sprawling L.A. suburban neighborhood. Of course, we knew we’d need to be flexible — Jerusalem is not, after all, Los Angeles. So we set out looking for a traditional stone ranch-style home with big yards, a garage and a fireplace, set in a sprawling Jerusalem suburb.

Our first clue that things might be just a bit different in Israel came when a realtor offered us a ride to the property he was showing. That is, he offered one of us a ride.

“Sorry,” he said, pointing across the street at his motorcycle. “I only have room for one.”

I’m not sure, but I think in California you have to prove ownership of an Infiniti or a Cadillac to secure a real estate agent’s license.

One of the other differences in Israel is that a real estate agent finds the buyer a property, but that’s about it. The next steps are to hire a lawyer, sit down with a banker and, finally — with your lawyer at your elbow — sign a contract. At first this seemed like excessive specialization. Then, on the first property we tried to buy, our lawyer discovered the city was planning to put in a new road — running right through the property we wanted to buy.

We began to get the idea.

You can find large homes in Israel, although ranch style is pretty much off the menu. Homes in Jerusalem are mostly condos, but in the suburbs there are larger properties — townhomes with private gardens and large single-family homes in communities like Efrat in Gush Etzion.

What you can find in Jerusalem depends very much on the neighborhood. In our case we wanted to be in Kiryat Moshe — a central neighborhood, and that meant getting used to a different approach to housing.

Jerusalem is small by L.A. standards, and space is at a premium. We began to figure this out when we looked at an apartment advertised as “spacious” that seemed to have only two bedrooms.

“No, there’s plenty of room,” the agent explained to my wife, Sarah, waving his hands around. “Just come through here. Wait till you see this!”

They went through a door and there, sure enough, were two more bedrooms, and what was probably the nicest kitchen (though small) she had seen yet.

“You can even rent this out as a separate unit,” the realtor explained, “if you don’t need the space.”

“But isn’t this the, uh, parking area?” Sarah asked.

The realtor smiled back. “Sure. What’s the problem? Zoning laws? If an inspector comes, just take out the beds and open it up. No big deal.”

As you would expect, each neighborhood has its own unique features. After touring a condo in the Old City with an amazing view of the Temple Mount, the agent mentioned, somewhat casually, “Of course, they’re still digging for antiquities in the basement.”

You get used to privacy in Los Angeles. Life is defined by home, work and the commute between, and meeting your neighbors takes a bit of effort and planning. Not so in Israel.

In Jerusalem, people get involved in each other’s lives. We noticed this when we first moved in, walking into our living room to find a fresh plate of cake and cookies waiting for us on a white tablecloth, set out by our landlady. Then, just a few weeks ago, our downstairs neighbor’s son had a bar mitzvah. She had a number of friends and relatives coming into town, and neighbors all through the neighborhood volunteered to host them for Shabbat.

Of course this cuts both ways, as we found when we went to take another look at the home we’re (finally) thinking of buying. We walked down the sidewalk and stopped, looking at the backyard. A boy, around 11 or 12, was sitting on the fence in the yard next door — Tom Sawyer in a kippah.

“Are you buying the house?” he asked, in tones that sounded somewhat suspicious.

“Maybe,” I answered. “We’re thinking about it.”

He kicked his feet a few times, then looked up and asked, “Do you have any children?”

“Yes, we do,” I told him. “Older than you. Why?”

He jumped off the wall and glanced at us, his expression showing impatience that anyone could miss something so obvious. “Boys to play with, of course,” he said, picking up a soccer ball and tossing it, over our heads, to a few of his friends down the block.

If we do end up buying it, I’ll tell my lawyer to be sure to check the contract carefully.

There may be a soccer clause in there somewhere.

Avi Schnurr has been a regular speaker and writer for policy institutes and other forums and received his master’s in physics from UCLA. He is married with four children, and lives, works and studies in Jerusalem.

 

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

For more information, go to

Hancock Park Infighting Escalates


Update September 25, 2007: City Building & Safety inspectors briefly interrupt Kol Nidrei services at Hancock Park shul.

Smoldering tensions between the Orthodox community and other Hancock Park residents, many of them also Jewish, are heating up anew, as a battle over neighborhood architecture has divided along lines of religious affiliation.

Residents of the upscale neighborhood are weighing whether it should become a designated Historic Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which would establish a process of scrutiny for any changes to the outside of homes. Opponents of the measure are mostly Orthodox Jews, who own an estimated 20 percent of Hancock Park’s 1,250 homes. A decision on this issue will be made by the City Council with neighborhood input, perhaps as early as this summer.

The latest battle comes nearly a year after Orthodox Jews and other residents faced off in an ugly election for control of the neighborhood council, when competing accusations of corruption and religious bias tore apart the community.

But even as halting peace efforts are under way to heal those wounds, the HPOZ fight is once again pitting Jew against Jew and neighbor against neighbor.

Proponents say the neighborhood needs to become an HPOZ to protect the 1920s and ’30s Spanish, Tudor and Mediterranean revival mansions from aesthetically dubious remodels that tamper with the historic look of the neighborhood. They also say it would improve property values. Opponents say the measure would infringe on homeowners’ rights, make improvements too costly and cumbersome and thereby hurt property values.

The fight is playing out on the wide, winding streets of this urban oasis, where orange anti-HPOZ signs and green pro-HPOZ signs have sprouted on impeccably landscaped lawns.

In the middle of the night on April 2 and 3, about 200 pro-HPOZ signs were uprooted and carted off, according to Jolene Snett, who is heading up the preservationist effort. Opponents say many anti-HPOZ signs have also been stolen.

At a March public hearing before Los Angeles’s Department of Planning, about 300 people came to voice their support or opposition to the ordinance. Nearly all of the measure’s opponents, including all of the speakers for the opposition, were Orthodox.

On May 11, the city’s Planning Commission will meet to hear a report on the public hearing, take recommendations from staff and hear more public comments. The Planning Commission will then send a recommendation to a subcommittee of the City Council, and the full council will have the final vote on whether to adopt an HPOZ ordinance for Hancock Park. That vote is expected over the summer.

The Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, The Los Angeles Conservancy and Councilman Tom LaBonge all have gone on record supporting a HPOZ for Hancock Park. The opposition is headed by the Hancock Park Residents Association, founded several years ago by Orthodox activists Michael Rosenberg and Stanley Treitel to fight against the HPOZ.

Preservationist Snett estimates that about 80 percent of Hancock Park residents support the HPOZ, while Treitel calls it a toss-up.

If established, control of the HPOZ board, which reviews proposed changes to property, would fall directly into the hands of local residents. The board would be made up of five members, three of whom live in the area, and some would have expertise in architecture or construction. Board members are appointed by the mayor, the area’s City Council member and the Cultural Heritage Commission, with the input of the local neighborhood council.

The grass-roots nature of the issue has made it tinder for the ongoing religious flare-ups in the neighborhood.

Some vocal Orthodox Jews say HPOZ is one in a long list of issues — from opposing synagogues to giving Jewish schools a hard time — whereas established neighbors have worked to keep the burgeoning Orthodox community at bay.

“The Orthodox typically have large families and want to be able to make these homes useful with expansion to accommodate the families, and they are concerned that that they will be stopped from doing this,” said Fred Gaines, an Encino lawyer who is representing a group of Orthodox residents opposed to HPOZ.

To David Rubin, chairman of Yeshivat Yavneh, a 450-child day school in Hancock Park, the issue is trust.

“Although I support the concept of preservation, I don’t support the process of local empowerment on this issue in our community,” Rubin said. “We can’t have an HPOZ controlled by a small group that has developed a double standard.”

Rubin says neighbors are much tougher on Yavneh than they are on Marlborough School, a private girls’ school in the area.

Neighbors say Marlborough is a 120-year-old school that was grandfathered in, and that Yavneh is simply expected to adhere to conditions it accepted on moving to the neighborhood in 1999.

Those conditions were brought to a Zoning Board hearing in City Hall on April 6, at which Yavneh requested permission to erect an 8-foot perimeter fence for security, and to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Saturdays from only students and their families to include alumni, board members and others associated with the school.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association opposed both requests, which would change the school’s original conditional use permit. The zoning board is expected to hand down a decision by late April.

The us-versus-them atmosphere in Hancock Park has been festering over the past decade. Residents have been locked in a 10-year legal battle over a synagogue built on a residential lot at the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, which neighbors say violates local zoning laws. Congregants argue religious freedom allows them to pray in the new building, which they constructed after tearing down a home.

Snett, the preservationist, hopes that the city’s decision on the HPOZ can be separated from the religious disputes and seen for what it is: an effort to preserve the architecture of a beautiful and historically significant neighborhood. She is banking on the preservation plan, to be put together by the city, which allows residents to individualize the terms of an HPOZ.

But the preservation plan won’t be presented until after the city council approves the HPOZ, and opponents are skeptical.

“It is unfortunate that rather than sit down and compromise, there is an insistence to keep pushing forward and having a situation where neighbor is pitted against neighbor, and the city will end up in litigation,” said Gaines, the attorney for the opponents.

Letters


Very Funny

The funniest part of your recent Purim issue was the article on Rabbi Aron Tendler’s departure from Shaarey Zedek Congregation (“Tendler Resigns Under Cloud,” March 10). In lieu of any substance, it was filled with rumors and speculation — a hilarious send-up of real journalism!

Yacov Freedman
Valley Village

Razing the JCC

Thank you so much for Tom Tugend’s insightful bit of muckraking on the Soto-Michigan JCC demolition (“Federal Government Razes Eastside JCC,” March 17). Bravo!

Unfortunately, we are still left with many unanswered questions:

1 — Where are the assets of the nonprofit. If the land was sold for $1.5 million, who benefited from the sale? A nonprofit’s assets must be reinvested into another community nonprofit. They cannot go to a private entity.

2 — How do we address the lack of coordination between elected officials? [Rep. Lucille] Roybal-Allard’s [(D-Los Angeles)] office, the mayor’s office, [City Councilman Jose] Huizar’s office?

3 — Why did the Social Security Administration building need to move in the first place? What will replace the current Social Security building?

4 — Can the important role this site played in the history of the Chicano movement, in multicultural politics and in the history of the Jewish community be commemorated within the new structure? They owe the community at least something like that.

5 — Why isn’t there yet a citywide survey of historic structures? This has never been done for lack of funds, and critical links to the past are being lost each week because of this.

6 — Where’s the mayor’s office in all of this?

7 — Who is going to finally be accountable for this debacle?

Aaron Paley
Founder
Yiddishkayt Los Angeles

My earliest childhood memories include visits to the Soto-Michigan Center, where for several years I attended Camp Manayim, the day camp that JCA operated there. My older brother was in Boy Scout Troop 171 that met at the center, and Strauss AZA also held its meetings there. The building contained far more history than anyone realizes. One more example of the historical Jewish presence has now been erased.

Brooklyn Avenue as a symbol of the Jewish community is now named for a Mexican American labor organizer who never lived on Brooklyn Avenue.

Everyone seems to have been caught flat-footed by the bureaucratic move to tear down the old center. So much incompetence at so many levels of government officialdom should be awarded a medal for stupidity and shortsightedness.

One wonders which remembrance of the Jewish past in Los Angeles will be the next to go.

Abraham Hoffman
Canoga Park

Conservative Jews

My Orthodox background and my 20-plus year commitment to Conservative Judaism make me realize how shallow Rob Eshman’s column really is (“Carnival Time,” March 17).

Our problems in Conservative Judaism have nothing to do with needing more dunk tanks. Rather we need to figure out how to engage congregants in Jewish observance and ritual.

The number of families who keep kosher declines yearly, as does the degree of Shabbat observance. Synagogue-going in general is also in great decline.

Soccer has replaced shul on Shabbos morning for many families. The movement needs to figure out how to instill in Conservative Jews the passion and desire to become more observant.

My children played sports, took music lessons, etc. Yet we went to shul every Shabbos. My son has returned to his Orthodox roots, and my daughter is an observant Conservative Jew who reads Torah and participates actively in synagogue life.

Maybe the choices parents make have something to do with it. Maybe the loosening of some observances in the entire movement are at fault. Maybe both…. But the absence of more rabbis in the dunk tank is not at the heart of the matter.

Pearl Taylor
Sherman Oaks

Hancock Park

In your article, “An Ugly Day in the Neighborhood” (March 3), my quotes and misquotes did not truly express my sentiments. I ran for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council hoping to get beyond the polarization characterizing relations between the local homeowners group and the Orthodox community, following the battle over Etz Chaim.

However, the election itself was bitterly and nastily contested, and I was one of only four Orthodox representatives elected. Still, after being contacted by an activist outside the Orthodox community seeking rapprochement, I remained guardedly optimistic.

Three meetings, six months into the process, my hopes have been dashed. The council did not meaningfully address or even discuss any issue other than a new set of by-laws that are clearly aimed at disenfranchising the Orthodox community.

The Orthodox have been labeled as “other” and are being effectively marginalized. This is true regardless of where one stood or whether one was involved with the Etz Chaim issue.

Ideally, the Neighborhood Council would follow its mandate of reaching out to the greater community and fostering tolerance and collegiality. Unfortunately, this council, elected by a mere 2 1/2 percent of the population, has no apparent interest in these ideals and is just another forum for heavy-handed political machinations and ongoing divisiveness.

Larry Eisenberg
Los Angeles

Bush’s Jewish Moment

It’s always interesting to get a glimpse of the inner workings of a left-leaning political scientist’s mind, especially when they try to analyze the reasons why many Jews are now Republicans. The amazing thing is that these political scientists almost always get it wrong.

In his essay on what he calls “The End of Bush’s ‘Jewish Moment'” (March 17), Raphael J. Sonenshein makes his whimsical use of the word “moment” to imply that those of us who are Republicans did so for a short period of time and are now re-evaluating our positions and are or will be soon returning to our womb in the Democratic fold.

The interesting thing is that many of us were Republicans long before Bush took office, even before the Reagan years, and we did so for a myriad of reasons, with clarity of purpose being one of the most important.

Finally, many of us have been impressed with the president’s actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sonenshein incorrectly calls them unilateral (ignoring the participation of Britain and others), but perhaps if another Democratic president would have taken similar action, the world would have been a much better place.

Just think if Roosevelt would have taken the same unilateral action (along with Britain and others) against Hitler before the Holocaust, but I forget. Roosevelt probably listened to political advisers like Sonenshein — progressive intellectuals.

Bill Bender
Granada Hills

Enough Europe Bashing

I am not sure as to whom I should write about my amazement as I visit Los Angeles during my spring break from Washington University and look at your paper.

The Jewish Journal, when I lived here, seemed to have more substance, but I feel that I am now reading a cheap, sensationalistic paper:

1 — I see an end of February cover with an African man (wow!) who could be Jewish, says the headline (“Is This Man a Jew,” Feb. 24). Imagine people of Los Angeles, an African Jew. Is that racism or what raising its big head? That outrageous story made it to be your cover.

2 — In “Just Joking Around” by Ed Rampell (March 17), another rant under the guise of humor: “I have so many reasons to dislike the French…. We bail this country out every 30 years…. The last war France won was led by a 12-year-old girl,” the words of Keith Barany.

3 — This kind of stand is echoed by Judea Pearl, with all my sympathy for his murdered son, who slips similarly down another dangerous generalization — now extended to all Europeans: “….What every child in Europe knew all along — who causes the troubles of the world and who can be bashed with impunity” (“For Ilan, a Eulogy,” March 17).

As a Jew, a U.S. citizen, a Frenchman and a European, I feel ashamed to read such statements being given prominence in your pages. I hope you will raise the level of your discourse soon.

Pier Marton
St. Louis, Mo.

Singled Out

Just read Amy Klein’s singles column and it tickles me how on the one hand, she dogs her well-intentioned suitor for his mid-’90s-era garb, and yet, hilariously, in the very same article, she repeatedly summons like a mantra (what else?) that well-worn, way-played out, mid-90s “Seinfeld” cliché “….Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” (“I Want You to Want Me,” March 10).

With rationale like that, there’s no need to read past the column headline to figure out why she’s so miserably and utterly unattached. Please re-title the Singles Column “Unintentional Humor.”

Name Withheld by Request

“Aryan Nation?”

Your cover photo and the caption that accompanied it on Volume 21 (Feb. 24) are chilling. Do American Jews plan to keep Israel white?

What if the photo was of an Eastern European Jew with caption: “Is this man an American and should American money be used to bring him home?”

Are we promoting a Jewish “Aryan nation?” When will it stop? Re-read “Animal Farm” by George Orwell.

Dr. Margaret England
Los Angeles

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail: letters@jewishjournal.com; or fax: (213) 368-1684

 

Shul’s Stormy Saga


With its prominent location at one of Hancock Park’s busiest intersections, at Third Street and Highland Avenue, Congregation Etz Chaim’s boxy, domed building constantly reminds area residents of a decade of ongoing tensions.

The current focus of the dispute is a lawsuit that has reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Neighbors sued in 2003, saying the congregation skirted due process and violated local zoning laws when it razed a 3,600-square-foot home and built an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary, a library and a mikvah (ritual bath) in the basement.

But the conflict has even deeper roots, to when the congregation still met at the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. Even then, neighbors contended that the daily and Shabbat services violated residential zoning laws. Then, in 1995, Congregation Etz Chaim moved from Rubin’s house, where it had been meeting for 30 years, since his father founded the congregation, to the house on Highland Avenue. In 1996, after the city, at the behest of the neighbors, tried to prevent the congregants from holding services on Highland Avenue, Etz Chaim sued the city in federal court for violating its religious freedom.

The zoning board, city council and federal court all ruled against Etz Chaim. But the shul got an 11th-hour reprieve by citing a federal law, enacted in 2000, that exempts religious institutions from local zoning. The city and Etz Chaim then entered into a settlement, permitting worshippers in the building. The pact also allowed for limited renovations that would retain the structure’s residential look.

In 2002, the congregation razed the 3,600-square-foot home. The city obtained a temporary stop-work order, saying the demolition and new construction violated the settlement, but courts later lifted that order. The congregation moved forward with the $1 million project, erecting its 8,200-square-foot structure, which its leaders say was designed to blend in with other homes – a claim some neighbors find laughable.

That brings matters to the current lawsuit, which is awaiting a trial date before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2003, the League of Residential Neighborhood Associations, composed of area residents, formed to sue Etz Chaim and the city. In the suit, residents assert that the settlement itself was illegal – that it went around city procedures designed to include neighbors in such decisions, since zoning laws should have forbidden the congregation from meeting in that location.

Meanwhile, the city also sued the congregation, saying the new construction violated the settlement agreement. That suit is also before the Ninth Circuit.

Etz Chaim, for its part, is arguing that the settlement is valid, that it did not violate the settlement and, that, in any case, federal law exempts it from zoning regulations.

 

Big Sunday Gets Big Boost From City


Big Sunday began in 1999 with 300 Jewish volunteers devoted to a day of good works. That was impressive in a city notorious for lack of civic involvement — but that was just the beginning.

What started as Mitzvah Day for congregants of Temple Israel of Hollywood gradually spread across the city and beyond the Jewish community, with 8,000 participants from all socio-economic and religious backgrounds working on 150 different projects last year. Now the event has taken another big leap — suddenly, Big Sunday is the business of the city of Los Angeles.

This year, Los Angeles assumes the headline role in sponsoring the May 7 event. The planning began officially last week at Temple Israel. About 170 attended, including about 30 representatives of city government, among them Larry Frank, deputy mayor of neighborhood and community services.

Frank said that the mayor’s office would “like to help the whole city do what you’ve been doing for the past seven years.”

“We want this to be as big as the marathon, as big as the Grammys,” he said. “We want everyone to be able to participate.”

This year, as a result of the city partnership, event founder David Levinson expects as many as 25,000 volunteers.

“Do the math,” he said at the planning meeting. “We had 8,000 last year. Mayor Villaraigosa’s citywide day of service in October drew 7,500. That’s already over 15,000.”

The variety of projects last year was diverse, ranging from bathing rescued basset hounds to furnishing apartments for the homeless. Some volunteers painted murals and planted a garden at Grand View Elementary School in Mar Vista, while another crew in the kitchen made casseroles to freeze and distribute to AIDS victims.

“My honest belief is that everyone wants to help and everyone can help,” said Levinson, a playwright and TV writer who still chairs the event.

“If someone says they can’t make it because they have a 1-year-old, I tell them to bring [the baby] to a nursing home. All she has to do is breathe, and she’ll make the residents happy,” Levinson said. “We had a blind theater group washing cars. At a party we threw for low-income seniors, one of the activities was making silk flowers for shut-ins at a nursing home.

“It’s not about the haves helping the have-nots,” he explained. “It’s about everyone working together.”

Last year’s participants hailed from more than 100 synagogues (all denominations from Reform to Orthodox to Reconstructionist), churches, schools, offices and clubs, as well as hundreds of individuals and families. They worked on almost 150 different projects from Acton to Anaheim.

As book captain, Racelle Schaefer, a Temple Israel member who has volunteered every year, spends months organizing book drives at schools.

“We also get donations of new children’s books from Houghton Mifflin,” she said. “Last year we distributed over 8,000 books throughout the city on Big Sunday.”

Corporate, private and organizational donors underwrite the day, including Temple Israel. The budget this year is $450,000. The city’s participation will include providing security, busing and street closures. Additional donors are both welcomed and needed, Levinson said.

“I have absolutely no idea how we’ll pay for it this year,” he added. “It’s a cliff-hanger, but we always figure something out.”

An improved Web site will make coordination easier. Volunteers can click on a listed project and get an automatic confirmation, map, contact person and any special instructions.

“I see Big Sunday as an appetizer platter for volunteers,” said Sherry Marks, vice chair and volunteer coordinator. “There are hundreds of worthy nonprofits that need our people. If you wanted, you could start at 7 a.m. and work at four or five different sites during the day.

“You could make meals at a shelter, take senior citizens out to tea or provide makeovers for women who are re-entering the work force,” she continued. “[The volunteering] often works as a catalyst, getting people to make an ongoing commitment to a particular organization.”

For more information visit www.bigsunday.org

 

Wandering Jew – A Nosh of the Big Apple


It seemed the perfect thing to do on a recent winter Sunday in New York — visit some synagogues and nosh on ethnic foods.

So my husband and two sons got in the car, drove through an amazingly empty Manhattan to the Lower East Side and joined the second annual Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy Noshing Tour Extravaganza.

Once home to 500 houses of prayer around the turn of the 19th century, now only about 20 remain active on the Lower East Side. The area has gone through numerous incarnations since after World War II, when many Jewish families moved up and out to other parts of the city or to the suburbs.

At one point the neighborhood was considered so dangerous, people were afraid to walk the streets at night, but now it is experiencing something of a renaissance among Jews and non-Jews alike.

We had no idea if we would be the only ones to brave the cold and damp but were pleasantly surprised; about 30 people made up our tour.

The first stop was Congregation Chasam Sopher, which was built in 1853 and is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Lower East Side.

The synagogue underwent a $3 million renovation and now is a stunning jewel boasting beautiful stained glass illuminating the 12 tribes, chandeliers and polished pews.

“This building was done from the ground to roof,” Eugene Weiser, president of the congregation, told us. The previous temple president, by the way, was his father, Morris Weiser, a Holocaust survivor.

The snacks, cookies and other sweets were a welcome treat, especially for our sons, Ben and Gabriel, ages 10 and 7.

Our next synagogue was Congregation B’nai Jacob Anshei Brezezan, also known as the Stanton Street Shul, where we gathered in the basement for herring, garbanzo beans and potatonik heated on the radiators, just as it is every morning for the men who gather for a minyan. (This nosh was appreciated more by my husband and me than our sons.)

Founded in 1894 by immigrant Jews from the town of Brezezany in Poland, the synagogue is tall and narrow, a classic example of tenement-style synagogue architecture.

Elissa Sampson, Lower East Side native, synagogue historian and enthusiastic speaker, stood on a table and told us about the stages her shul has undergone in trying to survive over the years.

She showed the synagogue’s constitution, which stipulated how much each member could expect in burial money as well as the amounts of aid tendered to the disabled, widowed or orphaned. She brought alive the sense that each of the synagogues that used to densely populate the area were tight-knit congregations that mirrored not just the recent immigrants’ home country, but their hometowns.

B’nai Jacob also is “one of the last functioning synagogues in the area that has old-timers and new arrivals,” she said. One of their youngest congregants, a 3-year-old, entered the synagogue, then grabbed a cane, so he could be like the old men he sees at prayer.

After our snack, we went upstairs to the shul. Divided by a curtain between men and women, it’s in shabby condition, with peeling frescoes, decades-old round fluorescent lights and a few boarded-up windows.

The good news is, the buckets once needed to catch the rain are gone, because the roof has been fixed.

“The windows still need to be repaired,” Sampson said. “It’s a race against time.”

The tour continued, but we almost gave up at that point. It was rainy, we seemed to be walking forever and, despite the delicious food, our spirits were flagging.

But we continued, and were glad we did. The final synagogue was Kehila Kedosha Janina, the last remaining Greek-language, Romaniote-tradition synagogue in the western hemisphere — and it is still operating in its original form.

We had never heard of Romaniote Jews, an obscure branch of Judaism, a tiny minority within a minority.

They are Jews who, after the destruction of the Second Temple, were sent on a slave ship to Rome. Instead, a storm forced them to land in Greece, where over the next 2,000 years they developed uniquely different ethnic and religious customs.

Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, president of the Association of Friends of Greek Jewry and the synagogue’s museum director, showed us the beautiful Torah scrolls wrapped around such heavy tubes that during Simcha Torah, she said, they put out a call for some of the younger, stronger men to help carry them.

The synagogue has no paid membership, but a mailing list of 3,000 households nationwide, and its leaders organize annual visits to Greece to help revitalize its Jewish community.

“We are the remnants of the Romaniote Jews,” Ikonomopoulos said.

A Holocaust memorial sits in the corner of the shul, easy to overlook but breathtaking in its simplicity. It is a Mogen David, with shards of glass representing Kristallnacht. Six memorial candles burn, for the 6 million killed. And on the ground are stones taken from Corfu that Greek Jews walked on when they were rounded up on June 9, 1944, never to return.

The building is undergoing the first stages of interior restoration, which will replace the antiquated electrical system and add air conditioning, along with re-doing plastering and painting while staying as close as possible to the look of the original interior.

Our tour ended with stuffed grape leaves, sugary sweets and, of course, olives. We then stepped out into the streets of the Lower East Side, which now — to our newly educated eyes — seemed to have a patina of the 19th century overlaid on modern Manhattan.

For tours of the Lower East Side synagogues, visit

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home


 

When the doorbell rings at the Cohens’ Pico-Robertson home — or more accurately when the door edges open, since it’s almost never locked — the littlest of Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen’s six kids grab their shoes. If it’s someone dropping off donated food or clothing, they start shlepping things in while the older ones begin sorting and organizing. If it’s someone coming to collect those items, the kids take them through the living room and yard to help them pack up the day’s offerings — unserved food salvaged from caterers; groceries donated by local markets; or furniture, clothing, toys and electronics that the area’s wealthy families don’t want, and that one of the 52 families that depend on the Cohens sorely needs.

The Cohens’ cramped three-bedroom home is the headquarters, warehouse and distribution center for Global Kindness/L.A. Chesed, the network the Cohens founded less than three years ago.

With caring brown eyes peeking out of her broad face, Yaelle, in her late 30s, is a pint-sized Moroccan tornado in bright yellow-and-orange sneakers. In a perpetually hoarse voice, she answers about 35 phone calls a day from donors and people desperate for help.

The Cohens understand desperation. Eight years ago, Nouriel’s beauty supply business went under, and the family had to give up their Beverly Hills home. He hasn’t had steady employment since then and has had to rely on his parents and family to get by.

“But now when you look ahead, you can see that was all for the purpose of good, because we had to really feel what was going on in people’s hearts and minds when they are really down,” says Nouriel, whose distinguished gray beard and smiling blue eyes do little to attest to his Persian ancestry.

The Cohens raise money to help families with rent, bills, day-school tuition or transportation. They help with bar mitzvahs, and have sent families housekeepers and gardeners to restore dignity to rundown homes.

Late every Friday afternoon the family gets a load of challah the kosher bakeries didn’t sell, and the kids, ages 1 through 12, wheel strollers and carts through the neighborhood doling out the loaves.

They host huge Shabbos lunches and singles events and help a handful of families in Canada, New York and Israel.

Often, they become de facto social workers, referring families to resources for abuse, addiction or mental health issues.

The Cohen operation shuts down from 5-8:30 p.m., so the family can have dinner, do homework and get through bedtime. But other than that, they’re on.

And on Chanukah, the Cohens sent their clients’ wish lists to Chabad of Malibu, where families purchased and wrapped the gifts. Those packages were set up in a dream-like display on the ornate furniture left over from wealthier times in the Cohen’s living room/dining room.

Recently, Nouriel started a new business and it seems to be taking off. While he looks forward to giving his family more comfortable quarters, he thanks God for the new sensitivity they have.

“We see what people throw away — thousands and thousands of dollars worth of beautiful clothing,” Nouriel says. “Why would someone throw it away? Because it means nothing. Money comes and goes. The main thing is what you are doing in this life.”

For more information call (310) 286-0800.

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen and family

MORE MENSCHES

Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

Zagat for Dating


“Where do you want to meet?” I ask my blind date on the phone for our last-minute get-together. I find it’s best to set up these things in haste, on the fly, soon after a phone call, so expectations are kept to the barest minimum. (And yet, somehow, no matter how low hopes seem to be, disappointment always seems possible.)

“How about the Coffee Bean on Wilshire?” he says. It’s a nice place, actually, for a Coffee Bean. With a fire pit outside and the cool ocean air wafting in from the water a dozen blocks away, it’s reminiscent of a perpetual fall night with chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But suddenly an image of my last date there pops into my mind. He was a very confident (read: obnoxious) Israeli, who confused our heated political debate for passion rather than loathing.

“You must like me,” the Israeli said after a time.

“Why’s that?” I wondered aloud, because I certainly did not.

“Because you’re still sitting here,” he concluded.

In his estimation, because the date had lasted longer than an hour, and I hadn’t fled like other women before me, I was smitten. So when he persisted in talking about politics despite my attempts to steer the conversation somewhere less conflicted, I considered throwing him in the fire pit next to us, but decided I’d not be able to lift his 200-pound frame. So I got up to leave.

“You said I could,” I explained over my shoulder on my way out.

So I tell my soon-to-be date, “Let’s not go to the Coffee Bean.”

When it comes to dating, much has been written about territorial acquisitions: How you should never date someone in your neighborhood because who will acquire the local hangouts after the breakup. (My last boyfriend was from the east side — way east — and when I saw him after the breakup at the Sunday Santa Monica market I wanted to shout, “Mine! This is my neighborhood! My territory! My settlement in the breakup proceedings!”)

Here in Los Angeles, our services are more important than our dates. (I learned this the hard way by dating my mechanic’s assistant — a budding screenwriter — and soon had to find a new mechanic. Not worth it.)

Maybe it sounds silly, but consider this: I am a woman who left New York City — a giant metropolis of millions of people and millions of square miles — just because it reminded me too much of my ex-boyfriend: That street in Times Square where he first surprised me and kissed me; that restaurant on 14th Street where he told me he needed some space; the green chess bench on the Lower East Side where he kissed me one last time and told me he wanted me back; that club on the Upper West Side, where, years later, after a broken engagement (his), he drunkenly confessed he still loved me; that cafe in the Village the next day where he denied it all and blamed it on the wine. In the end, it had seemed like the whole city was a backdrop — scenery created solely for our relationship — so when that was over, I fled. I just couldn’t bear it.

One of the beauties of Los Angeles is that it’s so big. (Come to think of it, I’ve almost never run into a former date here; I wonder if they were just imported here for that one evening with me…?) I don’t feel in danger of this city being ruined for me because of a relationship. But dating, that’s a different story. Do I really want to slowly but surely taint every restaurant and cafe in the city with a scene from my one-hit-wonders?

There are alternate strategies: You can inundate a place with so many dates that a particular bad one no longer stands out. Still, I can’t go to Casa Del Mar for a drink now because the ghosts of Dubious Gay Guy, Argumentative Man, This Was a Bad Idea Man and many more haunt the cavernous, beautiful room.

I’m not so cynical to say that all places are tainted by bad dates. Great dates can take a place out of the running, too: That awesome night at Canter’s where he and I stayed up till 3, 4, 5 a.m.? Who knows. I fell in love, I think, somewhere between the coleslaw and the kasha varnishkes, or maybe laughing at the ancient, bored waitress or out in the parking lot in front of a mural depicting the history of Jewish Los Angeles. I can’t go to Canter’s on a date anymore — or any of the other places I’ve left pieces of my heart — because of sweet nostalgia.

Am I too sentimental? Do I take mistake the background for the foreground? Humphrey Bogart said it best in “Casablanca:” “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine….”

But listen: a girl has got to dine out. So tonight after running through my Dating Zagat’s (Starbuck’s on Main Street, 22: Good lighting but “tedious conversationalist,” in the “nice outfit” was “mean to waitress” and “put me to sleep” despite “triple latte/no foam.”)

So I pick a sweet little cafe for writers and daters in Santa Monica with couches and cute little lamps and funny drinks like Creamsicles and Fudgesickles — in other words, a place I’d never need to go to again in case things don’t work out.

But go figure. My date is cute and he’s sweet and he’s hard to pin down into one neat little box — i.e., he’s an actual person, not just some bad date to sum up in a rating — and who knows what will happen in the future for us?

This sweet little cafe could become our place — or at least the place where we had our first date.

Oh brother, here we go again.

 

Bike the Big Apple


Chasidic Williamsburg, Roosevelt Island and Long Island City are easily navigable by bicycle, but given New York’s frenetic pace, you might prefer an expert take you there.

Bronx native Joel Seidenstein stands ready at the handlebars.

After 33 years teaching social studies in the city public schools, Seidenstein launched Bike the Big Apple bicycle tours as a second career. His professional experience and Borscht Belt one-liners make this Teaneck, N.J. resident a charming guide.

On a recent Friday, I joined Seidenstein, a second guide and eight tourists for the “Back to the Old Country — The Ethnic Apple Tour.” For five hours and 18 miles we cycled over bridges and waterways, dodging traffic jams, potholes and hazards by taking “quieter” streets. (This is New York, after all.) It was a great alternative to explore the city’s ethnic diversity and visit one of its most interesting Jewish areas: Williamsburg.

Our tour began on Second Avenue as we picked up our bikes at the Pedal Pusher Bike Shop on the Upper East Side. Equipped with helmets and Velcroed ankle ties to keep pants from getting caught in bike chains, we headed south, single file, to 60th Street. We schlepped our bikes up a flight of stairs and wheeled them on to a massive tram for a ride over the East River. Featured in the smash film “Spider-Man,” this Swiss-made ski tram was installed about 30 years ago. It is one of the few of its kind operating in an urban setting. Surrounded by windows on all sides, the 360-degree view was spectacular.

Within minutes we landed on Roosevelt Island. While we stopped and admired the views, Seidenstein explained how the island evolved into a “city within the city” as a refuge for smallpox victims, the insane and criminals. Once known as Welfare Island, it was filled with institutions and “undesirables” from the bigger city just across the river.

Seidenstein led us on our bikes across the island, pointing out landmarks along the way. When we reached the northern tip of the island facing Hell’s Gate, Gracie Mansion and the Triborough Bridge, Seidenstein read to us from Charles Dickens, who visited the island 150 years ago and described the “ugly nakedness of these houses of hell.”

To leave the island, we pedaled up the 59th Street Bridge to Queens, then past the former Pepsi-Cola plant to Long Island City, where we stopped at a small park at the end of the railroad tracks. With the beautiful backdrop of the city behind him, Seidenstein recalled the history of the neighborhood and how barges met trains delivering goods destined for the city.

As we made our way into the heart of the neighborhood, Seidenstein pointed out the ethnic mix of the area. Examples were everywhere. A Spanish bodega called Los Amigos Deli stood in the shadow of the Italian Manetta Ristorante.

Soon after we were in Greenpoint, a Polish-Russian neighborhood that also has an Islamic presence. Mosques and Orthodox churches stand practically side by side. While the rest of our group, which wasn’t Jewish, went on to eat in a non-kosher Thai restaurant, I continued on to Williamsburg, with the plan that our group would join me there after lunch.

I had a great time exploring this Chasidic neighborhood on bike, meandering down the streets and into a few shops. An estimated 60,000 Satmars call Williamsburg home, and I found myself amid the Sabbath eve bustle. I felt a bit out of place as a modern woman with a bicycle in tow, but knowing that I was soon to be joining their pre-Shabbat rush, I also felt a certain kinship and an appreciation for their traditional way of life and the preservation of many important Jewish values.

When the rest of the tour group rejoined me soon after, Seidenstein asked me to translate Hebrew writing spray-painted on the sidewalk that encouraged the observance of the “holy Shabbos.” As we stood there discussing the Satmar way of life, the local bus rolled by, the words “Williamsburg Trolley” spelled out above the windshield in Hebrew letters.

From Williamsburg we continued onward past a few other sites, including the old Navy Yard, where director Steven Spielberg has purchased property to build a “Hollywood of the East.”

Leaving Brooklyn, the Friday traffic was heavy, but the view of Lower Manhattan was well worth it. Our ascent onto the Brooklyn Bridge was the perfect finale. The expansive skyline unfolded to our left and right. Once we reached the halfway point, Seidenstein wowed us with more historic details about the fascinating construction of this architectural masterpiece.

For more information, call (877) 865-0078 or visit

7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, October 1

Ditch the stuffy fundraising dinners in favor of two benefits this weekend that actually sound fun. Today’s “Hugs for Ari” is a carnival-style dinner-dance at the Santa Monica Pier. Huge auction prizes like tickets to Pearl Jam in Buenos Aires, plus roaming magicians and clowns and free rides on the giant carousel make the event adult and kid-friendly, all while helping the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. (See Sunday’s listing for our other benefit “pick.”)

6:30 p.m. $125 (adults), $50 (children). Santa Monica Pier Carousel, Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (323) 655-8525.

Sunday, October 2

The Los Angeles Conservancy makes the bold attempt of “turning Los Angeles into a living museum,” starting today with “Curating the City: Wilshire Boulevard.” The one-day, self-guided architectural tour of L.A.’s historic street includes docent-led tour sites along the route, including one at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

$12.50-$35. (213) 623-2849. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Monday, October 3

A timely CD for the High Holidays recently released by the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music is an all-Leonard Bernstein recording of “Kaddish, Symphony No. 3,” a deeply personal and reflective work that is the last version of several Bernstein rewrote over the years, and “Chichester Psalms,” a setting of Psalm texts performed by chorus, boy soloist and orchestra.

$5.99. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Tuesday, October 4

Your favorite red-headed “hard-knock life” orphan returns to Los Angeles for just two weeks beginning tonight. “Annie” runs through Oct. 16 at the Pantages, starring the miraculously still ticking and working Mackenzie Phillips as Lily St. Regis. The show also features a new song by original songwriters Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse, “Why Should I Change a Thing?”

$25-$68. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500.

Wednesday, October 5

For those who never quite got what all the fuss was about with classical music, Robert Kapilow is here to answer, “What Makes It Great?” Hallowed for his Leonard Bernstein-esque ability to make classical music accessible to the masses, Kapilow dissects Mozart this evening at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, with the help of the New Hollywood String Quartet.

7:30 p.m. $18. 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. (562) 916-8510. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, October 6

Jew and Latino find a meeting place at the Casa del Mexicano, a Boyle Heights synagogue-cum-Latino community center, thanks to Collage Dance Theatre’s latest production, “The Entire World Is a Narrow Bridge.” The site-specific dance performance explores the history of the Boyle Heights neighborhood.

$40. Oct. 6-9, and 21-23. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Friday, October 7

Her name is Allois+. (Yep, there’s a plus sign in there.) And as intriguing as the plus sign, for which we’ve been given no explanation, is her art, for which we have. To quote the quixotic artist on her figurative paintings, “Painting is like breathing to me, an escape from reality to my own private world. I imagine this world like a small submarine, my Nautilus, where I am captain. I stake everything on the unusual and on surpassing the real,…” “Allois, Works on Metal, Canvas and Paper” runs through Oct. 15 at Lev Moross Gallery.

962 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 512-0151.

Briefs


Rabbis Against Reserves

Fifty Israeli rabbis opposed to the planned Gaza Strip pullout called on army reservists not to turn up for duty.

“The criminal expulsion mission, which the Israeli government has imposed on the army, makes any service in aid of this crime a serious sin,” the rabbis, most of whom are West Bank and Gaza Strip settlers, said in an edict published during the weekend before Shavuot. Israel plans to enlist thousands of reservists to replace conscripts to conduct the evacuation of Gaza’s 21 settlements and another four from the West Bank beginning in August. Sounding a contrary opinion, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu last week called for Israeli troops to obey the evacuation orders.

Settlers Sue Soldiers

Anti-pullout activists sued two Israeli army commanders over the evacuation of an illegal West Bank settler outpost. In an unprecedented move, the activists traveled to the homes of deputy IDF Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinski and Samaria’s commander, Col. Yuval Bazak, last week to serve them with a civil suit demanding $70,000 in damages. Israeli media reports on Sunday said that the suit rejected by the officers accused them of wantonly destroying the Givat Shalhevet outpost outside Nablus in January. The incident highlighted fears that opponents of the Gaza withdrawal could personally attack Israeli officials. Also, two settlers were detained after a struggle on Friday at the Tapuah checkpoint in which the pair fought with soldiers who had ordered them to stop putting up anti-pullout banners on security barriers, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Disarmament Demand Flouted

A Palestinian Authority minister said terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza will not be disarmed before Israel withdraws.

“The disarming of armed factions is not on the table because weapons are legal as long as the occupation exists,” Nasser al-Kidwa said in a Palestinian television interview, according to a transcript released Saturday. “Possession of weapons is a strategic issue as long as there is occupation.”

Israel condemned the declaration as flouting a demand in the U.S.-led peace “road map” for terrorist groups to be disarmed and dismantled as a prerequisite for talks on Palestinian statehood.

“We should make clear that there will be no talks on a Palestinian state unless the terrorists are disarmed,” Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim told Israel Radio on Sunday.

Ukraine, Jews Discuss Restitution

Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko met with Jewish groups to explore setting up a process for the restitution of Jewish communal properties confiscated during the Soviet era. A formal process, either via a commission or law, will speed the return of properties more than case-by-case discussions, said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. During the meeting last Friday, which included the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine and Josef Zissels, head of the Va’ad of Ukraine, an umbrella group, Yuschenko reiterated his call for support in getting the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Agreement by the U.S. Congress lifted. The Jewish groups voiced a willingness to help Ukraine “graduate” from the agreement, which links trade restrictions to Ukraine’s treatment of Jews, once progress is made on restitution.

Fridman Gets Medal Back

An Israeli Olympic champion retrieved his stolen gold medal. Gal Fridman, a windsurfer who triumphed at the 2004 Athens Games, had his medal stolen from his parents’ home last week. He was told by police Saturday that the medal had been found in a forest in central Israel. He told Israeli media that the culprit probably decided to abandon the medal after realizing they could not sell it, given the public outcry over its theft. There was no sign of the rest of the booty from the burglary, including jewelry belonging to Fridman’s mother and a handgun belonging to his father.

‘Sir Jonathan’ Leads UK Jewry

Queen Elizabeth, marking her 79th birthday, bestowed the vaunted “Sir” title on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, on Saturday in recognition of his services to the Jewish community and interfaith relations.

“This is an honor not just for me but for the Jewish community and its contributions to British life, as well as for the continuing inspiration of Jewish teachings,” Sacks, who has served as chief rabbi since 1991, said in a statement. “I hope it encourages further progress in good relations between the faiths.”

Also knighted was Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Orthodox Site Becomes Orange

A Chabad-Lubavitch news site has adopted an orange color scheme to protest the Israeli government’s Gaza withdrawal plan.

“I’m sitting here in Brooklyn, N.Y.,” Shmais.com’s CEO and founder, Levi Hodakov, told JTA, “and I’m really feeling for the Jews in Gaza here.”

Hodakov said the initiative aims to send a message to his readers to oppose the withdrawal and to inspire them to pray and learn on the Gaza Jews’ behalf.

“Every little bit counts,” he said.

Beatification of Priest Delayed

The beatification of a French priest has been postponed due to concerns over his anti-Semitic writings. The beatification of Leon Dehon was signed off on by the late Pope John Paul II, but his successor, Benedict XVI, is having Dehon’s file re-examined. Dehon, who died in 1925, was the founder of the order of priests of Sacre C’ur. Among Dehon’s anti-Semitic statements: Jews should wear a “special garment” identifying them as Jews and be “consigned to the ghettos.” According to Dehon, “anti-Semitism is a sign of hope.” French historian Jean-Dominique Durand alerted the French episcopate to the writings in February. The interruption of a beatification is extremely rare; halting the process for Dehon at this stage might be unique in Catholic history, because once a candidate’s “miracles” have been recognized, only the death of a pope can stop the process.

Tree Grows After 2,000 Years

Using a seed found in the Masada fortress, Israeli scientists have sprouted an ancient date palm tree. The date palm, which is praised in Jewish and Islamic writing, once grew throughout Israel but disappeared over the centuries. The date palms in modern Israeli agriculture are descendants of a different line of trees from other parts of the Mideast. Dr. Elaine Solowey, of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, grew the plant, which a New York Times article says dates back approximately 1,990 years, according to DNA testing.

 

‘Down’ on the Valley


“I still feel uncomfortable going back to the Valley,” 43-year-old filmmaker David Jacobson said. “To this day, I associate it with my childhood sense of feeling lost and lonely in a stark landscape. When I begin going over the 405, my spirits just start to drop.”

Jacobson’s acclaimed new film, “Down in the Valley” — which opens the Los Angeles Film Festival June 16 — draws on his memories of desolation without and within. His parents divorced when he was 2; his older brother died in a car accident when he was 13; and the introverted boy suffered nightmares and fear of the dark upon moving into a Van Nuys tract home next to the 101. “The freeway, which we heard day and night, was an ominous presence, a violent place where hurtling steel rushed past you like bullets,” he said. “We played in empty, weedy lots.”

Jacobson’s isolation was exacerbated because he discerned no historical or cultural continuity with which to connect. Since his family was secular, he said, he had no Jewish education to help him feel part of a community and guide him through rites of passage. His bar mitzvah, in a sense, was moving in with his father after his brother’s death.

His memories led him to create “Down in the Valley,” starring Edward Norton as a delusional man who claims to be a cowboy with a mysterious past. Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Norton) drifts from the Tujunga Wash to a Chasidic neighborhood as he pursues a dangerous friendship with two latchkey kids who regard him as a hero. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a rebellious teenager, and 11-year-old Lonnie (Rory Culkin), who suffers a crippling fear of the dark, also wander aimlessly through vacant lots, strip malls, freeway overpasses and fast-food joints.

Like the director’s previous films, “Criminal” (1994) and “Dahmer” (2002), “Valley,” in part, is a disquieting portrait of a man unable to function within normal society. So it’s jarring to meet the bespectacled director, who seems more like a nice Jewish boy than the creator of distressing, if lauded dramas. He is mild-mannered and friendly, despite spending 16-hour days trimming “Valley” after Cannes reviewers called it “breathtaking” but overlong. (Variety called him a “prodigiously talented” filmmaker.) Without a trace of bitterness, he said his work places him on the margins of American independent cinema, which veers more toward the quirky than the profoundly disturbing.

It was while braving multiple rejections for his understated serial killer film, “Dahmer,” around 1999 that he started writing his latest film in France — one of the many places he has lived to escape the Valley. He currently lives in Hollywood.

Since he had identified with the isolation of Dahmer’s youth (but not with his perversities), he decided to “return to the personal in an even more direct way, by exploring my childhood,” he said.

Jacobson wrote much of “Valley’s” first draft in an 18th century rococo library in Paris: “Had I been in Los Angeles, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to deal with it, so having all that physical and emotional distance helped,” he said.

While writing, Jacobson attended a series of classic Western films, and the myths and images flowed into his story. “I wanted to depict the parallels between the bleak vistas and lifestyles portrayed in the Westerns and the modest West where I lived,” he said. “Growing up in the Valley, there was this sense of solitude, the constant fear of attack and the need of a hero to save me.”

To capture flat Valley spaces that retain old West emptiness, Jacobson decided to shoot the movie in anamorphic widescreen. But while scouting locations, he discovered the kind of childhood scenarios he remembered had moved to the North Valley. In Arleta, he found the tract home with cinderblock and overgrown palm trees that served as the children’s house. Harlan, for a time, inhabits rural Sunland, where bucolic ranches also harbor “abandoned junky cars, power lines and trailers — a weird netherland that’s both urban and rural,” he said.

While scrolling through the images in a dim Los Angeles editing room, Jacobson said the story eventually became less about the Valley than children left alone to complete rites of passage. “When they are left to their own devices, it doesn’t usually have the best ending,” he said.

The 263 movies in the Los Angeles Film Festival, June 16-26, of which The Jewish Journal is a promotional affiliate, include three Israeli films focusing on women’s issues: Raphael Nadjari’s “Avanim” depicts a young wife’s resistance to a claustrophobic, male-dominated culture; Eran Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride” tells of an Israeli Druze who cannot return to her village once she crosses the border to marry her Syrian fiance; and Anat Zuria’s documentary, “Sentenced to Marriage,” traces three Orthodox wives’ battles to divorce abusive husbands. For tickets and information, call (866) 345-6337 or visit www.lafilmfest.com.

 

Remembering Tibor


As Shavuot approaches, I can’t help but remember the afternoon of the first day of Shavuot two years ago when my neighborsand I stood outside our homes and wondered whether terrorists had struck again, as the sound of sirens permeated the air and an army of helicopters circled the smoke-filled sky above the Fairfax area. We soon learned that a small airplane had crashed into an apartment building, killing the four people on board, as well as one apartment resident, 78-year-old Holocaust survivor, Tibor Reis.

Since that day, I have thought a lot about Tibor and learned much about this kind and humble man. Tibor had been studying at his beloved shul, Young Israel of Los Angeles, until 2 a.m. on the first night of Shavuot. Before attending services early the next morning, he changed his regular routine and went to the mikvah, the ritual bath. (This act would take on a much greater significance after his death because his body was too charred to perform taharah — the ritual pre-burial washing.)

Tibor had been a member of Young Israel for more than 30 years. During that time, he had never recited the haftorah. He always deferred, saying they should give the honor to someone more worthy. At the synagogue that morning, the gabbai told him that no one was more deserving and so, on the last day of his life, Tibor had the last aliyah and chanted the haftorah for the first time. The haftorah described an esoteric view of Heaven with such verses as: “The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.”

After shul, he had planned to go to a friend’s house for lunch, however he made the fateful decision to go home and get some much-needed rest. At 4 p.m., as he slept, the plane plummeted into the building. Everything in his apartment was destroyed by the fire — with the exception of his tallit and his kittel. He was buried in Israel, wearing those garments.

Tibor was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in the city of Komoren, on the Hungarian-Czechoslovakian border. He was liberated from Mauthausen concentration camp, where he helped his father survive. His mother and two brothers perished, while two other brothers, one now living in New York, the other in Israel, survived.

After the war, while living in Komoren under a very oppressive regime, Tibor was caught helping Jews escape to Austria, and was put into a Russian prison for three years. Although he was tortured, he never revealed the names of those working with him.

He was finally freed after brilliantly pleading his case before a judge. After his acquittal, a kind non-Jewish stranger helped him escape to West Berlin. He eventually made his way to America, and lived in Los Angeles for more than 30 years. He lived alone and had never married; his shul was the center of his life.

Young Israel’s Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz found special significance in Tibor’s Hebrew name, Moshe Yehuda. He said King David, who was a member of the Yehuda Tribe, also died on Shavuot; and that Moshe, who gave us the Torah on Shavuot, was considered our most humble Jew. Tibor was a serious scholar who studied every day; he spoke six languages. Young Israel is in the process of creating a library in Tibor’s memory.

Tibor took the bus downtown every day, where he repaired watches in the jewelry district. He had modest means but always gave tzedakah and tried to help others. He visited homebound people in the neighborhood on a regular basis and often sent money to his brothers and their families.

Tibor enjoyed cooking for himself and told everyone at the shul what he prepared for Shabbat, or about a great soup he made. He frequently shopped on Fairfax Avenue, and was somewhat of an institution to everyone. He walked all over and loved to schmooze along the way. People often helped carry his packages or gave him a ride home.

Those familiar with Tibor’s death ask the same question: Why did this good and decent man, who survived concentration camps and a Russian prison, die in such a horrible, violent manner? Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to this cruelest of ironies.

However, we can honor Tibor’s memory by making a special effort to reach out to those who are alone; and during Yizkor this Shavuot, we can take an extra moment to think of Tibor, as well as those who died who have no one to remember them.

Despite innumerable hardships, Tibor maintained a positive outlook and accomplished many things during his lifetime. Nothing exemplifies this more profoundly than the touching scene that took place after his memorial service at Young Israel before his body was sent to Israel for burial.

As the casket was carried down the street to his apartment building and the awaiting hearse, the sidewalks on both sides of the street were lined with an eclectic mix of Fairfax area residents. Many people cried as they stood quietly and respectfully, honoring Tibor one last time.

Rest in peace Tibor.

To contribute to the library, make checks payable to: Young Israel of L.A.-Tibor Reis Library Fund, 660 N. Spaulding Ave., L.A., CA 90036.

Gloria Baran develops social action and community service programs for children, including a variety of tzedakah projects for Camp Ramah.

 

Get ‘Wicked’ in the Windy City


If you’re not willing to wait to see the Wicked Witch of the West melt at the Pantages, you can always skip down the Yellow Brick Road, click your heels three times and say: “There’s no place like Chicago.”

“Wicked,” the Tony-award winning Oz-based musical is currently playing at the Oriental Theatre in downtown Chicago’s opulent Ford Center for the Performing Arts. The company featuring Carol Kane will leave Chicago for Los Angeles on June 12. But immediately after the touring cast leaves, a permanent cast will take over with “Saturday Night Live” alum Ana Gasteyer headlining in the role of Elphaba, the green-skinned wicked witch. The permanent troupe is expected to play through until the end of September, possibly longer. So if you are unable to secure tickets for the Los Angeles production, which ends its run on July 31, consider a trip to Chi-town.

Thanks to more than 200 theatres, the City of Big Shoulders, as Carl Sandburg called it in his 1916 poem “Chicago,” is fast becoming the City of Big Ticket Sales. Chicago features big-budget musicals like “The Lion King,” “Cats” and “Little Shop of Horrors”; notable playhouses such as The Steppenwolf Theatre (created by John Malkovich and Gary Sinese); and long-running faves, like Second City, Blue Man Group, “Menopause: the Musical” and “Late Nite Catechism.”

A song in “Wicked” describes an incredible day in the fictional Emerald City, but the same could be said of the Windy City: “One short day full of so much to do. Ev’ry way that you look in the city, there’s something exquisite you’ll want to visit before the day’s through.”

More than 2.77 million Chicagoans work, live and play in nearly 100 distinctive neighborhoods, divided by ethnicity, class and geography. Navigating the city can be a daunting, perplexing task. Luckily, Chicago Greeters (” target=”_blank”>www.chgocitytours.com) offer two-dozen excursions throughout the year that allow visitors to explore these “cities within the city.”

The heart of Jewish Chicago can be found in the neighborhood of West Rogers Park, and Devon Avenue is its main artery. Over the years the area has become ethnically and religiously diverse, featuring a plethora of Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants and shops. A large Orthodox community inhabits the area, which frequents the cleverly named kosher Chinese restaurant Mi Tsu Yun and more than 20 synagogues, most of which are Orthodox or Traditional.

The Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Michigan Avenue features something for children with the traveling exhibit, “Every Picture Tells a Story: Teaching Tolerance through Children’s Picture Books” (” target=”_blank”>www.millenniumpark.org), where outdoor concerts, gardens and an ice skating rink bring a sense of tranquility to the urban jungle.

While the views of the lakefront from the ground are incredible, nothing beats the view from the top. Visit the 150-foot Ferris Wheel overlooking Lake Michigan on Navy Pier (” target=”_blank”>www.hancock-observatory.com). Of course, there’s always the tallest building in North America (second-tallest in the world), the 110-story Sears Tower and its 103rd-floor skydeck (” target=”_blank”>www.artic.edu/aic), which houses more than 300,000 works, including Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” For interactive Americana, the Museum of Science and Industry (” target=”_blank”>www.architecture.org), which spotlights more than 50 of Chicago’s most spectacular waterfront sites. Grab a snack on board the ship, or get something really unique to the city once you disembark.

The first rule of thumb when eating in Chi-town: If it ain’t a Chicago dog, it ain’t a dog. The steam-cooked all-beef dogs, which come in a kosher variety, are only authentic when eaten with yellow mustard, pickle relish, onions, tomatoes and celery salt on a poppy-seed bun — never order ketchup.

The second rule of thumb when eating in Chi-town: Pizza isn’t pizza if it can’t be eaten with a knife and fork. For Chicago deep-dish, there’s really no wrong way to go: Pizzeria Uno and its sister restaurant Pizzeria Due’s (” target=”_blank”>www.loumalnatis.com, which will ship anywhere in the country); and, if your lucky, you’ll stumble into a little-known treasure like Joey Buona’s (” target=”_blank”>www.thedrakehotel.com), across from Oak Street Beach.

Turn the corner from the Drake and it’s shopping heaven up and down the Mag Mile with stores like Neiman-Marcus, Niketown and the American Girl Place. Your nose will beckon you to make a stop at Garrett’s Popcorn Shop at 670 N. Michigan (it’s worth the occasional 45 minute wait).

Down the street is a piece of Chicago history — the stone-built Old Chicago Water Tower, the only structure in the city to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. For another landmark, head over to State Street (“that great street”) and spend some time (and money) at the flagship Marshall Field’s department store, a city treasure for 150 years that spans an entire block and comes with its own audio tour.

At night, the city comes alive with its own vibe. Chicago is famous for its own style of the blues and some of the city’s best can be heard at B.L.U.E.S. (” target=”_blank”>www.bluechicago.com). Then toast your vacation with a breathtaking backdrop at the Hyatt Regency’s BIG Bar (chicagoregency.hyatt.com), where patrons can indulge in an 48-ounce Cosmopolitan or a “Big” “Bigger” or “Biggest” beer on tap at the longest free-standing bar in North America.

With so much to do, don’t expect a relaxing vacation in Chicago. But with its culture, cuisine and construction marvels, Chi-town just might make you feel like you’re ended up somewhere over the rainbow.

For tickets to “Wicked,” visit ” target=”_blank”>www.choosechicago.com. For more information on Chicago’s kosher options, visit

East of Western — a Kosher Cornucopia


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President Bush is declaring his hope for a Palestinian state loud and clear, and no wonder — it’s almost the price of entry to the alliance with Europe that he urgently wants to revive.

Some in the American Jewish community at first were uneasy about Bush’s push for the Palestinians, but Bush’s actions show that his commitment to Israel remains as solid as ever.

Just as Bush repeatedly has touted the benefits of a future Palestinian state at each stop along this week’s European tour, his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is determined to keep the discussion limited to the here and now when an international conference on the Palestinians convenes March 1 in London.

Rice will not allow the conference to consider the geographic contours of a Palestinian state, and instead will focus on how the United States and Europe can help the Palestinians reform a society corrupted by years of venal terrorist rule under the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“This will definitely have a more practical and pragmatic orientation,” an administration official said.

That’s fine with the Europeans, who are happy to see progress on a topic they once felt Bush neglected — even if, for now, the progress is rhetorical.

“This is probably good music to introduce the London conference,” a European diplomat said of Bush’s repeated reference to his hope that he will see a democratic Palestine.

Bush’s push for Palestinian empowerment at first alarmed some Jewish organizational leaders, who wanted to see if newly elected P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas would carry out Palestinian promises to quash terrorism.

Now that Abbas apparently is beginning to make good on his pledge — deploying troops throughout the Gaza Strip to stop attacks, and sacking those responsible for breaches — Jewish communal leaders are more on board.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations this week formally welcomed Israel’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, and congressional insiders say the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had a role in making a U.S. House of Representatives resolution praising Abbas even more pro-Palestinian then the original draft.

One factor that temporarily tempered Jewish enthusiasm was Bush’s determination to rebuild a transatlantic alliance frayed by the Iraq war.

Bush wants the Europeans on board in his plans for democratizing Iraq, corralling Iran’s nuclear ambitions and expanding global trade. But Jewish officials have felt burned in recent years by the Europeans’ perceived pro-Palestinian tilt and their failure to contain resurgent anti-Semitism.

Don’t get too exercised, cautioned David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“We should be careful every time we hear the word ‘Europe’ not to get allergic,” he said. “Bush is trying to channel the Europeans to focus more on consensus issues.”

That may be so, but the consensus appears to be shifting. Bush’s calls for Palestinian statehood have never been so frequent or emphatic.

“I’m also looking forward to working with our European partners on the Middle Eastern peace process,” Bush said Tuesday after meeting with top European Commission officials.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair “is hosting a very important meeting in London, and that is a meeting at which President Abbas will hear that the United States and the E.U. is desirous of helping this good man set up a democracy in the Palestinian territories, so that Israel will have a democratic partner in peace,” Bush continued. “I laid out a vision, the first U.S. president to do so, which said that our vision is two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. That is the goal. And I look forward to working concretely with our European friends and allies to achieve that goal.”

The day before, at another Brussels speech, Bush was applauded when he called for a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and a freeze on Israeli settlement building.

More substantively, Rice last week broke with years of U.S. policy and told Congress that $350 million in aid Bush has requested for the Palestinians — including $200 million to be delivered as soon as possible — will go directly to 34 P.A.-run projects, and not through nongovernmental organizations, a practice that had helped to lessen corruption.

The administration believes “that’s the quickest way to do it,” Rice said. “This is not the Palestinian Finance Ministry of four or five years ago, where I think we would not have wanted to see a dime go in.”

That stunned members of the House Appropriations Committee, where Rice was testifying. Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R-Mich.) asked Rice to repeat her reply because he couldn’t believe it.

“You can understand why we’re a little tense about that,” he told Rice.

One reassurance for anyone skeptical of the administration’s plans: The Israeli government is at ease with the aid plans and is happy to sit out the London conference.

But while Israel welcomes European assistance with economic and political reforms in Palestinian areas, it looks askance at any European attempt to help with security. Israeli officials prefer to channel all security measures through the Americans, fearing that multiple security initiatives run by different partners will create chaos.

The Europeans have not entirely abandoned the idea, however. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, secretary-general of NATO, said sending troops to keep the peace might yet be considered.

“If there would be a peace agreement, if there would be a need for parties to see a NATO role, I think we would have a discussion around the NATO table,” he said Tuesday on CNN.

While the Europeans are happy to limit discussions for now to such issues as infrastructure and democratic institutions, that won’t always be the case.

The London conference “will show the Palestinians that the world is getting things done, and now it’s their turn [to implement reforms],” the European diplomat said. “But you can’t pretend that what is achieved in London will last 25 years. We need to go on from there.”

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Rocket Threat Casts Shadow on Kibbutz


Kibbutz Nir’am, which is slightly closer to the Gaza Strip than Sderot, seemed dead that morning. The air was hot, harsh and still. Hardly anybody was outdoors.

Ofer Lieberman, whose office and van are plastered with stickers for Guinness, the beer he soaks up at the kibbutz’s Green Pub, had shown us the yard-wide, four-inch-deep crater in a road near the fields where the Kassam rocket landed the previous morning.

Sitting in his cramped office upstairs in the kibbutz garage, the laconic, goateed Lieberman, who runs Nir’am’s farm and handles the kibbutz’s media relations, was complaining about how Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had visited Sderot the previous day but, typical for an Israeli politician, had canceled his scheduled stop at the kibbutz.

It was the day before Sukkot, two days before Dorit Aniso, 2, and her cousin, Yuval Abebeh, 4, were killed by a Kassam in Sderot. At 10:55 a.m., a muffled boom sounded in the near distance and rattled the windows.

“That,” said Lieberman, perking up and pointing in the air, “was a Kassam.”

As we hustled down to his van, he got a call on his cellphone from the contractor building his new house. The contractor said that the Kassam had fallen nearby. But when Lieberman pulled up to the construction site, he found no sign of a rocket, so he called the contractor.

“I don’t see anything,” he told the contractor.

But there had been a misunderstanding.

“It fell near the house I live in?” Lieberman asked.

Cursing, he floored the van’s gas pedal. Nobody was at home, but three of his four daughters were in the school right near their house.

A crowd had already gathered, staring at the scorched, broken-off wings and engine of the Kassam sticking out of the dirt about 25 yards from Alon Elementary School. The school had already started the holiday, but about 30 children were there for activities. Another dozen preschoolers were in kindergarten nearby.

Shrapnel from the Kassam had flown through the windows of a cottage used as a sewing room and over the head of a seamstress sitting inside, leaving her unharmed. Many children in the school and kindergarten had screamed, cried and run out the door, but physically they were untouched.

Lieberman stood with his daughters and watched as soldiers trotted past, police cordoned off the missile site, parents hugged their children and everyone was buzzing about where they’d been and what they’d been doing when that ugly metal thing crashed on the ground.

“We were playing right over there,” said Aviv Revivo, 12, standing with two friends and pointing to a spot on the nearby lawn. “The Kassam from yesterday I saw in the air before it landed. I heard the whistle, and I looked up and I saw it flying over my house.”

Since the Kassams started shooting out of Gaza nearly two years ago, more than 100 have landed on Kibbutz Nir’am — almost as many as have fallen on Sderot. Nobody has been physically injured at the kibbutz, although one Kassam destroyed a trailer that, luckily, was unoccupied at the time, and another landed near a preschool. Now there was this latest close call.

The psychological toll has been heavy on both parents and children, who number about 300. Kassams land in their midst and Israeli army helicopters blast away at Gaza from over their heads.

“Nobody knows what’s going on here,” Lieberman said. “The press and the politicians are only interested if there’s blood. They all go running to Sderot, and not one single Cabinet minister has visited Nir’am since the Kassams started,” (On the following Sunday, Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim made up for Mofaz’s cancellation.)

“If that Kassam had fallen 30 yards away, and we’d had three dead children and 30 injured at the school,” Lieberman added, “the whole government would have shown up by now.”

Inside the school, the children were seated in a circle around Tali Simchi, who had come to the class that day, planning to lead a drama lesson, at the insistence of her daughter, Michal, 9, who was still scared from the Kassam the previous morning.

“We’re trying to make peace with the Palestinians,” Simchi told the children, “but everywhere there are extremists, and now we’re facing Hamas, who think God gave them the right to all of the land, and that’s their goal, to take it all, and that’s why they fire those missiles at Nir’am.”

“And our job, as people who live on the border,” she continued, “is — that’s right — to live with it, to live with the fear, which is natural, and to talk about how we’re afraid and to keep believing that all this will pass.”

A middle-age soldier in red paratrooper’s boots came in the door.

“Look who’s here,” Simchi told the children, grinning extra widely for effect.

It was Col. Itzik [commander of the 101 Paratrooper Battalion].

“What heroes you are,” he told the children with a similar large grin. “Everybody OK? I’m going to bring all my soldiers here to learn from you how to be heroes. Keep on protecting us, and we’ll keep on protecting you.”

“Well, I came here to give encouragement, and I leave here encouraged,” the colonel said and strode out the door.

I asked Michal how she slept at night.

“Not so well,” she said. “I’m afraid the Kassams will fall on me all the time.”

When this latest Kassam fell, she said, “All I saw was like gray in front of my eyes.”

Completely unashamed, Tom Ben Odiz said, “I cried. I’m 13, but I cried.”

When the Kassam fell, a birthday party had been in progress. Or Rabin, 9, had her arms around the birthday girl, Neta Amar, who was turning 7.

Like the other children, Neta had spoken with her parents. She didn’t seem to want to talk.

“She was in shock at first,” Or said, “but now she’s started to cry.”

Other kibbutzim near Gaza have been hit by Kassams, but none so badly as Nir’am. The kibbutz is broke; it hasn’t paid its bank debts for two years, and the water utility has threatened to cut off its water.

Like most kibbutzim, it has been struggling financially for many years, and now the Kassams have driven away its weekend bed-and-breakfast trade and summer campers, as well as many of its outside pupils and cutlery works customers.

Yet Nir’am has not been granted “confrontation-line” status such as Sderot was in July, which means it gets none of the financial breaks, like a 13 percent income tax reduction, that go to residents in that town a few hundred meters away.

Following the Kassam deaths of the young cousins, the prime minister’s office announced an aid package for Sderot neighborhoods, schools and businesses. Nir’am wasn’t mentioned.

“Everybody talks about Sderot, Sderot,” said Arianna Amar, an assistant teacher at Nir’am’s kindergarten. “I live in the Mem 3 neighborhood, the [most badly hit neighborhood] of Sderot, but the Kassams haven’t fallen here any less.”

When this last one fell so close by and the children started screaming and crying, Amar put on a brave face, hugged them and said that even though the floor had shook, the missile had actually landed far away in the fields. But she was shaking herself and tears were falling.

“I wanted to go home, but it’s no better there,” she said, adding that if there was anyway of selling their apartment, she and her family would already have moved far away from the Gaza border.

This has also been on the mind of Emma Segev. Now 31, she came to Nir’am as an 18-year-old volunteer from Brighton, England, met a young kibbutznik named Gil and married him. Now he’s an agronomist on the farm; she’s head of purchasing at the cutlery factory. They have two sons — Yuval, 5, and Ben, 2 — and today, Segev said, was “too much already.”

Standing outside the cow shed near the factory, her arms folded as if for protection, comfort or both, Segev reflected on the day and the days before.

She said, “I saw the [factory] manager go white while he was on the phone. ‘Where? It was next to the kindergarten.’ My knees buckled, I welled up. I phoned the kindergarten teacher, whose voice was shaking with fear. I heard the kids’ voices. Yuval said it had made him jump.

“Today,” Segev continued, “it went way beyond saying everything’s OK now, and going back to normal. It became so clear to me that I really feel quite irresponsible for being here with my kids. I couldn’t concentrate any more; I couldn’t get any work done. I was thinking about what we’re going to do, because I don’t think we can go on like this.

“And it absolutely breaks my heart when we hear the helicopters firing into Gaza,” she said. “I can’t imagine what a mother there is going through. I’d go back to England tomorrow, but my husband’s an Israeli — he’d agree to live in England if it wasn’t for the weather. So I think the thing to do is find a quieter, more peaceful place somewhere in Israel. Tonight we’re going to stay with Gil’s brother in Ashkelon.

“Enough,” she said, “enough for one day.”

During the nearly two-year onslaught of Kassams, none of Kibbutz Nir’am’s families had moved out. But on the Friday after the Kassam landed by the school and after another Kassam killed the two cousins in Sderot, the Segevs informed the kibbutz that they had leased a house in a desert moshav and would be moving in a week

or so.

They were taking a year’s leave of absence; after a year, they’d see if it was safe to go home.

Jewish Arsonist Worked for Paris Center


French Jewish leaders fear they may have cried wolf once too often after a Jew was arrested in connection with the well-publicized arson of a Jewish community center in central Paris.

Paris police say a 52-year-old Jewish man arrested Monday morning in connection with the Aug. 22 torching of the Judaeo-Spanish social center in the capital’s 11th district is the principal suspect in the arson.

Police said the man, identified only as "Raphael B." and described as unstable, is a former caretaker at the institution who had received free meals in return for his volunteer activities.

It is believed that the center wanted to part company with the man, provoking what police think was an act of vengeance.

Investigators found keys to the center at the man’s former rented apartment. This discovery tied in with earlier evidence, including the fact that the burned building’s front door was damaged from the inside during the arson, rather than being forced from the exterior.

The arrest shocked community leaders who had successfully mobilized the French political establishment to condemn what appeared to be an anti-Semitic attack.

Moise Cohen, president of the Paris Consistoire — the country’s principal Jewish religious group and the organization that owns the burned building — was sharply critical of community leaders he said had reacted "without taking the necessary precautions."

"From the beginning we thought this wasn’t normal," Cohen said. "The building is in a very quiet neighborhood and there was no indication on the outside that it was a former synagogue. From the start of the investigation, the police thought it was someone connected to the institution."

Cohen was equally scathing about politicians "who fear they’re going to be accused of not doing enough" to tackle anti-Semitism — though in part they have become zealous in their condemnations following stinging criticism that they weren’t taking anti-Semitism seriously enough.

In the aftermath of the attack, Jewish leaders sought to link the incident to recent cases in which judges had been lenient with anti-Semitic offenders.

The Jewish community could have been excused had its cries of anti-Semitism been isolated to one attack that turned out to have different motives. But the recent arson is only the latest example of politicians and community leaders reacting to an event with horror, only to have to ask questions later.

In July, an incident in which a young woman claimed she and her baby were attacked on a suburban train drew fierce condemnations from politicians and religious leaders — until it was discovered that the woman had made up the story.

Similarly, the recent knifing of a yeshiva student in the Paris suburbs also apparently was not motivated by anti-Semitism. And police still are investigating claims by a rabbi that he was stabbed outside his synagogue in January 2003, as reports allege that the rabbi may have stabbed himself.

Less in the media spotlight is the burning last November of an unoccupied annex of a Jewish school in the Parisian suburb of Gagny. It looks less and less likely that the incident was motivated by anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, for Jewish organizations and for the government, these cases are merely isolated incidents in a tide of nearly 300 reported acts of anti-Semitism in France since the beginning of 2004.

Roger Benarroch, vice president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jewry, said that last week’s arson and the reaction to it should "not cause us to lose sight of the essential, that the climate of anti-Semitism makes these things credible."

But he admitted that such events "give our detractors, and the anti-Semites, an excuse to doubt us."

Similar comments came from France’s Union of Jewish Students, a group in the vanguard of the fight against anti-Semitism.

However, certain groups were critical of what they regard as Israel’s exploitation of the arson incident, which came just weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called on French Jews to leave the country "immediately" because of rising anti-Semitism.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom flew hastily to Paris to hold talks with government officials and Jewish leaders following the arson, and to visit the destroyed center.

Benarroch sharply criticized the visit, saying that "the Israelis should be more careful" and "shouldn’t meddle in the internal affairs of the community."

However, Shalom last week was considerably more nuanced about the arson attack than many community leaders.

Visiting the burned-out building, Shalom told reporters "we should leave the French authorities to conduct their investigation." He added that it was "of little importance what happened here when we know that during the last six months there have been more than 170 anti-Semitic incidents [in France].

The Consistoire’s Cohen, though, issued a warning to the Jewish community.

"Sixty years after the Shoah, every anti-Semitic incident rightly goes to the community’s head," he said. "When you cry wolf, you need to be very careful and ever vigilant. We are becoming less and less credible."