Single, 60, and invisible no more


I’m over 60, single, considered sexy by some and ignored by others.

My experience is that if you are over 60, single and a woman
you’re somewhat invisible. Unfortunately, we live in a youth-oriented society where emphasis is placed on the young. So I started to make mental notes comparing similarities or differences between the under-60 singles and the over-60 singles.

I’m one of the over 60 “frontier generation” singles, someone who didn’t want to stay in a broken marriage. Before I pursued my new career — acting — I was a domestic engineer and political activist; I’m better educated than my parents’ generation, youthful, independent, in good health, vivacious and financially in a good place. I have a busy and somewhat active life with a small circle of friends. I have some baggage — I’m divorced, have married children who don’t live near me, and grandkids I don’t see very often unless I get on a plane. My youngest son, daughter-in-law and two darling grandchildren will be going to Uganda for two years, leaving early next year, so there is travel in my future. I see myself as somewhat of a risk-taker and adventurous, but I did not know what was awaiting me when I ventured out into the singles world after a long-term marriage, having been taken care of for many years.

All age groups seem to want the same thing: a soulmate, a soft shoulder to lean on occasionally, companionship for dinner in or out, theater, movies, and travel. I still enjoy cooking (and I’m good at it). I’m not too old for cuddling and hugging, and I happen to enjoy it.

I kept hearing about people meeting and connecting online, so I signed up. Well, my experience was like a bad dream, perhaps even a nightmare. Most men live in fantasyland and haven’t looked in the mirror enough to realize they are no longer 30-something. They all seem to be looking for younger women and a lost youth. My question: If these divorced men think they are God’s gift to the world, why are they single now?

One man I spoke to said music was his whole life, and he was looking for someone with the exact same interest and level of knowledge. I appreciate classical music, but that wasn’t good enough. He also had been married four times. Then there was a pharmacist who took me to lunch; he had had four marriages, although he didn’t go into any details — he didn’t want to talk about it. Then there was a widower who’d had a long-term, happy marriage and now wanted to just go out to have fun. Nothing wrong with that. He took me to dinner, a movie and then kept hinting about coming back to my place. Never happened. We couldn’t go back to his place, even if I’d wanted to, because his daughter and family had moved in with him as his caretakers. He’d fallen a few times in his house. We agreed to stay in touch. I haven’t been sitting by the phone waiting.

A date took me to the movies at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and treated me to matzah ball soup at Canter’s. I arranged to meet him in Santa Monica, because he doesn’t like to drive at night. After the movie, we got back about midnight to where my car was parked, when he started to insist I come up to his place for soy ice-cream. Didn’t happen.

Then I met a friendly, interesting lawyer. We enjoyed walking, hiking and talking; occasionally he would take me to lunch. He would eat his lunch and half of my lunch. One evening I invited him to a theater event. He said he was going out of town. That evening he showed up at the event with another woman.
After reading many profiles, I got the impression that many men — and possibly women — are still looking for their Prince/Princess Charming and want to be swept off their feet. Love at first sight.

Realistically, I’m not sure it’s going to happen, since relationships consist of someone else’s mishegoss. I came to realize that I needed to find a nice person with a good heart and to look beneath the surface. Massage the friendship, allow it to grow and develop. I think all of us need to compromise.

I now have an ongoing friendship. The Internet didn’t bring us together. It was an interesting first meeting at Starbucks; he did a reading chart based on my handwriting. He was correct about many things. It certainly caught my attention. He calls me almost daily.

We e-mail, we date occasionally, share a lot about our lives and thoughts. He travels a good deal — it’s part of his job. Recently, his daughter went off to college, so now he’s home alone with his dog.

He’s a few years younger than me, but so what.

What can I say but the beat goes on.

He’s a nice person with a good heart.

Esther W. Hersh is an actress who lives in Los Angeles.

The Trailblazer’s Toolbox: Programs That Grab


Here’s a brief rundown of the national synagogue revitalization programs that have arisen since the early 1990s.

  • Billed as the first such initiative, the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) was created in 1992. It strives to popularize Jewish learning among congregants while encouraging synagogues to embrace fundamental and long-lasting change.

    Fifty-five synagogues have participated in ECE, which has a yearly budget that generally ranges from $500,000 to $750,000. Chief funders have included The Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Mandel Associated Foundations, the Covenant Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York. Contact Rob Weinberg at (847) 328-0032 or rweinberg@huc.edu.

  • Synagogue 2000, which began in 1995, developed a wide-ranging curriculum that more than 100 synagogues have used to rethink their overall approach and to deepen their congregants’ spiritual engagement.

    This influential program recently morphed into Synagogue 3000, whose mission is to train synagogue and academic leaders in order to better implement the goals of Synagogue 2000. Among those goals: Demonstrate that synagogues do not exist just to serve the needs of congregants, according to program co-founder Ron Wolfson at the University of Judaism, but rather to motivate them to “do tikkun olam, God’s work on earth.”

    Synagogue 2000, whose annual budget topped out at roughly $2 million, was funded by several major donors, including the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Whizin Foundation, the Rose Family Foundation and the UJA-Federation. Contact Ron Wolfson or Joshua Avedon at (310) 553-7930 or info411@synagogue3000.org.

  • Three years ago, in 2003, a Minneapolis-based initiative known as Star, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, created Synaplex, which helps synagogues supplement regular Shabbat services with diverse programming, including films, music, meditation, lectures and arts and crafts.

    Synagogue
    One of three Star programs, Synaplex is based on the principle that some of today’s Jews need a variety of entry points into Jewish involvement, and that those portals — artistic, academic, activist and ritual — are equally valid vehicles for engaging Jewishly. More than 100 congregations have signed on.
    Synaplex has an annual budget of around $1 million, and its main funders include the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Jewish Life

    Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. In addition, the UJA-Federation of New York helps underwrite Synaplex at three participating synagogues.

    Contact Rabbi Hayim Herring at (952) 746-8181 or hherring@starsynagogue.org.

Scheduled Relaxation


Last Sunday afternoon I was standing in my shower scrubbing my tile. It suddenly occurred to me — in the midst of Ajax and scouring pads — that the man who was ruling my fantasies was on a plane coming back from a sure-it’s-professional junket in Las Vegas.

Something was wrong with this picture. I dropped my sponge and ran to call my girlfriend: “Hey. You gotta help me. All of this straight-and-narrow is getting to me. I need to have some fun.”

We met at a local restaurant reminiscent of the hip, urban San Francisco eateries of our 20s, had a drink, stayed late, and laughed as the waiter batted his lashes.

“Listen,” I told her over martinis. “I think I’ve forgotten how to play.”

She looked at me with the knowing eyes of a friend and said, “Me too. I feel like all I do is work on myself. Where’s the friggin’ fun part?”

What occurred to me as I started thinking about it is that I used to rely on my relationship life to have fun. I’d fly to New York, run around the city, eat passionately with my boyfriend for 10 days and come home. I’d rush home from work, throw all my clothes on the floor, don a slinky dress and feverishly drive to the beach for a drink date. I’d hike up Runyan Canyon in the middle of a storm with my dating man, laugh uproariously and kiss in the rain. It was flash and dash, delight and joy — and sometimes even love. What is was was fun.

I relied on my relationship life for downtime, too. It was the time I hung out in bed, took the slow walk around my neighborhood, had the morning-after breakfast made sloppily and slowly between intimacies.

But lately all of that has been different. I stopped dating for a while altogether (no need to go into the now-mercifully distant reason why), and in the wake of a more careful re-entry into dating life, I’ve become a project girl. Creative things that I’ve been longing to express my whole adult life I’ve taken on like a conquest. I write, I paint, I sing, I cook and I songwrite. It’s rich and it’s full and it’s fulfilling.

But what it also is is busy. And beyond my projects and an involved social life, there seems to be no genuine relaxation time. There are no goof-off, just-for-fun days where there’s nothing to do but play. I’m not sure I even remember what play-time looks like anymore.

Yet — to be totally honest — when I think back on some of those play-time, nostalgia-inducing boyfriend experiences, I have to admit that as sweet and easy as those encounters could be, they were just as often peppered by the nervous tension of “being together” when we weren’t all the way there, or by the dodging and ducking of using our intimate connection to mask other, bigger incompatibilities. That wasn’t relaxing.

As the years have gone by, I realize I’d just as soon be alone than continue to go through cycles of head-spinning effort with someone in exchange for a couple of moments of grace. So I don’t do that anymore. And though this kind of spiritual honesty has created an ease in my nervous system (and a welcome death to that horrible intimate uncertainty of giving myself where it’s not appreciated), I have to stop and wonder, have I become overworked and underplayed?

I don’t want to say that getting rid of the -isms has gotten rid of the fun part. That’s not it. But there’s something here about playing and free-falling joy that I’m missing. Something in the enjoyment of what is already here, versus the pregnant push of needing to create it. To observe, appreciate, enjoy, relax, and receive. That’s what I’m missing. And now that I’m officially dating, it seems kind of imperative to bring this ethic back onto the playing field.

I was on my cell with my wise girlfriend yesterday — the one who gives me that uncannily timed girl-advice that saves me from giving in to my idiotic post-second-date fears — and three times in row she cut out at a pivotal word.

“What?” I intoned. “On my cell. You cut out.”

She laughed outloud: “Receive, sweetheart. It kills me that you missed that. Relax and receive!”

Oh, that.

If I’ve forgotten how to have downtime, if I’ve joined the ranks of the over-diligent in my efforts to not fall into wary paths of love, then it’s time to loosen the reigns a bit. Underplaying means I have to let go of my project-queen, art-making cottage-industry, and just be done for a while.

So, with the grace of personal discovery, I’ll be amending that busy behavior, whether I’m accompanied or not. It’s time to enjoy whoever I’m seeing, and have fun on my own. It’s time to let go, go slow, play, hang out and take some time to do absolutely nothing.

Even if it means I have to schedule it.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and has recently been at work on Fox’s telenovellas “Table for Three” and “Fashion House.” Her newly completed folk-pop CD “I Burn” is online at

PASSOVER: Myriad Ways to Tell an Ancient Tale


 

Every haggadah has a story, its own story, beyond that of the exodus from Egypt. Depending on illustrations, design, typesetting, additions, where the edition is printed and who commissioned its creation, each version is a marker of Jewish history. In some cases, the wine stains on the pages tell stories too; they appear as family emblems, carrying generations of memories.

New Editions of Old Favorites

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s splendid book, first published in 1975, “Haggadah and History” (Jewish Publication Society) is now back in print. The book is scholarly, intriguing and beautiful, an aesthetic timeline of Jewish history and culture. Featured are 200 facsimile plates, depicting haggadah pages from the early days of printing in the 15th century to the 1970s, with explanations of their context.

As Yerushalmi — the Salo Wittmayer Baron professor of Jewish history, culture, and society at Columbia University, who specializes in medieval and modern Jewish history with an emphasis on Spanish, Portuguese and German Jewry — notes, the haggadah is the most popular and beloved of Jewish books.

“Scholars have meditated upon it, children delight in it,” he writes in the book’s introduction. It has been reprinted more often than any other classic text, and is the most frequently illustrated.

A haggadah printed in Poona, India in 1874, with text in Hebrew and Marathi (the language of the Bene Israel) opens with a full-page illustration showing women in saris, flowers in their hair, preparing and baking matzah, seated in classic Indian positions familiar from Hindu painting. The illustrations are modeled on an earlier version of the haggadah printed in Amsterdam, although they are Indian in tone and detail.

Other highlighted editions include the earliest illustrated haggadah, with decorative woodcuts. Its place and date of origin are unknown; it may have been printed in Spain or Portugal in the last decade of the 15th century before the expulsions, or by Sephardi exiles in Salonika or Constantinople. Also included is a version reproduced by mimeograph in North Africa in 1942 by the Palestine Jewish Brigade.

Selected from the collections of Harvard University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the haggadahs featured here are only a small percentage of the number of editions that have been published. Since Yerushalmi wrote his book, many new versions — with folk art designs, environmental themes and computer-generated illustrations — have been created.

Also new this season is “Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah” by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav), including 10 essays drawn from the writings of the late scholar and leader known as “the Rav,” who died in 1993. This volume, part of the series MeOtzar HaRav, was edited by Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler, prepared from handwritten manuscripts and tapes of the Rav’s lectures.

The first essay, “An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night,” begins on a personal note, as the Rav recalls his childhood fascination with the nights of the seder and of Kol Nidrei. He felt “entranced by these two clear, moonlit nights, both wrapped in grandeur and majesty.” Enveloped by a “strange silence, stillness, peace, quiet and serenity,” he would “surrender to a stream of inflowing joy and ecstasy.” On those nights, he sensed the presence of God; the commonality of the two is man’s encounter with God. In this and the other far-ranging philosophical essays, he goes on to explore the experiential and intellectual dimensions of the seder and the major themes of Passover.

New Haggadahs on the Shelf

“Touched by the Seder” by Rabbi Yechiel Spero, with an introduction by Rabbi Nosson Scherman (Artscroll) is a haggadah featuring inspiring stories and commentary, compiled by the author of the “Touched by a Story” series. The book includes the Artscroll translations and seder instructions. The selected stories — whether about Jews baking matzah in the Warsaw Ghetto, families showing great strength in the face of tragedy, two friends caring for a third friend immediately after he is wounded in battle while fighting in the Israeli army or Rav Chaim Berlin’s experience on Yom Kippur in the late 1800s — are a vehicle for emphasizing the teachings of the holiday

“The Chazon Ish Haggadah” (Artscroll) features the traditional haggadah text, highlighted with the writings and teachings of the late Maran Hagaon Harav Avraham Yehaya Karelitz, who was known as the Chazon Ish and died in 1953. During his lifetime, much of his work was anonymous, unsigned commentaries, and here Rabbi Asher Bergman compiles his rulings and customs regarding the seder.

An introductory section that lists the halachic rulings and practices of the Chazon Ish on preparing for the holiday notes that he ruled that “one must search books for the possible presence of crumbs.” He would set aside the books he planned to use on Pesach and, beginning several days before the holiday, would check them page by page.

On the page of text with the words “Whoever is hungry — let him come and eat,” Bergman illustrates the generosity of the Chazon Ish, who comforted and helped many Holocaust survivors who came to Israel. With money sent to him from Jews all over the world, he married off more than 100 orphan girls to young Torah scholars. He himself lived in poverty, while channeling money to Torah institutions and to the poor and sick.

“The Liberated Haggadah” by Rabbi Peter Schweitzer (Center for Cultural Judaism) is different from other haggadahs in its humanistic approach, geared to secular and cultural Jews. This haggadah acknowledges early on the author’s view that of the Exodus story as mythical rather than historical. Schweitzer, who leads the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Manhattan, recasts the story as a humanist parable, highlighting contemporary relevance.

Rituals are connected not to the historical Hebrews, but rather to an ancient springtime celebration. In addition to the traditional Four Questions, he offers translations in Ladino, German, Yiddish, Russian, French and Arabic and a set of modern questions, framing contemporary issues. He asks, “Why can we get people to the moon but we can not get the homeless adequate shelters?”

He also offers discussion questions for after the meal, raising timely issues including immigration, modern-day sex slavery and forced labor. Included are traditional and new songs, with touches of lightness and humor.

Also available this year is the “Internet Hagada” by Rabbi William Blank. The text is an edited version of the traditional text, set in contemporary English that reads well, with some Hebrew and transliteration. He also pays attention to page design, creating an attractive haggadah.

Here, the traditional four sons are four students: “One is diligent, one couldn’t care less, one is uncomplicated, one is too overwhelmed to ask questions.” Blank explains that there are no external themes imposed on the traditional material as many modern editions do; he emphasizes the universal values and deeply resonating spirituality of the seder.

Blank, who lives in Sacramento, says that he grew up Orthodox, was ordained as a Reform rabbi and now belongs to a Conservative synagogue. He is the author of “Torah, Tarot & Tantra: A Guide to Jewish Spiritual Growth” and “Soon You Will Understand the Meaning of Life.”

This haggadah, suitable for groups where participants are at different levels, is available only through the Internet. Readers are required to buy one (in .pdf format) and then can make as many copies as they need.

Haggadahs for the Kinder

“Max’s 4 Questions” by Bonnie Bader, illustrated by Bryan Hendrix (Grosset & Dunlap) tells the basics of the Passover story through the adventures and questions of Max, the youngest of four brothers who lives in a chaotic house, where they host a joyous seder crowded with relatives. The youngest seder attendees might enjoy the stickers included for decorating the book’s seder plate.

“More Than Matzah: A Passover Feast of Fun, Facts, and Activities” by Debbie Herman and Ann Koffsky (Barron’s) is designed to engage, teach and keep young kids busy.

 

Other Picks for Passover


Everyone can easily participate in the seder with Rabbi Nathan Goldberg’s 98-page newly translated, large type and transliterated “Passover Haggadah” (KTAV Publishing House) complete with numbered lines. www.ktav.com

Two books in one, “Haggadah” by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Continuum) contains a Hebrew-English Haggadah, with attractive Hebrew typography and accompanying commentary as well as 21 insightful and wide-ranging Passover essays, all written by Sacks. www.continuumbooks.com

Harriet Goldner created and self-published the 18-page illustrated and color-coded “Please, Don’t Pass Over the Seder Plate” to keep her grandchildren entertained while they learned the Passover traditions. www.jewishfamilyfun.com

Fully illustrated and easy to understand, Rob Kopman’s “30 Minute Seder,” downloadable in minutes, provides abbreviated and slightly non-traditional seder basics for impatient participants. www.30minuteseder.com

The Hebrew-English “Hamsa Haggadah,” beautifully illustrated by Eduard Paskhover (A.G.N. Ltd., Israel, 2005) and shaped like a hamsa, highlights the 12 stones of the high priest’s breastplate, each stone representing one of Israel’s 12 tribes. Distributed through Alef Judaica, Inc., in Culver City. — Compiled by Jane Ulman, Contributing Writer

Another Tendler Steps Down


The longtime principal of one of Los Angeles’ largest Jewish high schools is leaving to start a new school. Rabbi Sholom Tendler resigned last week as Hebrew principal of Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA) and as rabbi of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. He said he plans to open a new yeshiva boys’ high school elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Tendler’s resignation comes shortly after his nephew, Rabbi Aron Tendler, resigned under pressure as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Meanwhile, Tendler’s other nephew, Rabbi Mordechai Tendler was suspended this year by the board of his New York City-area synagogue as a result of longstanding allegations about alleged sexual misconduct.

Sholom Tendler, 61, says his departure is a matter only of his desire to start a new high school.

Sholom Tendler has been YULA’s rosh yeshiva, Hebrew for principal, for the last 26 years, including in 1987, when the school hired attorneys secretly to investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior against Aron Tendler. The internal probe yielded inconclusive results, but Aron Tendler was moved from the girls school to the separate boys school.

“I was aware of that investigation,” Sholom Tendler told The Journal, adding that he recused himself from the situation because his relative was involved.

After news of the investigation came to light in recent months, YULA alums and parents expressed outrage that the school dealt with the matter privately. Some clamored for “accountability.” Sholom Tendler’s resignation, so soon after the disclosures, has inevitably invited speculation that his departure is, in effect, the school’s response to community pressure.

Not so, Sholom Tendler said.

“There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between [what happened with his nephews] and my decision to build this new school,” he said. “It’s unfortunate how unfounded rumors can blacken even the most beautiful of endeavors.”

Sholom Tendler also expressed sympathy for his nephews’ ordeals: “It’s very painful, and I’m supportive of them and their families in this terrible time of agony that they’re going through.”

Aron Tendler has declined interview requests; Mordechai Tendler has been more vocal, denying any wrongdoing.

YULA officials also emphasized that Sholom Tendler’s exit is voluntary.

“He helped create YULA,” said Rabbi Meyer May, the executive director of YULA’s boys division. “He could have stayed at YULA for his entire career.”

So why is Sholom Tendler leaving?

He replied that there is a shortage of yeshiva high schools in Los Angeles.

“Anybody will tell you there are not enough high school desks in Los Angeles. It’s a healthy sign, but a serious problem,” Sholom Tendler said.

His added that his new school will fill a niche for the more “ultra” side of the Orthodox community, while also stressing a serious academic curriculum.

Sholom Tendler is calling his new high school Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok — named for his father, Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, a rebbe who inspired “a joy of learning,” as Tendler put it. He plans to open in September for about 10 to 15 ninth-graders. He said he is currently scouting for a location in the Pico-Robertson or La Brea area.

The school will provide both serious Torah study and strong secular academics.

“People who are observing the demographics in the Jewish community see that there are a growing number of people who are very serious about religious observance and at the same time want to live in the professional or business world, rather than the rabbinate. We want parents to have the opportunity to prepare their sons for either way of life,” he said.

Because of the labor involved in starting a school, Sholom Tendler also is stepping down from heading Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, where he has served as rabbi almost since its inception 13 years ago. He will stay on until the search committee finds a new rabbi. He said he expects to remain involved in the community, possibly as rabbi emeritus.

 

A Step Into Secular


Chaim breezes into a diner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan clutching two huge shopping bags.

“I got some clothes, this plaid shirt, two for $5, this leather jacket just $20,” says Chaim, 19, in the clipped, Yiddish-accented English of the Chasidic world he comes from. “I didn’t know what to buy, my roommate went with me, he told me what’s nice,” he says, fingering a sweater gingerly.

Chaim is — or was — a Skver Chasid, born and raised in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of New Square, N.Y. His world until recently was Torah, family and a close-knit community.

But now he’s entering the secular world.

In September, he shaved his beard, left his parent’s home and took a bus to Brooklyn, where he now goes to college and shares an apartment.

“I found it on craigslist,” he says with pride, referring to the online classified site.

His new life comes with help from Footsteps, a 2-year-old Manhattan-based nonprofit group that helps dropouts from the Charedi world transition into secular society.

No one knows how many American Jews have left the ultra-Orthodox fold, although most are believed to have come from the New York area. There are no statistics, and, until Footsteps was created, no organization to help them learn how to make it on the outside.

While the organized Jewish world doesn’t usually think of Chasidic dropouts as “Jews in need,” outsiders can’t begin to imagine how frightening and complicated the everyday world can seem to a person who only knows the carefully controlled cocoon of Satmar, Skver or Bobov.

Particularly for a young person, whose departure can be hasty and unplanned, the road out of the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg or Crown Heights is fraught with confusion and loneliness — and sometimes drug abuse.

“People who have decided to make this transition don’t have a place to go,” says Hella Winston, the author of “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels” (Beacon Press, 2005).

Chaim isn’t using his real name out of respect for his family still in the community. His journey from ultra-Orthodoxy to young, secular Jewish New Yorker didn’t happen overnight.

A year and a half ago, he says, “I heard there was such a place as a public library,” where he could find a computer and Internet access.

“I didn’t know how to use the mouse. I started tapping on the screen,” he says, smiling in embarrassment.

He began reading about the world outside New Square, and soon realized “it’s not all drug dealers and crazy, like they say in our community.”

Slowly, he felt more and more alienated from his Chasidic world.

Although he lived at home until this fall, last year he was already sneaking into Manhattan after work to walk the streets and look at people. He let his hair grow longer under his yarmulke, and bought black jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap to wear on his urban forays.

“I’d changed in my mind a long time ago,” he says. “Something pushed me away, I don’t know what.”

He planned his departure carefully. His first step was to get his GED, or high school equivalency, so he could apply for a loan to go to college. But Chasidic boys receive very little secular education, and he didn’t know how to begin studying for the test.

In late February he met the founding director of Footsteps, 24-year-old Malkie Schwartz, an ex-Lubavitcher.

She introduced him to the few dozen other ex-Chasidim in her organization, and he enrolled in the GED class.

This summer, Chaim passed his exam. He’s in a liberal arts program, but hopes to major in math or science. He hasn’t gone on a date yet — “Socially, I’m very awkward,” he admits — but says he’s looking forward to that, too.

The transition can be difficult.

Winston recently heard from a young man who spent six months sleeping in New York City parks and subways after he left his Chasidic community.

“He had nowhere to go,” Winston says. “America is a very individualistic society, and for people leaving a community it’s important to have one to move into. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming lost.”

Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, agrees.

“Missing their families [is a major problem],” says Heilman, the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry” (University of California Press, 1999). “For most people in the Charedi world, the single biggest part of their lives, and the part that outsiders are often envious of, is connection to family and community.”

And when they leave, those connections are radically broken. Even if the one who left remains in contact with family members, those contacts often have to be surreptitious, Heilman says.

A support system like Footsteps didn’t exist when Schwartz left Crown Heights five years ago.

She was 19, and knew she would be expected to marry soon. That’s often the point at which young Chasidim who are unsure about their faith or their lifestyle make the move to leave, Winston writes, before their decision will impact their future families.

“I felt I couldn’t make this decision for myself and for the large number of kids that would follow,” Schwartz says. “I wanted an education.”

She moved out, enrolled in Hunter College with financial aid and got a bachelor’s degree.

But it was tough to go it alone. In December 2003, she organized a meeting for what she hoped would become a support group for former Chasidim. Twenty people showed up, and Footsteps was born.

Schwartz runs everything out of her apartment. GED classes, support groups, art and writing therapy groups and discussions on health, sex and relationships are held at ad-hoc spaces around the city. Once a month there are sessions on life skills.

Footsteps has received grants from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Alan B. Slivka Foundation, the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women and an anonymous donor, and in early December was accepted into Bikkurim, a program that provides office space and technical support for Jewish start-ups in New York City.

More than 200 former Chasidim have passed through Footsteps; about 40 are currently active, mostly young Jews in their 20s. One thing Schwartz would like to offer is a halfway house, a temporary safe space for those just leaving their communities.

Many of the former Chasidim in Footsteps are not observant anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have strong Jewish identities.

Zelda Deutsch, 28, left her Satmar community in early 2003, along with her husband and their son. Leaving was, she says “a very complicated and lonely process,” and she wishes Footsteps had been around.

The Deutsches no longer go to synagogue, but they speak Yiddish at home and celebrate all the holidays.

“My son is very aware he is Jewish, the environment in our home is filled with the way we were raised,” she says.

In November they began hosting Friday-night dinners for fellow Footsteppers.

“The people who come don’t go to synagogue, they’re not religious,” Deutsch says. “We serve kugel, stuffed chicken, the traditional foods, and we sing all the zemiros,” or Shabbat songs they grew up with.

“For some people the singing brings up bad memories,” she admits. “But the Jewish life filled such a large part of our daily lives, now that it’s gone, there’s a huge void. As a rule, everybody wants some connection to a spiritual life.”

 

78 and 79: A Matter of Life and Death


Like many California voters this week, Rabbi Hershy Ten, president of the Bikur Cholim Jewish Healthcare Foundation, is grappling with how to vote on the Nov. 8 ballot. Either Proposition 78 or Proposition 79 could directly affect his L.A.-based foundation’s efforts to provide health-related services and referrals to needy and uninsured. Either proposition could help by lowering prescription drug prices. But even for Ten, it’s hard to peer through the electioneering and rhetoric.

One thing’s certain: Ten realizes a lot is at stake.

“I know of a man within the last three months who suffered irreversible liver disease because he could not afford his medication,” Ten said. “We were called after he went into liver failure to assist him in receiving a transplant.”

The question before voters is whether the drug companies should regulate themselves, as laid out in Proposition 78, or whether the state should be granted authority to pressure drug companies into providing discounts, as specified in Proposition 79. If both initiatives pass, whichever receives the most votes becomes law.

In the contest of marketing, at least, the outcome isn’t a close call. The pharmaceutical industry has spent more than $80 million backing Proposition 78 (compared to $1.8 million from Proposition 79’s backers, most of it from consumer, senior and health groups).

Putting the hype aside, here’s what Proposition 78 would offer: Most Californians earning up to 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level would be eligible for discounted drugs, including individuals earning up to $29,000 a year and families of four living on as much as $58,000.

But the salient feature of Proposition 78 is that it includes no state enforcement mechanism. In the case of Ten’s liver patient, it would be solely up to the pharmaceutical industry to select the relevant drug for a discount, determine the discount price (if any), and choose the length of time to maintain it.

There are no state-imposed consequences if a company chooses to keep prices high.

So if the process is voluntary, what’s to stop drug companies from lowering prices right now? Conversely, if drug companies aren’t lowering prices now, why would they under a voluntary plan?

The industry’s response is that Proposition 78 is needed if corporations are to lower prices as a group while also avoiding anti-trust violations.

“We feel we have an obligation to make our drugs affordable,” said Jan Faiks, vice president for governmental affairs and law with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the powerful industry trade group. Faiks added that voluntary (and legislatively sanctioned) drug-discount programs in 26 states demonstrate the good faith of drug manufacturers.

These voluntary programs in other states typically have stricter eligibility requirements, and critics say few meaningful discounts are being offered. California’s version, Proposition 78, is identical to the defunct Senate Bill 19, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-backed bill that was defeated by Democrats in the state Senate in early 2005. At the time, the governor estimated that SB-19 would provide prescription drug savings of up to 40 percent off retail, close to the price that HMOs pay for drugs. Proposition 78 proponents have adopted those figures as their own.

This isn’t the first time that this Republican governor’s public health policy has mirrored PhRMA’s interests. In October 2004, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed four bills that would have provided information for Californians on obtaining cheaper drugs through Canadian pharmacies. A few weeks later, PhRMA donated several-hundred-thousand dollars to Californian Republican legislative candidates.

Consumer advocates don’t like much about Proposition 78, including the anti-trust justification for why the industry argues that it is necessary. After all, there would never be a legal prohibition barring an individual drug company from lowering its prices. Nor is there any reason why drug companies would have to engage in illegal collusion to lower prices, said Doug Mirell, board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which is supporting Proposition 79.

Added Anthony Wright, executive director of the Pro-79 group Health Access: “No attorney general or judge would rule against them if they came together to lower prices. There’s no [anti-trust] precedent for it.”

Proposition 79 supporters contend that PhRMA’s real aim is simply to block Proposition 79 from taking effect.

Faiks of PhRMA’s doesn’t deny her group’s desire to thwart Proposition 79, but she insists that Proposition 78 is worthy in its own right.

Proposition 79, backed by consumer groups, unions and the American Association of Retired Persons, sets the discount rate for drugs lower than Proposition 78 (approaching the price Medi-Cal pays for drugs). It also includes patients earning 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level rather than 300 percent. And it forbids drug companies from charging “unconscionable” prices for medication.

“There are 8 million to 10 million more people who will be benefited by Proposition 79 than Proposition 78,” Mirell said.

Perhaps most worrisome to PhRMA, however, Proposition 79 punishes companies who refuse to cooperate.

If negotiations with the state over discounts break down, the state could curtail that company’s business with Medi-Cal, California’s $4 billion drug discount program for the poor. Medi-Cal patients would have to receive so-called “prior authorization” by the state to use any drug manufactured by that uncooperative corporation. Under this system, the state would first try to find a substitute drug from a cooperative company.

In other words, under Proposition 79 the poorest segment of the population (on whose behalf the state bargains) would be used as leverage to lower drug prices for the next-poorest segment (who today have no bargaining clout).

Even under Proposition 79, Rabbi Ten’s liver patient would not have been guaranteed a different fate. There’s no mechanism, for example, forcing the state to drive a hard bargain for any particular medication. But if it did, the drug’s manufacturer would not easily be able to say no.

Each camp has its own collection of horror stories and feel-good episodes supporting its proposition. Proposition 78 is modeled closely on a voluntary program in Ohio. Consumer advocates modeled Proposition 79 on a program in Maine, one that PhRMA claims is not working well.

Faiks provided The Journal with a report, written by an independent Maine legislative committee, detailing patient frustration with various other systems of prior authorization. PhRMA also points to legal and administrative barriers, most prominently the likely opposition from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“[The Proposition 79] program will never be approved,” said Faiks, who is well positioned to understand the leanings of the Bush administration, which has regularly sided with drug companies.

PhRMA provided The Journal with several letters from federal health officials to various state Medicaid administrators who, over the past several years, have attempted to expand Medicaid coverage to new groups (such as people with specific diseases or those who earn slightly-above-poverty wages). The letters suggest that President Bush’s administration is loathe to extend Medicaid funds or leverage Medicaid patients to benefit new groups unless a state has hard evidence that the expansion prevents these new clients from entering poverty and becoming eligible for Medicaid regardless.

Mirell, of PJA, asserts that technicalities will not cripple Proposition 79, at least not permanently.

“The Bush Administration will not be in power forever,” Mirell said. “Policies do change from administration to administration.”

Mirell also pointed to the “severability” provision of Proposition 79, which allows other provisions to survive even if some can’t be enacted.

“The fact that it may take some months of litigation to implement Proposition 79 shouldn’t scare people away from voting for it, when the benefits that could accrue are so much greater than Proposition 78,” Mirell said.

And the presence and influence of the industry Goliath shouldn’t dissuade the Davids of reform. “It doesn’t mean we should give up, saying they’re too powerful,” said Wright of Heath Access.

A late August Field Poll indicated that Californians largely support both measures: 49 percent voting yes and 31 percent no on Proposition 78; 42 percent yes and 34 percent no on Proposition 79. When the participants learned, however, that the drug industry is backing Proposition 78, opposition to that measure rose sharply.

“People need to ask themselves, ‘Do you trust the drug companies to voluntarily discount their own prescription drug rates?'” Mirell said.

That’s a question that voters are less likely to hear posed exactly that way, given the imbalance in campaign spending.

When he spoke with The Journal, Rabbi Ten was still trying to sort out the pluses and minuses.

“This requires further analysis,” he said. “It requires more information than is readily available through typical media outlets.”

Mental Workouts Keep Your Brain Fit


I work out regularly — power walking, aerobics, weight lifting, yoga. But none of these have exhausted me as thoroughly as my first year sitting in a college classroom as a “nontraditional” (a.k.a. “old”) student. By the end of each day of classes, I felt like I’d run a 10K carrying two toddlers and a week’s worth of groceries.

That’s not surprising, said Duke University neurobiologist Lawrence Katz, explaining, “The brain uses an enormous amount of the body’s energy. Even under normal circumstances, it uses about 20 percent of your body’s entire energy production.

“When you work your brain harder, you use more. The blood flow goes to the brain, and it’s really like working out.”

The good news is that by my sophomore year, exhaustion was replaced by exhilaration — comparable, perhaps, to an athlete’s being “in the zone.”

Going to college is on the power-lifting level of brain exercise, but the more researchers learn about the brain — and this is “the century of the brain” said Sandra Chapman, executive director of the Center for BrainHealth and a professor of behavior and brain science at the University of Texas at Dallas — the more they stress the power we each hold to keep our brains fit throughout our lives.

One myth brain researchers want badly to debunk is the idea that the brain is “an untouchable black box,” Chapman said. Rather, she pointed out, “the brain is highly modifiable by everything we do.”

Katz said that the adage that after age 30 we lose 100,000 brain cells daily is just another depressing myth.

“Basically, the human brain remains intact until very late in life,” he said. “What does happen is that the richness of the connections between cells begins to decline.”

Granted, as with a lot of things, we lose speed as we age.

“As people get older, they learn more slowly,” said Guy McKhann, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of “Keep Your Brain Young: The Complete Guide to Physical and Emotional Health and Longevity” (Wiley, 2002) “But once they get it, they keep it as well as younger people.”

Teaching your brain new tricks is like a workout for the mind. It’s never too early to start, and you don’t have to ante up tuition to start your brain fitness program.

Warm ups: In his book, “Keep Your Brain Alive” (Workman, 1998) Katz suggested simple ways to stimulate new neural connections within the brain, including brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand and taking a new route to work.

“Do routine things in a nonroutine way to use new pathways in the brain,” he said. “This can lead to greater flexibility and agility in the brain. Rearrange your desk. Put your telephone or wastebasket in a different place. You will be amazed, if you move your wastebasket, how long you’ll throw paper on the floor.”

Social interactions also appear to benefit the brain. When you have time, skip the self-service gas pump or bank ATM and conduct your transaction with a person instead.

“These interactions are unpredictable,” Katz said. “Because so many parts of our brains are evolved to respond to other human beings, social interaction stimulates large parts of the brain.”

Travel, too, provides new experiences that create new neural pathways, especially if you step out of your chain hotel.

Katz conceded that these theories work backward from the observation that strong social connections and active lives correlate with better cognitive functioning in older people, and even novice researchers can tell you that correlation does not mean causation.

However, Katz is convinced that the connection works two ways: Better brain function causes more active lives and richer social networks, and people with active lives and rich social networks maintain better brain function.

Aerobics: You may have heard that working crossword puzzles is good exercise for the brain and that’s true — for the crossword-puzzle-working parts of the brain. If you enjoy crossword puzzles, have at it. Indulging in activities that work the brain is always great exercise, and choosing activities you love will keep you engaged, be it crossword puzzles, playing the piano or writing poetry.

“Whatever you spend time doing is what part of your brain is going to strengthen,” Chapman said. “Don’t do random things. Ask yourself if that’s the part of your brain you want to build.”

In her work with stroke patients, Chapman noted, “We see people who lose a lot of their ability, but the first thing to come back is the thing that they did the most.”

To keep building brain strength, you must keep reaching for new skill levels. Brain imaging reveals that learning uses large portions of the brain.

“Once you’ve gained expertise in that skill, less of the brain lights up [when you do it],” Chapman said.

Power lifting: Going to college, learning a language, taking up Japanese calligraphy — these sorts of things are the power lifting of brain exercise.

However, just as you don’t want to try hoisting 200 pounds your first day in the gym, you must allow yourself time to master a new challenge, Chapman said.

“You can get better at anything,” she noted, “but it’s important to give your brain time and practice.”

Exercising higher-level, big-picture thinking is another form of power-lifting.

“Read a paragraph and in one sentence give me the higher-level meaning,” Chapman suggested. “Abstract it. That requires a lot of brain power, using world knowledge, using text information. It’s pulling in all your resources.”

Stretching and cool down: Jeffrey Schwartz, a research professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute advocates mindful breathing for controlling out-of-control worrying, as well as for relaxation.

“The key really is the refocusing,” said Schwartz, whose specialty is the research and treatment of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. “When you refocus, you activate alternative brain machinery.”

Sitting quietly and focusing your attention on the in and out of your breathing “really is like going to the gym; you’re strengthening your brain,” Schwartz said. “When you stop doing it, you have a stronger brain.”

Schwartz described mindful breathing techniques in his book, “Dear Patrick: Life Is Tough — Here’s Some Good Advice” (Regan, 2003) but cautioned that it takes more strength than it appears to require. He recommended 20 minutes of the meditation technique, but said “not everyone gets up this point.”

For a cool down from the day that benefits the brain, turn off the TV and relax with a book instead. Reading is far better for keeping the brain on its toes.

“Reading is a very complex process when you stop to think about it,” McKhann said. “You have to recognize the letters and the words they make, you have sentence structure, you have to take this input information — which is all being brought in visually — and relate it to what your brain already knows. It’s an awful lot of cross-talk in the brain.”

If you must turn on the TV set, feed your brain “thinking TV,” such as history documentaries, in which you must incorporate new information, instead of just empty entertainment.

And remember, these researchers stressed, you’re never too young to start a fitness program for the mind. Developing good brain habits early can keep your brain in shape well into your later years — and vice versa when it comes to bad brain habits.

“Habits are increasingly hard to break as you get older,” Katz said.

So use it before you lose it.

Sophia Dembling is the author of “The Making of Dr. Phil” (Wiley & Sons, 2003).

Buckeye State Gets a Jewish Museum


Stroll in the shadow of Jewish-owned factories like Glick Neckwear and Favorite Knitting Mills in Cleveland’s long-vanished garment district. Take a seat in an art deco theater where Ethel Merman belts out a song. Round a corner to see Superman bursting through a wall. These are among the sights, sounds and experiences visitors encounter in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Using state-of-the-art audio, visual and computer technologies, the museum illuminates Jewish history, both local and worldwide, setting these traditions and achievements against the backdrop of U.S. and world events. Within its walls, one meets a host of colorful characters whose personal stories are brought to life in film, interactive activities and exhibits of precious artifacts.

Cleveland media mogul Milton Maltz and his wife, Tamar, pledged $8 million toward the construction of the Beachwood, Ohio museum, and to begin an endowment. The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland contributed the remaining $5.5 million to the museum, which opened Oct. 11. Research support was provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and many of the historical documents and artifacts in the museum came from its Jewish Archives.

“Although this is seen through Jewish eyes, it is really an American story,” said Maltz who, with his wife Tamar, was the visionary behind the museum. Beyond chronicling Jewish history, the museum pays homage to the immigrant spirit that, nourished by freedom, built Cleveland and this country.

Although it illuminates large themes, the Maltz Museum is compact. The permanent exhibit occupies 7,000 square feet of the 24,000-square-foot minimalist building, which is faced in luminous Jerusalem limestone. Elsewhere, exhibits throughout the meandering rooms and alcoves engage and inform museum-goers.

The museum experience begins in a light-filled, high-ceilinged lobby hung with eight huge iconic images representing the museum’s major themes. These include dramatic photos of Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, his head bloodied during the 1964 civil rights march in Mississippi, and the smiling face of astronaut Judith Resnick, an Akron native, paired with the Challenger space shuttle in which she lost her life.

Superimposed on these, a multilevel timeline shows the history of the Jews from Abraham onward, placing it in the context of world civilizations and historical events.

In the 60-seat Chelm Family Theater, a short film sets the tone — literally — for the visitor’s tour. A hazy close-up of a man blowing a shofar on a deserted hillside gradually dissolves into a sharply focused shot of the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Franklin Cohen, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Actor Peter Strauss narrates this film, which provides an overview of the museum.

Exiting the theater, one encounters a floor-to-ceiling photo of immigrants disembarking on Ellis Island. They hold tightly to their children, bundles and valises. Anxiety, loneliness and hope are etched on their faces. This tableau ushers one into “They’ve Arrived!” — the first section of the core exhibit, which focuses on Cleveland’s first Jewish families and the immigrant experience.

Prominently displayed is the Alsbacher Document, the handwritten “ethical will” addressed to the small band of villagers from Unsleben, Bavaria, who settled here in 1839. In it, their rabbi urges the immigrants to remember their Jewish faith amidst the temptations of the New World.

To better understand the experience of those setting out for a new land, an interactive station allows a visitor to assume the identity of an immigrant, faced with numerous decisions and problems. Further along, exhibits show how schools and settlement houses enabled Americanization. Here, an interactive display challenges visitors to try to pass the citizenship test.

“Building a City” transports museum-goers to Cleveland at the turn of the 20th century. One side of the “street” looks back at the mom-and-pop shops that dotted the old Jewish neighborhoods. The other highlights Cleveland’s once-thriving garment district and pays tribute to Jewish-owned commercial firms like Forest City Enterprises, Rose Iron Works and American Greetings Corp., which all got their start here.

At the end of the street, “To Serve” focuses on the military experience of Jewish servicemen and women from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq.

A film loop shows a re-enactment of a seder held during the Civil War. Photos of soldiers appear on screen, narrated by excerpts from their poignant letters home. A Marine reservist who served in Iraq, Josh Mandel, also speaks.

Other multimedia exhibits highlight the last century of Jewish history. Dark events such as the Holocaust and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre are covered, as is the creation of the State of Israel. Lighter trends are not ignored — in one section, a larger-than-life Superman bursts through a wall into the gallery, drawing attention to the story of the comic book superhero’s creation by local artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Even Jewish gangsters have their stories told.

The final area, “From Generation to Generation,” showcases Jewish achievements from 1950 to the present in science, medicine, business, industry, literature and the arts. Alongside photos of contemporary Jewish landmarks, filmed interviews address the question on of what it means to be a Jew today.

Off the main lobby is The Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery, which showcases treasures drawn from the collection of The Temple Museum of Religious Art. The Temple’s collection includes ancient ritual objects, sacred books and scrolls from around the world, textiles dating from the 18th century, Holocaust art, Israeli stamps, paintings, lithographs and sculpture by renowned Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz and Isidor Kaufmann.

While the museum has generated much initial excitement in the Cleveland Jewish community, its success will depend on drawing a wider audience and offering reasons for visitors to return. Maltz and Carole Zawatsky, the museum’s executive director, say they expect the museum to have regional appeal, drawing 45,000 to 75,000 visitors a year.

The changing exhibition space should be a magnet for repeat visits. The first of these temporary exhibits is “The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey” which opens Nov. 12.

Just as he hopes people from other ethnic backgrounds will see some of their own stories reflected in the museum, Maltz also hopes they will want to use its open space to mount exhibits showcasing their own heritage.

Special events and ongoing activities will also bring people to the museum, said Zawatsky, who was formerly director of education at the Jewish Museum in New York. She and her staff have created a full schedule of activities for museum-goers of all ages.

“It’s wonderful to have this in our own backyard,” said Cleveland-area resident Ruth Mayers, who attended the Oct. 11 preview gala. “This will bring an understanding of our history to Jew and non-Jew alike; it is a gift to our children.”

For more information about The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, visit

Channel Surf With the Tribe


Welcome to fall: The time of High Holidays, contemplation, repentance and really, really long services.

And did I mention TV?

OK, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure your calendar is marked with things like “bake brisket, 350 F for five hours” and “bring challah to Goldbergs for break the fast” and “climb neighbor’s palm for sukkah fronds.”

But just maybe you’re also tuned in to another new year. And you’ve also scribbled in: “Watch new ‘Will and Grace'” and “TiVo ‘Alias.'”

With so many returning and premiering shows, it’s hard to know what will make you want to celebrate or just repent the time wasted. Here’s the lowdown on what some of the Jew crew is up to: the shows, the times and, the nu, why you should care. Look fast — some of these won’t be around come Passover.

ABC

“Desperate Housewives”
Sundays, 9 p.m.

Joely Fisher joins the cast this season as Nina, Lynette’s (Felicity Huffman) boss, who is said to be the new “witch with a B” in town. But come on, do you really need a reason to watch this guilty pleasure?

“Commander-in-Chief”
Tuesdays, 9 p.m.

Creator Rod Lurie brings a new look to the White House with a female president (Geena Davis) who takes over when the current prez dies in office. The buzz on this political drama could keep the show in office for a long time.

“Boston Legal”
Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

After this David E. Kelley show was held to make room for “Grey’s Anatomy,” the cast is ready to go — which means less repeats and more hijinx from Denny Crane (William Shatner) in and out of the courtroom.

“Alias”
Thursdays, 8 p.m.
Dead or alive, bad or good, Michael Vartan’s Vaughn is still hot. But is he a hot double agent? And is that bad or what?

“Hot Properties”
Fridays, 9:30 p.m.

“Sex and the City” meets the world of real estate in more ways than one. Evan Handler (Charlotte’s hubby Harry Goldenblatt on the HBO series) plays the psychiatrist next door.

CBS

“How I Met Your Mother”
Mondays, 8:30 p.m.

Five hip 20-somethings on CBS. And they said it couldn’t happen. In this “flashback” show, cutie patootie Jason Segel plays Marshall, whose engagement prompts his friend, Ted (voiced as an adult in 2030 by Bob Saget), to jump on the get-married bandwagon. The sitcom tells us how it went.

“Out of Practice”
Mondays, 9:30 p.m.

What if the Fonz was married to Rizzo and both became doctors. Besides forming the greatest match in pop culture, you’d have a new sitcom starring Henry Winkler as a Dr. Dad with three Dr. Kids and a Dr. Ex-Wife. (Winkler is also putting in an appearance on NBC’s “Crossing Jordan,” Sundays, 10 p.m.)

“The King of Queens”
Mondays, 8 p.m.

How will Arthur (Jerry Stiller) react when his daughter starts taking a pole-dancing class? Probably not so good. But will his displeasure be related to her skill at pole dancing or something else?

“Still Standing”
Wednesdays, 8 p.m.

This season Jami Gertz’s Judy has to deal with a son who just lost his virginity to an Italian con artist. Then there’s the neighbor who has a “Field of Dreams” complex — he builds a whiffle ball field next door. If he builds it, they will whiff?

“Criminal Minds”
Wednesdays, 9 p.m

Special agent Jason Gideon (Mandy Patinkin) heads the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, after coming back from a sabbatical for post-traumatic stress. Yes it is another crime drama, but anything with Indigo Montoya is worth watching.

“Numb3rs”
Fridays, 10 p.m.

Dad Alan (Judd Hirsch) watches as brotherly love turns to sibling rivalry between FBI agent Don (Rob Morrow) and his numbers-loving brother, Charlie (David Krumholtz). Oh, and the two investigate a possible terrorist attack on the L.A. subways. Hmm. Wonder where they got that idea?

FOX

“The War at Home”
Sundays, 8:30 p.m.

Michael Rapaport plays a politically incorrect father of three in this sitcom. Think Bunker meets Bundy, minus some much-needed laughs.

“The Simpsons”
Sundays, 8 p.m.

Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner), Moe Szyslak (Hank Azaria), principal Seymour Skinner (Harry Shearer) and the rest of the Springfield gang are back for a 17th season of spoof, satire and, of course, a new “Treehouse of Horror” special.

“Family Guy”
Sundays, 9:30 p.m.

The Griffins, including Lois (Alex Boorstin), Chris (Seth Green) and Meg (Mila Kunis), are up against “Desperate Housewives,” but don’t think that means the folks behind this clever animated show are worried — they’ve got Phyllis Diller.

“Arrested Development”
Mondays, 8 p.m.

Jew-by-choice (sort of) George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is under house arrest in the third season (and his wife decides to do some dating). So plan on some interesting scenes as he attempts to circumcise — er, make that circumvent — the situation.

“That ‘70s Show”
Wedensdays, 8 p.m.

Josh Meyers joins the cast in what is likely its last season — otherwise it would have to become “That Early ‘80s Show.” Look for Jackie (Mila Kunis) to have a run-in with Mary Tyler Moore (who plays a perky news anchor) while Donna (Laura Prepon) tests her love for the missing Eric, who heads to Africa.

“Stacked”
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.

This season the bookstore-themed show focuses less on plot and more on character, so look for less Pamela Anderson chest jokes (Get it? Stacked?) and more background on Marissa Jarret Winokur’s Katrina and Elon Gold’s Gavin. Yeah, right.

“The O.C.”
Thursdays, 8 p.m.

So much drama, so little time. Creator Josh Schwartz says tragedy will mix in with the romance and fun this season — but let’s hope Linda Lavin’s Nana is back for some more guilt, too.

NBC

“Las Vegas”
Mondays, 9 p.m.

After the Montecito imploded last season everything changed for surveillance chief Ed Deline (James Caan). He now has to worry about the “extreme makeover,” missing staff, a new boss and Vegas tourists who attempt to find this fictional casino, which is actually located in Culver City.

“Medium”
Mondays, 10 p.m.

Emmy-winner Patricia Arquette is back as a secret psychic who catches serial killers — say that five times fast — in this spooky sci-fi drama.

“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”
Tuesdays, 10 p.m

The Dick Wolf franchise, which never gets tired of spin-offs, begins season seven with a bang — literally. It’s rumored that one of the detectives will get shot. (Hope it isn’t Richard Belzer’s detective John Munch, whose wry observations offset some of the squad room drama.)

“Will and Grace”
Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.

Creators say after the live season premiere, the quartet — plus Karen’s maid Rosario (Shelley Morrison) — get back to their roots as this sitcom gets ready to say “Shalom.” Grace’s (Debra Messing) ex-husband, Dr. Leo, returns for four episodes and she still has that little problem of having kissed her very married ex-boyfriend.

“The Apprentice”
Thursdays, 9 p.m.

The Donald is back for more fired-up fun, but keep an eye out for 22-year-old Adam, a risk manager from Atlanta, whose family is from Israel and said his background had a “tremendous influence on his values.” Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

“The Poseidon Adventure”
Sunday, Nov. 20, 8 p.m.

This remake of the 1970s Irwin Allen disaster flick version is missing the huge wave, Maureen McGovern’s “Morning After” and Shelley Winters. Instead, we get Steven Guttenberg and terrorists. Welcome to the new millennium.

The WB
“What I Like About You”
Fridays, 8 p.m.

Holly (Amanda Bynes) follows the love of her life on a cross-country trip. The problem is that he’s taking it with another girl. Also watch this season for a mini-90210 reunion.

“Living With Fran”
Fridays, 9:30 p.m.

Fran (Fran Drescher) finally introduces her non-Jewish younger boyfriend to the rest of the mishpacha at a family bar mitzvah. Meanwhile son Josh (Ben Feldman) hits a quarter-life crisis.

F/X
“Nip/Tuck”
Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

Rumor is Joan Rivers is back for more nipping and tucking. And just in the nick (and tuck) of time.

HBO

“Curb Your Enthusiasm”
Sundays, 10 p.m.

Is Larry (Larry David) adopted? His father (Shelley Berman) seems to think so. But would either set of parents want to claim him. Plus, watch for Larry to have a religious experience beyond having “Hava Negilah” as his cell phone ringtone.

 

Books – ‘Love’ Tries to Solve Mystery of the Heart


“The History of Love” By Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, $23.95).

“The History of Love” is the name of a book within Nicole Krauss’s remarkable new novel of the same name, “The History of Love” (Norton). The inner novel has had a life of its own, written in Yiddish in Poland and thought to be lost, translated into Spanish in Buenos Aires, unbeknownst to the author, and later into English in New York; it drew on real love and also inspired love. If this were a love letter rather than a novel, it would be a chain letter, broken but ultimately reconnected.

Leo Gursky, a retired locksmith living alone in New York City, who makes a daily commotion in some public place to be sure that he doesn’t die without being noticed, is the unlikely romantic who’s the original author of “The History of Love.” He wrote it while living in Poland, when he was very much in love with a girl named Alma. Jews weren’t safe in their town of Slonim, and he lost Alma, who left for America before he did, and he gave the manuscript to a friend for safekeeping.

Years later at age 57, Gursky, after a heart attack curtails his work; he begins a new book, writing daily. He muses: “At times I believed that the last page of my book and the last page of my life were one and the same, that when my book ended I’d end, a great wind would sweep through my rooms carrying the pages away, and when the air cleared of all those fluttering white sheets the room would be silent, the chair where I sat would be empty.”

Gursky is a man whose suit doesn’t quite fit, who’s always late (“I’ve always arrived too late for my life”). A magnet for small mishaps at inopportune times, he’s cranky and lonely, although still a poetic observer. “Story of my life: I was a locksmith. I could unlock every door in the city. And yet I couldn’t unlock anything I wanted to unlock.”

Also living in New York is a young girl named Alma, who understands that she’s named after every female character in a Spanish novel her late father gave to her mother. Her parents would read to her from the book, inscribed with the words that this would have been the story her father would have written for her mother had he been a novelist. Years later, Alma’s mother is hired to translate the novel into English. Excerpts of it appear throughout the book.

Masterfully, Krauss ties together the stories of Gursky and the young Alma as each searches for clues about “The History of Love.” For Gursky, the manuscript oddly reappears, with the names changed into Spanish. The far-reaching literary puzzles involve Alma’s younger brother, who has messianic impulses; Gursky’s son, a well-known writer who doesn’t know of his father’s existence; Alma’s young friend Misha, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who learns English by memorizing Beatles songs; and ghosts from Gursky’s past. Krauss’s overarching “The History of Love” is about loss and the transformative force of love; it’s also playful, wise and funny.

Her highly praised first novel, “Man Walks Into a Room,” published in 2002, is about a man who loses his memory. That was a daring first novel, not the more usual coming-of-age story. Beginning the book when she was 25, she wrote from the perspective of a 36-year-old man. Here she inhabits the voices of an old man and a 14-year-old girl, portraying each with convincing power.

Memory is still a theme for Krauss, and as she says, it’s probably one of the things she’ll be writing about as long as she writes. In “The History of Love,” Leo Gursky is overflowing with memories; in many ways, he lives in his memories. But he has no one to share them with.

Krauss has spoken of being really in love as she wrote this, and how that feeling is evident on the page. For her, writing is “a kind of reflex.” She says that her writing has evolved from the tightly-reigned-in prose of her first novel, where she cared a lot about the sentences, to greater expansiveness. Gursky’s voice, she explains, “allowed a kind of openness and honesty felt in the moment.”

Krauss, who began publishing poetry when she was 19, still writes beautiful sentences; her pages are full of energy.

The 30-year-old author, who lives in Brooklyn, is married to the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, whose second novel, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” is also recently published. Although several critics see parallels between their work, she declines to talk about him, preferring to keep their professional lives separate.

Film rights to “The History of Love” have been optioned by Warner Bros., with David Heyman set to produce and Alfonso Cuaron (known for “Y Tu Mamá También) as director.

On Monday, June 13, at 7 p.m., Nicole Krauss will read from “The History of Love” at Dutton’s Beverly Hills Books, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 281-0997.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.

 

Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor


 

Q: When does a Christmas tree become a Tu B’Shevat tree?

 

A: When a Westwood church and a Santa Monica synagogue decide that having one tree do double duty is good both for the environment and the spiritual awareness of their congregants.

 

After the hard-working tree has done its dual job, it will be planted in a public park for everyone to enjoy.

Fifty Jewish families from Beth Shir Sholom and 50 Christian families from the Westwood Hills Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ are each contributing $36 to jointly purchase one tree, for a total of 50 trees.

The trees, in planters, were delivered to the church on Dec. 12, during a joint celebration with temple members.

After the Christmas season, on Jan. 9, the trees will be delivered to Beth Shir Sholom families, who will care for them for the next three weeks.

Although Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of Trees, falls on Jan. 25 this year, the actual tree planting will be delayed until Sunday, Jan. 30.

On the morning of Jan. 30, the Christian and Jewish families will meet at the temple and nosh on the fruits symbolic of the holiday, after blessings by the rabbi.

Immediately afterward, the trees will be transported to the Ed Edelman Park in Topanga Canyon and planted there with the help of the TreePeople, Malibu Creek State Park and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

“This project marks the convergence of two traditions, without detracting from the integrity of either one,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom, the “Progressive Reform” congregation long active in interfaith relations. “In both traditions, trees symbolize new life and hope.”

“We tend to link Christmas and Chanukah because they happen around the same time,” said the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld of the church. Linford-Steinfeld, who is married to a Jewish man, warmly endorsed the project. “I think it’s a neat idea to connect two of our holidays in a different way, especially since Tu B’Shevat comes exactly one month after Christmas this year.”

The project was the brainchild of Nurit Ze’evi, who thought of the idea when she remembered her childhood in Israel and the Tu B’Shevat holiday.

This year, the project will be on a trial run, but Ze’evi already has more ambitious plans for the future.

In a poem she wrote for the occasion, Ze’evi envisions that in the years to come, hundreds and then thousands of Christians and Jews will join hands in planting Christmas/Tu B’Shevat trees in Los Angeles, the United States and across the world.

 

Turning Evil Around


What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library. We've asked rabbis, scholars and thinkers to each pick the one book that was essential to their Jewish life. They will discuss the book and its impact, and explain why you need to add it to your Jewish library. You can join the discussion in our online forum. You can also purchase the book for yourself by clicking the link below.

For the rest of this year, My Jewish Library will replace the weekly Torah portion. Readers (and b'nai mitzvah students) in search of the weekly Torah portion will find several years worth archived and easily accessible at

“>Click here to discuss this book

“Evil and the Morality of God” by Harold M. Schulweis (Ktav, 1984).

 

We have all been with those near to us as they have grieved over the loss of a friend to cancer, the end of a marriage, a death.

These real-life situations are often stranger than fiction. They present the greatest challenge to us as human beings: Why? Why me? Why does evil occur? If God is so moral, why did this have to happen? The questioning of God is called theodicy, indeed a logical problem. If God is all-powerful, then God is aware of suffering in the world. If God does nothing, God is either not completely powerful or not good. If God is both distant and unconcerned, then where is God's morality?

In his book, “Evil and the Morality of God,” Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the eminent Conservative rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, resolves the problem with evil by dissolving it. Schulweis suggests that the trouble has been that the question “why” has itself been faulty. We think of God as a Subject, an Entity, a Something or a Somebody. What we have learned about God's perfection is for us a sense of indifference to what we consider good and evil. But perhaps we are using the wrong language. Perhaps we speak to God or about God concerning human suffering using language that has an entirely different meaning when applied to God.

We cannot prove to anyone what we know about God. But we have seen and experienced human kindness. We know what it is to do good, to love justice, to embrace compassion, to walk humbly, to care for another as we care for ourselves. These are the values that make life a blessing for the living. These are our realities. A proper belief system affirms these values as the actual subject — and God is the verb.

Let's remember a grammar lesson. The subject comes before the predicate. But if we turn them around an insight emerges. Not God is just, but justice is Godly. Not God is compassionate, but compassion is Godly. Not God is loving, but loving another is Godlike. Thus, we have a new term called “Predicate Theology,” which emphasizes human interaction and responsibility. We have the capacity, Schulweis says, to experience, express and cultivate Godliness.

When evil occurs, the question should not be “O God, why did this happen?” For we have no answer and perhaps God is stunned to silence as well. Rather, we might ask, “What must be done for people to help one another, to act with the Godliness with which each of us is endowed?” Predicate Theology places the emphasis on people's response to evil.

Recently, we have faced the tragic results of waves of hurricanes. Schulweis teaches that divinity is not in natural disasters or so-called “acts of God,” but in “the human control of its floods and destruction…. There is no need for theology to compete with science in offering better or deeper explanations for the tornado and the drought…. Predicate Theology will express its profoundest sympathy, help organize relief, and urge the reclamation of the land. In the acts of encouragement, compassion, mutual aid and cooperative effort, godliness is expressed.”

If God is not omnipotent and able to take away all hurts and sorrows, why bother praying — why bother dealing with religion at all? We have to learn to ask the right questions about God and evil in this world. Rabbi Richard Hirsh notes that instead of “'God, why are You doing this to me,' ask God, 'See what is happening to me; can You help me?' or, instead of 'Why must we feel pain?' we can learn to ask, 'What can we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless, empty suffering?' And instead of praying for miracles, we ought to pray for strength to bear the unbearable. In this manner, we shift the emphasis from question to response, and it is then that the role of religion becomes crucial.”

Schulweis recognizes that this orientation of theology is not meant for everyone. It is meant for those who are embarrassed by dealing with a God who is morally defenseless or indifferent to suffering. Predicate Theology is a modern, intellectual concept of God that can help us face the emotional difficulties of life.

Every day that we read the paper, we see a new variation on a theme of human agony. But, as the Thanksgiving holiday we just marked teaches us, we know that, somehow, people have a capacity to persevere, to overcome, to survive the journey through the valley of the shadow of death with dignity and integrity. Predicate Theology may help us understand God in a new way. But Rabbi Ira Eisenstein adds one caveat: Don't ask God the wrong questions. Don't ask why you are suffering. Ask for the patience, the strength and the courage to transform your experience into deeds of Godliness.

Morley Feinstein is senior rabbi of University Synagogue.

Singing Klezmer Isn’t Hard to Do


Neil Sedaka is a punctual, polite musical legend, and at 65, he still likes being a mama’s boy.

“I do. I like being protected,” Sedaka said. He grew up in a loving Sephardic/Ashkenazic home in Brooklyn, where he practiced piano for hours. It was a sheltered Coney Island Avenue universe in which, “my sister fought my battles in school,” Sedaka said. “To me, the raising of a voice was very jarring. My mother told me that everything I did was perfect.”

When it comes to catchy tunes with perfect melodies, the world often has agreed with Mama Sedaka (now 88 and living in Ft. Lauderdale). And while having Andy Warhol paint your portrait and seeing one’s songwriting skills praised in Bob Dylan’s recent autobiography are great, it is the Yiddish songs he grew up listening to that now claim Sedaka’s melodic soul.

His CD, “Brighton Beach Memories: Neil Sedaka Sings Yiddish,” cost less than $10,000 to produce, prompted a Carnegie Hall concert last summer and is now coming to the Wilshire Theatre this weekend — complete with a klezmer band. The show’s second half will be from Sedaka’s own large repertoire, with the show’s first half dedicated to Yiddish tunes such as “My Yiddishe Mamme” and “Shein vi di L’Vone” (“Pretty as the Moon”).

“I grew up on these songs. I wanted to do something that was close to my heart,” Sedaka told The Journal in telephone interview from his Park Avenue apartment. “But I have to tell you that this CD has taken a life of its own.”

Since dropping out of Juilliard in 1958, Sedaka’s 1,000 songs have included nearly 50 hummable and singable hits, including “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Calendar Girl,” “Stupid Cupid” and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” A product of Manhattan’s 1960s Brill Building songwriting factory, his music has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Cher, Sheryl Crow, ABBA, David Cassidy, Mandy Moore and The Monkees. A hit single this year came out of “American Idol” — Clay Aiken’s rendition of “Solitaire.”

“It’s a big body of work,” Sedaka said. His high baritone voice prompted a compliment decades ago from fellow Las Vegas Hilton staple Elvis Presley. “He said to me that when he was in the Army, he would go to the jukebox and sing the ‘Sedaka songs,'” he said.

Sedaka has had a noteworthy place in American music for four decades; he became a comfortable perennial who did not let himself turn into a tortured titan like Sinatra or a forgettable one-hit wonder like The Imperials, Haircut 100 or Luscious Jackson.

One does not cringe when VH1 asks “Where Are They Now?” of Sedaka, because he usually has a hit somewhere, including at least one Billboard chart-topper each decade since 1958. Even while touring the Great Wall of China, the songwriter marveled at his Chinese guide singing one of his songs on the tour bus, the tour guide then refusing to believe Sedaka when he identified himself.

His hit-making consistency and songwriting discipline also have made him a man entirely lacking in public scandal. His work is remembered more than anything else, overshadowing even his enviable 42-year marriage to fellow New Yorker Leba Strassberg. The couple, who met in the Catskills, have two children — daughter Dara, a recording artist, and son Marc, an L.A. screenwriter — and twin granddaughters, Amanda and Charlotte.

He also finds Israeli audiences enjoying him when he sings Hebrew versions of his hits; his decidedly “charitable” last name (tzedaka means charity), he said, “has been very helpful.”

Yet, Sedaka admits that for all the pop hits he has written and heard played, hummed or sung in elevators, supermarkets and cocktail lounges, writing pop music is not bubblegum and can require as much elaborate creation as a Bach symphony.

“The hardest thing is to write a simple melody,” he said. “I do wish that I could write something a little more complicated, but it’s not me; it’s not my makeup. I’m very disciplined. It was kind of a long, long career. It never went to my head.”

His evergreen tunes (before Aiken, Elvis recorded “Solitaire”) means Sedaka has not had to work the ’50s hits revival circuit.

“I love oldies, but I never had to do those shows,” the songwriter said.

Sedaka’s choice of rock ‘n’ roll and pop over classical notes initially irked his mother, who saw her baby as the next Arthur Rubinstein. When someone suggested that young Neil, with his unique high voice, become a chazan, his mother dismissed that, too, insisting he would be a concert pianist.

But success smiled on his mother’s dashed dreams when at 19, his songwriting brought in royalties of $42,000.

“I bought her a mink stole,” Sedaka said. “That made the difference. We call it her Hadassah tallit.”

Neil Sedaka performs Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m, and Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets are $35-$55 with an eight-ticket limit. For more information, call (323) 468-1770 or go to

Creative Chuppahs Are Labor of Love


Nancy and Kim Goldov wanted to personalize everything about their wedding. She sewed her own gown. He composed music for the ceremony. They both created a new last name to share: combining Stolov and Goldschmidt into Goldov. So it probably didn’t surprise anyone that the couple spent months crafting a one-of-a-kind chuppah to say their vows under.

“The rabbi used the image of weaving our lives together,” when he commented about the way Nancy and Kim carefully planned their creative wedding, with the help of friends and family. Nancy says they decided to make their own chuppah out of hand-dyed silk and handcrafted wood in part because they wanted to create a lasting memory.

“The wedding became a focus for all of our creative energy,” she explained.

They also were able to take such a creative approach to the chuppah because they had lots of time and friends who were craftspeople and willing to help with the woodworking and dying of the silk.

“It wasn’t a sudden wedding. It was a very planned wedding,” Nancy said. “It’s not something every couple could do or want to…. We kind of went overboard.”

But now, thanks to their hard work, Nancy and Kim also have a beautiful canopy over their bed. They can look up and see the magical “tree of life” with pomegranates, apples and figs. The tree surrounds a Star of David made from a piece of spallted maple wood found in a park. The four posts of the canopy are a delicate combination of several different kinds of wood.

Nancy says the chuppah cost a few hundred dollars to make, but is now considered a priceless family heirloom. She is having a quilt made for their bed that mimics the design of the tree. Someday she may change the chuppah in some way to signify their children.

One of the questions Nancy asked concerning her creative chuppah was whether it adhered to Jewish law concerning wedding ceremonies. According to The Jewish Catalog and Rabbi Maurice Lamm’s book, “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage” (Jonathan David, 1991) the chuppah is affected more by tradition than law.

Traditionally, the wedding ceremony took place under the stars as an omen that the marriage should be blessed with as many children as stars in heaven. To create a more intimate space for the ceremony, rabbis in the Middle Ages allowed the use of a chuppah, which symbolizes the groom’s home into which he invites the bride. It is required only for the seven blessings and only the bride and groom need to stand under it.

“It teaches that this simple, fragile room which is now common to both partners launches the marriage,” Lamm explained.

As with any wedding ceremony decision, it is best to discuss chuppah ideas with your rabbi before you start collecting materials and assembling the structure. Depending on whether the rabbi is Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox, he or she may have different ideas about what is required.

Some of the more common kinds of chuppahs involve a tapestry or tallit fastened to the top of four poles. The poles can be held by four friends or put in some kind of stand. Keep in mind the length of your ceremony before making a decision about whether to have people hold the poles. Some brides prefer to decorate the tapestry with flowers.

How elaborate a chuppah you choose also depends on how much time and energy you want to put into the project. A combination of creative energy and a little chutzpah helped Jenifer Thornton and her mother create a special chuppah for her wedding.

“I’m in a creative field and I knew that I didn’t want to just do the standard,” Jenifer said, adding that they researched whether they could rent a creative chuppah but found nothing to their liking.

“We just kind of thought, if it works out, great.” The only problem was — and this would be a big problem for many brides — they didn’t know what the chuppah was going to look like until an hour before the wedding. They couldn’t put it together in advance and then move to the location of the ceremony.

Jenifer and Philip Thornton’s chuppah consisted of plaster columns; adorned with lace netting, green plants, ivy and copper ribbon.

“It was beautiful and everyone loved it. The only thing I would change would be the lighting,” she said, indicating she would recommend backlighting the chuppah for a greater impact.

She says it wasn’t expensive, but warns that finding proper columns can be a challenge. Most replicas that can be rented are too light and easily toppled by sudden movement.

“It’s difficult to rent them,” she said. “They have to be heavy. You definitely don’t want them to fall over.”

She rented the columns from a friend who doesn’t usually loan them out.

Another approach to creating your own chuppah is to consult with an architect or a landscape designer. When Julie Israel got married about five years ago she was lucky enough to have an architectural designer right in the family, her mother, Linda Haugen.

The chuppah for Julie’s wedding to David Israel consisted of “marbleized” wooden columns and a trellis covered in ivy and flowers. The structurally dramatic chuppah fit in well with the architecture at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

“It was a very dramatic and important structure and it added considerably to the whole ceremony,” she said.

Fitting the chuppah to the setting and the personalities of the bride and groom is very important, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the project is getting prepared to build it the night or morning before the wedding in just a few hours.

Her experience in architecture and the theater prepared Linda for the project.

“If someone wanted to have a chuppah like ours, they should turn to someone with our level of experience,” she said. “It would be difficult for the average person to do it. It really involves a lot of thought and coordination.”

When asked if such a structural chuppah could have a second life after the wedding, Linda said one could consider reconstructing it in their garden: “It’s your first house and that’s what’s so lovely about it.”

Fall Season’s New Jewish Wasteland


As the television season dawned on millions of Americans this fall, the three major networks offered viewers a concoction of roughly the same elements they have come to expect over the last few years.

There are the blue-collar, balding buffoons with zany families and feisty wives (“The King of Queens,” “Still Standing”), the gritty crime dramas that unfold like mini-morality plays (“CSI” and “Law and Order,” with their multiple offspring) and, of course, the ubiquitous reality shows, pitting contestants against one another and in defiance of dignity (“Wife Swap,” “The Apprentice,” “Fear Factor”).

What there are not mostly is Jews.

A careful look at the new season reveals that of more than 50 shows in the networks’ fall lineups, only a handful of characters are openly and identifiably Jewish. Coming on the heels of several years of increased visibility — think “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” Charlotte’s conversion on “Sex and the City,” Dr. Joel Fleischman of “Northern Exposure” — the dearth of Jewish protagonists is peculiar.

“We have lost a lot of terrific characters in the last season, and they haven’t been replaced,” said David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun’s television critic and the author of “The Jews of Prime Time,” a meticulous examination of Jewish representation on American television since its inception.

“Last year, talking to Hollywood producers and seeing the kinds of Jewish themes and topics discussed on shows like ‘Law and Order,’ for example, I thought, ‘Isn’t it great, we’re finally starting to have this discussion about Jewish identity on prime-time TV,'” Zurawik said. “But now, looking at this year, I have to say, ‘Where’s the progress?’ I don’t think it’s there.”

While several calls to producers and network executives went unanswered, the lineups themselves provide the best evidence of the vanishing Jewish character from prime time.

Scanning the listings in search of a protagonist’s Semitic-sounding surname is an exercise in frustration. Now that “Sex and the City” and “Seinfeld” are off the air; that the proto-Jewish characters on “Friends” are no more; that the gruff curmudgeon detective Lenny Brisco (Jerry Orbach) has left “Law and Order” (although he is scheduled to join one of the franchise’s spin-offs this season), the screen is nearly bereft of Jews.

Coming at a time when representations of Jewish life are shot through pop culture, this trend is particularly counterintuitive.

While Madonna dabbles in kabbalah, Neil Sedaka records in Yiddish and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated,” an inventive novel depicting the journey of a young American Jew to his ancestral shtetl, becomes a literary phenomenon, television — long considered the most accurate seismograph of the American zeitgeist — is traveling in the opposite direction.

The reversal is also surprising given the convoluted history of Jewish representation on American television. As Zurawik argues in his book, after a brief period in which such openly Jewish characters as Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) of “The Goldbergs” entertained audiences, no Jewish protagonist graced the tube between 1954 and 1972.

Zurawik claims this is due mainly to the psyches of television’s founding fathers, David Sarnoff of NBC, William Paley of CBS and Leonard Goldenson of ABC.

The three, all of whom were either immigrants or sons of immigrants, followed the example of their predecessors from Hollywood — Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn and David Selznick — and recast themselves as all-American entrepreneurs devoid of ethnicity, race or religion.

Correspondingly, Sarnoff, Paley and Goldenson sought to occupy the screen with uncomplicated, WASPy wholesomeness, a vision that allowed no room for Jewish protagonists.

As the three stepped down, and control of network television moved to the indifferent hands of large corporations, Jewish characters began seeping into prime time, from Seinfeld to Michael Steadman (Ken Olin) of “Thirtysomething” and Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser) of “Mad About You.”

With the unspoken ban on Jewish protagonists seemingly lifted, and with an array of Jewish characters gaining visibility, Zurawik said he had hoped the trend would grow. Last year, as “Sex and the City” offered quintessential Protestant princess Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) converting to Judaism in order to marry her divorce attorney, the crass yet sweet Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler), the transformation appeared to be complete.

After all, here was the most talked-about show, a paragon of urban sophistication, presenting in a reversal of prior stereotypes a beautiful non-Jewish woman undergoing a serious and meaningful Orthodox conversion and embracing her new identity as a Jew. The future, then, looked bright.

Which is precisely why the new season is such a disappointment, Zurawik said — a sensation hardly alleviated by the few Jewish characters who are represented on screen this season.

The most visible of the new lot is Tony Kleinman, portrayed by “Seinfeld” alum Jason Alexander (ne Greenspan). Based on the writings of Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser, Kleinman is clearly a Jew, yet one that is far from being a complex and layered adult.

“He’s like a child, a self-indulgent adolescent,” said Zurawik, who has seen several of the show’s episodes. “But because he is the new Jewish character of this season, many publications attach all these attributes to him being Jewish. I’m disappointed that the only clearly Jewish character of the new season is such an obnoxious and unpleasant guy who makes George Costanza [Alexander’s character on ‘Seinfeld’] look lovable in comparison.”

Another newcomer is Alan Shore (James Spader), star of ABC’s “Boston Legal.” Shore, a high-profile attorney, is in part an amalgam of Semitic stereotypes. With his oversexed histrionics, he looks as if he would have fit snugly in any Philip Roth novel.

Similarly, Grace Adler (Debra Messing), the star of NBC’s long-running “Will and Grace,” is no foe of stereotypes herself. In a new episode aired last week, Grace, who does not have a drinking problem, joins Alcoholics Anonymous. When probed why she attends the group despite not suffering from alcoholism, she replied that AA offers free therapy and free food, a combination that Jews find hard to resist.

While unquestionably well-written and entertaining, the retort, as well as the character herself, hardly breaks new ground in presenting a well-rounded, multifaceted character who is also Jewish.

And then there’s “The OC.” The show, which debuted last year on Fox to critical acclaim and strong ratings, features Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a Bronx-born lawyer who is married to a non-Jewish woman and tries to reconcile his social consciousness with the trappings of life in one of California’s wealthiest suburbs. While Cohen is not the show’s lead actor — the honor is reserved for its young, hormonal stars — he nonetheless infuses the series with a peculiar sensibility.

Last season, for example, topics such as religion and mixed marriage were debated openly, and the show even featured a Passover seder, a rarity in television history. The seder episode prompted Chicago Tribute TV critic Allison Benedikt to write a review headlined “Finally, TV Jews Who Act Jewish.” To boot, the show was created by Jewish 28-year-old Josh Schwartz.

Still, said Zurawik, the Cohens may be Jewish, but they’re far from evading the old stereotypes. Sandy Cohen, he claimed, is nothing if not the same old story of the Jew falling for the allure of the non-Jewish woman.

“He is a lawyer finding his entrée, moving up the social ladder by marrying a non-Jewish woman,” Zurawik said. “It is a very traditional pattern, and not a terrific thing.”

Still, with the show slated to return next month for its much-anticipated second season, Zurawik utilized a business trip to Los Angeles in an attempt to interview Schwartz. He made it clear to the show’s publicist that he intended to address the issue of the show’s approach to its Jewish characters. Yet all his attempts at an interview, he said, went unanswered.

“I thought they’d be eager to talk,” Zurawik said of the show’s producers, “that the doors were broken down. But I was confusing the audience with Hollywood producers. I don’t think the producers in Hollywood are that happy to have that discussion. When I talk to Jewish producers, they will most often only discuss Jewish characters off the record. The whole subject is still enough of a taboo.”

While Benedikt does not dispute the bottom line — few Jews on television this season — she offers a different explanation.

“It can probably be linked to the downfall of the sitcom,” Benedikt said, adding that recent programming trends stressed the abandonment of the sitcom format — one heavily influenced by Jewish sensibilities and performers — in favor of reality programming, one-hour dramas and police shows.

This, Benedikt said, does not bode well for Jewish characters.

“There just aren’t a lot of Jewish policemen,” she said.

As a hopeful afterthought Benedikt offers one more name: Jon Stewart. The host of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” was born Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz.

His show — available only to cable subscribers but gaining wide attention by critics and pundits as a major source of political news for young, educated audiences tired of the atrophied approach of traditional network news — mixes high-brow, Ivy League tartness with self-effacing, traditional Jewish humor.

Stewart also does not shy away from peppering his speech with Yiddishisms. In an interview last year with Christina Aguilera, for example, Stewart asked the singer about “Dirrty,” her explicit pop anthem, inquiring whether the title reflects sexual promiscuity or “dirt, like schmutz.”

Stewart notwithstanding, as the new television season begins, viewers will revel in the exploits of McCoy and Fontana or delight in the foibles of Heffernan or Barnett; the Seinfelds and Steadmans and Goldenblatts are, alas, no more.

The Jewish Week is available at

A New Relationship


A relationship with a new city is like a relationship with a new guy. At first, you compare a lot — my ex had better nicknames for me; he made the bed in the morning. My ex was the one for me, and now I’m just marking time before becoming that old lady in line at the bagel shop who talks to her slippers.

You feel in your bones the sudden drop in comfort level with this new entity. You have to close the door when you pee. You have to explain who people are when you’re gossiping about them. You have to take it from the top. It’s a tedious process. And you wonder why we all know one of those couples who should have broken up a long time ago before they got in a rut and furnished it at IKEA.

Now, as for my comparison, settling into a new city can be similarly jarring. I’m not sure which I’ve done more of, but I know I’m not the only one with a trail of broken leases as long as her trail of broken relationships.

I’ve dug up and planted and dug up and replanted more roots than an obsessive-compulsive gardener.

And now I’m at it again, trying to make a go of it with this slick Pat Riley of a city called Manhattan. And as always, the relationship got off to a rough start, and I wanted nothing more than to go home. And my new therapist gave me her home number. And I didn’t know if I had lost my ability to start over.

It’s been six months since I relocated for work, "taking a break" from the love of my life, Los Angeles.

I didn’t want to love again, but it turns out we’re adaptable creatures. The other day, someone asked where to get a good cheesecake, and out of my mouth, smooth as ricotta, came "Junior’s in Brooklyn has the best. And they ship." And I let myself feel pretty good for knowing this, and for passing as a local more often than not, and for saying "Brooklyn" like I could tell you how to get there on the 4.

This city has won me over like a guy you go on a mercy date with but end up marrying because he remembers how you take your coffee and what size shoe you wear. It’s the little things that slowly weasel their way into your heart, that make you feel at home.

I have the name of a Chinese delivery place in my cellphone and need only speed dial my way to a dumpling delivery.

I hail a cab as easily as I used to parallel park.

I could tell you what cast members have been replaced in "Hairspray" on Broadway. I can find Broadway by foot.

Now I love my Lakers like Shaq loves his Escalade. Still, there’s something about finding your seat at Madison Square Garden that makes you feel like you’ve got this town wired. Sadly, you have to watch the Knicks once you get there, but if I can learn to love this city, maybe I can at least duty date its basketball team.

On the right night, I can climb out of my 400-square-foot apartment and sit on my fire escape and look down the block at doormen leaning on awning posts. I can watch little doggies in little sweaters strolling the Upper East Side, a neighborhood immortalized not only by "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" but also by famous fictional resident, Carrie Bradshaw.

I know how to describe a location as being "on 67 between one and two," instead of saying "on 67th Street between First and Second avenues." I know that Central Park starts on 59. Like I said, these are small things, but like the small apartments and small grocery store aisles here in the Big Apple, they grow on you.

Maybe that’s the only way to fall for a place as hard and humid and expensive and compressed as this one. You endure the hard parts so you can experience the simple pleasure of saying Brooklyn like you mean it.

How do you go from wanting to hurl yourself off the Staten Island Ferry to thinking you might just want to dock here for awhile? You let yourself. And having done so, I’m starting to think it might just be that simple with relationships, too. And here is the most deeply buried lead in the history of singles columns: I’ve got what some might call a "new boyfriend" in this new city (and by "some" I mean people without a crippling fear of commitment).

And that’s how I can tell you relocation is something that happens inside. It happens when you make up your mind to stop expecting a parade down Fifth Avenue and just let yourself stop and smell the toasted nuts on the corner.


Teresa Strasser writes from Manhattan where she is a feature reporter for Fox’s “Good Day Live.” She’s on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Seattle Reform Camp Gets L.A. Support


Reform Jewish parents from the Pacific Northwest who are not willing to put their children on an airplane or drive 15 hours to California so they can go to camp will have an alternative by summer 2005, thanks to the generosity of a Los Angeles family.

The Kalsman-Levy family has donated $5 million to the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to buy the property for a new camp in Washington state. Camp Kalsman, named for grandparents Lee and Irving “Red” Kalsman, will become the movement’s 13th camp in North America.

Mark Levy, who along with wife, Peachy, donated the money to buy the camp, says the idea of helping build a new camp in the Pacific Northwest was very appealing to the family.

“As we grew more and more involved in Jewish life, we become convinced that the most important things to keep Jewish kids involved in a Jewish life are Jewish camps and trips to Israel,” Levy said. Their children and all their grandchildren, including one family living near Seattle, have been to Jewish summer camp when they were old enough and Levy adds that Peachy’s parents were also sold on the importance of Jewish camping.

Irving Kalsman and Levy were both real estate developers and Peachy Levy is a Jewish textile artist. The family has made numerous generous gifts to Jewish causes, including a naming gift for the new UCLA Hillel, and a $3 million gift to establish the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism. The institute operates on Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus.

More than 10 years ago, the family set up the Levy Youth Fund to distribute hundreds of scholarships to enable teenagers to participate in youth conclave weekends, summer camp and high school programs in Israel. The family also has set up a program to enable teens with various physical challenges — mobility and visual impairments as well as autism and other disabilities — to enjoy summer camp at one of the union camps. At last fall’s annual meeting of the URJ in Minneapolis, Mark and Peachy Levy were awarded one of the movements highest honors, the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for work in service to the Reform movement.

Levy said he knew the movement was hoping to build two new camps in the near future. They were attracted to help build the camp near Seattle because they have a number of connections to the Pacific Northwest, including their daughter, Janet Levy Pauli, who lives with her family on Bainbridge Island and is involved in both the Bainbridge Reform synagogue, Congregation Kol Shalom, and a Conservative shul in Seattle, Congregation Beth Shalom.

Pauli, who grew up in Los Angeles but has lived in Washington for 25 years, has not put her kids on a plane to attend camp in California. Both her boys have attended the Conservative movement camp near Olympia, Wash., Camp Solomon Schechter, but her family has participated in Reform family camps both in California and Washington.

She is looking forward to having a new place for both kids and families to go to camp in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s exciting because I so believe in camp. That’s something that has been passed on to me and my generation and I’ve passed it on to my kids,” Pauli said, adding that she also enjoyed hearing at the Reform biennial in Minnesota last fall how excited Jews from Alaska were to have a camp a few states closer to them.

For 10 years, Rabbi David Fine, URJ regional director, and others have been pushing for a new Reform camp in the Pacific Northwest. During that decade, the region has grown from 20 to 33 congregations, with two more due to affiliate within the next year. The number of children and families interested in Reform Jewish camping has grown along with the congregations, Fine says, noting that two Seattle synagogues run their own 10- or 11-day summer camps and 200 people attend a Seattle family camp outside of the city every Labor Day weekend.

“Eric Yoffe, president of the URJ, has expressed a desire for increased camping beds,” Fine said. “Camp is where our young leaders are nurtured and grown. The majority of rabbinical, educator, cantorial and communal service workers grew up in the camping movements.”

The URJ runs 12 camps across the country, including two in Northern California, which attract some young people from Washington, Oregon, Montana and Alaska. Fine said he looked at 35 properties over the past three years before a bankruptcy sale made the beautiful and spacious Love Israel property a bargain the movement could not refuse.

The new camp will be about 60 miles northeast of Seattle, between the towns of Arlington and Granite Falls in Snohomish County, on the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. There’s a natural lake on the property and it’s less than a mile from a river.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a wonderful place for reflection,” Fine said. Surrounded mostly by farms and government property, the camp will also be a great place for kids to make noise and have fun during the summer.

Pauli is the only member of the Kalsman-Levy family to have seen the new camp property and gives the site rave reviews.

“It is just spectacular. The group that’s been there — the Love Israel — people have clearly loved the property, their gardens, the fruit trees, the grape arbors,” she said. “When I left I had this feeling not in the people that I met, but in the physicality of it, that the property was kibbutz-like.”

The URJ paid $4.2 million for the 300-acre property as part of Love Israel’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan to pay off a $5.2 million debt. The alternative Christian community, called a cult or commune by some, has nothing to do with the Jewish state or the Jewish people, but rather is a different way of saying the phrase, “love is real,” which is the group’s founding vision. Their beliefs are tied to the 1960s counterculture and the Bible.

The leader of the Love Israel family, who is also called Love Israel, was the only person willing to say anything amusing about the coincidence of the organization’s name and the new owners of the property. When asked by a local newspaper, The Everett Herald, where the group would be going when they left their bucolic Arlington, Wash., ranch after living there for 20 years, he replied, “It’ll be an orderly retreat, an exodus, leaving Egypt for the country. I’ve been able to live in a park. Now I’ve got to park myself somewhere else.”

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, wrote in a Jan. 2 column distributed the by Religion News Service that there is nothing very amusing about the Love Israel family. He calls the group a cult and describes them as a “bizarre combination of Christian beliefs and New Age ideology, with a charismatic, dictatorial leader.” He expressed his pleasure that the beautiful camp property would now come under the stewardship of the real “Children of Israel.”


Donna Gordon Blankinship is a free-lance writer living in Seattle.

Passover Show Honors Oppressed


“The boy never spoke to anyone about why he didn’t want to go home after school….

Slowly his anger became his new best friend.

He started to beat up on girls, kill chickens, steal bikes and clothes.

He would sneak into people’s homes just to destroy them.” –Daniel Cacho

Until he discovered poetry while he was in juvie for gun posession, Daniel Cacho felt enslaved by severe childhood abuse.

When he recites his searing work at the theater event “Doikayt: A Los Angeles Passover” on April 1, he’ll recall how an uncle molested him and hung him from trees in his native Belize.

The abused Cacho felt worthless and powerless, even after he joined his mother in Los Angeles at age 15: He packed guns and courted danger, and landed himself in the juvenile detention center a few times.

It was there that the teenager chanced to attend a DreamYard/L.A. writing class three years ago.

“Poetry allowed me to take my power back,” said Cacho, 22, who now teaches DreamYard workshops. “It’s been my freedom song.”

Overcoming oppression, both internal and external, will be the focus when Cacho and 20 other artists perform at Doikayt, produced by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and AVADA, a Yiddishkayt Los Angeles project to engage people under 35.

Passover, the holiday of redemption, celebrates many different types of freedom. “Through theater, poetry and music, we’ll recontextualize Passover’s themes of slavery and liberation within the framework of Los Angeles,” said Tali Pressman, AVADA’s founder and a PJA spokesperson.

The event’s title, “Doikayt,” refers to the philosophy espoused by Yiddish-speaking Jews who established unions while toiling in sweatshops a century ago. “It means ‘here-ness,’ or being present, as in fighting for social justice and making life better for everyone right where you live,” Yiddishkayt’s Aaron Paley said.

For “Doikayt,” Paley and Pressman selected performers who are doing such work here and now. Phranc, the self-described “Jewish lesbian folk singer,” will perform heart-wrenching Yiddish songs that could describe sweatshop conditions today in Los Angeles; soprano Gwen Wyatt will sing African American spirituals, many of which use imagery from the biblical Exodus (think “Go Down, Moses”); the Yuval Ron Quartet will gather Jewish and Arab musicians to perform a fusion of Bedouin, Sephardic and other music; and Marisela Norte will read from her play, “Scenes From the Dining Room,” which explores questions of power and powerlessness raised by her waitressing experiences.

“You are the server, so people talk to you in a certain way,” said Norte, 48, a prominent East Los Angeles writer. “I’ve had people snap their fingers at me, pull on my clothes, speak slowly because they don’t think I speak English. Or they’ll say, ‘Wow, you don’t even have an accent,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Yes, I was born here.'”

Norte — whose Mexican forbears include one Jewish grandmother — said her play’s narrator is the fictional restaurant’s dishwasher, an undocumented worker, “the invisible man.”

“I like my work to give voice to the voiceless,” she said.

Nobuko Miyamoto, 64, shares a similar goal; for “Doikayt,” she’ll perform her poignant song, “Gaman,” (“To Endure” in Japanese), written around 1990 during the call for reparations for Japanese Americans interred during World War II.

The poised, soft-spoken Miyamoto was just a baby when her family was ordered to report to the holding camp at Santa Anita racetrack in the early 1940s. “Ganan” draws on her vague memories, such as being carried on her uncle’s shoulders to mess hall and her allergic response to sleeping on hay in a horse stall: “I was covered in eczema from head to foot,” she said.

Miyamoto and her mother were the only women at the Montana beet farm where her father was eventually sent as a slave laborer. Her family’s experience, and that of other Japanese Americans, ultimately helped prompt her to found Great Leap, an organization that uses the arts to promote understanding between diverse groups. Thus Doikayt is her kind of event: “It’s important to find these kinds of opportunities to identify with each others’ culture,” she said.

Paley believes that Passover is perfect timing for such an endeavor. “The holiday has universal themes of slavery and liberation,” he said. “It’s a reminder that we can never be completely free until everyone is free.”

As the intense Cacho says in his poem, “Lost & Found,” “Until I weep for 9-11, mourn for Vietnam and breathe for Iraq, I’ll be trapped in this human maze, chased by time, searching for a rhyme to lead me back home.”

The event takes place April 1, 9 p.m., at The Echo, 1822Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. A dance party with the band, the Alef Project, willfollow the performance. $20. For tickets or information, call (323) 692-8151 orvisit www.avadaproject.org .

Israeli Movies Break in With Self-Criticism


The news that three Israeli movies are about to open at local commercial theaters may not shake the foundations of Hollywood, but for the small Israeli film industry, it’s a big breakthrough.

For years, Israeli producers have been trying to show their wares to American audiences, beyond the limited Jewish film festivals. With few exceptions, American distributors, the crucial middlemen, have not been willing to risk their time and money on Hebrew-language pictures.

Distributors usually cite the alleged American public aversion to subtitled movies and, truth be told, the production values and storylines of most Israeli films haven’t been all that great.

The opening of “Broken Wings” on March 12, “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” on March 26 and “Alila” in April may not yet herald a new era, but surely it is an encouraging sign for the younger Israeli directors coming to the fore.

One aspect is common to all three films. They focus on family, neighborhood or domestic social problems, with only the most tangential references to terrorism, suicide bombers and other events that define the image of Israel for most of the world. The films are also, at least in Diaspora eyes, unsparing in the criticism of their own society.

“Broken Wings,” which won awards at international festivals in Berlin, Tokyo and Jerusalem, is being released by the prestigious Sony Pictures Classics.

A first feature by 34-year-old director-writer Nir Bergman, it chronicles the dissentions and, ultimately, loves of the Ullman family of Haifa, whose father died recently after a prosaic bee sting.

The tragedy leaves it up to the 43-year-old mother Dafna, superbly played by Orli Zilbershatz-Banai, to keep her family afloat by working nightshifts as a hospital midwife. During the day, she deals with her two teenagers and two younger kids, who have all been traumatized, in one way or the other, by the father’s death.

Much of the responsibility for looking after her siblings falls on 17-year-old Maya, who is torn between a budding career as a singer-composer and her unwelcome home duties.

Frequently agonizing, in the end the film finds the family healing and coming together.

“James’ Journey to Jerusalem,” which might be subtitled “An Innocent Abroad” or “Candide Meets the Israelis,” is likely to be enjoyed most by American audiences.

The title character is a young black from a remote and devoutly Christian village in Africa, who is chosen by his tribe to journey to the heavenly Jerusalem of the Bible and report back on the wonders he has seen.

Starry-eyed and wild-haired, James arrives in the Holy Land only to be clapped into jail as an illegal immigrant. He is bailed out by the boss of a house-cleaning service for wealthy Tel Avivians, but as a fast learner, James quickly organizes his fellow Africans into his own service crew.

Despite the film’s humor, Diaspora Jews are bound to wince as James makes his way in an Israel where everybody cheats a little and the greatest fear is to be played for a frayer, or sucker.

“Alila” is by veteran filmmaker Amos Gitai, who has been getting under the skin of his countrymen for 20 years with movies that dissect their warts, prejudices and insecurities.

Set in a shabby apartment building in a rundown Tel Aviv neighborhood, “Alila” is populated by a dozen characters who battle each other and their surroundings for survival and a small share of happiness.

As Israelis of many backgrounds, they fight and stick their noses in each other’s businesses, but when the chips are down they come together and lend a hand.

Why are Israeli films beginning to enjoy greater exposure in the United States? Why do they seem to focus on personal problems, in contrast to such recent political Palestinian movies as “Divine Intervention” or “Rana’s Wedding,” which deal, quite cleverly, with life under the occupation?

We put the question to director Bergman of “Broken Wings,” during his visit to Los Angeles last week; Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, the young director of “James’ Journey”; and Dan Fainaru, a veteran Israeli movie critic and editor of the magazine Cinematech.

Bergman believes that Israeli films are getting better, thanks largely to directors who trained in Israel’s many university film schools and who cut their teeth on television productions.

A second factor is money. Practically all Israeli producers draw their budgets from national, municipal or private support funds, and despite the harsh economic conditions, the subsidies have been going up.

As a result, more feature films are being made — close to 20 this year compared to half that number a few years back — increasing the chances that a few will be first rate.

The second question, on the personal focus of Israeli films, is harder to answer.

“In the 1980s, we had a lot of movies on Jewish-Arab relations, usually from a left liberal perspective, and Israeli audiences stayed away,” Fainaru said.

“We see news about terrorism and politics on television every hour on the hour, while our documentaries deal with the same subjects,” he added. “We don’t need any more of that when we pay a babysitter to go to the movie theaters.”

When Israelis really want to get away from it all for two hours, they go to see foreign films, overwhelmingly American, which account for a staggering 95 percent of attendance and box-office receipts, Fainaru said.

Alexandrowicz doesn’t think that Israeli pictures are too self-critical. “It’s my country and I love it,” he said. “But I think it’s healthy to put a mirror in front of your own society.”

Bergman defends his own focus on family life. “Since Rabin’s assassination, Israel has become a different country,” he said. “Now every family is a country of its own.”

From a Los Angeles perspective, Paul Fagen, the chief programmer for the upcoming Israel Film Festival, sees a quality improvement in the pictures he is checking out now.

“There have been a few lean years,” Fagen said. “But now the stories are more universally human and we have a very strong lineup.”

“Broken Wings” opens March 12 at Laemmle’s Music Hall inBeverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” opensMarch 26 at the same venues and the Playhouse in Pasadena. The exact April dateand location for “Alila” will be announced soon. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com .

Gibson Film Doesn’t Star Anti-Semitism


Before saying what is wrong and what is right with Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” let’s get out of the way the question that is on everyone’s mind. Now that the film has opened, it will become clear to regular moviegoers who have heard of the controversy — furiously fanned by those enterprising fundraisers at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — that no, the film is not anti-Semitic.

It does not show Jews per se in a uniquely nasty light. Depicting the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, it portrays all humanity, except for the few earnest followers of Jesus, in an exceptionally ugly fashion.

The Roman soldiers who mercilessly, endlessly scourge Jesus with clawed whips, laughing and wiping drool from their mouths the whole time, are no less disgustingly portrayed than the proud, callous, foolish Jewish priests who demand that the Roman governor take the torture to the next level: crucifixion.

When Gibson has the crucified Jesus cast an eye up to heaven, the director orients the camera so that the big, round chocolate-brown eye is looking straight at us all in the audience, accusing humanity. Moments later, when Jesus is taken down from the cross, his mother cradles him in her arms, and she looks directly at us in the audience, again casting the accusing eye.

But the fact that “The Passion” isn’t anti-Semitic doesn’t make it an effective piece of filmmaking. The bad news is that Gibson’s motion picture manages to be sadistically violent and somewhat boring at the same time.

It would be hard to know, just from the portrayal in this film, what it was that made Jesus a personality so special as to inspire one of the world’s great religions. The fact that he died in agony? That’s it?

In a quick flashback to the Sermon on the Mount, he is shown endorsing love of one’s enemy, and in a flashback to the Last Supper, he commands his followers to love each other. That exhausts Gibson’s depiction of Jesus as teacher of timeless spiritual truths.

The whole rest of the movie is taken up with depicting Jesus’ grotesque and minutely shown final agonies. When in the course of the very long scourging scene, a claw on one of whips wielded by his Roman tormentors gets stuck in his bloodied flesh and has to pulled out, I thought: OK, enough. But that was only about halfway through the movie.

It is very hard to see how anyone is going to be uplifted by this. Frankly, I’m a little worried about a non-anti-Semitic lunatic getting it into his head to bludgeon some innocent person of any or no religion like Gibson’s Romans do to Jesus.

This alone isn’t a reason not to have made his movie. Who could have predicted that “Taxi Driver” would inspire John Hinckley to try to assassinate Ronald Reagan?

But Gibson ought to have known that there’s a good reason why sensitive people avoid violent films: Watching this stuff, however noble or spiritual or religious the filmmaker’s intentions, coarsens the soul.

Specifically, contrary to Gibson’s intent, “The Passion” seems unlikely to inspire personal repentance. For all the realism of the violence, the rest of the film is highly unrealistic, in such a way that no one who sees it — unless he’s a psycho killer — is going to recognize himself in Gibson’s narrative and feel moved to control himself and stop hurting other people.

The cruelties in our lives, the hurts we inflict, the acts of unfaithfulness to others and to God are many, but they are simply of a different character than nailing a man’s hands to a cross.

As for the part the Jewish priestly establishment plays, arresting Jesus and turning him over to the Romans, their villainy is unrecognizable, because it makes no sense. We’re supposed to believe the Temple priests are after Jesus because he’s got some big, dangerous following that’s going to crown him Messiah, but nowhere do these massively numbered followers ever make an appearance.

From all the evidence of “The Passion,” Jesus had about 10 disciples, 20 max. So why were certain Jews in the New Testament’s telling so intent on seeing him dead? Gibson has no idea.

I mentioned that there is something right about “The Passion.” In at least trying to make a film that depicts his own faith not as a golden dream fantasy but as a reality — an event that actually happened in history, complete with dialogue in the ancient language Jesus really spoke (Aramaic) — Gibson has done something daring, even heroic. The juxtaposition of the Aramaic dialogue in particular, beautifully achieved, with the Caravaggio-esque spooky atmosphere of certain scenes is genuinely thrilling. There is art here, and that fact will move other artists. The importance of his movie lies in the new wave of religiously and even biblically inspired films it will help launch.

He has shown other filmmakers it can be done, and not even the ADL can stop you. This is going to be interesting.


David Klinghoffer is a columnist for The Jewish Journal and The Forward and author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).

True Tale Of Homework Hell


Lately, certain educational “experts” have begun an assault on the time-honored tradition of assigning homework. Some assert that teachers are burdening kids with so much work that they are destroying, willy-nilly, the carefree nature of childhood.

My kids couldn’t agree more.

“Nobody really needs to study math these days,” one child protested to me the other night during homework. “You may have had to learn it in the old days, but we have calculators now.”

To this child, the “old days” refers to anytime before the average computer came equipped with 4 gigabytes of memory and a free DVD burner.

“Besides, when am I ever going to have to do long division in real life?”

I hated being trapped by questions like this.

“Math is an important skill,” I improvised. “You may not need to do long division regularly, but you will need the solid foundation of logic that math teaches you in your career.”

“You don’t know much math,” the child said. “Of course, you don’t have a career either.”

The overflow of chutzpah (Yiddish for “unmitigated gall”) from my kids never ceases to amaze me. On a daily basis, they make the most brazen declarations while still expecting three square meals a day for the next 15 or 20 years, regular birthday presents, new shoes every two months and allowances that include automatic adjustments for inflation.

I sighed. Sometimes it’s the only way to cope.

“Look, I’ve never claimed to be a math whiz, but I wish I were better at it,” I said. “It would have made many things in my life a lot easier.”

Like learning to balance a checkbook, and figuring out the tip at restaurants without having to scribble all over the napkin.

“Science is stupid, too,” added another child, seizing the opportunity to add to my difficulties. “That experiment we had to do with the dancing raisins in seltzer was really dumb.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “but the investigation into the chemistry of béarnaise sauce was exciting,” I reminisced.

I was losing ground and I knew it, but consoled myself with the thought that at least the kids were agreeing on something. That in itself was so rare an event that it almost cried out for investigation.

“You’ll never get ahead in life unless you get a good education,” I insisted. “And that means you must be willing to face the prospect of elementary school, middle school, high school and college.”

And student loans, and graduate school and other things I didn’t dare name.

“I already know all I need to know,” said my 11-year-old, bearing a serious expression and a smear of ketchup on his chin. This is a kid who generally gets away with murder, simply because he has cute freckles and a tendency to wear ketchup on his chin. But it could have been worse: he could have claimed to have learned all he needed to know in kindergarten.

“I can still get a job even if I never go to school ever again!” he said.

“By golly you’re right,” I admitted. “You can dress up in a chicken suit and stand on the corner, waving people into El Pollo Loco or another fast-food dive. Of course, you’d have to grow into the suit first. Or you can spend your days asking the question, ‘Will that be paper or plastic?’ and bag groceries until your elbows give out. If you’re not claustrophobic, you can collect money in a tollbooth, but if you bring a book to read during slow times, make sure the words don’t have too many syllables.”

“Okay, that’s enough Mom,” he said.

Too bad. I was just getting warmed up.

As the homework wars continue to rage, I’m beginning to side with the anti-homework warriors. After all, if the kids didn’t have homework, I wouldn’t be spending my evenings quizzing kids on the difference between ectotherms and endotherms and pretending to know the answer without sneaking a peek at the definitions. Why should I have to reveal the true extent of my ignorance in front of my children? I need to preserve the thin veneer of intellectual superiority that separates me from becoming a total laughingstock in front of them. Even though the sum total of my four kids’ life experiences make them barely old enough to buy liquor, they already consider themselves far more knowledgeable than I am on nearly every subject. They probably wonder how I stumble through life, knowing as little as I do.

And yet, I manage to run a home, raise my kids, write an occasional book or column, all without even knowing what really caused the death of the dinosaurs. Maybe the kids are right after all.

Judy Gruen is the author of several books including “Till We Eat Again:
Confessions of a Diet Dropout” (Champion Press, 2003). She can be reached at judy@judygruen.com.

A New Model for Jewish Identity


For countless American Jews, Jewish identity is shaped by the model of living as a minority immigrant group struggling to protect its heritage against assimilation. Contemporary research affirms this, tending to frame questions in terms of traditional Jewish behavior — lighting Shabbat candles, attending synagogue, fasting on Yom Kippur, affiliating institutionally and supporting Israel.

Yet the reality for many today is that they do not relate to this inherited model. Economically and socially successful insiders, Jews are part of a pluralist society in which the primary factor determining ethnic and religious identity is individual choice. We need a new, more helpful descriptive model that recognizes the vital role that personal decisions play in Jewish American identity construction. I suggest a model based on the following four claims about contemporary Jewish identity:

First, Jewish identity is made up of choices. We pick, consciously or otherwise, from a sort of identity menu that offers us options for behaviors that we understand as “Jewish” because we see them as “Jewish things to do” or as “done in a Jewish way.” At the cutting edge of cultural change, the menu expands, increasingly listing behaviors that once were seen as belonging to other, non-Jewish menus, such as donating to universities, museums and symphonies.

Second, identifying ourselves as Jewish does not necessarily say anything about how we express that identity. From a purely descriptive standpoint, it is essentially the choice of self-identifying that makes us Jewish, even when it isn’t exactly clear how that identity is experienced or conveyed.

Third, Jewish identity has become increasingly fluid and linked to personally important life contexts. For example, many Jewish parents find that their interest in Jewish life increases when their children reach school age. Or some, in late middle age, find that Jewish spirituality animates them. For those who have chosen more traditional Jewish identity behaviors — keeping kosher, going to synagogue, donating funds — this “shape shifting” may seem inauthentic, but for the vast majority of American Jews, being open to important lifecycle changes is more highly valued than faithfulness to traditional practice.

Fourth, most contemporary American Jews are suspicious of “experts” and rarely consult institutional authorities in choosing how to be Jewish. We resist any “pressure” to affiliate with Jewish institutions. If and when we choose to affiliate, it generally is not because we feel duty bound but because doing so meets our needs.

The model that I propose offers new approaches for supporting and enhancing American Jewish identity, given the realities of today. Whatever our particular ideas about how we would like to see Jewish identity develop, we will be better off if we accept the social and cultural realities of Jewish American identity formation.

  • Spend less time creating standards for the options we offer and more time broadening the number of communally acceptable choices. However unusual new views or practices may seem, we should expand the range of communally acceptable options in Jewish politics, religion, music, etc. We have to stop devaluing others for making identity choices that differ from our own.

  • Add new menu options for what counts as Jewish. For example, can we imagine creating communal institutions that treat general philanthropy as a Jewish activity? We need to remember that in a culture of choice, people will remain committed to the Jewish world only if it is big enough to embrace their most important values.

  • Proactively connect Jewish identity construction with other significant life events. For example, getting a driver’s license, taking a first legal drink and other turning points in life could be transformed into Jewish activities. Or why not move beyond the more conventional sense of “Jewish activities” and look at what it might mean in the most profound sense to work — invest, practice law or medicine — Jewishly?

  • Begin teaching Jews how to be skillful at consciously constructing and maintaining their own Jewish identity across the life cycle. This might mean that on occasion we put less emphasis on motivating young people to adopt the particular ways of being Jewish that earlier generations practiced. In a culture of choice, young people create their own Jewish identities and, whatever our own proclivities, it is important that they do so thoughtfully.

These guidelines already are employed in many parts of the country. This suggests that this model is only making explicit what Jewish professionals and lay leaders intuitively know — we need a paradigm change in the area of Jewish identity formation. As Jews try to create new Jewish identities that are exciting and interesting enough to invite their allegiance, we now need to create a model that expands our sense of what being Jewish can mean. We must construct a model that understands and encourages the many ways that today’s Jews form their unique Jewish identities. This will not only help revitalize Jewish life but will help reinvigorate Jewish communities for the decades ahead.

This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.


Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard is the director of organizational development at CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is the 2003 recipient of the Bernard Reisman Journal of Jewish Communal Service Article of the Year Award for “How to Think About Being Jewish in the 21st Century: A New Model of Jewish Identity Construction” (fall 2002), on which this piece is based.

Settling the Land


My first trip to Israel was a six-week summer program for high school
students. I have very clear memories of my first Shabbat in
Jerusalem, especially the afternoon program conducted by our counselors. The
program was a mock talk show where the host would interview three different
individuals all leading Jewish lives. After the interviews, we were divided
into three groups, each having the dubious task of presenting one of the
three positions as being “the best and most useful way of life to the Jewish
people.”

The first interview was with a young Israeli named Koby. A son of Holocaust
survivors, Koby grew up on a secular kibbutz, where he learned the Zionist
values of working the soil of Israel. On his 18th birthday, Koby enlisted in
the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) elite paratrooper brigade, where he served
as a company commander. Asked how he understood Judaism, he responded, “My
parents are Holocaust survivors. They came from a place where nobody
defended them. My entire Jewish identity is wrapped up in my obligation to
defend the Jewish State.”

Asked if he or his family observe any elements of Jewish tradition, he
answered, “We live in Israel, we work the land and I now spend my life
defending our right to be Jewish. Is there any greater reflection of Jewish
tradition?”

The second interview was with a young lady named Rachel. Also a daughter of
Holocaust survivors, Rachel’s life took a very different direction than
Koby’s. Rachel, 24, was married at the age of 18 and settled in B’nei B’rak,
a city with a heavy concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Rachel was the
mother of five children and looked forward to building an even larger
family. Her husband, Moshe, was a full-time Yeshiva student and, having
received an exemption from IDF service, studied Torah day and night.

Asked to explain her Jewish identity, Rachel responded, “Being the child of
Holocaust survivors, I know what happened to our people in Europe. We were
alienated from Jewish tradition, seeking secular European lifestyles instead
of maintaining Judaism. My husband and I fear this trend toward secularism
again here in Israel. That is why we have committed ourselves to living a
strictly observant lifestyle, building a large family and studying Torah.”
Asked how she felt about her husband’s exemption from military service,
Rachel said, “My husband defends the spiritual heritage of the Jewish State.
Without active Torah study, we have nothing to defend here.”

The third and final interview was with Abraham Schwartz. He was a successful
businessman who lived with his family in New York City. Active in his
synagogue, Abraham considered himself a “traditional Jew.” His financial
success in business afforded Abraham the opportunity to support many Jewish
causes. His most generous giving was toward Israel.

Asked how he felt about living in the Diaspora vs. Israel, Abraham
responded, “I feel very blessed to be able to support a variety of causes in
Israel. I believe that my philanthropy toward Israel, and my leadership
positions in many organizations that motivate others to support Israel, are
equally, if not more important, than my actually living in Israel.”

Asked if he intended to move to Israel, he said, “As long as I am in the
financial position to help Israel from abroad, I believe that it is my
obligation to stay here and continue my fundraising activities on behalf of
Israel.”

We were then asked to choose between three positions: physical survival,
spiritual continuity or financial realities.

Both parshot Mattot and Masei raise these dilemmas by focusing on the
mitzvah of “settling the Land of Israel.” This mitzvah, a unique commandment
that centers our physical existence and identity on one small geographic
locale, raises numerous halachic, philosophical and practical issues that
occupy thousands of pages of Jewish literature. The discussion has become
more intense in the past 55 years, because the mitzvah of living in Israel
is no longer a theoretical construct.

So who’s the “best Jew?” Realities teach us that building a Jewish State is
a complex project, one that requires military strength, spiritual vitality
and financial security. So rather than choosing among the three, I would
prefer to say thank you to Koby, Rachel, Abraham and the populations they
represent. Each one, in his or her own unique way, is contributing to the
mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael. The challenge of contemporary Israeli and
Diaspora Jewry is to recognize that the continuity of the mitzvah and
privilege of settling Eretz Yisrael is contingent upon the creation of an
atmosphere where Koby, Rachel and Abraham learn to respect each other’s
differences, and learn to recognize each other’s contributions toward
building Jewish life.


Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Building Bridges to Arab Town


Pop culture lovers don’t need a map to find Mickey’s Toontown. But Alam’s Arab Town?

Little-known even in Orange County and not yet granted official recognition, Arab Town is located in West Anaheim, not far from Disneyland.

Arabic signage and billboards in the strip malls lining Ball Road and Brookhurst Avenue attest to the area’s concentration of Arab-owned small businesses. Restaurants, bakeries, boutiques and halal (the Muslim equivalent of kosher) butcher shops teem with a multinational immigrant clientele, many of them swathed in head scarves and long skirts. Patrons come from throughout Southern California, homesick for familiar foods, smells and cultural norms of their homelands.

The emerging ethnic commercial district, akin to better-established Little Saigon in Westminster and Los Angeles’ Koreatown, is further evidence of the county’s evolution from suburbia into a more diverse, urban environment.

Yet, Arab Town’s virtual anonymity outside the immigrant community — even by Anaheim city officials — shows that demographic diversity falls short of inclusiveness. The biblical cousins, Jews and Arabs, inhabit different worlds — even here.

That figurative distance has increased in recent years, as attitudes between the two communities have intensified because of the intifada and the Sept. 11 attacks. Still, some bridges exist.

According to the 2000 census, 3,500 of Anaheim’s 328,000 residents are of Arab ancestry. Each year since 1995, the small merchants of Arab Town — 10-square miles bisected by Brookhurst between Interstates 5 and 22 — have put on one of the county’s largest cultural events. The Arab American festival, attended by 65,000 last year, is scheduled for Sept. 19-21 in Garden Grove.

Arab Town is the capitalist creation of a natural promoter, Ahmad Alam, who some describe as the area’s unofficial mayor. The Lebanese-born mortgage broker and publisher of The Arab World, an Arabic/English-language weekly newspaper, has included a map of Arab Town and list of mosques and merchants in each weekly edition since 2000.

“You can get whatever you want here as in the Middle East,” said Alam, who lives in Yorba Linda with his wife and son, Rashid.

“When we started, it was empty,” said Alam, who now estimates the area supports 600 Arab-owned businesses, such as Sinbad Travel and Al-Hakima Bookstore. To be sure, Alam’s Arab Town ambitions received a jump-start from $6 billion in recent public works improvements by Anaheim to accommodate Disneyland’s second-park expansion.

Alam figures the area would need 100,000 Arab residents for The Arab World — its 20,000 copies distributed free — to become a daily. “We want to have a very big and strong community,” Alam said. “We all moved here looking for a better life; we didn’t like the politics back home.”

An anti-Arab Sept. 11 backlash undercut his optimism. His unease deepened after his son, Rashid, was injured in a February hate crime.

Last month in a hotel in Arab Town’s southern end, 700 people attended a Muslim Public Affairs Council fundraiser honoring the parents of Rachel Corrie, a political activist crushed to death March 16 by an Israeli military bulldozer while she was trying to halt the destruction of a Palestinian home. Speakers compared Corrie to protesters in a long tradition of civil disobedience, including Rosa Parks’ black civil rights stand in the South and the young man blocking a tank’s path in Beijing’s Tienanmen Square.

“She made a light we can all follow; people who stand for human decency,” said Maher Hathout, an adviser to the Los Angeles-based group, which organized the event to benefit the International Solidarity Movement. Its members act as human shields and have since been barred from entering Israel.

“Bring freedom to Palestine and Israel and an end to the enmity between these people,” Rachel’s mother, Cindy Corrie, pleaded. “Then her death will have had some purpose.”

If a plea for peaceful coexistence from Arab Town seems surprising, it reflects the distance between two communities with common aims living in the same but separate worlds.

Nearly three years of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has eroded one of the highest-profile local efforts to establish rapport between the county’s Arabs and Jews. An interfaith dialogue among leaders begun by the county Human Relations Commission during the late ’80s was discontinued in recent years.

“We cannot separate events from the Middle East from what happens here,” said Haitham (Danny) Bundakji, a police chaplain in Garden Grove and a spokesman for that city’s Islamic Society of Orange County, which operates a mosque and school. “Sometimes there are painful moments. We stop calling each other.”

“It was going nicely and then it ended,” said Rabbi Bernard King, who headed Irvine’s Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot for 30 years. “There was sensitivity over Israel.”

Attitudes should be shaped by the examples of interfaith collaborations in local neighborhoods, said Dr. Muzammil Siddiqui, imam and director of the Garden Grove mosque.

“We should influence them, instead of letting them influence us,” he said.

Bundakji accompanied King and others on an interfaith trip to Jordan and Israel, documented in 1999 by a Los Angeles Times photographer. Both grieved over graves of children lost to violence on both sides.

“The first phone call after Sept. 11 was from a rabbi offering help,” said Bundakji, also a member of the National Conference for Community Justice. “That didn’t happen before.”

Two months later, King spoke at the Garden Grove mosque, a first by a rabbi.

Their friendship evolved from a deliberate Arab-Jewish dialogue sparked by the 1985 bombing death in Santa Ana of Alex Odeh, the regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“It was contentious,” said Rusty Kennedy, director of the Human Relations Commission. “It’s gotten tougher now. The relations between organizations are extremely strained.”

He estimated that communication between Jews and Arabs locally is at low ebb.

The commission purposely tried to go beyond Arabs and Jews by drawing differing nationalities into a series of tolerance-building talks spawned after Sept. 11 called “Living Room Dialogues.” Its “Healing the Hate” forum on May 29, to evaluate community responsiveness to the hate crime against Alam’s son, Rashid, also looked at the outcome of a cross burning at the home of Greg and Evelyn Harris, who are African American.

“This might be a propitious time to start dialogue,” said King, shortly after President Bush’s meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials and before the latest escalation in violence. “I believe the Jewish community would want that dialogue. I’m not sure we’ve received it in return. The Jewish community has given up the effort. Maybe this is the time.”

Ever an optimist, King added, “We need projects to do together, sweat and laugh and cry together.”

He is not alone. Some others are moving beyond words to deeds. Last month, a south county group of 75 Muslims, Jews and Christians, led by their respective clergy, met at 6 a.m. in San Diego.

In a single day, the volunteer laborers hammered, painted and erected a small house for a Tijuana family, a project of Corazon Inc. of Laguna Hills, which in 25 years has built 750 simple homes throughout Baja California.

The collaboration, begun after Sept. 11, 2001, was the second house-raising by the group, which included Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El, Mission Viejo’s mosque and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach.

“The imam, rabbi and minister gave the keys to the mom and her three kids,” said Sabiha Khan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, located in Anaheim’s Arab Town, who wielded a hammer at the event.

Despite waking at 2 a.m. and returning home exhausted at 11 p.m., Khan said the common endeavor by three faiths created friendships.

“I got to meet so many people,” she said. “It was very heart-warming.”

Another on-the-ground example took place earlier this spring. Three student council veterans of Irvine’s Jewish day school explained student governance to their peers at an Irvine Muslim school, which was just establishing a student council. After dispensing with the serious discussion, the students took up a more typical subject: TV shows.

“They got together on a very human level,” said Howard Haas, upper school principal of Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School.

“I wanted it to be more of a coincidence; it didn’t have to be a time to talk about differences,” said Omar Ezzeldine, director of New Horizon Elementary School. “We need to treat each other as people. Differences will be resolved with time.”

The two private school officials, joined by peers from UC Irvine and the public school district, took part in the inaugural meeting of an intracity education exchange, a novel idea initiated last month by Irvine City Councilwoman Beth Krom. Its objectives have yet to be fully defined.

“If we can’t get together in the city of Irvine, there’s no hope in the world,” Haas said.

Marlene Marks’ Spirit on the Web


Being treated for cancer is no one’s idea of fun. But a new Web site, www.chemochicks.com, is bringing moral support and an irreverent sense of humor to women undergoing chemotherapy. The colorful, breezy site gives female cancer patients a place to gripe, share inspiring stories and purchase products that will make life easier when their hair falls out and their self-esteem is nil.

Chemochicks.com is the brainchild of Jana Rosenblatt, a theatrical costumer and interior designer who has spent the past year fighting ovarian cancer. Much of the Chemo Chick product line comes from her own search for stylish headwraps and for eye makeup that will stay put on a hairless face.

“It’s amazing,” Rosenblatt said, “how expressionless you are without your eyebrows.”

The site also reflects Rosenblatt’s feisty spirit. When first facing chemotherapy, she dreamed up a fearless alter ego, Super Chemo Chick, who was tough enough to handle whatever might come. Now this personal coping mechanism helps empower others.

Rosenblatt’s founding partners in Five Chicks Unlimited are four local businesswomen who have been touched by cancer. They bring expertise in finance, product research, Web design and customer service to the site. But its guiding spirit is someone who did not live to see its launch: Marlene Adler Marks.

Rosenblatt had redecorated Marks’ Malibu home in 2000, shortly before The Jewish Journal’s longtime columnist and former managing editor was stricken with lung cancer. When Rosenblatt herself fell ill in June 2002, a visibly ailing Marks came to call. Marks’ courage in the face of her own mortality inspired Rosenblatt to battle back with similar grit. Two months after Marks’ death last September, the idea for chemochicks.com was hatched.

Another major morale boost came from Rosenblatt’s synagogue, Or Ami of Calabasas. Though she was relatively new to Southern California, members showered her with food baskets and friendly visits. Several, in fact, have joined the Chemo Chick team.

“I didn’t realize I was so much a part of any community, let alone a Jewish community,” Rosenblatt marveled.

Which shows that even a cancer diagnosis can lead to good things. “I like the person I am now better than the person I was before I got sick,” Rosenblatt said.

The Circuit


Family Man

“There are three major religions and they all say the same thing: ‘You honor others and you will have others honor just as you do.'”

So sayeth Spartacus himself — Kirk Douglas — during a one-on-one discussion with Rabbi David Wolpe following a benefit screening on April 9 at Sinai Temple of his latest film, “It Runs in the Family.”

Douglas, 87, has played in more than 80 movies. Of those, Douglas said he liked only 22, and among them he ranked David Miller’s 1962 drama, “Lonely Are the Brave,” as his best.

“It Runs in the Family” — the story of three generations of a dysfunctional New York family coming together — signals several firsts: Douglas got to co-star opposite his son, Michael Douglas, and grandson, Cameron, 14, appearing in his first acting role. Douglas also got the opportunity to act once again with his ex-wife, Diana Douglas.

“It was very easy to play with Michael. Michael is a very good actor,” said proud papa Douglas, who also called Cameron “a natural talent.”

Actingwise, Douglas has led a charmed life, working with such legendary directors as Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick. His life off screen, however, has been marred by tragedy that has fueled his recent gravitation toward his Jewish faith. With Wolpe, he openly discussed his love of Torah, surviving a helicopter crash and a stroke, and the subsequent memoir, “Stroke of Luck,” those experiences informed.

“I think I am very lucky,” Douglas said. “In the helicopter crash, two young people were killed and I survived. I said to myself, ‘Why am I alive?’ Then my stroke happened, but I survived. I think that the most important thing that has happened to me is what my mother and my father did to come from Russia to America and give me the chance to do something. I am grateful for what they did.”

So grateful, Douglas named his production company after his mother, Brina.

“I was born in poverty,” Douglas said. “We did not have enough to eat; my parents were peasants from Russia. My son, Michael, was born in a much better situation. Now my grandson is in a much, much better situation.”

Douglas even weighed in on politics, noting that he did not vote for President Bush, but admitting that he supported the war effort.

“I think people already have forgotten Sept. 11,” Douglas said, “when we were attacked and 3,000 people were killed. America is the only superpower. It must make it happen to get rid of terrorism. And I think this war has only been the start of it.”

Overall, he said, making “It Runs in the Family” was a positive, bonding experience for the Douglas clan.

“I was very pleased to make the movie,” Douglas said, “because with all that is happening in the world today, with our troops far off, and while we waited for them to come back to their families, I thought it was very appropriate to make a movie about family, about the love that there is within a family and to show how important it is.” — Mojdeh Sionit, Contributing Writer

Building in the ‘Bu

The Malibu Jewish Center, which offers religious schooling, adult education and other services at the affluent beachside community, honored Jack Friedman for his support of the center at its 23rd annual Hard Hat Ball at the Hotel Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica on May 4. Friedman has been instrumental in helping the trailer-based center, which has never had its own permanent temple or offices, build a new temple, currently in progress.

His and Hearse Drawing Praise

David Rose, veteran illustrator and media graphic artist with numerous one-man shows on his resume, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. Rose was cited for “outstanding contributions to the graphic arts and print media of the world, and in exemplifying the highest tradition of excellence in his field.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Broadcast News

Jewish Television Network (JTN) appointed Jayne Braiman Rothblatt as its new vice president of development. Rothblatt recently served as director of development and public relations for Vista del Mar Child and Family Services. At Vista del Mar, Rothblatt was responsible for the $2 million annual appeal. JTN was founded in 1981 as an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit production and distribution company — the only producer of Jewish television in the United States.

Singles Ahoy


I’ve always wanted to take a cruise: the ease of planned day
trips, the lure of the casino, the all-you-can-eat midnight buffets.

So when I see an ad for a cruise on the JDate Web site,
I decide to take the plunge.

I pack four bottles of hand sanitizer (due to recent viral
outbreaks on cruises) and spend way too much time shopping the “cruise-wear”
sections of department stores. (I didn’t even know these existed.)

When you’re single, traveling to tropical islands isn’t
always what it’s cracked up to be. But, I figure, if I don’t meet the love of
my life on this trip, at least I’ll have a large pool of potential companions
to go duty-free shopping with in the Bahamas. But who will these people be? I’m
expecting the worst.

However, the very first person I meet getting off the bus
from the airport — a gentle, soft-spoken businessman with a hint of a South
African accent — lays my fears to rest. Mr. Accent and I board the ship
together. I’m lingering over his pronunciation of “Newark,” which is downright
luxurious. Soon, Mr. Accent is off to unpack and I’ve got six hours to kill
before our private welcoming party.

I’ve never been on a cruise before, and it feels a bit
surreal as I sip my welcoming punch and witness the mad rush to sign up for
“parasailing,” “swim with the dolphins” and “treasure hunt.”

Back at my single cabin (most people paid less to share this
tiny space with a roommate), I don a slinky dress and head nervously up to the
Music Man lounge for the party. My heart’s pounding. What am I doing here?

To my relief everyone at the party is nice. Mr. Accent talks
to a few blondes. I stop to chat with him; he’s extremely sweet, but his eyes
wander. Is this on-to-the-next mentality a part of singles culture?

So my eyes wander, too, to a man wearing hip glasses, tight
jeans and pointed leather boots — I soon discover he’s a religious banker. Mr.
Stud is already dating two women and is just here “to chill.” But he still has
hopes of “getting lucky,” he confides later.

Mingling more, I meet a doctor from Georgia, a woman from my
hometown and a few lawyers. I find out later that about half of the 85 JDaters
on board are, like me, in their 30s. Each person is friendlier then the next,
but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all rushed: I’m hurrying to meet as
many people as possible, yet I’m not sure precisely why.

Then I meet High-Tech, 28, a laid-back computer programmer
from Los Angeles with a twinkle in his eye. I notice that he focuses on me when
we speak.

The next morning, I’m waiting with High-Tech to board the
small boat that will take us to a private island. The ship is wall-to-wall people.
From the corner of my eye, I see someone vomiting behind us. Whipping out the
hand sanitizer, I push forward, away from the seasick person. High-Tech catches
up, breathless. He’s here for a vacation and to re-establish an exercise
routine, he tells me.

“I don’t really have time for a long-term relationship,” he
says. “Maybe dating.”

High-Tech is off to catch “yoga on the beach” and I join the
others for JDate Olympics. After three rounds of passing the Hula-Hoop without
using hands, I’m ready for a little break. I lounge and sip a Bahama Mama,
compliments of Mr. Accent. I could get used to this.

Being a VIP — he’s been on other JDate trips in the past —
Mr. Accent knows about the kinds of connections that can form on these trips:
the flings between people from different states, which usually fizzle in the
end; the new friendships that may lead to after-trip dates with friends of
friends; and, potentially, the long-term relationships.

Later in the evening, I dance with High-Tech. The deck is
lit up as the crowd boogies to the Cha-Cha slide. He gets some type of a drink
housed in a coconut and offers me some. When I don’t take any, he gets a second
straw: He’s figured out my obsession with the cruise-ship virus.

The last day of the cruise is overcast, but JDaters are
lying out anyway. Mr. Accent is occupied with the new woman he is seeing. So I
find Ms. Chicago, who tells me, in this short amount of time, it’s hard to read
people and know if you’ll end up in a relationship.

“If you meet someone, that’s like icing on the cake,” she
says. “If you don’t, you have new friends and you’re on a cruise!”

Have I made a lifetime of friends from a four-day cruise? I
might not have met the love of my life, but I did actually make some friends.
And I’m surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed being part of the group.

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Hidden Sensuality


Earlier this month, visitors to the Grand Hyatt in New York City might have spotted an unusually stern warning sign on one wall: “The hair of a woman is considered ervah.” Lewd, shameful, naked, unchaste. This inscription, from the Babylonian Talmud, was part of a photographic exhibit by the artist Na’ama Batya Lewin, on display on the occasion of the fourth international conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Nov. 9-11.

In characteristic Talmudic dialectic, Lewin’s exhibit presented an alternative interpretation of the ancient verse, summed up in the exhibit’s title, “Ervah: Hidden Sensuality.” The photographs show Lewin visiting modern and ultra-orthodox communities around New York in all manner of head coverings: synthetic wigs, hats riding on top of wigs, schpitzlim (knit caps covered with twisted twine), even a long, luscious red sheitel (a wig) dramatically different from her own.

The JOFA conference brought together some 700 women and 300 men for a weekend of religious activism and scholarly lectures on the question of tzeniut, a mix of modesty and dignity, and other aspects of communal life, all gathered under the rubric “Discovering/Uncovering/Recovering Women in Judaism.” The group, most of whose members identify as modern Orthodox, pursues small victories — mother’s names on tombstones, bat mitzvahs for girls, more equitable synagogue seating plans — while also pressing for a feminist reworking of the entire 3,000-year-old patriarchy that is Orthodox Judaism.

Emotions were noticeably more raw at last year’s conference, where one speaker broke down in tears over whether she should encourage her daughter to wear tzizit (traditional fringed ritual garments reserved for men and boys). This time, participants made bolder assertions: “Just do it, and the rabbis will follow,” one woman said. Indeed, conference-goers heard talks by several prominent men — rabbis and scholars — who’ve found imaginative legal precedent in the Talmudic and rabbinic texts for still-controversial practices, like women’s prayer groups and mixed-gender public prayer.

But many men have not followed. Consider the comments of a highly regarded doctor and father of five daughters who attended the conference with his wife. “Look, let’s face it, women are a complete distraction in shul,” he said to me.

“What are you going to do, lay someone on the bimah?” his wife shot back, referring to the platform at the front of the synagogue. “Control yourself, like at work.”

He responded, “I can get a lot of work done while looking down a women’s shirt. Davening [praying] is different.”

Dr. Tova Hartman-Halbertal, a lecturer at Hebrew University’s School of Education and author of “Appropriately Subversive: Modern Mothers in Traditional Religions” (Harvard University Press, 2003), is one woman who is trying to make things even more different. She’s one of the founders of Shira Hadasha, a new, inclusive Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem where women have leadership roles in services, which begin only after 10 women, in addition to the traditional 10 men, have gathered.

The most dramatic moment of the conference came during Hartman-Halbertal’s hour-long talk, which challenged one of the biggest sources of Orthodoxy’s neofeminist pride: the modesty of women. Rather than offering an alternative to secular Western culture’s objectification of women, she said, Orthodox practices effectively “cover women with spiritual and psychic anxiety not their own.”

She told the story of a young male teacher at an Orthodox girls’ high school who placed a bowl of buttery rugelach on the table before the evening lesson. At the end of the lesson, he said dramatically, “Remember how distracted you were by those rugelach? That is exactly how I feel when you do not dress tzanua.”

This parable — likening girls to pastry — caused a commotion, as whispered conversations erupted across the room. At the end of her talk, part of the audience gave Hartman-Halbertal a standing ovation.

I approached Rabbi Daniel Sperber, the head of Judaic schools of higher learning and professor of Talmudic research at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, who is sympathetic to fuller participation of women in ritual life. “She used big words,” he said, a bit cagily. “When you exaggerate so much, you produce a caricature and it begins to sound like demagoguery.” But judging from the hallway talk, many listeners understood Hartman-Halbertal’s point: Much of tzeniut, as it is currently practiced, is a recapitulation of the same hypersexualization of both men and women, at the expense of their human dignity, that Orthodoxy condemns in mainstream culture.

So why do feminist Orthodox women — and men — endure the pain and stay in the fold? The answer may lie as much in fundamental identity as in the richness of communal life and religious belief itself. For JOFA, change is difficult but possible; in fact, adaptability may be the secret strength that has preserved tradition for thousands of years.

“I come to this from a place of choice,” said Cherie Koller-Fox, a Conservative rabbi from Boston who supports JOFA. “I am not so angry. Besides, no one ever called me a rugelach.”


Tamar Miller is former executive director of the Institute for Social and Economic Policy at Harvard University.