Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film

The great 20th century philosopher, Martin Buber, had an uncanny ability to speak to ecumenical gatherings. He would often begin his lectures highlighting the many theological tenets shared by Jews and Christians.

“Jews,” he said, “believe the Messiah has yet to come.” To which he added, “Christians believe the messiah has come, and they are waiting for his — Jesus’ — return.”

Concluding his introduction he quipped, “Let us pray and work together for the Messiah’s arrival, and when he gets here, we’ll ask if he’s been here before!”

In anticipation of Easter, a slightly modified version of “The Passion of the Christ,” the film by actor and director Mel Gibson, and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, has been re-released. The second coming if you will. This re-cut version is widely available in a DVD gift format.

In light of the film’s reappearance, it is worth recalling what happened before the movie’s initial debut back on Good Friday of 2004. At the time, much of the Jewish community was in shock — panic struck — worried the film would stir-up anti-Semitic feelings. The Anti-Defamation League, under the direction of Abe Foxman, led the charge.

Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles largely condemning the work. Opinions were cast like stones, often expressed by those who had not even seen the movie. From Jerusalem, Rome, New York and Los Angeles, and all points in between and beyond, comments flew every which way. Even ailing Pope John Paul II at the time allegedly uttered an opinion on the film that sounded more like a papal edict. “It is as it was.”

After people started seeing the film in huge numbers, another shock was in store for many Jews, who continue to hold a medieval understanding of Jewish-Christian relations: Anti-Semitism did not re-surface or intensify as a result of the film’s release.

In fairness to those who continue to hold anachronistic points of view, such fears about Christianity were not always unjustified. Throughout history, mainly European history, the passion plays’ depiction of deicide generated horrific hatred against Jews. Such performances were banned in Rome in 1539, because they led to murderous rampages on the Jewish ghetto. Much later, in 1934, Hitler himself referred to the plays as: “precious tools.”

Now, with a perspective on Gibson’s film that comes with experience, hardly a sound can be heard from Jewish leaders: no outcries; no expressed, projected worries of accelerated anti-Semitism. But there also have been no apologetic retractions of the earlier aspersions. Given all the negative reactions and expressed fear prior to the film’s original release, an open re-evaluation by Jews is in order.

All along, “The Passion of the Christ” ought to have been seen as a t?te-?-t?te opportunity, a chance to inaugurate a dialogue to elucidate and clarify the similarities and differences of these two great, monotheistic religions. The movie understandably targets a largely Christian viewing audience, but its platform is derived from Judaism. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and, yes, died a Jew. Over time, like Judaism, Christianity evolved. For any number of reasons, it parted with conventional Jewish thought and theology.

Consider the following three examples from “The Passion of the Christ” and the theology it embodies.

1 — Original Sin.

Derived from the Bible’s Garden of Eden narrative, most Christian interpretation holds human beings inherently sinful because of Adam’s (and Eve’s) initial disobedience of God. Unlike Christianity, Judaism holds the human soul is born pure and unadulterated. The Jewish perspective grows out of the ideal that holds individuals accountable for their actions — not their ancestors, biblical or otherwise.

2 — Faith vs. Law.

The apostle Paul — also a Jew by birth — had an all-or-nothing perception of Jewish law: If you have not fulfilled all of the Bible’s laws perfectly, then you are a sinner. But think about it: It would be a virtual indictment of God to suggest that God would create less-than-perfect human beings and then condemn them for being imperfect.

3 — The Messiah.

This subject is, of course, the thematic crux of the blockbuster film. The substantive difference between Jew and Christian on this issue revolves around the divinity of Jesus. “The Passion” has generated so much passion because it tells not merely of the death of Jesus the man, or even Jesus the messiah. Far more significant for Jews is the indictment in the film — drawn from the New Testament — that some Jews collaborated in the death of God. Call it what it was: an unadulterated deicide.

As a Jew, what is baffling to me is how anyone thinks you can actually kill God. Ignore God — yes; disbelieve in God — of course that happens. But if there is one area where Jews and Christians ought to agree, it is this: God is infinite, omnipotent and transcendent. Further, all human beings are created by God and in God’s image — no matter one’s faith.

These are just three important points of discussion the film raises. Their consideration can and should lead to honest, inspiring, open, soul-searching questions. Maybe that is why so many Jews feel threatened by the devout Christians who championed this movie, as well as by the film’s several incarnations. Some Jews remain suspicious of Christian friendship; they suspect that Christians’ love for Israel and the Jewish people is for another motive: to convert unknowing Jews away from their faith.

But Jews have no one to blame but themselves if they are so increasingly unaware of and despondent regarding their great, age-old religious tradition that they cannot even debate and discuss these theological divides. In the meantime, movies like “The Passion” will continue to generate wonderful opportunities for Jews and Christians who are eager to engage in an ongoing spiritual dialogue. Perhaps this exchange will bring the Messiah sooner to the world if, for nothing else, to set us straight on whether he’s been here before.

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.


Negev + Galilee = Israel’s Future

“The Negev and the Galilee comprise 70 percent of the area of the State of Israel with 30 percent of its populace, but they guarantee 100 percent of the future of the state,” said Ron Pelmer, the director of Or National Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that helps to develop Israel’s periphery.

Pelmer spoke at November’s Sderot Conference for Social and Economic Policy, at a session devoted to developing the Negev and the Galilee. The phrase “Gedera to Hadera” — referring to the metropolitan sprawl where most of Israel’s populace lives — was oft heard in comparison with the Negev and the Galilee, considered Israel’s peripheries. Attracting people to the peripheries will take an overall strategy, he noted.

Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski, who chaired the session, described the agency’s role in bringing together Israeli philanthropists and their Diaspora counterparts to help the government implement its decision to develop the Negev. In June, the agency agreed to the multiyear funding of Daroma, a company comprising Israeli and Diaspora businesspeople and public officials who will devote time and resources to develop the Negev. Likewise, Tzafona will be established to help develop the Galilee.

“Real Zionism is to encourage all to move to the Negev and the Galilee,” said Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, adding that the key to developing the peripheries lies in improving transportation to the center of the country. Efficient transportation, he said, will change the periphery into suburbia.

Sheetrit would like every citizen to be able to reach a large urban center within half an hour. Train lines have expanded in recent years, and further expansion is planned. A new train line will shorten travel time from the Negev to Tel Aviv, and another line will bring the Galilee closer to Haifa. Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway) already connects Gedera to Hadera. By 2007, two new sections will extend the highway north and south.

Sheetrit rejected the government policy of offering tax incentives, since only 20 percent of the periphery’s residents reach tax brackets entitling them to such incentives. “It would be better to take the money and invest in a long school day, thus providing equal opportunities for each child. Education is the real answer for social change,” he said.

“The State of Israel will not advance without the Negev and the Galilee. We will have serious problems if we don’t develop these areas,” said Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick of the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a private family fund dedicated to assisting the underprivileged in Israel’s geographic and social periphery. Although an interministerial government committee has been established, Brick stressed the role of nongovernment organizations, some voluntary, in filling the gap until the government becomes more involved.

The Or movement hopes to market homes in the Negev to 108,000 people by developing housing, services and employment opportunities. It has already helped establish six settlements — five in the Negev and one in the Galilee — and expand 25 moshavim and kibbutzim.

Pelmer moved with his family from Petah Tikva to Sansana in the northern Negev, providing an example for others. “In the Negev there are 200 professional job offers every month, and in the Galilee, 400,” Pelmer said. He wants to prevent people from leaving these areas and attract more young and young-at-heart residents. Since army bases dot the Negev, families of military personnel will live there if services are sufficiently developed, he said. Or is also trying to attract large companies to the area.

The Strauss-Elite food concern is an example of a large firm reaping the financial benefits of operating in the periphery. “It’s a win-win situation,” Director-General Giora Bar Deah said. “There are economic advantages in these areas, like tax breaks and benefits. There’s no shame in benefiting from them.”

Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss-Elite Group and a Jewish Agency board member, provides an example of industry’s positive involvement by volunteering as a driving force behind the agency’s Babayit Beyahad program that matches veteran Israelis with new immigrants.

Representing local government, Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri placed the blame for his city’s decline since 1982 on government policy, along with lack of local leadership and a master plan. At Acre’s helm since 2003, Lankri has improved infrastructure, developed tourism and stemmed the tide of residents leaving the city. Acre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“As a mayor, I have taken upon myself to improve a city with potential. We must not be alone in this. Without the government bringing strong populations and increasing grants, we are unable to do it alone,” he said.

Young people are seen as the key to development. Discharged IDF soldiers founded the Ayalim association with the aim of keeping students in the peripheries after they complete their studies. Today there are some 26,000 students at southern venues, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Sapir College, where the Sderot Conference took place. There are some 47,000 students in northern colleges and universities. Most will later return to the center of the country to find employment.

The main crop of Kibbutz Ashbal in the Galilee is education. Founded a few years ago, its 60 members — all graduates of the Hano’ar Ha’oved Vehalomed youth movement — are involved in educational projects, some unconventional. They work with 4,000 local children and youths from all social sectors, including Jews, Arabs and Bedouin. The kibbutz has a dormitory for Ethiopian immigrant youths who might otherwise have dropped out of school, and has established five study centers in Arab villages.

Professor Alean Al-Krenawi, head of BGU’s Department of Social Work, feels that the Israeli Arab population is ignored. A Bedouin whose brother is mayor of Rahat, Al-Krenawi believes that the programs and initiatives for the Negev serve to weaken the Bedouin population and increase the gaps between them and their Jewish neighbors.

“One cannot ignore the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel. The Arab Bedouin population of the Negev is in a dire economic situation,” he said.

Eitan Broshi, head of the Jezreel Valley regional council, bemoaned the lack of government involvement but also noted the dearth of leaders from the periphery. “Since the days of Ben-Gurion there has been no national leadership from these areas,” he said.

Broshi argued that transportation options are not the solution for outlying areas. “Young people need a purpose and the means to live in these areas. Once people moved to these areas as a national mission. Today they look for self-fulfillment.”

Although the challenge of developing Israel’s peripheries is daunting, Bielski suggests to “look at what we’ve done in the past 57 years” and gain encouragement for the future.


Kosher Gospel — a Joyful Noise at Shul

Joshua Nelson is resting his voice. That’s a tall order for Nelson, the 29-year-old African American Jewish singer who has blended black style and Jewish prayers and folksongs into a new, foot-stomping, synagogue-shaking praise music he has dubbed “kosher gospel.”

Though he’s been spreading his unique gospel for years, lately it’s been catching on like wildfire; an appearance on “Oprah” last fall solidified it as a hot commodity in crossover music, and Nelson as its inventor and chief spokesman. So Nelson has been speaking — and singing — a lot lately, which is why he is doing his best to do as little as possible of both between dates of his current tour (he and his band arrive at University Synagogue in Irvine on Jan. 22).

But once he gets started, once a certain spirit moves him and a passion for the subject matter takes hold, it’s hard for him to stop.

One subject he never seems to tire talking about is how he was moved to create kosher gospel, which for all its appeal strikes many people (Jewish and non-Jewish) as a contradiction of terms. Nelson is African American in the truest sense of the word: his Orthodox mother (his father is also Jewish) is from West Africa, and he grew up in South Orange, N.J. He is a third-generation Jew who grew up around predominantly black synagogues in Harlem and in his hometown. But his original inspiration for kosher gospel came from a traditional rabbi in Jersey who cornered him when he was a teenager honing his singing style. Rabbi Sky saw not only potential in Nelson as a performer, but also in his performance style–the potential to attract new generations of Jews.

“Rabbi Sky was strict, and I thought he was going to scorn me and the way I sang,” recalls Nelson. “But he didn’t. He said, ‘You should put that sound to Jewish music. You can encourage young people to come to temple!'”

Nelson has done that, and then some. His widening audience includes not just reinvigorated Jews, but non-Jews drawn to the undeniable spirit of the music, especially African Americans who were raised on this music in churches and who have always been steeped in it culturally. The fact that Nelson sings Jewish liturgy and prayer — often in Hebrew and not about Jesus — matters not to folks like Oprah, who respond primarily to Nelson’s soaring voice, his infectious rhythms and his conviction, all of which look and sound awfully familiar.

And the fact that Jewish and Christian themes and theology overlap, especially in the black church — the story of Moses and the divinely aided deliverance of his people from slavery comes to mind — makes Nelson resonate that much more. All of which is fine by him.

“Blacks have always put soul into something, wherever they are in the world,” he says.

A scholar of gospel, he stresses that despite the synonymity of the music with church, gospel originated in the fields where black slaves toiled for centuries in the American South.

“When slaves were introduced to Christianity, their moans and groans were wedded to hymns — that was syncopation. That was how gospel really came to be,” explains Nelson, who in addition to being a singer is a Hebrew teacher at his longtime temple, Shari-Tefilo Israel in South Orange. “Gospel wasn’t really accepted by churches, which thought it was too bluesy. Ultimately, it was too black.”

Nelson says his idol, gospel great Mahalia Jackson (whom he closely resembles in voice), encountered the same kind of disapproval early in her career in her adopted hometown of Chicago, which was populated by middle-class blacks seeking to distance themselves from black folk traditions and all things Southern. The power of gospel won out, of course, and Jackson went on to become a superstar and a catalyst for the music’s popularity.

Nelson says there’s a parallel between that dynamic and one unfolding today in Christianity: “You have a euphoric element in all denominations now.”

As for Judaism, he believes that gospel at temple is an idea whose time has come.

“In Jewish tradition, there were songs that [blacks) always sung with soul,” he muses. “We always did at our temple. It wasn’t exactly gospel, but it was different. We brought our traditions to it, like Jews all over the world brought their own traditions to the faith.”

It’s irresistible to speculate that kosher gospel is just the sort of entertaining, listener-friendly thing needed to help bridge the divide between blacks and Jews that developed after the 1960s and that conscientious folks in both camps have wrung their hands about ever since. Though he has no problem with multiculturalism or with coalition-building — his own Reform temple is notably diverse — Nelson cautions against equating race with religion, or implying it, in any discussions of blacks and Jews, or of Jews and any other ethnic group.

“Jewishness is not a race,” he says emphatically. “We tend to think in this country that all Jews are European or Ashkenazi. That’s how the immigration went. But that’s not the case.” Ironically, Nelson says that he encounters skepticism most frequently not from Jews or whites, but from blacks. “They’ve just never met a black Jew before,” he says, particularly one singing gospel. He adds, with a laugh: “They get a little confused.”

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will be in concert Jan. 22, 6:45 p.m., at University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine. For tickets, call (949) 553-3535.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.


Not All Wish Sharon Well

Words of concern and sympathy poured in from all over the world after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke. Especially striking were supportive comments from quarters that had once cast Sharon as an inflexible hawk — or even a war criminal — but who now gave him credit as a force for progress toward peace in the Middle East.

The condolences, however, were not unanimous — and some critics made for odd bedfellows.

Predictably, a barb arrived from new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He’s quickly become the most quotable anti-Semite in office today in the wake of his calls for Israel’s destruction and his questioning of whether the Holocaust occurred.

“Hopefully, the news that the criminal of Sabra and Shatila has joined his ancestors is final,” said Ahmadinejad, as reported by the semiofficial Iranian Student News Agency. Ahmadinejad was referring to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians by a Lebanese Christian militia at two refugee camps.

An Israeli commission of inquiry held Sharon, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time, indirectly responsible for not anticipating the carnage. Sharon was forced to resign, which, at the time, seemed to end his political career.

Ahmadinejad, at least, was referring to events on earth. It was for the Rev. Pat Robertson, the warhorse of America’s religious right, to bring higher powers into his critique.

Speaking on the “700 Club” last week, Robertson suggested that Sharon and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who was assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995) had been treated harshly by God for dividing Israel.

“He was dividing God’s land,” Robertson said. “And I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or the United States of America. God says, ‘This land belongs to me. You better leave it alone.'”



History will note the premiership of Ariel Sharon as the pivotal moment when Israel decided that ending control over the Palestinians was in its own, crucial interest. And it was the time that Israel took dramatic unilateral action to pursue that course. Disengagement, defeating terrorism and building the security fence have been essential in cutting the Gordian knot between Israel’s interests and Palestinian political will and capacity.

Negotiation, by contrast, is what unites Sharon’s critics. From the Left, Yossi Beilin contends that, since the contours of a final status agreement are known, all that remains is to seal the deal. From the Right, Binyamin Netanyahu advocates the logic of the quid pro quo — “if they give, they’ll receive” — implying that time is on Israel’s side and the ball is in the Palestinian court.

But what if the Palestinians are unwilling or unable to end the conflict? What if they don’t “give”? Does that mean that Israel will stay in the Palestinian areas indefinitely?

Though a regional economic and military superpower, Israel had been powerless in the world of negotiations to address the clearly identified threat to its survival. The Palestinians had the ability to hold Israel hostage by refusing to agree to any settlement that would end Israel’s occupation.

History teaches that a stand-off between “occupier” and “occupied” leads to one outcome: liberation and independence. The Palestinians had time, or at least they used to have it until disengagement.

Before the summer of 2005, the Israeli public had two choices before it, both of which depended on negotiations. The first was the pursuit of a final status accord that was going to face implacable obstacles. A failure to reach agreement on the status of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem also would mean no agreements on economics, security or civic issues. The other option was the U.S.-backed “road map” — a sequenced approach to establish a Palestinian state in provisional borders before a Permanent Status Agreement.

Over the past few years, both tracks seemed doomed to deadlock. Profound disagreements on content and structure, the weakness of the Israeli political system and a dysfunctional Palestinian leadership all blocked a permanent accord. The roadmap also seemed stuck due to disagreements on the entry point, and on each of its phases. It is these perceived deadlocks that have legitimized Israeli unilateralism, transforming it into a compelling option.

The powerful logic of disengagement is that it has partially ended Israeli control over the Palestinians without their consent, but with U.S. endorsement and in coordination with other relevant third parties. This combination has galvanized international support and disarmed Palestinian opposition.

The secret of the successful execution of the Gaza disengagement — and an essential part of its logic — relates to Israel’s internal politics. Sharon succeeded in bridging the gap between the requisites of a deal with the Palestinians, on the one hand, and the positions and perceptions of the Israeli mainstream, on the other.

Sharon decided to focus on the latter, designing disengagement around the “stomach” of the Israeli public. He understood that support for disengagement would be solid because it is perceived as good for Israel even under fire and with no reciprocity. At the same time, Sharon understood that expanding disengagement too far might compromise public support, so he rejected all temptations and pressures to go further or to negotiate.

Sharon assumed that politicians would follow the public. He was right.

Disengagement was just the first step of Sharon’s strategy. His public statements reveal that he was seeking to create a new Israeli-Palestinian equilibrium based on five tenets: ending Israeli control over the Palestinians with international recognition; creating a Palestinian state in provisional borders that will assume control over its territory and population; securing Israeli control over issues critical to its national security, such as the airspace; designing a new framework for reaching permanent status; and beginning to permanently resolve the refugee issue within the Palestinian state.

In the apparent absence of a Palestinian “partner,” Sharon’s strategy would have required further unilateral withdrawals. The logic of disengagement may have not been exhausted. For example, under the new unilateralist paradigm, Israel can dismantle isolated settlements and illegal outposts or transfer the Palestinian neighborhoods in north Jerusalem — which are already outside the security fence — to the PA. More powers and responsibilities could be transferred to the PA in the spheres of economics, civic affairs or diplomacy. Eventually, Israel might consider recognizing the PA as a state.

Palestinian statehood has been incorporated into Sharon’s strategy for years. His statements suggest that he may have perceived Palestinian statehood to be as much an opportunity as it was a threat. For example, he assumed that the existence of a Palestinian state would mean that Palestinians could no longer claim to be refugees and that powers of UNRWA, the United Nation’s agency with jurisdiction over matters pertaining to Palestinian refugees, could be turned over to the Palestinian government.

A Palestinian state, furthermore, is a precondition for restructuring the approach toward final status. Once a Palestinian state exists, Israel would be able to negotiate multiple state-to-state agreements focused primarily on the West Bank and Gaza. These agreements might be made piecemeal, rather than holding all progress hostage to a potential comprehensive accord.

Sharon’s strategy to end control over Palestinians enhanced unity within Israel and the Jewish world, boosted Israel’s international standing and offered the only feasible path out of the deadlock. That is his enduring legacy. But he also exits the political stage as the exemplar of pragmatism and realism focused on the pillars of Israel’s national security: preserving a Jewish majority, fighting the nuclear threat, securing personal safety, and bolstering Israel’s alliance with America. This is the consensus agenda that Sharon galvanized into a political force that will transcend his tenure.

By taking the excruciating and courageous step of distancing himself from political and personal friends and allies, as well as, ultimately, from his own political party, Sharon plunged himself and the nation through two years of constant crisis-management toward disengagement and beyond. He demonstrated an outstanding leadership, political skills and executive management. This performance extended beyond security to socio-economics as well.

Many may challenge the logic of disengagement or the wisdom of Sharon’s socioeconomic policies. Few would contest that a large part of his legacy was the capacity to get things done.

Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Re’ut Institute (

Sowing Islamic Seeds in Students

Chairs are lined up in neat rows. Coffee is brewing, muffins arrayed. The table is thick with handouts.

One of them is Saudi Aramco World, a magazine published by Aramco, the Saudi government-owned outfit that is the largest oil company in the world.

“The Arab World in the Classroom,” published by Georgetown University, thanks Saudi Aramco on its back cover. Alongside it is the brochure of The Mosaic Foundation, an organization of spouses of Arab ambassadors in America, whose chairwoman and president of the board of trustees is Her Royal Highness Princess Haifa Al-Faisal of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia.

If you think this is a meeting of Saudi oil executives or Middle Eastern exporters or Saudi government officials, you are wrong: It’s a social studies training seminar for American elementary and secondary teachers, held last year at Georgetown University.

It’s paid for by U.S. tax dollars, as the organizer points out in her introduction.

“We are grateful to the grant we have under Title VI of the Department of Education that underwrites these programs,” Zeina Azzam Seikaly, outreach coordinator of Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, tells the more than three dozen current and former teachers at the seminar.

Georgetown’s Middle East outreach program is one of 18 affiliated with federally designated national resource centers, each of which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

Much has been written about the biased nature of Middle East studies programs at universities around the country.

Less known is that with public money and the designation as a national resource center, universities such as Georgetown, Harvard and Columbia are dramatically influencing the study of Islam, Israel and the Middle East far beyond the college campus.

As a condition of their funding, these centers are also required to engage in public outreach, which includes schoolchildren in Grades K-12. Through professional development workshops for teachers and resource libraries, they spread teaching materials that analysts say promote Islam and are critical of Israel and the West.

Georgetown’s outreach and the materials it disseminates are singled out for special praise by Dar al Islam.

Its Web site lists four other outreach centers it admires: the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.

Professional development workshops like the one at Georgetown provide the most frequent paths for the dissemination of supplementary materials to history and social studies teachers, according to education expert Sandra Stotsky’s “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers.”

The problems with many of the supplemental materials, Stotsky said in her report, stem from “the ideological mission of the organizations that create them.

“Their ostensible goal is to combat intolerance, expand students’ knowledge of other cultures, give them other ‘points of view’ on commonly studied historical phenomena and/or promote ‘critical thinking,'” she wrote.

But an analysis of the materials convinced her that their real goal “is to influence how children come to understand and think about current social and political issues by bending historical content to those ends.

“They embed their political agendas in the instructional materials they create so subtly that apolitical teachers are unlikely to spot them.”

Among the materials Stotsky cites is “The Arab World Studies Notebook,” which has been widely criticized for bias, inaccuracies and proselytizing.

Two school districts have banned the book, and the AJC has urged others to follow suit.

“Notebook” editor Audrey Shabbas rejects the criticism.

“We’re providing the Arab point of view,” she said.

Responding to criticism that the material paints an overly rosy picture of Islam, she said, “My task is not to defend what Muslims do in the world” but to focus on the “difference between what people call themselves and what they do.”

Experts say the materials are popular because they’re recommended by the national resource centers of prestigious universities.

In an interview with JTA, Stotsky recounted that in the summer of 2002, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Massachusetts Department of Education decided to offer a seminar on Islam and the Middle East for area teachers. They accepted a proposal from Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies that “looked very promising.” One of the organizers of the seminar was Barbara Petzen, the center’s outreach coordinator.

But when Stotsky and other officials saw the syllabus, which included the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” they requested that the course present a more balanced view of Islam. Officials wanted at least to include a book by Bernard Lewis, a Princeton University professor emeritus who is considered one of the pre-eminent authorities on Islam.

But Petzen and her colleague “ducked recent history” by agreeing only to include one of Lewis’ older books from the 1970s, rather than one of his more recent critical perspectives on Islam, Stotsky said.

Petzen could not be reached for comment.

Stotsky was further shocked when she saw the lesson plans created by some of the seminar participants. One, which required the students to learn an Islamic prayer and design a prayer rug to simulate a mosque in the classroom, crossed the line. “It’s really indoctrination to have students do such religious things,” she said.

While there is no way to know the extent to which the teachers from 20 Massachusetts schools ultimately incorporated their proposed lessons into the classroom, the assumption of the Education Department, which paid for the seminar, “is that the teachers use the material they learned,” Stotsky said.

In New York City, meanwhile, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has barred the head of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute from lecturing to city teachers enrolled in professional development courses on the Middle East.

Klein’s move in February against Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair at Columbia, was in response to “a number of things he’s said in the past,” said Michael Best, the department’s general counsel, according to The New York Times.

Khalidi declined to comment on the issue.

A spokesman for Klein said last week that “nothing has changed” in Khalidi’s status, meaning that he still is barred from lecturing at teacher-training seminars.

For Stotsky, a major problem with the teacher-training seminars is the lack of oversight.

“What teacher or principal is going to challenge [material that comes] “with the sterling credentials of Harvard?” she said.

While she doesn’t claim to have all the answers, Stotsky recommends halting public funding for professional development until there is “strong evidence that most history teachers learn something useful from a majority of workshops they attend.”



Tainted Teachings

The Real World: Warlord

Imagine an Uzbek warlord who takes time between mortar attacks to remove his clothes and display his manhood in the bunker. Now, imagine that he willingly does this for a camera operator, who films the chieftain and his family for an “Osbournes”-meets-“Sopranos” reality-TV show.

It sounds almost plausible in the age of “The Apprentice” and “Survivor.” But, in fact, this is the setup for a fictional reality-TV show at the heart of Peter Lefcourt’s new novel, “The Manhattan Beach Project” (Simon & Schuster, $24).

Lefcourt, who quips that he is “a card-carrying Jew,” will discuss his latest social satire at the Jewish Book Festival, which will run from Oct. 30 through Dec. 11. The event is organized by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys and will feature a wide range of writers.

It will kick off with Bruce Bauman discussing “And the Word Was,” his debut novel about the aftermath of a Columbine-type tragedy on the life of a doctor. Also appearing will be Ursula Bacon, author of “Shanghai Diary,” a memoir about a young girl’s journey from Europe to Shanghai at the time of the Holocaust.

Bookended by scenes at a Debtors Anonymous meeting, “The Manhattan Beach Project” takes off when a bankrupt CIA agent convinces a down-on-his-luck producer — a fellow debtor — to pitch a reality-TV series about the daily activities of a warlord in the former Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. The warlord has the typical dysfunctional family: a mistress, an angry wife who never leaves her room, a lesbian daughter, one teenage son who is an onanist and another who joins the Taliban. Unbeknownst to the producer, the rogue agent has turned the warlord’s basement into a safe house for pirated videos, the ultimate no-no in Hollywood.

With or without a Jewish theme, “The Manhattan Beach Project” skewers Hollywood the way Tom Wolfe lampooned Wall Street in “Bonfire of the Vanities.” Lefcourt shows the callowness of these show biz Masters of the Universe.

Over the past 30 years, Lefcourt has written and produced television dramas like “Cagney & Lacey” and miniseries like “The Women of Windsor,” but it’s his novels that most closely reflect his comic sensibility. His best-known prior book, “The Dreyfus Affair,” depicts with dark humor a gay romance set in homophobia-ridden big league baseball.

“The Dreyfus Affair” has been optioned several times by movie studios but never produced, so Lefcourt is intimately familiar with the reptilian nature of Hollywood executives in the mold of Sammy Glick, and the difficulties in getting a project green-lighted.

Lefcourt cites no particular inspiration for “The Manhattan Beach Project,” but says that he was “so attached to” producer Charlie Berns, hero of his first sardonic novel on Hollywood, “The Deal,” that he wanted to bring him back. Berns, an erstwhile Oscar-winning film honcho, resurrects his career in “The Manhattan Beach Project” by entering the world of reality TV, which Lefcourt calls “the crack cocaine of the TV business. It’s addictive, debilitating and noninformative…. It seems to have peaked, but it will be with us, in one form or another, for a long time, like a flu epidemic.”

“The Manhattan Beach Project’s” overarching metaphor, show biz as a top-secret, clandestine society, where anyone can be whacked, has always been apt, particularly in recent times. He’s no fan of Michael Eisner and his ilk, and concludes his acknowledgments by sarcastically thanking Eisner for “going down with the ship.”

Would Mikey have green-lighted “Warlord”? According to Lefcourt, Eisner would have “yellow-lit it” — keeping it at arm’s length “in case it blew up in his face.”

Peter Lefcourt will read and discuss his book on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2:30 p.m. at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena.

Also at the festival: The Jewish Journal will co-sponsor a Nov. 30 event with author Ruth Andrew Ellenson, editor of “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt.” For festival information call (626) 967-3656.

Shticking It to the Classics

My 5-year-old thinks “My Yiddishe Mama,” the soulful ballad immortalized by Sophie Tucker in 1928, is a rock anthem. The version he learned didn’t come from a dusty old record, but from a CD released in 2004 by the group, Yiddishe Cup, called “Meshugeneh Mambo.”

This is not your grandmother’s Jewish music. Like other recent Jewish parody CDs, “Meshugeneh Mambo” carries on the tradition of Jewish humor popularized by such forbearers as Mickey Katz and Allan Sherman. Although the lounge acts of the Catskills have all but vanished, a few intrepid souls are bringing a modern brand of Borscht Belt humor to a whole new generation.

Yiddishe Cup’s album combines soulful klezmer ballads, doo-wop and, of course, Latin flair. The title track sets the tone, promising “No frailech [joyful] hora can compare/ to shaking your Yiddishe dierriere/ to the lovely Mesugheneh Mambo.”

The group’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Mama” throws in homage to James Bond’s “Goldfinger” and the theme song to “The Patty Duke Show.” Listen closely and you will hear spoofs of “Star Trek,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Outer Limits” scattered about in the traditional melodies and remakes of comedy routines created in the 1950s.

Newer artists like Yiddishe Cup have learned from the old comedic masters that classic Jewish humor relies on cleverness rather than anger. The best comics “tell a story that is visual and makes you think,” said Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah International on Fairfax Avenue. “Using the word ‘shmuck’ doesn’t make it Jewish.”

Instead, skilled artists allow listeners to recognize themselves and the universal truths behind the tales and tunes.

One artist who stresses ruach (spirit) over raunch is Michael Lange. The director, whose credits include “Life Goes On” and “The X-Files,” has released several titles under his Silly Music label. In November, Lange will release “A Kosher Christmas,” a collection of popular yuletide melodies coupled with decidedly Jewish-themed lyrics. It’s a strange experience indeed to hear the traditional orchestrations — think bells, trumpets and choral harmonies — as singers croon about litigation, food, guilt and family (categories that Lange refers to as “the four cornerstones of the Jewish experience.”)

In “Such a Loyal Son Am I,” a take-off on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” a mother and son alternate kvetching about one another: (Him:) Not so easy with this mother/Still a loyal son am I. (Her:) Not a doctor like his brother/Such a shanda [shame] I should cry. “Greensleeves” is re-imagined as “Greenstein,” an ode to the singer’s childhood crush, Tiffany Greenstein.

And, of course, food plays a significant role, as in “Harvey Weisenberg” (to the tune of “Good King Wenceslas”): “[which] Soup would he pick, wondered he:/Lentil, borscht or chicken/As he ate he thought with glee:/This is finger lickin’….

Lange previously created two Broadway musical parodies. “Goys and Dolls,” released in 2002, uses the original melodies of “Guys and Dolls” to tell the story of a young man who begins dating a non-Jewish woman, while “Say Oy Vey” re-imagines “Cabaret” as the story of two seniors who find romance at synagogue bridge night.

Musicals are also the targets of spoofs created by the group Shlock Rock, whose founder, Lenny Solomon, hails from a long line of cantors. Their 2003 release, “Almost on Broadway,” transforms “Maria” from “West Side Story” to “Tekia”: “Tekia! I’ve just heard the sound called Tekia!”

Shlock Rock boasts 23 albums to its credit, ranging from original compositions to children’s music to parody. The group’s nine other parody CD’s display an impressive range of musical styles, Judaic knowledge and humor. In one, for example, Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” becomes “49 Days to Count the Omer,” while in another, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin morphs into “Learning to Do the Hora.” And you’ve got to wonder what kind of mind would think of transforming the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” into “Rabbi Akiva”: “Rabbi Akiva had straw for a bed/Love thy neighbor like thyself is what he said.”

While they’re amusing to listen to, be forewarned: The lyrics stick with you. So when the time comes for my son to join his kindergarten classmates for the annual holiday assembly in December, he’ll be easy to pick out. He’ll be the one singing “Goys Rule the World.”


Jews Welcome Choice of Pope

As the regal red curtains were pulled aside, clearing the way for the still-unidentified new pope to emerge on the balcony of the Vatican Basilica and offer a blessing to church faithful, many Jews joined the world’s 1 billion Catholics in holding their collective breath.

The Christians were excitedly anticipating their Holy Father’s arrival, eager for someone to fill the gap left when John Paul II, who served as pope for more than a quarter-century, died on April 2 at 84.

Jews, too, were awaiting the new pope’s arrival — and wondering what his ascendancy would mean for them. Would he promote Jewish-Catholic relations as zealously as his predecessor? Would he turn his attention instead to mending fences between Catholics and Muslims? Would he push diplomatic relations with Israel?

In short, would he be good for the Jews?

As it turns out, Jewish observers of the Vatican say, world Jewry can breathe easy knowing that German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was chosen as the 265th pope.

“As far as Jewish people are concerned, Cardinal Ratzinger is a friend,” said Gary Krupp, president and founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes religious understanding. “He is going to be as effective, if not more, than John Paul II [in furthering Catholic-Jewish relations]. He’s not going to backtrack. I think he’s going to be advancing these causes even further.”

Ratzinger, who took the name Benedict XVI upon his election Tuesday, has been called a hard-line conservative, a vigilant watchdog and an enforcer of strict church orthodoxy.

Ratzinger was born in Marktl am Inn, Germany, in 1927. He was ordained in 1951 and received his doctorate in theology in 1953, then taught theology and dogma at a series of German universities.

He was appointed bishop of Munich in 1977 and was promoted to cardinal by then-Pope Paul VI after just three months.

Since 1981, he has led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he was responsible for enforcing church doctrine. He became known in this role for his conservative views, upsetting some Catholics with his vocal opposition to religious pluralism and liberation theology.

Ratzinger further maintains conservative views on such issues as homosexuality and the ordination of women as priests.

But he also used his position as the Vatican’s chief theologian under John Paul II to play an instrumental part in his predecessor’s historic rapprochement with the Jews. In 2000, under Ratzinger’s editorial direction, the Vatican released “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past,” a watershed document that acknowledged church errors in its past dealings with Jews, asking “whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts.”

Ratzinger also oversaw the 2002 publication of “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures,” which asserted that “the Jewish messianic wait is not in vain” and expressed regret that certain passages in the Christian Bible condemning individual Jews have been used to justify anti-Semitism.

Israeli officials and Jewish groups issued statements welcoming the selection.

“Israel is hopeful that under this new papacy, we will continue to move forward in Vatican-Israel relations and we are sure that considering the background of this new pope, he, like his predecessor, will be a strong voice against anti-Semitism in all its forms,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said Ratzinger had been instrumental in improving relations between Catholics and Jews under John Paul.

“He is the architect of the policy that John Paul II fulfilled with regard to relations with the Jews. He is the architect of the ideological policy to recognize, to have full relations with Israel,” Singer said.

Not all Jewish leaders welcomed Ratzinger’s selection, however. Some said that it was precisely his role as ideologist under John Paul that made him ill-suited to be the next pope.

Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco, is among the new pope’s critics.

“It was with great distress that we watched as Cardinal Ratzinger led the Vatican in the past 25 years on a path that opposed providing birth control information to the poor of the world, thereby ensuring that AIDS would spread and kill millions in Africa,” Lerner said.

“And we watched with even greater distress as this cardinal supported efforts to involve the church in distancing from political candidates or leaders who did not agree with the church’s teachings on abortion and gay rights, prioritizing these issues over whether that candidate agreed with the church on issues of peace and social justice. As a result, Cardinal Ratzinger has led the church away from its natural alliance with Jews in fighting for peace and social justice and toward a stance which in effect allies the church with the most reactionary politicians whose policies are militaristic and offer a preferential option for the rich.”

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue believes that while Benedict XVI will carry on the pope’s legacy, he may not focus heavily on Jewish issues.

“I don’t think Jewish-Catholic relations is going to be that much of a priority for him because there are other burning issues that he has to confront,” such as the decreasing number of believers in Europe and the decreasing number of priests in the United States, he said. “He has to put the house in order.”

Ratzinger was the odds-on favorite to become pope going into the conclave of cardinals, which began Monday. There was some speculation that the position could go to a prelate from the developing world — Africa or Latin America — where the church is seeing rapid growth.

Others predicted that the papacy could go back to an Italian: John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.

In the end, after white smoke poured from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel and bells tolled announcing to the world that a new pope had been chosen, the job went to Ratzinger. Because of his advancing age — the new pope turned 78 on Saturday — he is likely to be a transitional leader, serving for a relatively brief period.

Despite his stern religious bearing, those who know Ratzinger say, his intelligence, patience and personality make him good company.

“He’s very, very sweet, very pleasant, very cordial and friendly,” said Krupp, who met Ratzinger at his Vatican offices in early February.

As a teen, Ratzinger reportedly was a member of the Hitler Youth. At the time, boys his age — Ratzinger was 6 years old when Hitler came to power — were pressured, though not required, to join the group.

Ratzinger served in the German army during World War II, but deserted after a short period. His policeman father reportedly engaged in anti-Nazi activity.

“For the Jewish community, it is extraordinary that the pope has personally experienced the evils of Nazism and the horrors of racism and prejudice,” said David Elcott, U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “There’s no cardinal whose life has been more entwined with that of the Jewish people than that of this cardinal.”

Still, German Jews expressed some concern over Ratzinger’s election.

“A few people who know him say he is not bad. He has good relations with some Jewish persons,” Nathan Kalmanowicz, head of religious affairs for the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a member of the Munich Jewish community, told JTA. “But the vast majority is afraid of what will happen. He is opposed to reform and not as familiar with Jewish issues” as the last pope, “and as far as we know he is not interested in promoting them — issues like the Holocaust.”

Jacob Neusner, a theology professor at Bard College in upstate New York, was thrilled when he learned Ratzinger was the new pope. The two men have been corresponding since 1990, when Ratzinger responded to Neusner’s fan mail.

Neusner was impressed with an article Ratzinger had written about Jesus — in particular, Ratzinger’s remark that there was no such thing as an objective biography.

“I got a lovely letter back, and since then we’ve exchanged about one letter a year,” Neusner said.

In addition, Ratzinger complimented Neusner on his book “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.”

“It was an explanation of why, if I had been there in the first century, I wouldn’t have followed Jesus],” Neusner said.

“He praised the book and said this is how interfaith dialogue should be carried on,” Neusner added. “He doesn’t believe in negotiating theological truths. He thinks disagreement is healthy and normal.”

Speaking to JTA from St. Peter’s Square, Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who teaches theology and interreligious studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, said he was witnessing “pope fever.”

Though Ratzinger is “basically against religious pluralism,” Bemporad said, he believes faiths can learn from each other and come together to address social causes.

“He recognizes fully the autonomy and the integrity of each faith,” Bemporad said.

JTA Correspondents Toby Axelrod in Germany, Dan Baron in Jerusalem and Ruth Ellen Gruber in Rome contributed to this report.

What It Takes to Create a Museum


The opening of a new museum by Yad Vashem is an event to be honored by the entire Jewish world whether in Israel or throughout the Diaspora.

For Jerusalem to maintain its primacy, its centrality, the brilliant creation of the 1950s, which was then far ahead of its time, had to be updated to the creative language of 21st-century museum-making. If a museum does not evolve to meet the task of its time, it withers. Witness the cruel fate that has overtaken the Museum of the Diaspora, which had been at the forefront of modern museum-making but which but barely escaped its own demise. A historical museum must be renewed or it dies; without renewal it can no longer speak to a new generation, or reach a contemporary audience.

Tom Segev has written of the competition between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem; Avner Shalev, the distinguished director of Yad Vashem, has overseen its new reiteration has denied any such competition. Both miss some important points. First of all, competition is good; it improves both creations. Institutions learn from each other, they challenge each other. Harvard has become better because of Yale, and MIT by Cal Tech, and I dare say that the Hebrew University is better because of Tel Aviv University. Without that competition it might have become staid, complacent and arrogant.

When we contemplated creating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, we looked to Yad Vashem as a model of an integrated institution; a museum that tells the story of the Holocaust, a research institution and archive that is at the forefront of preserving the memory and transmitting it, and an educational institution that teaches teachers and students the history of the Holocaust and by implication its meaning and application to the new generation. And we certainly tried to do better.

We benefited because we had the model of Yad Vashem before us, but our task was different. And over the dozen years since Washington opened, the competition and cooperation with Yad Vashem has improved and empowered both institutions. Yad Vashem would not have been able to garner the support it has to create so magnificent a building and a campus without the presence of Washington and the important need of renewal.

“By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion,” the Psalmist proclaimed.

The place from which you remember an event shapes the way in which the event is remembered.

Every historical museum is a dialogue between the historical event and the audience that walks through its portals. So the story of the Shoah is told differently in Jerusalem than the Holocaust is told in Washington or New York or the Final Solution is described in Berlin or Budapest. Event, perspective and audience all subtly influence the story that is told.

A word about audience: In earlier generations, those who entered Yad Vashem knew the story; they had lived the events described. Thus, they could visit the memorial without seeing the exhibition and thus the exhibition merely had to allude to the events; that was sufficient. The artifacts of the perpetrators would have been inappropriate to introduce to the mountains of Jerusalem and to the Jews who sought refuge in Israel from their tormentors. But a new generation has arisen; conceived in freedom, unacquainted with exile, and to them the events must be portrayed, directly and graphically, far more graphically than was appropriate or even possible a generation ago.

A generation ago, Israelis could be confident that they knew the story, but after the misuse of symbols of the Holocaust — not only by Europeans and Arabs suggesting that Israel is the new Nazism but by Israelis accusing their own government of being Nazi-like and wearing Jewish stars to protest the Gaza withdrawal — our confidence should be shaken.

How is one to view a museum, to judge its success?

The modern historical museum tells a story with a beginning, middle and an end, with points of emphasis and moments of intensity, with a narrative that carries one through the entire museum. Visitors are entitled to ask what that narrative is and is it adequate to describe the event and appropriate to reach the new generation.

Like a symphony, a museum must be organic; themes must be presented and developed. The institution — any institution — is experienced whole by its visitors even if, as is clearly the case with Yad Vashem, it was not created whole but evolved over decades. How successfully will the creators be able to weave all the elements of Yad Vashem — its sculptural gardens, the Avenue of the Righteous, the Children’s Memorial, the Art Museum, the Valley of Communities and the Ohel Yizkor (Hall of Remembrance) with its magnificent simplicity — into one complete experience, which is the way the visitors will go through the site. I did not envy them the challenge. It is more than considerable.

When I saw the site during its creation I was concerned about the nature of the interrelationship between three primary actors in the events of the Holocaust — the perpetrators, the victims and the bystanders. In Washington, we devoted considerable attention to the bystanders, which is, after all, the American story. The sites of destruction in Poland and Germany show the nature of the crime. For many years, they had little interest in the victims of the crime and only the most reserved interest in the perpetrators but they were fascinated by the nature of the crime, its mechanisms and means, the instrumentalities of destruction.

Yad Vashem is rightfully determined to present the Jewish perspective as was New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, but it must all present — and I use these words with the greatest of precision — the human story of the killers. Their inhumanity was human. For the most part the killers were not demonic, even though they committed the most demonic of deeds, and all students of the Holocaust must confront their experience not to understand or excuse, but to comprehend what happened.

Omar Bar Tov once wrote that the German historians so dehumanized the Jews that they believed that nothing that happened inside the ghettos or inside the death and concentration camps impacted on the “Final Solution.” Jews run the risk of the opposite. So convinced are we that the killers were inhumane that we fail to confront the ultimate scandal: they were human and the deeds they performed, horrific as they were, were human deeds, committed by “cultured men and women, the product of western civilization.

Will a visitor to the new Yad Vashem understand the role of ideology and conformity; the desire not to lose face before one’s comrades and the struggle to silence whatever semblance of conscience remained that was the lot of the killers. Will they see the killers as part of our world — and thus a threat to our world — or apart from the world and thus bearing no relevance to our world?

The crime against the Jews will be central and must be central, but the new museum must see the crimes of the Jews in context. Concentration camps were first developed to incarcerate German opponents of the regime; only much later did Jews constitute a majority of those imprisoned. Gassing was first used to kill German non-Jews — mentally handicapped, physically handicapped and emotionally distraught Germans who were an embarrassment to the myth of the master race. It was there that the role of bureaucratic, desk killer was first honed; there that the leadership and staff of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka received their first training. Jehovah’s Witnesses were martyrs. Had they signed a simple document, they could have been released from the camps. They died for their faith. Jews were victims; they died for the faith of their grandparents. Will Jewish memory be large enough to be both Judeocentric and inclusive?

Will the new museum, with all of its power — and the building is quite powerful, creating its own rhythms and its own logic that must be integrated onto the history — reach the multiple audiences that visit the museum? These Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and non-Israelis, Europeans and Americans, Israeli soldiers who must understand the raison d’etre of the state and of Jewish power and who stand accused — falsely accused, viciously accused — by some in the West and in the Arab and Muslim world of being the new Nazis of our generation. Will they understand — as American West Point Cadets and Naval Midshipmen are taught in Washington — the importance of military ethics of recognizing the humanity of the enemy even while undertaking action against them? Will policemen learn a commitment to human rights and civil liberties by seeing the consequences of its violations by men in the same profession? Great museums address multiple audiences of diverse sensibilities and contain enough to reach different visitors and touch their souls in diverse ways.

A generation ago, it might have been sufficient to learn from the Shoah that the whole world is against us, that powerlessness invites victimization and, thus, the Jewish people must rely upon themselves and only themselves and assume adequate power to preserve themselves in the contemporary world. Those lessons are still valid, still necessary — but they are not sufficient.

A generation or two ago, one could speak of Shoah v’gevurah in one breath as if the two were equally descriptive of the events of the Holocaust and as if gevurah meant only armed resistance. We have learned more; we now know more.

The challenges are many, the difficulties are great, the pitfalls obvious. It takes the endurance of a marathon runner to plan for years and bring it all together for a moment. It takes courage to open a museum, courage, wisdom and vision. I wish my colleagues well. I so look forward to seeing their creation.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He was project director of the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Rabbis, Imams Find Common Ground


I recently returned from an extraordinary meeting that took place last month in Brussels. One hundred imams and rabbis from 20 different countries came together for four days of discussion about religion, peace, justice and dignity. Meeting in plenary sessions and breakout groups, over meals and during evening cultural programs, this conference was a public attestation of the possible.

It wasn’t easy for any of us. There was plenty of politicking and internal politicking within the religious communities as well. In one of the many remarkable public statements, the Orthodox rabbinic contingent agreed to participate together publicly with the fully honored representation of Conservative and Reform rabbis.

I had the privilege of leading a breakout session in which we were mandated to brainstorm about “sharing and transmitting without proselytizing.” We began with the standard sharing go-around, in which we were asked to share why we came to this conference. I was riveted by two stories.

One was told by an African imam dressed in white ceremonial robes, complete with a matching embroidered cap. I learned later that he held a high religious post in Tanzania.

Once, while visiting a Congolese friend living in South Africa, he became quite ill and felt that he was having symptoms of heart disease. The friend suggested that he see a doctor friend of his — a Jewish doctor. The imam wouldn’t consider it, because he was certain that a Jewish doctor would use his professional skills to kill him, a Muslim. As he put it, “Perhaps he wouldn’t kill me outright, but he would prescribe something that would poison me undetected.” He therefore decided to wait until he could see his personal physician when he returned home to Tanzania. But his symptoms persisted, so one day, he went to his friend’s house and knocked on the door. But the friend was not home. Who should answer the door but the Jewish doctor.

The doctor questioned the sick man, and discovered that the medication the imam had been taking for migraine headaches could cause a very serious heart ailment, and that was most certainly the imam’s problem. The physician explained quite clearly that if he continued to take the medicine it would kill him. The imam had to choose between very bad headaches or a heart attack. The choice, said the imam, was an easy one. And the doctor also prescribed a different medication that helped to relieve the migraine symptoms.

When asked if that experience had anything to do with him coming to the conference, the imam’s answer was that it had everything to do with it. It was his responsibility to come and to “clear the air,” as he put it.

The other story was told by a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi. I had known of him previously through his writings that justified violence in the conflict with Palestinians as a form of milchemet mitzvah, or a divinely sanctioned mitzvah war.

He was living at the time in a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Although surrounded by approximately 1 million Arabs and hearing the call to prayer every day, he had absolutely no relationship with Muslims. The only contact he had was with Arab taxi drivers.

One afternoon, he was riding in an Arab taxi when it was time for minchah, or afternoon prayer. He asked his driver to stop for him where he could do a brief ritual washing and then engage in that short prayer before continuing the drive. The rabbi noticed that his driver also got out of the car and washed himself. The rabbi stood for his prayers facing north toward Jerusalem; his driver stood near him, but faced south toward Mecca. They both stood there, one next to the other, each engaging in the same act. Both offered thanks to the God of the world for their very existence.

As the rabbi put it, they were “both praying to the same God, one facing south, the other north.” At that moment, he said that he came to the deep, transcendent understanding of the unity of God — for Jews, for Muslims, for all humanity.

“We all pray to the same God,” he said. “One prays in one manner; another in a different manner. One prays in one direction; the other prays in a different direction. But we are all united on this tiny world, so I realized that it was time we got to know one another.”

Most of us don’t have the luxury of such transformative experiences. Most of us simply go through life following the religious and nationalist scripts we absorb intuitively from our tribal environments. This is extremely dangerous.

One of our scripted Jewish positions is the self-righteous question: Where are the Muslims? Why don’t they engage in dialogue? Why don’t they condemn acts of violence?

The simple truth is that they do. The Brussels meeting of 100 imams and rabbis attests to Muslim concern and activism. And Brussels was not their first place of involvement for virtually all of them.

But such public acts often seem to remain somehow under our radar. We don’t pick them up. At USC, where I teach, I’ve been told by the dean of religious life that it is much more difficult to bring Jews to programs and dialogue with Muslims than vice versa.

One of the more interesting new programs I learned about in Brussels is a project partnered by two graduate students, one Muslim and one Jewish, that connects hundreds of Jewish and Muslim teenagers throughout the world via digital photography on the Internet. They have much more difficulty finding Jewish teens than Muslim teens to engage in the program.

We will fail to break out of our current deadlock and malaise without breaking out of our assigned scripts and without becoming more self-reflective about who we are, where we stand in the world and where we are heading.

Rabbi Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, where he is currently building the new Institute for the Study and Enhancement of Muslim-Jewish Interrelations. The Web site for the international photography project is

Time to Go Home


When my wife and I woke up on the day we made aliyah, we talked and decided that we felt good. Natural. Normal. A little excited. A bit eager. Somewhat tired from some late-night, last-minute packing. Above all, we were ready. It was time to go.

The family dressed in T-shirts that we had made for the day. The white shirts were emblazoned in blue with our Hebrew slogan for the trip: “Bashana Hazot,” which in English means “this year.”

Our shirts were inspired from the central motto of the Jewish people: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Thanks to some terrific support from friends and family, “Next Year” was now.

We had been staying with my parents, who could not have been more encouraging and supportive, for a last precious drop of a week with them. We will next see them in three months, at our new home, in Israel.

At LAX, our porter saw the boxes we were sending, asked a polite question or two and soon knew that we were moving. Before he left us, he said something very formally in Gaelic, which he translated as: “Have a safe trip home.”

Once at the gate, my 4-year-old saw the El Al plane with the giant Jewish star on the tail. He yelled: “Abba, that’s a Israel plane.” Exactly.

As the plane thundered down the runway, my wife looked a question: “Can you believe this is happening?”

I smiled and shook my head from side to side.

Like all flights to Israel, this one lasted a long time, but it did not end until I filled out the Israeli visa entry forms. Under reason for visit, I wrote, “Aliyah.” Under planned departure date, I wrote, “None.”

As we approached Israel, we dropped through a storm. Our 4-year-old saw a rainbow. I held my wife’s hand.

When we crossed over the Tel Aviv coastline, I experienced a flurry of emotions, which were magnified by a sense that this return was final.

I felt a great, humbling appreciation that I was now doing what so many of my ancestors had wished to do for thousands of years. I thought of the millions of Jews who had prayed to God for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel. I was grateful for the sacrifices of the early Zionists, who took sand and mosquitoes and made milk and honey. I considered the multitudes of people, both in America and around the world, who have prayed and worked for Israel’s safety. I recalled all of our friends and family who wished us the absolute best. And, I understood that the thoughts, prayers, dreams and hopes of all those people, going back all those years, were with us, right at that moment, right at that single point in our lives. It was overwhelming.

When our plane landed, my wife and I said the “Shecheyanu” blessing, and thanked God for allowing us to reach this day.

As we entered the terminal, we were met by a smiling official from the Ministry of Interior, who was holding a big blue and white welcome sign, and a volunteer who had previously made aliyah from the United States.

At the airport office of the Ministry of Interior, the kids got candy, flags and pins, and the parents got a new-immigrant identity card called a Teudat Oleh. My cousins brought us not one, but two cakes welcoming us to Israel and drove us to our new home.

As we left the airport, some 26 hours after our day had begun, our boys tried to imitate Hebrew. They laughed as they babbled together: “Cha-cha-cha, cha-moosh, cha-cha-cha.”

They sounded just great.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter lives in Rehovot, Israel.


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.

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 .

The Network of Terror

The catastrophic simultaneous terror bombings that rocked Madrid and sent the United States, Israel and other freedom-loving and freedom-seeking countries reeling symbolized more than a small victory of evil over righteousness.

It was the worse-case scenario for countries at the forefront of the battle against terror. It proved their publicly stated point: This truly is a battle for freedom and democracy worldwide.

But it proved much, much more.

And to distill the horror that claimed more than 200 lives and shattered thousands of others into good vs. evil is to simplify the issues. And that is not at all what policy and counterterrorism people are thinking.

They are looking at logistics and operations.

That’s what so deeply troubles the United States and Israel. The powers that be already knew the part about freedom and democracy. It is the new operational realities let loose by the Madrid bombings that are much harder to cope with and, ultimately, much harder to battle and destroy. There is relative security when the terrorists are in Iraq or in Afghanistan or the West Bank and Gaza. Security quickly evaporates when they insinuate within, right there in our streets.

This past year’s bombings in Morocco, multiple synagogue bombings in Istanbul and the multiple bombings in Ankara of the British banks and their embassy in Turkey, foreshadowed one of the biggest fears of combating terror: The collaboration between outside terrorists and inside terrorists. That fear has been realized.

These attacks were all predicated upon cooperation between insiders and outsiders. And they were a precursor, a trial run if you will, for an attack against even greater threats. Casablanca, Ankara and Istanbul are all Muslim cultures. It was relatively easy for the outside terrorists, also Muslim, to fit in, the distinctions between insider and outsider were easier to blur in places where extreme Islamic movements are commonplace. But to pull it off in Europe, that was a coup.

Europe is a threat to Muslim fundamentalist terrorists. It represents values antithetical to their motivation and cause. And terrorist attacks in Europe are a trial run for the even greater threat, actually, the greatest threat of all, America, where another attack is planned. In Europe and in America it is much more difficult to put together an effective operation exclusively with Muslims or with new Muslim immigrants as was done so successfully.

The best analysis suggests that the March 11 bombings were a collaborative effort between the outsider enemy of freedom, Al Qaeda, and locals within Spain. All indicators point in that direction. In this new world of terror and horror, the outsiders have the experience and the know-how to plan and activate large-scale terror attacks. The insiders, the locals as we call them, people who could never achieve such wide-scale carnage and gain such widespread notoriety on their own, become the means to the end. It is a mutual, beneficial, collaborative effort.

Contrary to general assumptions, over the years there has been little to no interaction between terrorists groups. The Japanese Red Brigade, for instance, was known as “terrorists for hire.” They could be commissioned to execute a terrorist operation on behalf of other terrorist organizations. That was also the case with Carlos, the infamous Jackal. But the Red Brigade and the Jackal were more like hit men than terrorists. When governments – like Iraq and Libya – gave money to terrorist groups, they were supporting and sponsoring the terrorists as an extension of themselves. As states, they could not freely act and attack certain enemies so they employed terrorists to accomplish their tactical goals.

What we are witnessing today is a new level in terrorist operations. It is one of the greatest contributions that Osama bin Ladin has brought to the world of terror, one of his greatest personal achievements.

In Madrid, the Bin Laden model was applied. It brought together disparate groups from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Training arm in arm were Marxists who reject all forms of any religion and totally reject the concept of God and Islamists for whom adherence to Allah’s commands is their very essence and being.

whom adherence to Allah’s commands is their very essence and being.

Al Qaeda is the “Ford Foundation of Terror” and it is Bin Laden’s doing. Their training is open to all who qualify. Americans, South Americans, Arabs, Asians, Europeans, Africans all take part in this new education. They receive training in weapons and in explosives, in smuggling and in intelligence gathering. They are taught how to make contacts with local people and even how to raise money and to be independent. Most importantly, they are taught how to stay under the radar of law enforcement so as not to be discovered before executing an operation. Graduates participate in periodic refresher courses and upon graduation, they even receive a box set of three CD discs, an encyclopedia of everything a terrorist needs to know.

Al Qaeda allows for essential contacts between individual terrorists and formal terrorist organizations – ringing the world with terrorists who have loose, but yet essential, bonds.

There are six essential reasons why Al Qaeda, the dean of all terrorist organizations, must rely on local, small terrorist organizations, to insure the success of their operation:

Al Qaeda needs:

  • Real and sophisticated intelligence about the target, which only locals have.
  • A good working knowledge of the local security apparatus; how they work and what they look like.
  • To amass and store explosives, weapons, vehicles and tools to be used in their attack.
  • To know how to maneuver – through traffic and through bureaucracy – in order to elude suspicion.
  • Native-language skills in order to avoid triggering the curiosity of local contacts and dealers and other unsavory types who may support local tensions, but do not look kindly on outside terror.
  • To be able to pull off a dry run-through of their plan without setting off any red flags.

All this can be accomplished with only a small cadre of locals.

It’s so easy to entice smaller terrorist organizations with big guns and big results.

It has become one of Israel’s biggest worries. Israel is fighting hard to stop Al Qaeda-trained people from entering the West Bank and Gaza and helping the locals achieve their goals and at the same time also achieve Al Qaeda’s goals. Al Qaeda needs only to assemble, place and train terrorist operatives for future bombing operations. Until now, many of the large bombs intended by Palestinian groups for use against Israel have been detected, inadvertently blown up during assembly or triggered and set off by Israel’s counterbombing scanners. But an increase in the scale and precision of Palestinian terror jointly with Al Qaeda would change the entire equation.

There have been two intelligence reports that I have received that reported Al Qaeda operatives entering and subsequently leaving Gaza and back to Lebanon. They came and went in order to help local Palestinians construct a strategy of terror and to help them assemble bombs that can be ignited by remote control and are strong enough to destroy Israeli tanks.

The United States worries similarly. It worries that people with the required terrorist training are already in position, just waiting for the pieces to fall into place – the necessary supplies and the contacts to put an attack into action.

Until Morocco, Turkey and now Spain, plans to counter these logistical and operational scenarios were thought of as an exercise in possibilities. From here on, it’s no exercise, it’s the probability. The clocks are ticking.

An entirely new approach to terror must be put in place internationally. Monitoring outsiders and sharing intelligence must be stepped up. It is imperative to follow the movements of and monitor certain religious leaders and their followers and to carefully listen to and study their teachings and preachings. Almost all of the current wave of terror is stimulated by the forces of extremist Islam.

We must admit that we are targets. Once we can do that, we can begin to take the necessary steps to protect ourselves. The forces of good are working hard, but in order to fight this threat, they must work even harder.

Humanistic Service Entices the Secular

At Temple Adat Chaverim in the San Fernando Valley, the High Holiday services make no reference to a supernatural God. Adat Chaverim — and members of a sister group in Los Angeles — will join some 40,000 secular Jews throughout the world in Humanistic services.

“A Humanistic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur emancipates us from the beliefs and rites of those who prostrate themselves before an all-powerful deity,” Adat Chaverim reader Joe Steinberg will say when explaining the meaning of the observance to the congregation. “They offer self-forgiveness and the occasion to restate our belief in personal and human responsibility for our lives, our behavior and our destiny. For us, the High Holidays are not a punishment or a threat, but an opportunity to gain ongoing insights into our being.”

The numbers of Humanistic Judaism are small — especially given the millions of Jews in the world who identify themselves as nonreligious — but Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine of Detroit, who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969, remains optimistic.

He notes, for one, that Sivan Malkin Haas, the first Israeli to complete the five-year rabbinical course at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, is returning to Jerusalem to lead the Humanistic congregation in the Jewish State.

In North America, some 40 Humanistic “communities” will observe the High Holidays, mostly guided by madrichim (trained lay leaders). Only in eight cities — New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and the Miami area — will ordained Humanistic rabbis be available to conduct the services.

At Adat Chaverim, the Valley Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, the resident madrich is Steinberg, who organized the group with three other people two years ago.

“Now we have 53 members,” Steinberg said, “and we rent space from a Methodist church in Tarzana. The next step is to get our own storefront place.”

Adat Chaverim broke away from the older Los Angeles chapter, partially to shorten driving distances, but mainly because “we wanted more music and ritual,” Steinberg said.

A vigorous 82, Steinberg worries about the aging membership of Adat Chaverim, a general concern among many Humanistic communities, as among Jewish organizations and synagogues in general. To attract younger families, Steinberg doubles as director of the congregation’s Children’s Jewish Cultural School. Its goal, notes a brochure, is to teach children “the real history of a real people in all its diversity” and to allow them “to develop their own convictions honestly on the basis of knowledge.”

Attorney Shirley Monson serves as treasurer of the Los Angeles Society for Humanistic Judaism, with some 60 members.

Her grandfather was Orthodox, her parents Conservative and Monson attended a Reform temple, “until I grew out of it and became a Humanistic Jew,” she said. “I also didn’t want my kids to get a [religious] education they didn’t believe in.”

As a secular woman, Monson rarely encounters antagonism when meeting members of more conventional Jewish denominations. But occasionally, when the conversation turns to religion and she mentions that she doesn’t pray to God, “they’ll treat me like I had leprosy” Monson said.

A third center of secular Judaism in the Los Angeles area is The Sholem Community, which consists of 120 families and operates a Sunday school, from kindergarten through ninth grade, for 75 students. The center’s credo is encapsulated in the words, “To the best of our abilities, we are the authors and publishers of our Book of Life.”

Hershl Hartman, Sholem’s vegvayser, Yiddish for guide, recalled that the first secular Yom Kippur was celebrated in Los Angeles in 1973. In preparation for the upcoming High Holidays, Hartman said, “Some traditions change, so we don’t sacrifice a young bull, a ram and seven lambs. Some traditions don’t change, so we blow the shofar.”

It is difficult to ascertain the number and percentage of secular Jews in the United States, with Wine putting the figure at a high of 47 percent.

The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey by the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, cited 1.7 million self-identified Jews who described their households as atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist, or having no religion.

Whatever the precise number, given the large pool of like-minded Jews, why is membership in the Society of Humanistic Jews, and similar groups in 11 other countries, so low?

According to Wine, some 15,000 to 20,000 North American Jews are “fully connected” to the Society, up from 10,000 a decade ago, while an additional 20,000 attend lectures and other activities, or get married under Humanistic auspices.

Wine believes that the future growth of his movement is linked directly to the number of trained rabbis it can produce, saying that Humanistic congregations led by rabbis, rather than lay leaders, are expanding and attracting young families.

Currently, there are six candidates studying in the rabbinical program, but, “If I had 50 rabbis to send out, the movement would grow rapidly,” Wine said.

He is convinced that secular Jews must get together and organize, especially in the face of the growing fervor of religious fundamentalists.

“Unless we are organized, we have no voice,” Wine observed. “And ours is a voice that needs to be heard.”

For information on the Society for Humanistic Judaism,visit www.shj.org .

Hitler’s Conductor: Man or Monster?

On opening night of Ronald Harwood’s "Taking Sides," revolving around Hitler’s favorite conductor, viewers accosted the playwright. A woman said, ‘How could you do this to such a great artist?’" Harwood recalled. "Then a man grabbed me and said, ‘Wilhelm Furtwängler was an absolute s—.’ So I thought I’d done my job rather well."

His 1996 play, now an Istvan Szabo film, pits Furtwängler against a brash fictional American interrogator out to nail "Hitler’s bandleader" in denazification proceedings.

In the film, Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgård) insists he remained in Germany rather than cede his culture to the Nazis and that he used his clout to save Jews.

Maj. Steve Arnold (Harvey Keitel) counters that Furtwängler made only token efforts at resistance while supporting the murderers, including performing at Hitler’s birthday. In return, the maestro enjoyed a lavish lifestyle and numerous mistresses.

Speaking from his London home, the droll, precise Harwood — who won a screenwriting Oscar for "The Pianist" — said he tried not to take sides while writing the play and the film.

"I attempted to make both arguments compelling because I want viewers to ask themselves what they would have done in Furtwängler’s place," he said. "’Was protesting from the inside a legitimate moral response to Hitler? Can art remain separate from politics?’ These are some of the questions I want people to explore."

The film is the latest in a body of work on the moral ambiguities of the period, including Michael Frayn’s play, "Copenhagen" and Tim Blake Nelson’s Auschwitz-themed drama, "The Grey Zone."

Harwood’s analysis of an artist’s responsibility under a dictatorship personally resonated for the Hungarian Szabo ("Sunshine"), who survived the communists and won a 1981 Oscar for "Mephisto," about a Nazi-era actor.

"The audience must be able to pick up on the contemporary dilemma in the conflict," he said of "Taking Sides." "Is it right and justifiable to survive a dictatorship by compromises?"

Harwood continued to field criticism as the film opened in New York earlier this month.

"I still get angry letters from people saying I’ve got it all wrong," he said. "Many Americans in particular can’t bear Maj. Arnold, whom they regard as a caricature, a bully, a Philistine. But I always point out that he’s the only character in the entire piece who talks about the dead. Everyone else talks about art and music and culture, but Arnold has seen the carnage at Belsen and it haunts him."

Harwood (né Horwitz), 68, was similarly haunted by concentration camp footage he saw in his native South Africa at age 12.

"The Reform synagogue took all the Jewish children to see these awful newsreels, and it had a terrible effect on me," he said. "I had nightmares, and it’s scarred me all my life."

Meanwhile, Harwood’s father, who had fled Lithuanian pogroms, regarded apartheid as someone else’s problem.

"He’d say, ‘Just thank God it isn’t us,’" the author said. "It was a prevalent sentiment among Jewish refugees in Cape Town after the war. But it seemed to me that oppressed people should care about the fate of other oppressed people."

Harwood, for his part, wrote several anti-apartheid novels after moving to England to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1951. After his 1980 play, "The Dresser," was made into an Oscar-nominated film, he served as president of the human rights organization International PEN.

But eventually, he began to feel uneasy about taking sides from a distance.

"It was quite fashionable and risk free to criticize South Africa from London," he said wryly. "I was extremely brave, from 6,000 miles away."

Harwood wondered how outspoken he would have been had he lived in a totalitarian society — which is why he was riveted by a 1994 book on Furtwängler’s dilemma.

"I loved the ambiguity of his case," said the author, who views Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl as an "unabashed Nazi."

He went on to comb archives for denazification transcripts and to interview officials who had supervised such proceedings.

"They were morally brutal," he said. "They bullied people, and they did behave in an extreme way. But they had just seen the camps, and no one in the world had seen that before."

After director Roman Polanski saw "Taking Sides" in Paris, he asked the author to write another film involving music and the Holocaust, 2003’s "The Pianist." But even Polanski doesn’t know which side Harwood personally takes regarding Furtwängler.

"Look, I won’t even tell my wife," Harwood said.

"Of course, I might leave a little note to be opened after my death," he added, coyly. "But I want audience members to make up their own minds. I don’t want them to think I’m plugging a line."

The film opens today in Los Angeles.

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.

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.