September 19, 2018

Happy New Year

I am sitting on the couch, listening to my son coughing and blowing his nose. He has a horrible cold and the poor kid is suffering. He called me yesterday and said he was feeling worse than the day before, and needed to come home. I jumped into action and made a pot of matzo ball soup. He has been here for 24 hours of eating, sleeping, coughing, and blowing his nose. I am of course sad he is sick, but I am happy he is home. It feels great to take care of him.

 

He will always be my baby and I am not ashamed to tell you I sat in his room this afternoon for 15 minutes and watched him sleep. I stared at this remarkable young man, proud of who he is, excited about who he will become, and grateful to be his mom. It warms my heart that when he got sick he immediately wanted to come home. I have made the soup, spinach and mushroom kugel, apple and honey kugel, brisket, and potatoes. (The food is a bribe for him to stay longer.)

 

I love him so much it aches that he doesn’t live with me anymore. I miss him and so while having him here is heaven, when he leaves again the silence will be deafening. We raise our kids to be productive adults, but don’t think about the fact that when it happens, they leave home. Damn it! I worked 22 years to reach this stage of life, but it is hard. I miss him. Every Rosh Hashanah I say I’m going to be brave and embrace the stage of life I’m in, but this stage is hard.

 

With each year I make resolutions and while I honestly try to make change each year, this year feels different. This is going to be a great year. My son has produced a movie that will be coming out soon. I have been dating without expectations and with a sense of humor. I’m taking care of my body and soul. I am connecting to God, embracing faith, and mastering the art of the perfect martini. Life is good and I am blessed my son lives close and still comes home.

 

I always write people need to be brave and not only follow their hearts, but not settle for the things they get because they believe they are what they deserve. It is my turn to believe and embrace my own advice. I am going into the year knowing I deserve it all. I’m going to write more, eat less, pray more, and cry less. I’m going to find my bashert. He will be strong enough to not only let me be me, but strong enough to be himself. It will be a great year for us all. #impeachment

 

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. I hope your challenges are few, but should you hit a bump, know I am here cheering you on. Be brave. This is your life and only you can live it. Do what makes sense to you, and what feels good to you. Have some fun. Have more sex. Have really good sex. Laugh. Often and out loud. Resist. Take a knee. Make a difference. Inspire change. Speak out. Go out. Everything and anything is possible if you believe, so keep the faith.

The Eating of the Jews – A Poem for Rosh Hashanah by Rick Lupert


God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 22 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Beautiful Mistakes” (Rothco Press, May 2018) and edited the anthologies “A Poet’s Siddur: Shabbat Evening“,  “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Montreal: A Winter Wonderland

Mount Royal Park offers a spectacular view of Montreal.

In the days leading up to my trip to Montreal with my husband, I watched the weather forecast with increasing dread, bracing myself for highs less than 0 – and yet despite the cold, Montreal proved to be the perfect destination for a holiday getaway.

With an apartment near the historic Old Town as our home base, we were within walking distance of museums, restaurants, bars, and the famous park at Mount Royal. We even took a day tour to Quebec City that began and ended just a few minutes’ walk from our apartment. While French is the first language of many residents, most were also English speakers, so it was very easy to get around.

Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts was one of our first stops. The museum’s extensive permanent collection is free and does not require a ticket. One of its buildings is devoted exclusively to Quebec and Canadian art, ranging from contemporary Inuit sculpture to 18th-century painting and silverware.

Montreal’s Barbie Expo features dolls in traditional clothing from around the world, such as these dresses from Peru.

 

Around the corner, a shopping mall houses the Barbie Expo. This collection includes over 1000 dolls dressed in traditional costumes from around the world. There are also dresses by well-known designers such as Christian Dior and Vera Wang, dresses reflecting popular brands such as Coca Cola, and beloved movie characters.

The Montreal Biodome in Olympic Village showcases plants and animals, such as this puffin, from various climate zones.

 

Other museums include the Biodome, located in Olympic Village. A botanic garden and planetarium are nearby, and a combined ticket can be purchased for all three attractions or any combination of two.

We also visited the Pointe-a-Calliere museum complex, part of which is built directly on top of the foundations of a 17th-century fort. A temporary exhibit there detailed the illustrious history of the Montreal Canadiens and other local and national hockey teams.

The Notre-Dame Basilica’s breathtaking interior has a beautifully carved altar.

 

Even more impressive than the museums, the Notre Dame Basilica is an architectural gem not to be missed. Spectacular stained-glass windows, a masterfully carved altar and an organ with 7,000 pipes are just some of its crowning features.

When it comes to food, Montreal has numerous specialties – in particular, it’s known for smoked meat, bagels and poutine. The most recognizable location for smoked meat sandwiches is Schwartz’s Deli, but a local recommended skipping the line and heading to the Main Deli Steakhouse right across the street. We enjoyed a signature sandwich of tender, flavorful smoked meat piled on rye bread with mustard.

Fairmount Bagel is one of the city’s top bagel shops, and we stopped by its original location after ascending Mount Royal. From the chateau at the top, we were rewarded with an awe-inspiring view of Montreal, from McGill University almost directly below to the St. Lawrence River in the distance.

Open 24 hours a day, Fairmount Bagel has no tables – just a counter, with busy bakers visible in the background. We tried the plain, cumin, and garlic varieties. All three had a crispy exterior but a soft, delightfully doughy middle. The bakery also offers crunchy sweet bagels and a selection of toppings.

In the summer, tourists can zipline over Montmorency Falls, but even in the winter the park offers spectacular views.

 

There is plenty to do in Montreal, but Quebec City, a three-hour drive away, is worth a trip. During our brief time there, we went to the famous Montmorency Falls, nearly 300 feet high and only partially frozen. A cable car brings visitors to the top of the falls, and in the summer, it’s possible to ride a zipline across the water.

In the city, we went to the 31st floor of the Marie-Guyart Building for a 360-degree panoramic view of the city, with interactive displays describing the history of notable buildings. Before leaving, we had time to explore the charming Old Town with its variety of art galleries.

The Chateau Frontenac is Quebec City’s most recognizable building.

 

The Chateau Frontenac, Quebec’s most recognizable building, also welcomes tourists to visit its art gallery and an exhibit detailing its history. In the lobby, a variety of thematically decorated Christmas trees created a festive mood.

Montreal’s gorgeous architecture makes it an exciting city to explore on foot, and a day pass for public transportation is only $10, making it easy to travel throughout the city. Although we decided against outdoor activities, sports like cross country skiing and ice skating are just a few additional options for winter visitors.

Overall, we decided we will plan our next trip to Montreal for July or August – but it’s an incredible city that we look forward to visiting again!

 

If you go:

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

1380 Sherbrooke Street, Montreal H3G 1J5

(514)285-2000

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday with extended hours on Wednesday for the Major Exhibition only

 

Barbie Expo

1455 Peel Street, Montreal H3A 1T5

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

 

Montreal Biodome

4777 Avenue Pierre-De Coubertin, Montreal H1V 1B3

(514)868-3000

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

 

Notre-Dame Basilica

110 Notre-Dame Street West, Montreal H2Y 1T2

(514)842-2925

Hours: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

 

Main Deli Steakhouse

3864 Boul. Saint-Laurent, Montreal H2W 1Y2

(514)843-8126

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Sunday

 

Fairmount Bagel

Multiple Locations

(514)272-0667

New Year, New Everything

As I start writing this I am on a plane, flying from London to Los Angeles. After a sunny morning on the drive to Heathrow from Beckham Palace in Chigwell, clouds have rolled in and it would appear I am taking the sun back to California with me. I land in LA at 4:00 pm, home by 5:30, out the door for Rosh Hashana services by 6:00. I’m already tired so I will be exhausted by the time I get to shul, but I am looking forward to beginning a new year.

It has been a busy time with a lot of things going on personally and professionally. I am being forced to reevaluate things, and while I certainly feel pressure about a lot of things, I have decided to embrace it all and rather than stress out, enjoy a mid-life crisis and go a little crazy. If I can’t throw caution to the wind at age 51 and roll with it, when can I? I am diving into the new year with an almost desperate desire to be brave and bold.

When my son was born I began to worry about dying. I was terrified something would happen to me, so I became painfully cautious. So much so that in retrospect I think I limited how I lived. Of course one could attribute it to simply being a Jewish mom who worries too much, but the bigger truth is once you become a mother you live your life for someone else, and that causes fear to creep in. You want to be there for your child, so you live in fear.

When I was told I had cancer my fear became consuming. I was so scared of what it could possibly mean to have cancer, I didn’t pay attention to what it was doing to me emotionally. I was unsure what I was supposed to do and was paralyzed with fear because my father died of cancer. I wrote my own story and focused on things that didn’t matter and weren’t even necessarily true.  I was lost and stayed that way for a long time. I have finally cleared the fog.

A few weeks ago a transformation began and I can say with real conviction that my mid-life crisis is proving to be a great thing. After being at my day job for over 9 years and countless trips back and forth to London, I up and quit. I bought a new car, colored my hair, ended a relationship with a man I was certain I would love one day, but also certain I would never respect. I pre-ordered Hilary Clinton’s book, and found myself a new job. It is time to start living again.

This new year matters to me. It will be the year I listen to my own advice. I always say we need to be brave, not only follow our hearts, but not settle for the things we get because we believe they are what we deserve. Instead I am going into the year knowing I deserve it all. I am going to kick ass at my new job, and find a man I want more than I need. A man who gets how fantastic I am and is strong enough to let me be me and be himself.

I am now safely at home, reunited with my remarkable son, and ready to live out loud in ways I never have before. The new year has begun and I am hopeful, certain things will be great. I am also wise enough to know there will be bumps in the road, but I am a great driver so it will all be fine. I have a date this weekend and start my new job next week. I also have what appears to be the beginnings of a cold and jet lag, but I welcome all of it.

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. I hope your challenges are few, but when you hit a bump, and you will, know I am there cheering you on. Be brave. This is your life and only you can live it. Do what makes sense to you and what feels good to you. Have some fun. Have more sex. Have really good sex. Laugh out loud. Resist. Make a difference. Inspire change. Speak out. Go out. Everything is possible if you believe, so keep the faith.

 

 

The top 10 new year’s resolutions for your home

When New Year’s Day rolls around, a few things are certain. There will be hangovers. People who are freezing back East will watch the sun-drenched Rose Parade with envy. And New Year’s resolutions will be made. 

But this year, instead of vowing to change ourselves, let’s promise to make some improvements in our homes. Believe me, taking care of things around the house can be a lot more fun than eating more broccoli or going to the gym. 

So what should we resolve to do? According to research from Nielsen, these are America’s top 10 New Year’s resolutions. Let’s take a look at each one and apply it to the home. 

No. 1: Stay fit and healthy

Home variation: Keep up with home maintenance

Sometimes we take our homes for granted and forget to keep them in optimum condition. Our homes need annual checkups, just like we do. For example, getting the roof and plumbing inspected now can save on costly repairs later. But home maintenance doesn’t have to mean big projects. Start small with simple tasks, such as oiling squeaky door hinges or tightening the cabinet pulls in the kitchen. 

No. 2: Lose weight

Home variation: Get rid of clutter

January is the perfect month to clear out your closets and storage spaces. Donate any clothes you haven’t worn in the past year. Ditto for all the tchotchkes you’ve stashed away thinking you’ll use or display them at some point. Give used books and CDs new life by letting someone else enjoy them. Or sell your stuff in a yard sale and make a little extra cash. And the best thing about going on a clutter diet is you still get to eat doughnuts. 

No. 3: Enjoy life to the fullest

Home variation: Make your home more comfortable

This was a resolution of mine last year. My home was stylish, but it wasn’t all that comfortable. Like, seriously, there was no comfy place to sit while watching television. So I bought a cushy sectional, and now I get to be a bona fide couch potato while binge-watching “Orphan Black.” What part of your home could raise its comfort quotient? Perhaps it’s a living room that could use some throw pillows, a bedroom that can benefit from a new set of soft sheets or a kitchen that needs a comfort foam mat in front of the sink. 

No. 4: Spend less, save more

Home variation: Use less energy

Most of us are already conserving water because of the California drought, so it might seem a little miserly to suggest conserving energy as well. But there are painless ways to do it. Concentrate on the biggest energy hogs in the house. I’m talking about your appliances, not your kids. Turn down the thermostat on your heating unit and your water heater. Do only full loads of laundry or dishes. And gradually change your appliances to energy-efficient models. The energy savings can be substantial. This year, I replaced all my home appliances with Energy Star models, and I’ve definitely seen a difference in my energy bill. (No, I did not win on “The Price Is Right.”)

No. 5: Spend more time with family and friends

Home variation: Entertain more

Many people never entertain in their home. The main reason is not that they’re cheap or antisocial, but they are afraid their house isn’t good enough. The furniture is not up to date. The walls have fingerprints all over them. The bathroom could use a remodel. But you know what? Guests do not care. Your home is just fine. Friends and family come over to spend time with you, not judge you. Have a party! People often remark to me that they are nervous to have me over because I am a fancy-shmancy designer. Let me tell you, I’m too busy chowing down on the hummus appetizer to be judgmental. 

No. 6: Get organized

Home variation: Make the most of storage space

We all want to be more organized, but often don’t know where to start. The key is to make the most of the space you already have. After all, your house isn’t going to magically grow storage space. Besides getting rid of clutter, use every inch of space in closets and cabinets. Remember, you can go vertical with the help of stackable containers and multilevel organizers. And get furniture pieces that can do double duty, such as ottomans or beds that have hidden storage areas.

No. 7: Don’t make any resolutions

Home variation: Be mindful all year long

My guess is that the people who refuse to make New Year’s resolutions believe that self-reflection should happen throughout the year, not just at the beginning of it. And sprucing up your home should happen all year as well. Home decorating and maintenance can feel unwieldy, but if we spread projects out across the months, it feels more manageable. 

No. 8: Learn something new

Home variation: Sharpen your do-it-yourself skills 

These days, you can learn how to do anything around the house by doing a Google search or watching a YouTube video. But don’t limit your DIY learning to home repairs. Stretch your creative muscles by learning how to cook, garden or sew. Creativity is what turns a house into a home.

No. 9: Travel more

Home variation: Turn your home into a staycation spot

I once had an interior design colleague who specialized in decorating homes like African safaris — animal prints, zebra rugs, banana trees — you get the idea. But you don’t have to go to such extremes to make your home feel like a high-end resort. It can take as little as pampering yourself with hotel-quality bedding, or making time for a bubble bath surrounded by candles. For the outdoors enthusiast, it can mean getting new patio furniture, along with a volleyball net or croquet set. 

No. 10: Read more

Home variation: Get inspiration from magazines

Shelter magazines are a great source of inspiration. I always recommend that people keep a file folder of magazine clippings that spark their interest so when the time comes to decorate, they can consult the pictures for ideas. It’s similar to having a Pinterest board, but nothing beats having it all in print. You can also take your inspiration folder with you to the store when you shop. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

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The tyranny of the normal

I grew up on 1950s television, and all I wanted in the world was to be the Cleavers. I wanted my dad to come home each evening in his neatly pressed suit, hang his fedora near the door and greet my mom, perpetually cheerful in her high heels and pearls. I wanted to sit down to dinner and talk enthusiastically (and one at a time) about football games, fixing cars and going to the prom. I wanted an older brother who wore a letterman’s jacket and who would teach me the manly arts.

I wanted to live in a family that never argued — where no voice was ever raised, where any existential problem could be solved by dad’s good-humored wisdom and mom’s freshly baked cookies. That was normal. Why couldn’t my family be normal, too? 

My family was nothing like the Cleavers. My dad never wore a tie (and doesn’t to this day). And mom never wore heels. We were loud and emotional. We loved intensely and we argued constantly. We had no time for football — the Vietnam War was fought over our table. The prom? We were too busy debating civil rights, the counterculture, the legacy of the Holocaust and Israel’s survival. 

We weren’t normal … and that hurt. I was sold an image of normal, a map for the right kind of life. The tyranny of the normal weighed on me, and each deviation brought pangs of shame. So I hid and split myself into two selves: inside/outside — a Jewish inner self and an outer American normal self. 

As I grew older, I made a marvelous discovery — the Cleavers were in black and white, emotionally colorless. My family was glorious, Jewish Technicolor! I came to love it. And my friends loved it. All of the Cleavers who lived in the neighborhood began showing up at our home on Friday nights to share challah and the boisterous philosophical-political-moral conversation that was our Friday night table. 

Who sells us this map called “normal”? Who sets the standard for the right home, the right family, the right life? Who produces the image of the right self that so tyrannizes?

We have pictures in our wallets of our kids. And on the back of each photo, we etch a map for their life. When the kid doesn’t keep to the map, we scream at the teachers, we shlep the kid to therapy, we demand the doctor prescribe medication. We turn on ourselves, and soon, we turn on the kid. My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once noted that there is a particularly Jewish form of child abuse: It’s called disappointment.

All Jewish kids get A’s, right? They all go on to Stanford, Brown and Berkeley. They all are first violin in the orchestra, the lead in the play, the captain of the team. But is there pride for the kid who is different? Is there love for the one who doesn’t conform to our normal? Can we see the kid as he is, as she is, and appreciate a child’s unique gifts? Do we have a place for the child whose journey is off our map?

One thing a rabbi knows: No matter how put together we all appear on the outside, on the inside, everyone has burdens. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has shame. Everyone has moments when life drives us off our map. 

No matter how good we look on the outside, no one’s life is normal, not television normal. And no one’s life is perfect. We hide, we escape, we deny. Or worse, we cast out or destroy the one who has frustrated us. That’s the problem.

But God gives second chances. There is life after divorce. There is treatment for addiction. There are new career opportunities. We can love this kid. But only after we let go of the shame, acknowledge what’s before us, and forgive. This is the most profound form of forgiveness — to release ourselves and those we love from the dominion of expectation, the tyranny of the normal.

Yom Kippur is the holiest night of the year, and these are its holiest words: 

Kol nidrei ve’esarey va’charamey, v’konamey v’cheenuyey, v’keenusey ushvu’ot.

All of the oaths and vows and promises we could not fulfill are cancelled. All of the maps that designate what’s normal are torn up. All of the expectations that we held up — for ourselves, for our children, for those we love — are relinquished. 

V’nislach l’chol adat bnai yisrael.

We are released. We will not allow the tyranny of expectations to stand between us and those we love. We will not let someone’s idea of the normal torture and twist and steal away our life. Our failures are forgiven. Our shame is lifted. There is nothing that we must hide. We are released to write our own map, to seek our own way. Now, we are finally free. 

Vayomer Adonai, salachti kid’varecha.

This holiday, we will stand before family, friends and associates, and ask forgiveness for our transgressions, as they will stand before us. But before we can muster the courage to turn to anyone else in contrition, we must forgive ourselves. Before we can be open and ready to offer reconciliation to another, we must find release ourselves.

That is the sacred gift and task of these highest holidays. Shanah tovah. For a new year of blessing.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Home: New decorating trends for the new year

Rosh Hashanah is all about new beginnings, so what better time to look at our homes in a fresh way? Whether you’re considering a new paint color for the wall, updating furniture or just buying new cabinet pulls, check out these hot decorating trends and make 5776 your most stylish year yet.

High-gloss lacquer 

Lucinda orange stacking chair from CB2

To instantly up the glam factor in any room, add a pop of high gloss to your furniture and accessories. The super-shiny look is not only a trend, it’s also one of the easiest looks to achieve. And we’re talking about more than black or white. A high-gloss shine can make saturated colors such as yellow, orange and pink look even more electric, whereas it gives an unexpected twist to subtle shades of green and blue. In fact, with a simple can of high-gloss spray paint, you can transform any drab table, chair, picture frame, candlestick —  you name it — into a statement piece. 

Gold and brass finishes

Stainless steel and nickel finishes are still prevalent, but warmer metallic tones such as gold, brass and bronze are surging in popularity. In addition to bathroom fixtures and hardware, we’re seeing these brassy metallics in lighting fixtures, furniture, barware and home décor (i.e. tchotchkes). Whereas a stainless finish is perceived to be more modern — and utilitarian — gold and brass lend a vintage feel to a room. 

Steampunk

Orbital pendant light from Lamps Plus

This mash-up of Victorian opulence and industrial-age machinery is red hot in the design world, but don’t worry, this doesn’t mean your home should look like Sherlock Holmes’ study. If you flip through a furniture-store catalog these days, you’ll see a lot of steampunk elements — leather chesterfield sofas and club chairs; lamps and tables made of industrial materials; world maps and globes; motifs of gears and clock parts; steamer trunks; framed botanical prints. Who knew we were so gaga for steampunk?

Dark walls

Painting walls a dark color used to be such a decorating no-no. The consensus among decorating experts was that dark colors made a room appear smaller, while light colors made a room more expansive. I never agreed with this theory, my argument being that the black ceilings in Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride did not make you feel claustrophobic, but rather created the illusion that you were looking up at infinite sky. Now everyone’s on the dark-wall bandwagon, if decorating magazines are any indication. I recently painted the walls in a guest bedroom charcoal gray, and I love it. Everything looks good against the gray — it’s a great backdrop for other colors to really pop.

‘Greige’

If you’re not ready to commit to dark walls just yet, the “greige” trend may be for you. Called “the color that’s taking over Pinterest” by Business Insider, greige is a soothing blend of gray and beige. Unlike grays that have blue pigment, greige contains hints of brown for a warmer feel. It’s like a hug in a paint can. The muted color is not just popular on walls. — you may notice it on upholstery, bedding and even wood finishes. In fact, I’m seeing greige-wood dining tables in every furniture store these days. As much as I’m a crazy color guy, I do love the soft sophistication of greige. And I love saying it, too.

Wallpaper

Wallpaper fell out of favor for many years, but it’s back now in a big way. And when I say big, I mean big graphics. The popular trend for wallpaper is bold, oversized patterns. Rather than being your grandmother’s wallpaper, the new large-scale designs actually look more modern and playful, even in a small space. And, if you like DYI, large-format digital printing enables you to custom-print your own graphics or photos to fill an entire wall, just by uploading a jpeg to an online wallpaper company such as muralsyourway.com. 

Typography

LED Letter Light from Nordstrom

Designers also are having a love affair with typography, incorporating words, or just alphabetized letters in interesting fonts, into furniture, wall art and accessories. Walk into any arts-and-crafts or home-furnishing store and you’ll see a variety of giant letters for home décor — even some that light up. Spell out your name, your initials or your favorite phrase on your walls as a decorative element. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but these days it seems that a word is worth a thousand pictures.

Pattern on pattern

Just as with fashion, the somewhat arbitrary rule of not mixing patterns is no longer in vogue. Clashing patterns is indeed allowed — and encouraged. So go ahead and layer striped pillows over floral upholstery, with a toile wall pattern behind it. The key is to play with the scale of the patterns so that they are varied. Make one pattern the dominant motif, and let the others complement it.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

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A forecast for 2015

My friend Greg long ago convinced me that instead of a laundry list of resolutions, what we really need every New Year is just one catch-all aspirational slogan, more likely to be remembered past January. Like “Find the fix in ’06.” When I crowd-sourced the challenge of a slogan for this new year, a wise 10-year-old I know came up with, “See the unseen in ’15.”

I like it because it is both a timeless exhortation – to expand one’s horizons – and a particularly timely one. The year 2015 – the far-away year Marty McFly travels to in the 1980s classic Back to the Future — is shaping up, ironically, to be a year when the reassuringly familiar reasserts itself. Such mainstays as the Bush-versus-Clinton dynastic feud, the Star Wars saga, interest rates, U.S. power around the world, the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, and the telephone all are poised to make a comeback this year. But don’t trust me: Grab a half-dozen Post-it notes and make a few forecasts of your own on the defining questions of 2015.

Before going any further, however, I realize my last comeback suggestion might seem absurd: that the phone, used as such, as in the lost art of dialing and talking, is back. But the hacking of Sony in late 2014 may prove a tipping point forcing people in many different workplaces to avoid putting certain things in writing. “Call me” may turn out to be among the most emailed words in 2015, shedding their once ominous overtones to become shorthand for, “I have something juicy to say about this, but I would be crazy to write it.” Here’s an interesting forecast close to home: Write on your first Post-it whether you think you will spend more or less time talking on your phone in 2015 than in 2014 (and figure it out at year’s end).

In politics, 2015 is shaping up to be a throwback year as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton explore, and likely announce, their 2016 presidential bids. Will Bush or Mitt Romney or someone less aligned with the party’s business wing (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz?) be ahead in the GOP’s polls as 2015 comes to a close, on the eve of primary season? Write down your prediction (eschewing email for obvious reasons). And, if it is Bush riding high, will the dynastic hue of the contest affect how voters view Clinton?

The appeal of the familiar is understandable: The country has had a hard time settling into a semblance of normalcy pretty much since the start of this millennium, buffeted by a series of booms and busts, not to mention wars. Now the Federal Reserve, the institution wielding the greatest (if underappreciated) power over our financial affairs, is coaxing us to be OK with going back to normal. 2015 is when the Fed plans to put an end to its emergency measure of keeping the important benchmark interest rate it charges financial institutions at essentially zero. One defining story line for the year is whether this is seen as a vote of confidence in the economy, or whether it spooks markets addicted to artificial stimulation. Use a third Post-it note to guess whether the Dow Industrials Average will crack 20,000 and end 2015 above that level, which is slightly more than 10 percent higher than it is today.

In either case, the United States will look like a safe haven compared to much of the world. Our lead in all aspects of information technology keeps growing. We’re experiencing a manufacturing renaissance. We are well on our way to becoming one of the world’s lowest-cost (and self-sufficient) energy producers. 2014 started with a barrel of oil costing some $20 more than a share of Apple. The year closed with a surging share of Apple costing almost twice as much as a plummeting barrel of oil ($114 to $60). Go ahead and forecast on your fourth Post-it which of these two (Apple share or barrel of oil) will cost more at the end of 2015, and what the spread will be.

It should become clearer in the coming year that America has gotten its mojo back. It isn’t only our economic prowess. There’s also a renewed acceptance of American power and influence in much of the world, courtesy of Vladimir Putin’s antics, China’s extraterritorial assertiveness, the implosion of the anti-American left in Latin America, and all the global challenges – climate change, pandemics like Ebola, the persistence of radical Islamist terrorism – that still require U.S leadership.

This desire on the part of many countries for closer ties, coupled with America’s renewed economic confidence and domestic political trends, might make possible an ambitious trans-Pacific trade deal. And that would signal to the world that America is no longer stuck in the Middle East. On your fifth Post-it forecast a ranking of Iraq, Ukraine, Mexico, and China, according to the number of times each is mentioned in 2015 in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, information technologies continue to empower us . But now the revolution turns inward, as the next frontier of the Information Age that brought the outside world to our fingertips – the next great unseen that we will see – will be within ourselves. 2015 will be the year of the iWatch and other tracking and diagnostic technologies – some wearable, some in your medicine cabinet, others like cheaper, faster and less intrusive blood tests at the nearby drugstore – that will allow us to acquire unprecedented self-knowledge..

This will keep the topic of inequality alive, as we talk about how such technologies create a new “digital divide.” I don’t have a clever forecasting prompt here for your last Post-it, but rather a question worth jotting down and contemplating: What does it mean for a society to have some people walking around with sophisticated dashboards measuring their well-being, while many others don’t, and remain in the dark? That seems qualitatively different than having the divide being defined around one’s access to knowledge of China or finances.

As bullish as I am on 2015, I should caution readers that I am usually optimistic at the start of every new year. It must be a personal flaw. And that’s why “See the unseen in 2015” is a perfect personal slogan, and not just as an exhortation to climb a mountain or go on safari or avail myself of these self-tracking technologies. The slogan is an antidote to my own complacency, a cautionary admonition to be on the lookout for the unexpected shocks that can upset my rosy scenarios.

After all, no one has ever said that, when it looked like nothing could go wrong, nothing went wrong. Happy New Year.

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. He is also a professor of journalism at Arizona State University.

A Jewish wish list for 2014

In no special order, here are 10 wishes for our community for the coming year:

1. A sukkah for every Jew. Seriously, is there any Jewish holiday cooler than Sukkot? And yet, most non-Orthodox Jews don’t build a sukkah to commemorate the desert journey of our ancestors. In recent years, this has started to change, as more and more Jews are partaking in this odd but powerful ritual. I hope the trend continues. There’s nothing like having a meal in a ramshackle hut to keep your life in perspective. 

2. Friday Nights Live. Why does “Friday Night Live” happen only once a month and in only one synagogue (Sinai Temple)? As I see it, Friday Night Live should be an attitude, not just an event. Jewish communities of all denominations ought to approach the entrance of Shabbat as a renewal of life. Services should come alive with fresh melodies; communities and families should reach out and invite guests to their Shabbat tables.  Just think: For one night a week, you get to turn off your smartphones and reconnect with everything that’s real. How do you beat that?

3. Take my rabbi, please. There are hundreds of rabbis in our community, each with a unique gift. Unfortunately, most of us never get to hear what they have to say. This is understandable: We attend the synagogues we belong to and listen to our own rabbis. Still, it’s a shame to miss out on this great diversity of thought. So, let’s pick one Shabbat a year and call it the Great Exchange — a day when every rabbi in town gets to speak in a different shul. Just the thought of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi speaking in an LGBT minyan — or an LGBT rabbi doing the reverse — is worth the price of admission.

4. Night of a million stories. Another budding ritual in the local Jewish scene is the “White Night” of Shavuot, when a growing number of Jews and assorted hipsters stay up all night to attend learning sessions. Here’s my pitch for what we ought to learn that night: the story of our people. I don’t mean biblical stories or stories of the Holocaust. I mean the extraordinary, nomadic story of Diaspora Jewry since the destruction of the Second Temple — from Persian and Sephardic stories to European and Ethiopian stories. As crazy as it sounds, our community offers hardly any education — in schools or in shuls — that honors the complicated and fascinating journeys of our ancestors. How can we instill “peoplehood” if we don’t know our own story? 

5. Calling all bubbes and zaydes. We talk a lot about the role of parents in Jewish education — but what about the role of grandparents? Who’s got more timeless wisdom than they do? I’d love to see Jewish day schools devote an hour a week to having students hear the wise tales of our community’s bubbes and zaydes

6. Six million victims, six million Torah classes. A poignant way of honoring the victims of the Shoah is to make the essence of Judaism — the Torah — thrive in their memory. I’d love to see Holocaust memorials offer Torah classes right on their premises. In addition, we ought to have every Torah class, wherever it is given, begin with these words: “This Torah class is dedicated to the memory of (fill in name) who perished in the year (fill in details).” 

7. Bring back the old Limmud. Limmud L.A. has morphed into Limmud Light. Instead of a big annual gathering of L.A. Jewry, we now have smaller events throughout the year. I have to say, I miss the old days, when hundreds of us would hang out for three days and nights in a vibrant, makeshift “neighborhood” and bond like no other time of year. I loved it precisely because it was such a non-L.A. experience.

8. Do the Chai Mitzvah. We know the old story — after the bar/bat mitzvah, many families vanish from synagogue life. And yet, the most important years in a kid’s life are between the ages of 13 and 18. As I’ve written previously, synagogues ought to tailor programming specifically for those five years, working toward a new life cycle called the Chai Mitzvah — when kids really need to become adults.

9. Let’s attract more converts. Why not share our tradition with those seeking a spiritual path? There are plenty of non-Jews who might be seriously and independently interested in Judaism, regardless of marriage. We ought to make our religion more inviting to these spiritual seekers. Let’s face it: As more and more Jews assimilate into the American melting pot, we could use a little reverse assimilation — the addition of new Jews who will be infinitely grateful for the blessings of our tradition.

10. Judaism that works for you. In the era of open choice, when doing anything “religious” is far from obvious, I’d love to see more programming that shows how Judaism can improve people’s lives — in areas such as relationships, parenting, money, health or even just plain happiness.

Now there’s an aspirational theme for our community: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of Judaism.”

Happy New Year.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached atdavids@jewishjournal.com.

In the rabbi’s words: A difficult conversation

The conversation is supposed to begin like this: “Will you forgive me for anything I might have said or done this year that has hurt you?” 

You are sitting with a friend over coffee, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and you ask this question. Not easy. What if your friend responds, “What did you do or say?” Or, “You know, it did really hurt me when I found out that you … shared that story that I told you in confidence, or… didn’t include me when you had that party, or … embarrassed me in front of so and so.” These are not horrible sins, maybe, but they are the kind of interpersonal hurts that erode intimacy. 

Maybe there were more serious breaches. Could you call the relative whom you stopped speaking to over some long-ago insult and ask the same question? What kind of conversation would ensue? Or could you sit down with your partner, or your kids, or your parents and ask the same question? 

Our tradition tells us: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur serves as atonement. For transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not serve as atonement until the one offended has been appeased.” 

To atone, there are specific instructions: You have to acknowledge the hurt you did. Then, if the issue involves money, you have to pay back the money. Next, you have to resolve never to do it again. And finally, you have to discuss the issue with the one you have hurt and ask for forgiveness. This is teshuvah (repentance); this is the work of this season. 

Asking for forgiveness is not easy, but it pales in comparison to how hard it is to forgive. Here Jewish tradition is also very clear: “If the person against whom one had sinned did not want to forgive, then one has to ask him/her for forgiveness in front of three of his/her friends. If he/she still didn’t want to forgive, then one asks him/her in front of six, and then in front of nine of his/her friends, and if he/she still didn’t want to forgive him/her, one leaves him/her and goes away. Anybody who does not want to forgive is a sinner.”

That’s pretty harsh. Aren’t some things unforgivable? Maybe it depends on what you mean by forgiveness. 

Jewish tradition tells us there are three kinds of forgiveness, articulated by Rabbi David Blumenthal in a CrossCurrents article: “The most basic kind of forgiveness is ‘forgoing the other’s indebtedness’ (mechilá) … [after] the offender has done teshuva. … This is not a reconciliation of heart. … The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven. The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechila unless the offender is sincere in his or her repentance and has taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done. … The second kind of forgiveness is ‘forgiveness’ (selichá). It is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selicha, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace. … The third kind of forgiveness is ‘atonement’ (kappara). … This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness. It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God.”

Change is possible; people can learn from their mistakes. Notice that forgiveness does not mean everything returns to the way it once was; it doesn’t mean you have to invite the one who hurt you over for dinner. But it does mean that you can give up your victim status and go on with the rest of your life. 

Every night, before we go to sleep, there is a prayer that is part of the bedtime Shema: “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account. As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or by accident, whether by word or deed. Wipe away my sins, O Lord, with your great mercy. May I not repeat the wrongs I have committed. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer.” 

Try saying this prayer before you go to sleep. Some congregations end their Kol Nidre service with these words. Should we?

Shana Tovah.


Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Happy new mitzvah

“Organized Judaism is in trouble.” I’ve been hearing that refrain for years now, from rabbis and Jewish leaders in speeches, sermons, op-eds and conferences. The litany of complaints is familiar: Synagogue membership is down; the new generation doesn’t like organized religion; people want something new; and so on.

There is, however, one culprit that seems to always rise to the top: Too many families abandon synagogue life after the bar/bat mitzvahs of their children.

There’s surely a good reason for this, aside from the obvious one — that families are trying to save on membership dues.

For one thing, I think we’ve made too big a deal of the bar/bat mitzvah “accomplishment” in the lives of our young teens. If anything, that’s the age when they’re more likely to graduate to their wild and rebellious years than to their “responsible Jewish years.”

Also, the whole notion of graduating implies moving on to a new place — whether it’s graduating to a new school, a new job, a new city, married life, etc.

Sure, we always try to impress on our kids that they’re graduating into a more serious and responsible Jewish life — and that should mean continuing to be part of synagogue life — but who are we kidding?

The truth is, as long as families see the bar/bat mitzvah lifecycle event as a major and finite accomplishment, they will feel encouraged to “move on,” no matter how rabbis couch it, and especially if the family is not already committed to synagogue life.

Yes, it certainly helps to improve the general synagogue experience, but to counter the bar/bat mitzvah exodus syndrome, we need something more direct. We need to create a new and more meaningful lifecycle event that would encourage families to stick around for several more years.

Let’s start with reality.

Kids don’t become “men” or “women” at ages 12 or 13. That tender age is the beginning of arguably the most vulnerable years of kids’ lives — when they can experience the most damage, or the most growth.

In other words, from the early teen years until they’re about 18 are when they need the most help from a supportive synagogue community — the years when they really need to develop the tools to enter adulthood. 

So, here’s my idea for a new lifecycle event: the chai mitzvah.

At 12 or 13, you have your bar/bat mitzvah; at 18, you have your chai mitzvah.

The bar/bat mitzvah would prepare you for the more important chai mitzvah, when you mature into adulthood and are ready to go out into the world. To use a Boy Scout analogy, the bar mitzvah is to the chai mitzvah as Tenderfoot is to Eagle Scout.

This would put the bar/bat mitzvah lifecycle in a more realistic place. There would be less pressure on our young teens; the focus would be on preparing them for the next five crucial years of their lives.

Synagogues would then have an opportunity to hit it out of the park with programming for 13- to 18-year-olds: leadership training, learning life skills, dealing with money issues, taking care of your health, dealing with the opposite sex, getting involved with charities, helping out with synagogue projects, getting summer jobs, getting into college, strengthening Jewish learning and connection to Israel, loving Shabbat and so on.

These years are rich with growth and possibility. If the programming is relevant and compelling, there’s no reason why kids and families can’t continue to participate actively in synagogue life.

Think of how much more relevant the classic bar/bat mitzvah cliches of “growth, maturity and transition” would be during a chai mitzvah ceremony.

OK, there is one problem. It’s not as if we need another opportunity to fork out a bundle on a wild party. But who says we need one? Why not create a meaningful chai mitzvah ceremony in synagogue that would include all the important people in the kid’s life over the previous five years?

The key point is this: If we offer Jewish families a compelling and meaningful new lifecycle event after the bar/bat mitzvah, they’ll be a lot more likely to remain active in their synagogue communities. 

And more important, we will help our kids during some of the more difficult years of their lives. 

Since this is the time of year when we are most concerned with renewal, I can’t think of a better way to renew our community than through our teenage kids and our synagogues.

Shana Tovah — and mazel tov.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

In Iranian New Year message, Obama warns Iran of isolation but not strikes

President Obama warned Iran of further isolation but stopped short of threatening military action should the country not cooperate with the international community on its nuclear program.

Obama in his annual message marking the Iranian New Year, known as Nowruz, addressed Iranians and their leaders.

“If, as Iran’s leaders say, their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution,” Obama said in a video message posted Monday, two days before he travels to Israel to discuss Iran strategy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s a solution that would give Iran access to peaceful nuclear energy while resolving once and for all the serious questions that the world has about the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” the president said, referring to offers by major powers to reduce sanctions in exchange for more transparency and access to Iran's nuclear facilities.

“Finding a solution will be no easy task. But if we can, the Iranian people will begin to see the benefits of greater trade and ties with other nations, including the United States. Whereas if the Iranian government continues down its current path, it will only further isolate Iran. This is the choice now before Iran’s leaders.”

Netanyahu, some U.S. pro-Israel groups and a number of U.S. lawmakers of both parties have called on Obama to make more explicit the threat of military action that will be taken to stop an Iranian bomb.

Obama has not discounted the military option, but has estimated that Iran is about one year away from obtaining such a device and prefers to press forward with diplomacy and economic pressure for now.

Senior service providers wary as New Year approaches

They’ve weathered five years of economic crisis, relentless state budget cuts and growing demand for their services. Now, social service providers for seniors in the Los Angeles area are bracing for a new slew of challenges in 2013.

From federal budget negotiations and the looming “fiscal cliff” to state-level pilot reforms of Medicaid — known in California as Medi-Cal — these are uncertain times for seniors, their caregivers and the agencies that help them. 

“We’re not really sure how it’s going to play out,” said Paul Castro, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). “We try as best we can to anticipate and plan, but it’s a very uncertain environment and there’s so many parts to it.” 

At the top of most agencies’ watch list is the “fiscal cliff,” the dramatic concoction of federal spending cuts and tax hikes slated to take effect Jan. 2, unless Congress agrees on an alternative. Programs in line for automatic cutbacks include nutrition services for the elderly, funding for in-home care providers, low-income heating assistance, and social and legal support for the vulnerable. The sum of these reductions — $55 billion for all nondefense spending — could have devastating consequences for millions of older Americans, providers fear.

In Los Angeles, JFS says federal cutbacks, if they go ahead, would hamper the agency’s ability to help seniors, particularly those living in poverty. The organization receives federal dollars for numerous programs, including in-home nursing care for the sick and frail; community dining and home-delivered meals; and free transportation services for seniors who need help going to medical appointments, meal sites and elsewhere.

Of those, nutrition services are the most critical for low-income seniors, many of whom rely on the agency for their meals, JFS public policy director Nancy Volpert said. If automatic cuts go into effect, the agency will be unable to feed 83 seniors out of the 1,040 it serves daily. 

“If someone loses food, that is an existential problem,” Volpert said. 

Barbra McLendon, public policy director for the California Southland chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, said state budget cuts over the past few years have already caused programs to shrink and sometimes even shut down, including adult day care facilities for people with dementia. 

“There’s no more fat to be cut,” she said. “They would be cutting into direct services that people depend on.”

Still, McLendon and JFS officials said they remain optimistic Congress will strike a deal before Jan. 2. They also pointed to positive news at the state level. Voters’ approval in November of Proposition 30, which cleared the way for temporary tax increases, should prevent more funding cuts for senior services in the state budget, they said.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Van Nuys) agreed the budgetary outlook for the state has improved with the passage of Proposition 30. Nevertheless, ongoing shakeups of health-related programs affecting seniors, including a new effort aimed at keeping ailing elderly people in their homes, will need to be monitored closely, he said. 

And if big cuts kick in on the federal level, the system could come tumbling down.

“If the feds take us over the cliff, that could cost us $5 [billion] or $6 billion, and we’re back to the drawing board,” Blumenfield said.

Even if federal lawmakers stave off an immediate fiscal catastrophe, the long-term outlook for programs critical to seniors — including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — remains shaky. With the nation facing an unwieldy $1 trillion deficit, large social programs are a conspicuous target. 

Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, have already proposed smaller annual increases in Social Security payments, capping Medicaid spending and raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, or turning it into a voucher program.

Jim Specht, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), said the congressman believes reforms to Medicare and Social Security are necessary to avoid the programs’ financial collapse in the future.

“Both the entitlement programs, particularly Medicare, are on a course now to run out of money over the next 10 years or so,” Specht said. “Mr. Lewis believes you cannot just allow that kind of a fiscal problem … to continue.”

The fiscal cliff, and the automatic cuts it would imply, pose a greater threat to current seniors than proposed entitlement reforms, Specht said. Changes to Medicare and Social Security supported by Lewis would not affect people now over 55. For younger people nearing retirement age, reforms would be phased in, he said.

Lewis “is not interested in reducing any benefits for current seniors,” Specht said.

Still, U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said,“Seniors ought to be worried and aware of proposals that have been put on the table. I’m hoping that President Obama will be able to push back hard enough not to get them into law.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles senior service providers said they are uneasy over another critical issue dependent on action by Congress: reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. The almost 50-year-old legislation authorizes federal funding for a wide range of senior services, including Meals on Wheels and home-based care programs, which is funneled through the Administration on Aging to state and local entities. It was due for renewal in 2011 but remains in limbo.

“It should have been done months ago. It has been introduced, but it’s just not going anywhere, which is a problem,” Volpert said. 

Failure to renew the act means agencies that receive federal funds to help seniors are not sure how to plan for their future, McLendon said. 

In California, another development is adding to the cloud of uncertainty, although there is hope it could bring about positive change. The state is one of 15 across the country participating in a federal pilot project that aims to shift so-called “dual eligibles” — people who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid — into managed care. Officials say the change will reduce costs while providing beneficiaries with better-quality care.

Los Angeles is among five counties setting up the plan, which affects some of the poorest and sickest Californians, most of them elderly. About a third of the state’s 1.1 million dual eligibles live in L.A. County. Under the project, expected to start some time next year, local health plans L.A. Care and Health Net would be in charge of financing and delivering both medical and social services to dual-eligible patients. Currently, individual providers, such as JFS, are compensated directly by the government based on the number of services they provide.

Castro said JFS and other organizations in Los Angeles that run programs for seniors are anxious to ensure the transition doesn’t wipe away the current infrastructure and leave the elderly without access to services they’ve depended on for years.

It’s “a dramatic change in the service landscape,” he said. “The question is how much money will the state fund the health plans to do this kind of work, and how much will the plans be willing to spend on these clients, particularly those who are most fragile and imply the most cost?” 

Blumenfield echoed those concerns.

“We’ve really got to watch the implementation and make sure it helps seniors and doesn’t harm them,” he said. “The devil is in the details.” 

High Holy Days: Who will live, who will die?

You don’t have to be a Jewish scholar to note a glaring difference between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Jan. 1, the secular New Year.

The former is solemn while the latter is boisterous. And one reason for Rosh Hashanah’s solemnity is the central question that it confronts: “Who will live and who will die [in the coming year]?”

The High Holy Days liturgy is meant to force us to confront our mortality. And that is not a particularly jovial subject.

Is this a good thing? 

I think it is. As Samuel Johnson put it a long time ago, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”

The fact is that knowing we will die is one of the most beneficial realizations we can have.

First, death forces us to value time. If we never died, why would we do anything we didn’t absolutely have to do?

Why read a book today when you know that you can just as easily put off reading it for a year, or for that matter, a hundred years? 

Knowing that our time is limited forces us use it more productively. Years ago, a Swiss lawyer, after being told that he had incurable cancer, wrote a book during his last year of life. Among the first things he decided to do was to stop watching television.

Well before I read about that book, at a young age, I remember thinking that, in terms of using time wisely, it would be a good thing to live as if one had a terminal illness.


For the fact is that we all do have a terminal condition — life itself.

Rosh Hashanah asks us — no, it demands of us — that we lead our lives knowing we can die any day. Because nearly every one of us would lead our lives differently if we were told we had a year to live. 

Second, death confers wisdom.

Knowing that we will die gives us wisdom: Death puts things into perspective.

Knowing that we will die clarifies what is important and what is trivial. It is one reason that human beings have always associated age with wisdom. 

The usual explanation for associating age with wisdom is the longer one lives, the more wisdom one accumulates through increased life experiences. But I believe something else is at least as much at work here. And that is that the older one gets, the closer to death one gets. If people could expect to live, let us say, 500 years, I am not sure that 80-year-olds would have as much wisdom as they do today.

As people get old, they are more likely to believe in God. This is often dismissed as a function of their fear of death. But I submit it is not fear of death nearly as much as it is the reality of death that makes older people more likely to believe in God.

When you stare death in the face, you get a lot a more clarity about life. And one of those clarity realizations is that if there is no God, this whole thing called life has been no more than a charade: We make believe things matter, but they really don’t. 

The same holds true with belief in an afterlife. When people are young and think they will live forever, the idea of an afterlife can seem both irrational and unimportant. But when you confront death, it becomes far more difficult — not just emotionally, but intellectually — to say, “This life is all there is.”

Another proof of how much death clarifies what is important is the funeral.

It is well worth paying attention to eulogies. If you do, you will notice that much of what we deem to be of major significance is virtually never even mentioned in any of the eulogies for the deceased.

For example, many parents (Jewish ones most certainly) deem what college their children get into to be the most important goal of their child’s life. Virtually everything is dedicated to that goal — getting into the best preschool, the best elementary school, the best junior high and high school, getting the best grades, and spending whatever it takes.

But have you ever heard any eulogy mention — even in passing — what college the deceased attended? Has any rabbi, priest, minister, spouse, child or friend of the deceased ever said anything like, “We will miss Sam, who, you will recall, attended Harvard”?

Eulogies — the ultimate confrontation with death — force us to talk about what is truly important: “We will miss Sam. Sam was a wonderful husband, a devoted father, a loyal and giving friend. He loved life. He had a happy disposition. He was an honest man, etc., etc.”

Finally, death increases our love of just about everything in life.

Death forces us to value the quotidian. Those diagnosed with a terminal illness value sunsets and flowers and rain showers and people more than they did before their diagnosis.

So, for all these reasons Rosh Hashanah focuses on our mortality. That is why, ironically, while the theme resonates far more with the old, it is the young who most need it. Because the sooner people appreciate their mortality, the sooner they will value what is truly important: goodness, sunsets, people — and, yes, God and religion.

Who will die this coming year? Maybe you and maybe me. 

What is certain is that confronting the question will make for a better year.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 970 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarprCollins, 2012).

High Holy Days: 5773

What a year, right? 

The Jewish year 5772 started with a sense that a military confrontation with Iran is avoidable. Now it seems — all merits aside — imminent. 

The fragile economy, meanwhile, is barely able to handle the turmoil in Greece — imagine how it will react to Armageddon.

Syrians struggle to depose an unelected serial killer, but as with the rest of the Arab world, there is no guarantee the struggle will not end in chaos, more slaughter or a fundamentalist takeover. 

What is, perhaps, one of the biggest stories of the year — the record droughts — is bound to drag suffering and turmoil into the next year, or decade, or century. But hey, maybe those folks who don’t believe in climate change can figure out a way to water wheat with belief.

Meanwhile, an endless presidential campaign sucks up every shred of energy, money and focus.

In recent days, we have been pummeled with the political back-and-forth over one question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?

The Republicans turned it into their rallying cry. The Democrats first stammered, faltered, came up with a no, a maybe, and then, when Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention, a hoarse-throated yes.

The Republicans thought they had a winner. The Democrats were, typically, playing defense. But, really, isn’t the question all wrong?

The real question we should all be asking is this: “Will you be better off four years from now?

That’s what truly matters. I know that, because it’s the question that hangs in the air during the High Holy Days. It’s the essence of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. We don’t gather in synagogue, beat our breasts and pray to change what already happened. We don’t use the time to ask God to remind us of how much better or worse things are now than they were last year.

We pray for things to be better in the coming year. 

The difference between these two questions is the fundamental difference between two ways of looking at the world. It’s the difference between optimism and pessimism.

“Are you better off now?” implies that things will just continue on the same trajectory — or get even worse. The past becomes destiny. 

Even if the answer is yes, there lurks the danger of complacency, of not pushing for even better.

“Will you be better off in the future than you are now?” conjures hope. It requires optimism just to ask it. After all, for many generations of Jews, the idea of simply surviving another four years was brazen.

Optimism alone isn’t enough. There has to be, in the current vernacular, a “tool” that enables us to turn the yearning for a better four years, a better future, into a reality. In Judaism, that tool has a name: renewal.

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the new Jewish year, but its true wisdom is contained in the words we recite from Lamentations on that day: Chadesh yameinu k’kedem — “Renew our days as of old.”

American culture celebrates the new. But Judaism pushes renewal, the essentially human ability to revive what is exhausted, to refresh what is worn out, to make great what was good.

That’s how we make an ancient religion ever relevant. “Are you better off than you were 5,773 years ago?” Of course. But only because we emphasize not regret, but renewal.

The newspaper you hold in your hands is a good example of renewal. David Suissa, our president, and designer Jonathan Fong conceived and created a page-by-page renewal of the tabloid form for the digital age. The Jewish Journal staff worked hard — tirelessly — to bring you this new look for the New Year.

We didn’t ask ourselves, “Is the Jewish Journal better now than it was four years ago?” The question we asked is: How can the Journal be even better in the future? With the first question, you get criticism (trust me, I know). With the second, you get ideas.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book “Telushkinisms,” tells a joke: A group of old men are sitting in a cafe in Tel Aviv, bemoaning the state of the world, wringing their hands, kvetching. One day, one of the men shocks the group by saying, “You know what, I’m an optimist!” They don’t believe him; they think something’s fishy. “Wait a second,” a friend challenges him. “If you’re an optimist, why do you always look so worried?” The man answers: “You think it’s easy being an optimist?”

It doesn’t come naturally for us.

But it’s a virtuous circle: Optimism spurs renewal, which spurs ideas, which spur optimism. We sit in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah — and you should, especially if you weren’t planning to — and are reminded that our job, our very Jewish job, is not to reread the history of our shortcomings, but to turn a new page in the aging book of our lives.

Shanah tovah u’metuka.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Opinion: At the New Year, let’s give animals a new Jewish chance

Shortly after I became a vegan, around 20 years ago, I ordered my first “vegan option” at a Jewish organizational dinner.

It arrived: a plateful of raw celery and carrot sticks arranged around a cup of something ranch dressing-ish that probably wasn’t even vegan.

Since then, things have changed considerably.

Teenage servers at fast food places know what vegan means even if they have to deliver the news that there is nothing there that fits the description. And at most Jewish organizational dinners today, the vegan option is so delicious that others at my table invariably cry, “Oh, I wish I had ordered that!” when they see it.

Things have changed, but not nearly enough for animals.

Enter the Jewish new year for animals—an initiative to transform an ancient and largely forgotten holiday, Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser Bemeima, or New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals, into Rosh Hashanah l’ Beheimot, a New Year for Animals devoted to considering how Jews can improve their relationships with animals.

Animals raised for food, whether on factory farms or “free range,” live and die in unspeakably horrible conditions, treated not as living beings but as the commodities they are. Dairy cows are crammed into tiny stalls and kept impregnated so they will produce milk perpetually. Their calves are taken from them shortly after birth and raised as veal in crates too small for them to turn around in.

Chickens, as several recent undercover videos now available on YouTube have documented, are kept in cages so small they can’t even raise a wing, and they are de-beaked without anesthesia so they don’t peck each other to death, as animals kept in such unnatural conditions are wont to do.

And that’s not even mentioning animals in circuses, product testing labs, the fur trade and other forms of what writer I.B. Singer called “eternal Treblinka.” Nor does the list address other related issues such as human health and its connection to diet and the link between animal agriculture and climate change.

The so-called new Jewish food movement, laudable though it may be, is more concerned with issues of locally grown produce, sustainable agriculture, healthy eating and social justice for workers than with the treatment of animals.

And yet animal cruelty is very much against Jewish teaching. As Richard Schwartz, the president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and a tireless crusader for animal rights and a plant-based diet, points out, “tsa’ar ba’alei chaim,” causing harm or sorrow to animals, is a Torah prohibition.

That’s evident in many ways, from the mandate that farmers not muzzle an animal while it is threshing in the field (so it can eat some of the grain) to the admiring way the Torah treats the compassionate actions of Moses and King David toward their sheep.

Yet today, as Schwartz writes on the Jewish Vegetarians website, “with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more compassionate teachings related to animals.”

That’s why Schwartz and a coalition of Jewish groups have proposed the initiative to turn Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser Beheima into a New Year for Animals. (Disclosure: I am a member of some of these groups.) The holiday occurs on the first day of the month of Elul (this year, beginning Saturday evening) and initially was devoted to counting domestic animals intended to be used for sacrificial offerings.

This wouldn’t be the first time an ancient holiday has been reclaimed for a related but very different purpose.

Tu b’Shvat—the New Year for the Trees and a day originally intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings—has evolved into a holiday devoted to appreciating and healing the natural world.

Schwartz, who along with Jewish Vegetarians of North America is leading the campaign to establish the new holiday, suggests that Jews use it to consider ways to apply traditional Jewish teachings on compassion toward animals to today’s issues, such as factory farms and moving toward a plant-based diet.

That seems particularly appropriate since Elul is considered a month of introspection as Jews examine their words and actions in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The initiative’s first event is a seder set for Sunday evening at Caravan of Dreams, a vegetarian restaurant in New York City. Other vegetarian seders are taking place at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., and at a resort in Ontario, Canada.

A number of other groups are supporting the initiative, and several prominent Jewish leaders have endorsed the idea of the new holiday. Modern Orthodox scholar and author Rabbi Yitz Greenberg says in a statement that “it is a beautiful idea to renew/revive a classic day … Your contemporary application … in the form of addressing humanity’s relationship to animal life and the widespread mistreatment of food animals and environmental abuse in today’s economy, marked by industrial farming and animal husbandry, is inspired.”

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles succinctly summarizes the idea of the holiday, writing in a statement, “The Jewish tradition mandates that we are stewards of all God’s creation. In our day we are increasingly sensitized to suffering of those living creatures in our care; this initiative helps us recognize our obligation to animals and so helps us be more fully human.”

Schwartz and others realize that restoring and reclaiming an ancient holiday can’t be done all at once. Plans include setting up a website and Facebook page that would feature a collection of material on Jewish teachings about animals and creating a haggadah for a seder, modeled on the now-widespread Tu b’Shvat seder.

For now, I’m hoping that awareness of these efforts leads to greater attentiveness to issues related to animals, issues that many of us would like to push out of our consciousness, along with other “inconvenient truths,” as we buy our neatly wrapped and packaged meat.

To start things off in a modest way? Read more about the initiative and find links to related sites at www.JewishVeg.com.

And think about having a veggie burger for lunch or dinner.

(Pauline Dubkin Yearwood is managing editor of the Chicago Jewish News.)

Happy Jewish New Year! [VIDEO]

For more Gold, see Merry Erev Xmas with Elon Gold and special guest comedians at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood. Two shows from 8-10pm on Sat., Dec 24th. Call 323-656-1336 ext. 1 or go to

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Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dances into the new year

Aish brings together rhythm, beats and davening for their Rosh Hashanah ‘in the house tonight’ dancing spectacle that parodies LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem.  Here’s the chorus from the lyrics, but be sure to watch the video for the full effect.

Rosh Hashanah’s in the house tonight
All the world is passing through the light
Let’s all get written in the book of Life
Shana Tova—it’s High Holiday time

 

Jewish interfaith leaders urge Shabbat sermon about Islam

A group of Jewish interfaith educators is asking rabbis to talk about Islam next Shabbat.

A letter signed by six prominent rabbis and scholars points out that Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, falls on Sept. 11, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In light of the controversy over the Islamic center planned for near the New York site, the letter asks rabbis and rabbinical students to “speak out against the bigotry that has erupted,” and promote the ideals of religious freedoms for Muslims as well as Jews.

Rabbis in leading positions at the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative seminaries, as well as the rabbinical school at Hebrew College, signed the appeal.

It reads, in part: “The proposal for the ‘Mosque at Ground Zero’ that turns out not to be a mosque and not at Ground Zero has brought to light this simple fact: We Americans need to know a whole lot more about Muslims and their religion.”

5770 in Israel: Diplomatic crises, but economic prosperity

For Israel, the Jewish year 5770 was characterized by ups and downs in relations with the United States, growing international alienation and a virtual stalemate in Middle East peacemaking—until the summit meeting in Washington just before Rosh Hashanah.

Last November, after months of intense U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a temporary freeze on new construction building in West Bank settlements—a move designed to create conditions for a renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians. But the freeze was only for 10 months, did not include some 3,000 units already started and did not apply to construction in eastern Jerusalem.

For almost the entire duration of the freeze, the Palestinians, convinced that President Obama would exert even heavier pressure on Israel on the core issues of dispute—borders, Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and the nature of a future Palestinian state—without their having to negotiate, highlighted the lacunae and rejected calls to return to the peace table.

During that period, special U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell proposed indirect negotiations under U.S. auspices as a compromised. By early March, both sides had agreed to “proximity talks,” with Mitchell shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to the region to announce the breakthrough, but during his visit an Israeli Interior Ministry planning committee approved plans for 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem on the east side of the pre-1967 border—what most of the world still considers the West Bank.

The move prompted the Palestinians to retract their agreement to participate in proximity talks and infuriated the Obama administration. U.S. officials blamed Israel for what they saw as a deliberate slight calculated to torpedo their peace efforts.

In an angry 43-minute telephone conversation, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reprimanded Netanyahu, insisting that Israel freeze the Ramat Shlomo project and agree to discuss all the core issues in the proximity talks. Netanyahu explained that the planning committee’s announcement had taken his government by surprise as much as it had the Americans, made it clear that there would be no building in Ramat Shlomo for at least two years, and agreed to put the core issues on the table.

Parallel to the U.S.-led proximity talks, the Palestinians stepped up unilateral efforts to create a framework for statehood, focusing on law and order, economic viability and institution building. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad made no secret of his intention to have “a well-functioning state in just about every facet of activity” by mid-2011, irrespective of whether any peace agreement with Israel had been reached.

After weeks of bickering, the proximity talks finally were launched in early May, after the Palestinians received the go-ahead from the Arab League. Neither side expected to achieve much. It seemed both had agreed primarily to engage to avoid American censure.

With ties strained between Washington and Jerusalem, Obama invited Netanyahu to the White House for a meeting that was to patch up the strains in the relationship and provide a positive image in contrast with an earlier, low-profile meeting in March that included no public component or photo op.

The meeting was delayed several weeks due to Israel’s commando raid aboard a Gaza-bound aid flotilla from Turkey on May 31. But when the two leaders finally met on July 6, the two projected a public display of warmth. The meeting resulted in no new pressure on Israel. Rather, the Americans exhorted the Palestinians to move from proximity talks, which were not making headway, to direct negotiations between the parties—the position favored by Israel.

It took until late August for the Palestinians also to agree, after the Obama administration issued an invitation to the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan to a summit in Washington at the beginning of September to kick off direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The goal, the Americans said, was to reach a final-status, conflict-ending agreement within a year. While skeptics predicted the effort was bound to fail, the meeting in early September was punctuated by verbal concessions on both sides. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged the Israeli need for security, while Netanyahu acknowledged a Palestinian claim to the land of Israel. The two agreed to meet every two weeks to try to hammer out an agreement.

However, with Abbas threatening to bolt the talks unless Netanyahu extended the settlement freeze and Netanyahu refusing to do so, settlement construction loomed as an immediate stumbling block to negotiations.

In parallel with the Palestinian track, Netanyahu continued to press Israel’s nuclear-related concerns. In his July meeting with Obama, the two cleared up earlier tensions over Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons’ program that had emerged in late May, when the United States had backed the final communique of a monthlong Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference calling for a nuclear-free Middle East and calling specifically on Israel to sign the NPT. In their meeting, Obama assured Netanyahu that despite his long-term vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, the United States would continue to back Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity under which Israel does not confirm or deny possession of nuclear weapons or sign the NPT.

Although Israel and the United States were in agreement that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, Israel was skeptical about the international community’s will to take significant action to prevent it. In mid-February, the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, came to Israel to underline Washington’s opposition to a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran.

“I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences” of an attack against Iran, Mullen said. The prospect of an Israeli strike, however, significantly diminished following the adoption in early June of new, tougher sanctions against Iran by the U.N. Security Council.

Perhaps the year’s most prominent development was a major erosion of Israel’s international standing. The downward trend began with the Goldstone report on the Gaza war, released in September 2009, which accused Israel of possible “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” in its war with Hamas in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.

Although the report was widely dismissed as biased and deeply flawed, the damage to Israel’s image was devastating, and critics of Israel used the Goldstone report to hammer away at its reputation. The Israeli military refuted some of the report’s central accusations, but the perception that Israel used disproportionate force to quell the rocket fire from Gaza remained embedded in international public opinion.

An early manifestation of new boldness among Israel’s European critics came last December, when Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt led an initiative to have the EU recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state—a move eventually quashed by Israel’s European allies, with France, Germany and the Czech Republic playing dominant roles.

Israel suffered another major PR setback when agents believed to be from the Mossad intelligence agency were accused of using forged foreign passports in the January assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud Mabhouh, a senior Hamas official involved in arms smuggling. Several countries expelled Israeli diplomats. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the assassination.

The year’s worst PR disaster for Israel came in the May 31 flotilla incident: Nine Turkish citizens were killed when Israel intercepted a ship carrying aid material bound for Hamas-controlled Gaza, which was under Israeli blockade. Though Israel released videos showing its soldiers were attacked when they boarded the ship, a worldwide storm of protest erupted. The anger against Israel resulted in the first-ever Israeli commission of inquiry with an international presence and the easing of Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

The main diplomatic casualty of the flotilla affair was Israel’s already strained strategic relationship with Turkey. In 2008, the two countries had been close enough for Ankara to mediate between Israel and Syria. But since the war with Hamas in Gaza, Turkey, a key regional power broker with an Islamist government, had been vehemently critical of Israel while ostensibly moving away from the West and edging closer to Iran.

Relations between Israel and Syria, Iran’s closest ally, oscillated between hopes for a resumption of peace talks and fears of war. French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried his hand at mediation, hosting both Netanyahu and Syrian President Bashar Assad at a multinational conference last November. But the two never met, and by early April Sarkozy had given up, complaining to Israeli President Shimon Peres about Netanyahu’s lack of cooperation.

The Syrians had insisted that Netanyahu first commit to Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as a basis for negotiations, a demand the Israeli prime minister rejected. Tensions flared in early February, with Assad accusing Israel of leading the region into war, and then again in May, with Netanyahu charging that Iran was trying to drag Israel into war with Syria.

Despite Assad’s talk about “strategic” readiness for peace with Israel, the Syrians continued to transfer sophisticated weapons to the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Of particular concern to Israeli military planners was the supply of GPS-guided M-600 missiles, which for the first time gave Hezbollah the capacity to pinpoint specific targets in Israel as far away as Tel Aviv.

Iran also tried to supply Hezbollah by sea. On Nov. 3, 2009, Israeli naval commandos intercepted a cargo of more than 3,000 Iranian-made rockets destined for Hezbollah on the Francop, an Antigua and Barbuda-flagged vessel sailing from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

In the face of the growing threat from the Iranian axis—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas—Israel significantly augmented its missile and rocket defenses. In January, the Iron Dome system designed to intercept short-range projectiles passed final tests, and in June Israel launched the Ofek 9 spy satellite, enhancing intelligence gathering over Iran.

Moreover, despite their political differences during the year, Israeli-American defense ties remained strong and intimate. For example, in late October 2009, the two armies jointly tested the interoperability of their highly sophisticated defense systems against incoming ballistic missiles.

And its diplomatic difficulties and strategic challenges nothwithstanding, Israel’s economy prospered, with the most dramatic development the discovery in June of a huge natural gas reserve off the Israeli coast. The field, called Leviathan, is estimated to contain about 15 trillion cubic feet of gas, nearly twice as much as the adjacent Tamar field discovered the year before.

According to Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, Israel now has enough gas to supply all its needs “for the next 50 to 70 years.” Experts have described the finds, which could contain as much as one-fifth of America’s known gas reserves or twice that of Britain’s, as a potential geopolitical game-changer.

As a mark of its increasing economic power, Israel was admitted in May to the OECD, which incorporates the world’s most developed nations. Netanyahu described Israel’s admittance as a “seal of approval” that would attract investors.

And despite the continued aftershocks of the international economic crisis, Israel’s economic performance remained robust, with growth of 3.4 percent in the first quarter of 2010 following the 4.4 percent growth of the last quarter of 2009.

How sweet it is: behind the buzz at two of California’s hives

Bzzzzzz.

 
I’m trying not to freak out at the high-pitched scream of the bees. See, I’m wearing full protective gear for the honey-making process — a white jumpsuit, a netted straw hat affixed to me with a series of complicated rigmarole of strings (the zipper ones had run out), long tan-leather gloves that reach past my elbow, and socks as high as my knees, with the pants taped down over them. Not an ounce of my skin is exposed, but still I can’t help but feel nervous — it’s Hitchockian, really — as thousands of bees swarm around me.

 
They’re doing this because I’m standing in the beeline — literally the line of passage of bees swarming from the hive because they have been smoked out of there; it’s kind of like the 405 during rush hour, except faster, as they stream out of their man-made hives and into the countryside of Northern California.

 
Call this my week of honey. As the High Holidays approach, I’ve embarked on a two-part honey tour: First, traveling to a friend-of-a-friend’s private honey extracting pre-holiday party at his family villa in Sonoma, and next at a commercial honey farm in Southern California.

 
For as long as Jews have been eating on holidays, it’s been customary to eat honey on Rosh Hashanah, as a symbol of hope for a sweet new year. The tradition of eating honey is ancient, recorded as early as the Babylonian Talmud in the seventh century. There are also many mentions of honey in the Bible, most notably in Exodus, when the land of Canaan promised to the Israelites is called “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Although that honey is thought to be fig or date honey, by using honey on Rosh Hashanah we are remembering Israel, no matter where we are.

 
It is also noted in Psalms that God’s commandments are “sweeter than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb,” and “sweeter than honey to thy mouth.” The High Holidays, which are a time of judgment and preparation for the upcoming year, should be filled with mitzvoth, and honey reminds us of that.

 
We usually eat it with apples, as well as challah, and for many, as part of every recipe on the table. (See recipes throughout this special Rosh Hashanah section.)

 
But where does the honey itself come from? I’d always known generally, on a third-grade science-class level, that bees make honey from flowers, but I’d never really thought about the complicated process that bees go through to make honey, or the complex operation that people go through to get that honey to the table. Until now.

 
It’s Labor Day weekend and instead of lounging out at some pool, I’m standing in a buzzing field, sweating profusely in my mad scientist/spaceship/safari outfit, invading the bees’ habitat in order to help take honey from their hives. These hives are not like I’ve imagined them: those brown, hairy ovals found in trees at summer camp and replicated in ceramic honey holders. Man-made hives look more like small armoires, a short stack of wood dresser drawers, called supers. Each super has about 10 frames, long rectangles dotted with the geometrically perfect honeycombs, the octagons where the honey is deposited. Our goal today: to remove the frames, bring them to the farm, extract the honey, then filter, bottle and label it.

 
They say it’s easier to catch flies with honey, but how do you catch honey?

 
The first thing we have to do is light a fire in the smoker, a can with an accordion-like pump that produces, eponymously, smoke. Bees hate the smell of smoke, so we pump smoke into the top drawer, close the lid and the bees make a mad dash out, which is when I discover, standing in front of the hive is probably not the best place to be.

 
Then we take the frames out of the drawer, brush off the bees and run it over to the car for transportation. (Walk is more like it; it’s not easy to run in this jumpsuit, nor is it smart to make sudden movements near bees — although swarming bees, rushing to get out of their smoky hives, don’t often stop to sting visitors). We have four hives here today — some 40,000 bees — but only two are producing honey. It’s tedious work, this smoking, brushing, transporting of the frames — and it’s only the first step. (I suppose that our job is nothing compared to that of the worker bee, who makes about 40 trips a day to the flowers).

 
Finally, we can take off our paraphernalia for the rest of the process and get out of the hot sun to go to the honey “farm”: It’s more like a high-ceilinged garage structure containing honey extracting equipment.

 
If you’re a good turkey carver, you’d probably be good at scraping off the capping, the layer of capped wax that seals the honey in the frames. But if you’re like me — someone who cooks the bird but never carves it — handling the hot knife turns out to be quite tricky. It’s easy to tell which rectangle frames hold honey — the combs are darker, heavier. I hold the frame diagonally over a container that will catch the drippings, and try to shimmy the knife at an angle. Oops! No, I didn’t slice my finger, just cut too deeply into the combs.

 
I uncap the other side too but my wrist aches and I feel kind of sorry for the poor bees that will have to rebuild the combs just because I’m a lousy home destroyer — I mean carver.

 
I decide to move over to the next step in our human assembly line: combing the frames. I use what looks like a hair pick to scrape off the last remaining wax.

Mark the New Year with late summer harvest menu

A recent trip to Italy made me aware of the wonderful possibilities of growing your own lush, flavorful garden-fresh food. The villa where we stayed was entirely self-sufficient, with magnificent varieties of produce, eggs gathered from the hen house and the proprietors even making their own wine and olive oil.

 
If you have a garden, you know the pleasure of eating the freshest of salad greens, tomatoes, vegetables and fruits. And since the weather is still warm as Rosh Hashanah arrives at sundown on Friday, Sept. 22, take advantage of the healthy garden bounties and prepare a light menu featuring the late summer harvest of fresh vegetables and fruits to celebrate the New Year.

 
If you’re not a gardener, visit some of the local open-air farmers’ markets. The Wednesday morning Santa Monica farmers market is one of the largest, and there is an organic Saturday market as well, where the selection and variety is very impressive.

 
After a special round challah and apple slices dipped in honey, start the dinner with a simple salad of avocado and tomato slices served on a bed of pungently flavored arugula and dressed with a tangy orange vinaigrette. Hopefully, you will be lucky enough to make it with full-flavored tomatoes from your garden; nothing compares with vine-ripened tomatoes. If they are not available, your local farmers’ market will have a selection of the tasty heirloom tomatoes.

 
Arugula is not only trendy and delicious, but very easy to grow, and seeds are available at most nurseries.

 
Next, serve a chilled beet borscht, my version of gazpacho, and pass around bowls of chopped cucumbers, green and yellow bell peppers, and chives, for a colorful do-it-yourself garnish.

 
The main course is a whole roast chicken that has been butterflied and baked on bed of fresh vegetables — a combination of garlic, onions, celery, carrots, parsnips, squash and potatoes, and garnished with fresh herbs from your garden. With this dish we will drink a special toast for a peaceful year with a glass of young, fruity chardonnay.
 
For dessert, late summer pl
ums, arranged in colorful circles on a light pastry dough make a delicious eye-appealing tart. Serve a sweet late harvest wine or hot tea with lemon, and let the children choose their favorite fruit juice.

 
Cold Puree of Beet Borscht
4 medium-size beets, unpeeled
4 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Diced cucumbers
Diced green and yellow red peppers

 
Scrub the outside of the beets using cold water, place in a large pot and add enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer until a fork inserted in the beet is tender, about one hour. Cool. Remove the beets, but reserve the liquid. Peel the skin, which should come off easily, and discard.

 
Dice the beets and return to the liquid. Place half of the diced beets and liquid in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Transfer puree to a bowl and repeat the process with the remaining beets and liquid. Add lemon juice, sugar and salt to taste and mix well. To serve, ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish with cucumbers and peppers.

 
Makes eight to 10 servings.

 
Avocado, Tomato and Arugula Salad

 
Usually avocados are served mashed or chopped. For this dish, simply slice the avocados and tomatoes, which enables them to harmonize with the pungent-flavored arugula.

 
2 avocados, peeled and seeded
Juice of 1 lemon
2 large tomatoes, sliced
3 cups loosely packed arugula, coarse stems discarded
Vinaigrette dressing (recipe follows)
Pomegranate seeds for garnish, optional

 
Cut each avocado into nine to 12 lengthwise slices. Sprinkle with lemon juice and set aside. Slice tomatoes and set aside.

 
Wash arugula and dry. Slice and mound arugula on chilled plates, fan the avocado slices around the mounds and arrange the sliced tomatoes in the center.

 
Spoon enough vinaigrette over each salad to coat leaves, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, if desired. Serve immediately.

 
Makes six to eight servings.

 
Vinaigrette Dressing
1 tablespoon Dijon-style prepared mustard
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup walnut oil
Salt, freshly ground black pepper

 
Place mustard, vinegar, lemon juice in a processor or blender. Add oil in thin stream and blend until slightly thick and creamy. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

 
Butterflied Roast Chicken With Medley of Vegetables
1 (4-pound) or 2 (2-pound) whole chickens
1 onion, sliced and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium potato, diced and steamed
2 tablespoons minced parsley
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary

 
Marinade
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon each dried basil, thyme and rosemary, crushed
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 to 3 cups dry white wine

 
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Split the chicken along the entire length of the back, removing backbone from tail to neck. Open it out, skin side up. With a mallet or the heel of your hand, flatten the chicken, fracturing the breastbone and ribcage, so it lays flat. Arrange vegetables on a foil-lined large roasting pan, and place the chicken on top, skin-side up.

 
Mix garlic and rosemary together. Working with your fingertips, separate the skin from the meat of the chicken, beginning at the neck end, being careful not to tear the skin. Place sliced garlic and rosemary under the skin, including the drumsticks and thighs. Mix together the olive oil and herbs and rub it on the top of the chicken and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

 
Pour the marinade over the vegetables and chicken and bake for l0 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees, and bake for 45 minutes to one hour longer, depending on the size of the chicken. Baste every 20 minutes. If chicken browns too quickly, cover it loosely with foil. If the marinade cooks away too quickly, add more. Remove the foil during the last 10 minutes, allowing the chicken to brown.

Polish the Soul for Elul

I spent the first three days of Elul polishing a lamp that has hung in the upstairs stairwell of my home for 80 years. I thought that the lamp was made out of cast iron,
but discovered after applying a mixture of abrasive compounds and elbow grease, that it was crafted of shiny brass.

Only after finishing the project did I catch the appropriateness of the endeavor. For Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time, we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of teshuvah, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge as shining and radiant as my restored lamp.

The word “teshuvah,” heard so often during the month of Elul and the first 10 days of Tishre, is unfortunately translated as “repentance.” Thus, the word carries a harshness that can lead us to feel shame about ways we may have blown it during the previous year.

Teshuvah, however, is more about cultivating compassion than about being held in judgment. Legend tells us that teshuvah was created even before the creation of the world.

This suggests that built into the structure of the universe is the understanding that mistakes will be made, as well as the consolation that there is always the opportunity to begin again. Judaism provides a spiritual technology for continually acknowledging both that to err is human and that we can repair our mistakes.

The first mechanism for this process of renewal (perhaps a more apt translation of the word “teshuvah”) is to cultivate compassion. Compassion is the theme of the chant that we sing over and over during the High Holidays:

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the High Holidays

Goodbye summer; hello High Holidays. While Rosh Hashanah falls later in the calendar than normal this year (Oct. 3-5), it’s never too early to get ready for the Jewish New Year. Besides, preparations traditionally begin in the Hebrew month of Elul, which started Sept. 4.

If you didn’t know that — and were too afraid, too preoccupied or too unknowing to ask — then we have just the thing for you: this handy guide to get your mind, body and soul in the spirit, so to speak, for the Days of Awe.

We’ve included Frequently Asked Questions about the High Holidays; a how-to on finding a synagogue (no, it’s not too late); a music and book list for inspiration and explanation; and a primer for those new to the faith.

We also have prepared our special Congregation Directory (pages 40-47), a comprehensive listing of Los Angeles congregations sorted by neighborhoods.

Stay tuned next week for a delectable Food Issue with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. For now, read on and prepare to be a little more in the know for the High Holidays.

 

O.C. Election Set for Rosh Hashanah

Jewish groups are expressing anger that government officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have scheduled a special election in Orange County to fall on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year for Jews.

The Oct. 4 election is to fill the congressional seat left vacant when Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) accepted the chair of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

Area Jewish leaders estimate that more than half of Orange County’s 80,000 to 100,000 Jews live in Cox’s former 48th District, which includes Irvine, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, among other cities. Cox has held the seat since 1988.

Holding the election during the Jewish New Year will disenfranchise scores of Jewish voters who would otherwise go to the polls, said Shalom Elcott, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Orange County. Elcott, who co-authored an Aug. 16 letter to Schwarzenegger urging him to reschedule, said O.C. Jews had been marginalized.

“Somebody made a conscious decision that the Jewish vote doesn’t matter,” he said.

On Oct. 4, many Jews will be in synagogue with loved ones in “contemplative prayer and not in voting booths,” said Rabbi Marc Dworkin, director of the American Jewish Committee, Orange County chapter. He called the timing of the election for the 48th District “outrageous, more than insensitive.”

Officials characterize such criticisms as unfair, contending that they were simply hamstrung by limited scheduling options. Local officials also pledged to pursue remedies, such as distributing more absentee ballots.

In an interview Thursday, Orange County Registrar of Voters Steve Rodermund said he had been aware that the primary would fall on Rosh Hashanah, and that he discussed the matter with his staff as well as with staffers for the Orange County Board of Supervisors

Rodermund said he advocated the chosen date as the best alternative available, given the need to fill the empty seat and the constraints posed by the holiday season and the statewide special election on Nov. 8. The Oct. 4 election for Cox’s seat is a primary, where voters choose who will represent their political parties. The next and final step, the general election, is scheduled for Dec. 6.

Schwarzenegger ultimately is responsible for setting election dates, but his office said he merely deferred to the wishes of local officials. When asked whether Schwarzenegger could have chosen a different date or whether he now regretted scheduling the primary on Rosh Hashanah, a spokeswoman said she had no comment. Once set, the election date cannot be changed, she added.

To the extent that the governor’s office has not sufficiently responded to local Jewish groups to explain its position, the Schwarzenegger braintrust has made a political miscalculation, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

“This can turn a relatively small snafu into a much bigger one,” said Sonenshein, who has recently written articles about how Schwarzenegger’s transformation into an “AM talk radio Republican” has eroded his support in the Jewish community. “One of the great things about saying, ‘We screwed up,’ is that people are quite understanding of screw-ups, especially if you’re trying to fix them,” Sonenshein said.

Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said it was “unfortunate” the primary fell on Rosh Hashanah. He plans to send e-mails to his organization’s estimated 500 Orange County members telling them that his group will work with the governor’s office and registrar of voters to ensure high Jewish participation.

That’s the stated goal of the Orange County Registrar Rodermund, too. Ideas under consideration include setting up some polling places where Jews could cast their ballots early, said Rodermund, who added that he looked forward working closely with area Jewish groups.

“We were really constrained by what the law allows,” Rodermund said. “Our objective now is to work with the Jewish community to ensure that we minimize this impact to the maximum extent possible so they can exercise their right to vote.”

Although disappointed about what happened, Joyce Greenspan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Orange County/Long Beach, said she would work to mitigate the damage. The ADL, she said, plans to assist in the distribution of thousands of absentee ballots in synagogues and at other Jewish agencies.

 

Sweet Support for Israel

Who doesn’t love honey? Dunking apple slices in it — along with challah, chicken and everything else — on Rosh Hashanah is a favorite holiday ritual symbolizing hope for a sweet New Year. Now you can buy your honey and help Israel, too.

The Jewish Federation of Orange County is on its way to starting another New Year tradition by again urging residents to buy Israeli-made honey for their own Rosh Hashanah tables as well as contributing a jar to an Israeli family.

This year, six other Jewish communities in Western states are joining in the "Honey for the Holidays" promotion, started by the broad-based O.C. Israel Solidarity Task Force, said Bunnie Mauldin, the O.C. Federation’s executive director. "We are with you in sweetness and sorrow," reads the card that will be attached to hundreds of honey jars expected to be distributed in the Israeli communities of Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon.

Some of the nectar-filled jars, produced by the Hof Ashkelon apiary, Yad Mordechai, are also available for sale at several distribution points through October. Sites include Costa Mesa’s Jewish Community Center, Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School, Rancho Santa Margarita’s Morasha Jewish Day School, Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek. A donation in multiples of $18 is requested, with extra funds going toward worthwhile projects in Israel.

For several years, Orange County has sent aid and visitors to the two Israeli towns. Last year, their cumulative gifts provided scholarships for higher education to four families, Mauldin said.

For more information or to order jars, call the Jewish Federation of Orange County at (714) 755-5555.

Remembering Dad During Days of Awe

This Rosh Hashanah brings to a close the year in which my father died. For this reason, and many others, I am grateful that the Jewish New Year is marked not by parties, but by days and weeks preceding and following of self-evaluation, quiet contemplation and prayers for blessings in the coming year.

In English, Rosh Hashanah and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, are known as the High Holidays; in Hebrew, they are known as Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe). This year, more then any other, I understand those words.

When I try to think of planning a Rosh Hashanah meal — any meal — I think of my father and his joyful appetite for food and for life, and I want to stop. But the days do not stop, and the holidays roll around, and in the Jewish concept of these never-ending rituals, I found some comfort.

While looking up the dates for Rosh Hashanah, I noticed that in the Hebrew calendar, the New Year is placed in Tishrei, the seventh month of the year, instead of Nisan, the Hebrew equivalent of our January.

According to the "The Jewish Holidays, A Guide and Commentary" by Michael Strassfeld, "the presence of two New Years is not accidental, rather it grows out of a notion underlying the Jewish calendar, the notion of two kinds of time, historical and cyclic."

Historical time, Strassfeld explains, is linear movement, created by man, and set arbitrarily by clocks, calendars and our drive for progress, needs for change. Cyclical time, on the other hand, is set by nature, the timeless comfort of her seasons, and its symbol is the reoccurring phases of the moon. Strassfeld says we need both because "if historical time teaches us that to be alive is to move, cyclical time teaches us that sometimes to wait in place is more important then moving on."

And I observe in my family, through the phases of this special year, the gentle wisdom of both.

My brother, Mark, found a new job and started a vegetable garden where he grows cucumbers, pole beans, watermelons, and, my father’s favorites, brandy wine tomatoes. My sister, Susan, took to eating her meals outside, covering a corner of her yard with small white gravel and stringing white lights from the trees above, sure to reflect the moon. My brother, Jonathan, traveled to a business seminar in Boston that reminded him why he takes the overwhelming risks he does, following his entrepreneurial path like our father, but for him and his wife, Robin, so far away from home in London. My sister, Wendy, filled her yard with friends and food for her husband Yaron’s 40th birthday, and she made sure the most important people were there — his parents all the way from Israel. My mother started playing the piano at night, and in the days she created a rock garden from stones she unearthed herself.

Now, around the front corner of their home, brown earth supports sculptures of granite, like a prayer. And my brother, Harold, and his wife, Lori, are expecting their second child, bringing a new life into the New Year.

I hold my daughter even more than usual. I walk as often as I can to a park near our apartment and sit on a large flat stone near a creek, where I listen to water run over, around and under time-smoothed rocks; its flow reminding me that the cycles of days, years, death, then life, never end.

One of my father’s shining qualities was courage, so my Rosh Hashanah meal will be full of hearty foods reflecting what I’ve learned. I’ll make my mom’s delicious Stuffed Cabbage, remembering her rolling perfectly seasoned meat inside moist, pale green leaves as my father looked on, talking of how his mother also made wondrous stuffed meat dishes.

I’ll bake a round Honey Raisin Whole-Wheat Challah, because it is earthy and a little sweet. And for dessert, I will try an Apple Meringue Pie, a recipe from my sister’s mother-in-law, Eliza Kornreich. Because when my father was ill, she sent her love through baked goods express mailed from Haifa, and because I want to try something new.

Kay’s Honey Raisin Whole-Wheat Challah (Pareve)

Kay Levenson’s whole-wheat challah is divine. And this honey-raisin version, wrapped into a smiling circle, gives it an extra textured, sweet taste that is perfect for the holidays.

3 tablespoons (or three packages) fresh yeast

3/4 cup warm water

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup sugar

1 cup honey

6 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon salt

2 cups old fashioned oats

4 cups white unbleached flour

1 cup warm water

5-6 cups whole-wheat flour

1 1/2 cups raisins

Glaze

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon warm water

Oats

Oil two 10-inch round baking pans and sprinkle with oatmeal (to prevent sticking and add extra flavor to bottom crust). In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water (between 105 F-115 F) with teaspoon of sugar and set aside to proof (or expand), approximately eight to 10 minutes.

In a large bowl mix oil, sugar, honey, beaten eggs, salt, oats, white flour and cup of warm water. Mix thoroughly. (Using a dough hook in the electric mixer on lower speed works well.) Add yeast mixture. Pour in raisins. Then gradually add whole-wheat flour, a 1/2 cup at a time, mixing as much as possible in the bowl. Knead on countertop approximately 5-10 minutes until dough is elastic and springs back to touch. You may need more or less of whole-wheat flour, so watch consistency of dough as you work, and sprinkle on flour sparingly and knead until dough loses sticky texture but doesn’t get dry. Place in oiled bowl, turning it to oil all sides. Cover and let it rise in a warm place until approximately doubled in size, about one to two hours. Punch down, knead a few more minutes, and shape into two large (or four small) loaves. Let the loaves rise one hour.

To shape the large loaves, roll half of dough into a long strip approximately 18-inches long and 3-inches wide, with one end slightly thinner then the other. Placer the thicker end in the center of oiled round pan and tightly coil strip around itself, tucking ends underneath. Let rise as instructed.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Brush the loaves with glaze and sprinkle with oats, if desired. Bake until golden brown, approximately 35 to 45 minutes (less for smaller loaves). Check the loaf after 30 minutes as oven timing varies. Remove from the pans and cool on a wire rack.

Mom’s Stuffed Cabbage

This dish is fun and therapeutic to make, what with the hearty mixing of meat by hand followed by the arranging and filling and rolling of a table full of soft leaves. It does, however, require some preparation ahead of time, like making the rice and freezing the cabbage for ease of use. But the taste of this delicately seasoned meat rolled in a thin layer of cabbage is refreshing and cozy all at once.

30-34 large cabbage leaves (two heads of cabbage)

2 pounds lean ground beef

2 cups cooked white rice

2 large eggs, beaten

1/2 large onion, diced

1/4 teaspoon sage

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon pepper, to taste

1 15 ounce can tomato sauce

1 7 ounce can mushroom slices

1/2 cup water

Four days in advance, freeze the cabbages whole in tightly closed plastic bags. A day and a half in advance, remove the cabbages from the freezer and keep in a bag in the refrigerator to thaw.

Cook rice as specified on the package.

Cut out the core of the defrosted cabbage and gently peel out the leaves and spread on wax paper. It’s fine to use some of the small leaves as well as the larger ones. If the cabbage is still a little frozen and its leaves hard to remove, run them under warm water.

In a large bowl, soften the ground beef with your hands. Add well-beaten eggs, diced onion, sage, thyme, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add cooked rice and mix again.

Place a heaping tablespoon of meat on the center of a cabbage leaf, nearer the tougher core side. Fold the core area just over the meat, then fold in from each side over the meat and role up tightly, placing fold side down.

Pour tomato sauce, mushrooms with liquid and water into a large, heavy skillet. Cover and simmer on medium-low and slowly arrange the stuffed cabbage, fold side down, in sauce. Layering, if necessary, is fine. Add enough water — about a cup depending on the size of your pan — to come half way up sides of the top cabbage rolls. Bring to a boil, cover, turn heat to low and simmer approximately 1 1/2 hours, basting occasionally.

Remove stuffed cabbage from sauce with slotted spoon and arrange on a serving platter. Pour sauce over and serve. Extra sauce can be served on this side.

Serves 15

Eliza’s Apple Meringue Pie (Pareve)

I was nervous to attempt this dessert because of the meringue. But it is worth it. As my mother said, the taste is elegant. And with the three distinct layers, each slice looks as beautiful, fresh and light as a new day.

Dough

1 1/4 cup flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup margarine

2 tablespoon sugar

2 egg yolks

1 tablespoon cold water

Filling

5 large Granny Smith apples

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon margarine

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Meringue

2 egg whites

1/3 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon vanilla

Dough: In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder and sliced margarine with your fingers until crumbly texture. Add egg yolks, sugar and cold water and mix with fork or hands into a creamy dough that will be slightly sticky but light. Press into 9-inch pie plate along bottom and sides and refrigerate covered in plastic wrap.

Filling: Peel and slice apples into approximately eight slices each. In a heavy pot, combine apples, margarine and sugar. Cook on a low heat with top on for approximately 15 minutes or until apples are soft but not falling apart. Watch carefully so apples do not overcook and lose their shape. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Remove pie dough from refrigerator and pierce dough all over bottom with a fork. Blind bake for 15 minutes or until dough is golden. Remove from the oven and arrange the apple slices, overlapping in concentric circles, without liquid, on the dough. Sprinkle cinnamon over the apples.

Lower oven temperature to 325 F.

Meringue: In large bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg whites on medium until foamy. Gradually add sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and vanilla, beating on high, until mixture stands in glossy white peaks when beaters are lifted. Gently spread over apples and bake for 20 minutes. Meringue will be browned. Cool to room temperature before serving.

Serves 10

Fretting About Fressing

Apples dipped in honey. And while you’re at it, dip the challah, too. Chicken soup with knaidel. Here, who’s gonna finish this last little piece of brisket? What? You didn’t try the noodle kugel? Don’t tell me you’re too full for my homemade honey cake and cookies — it’s Yom Tov!

While Rosh Hashana meals are meant to be sweet, to herald in what we hope will be a sweet new year, the result more often can be a day of belt-loosening and naps rather than the soul-searching that God intended. And after two days of fressing like this, weighing yourself can be an experience as bitter as Pesach maror. If we’re not careful, even the fast day that follows Rosh Hashana (Tzom Gedalia) may not undo our self-inflicted damage. Hey, I don’t know about you, but I already have enough chest-pounding planned for Yom Kippur; I don’t want to have to hit myself extra hard when it comes to the one that says, "and for the sin we have sinned before You with food and drink…."

But let’s be honest. Rosh Hashana is only the beginning — Judaism offers year-round opportunities to overdo it. After our New Year, Sukkot is only days away, and we’re dipping that challah in honey again as we sit in our lovely sukkot, celebrating God’s eternal providence to our people. And the cycle continues: Chanukah, with oil-slicked latkes and sufganiyot; carbo-laden Purim treats in our shalach manot baskets, which we better finish in a hurry because they’re chametz and Pesach is coming. (Pesach can be a Dr. Atkins dieter’s dream, since bread and pasta are verboten, but just watch out for all that potato starch in the cakes!)

And none of this even includes Shabbat! Each and every week, we are blessed with the beautiful, magical, spiritually renewing, and yet from a weight-watching viewpoint, still potentially lethal day. I’ll admit: for years, the most vigorous exercise I got was elbowing my way past the crowds at shul to the "Kiddush" tables, trying to have at some rugelach.

When I first became observant more than 15 years ago, I wondered how I’d cope with all this wonderful holiday and Shabbat food and not end up as big as Mount Sinai. As someone who used to think of "portion control" as something airlines did to annoy passengers, I soon learned it was an essential fact of life. I’ve mastered the art of abstaining from the "Kiddush" table, and I’ve greatly improved in my ability to keep my hands off a second piece of challah. But just put anything chocolate on the table for dessert and I’m a goner. Unless the chocolate has been molested by something horrid like coconut or nougat, I’ll have some and savor every bite. I just plan on doing an extra aerobics tape the following week. I think that’s a fine trade-off.

I estimate that over the years I have served close to 900 holiday and Shabbat meals for my own family and guests. (That’s a lot of chicken.) I’ve also found that as my cooking has become "lighter," my guests have been profuse with gratitude, even when I lay out something as simple as steamed snow peas and red peppers as a vegetable. Maybe it’s because we live in California and have to look at too many "beautiful people" at the gym, but no matter: I know that in the cooking department, light makes right, and people who know they are just hours away from another Yom Tov meal usually appreciate not being drugged by an overdose of shmaltz in the potato kugel.

And speaking of kugel, I have to go now. The aroma from the kitchen tells me that my kugel (only a quarter-cup of oil for eight potatoes) is about ready.

In any case, I’m not too worried about the Rosh Hashana meals. For one thing, I’ve never liked honey cake, or challah with raisins for that matter. After I take out the kugel, I’m going to bake a batch of my family’s favorite chocolate chip cookies.

After all, it is Yom Tov.


Judy Gruen is the author of “Carpool Tunnel Syndrome.” Her next book, “Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout,” will be published in January by Champion Press.

The Liebermans’ Tasty New Year

This year, 5763, Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, the weekly observance that Sen. Joseph Lieberman calls "a sanctuary to put the outside world on hold and concentrate on what’s really important — your faith and your family." And although Lieberman, who was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000, will experience the same joy he feels every Friday night as he takes off his watch and prepares to get into the Sabbath mood, during Rosh Hashana all activities are heightened — the prayers are longer, the conversation more intense, the urgency to evaluate the past year and make resolutions for a sweet New Year more palpable.

Since Lieberman attends an Orthodox synagogue, he will have to wait until the second day of Rosh Hashana to hear the blowing of the shofar. When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, that ancient instrument, which is fashioned from a ram’s horn and sounds eerily like a human cry, cannot be played during the 25-hour observance, explains Rabbi Matthew Simon, former spiritual leader of B’nai Israel congregation in Rockville, Md.

"According to Jewish law, playing the shofar is considered work, which is prohibited during Shabbat, as is the actual carrying of the instrument," Simon says. "Because the shofar acts as an alarm clock to those of us who have fallen spiritually asleep, this Rosh Hashana will be more challenging. We can’t hear the sound of the shofar, so we must remember its message." Typically rabbinical, Simon illustrates his point with an analogy: "It’s like the Sherlock Holmes story: what gave it away is the dog didn’t bark."

Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts feels Shabbat is holier than Yom Kippur. "When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, it reminds us that this microcosm of spiritual fine-tuning comes every weekend. We don’t have to wait for Rosh Hashana to tell us that a whole year of Shabbats have gone by," he says.

Baron’s congregants will hear the sound of the ram’s horn on the first night of the Days of Awe, since it is played in Reform and Conservative congregations, but he agrees with Lieberman that our wake-up call should be about the appreciation of living and the importance of family gatherings — not merely once a year during the High Holy Days but every week.

"When we cease working for those 25 hours, we hear the message loud and clear: focus on gifts before you, rather than on the brass ring." Baron is gratified that since Sept. 11, when we’ve all had to face our vulnerabilities and reevaluate our priorities, more families than ever before are celebrating Shabbat.

The High Holy Days will begin at sundown when the senator’s wife, Hadassah Freichlich Lieberman, will light the candles and recite the blessings. Some years the Liebermans host the Rosh Hashana dinner in Georgetown or New Haven, but this year the family will gather around the table of Lieberman’s mother, Marcia, in Stamford, Conn.

Marcia Lieberman, who has already started getting ready for the holidays, loves reminiscing about past Shabbats. "When Joey was growing up, I would start days before; making sure everything was spotless, polishing my mother’s brass candlesticks — they’re my treasure. Everything good comes out of the closet and is on my table.

"On Thursday I shopped, on Friday, I cooked — I’d always bake honey cake and challah. The house has the glow of Shabbat — a sense of peace and comfort. Maybe it’s because of the sweet smells coming out of my oven. That’s what Shabbos and Rosh Hashana smell like."

(Ashkenazi Jews say Shabbos; Sephardim say Shabbat.)

What do the holidays sound like? To artist Mindy Weisel, close friend and frequent guest at the Liebermans’ Shabbat and Rosh Hashana table, it’s Hadassah’s beautiful voice. "Their family sings together more than most families," she says. "When Hadassah lights the candles and leads us in the traditional songs, the whole energy in the room changes."

Many of the religious rituals are the same. Joe Lieberman will make kiddush over the wine, then make hamotzi, the blessing over the golden brown challah, plumped with raisins. During the Days of Awe, the days beginning on Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, the challah is round, to symbolize no beginning and no end. Raisins are added for additional sweetness, as is the plate of sliced apples to be dipped into honey, and the tray of exotic fruits, preferably varieties family members haven’t eaten during the year, so the family can make the shehechiyanu, the new-fruit blessing.

Many families serve pomegranates, since rabbis tell us there are 613 seeds, the same as the 613 commandments in the torah. Dates are often served both because they’re sweet and are symbols of beauty and peace. Dried fruit, sugar, and honey are added to main courses, salads, vegetables, and of course, desserts. All are symbolic of the wish for a sweet New Year.

Lieberman particularly delights in the ritual of blessing his four children, Matthew, Hana, Ethan and Rebecca, and now, his two granddaughters, Tennessee and Willie. "You put your hands on their head or shoulders and bless them, but since our older kids aren’t always with us, I mention who’s here, who isn’t, and why not," he explains. "I like to talk about where they are and what they’re doing: ‘Bekka’ is in New York, Ethan is in Israel — sometimes I think I’m trying to direct the prayer off the satellite so the blessing goes directly onto the head of the child who isn’t there."

New Year’s resolutions are also part of Rosh Hashana. The Liebermans will spend time, both privately and among themselves, evaluating what was good during the past year, making lists of what they want to improve about themselves and the world in the upcoming year. "There is also a sense of joy that we made it through another 365 days," Weisel comments. We pray that God will grant us another year."

Although the dinner is always delicious — both Hadassah and Marcia pride themselves on their culinary skills — the dinner table is as much about honoring their ancestors and showing love to their family. And the conversation at the table is always enlightening.

Hadassah and Joe encourage serious subjects — sometimes asking a question or discussing a Rosh Hashana reading from the Torah, but it’s also an opportunity to discuss what’s going on in each of their lives.

"It’s always been a conducive setting to talk about important issues with the children, whether it’s school or social activities, and now, their own families," Hadassah says. Lately, though, "everyone wants to talk about what’s going on in the world."

"Rosh Hashana is a marking of time, the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new," says Marcia Lieberman. "This is the time we remember those who aren’t with us anymore: Joe’s father, Henry, his grandma, Minnie…." Lieberman often says that his parents and his grandma, who had lived with them, gave him the faith he relies on every day.

In his book, "In Praise of Public Life," Lieberman credits Minnie, whom he called by the Yiddish "Baba," with being his "window to the Old World" of Central Europe, since she would tell him stories about Jews being punished or sent to the camps when they would try to celebrate the Jewish holidays.

"When Minnie moved to America she was exhilarated when she’d walk to synagogue on Saturday and her Christian neighbors would greet her, ‘Good Sabbath, Mrs. Manger.’ This was an endless source of delight for her," Lieberman remembers.

When Mindy Weisel and her husband, Shelly, are in attendance, the conversation often turns to the Holocaust, as Hadassah and Mindy are both daughters of survivors. "Both of our mothers, who lived in neighboring towns in Europe, were arrested at their Passover tables on the same night and sent to Auschwitz," she says. "This bond makes us feel closer than sisters." Weisel edited a heart-rending book, "Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss," for which Hadassah wrote a moving chapter, dedicating it to "my beautiful mother; Ella Wieder Freilich, a presence in the absence."

On the second day of Rosh Hashana the family celebrates Tashlich, the ritual casting of sins upon the water, to symbolically throw away mistakes from the past year. During the campaign, the family was walking toward the park, carrying bags of bread to toss into the water.

Hadassah, the children, and Joe, who was pushing Marcia in her wheelchair, engendered quite a group of onlookers. "Joe began explaining to them what we were doing," says Marcia Lieberman. "Before we knew it, we had a whole group walking with us — we must have had 30 people — all in a line. When we got to the park, Joe recited the prayer. He usually does it in Hebrew, but this time he did it in English, so our new friends could understand. On the way back, an Italian gentleman presented me with a bouquet of flowers. ‘That’s because you raised a son like Joe,’" Marcia relates, kvelling the way any mother anywhere would do.

If Baba could see her grandson now.

Big Questions for a New Year

It is a new year, but the world and nation are still agonizing over a lot of old problems. President George W. Bush has promised that the long, hard fight against terrorism has just begun, but it is far from clear exactly what the next phase in that war will be. At home, a faltering economy and vanished government surplus promise a new budgetary day of reckoning.

Those are just two of the big questions looming over Washington as the new year dawns. Here is a brief rundown.

Will Bush go after other terrorists?

Administration officials say yes, but they offer few clues about how or where, mostly because the issue is still the subject of fierce internal debate.

Should Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein be next on the U.S. target list? What, exactly, does the administration plan to do about Syria, Lebanon and Mideast terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah? So far, the signals are mixed.

Will the administration develop a more aggressive strategy to slow the spread of weapons of mass destruction?

For all the talk on the subject, the world is still racing toward the proliferation nightmare, with various Mideast bad guys leading the charge. The need for strong, new efforts has never been greater, but it is unclear if the administration, whose go-it-alone approach last year angered much of the world, is ready to mount a broad, sustained international effort.

Will the administration get wise about some of its Arab “allies”?

Egypt, the recipient of almost $2 billion annually in U.S. aid, continues to propagate anti-Western, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in its official media. Saudi Arabia still protects the Islamic radicals who have fueled Osama bin Laden’s terror network. The administration is increasingly aware of these failings but uncertain how to respond.

The decisions made in the next 12 months will have long-lasting consequences.

Will Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reveal a peace plan?

Sharon has gotten away with his tough military response to Palestinian terror because Yasser Arafat’s two-faced game has become evident even to hardened U.S. State Department types.

But he has revealed no strategy for moving beyond endless confrontation, and he has fostered the suspicion that he has none. If his only goal is to destabilize Arafat and bring about a harsh new status quo, conflict with Washington will not be long in coming.

Will Arafat stop playing the chump?

One of the tragedies of the Palestinian people is that Arafat keeps getting mislead by his Arab friends, who goad him to continue the conflict with Israel as a way of defusing their own domestic discontent. It is in Arafat’s best interests to reach a real peace agreement with Israel and stick to it, but his best buddies keep whispering otherwise in his ear.

Those friends are leading the impressionable, weak Arafat and his gullible people to disaster.

Will Europe stop playing the role of enabler for Arafat?

Do not hold your breath. Despite hints of new cooperation with Washington, the Europeans remain hostile to Israel — in many ways as a surrogate for their jealousy of U.S. preeminence in world affairs.

Equally interesting: Will European nations go after the terror cells that have proliferated in their countries, or will their traditional fear of antagonizing Arab allies win the day?

Will the U.S. ease sanctions on Iran?

Pressure is mounting to do so, but pro-Israel groups are adamantly opposed. The situation in Iran is murkier than ever. Some tough choices lie ahead; stay tuned.

Will Bush make major domestic concessions to the religious right?

He tossed them Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose attachment to the National Rifle Association apparently exceeds his desire to fight terrorism, but that is about it. However, congressional elections come later this year, and the preliminaries for the next presidential contest are already underway. Bush, most political experts agree, will have to reinforce his base, which means the religious right. The big question is: How far will he go?