Analysis: Gaza crisis is opportunity for Obama


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Does the mini-war underway between Israel and Hamas in and around the Gaza Strip present President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration with a crisis or an opportunity?

Israel’s aerial bombardment, the most intensive in the Gaza Strip in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has killed at least 320 people, most of them militants belonging to the terrorist group Hamas, although tens of children were reported dead in surprise attacks on the crowded strip.

The assault, which started Saturday, came after days of intensified rocket attacks launched from Gaza on Israel’s southern towns and farms. The Palestinian rocket fire, launched even before a Hamas-Israel ceasefire formally lapsed Dec. 19, has killed at least four Israelis and is emptying the south of its residents. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, warned of “all-out war,” possibly including a land invasion

Buried beneath the fretting over whether the renewed conflict would kill talks between Israel and the relatively moderate leadership of the Palestinian Authority were hints that it could in fact bolster the negotiations, if only by marginalizing Hamas. That, in turn, could help Obama clear the ground for a breakthrough, a prospect Obama’s team seemed to recognize by limiting its reactions to expressions of support for Israel.

“He’s going to work closely with the Israelis,” David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday when asked about the outbreak. “They’re a great ally of ours, the most important ally in the region. And that is a fundamental principle from which he’ll work.”

Washington pundits and officials in European capitals are casting the flare up as a crisis that could scuttle Obama’s stated intention of developing talks — first launched a year ago by the Bush administration — into a final status agreement.

Jackson Diehl, the deputy editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page, said the war was the final failure for Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister who is to leave office by March to face corruption charges. “His failure represents another missed opportunity for Middle East peace — and probably means that the incoming Obama administration, like the incoming Bush administration of 2001, will inherit both a new round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and a new Israeli government indisposed to compromise,” Diehl wrote in Monday’s Post.

Meanwhile, Israel is casting the war first of all as one of necessity: The bombardment of Israel’s south, in the days before Israel launched its aerial counter attacks, at times reached 70 rockets a day. The effect has been to devastate the region’s economy and to create levels of anxiety that Israelis regard as intolerable; the retaliatory strikes earned the support of the vast majority of Israelis in weekend polling.

Sallai Meridor, the Israeli envoy to Washingtons, cautioned that the action was not undertaken with the peace process in mind. “The direct reason for these activities is to remove a threat over the head of 500,000 Israelis — not a theoretical threat, a real one,” Meridor told JTA. “Three were killed only today. No country would sacrifice its citizens to terror.”

Meridor added, however, that an Israeli success could have salutary effects on the peace process. “Indirectly, the chances for peace are dependent on the weakening of the enemies of peace. If Hamas strengthens, the chances of peace weaken; if Hamas weakens, it contributes to the chances of peace.”

In remarks Sunday to his Cabinet, Olmert said the aim was to “restore normal life and quiet to residents of the south who — for many years — have suffered from unceasing rocket and mortar fire and terrorism designed to disrupt their lives and prevent them from enjoying a normal, relaxed and quiet life, as the citizen of any country is entitled to.”

Another factor might be political calculation. Little love is lost between Olmert and his government partners: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has assumed control of his Kadima Party, and Barak, who heads the Labor Party. Yet Olmert, Livni and Barak are united in hopes of keeping Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition Likud Party who has vowed to bring talks with the Palestinian to a halt, from coming to power; the first post-assault polls show their chances of doing that substantially improving.

The effect Israel’s current leadership sought was not simply to remind the public that doves are capable of defending Israel, but that the onslaught would help reinforce the current round of talks. The aim, Director of the Shin Bet security service Yuval Diskin suggested at the weekly Cabinet meeting, is to isolate Hamas. “The mood among a not unsubstantial part of the Palestinian population understands that the operation is against Hamas, which has inflicted great suffering on the residents of Gaza,” Diskin said in remarks relayed by Oved Yehezkel, the Cabinet secretary.

That approach was echoed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in remarks Monday on P.A. television.

“I say in all honesty, we made contact with leaders of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip,” Abbas said in a translation made available by Palestinian Media Watch. “We spoke with them in all honesty and directly, and after that we spoke with them indirectly, through more than one Arab and non-Arab side … We spoke with them on the telephone and we said to them: We ask of you, don’t stop the ceasefire, the ceasefire must continue and not stop, in order to avoid what has happened, and if only we had avoided it.”

Ziad Asali, an Abbas ally who founded the American Task Force on Palestine, said it was notable that Abbas and other Arab leaders were muted in their calls on Israel to draw back.

“There is a certain withholding of outright support” for Hamas “that usually would accrue to any party in active conflict with Israel,” he said.

Arab frustration with Hamas stemmed from its refusal until now to defer to Abbas as the lead negotiator in peace talks and its insistence on armed conflict as the only way to confront Israel, Asali said.

“There is no military solution to this conflict,” he said. “At the end of the day there has to be a negotiating process, and the people who are clearly authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians are the P.A. folks.”

He warned, however, that there was a limited window to exploit Hamas’ marginalization, and joined a number of dovish pro-Israel groups — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum — in calling for an immediate cease-fire.

“We don’t know how the parties on the ground will react,” Asali said. “We see ever increasing human suffering in Gaza that would add to the pressure to bring about some kind of ceasefire.”

Should the bloodshed intensify, the sufferings of ordinary Palestinians, joined with public outrage on the “Arab street” with Israel’s actions and the chaotic nature of the conflict, could turn an opportunity into a crisis — and an Obama administration faced with a crisis on Jan. 21 might not be equipped to respond.

“The issue is how urgently they would prioritize this conflict,” Asali said.

Hamas’ responsibility for re-launching hostilities, coupled with a desire to corner the terrorist group into deferring to Abbas’ negotiations with Israel, was likely behind the near unanimous backing in Washington for Israel’s actions.

Most significant was the Obama transition team’s steadfast commitment to Israel’s right to respond, albeit expressed with the requisite deference to George W. Bush as the sitting president.

“The president-elect recognizes the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” Axelord, Obama’s adviser, said on CBS. “It’s an important bond, an important relationship. He’s going to honor it. And he wants to be a constructive force in helping to bring about the peace and security that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want and deserve. And obviously, this situation has become even more complicated in the last couple of days and weeks as Hamas began its shelling and Israel responded.”

Pressed, Axelrod suggested Obama’s strategy would be shaped by his own visit over the summer to Israel’s frontlines.

“He said then that when the bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act and try and put an end to that,” Axelrod said. “You know, that’s what he said then, and I think that’s what he believes.”

The Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties also issued statements squarely blaming Hamas, followed up with pleas to Israel to curb civilian casualties.

“Peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot result from daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza,” U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a statement. “Hamas and its supporters must understand that Gaza cannot and will not be allowed to be a sanctuary for attacks on Israel. “

The White House sounded a similar note: “Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop. Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people. The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza.”

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through Feb. 2009


ALTTEXT

Robert Dowd — Pop Art Money — See Jan.17 listing

DECEMBER

Fri., Dec. 12
“Laemmle Through the Decades: 1938-2008, 70 Years in 7 Days.” It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task to select only seven films to represent the rich and diverse history of the Laemmle Theatres chain. But someone did it. For the next week, Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles will screen the seven most iconic foreign-language films to have graced the company’s silver screens, each one representing a different decade of its existence. The lineup includes “Children of Paradise” (1945, France), “La Strada” (1954, Italy), “Jules & Jim” (1962, France), “The Conformist” (1970, Italy, France and West Germany), “Fanny & Alexander” (1982, Sweden), “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988, Spain) and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” (2001, Mexico). Films will screen several times a day. Through Dec. 18. $7-$10. Royal Theatre, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. (310) 477-5581. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ecogift.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” With a long list of Top 40 favorites, such as “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway,” this musical mishmash of Leiber and Stoller hits is ideally jubilant for the holiday season. Since its 1995 premiere on Broadway, the 39-song revue has been nominated for seven Tony Awards, won a Grammy Award for the legendary duo’s songs and featured special appearances by megastars such as Gladys Knight, Gloria Gaynor and Rick Springfield. Starring in this NoHo production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” are DeLee Lively, Robert Torti and a host of other talented stage veterans. Special performances include tonight’s opening night gala and two New Year’s Eve shows, one with a champagne reception, the other followed by an all-out party with the cast. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Through Jan. 4. $25-$150. El Portal Theatre, Mainstage, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 508-4200. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.benjamintrigano.com.

Sat., Dec. 13
“Moonlight Rollerway Holiday Jubilee.” Charles Phoenix is addicted to thrift store shopping. Luckily for us, Phoenix has put together a collection of the goodies he has found. Now, Moonlight Rollerway, which calls itself Southern California’s last classic roller rink, is presenting Phoenix and his quirky, retro holiday slide show. The viewing event will be followed by a roller-skating revue spectacular, featuring 75 championship skaters and celebrating the entire year’s holidays, including Cinco de Mayo and Valentine’s Day. Snacks and an after-show skating party are included. 8 p.m. Also, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. $35. Moonlight Rollerway, 5110 San Fernando Road, Glendale. (818) 241-3630. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mbfala.com.

Sun., Dec. 14
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Annual Winter Concert. There is an Academy Award-nominated documentary about this choir. It has toured Brazil, China, Italy and Poland, among other nations. And since its inception in 1986, the chorus has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Approximately 250 talented and dedicated children between the ages of 8 and 12 make up the LACC. The angelic voices of these preteen choristers will bring to life works by composers such as Aaron Copland, Pablo Casals, Randall Thompson and J.S. Bach in a winter concert inspired by literary luminaries Robert Frost, William Shakespeare and others. The program follows the 2008-2009 season theme, “The Poet Sings,” and features a varied selection of classical, folk and contemporary pieces. 7 p.m. $24-$42. Pasadena Presbyterian Church, 585 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 793-4231. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lamoth.org.

Mon., Dec. 15
Reel Talk: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Stephen Farber, film critic for Hollywood Life magazine and The Hollywood Reporter, has been treating audiences to sneak previews of the industry’s hottest films for more than 25 years. The veteran film buff concludes this year’s preview series with a fascinating film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who is born in his 80s and ages backward. Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the odd tale is already making waves and is set to hit theaters during prime-time movie-watching season, Christmas. The screening will be followed by a discussion with members of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West. 7 p.m. $20. Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 365-3500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lacma.org.

Tue., Dec. 16
Carrie Fisher presents and signs “Wishful Drinking.” It’s not easy being an action figure before you can legally drink a beer, but that didn’t stop Princess Leia from having one, or two, or many more. Fisher’s first memoir, adapted from her one-woman stage show, is a revealing look at her childhood as a product of “Hollywood in-breeding” and her adulthood in the shadow of “Star Wars.” After electroshock therapy, marrying, divorcing then dating Paul Simon, a drug addition and a bipolar disorder, Fisher still manages to take an ironic and humorous survey of her bizarre life. Meet Fisher and get a copy of her book signed at this WeHo book haven. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Fri., Dec. 19
“Peter Pan.” Tinkerbell, Captain Hook, pirates, Indians — we know the cast of characters well. But how many of us have actually seen a full production of J.M. Barrie’s classic fantasy play, “Peter Pan” — especially one that features the complete musical score by Leonard Bernstein? Composer Alexander Frey — who helped reconstruct portions of Bernstein’s score that had been previously lost for a special CD — is flying in from Berlin to conduct the live orchestra. 7 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Dec. 28. $30-$70; $10 (seniors and students). Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara. (805) 963-0761. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Wed., Dec. 24
“49th Annual Los Angeles County Holiday Celebration.” Los Angeles’ biggest holiday show, featuring 45 groups and 1,200 performers, is a proud tradition — and it’s absolutely free! Running approximately six hours, the holiday extravaganza features the county’s cultural diversity. This year’s highlights include hip-hop group Antics Performances, South Bay Ballet and Grammy-nominated Lisa Haley and the Zydekats. Audiences will have the opportunity to listen to sounds and see sights from the world over, including Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. For those of you who can’t make it to see the event in person, KCET-TV will also be airing the event live. Sponsored by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and produced by the County Arts Commission. 3-9 p.m. Free. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3099. http:www.holidaycelebration.org.

Don’t cut support to innovative nonprofits


From New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco, the impact of the global financial crisis feels like an eerie parallel to the days after Sept. 11. No one knows whether the acute phase is over or whether there will be further shocks. For some, little has changed; for others, life will never be the same. Everyone knows someone who has been directly affected.

Our major institutions are struggling to adjust, react, prepare but most of all to respond to those most harmed. News outlets strive to explain and advise; houses of worship have added services; social service agencies brace for increased demand even as they anticipate reduced charitable and government support. Each organization is focused on what it can do to minimize and mitigate the effects of the crisis on our city, our country and our world.

Amid this outpouring of effort, we have been dismayed by intimations, in the Jewish media and elsewhere, that smaller, newer nonprofit organizations will and perhaps ought to lose funding support in order to allocate more to immediate concerns: a warm meal, a place to stay, income stabilization. While we agree that protecting the most fragile is key, we disagree with this last-hired, first-fired funding mentality.

The argument against the new nonprofits is both simple and disingenuous. The simple argument is that they are risky investments, ephemeral champions of the latest passing fads. The disingenuous argument is that these innovators are self-indulgent narcissists, insubstantial and erosive of the communal fabric. These arguments are not only wrong, they are counterproductive.

Far from risky ventures, new start-ups like Darkhei Noam, Hadar, Jewish Milestones, IKAR and the Progressive Jewish Alliance actually are fulfilling the promise of engaging a new generation of Jews in their own idiom and on their own terms. It is this generation’s connection to Judaism that ultimately will determine the future of Jewish life and of its larger institutions. They build innovative new minyanim and educate young leaders who in turn will strengthen their communities. They develop, test and promote new models of community involvement that will be the foundation for generations to come.

From Hazon to Jewish Mosaic to Matan to Sharsheret, they use new tools and methods to promote environmental responsibility, ensure our community welcomes Jews of all backgrounds, widen the reach of special education and put resources into the hands of those afflicted with deadly diseases — all missions at heightened risk in the period of social and economic turmoil we are entering.

While the big boys debate scalpels and hatchets, these new start-ups quietly perform laparoscopies without cutting open the patient. Bootstrapped together with all the advantages of today’s cost-saving technologies that many established Jewish organizations have yet to discover, these start-ups are models of industry and investment that will help America emerge from recession. They can feed for a year on what their larger brethren consume in an hour. They are lean, staffed more austerely than their older, bigger peers and subsist by sweat equity donated by those for whom they mean a great deal.

Putting the attention on new start-ups distracts us from asking the tough questions of our most venerable institutions, many of which have lost sight of their original missions in the struggle for institutional survival.

But these start-ups are also fragile, without reserves to fall back on, and do not yet possess long-term funding relationships to be called upon in times of crisis. They lack the confidence and reputation — and the sheer seniority — conferred on larger nonprofits by decades of service. Questioning the viability, merit or necessity of nascent nonprofit organizations risks becoming self-fulfilling. Moreover, it’s unfair to do so without also challenging the unquestioned assumptions governing larger nonprofits.

New ventures are essential to our recovery and are ideal places for funders to invest to stabilize the community. Individual or institutional funders seeking ways to make fewer dollars go further should take a closer look at the group of emerging nonprofit organizations ready to rise to the occasion if given a chance. These new groups do far more than put on hip-hop concerts and publish risqué magazines. From a communal investment perspective, these organizations provide tremendous value.

Just as after Sept. 11, the priority is on rebuilding — not only our portfolios but also our souls. We must succor those re-examining their values and goals, and support those for whom economic distress leads to personal distress. Financial crisis is often the mother of religious crisis, during which the quest for meaning becomes not only more potent but more critical. It is precisely in trying times that we must focus on efforts that can best distill and transmit the essence of Jewish values in today’s complex and decentralized world.

The age of an organization doesn’t correlate to the significance of its mission. In 1798, when our new nation faced a grave economic and political threat from France, John Adams summoned leaders of each of the nation’s diverse faiths to organize “a day of solemn humiliation, fasting and prayer,” during which citizens were asked to pray “that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it.” The message was clear — strengthening committed communities strengthens our nation.

The new groups formed by our most gifted social entrepreneurs are just such committed communities — some religious and others not — and now is the hour when they can do their finest work.

Shawn Landres is the CEO of Jumpstart, a thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation in Los Angeles. Toby E. Rubin is the founder/CEO of UpStart Bay Area, igniting Jewish ideas and supporting Jewish start-ups in the San Francisco Bay Area. Martin Kaminer is the New York-based chair of the board of Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas.

02Max puts a youthful spin on the gym scene


At first glance, the brightly decorated warehouse-turned-gym space of O2Max Fitness in Santa Monica may seem like your conventional workout space, filled with typical cardio and core training apparatuses (think treadmills, balance balls and resistance bands). But it only takes a few steps upstairs to figure out that this is no ordinary gym.

The loft portion of the space is filled with couches, lounge-style furniture, magazines, a television and a computer workspace. The walls are brightly painted and decorated with inspirational quotes from a variety of notable people.

And then look closer: Everyone here seems young — really young. That’s because O2 Max is designed just for teens and college students.

Thinking of everything from one-on-one personal trainers to Princeton Review classes for college entrance exams, entrepreneur Karen Jashinsky has created a full teen hangout, where fitness is just one component.

“We are creating a venue that empowers teens,” said Jashinsky, a New Jersey yeshiva day school graduate who now lives in Los Angeles. “Obviously, fitness is an important part of what we doing — it’s a huge part of what we’re doing — but we’re also creating a social environment.”

Around 30 to 40 teens a month work out at O2Max, which opened last spring. Some kids pay by the day, others pay $80 a month for membership and some do volunteer work for the gym to pay for their workout time.

Jashinsky says that she got her inspiration to get into the teenage-fitness market after working as a personal trainer, which she felt was a fun way to earn money during graduate school at USC’s Marshall School of Business.

“When I started working as a personal trainer I had a few ideas of the fitness industry and then kind of decided to focus on teens because they weren’t being addressed,” she said. “It really evolved into this sort of cool fun social venue that [the teenagers] could come to after school to work out, hang out, meet friends from other schools, rent it out for parties, events, lectures and workshops.”

As a graduate of Frisch yeshiva in New Jersey, Jashinsky is also aware the students at Jewish schools might need an extra nudge when it comes to athletics and fitness.

Upon joining, teenagers are walked through an individual fitness test to assess their fitness capacity and are then given a food journal. After filling out the food journal for two days, students go over the journal with a licensed nutritionist, who gives them tips and pointers to make their meals more nutritionally valuable.

“Our goal is that by the time you graduate college you know how to eat properly, you know how to put an exercise program together,” Jashinsky said.

Seasonal programming can also help with motivation. O2Max is sponsoring the Fall Fitness Fusion starting Oct. 1, a six-week challenge in which students team up with an instructor and earn points for various exercises. The challenge is free to all teens, and the teams that knock out the most points win prizes.

But while exercise is associated with improved physical and mental health, there is a risk that comes with targeting a group that is already thought to be thoroughly overworked and overbooked.

“The issue is that it can’t be another part of the parental schedule,” said Dr. Ian Russ, a psychologist who works with adolescents. “If it’s the parents saying ‘you should go to the gym’ then you might get some exercise out of it, but nothing else. If it’s something kids can do freely and have their life, it sounds like a nice thing.”

O2Max has an interactive Web site with tips on how to eat right and how to exercise even if you can’t make it to the gym, and a blog that all people, not just O2Max members, can access. The Web site also provides a safe forum for kids across the nation to chat about whatever is on their mind. People leave posts, ask questions and respond to each other all within the confines of the Web site.

Such social interactions are part of what make 02 Max “not your parents gym,” as the advertising suggests.

“The way the fitness industry is evolving … [the gym] is becoming your home away from home,” Jashinsky said. “You have your work, you have your home, and you have your gym, and teens aren’t that different, they just don’t need a tanning room or a spa. They need a place to hang out and do their homework and get on the computer.”

O2MAX Fitness is located at 3026 Nebraska Ave. in Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 867-1650.

The very best Tashlich custom is a toss-up


On paper, the Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlich is about doffing one’s sins to start the new year with a clean slate. For Jason Mauro, 16, it’s also about beach football.

Every year since he was 8, Mauro and his friends at Temple Israel of Hollywood have marked the afternoon ceremony, which the synagogue holds at a beach in Santa Monica, with a sand-logged scrimmage.

“It’s a routine now,” said Mauro of Studio City. “We bring a couple of footballs and give some to the younger kids. The games used to be kids vs. parents, but since we’ve gotten bigger and stronger, they kind of back off.”

Family ball games, picnics and drum circles are revitalizing Tashlich as a booming social event, local rabbis say. Built on the traditional casting of sins — often symbolized by breadcrumbs, rocks or lint — into the ocean, the ritual now draws throngs of participants eager to celebrate community, revel in the great outdoors and cut loose.

“People are really gung-ho about Tashlich,” said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “After spending the morning in synagogue, they get to take off their stockings and shoes and suits and ties and dresses and put on shorts and T-shirts and bathing suits and sun block. They take picnics and blankets, and we all meet at the beach.”

Maybe that’s why the ceremony, which Missaghieh brought to the Reform congregation when she joined its staff 13 years ago, has been steadily gaining in popularity. Starting with about 100 participants the first year, Temple Israel’s Tashlich event now draws a gathering so large — more than 450 people, Missaghieh said — that they have to obtain a permit from the city of Santa Monica to accommodate the crowd. The city also assigns lifeguards to watch over the waterside festivities.

“It’s a great service for people with families,” said Temple Israel member Bruce Miller, who has taken part in Tashlich for the past six years with his wife, Tracy, and their three young children. “You’re not sitting in one place in a big room where you have to be quiet and sit still. Three-year-olds don’t do that so well. Here, they can run around. Tashlich is more connected to things kids can relate to.”

Miller, a television writer based in Hancock Park, also enjoys the chance to experience Judaism amid nature’s majesty.

“It’s wonderful to hear the shofar outside at the beach,” he said. “Near the water, under the sky, it seems more spiritually relevant to what the holiday is about.”

A few blocks south on Venice Beach, Nashuva encourages Jews of all ages — including total strangers catching rays nearby — to tap into their spiritual sides by taking part in a drum circle. With more than 1,000 participants, Rabbi Naomi Levy said she’s been told Nashuva’s Tashlich ritual is the largest Jewish drum circle in the world.

“We’ve been doing this for four years, and it’s been growing exponentially,” Levy said. “We blow the shofar at the beach as a call for all Jews to come. You’d be surprised how many times we get an Israeli jogger passing by, or a couple of sunbathers who happen to be Jewish. You see people coming from all different parts to join in.”

Members of the Nashuva community, which during the rest of the year holds Friday night Shabbat services at Brentwood Presbyterian Church the first week of each month, gathers for Tashlich at the beach off Venice Boulevard at 4:30 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Organizers hand out percussion instruments, but attendees are also urged to bring their own. Drums, tambourines and even spoons are welcomed.

The first time Brentwood resident Carol Taubman took part in Nashuva’s Tashlich ceremony in 2004, “it took my breath away,” she recalled. “There were so many people, all dressed in white, and this fabulous drumming circle. There was a great sense of community, and it was very powerful.”

Taubman has attended Tashlich ever since, drawn back by the inclusive spirit of the event.

“It’s such a welcoming experience,” she said. “Some people can be intimidated by all the prayers at a synagogue service, but anybody can hit a drum or bang two spoons together. It’s like sharing a communal language.”

But the point of Tashlich — to cleanse oneself of the past year’s sins — shouldn’t be undermined by the ritual’s festive atmosphere or the ease of tossing breadcrumbs into the ocean, said Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

“The notion that we can dispose of our sins in such a casual manner is problematic,” said Shevitz, whose Conservative beachfront service gathers 200 to 400 people each year. “You can’t just empty your pockets and be rid of your sins. It takes more work than that.”

Shevitz has put together a reading reflecting the idea that sins can never be truly cast off, but they can be “purified, as we treat sewage.”

The ceremony, which Mishkon Tephilo has done for decades, attracts more and more congregants each year, he said. “It’s as much a social occasion as a liturgical one. It’s a refreshing alternative to the sobriety of the morning service.”

Further inland, Encino-based Valley Beth Shalom has seen a spike in Tashlich attendance for the same reason. The Conservative congregation has been holding a ceremony on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for the past 10 years at Encino’s Lake Balboa.

“Tashlich is amazingly popular,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom. “The sunshine is wonderful, we’re out in the fresh air, and we can begin to smell the autumn coming. It’s really joyful.”

This year, Valley Beth Shalom will partner with Valley Village congregation Adat Ari El for a joint Tashlich service. Feinstein is expecting a crowd of about 250 at the lakeside park, which Los Angeles park rangers keep open an extra hour for the ceremony.

An added bonus of holding Tashlich at the site, Feinstein noted, is that the bits of challah thrown into the water end up feeding the ducks that live on the lake grounds.

Temple Israel of Hollywood chooses to forgo traditional breadcrumbs for a more novel approach to the purging of sins, Rabbi Missaghieh said. As soon as the crowd gathers at 4 p.m. on the first day of the holiday, all the children begin building a wall of sand along the shore. After songs and readings, participants consider an area of their lives they want to improve in the new year, then inscribe their thoughts by hand into the wall. The waves eventually wash the sand away, carrying congregants’ written confessions out to sea.

“I think there’s something very magical about it,” Missaghieh said. “You spend the whole morning thinking about God, talking to God. But then you actually go out into nature and feel the grandness of God’s creation on the day of creation. It’s a very visceral moment; not just your mind, but your whole body is experiencing the rebirth of the world.”

How I returned


In the fall of 1989, I took a class on Chasidic thought with a Chabad rabbi. We met in a room in the annex of Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. Iwanted to learn about Judaism, but I hated going to synagogue services. They bored me. So I took classes, learned Hebrew, even lived in Israel. But no synagogue services.

One afternoon, our teacher suggested we all march down and meet Mishkon’s new woman rabbi, Naomi Levy. The class consisted of six young single men — we said sure.

And the moment I saw Naomi, I knew I wanted to marry her.

From there on out, a group of us gravitated to a back row of the synagogue and devoted every Shabbat to hoping she would fall for one of us. We were in our 20s, unmarried and smitten.

Fortunately, I had an enormous advantage over the other young men: I didn’t have a job. They were all busy young professionals. I was just young.

Naomi taught a class called, “Love and Torah,” every Wednesday at noon. There was my opening. My calendar happened to be clear every Wednesday at noon — actually, it was clear pretty much every day at noon.

So I showed up each week to learn with five young mothers and the rabbi. The moms figured out my plan immediately. Naomi just assumed I was really into Torah.

She was teaching the “Song of Songs,” a biblical love poem.

On the day our class studied the line, ” … and his fruit was sweet to my taste …,” I brought a quart of huge, ripe strawberries from the Santa Monica farmer’s market for everyone to share. Another time, as we read, ” … I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense,” I pulled out a baggie of frankincense and a baggie of myrrh, which I had bought the day before after driving 45 minutes to a bodega in Burbank. If you want to snag a rabbi, it helps to read ahead.

The next Shabbat, Naomi let me walk her to her apartment door after services.

“But you should know,” she warned me, “I don’t date congregants.”

“Fine,” I said, “I won’t join.”



The fact is, not joining a congregation came naturally to me. I was intrigued by Judaism, and I was growing to love Mishkon’s members — many are friends to this day — but I was not interested in spending Friday nights and Saturday mornings in shul.

I had grown up attending a large, suburban synagogue, had a bar mitzvah and never went to services more than twice each year. And each time I did, the rote prayer readings, the cantorial repetition, the organ music — all of it — sent me into a spirit-sucking stupor.

Eventually, Naomi caught on to my intentions. It may have been when I offered to cater the synagogue’s second-night seder, or that I offered to head up the Chanukah latke-making effort for 200, or the afternoon I left a mix-tape on her doorstep for her post-Shabbat listening.

Or it may have been my sudden 100 percent shul attendance record.

“I don’t even go to shul that much,” Naomi told me.

Of course, after we got married in 1991, neither did I.



Because I was a sailor in the relatively uncharted waters of being a male spouse of a rabbi, Mishkon’s congregation had no expectations of me and no obvious role.

The congregants didn’t seem to mind that I was rarely in shul — or at least didn’t mind out loud.

When Naomi decided to leave Mishkon after we had our second child, I was more relieved than she was. A rabbi’s spouse sees firsthand the pressures of the job: the strains of synagogue politics, the lack of control over one’s time, the constant sense you can never fulfill the demands both of your congregants — no matter how many — and of your own family.

Frankly, I also was looking forward to being free of the guilt of not showing up at services.

In leaving Mishkon, Naomi got to be home more with our children, write books (“To Begin Again,” “Talking to God”), teach and lecture. But as the years passed, she yearned to return to the pulpit. It was — is — her calling.

But as much as she loves the pulpit, Naomi, like me, finds the modern synagogue problematic. She believes that Judaism offers people a sense of purpose, a mission to heal society and a fulfilling spiritual path, but that too often standard synagogue services don’t attract or inspire Jews, much less compel them to commit to a community.

“My interest was in the people who don’t go to shul,” she told me. “The outsiders.”

Of course, one of those outsiders was living with her. I liked everything about being Jewish but going to shul. I had seen her infuse the traditional services at Mishkon with her particular spirit and warmth, and I hoped there was a way she could build on that somehow, somewhere.

But how or where I hadn’t a clue.

I couldn’t see either of us at a mainstream synagogue: Her goal was to reach the Jews who, for whatever reason, were turned off to Judaism, and they were unlikely to be found inside established synagogues.

One day, Naomi simply decided to do it— to create for herself her dream of the ideal service and the ideal congregation.

She had no financial backing, no business plan, no building, no place to hold services. She had a supportive but somewhat skeptical rebbetzin.

Naomi decided to call her congregation “Nashuva,” Hebrew for “we will return.” She launched it one night with a few friends and a husband seated around our dining room table. As we all shared our vision and offered our help, I felt my role shift from rabbi’s spouse-in-the-background to fellow organizer, planner, volunteer.

I, who had happily stayed on the sidelines of synagogue life, was now joining with a handful of others to actually create a different kind of congregation. As Naomi envisioned it, Nashuva would be an outreach congregation, bringing Judaism to those who had otherwise been turned off to it or uninspired by it.

People like me.

Nashuva would hold Shabbat evening services on the first Friday of every month and do a social service project in the L.A. area on the third Sunday of the month. It was service that led to service; outreach that led to reaching out.

There would be no membership, no dues, and everyone — everyone — would be welcome.

The service itself would be traditional and in Hebrew, but with accessible translations written by Naomi and set to great, engaging music.

Naomi put together a band, and I watched with the screwed up face of a stodgy sitcom dad as several strikingly handsome, talented musicians appeared in our living room for rehearsals. Naomi and the band fashioned new arrangements, adapting ancient Hebrew prayers to melodies as diverse as music from “Godspell” and the Jewish Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda.

She cold-called a church she had driven by countless times, the Westwood Hills Congregational Church on Westwood Boulevard. A young woman answered the phone. Naomi asked to speak to the reverend.

“You’re speaking with her,” said the Rev. Kirsten Linford.

When the two met, they fell into each other’s arms like long-lost friends.

On Nashuva’s debut night, we hung Wanda Peretz’s beautiful handmade tapestry depicting a dove returning to a Tree of Life. It hid the church’s giant cross. I set out food for after the service (some roles never change), and we filled the pews with the prayer books Naomi had created.

“Just put out 50,” she said.

People began to arrive. The congregation swelled. I stood in the balcony and watched the hundreds of church seats fill up.

Eventually, Nashuva outgrew its first home and moved to its current location, the Brentwood Hills Presbyterian Church. It has succeeded beyond our imaginations without falling back on traditional models of organization, like dues and membership and tickets. Nashuva now even has an alternative to Hebrew school — Camp Nashuva — that engages young children in the joy of Jewish learning. What it lacks in the hallmarks of mainstream synagogues — well-developed lay leadership, regular cash flow, a home of its own — it has made up for with committed volunteers, some generous donors and grants.

As the nontraditional rebbetzin at a nontraditional shul, I happily set out defining my own role: doing whatever I could to sustain what I truly believe is something magical and exceptional in Jewish life — and actually looking forward to going to services. I have, at last, returned.

This past June, Nashuva celebrated its fourth anniversary. Somehow, Nashuva has survived as an un-synagogue.

At the High Holy Days, Nashuva is standing room only. But even more remarkable, on the first Friday of each month, I sit in the balcony and watch, not quite believing, as each time it fills up on just an average Shabbat — with many new faces and many familiar ones. People who had never found a spiritual home. People whose own synagogue services leave them cold. People who never felt welcome in Jewish life. Kids dance in the aisles, the congregation leaps to its feet, Naomi sings and leads prayer and speaks — her ideal rabbinate.

And the most surprising face in the crowd? Mine — the guy who never liked services, wouldn’t join a synagogue and never got involved. I have finally found my spiritual home — soulful and musical, original and inspiring — a true reflection of the woman I fell in love with.

Arts in L.A. Quarterly Calendar: Cultural events through November 2008


SEPTEMBER

Fri., Sept. 12
“A Blessing to One Another: Pope John Paul II and the Jewish People.” Angelenos can explore the legacy of one of the Catholic Church’s most beloved popes in a new Skirball Cultural Center exhibition. Through artifacts, photographs and audiovisual recordings that first appeared at Cincinnati’s Xavier University only weeks after the pope’s death in 2005, visitors can explore the life of Pope John Paul II and the historical and personal circumstances that led him to aggressively reach out to Jews worldwide. Pope John Paul II was the first pontiff to enter a synagogue, recognize the State of Israel and formally apologize for the Catholic Church’s past treatment of the Jewish people. The Skirball will also offer several public programs related to the exhibition: an adult-education course on “Jesus and Judaism” and film adaptations of biblical epics, among others. Through Jan. 4. $10 (general admission), free to all on Thursdays. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.thenewlatc.com.

Sat., Sept. 13
“Speech & Debate.” The town is Salem, Ore., and, as in countless other American cities, teenagers are on the prowl for like-minded adolescents via the Internet. However, the three teenagers who find one another in “Speech & Debate” don’t just bond over music, books and movies, but are linked through a sex scandal that has rocked their community. The three adolescent misfits do what anyone else would to get to the bottom of the scandal: form their school’s first speech and debate team. Check out the West Coast premiere of the play, which critics are calling “flat-out funny.” 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Through Oct. 26. $22-$28. The Blank Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 661-9827. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.plays411.com/ragtime.

Sat., Sept. 13
Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival. Camarillo is offering visitors a one-day extravaganza filled with music, artists and gourmet food, all culminating in an evening concert under the stars. The 2008 Camarillo Art & Jazz Festival will include gospel and bluegrass music, a farmers’ market and more than 50 artists showcasing their work. By evening, retro-band Royal Crown Revue will warm the stage for a secret, Grammy-nominated headliner. 8 a.m. (farmers’ market), 10 a.m. (music and art walk). $20-$60. 2400 Ventura Blvd., Old Town Camarillo. (805) 484-4383. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.apla.org.

Fri., Sept. 19
“Back Back Back” at The Old Globe. There’s nothing poignant about professional athletes using steroids. Or is there? Old Globe playwright-in-residence Itamar Moses delves into the controversial topic and takes the audience beyond the newspaper headlines and congressional hearings to the sanctuary of sports — the locker room. With humor and insight, Moses unfolds the stories of three major league baseball players who struggle to compete in the unforgiving world of professional sports, as well as balance their personal lives and professional images. The up-and-coming playwright has “clearly demonstrated tremendous talent along with a willingness to tackle complex ideas in his plays,” said The Globe’s Executive Producer Lou Spisto. Moses’ other works include “The Four of Us,” which won the San Diego Critics’ Circle Best New Play Award last year and “Bach at Leipzig.” 8 p.m. Tue.-Sun. Through Oct. 26. $42-$59. Old Globe Arena Theatre, James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, San Diego. (619) 234-5623. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.nhm.org.

Sun., Sept. 21
KCRW’S World Festival. A remarkable, eclectic lineup marks the last week of KCRW’s World Music Festival. Ozomatli toured the world, engaging audiences with its blend of Latin-, rock- and hip-hop-infused music, as well as its anti-war and human rights advocacy. The multiethnic group headlines this special night at the Hollywood Bowl, along with Michael Franti, a former member of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and his latest band Spearhead. Mexican singer Lila Downs as well as Tijuana’s premiere electronic band, Nortec Collective and its members Bostich and Fussible, will make it impossible for anyone not to get something out of the mix. If you haven’t had the chance to catch this spectacular summer concert series, don’t miss this last opportunity. 7 p.m. $10-$96. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.lfla.org/aloud.

Wed., Sept. 24
Brad Meltzer signs “Book of Lies.” The New York Times best-selling mystery writer is back with a riveting new thriller that links the Cain and Abel story with the creation of Superman. Young Jerry Siegel dreamed up a bulletproof super man in 1932 when his father was shot to death. It may sound like a strange plotline, but trust Meltzer, who has written six other acclaimed page-turners as well as comic books and television shows, to produce a great read. The novel is already receiving major buzz and you can get in on the action in a variety of ways: By watching the trailer on Brad Meltzer’s Web site (yes, the book has a movie trailer), listening to the book’s soundtrack (yes, the book has a soundtrack) and by coming to a reading and book signing by the author. 7:30-9 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 380-1636. ” target=”_blank”>http://arts.pepperdine.edu.

Sat., Sept. 27
“Skinny Bitch: A Bun in the Oven.” If there is one thing that doesn’t ever get old, it’s mocking our own culture. Authors Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin do just that in their newly released “Skinny Bitch: Bun in the Oven,” a sequel of sorts to their best-selling cookbook “Skinny Bitch.” The book is a guaranteed laugh riot and today’s in-store reading and signing could offer a sassy twist as the two authors show up in the flesh to dish about expecting mothers. And don’t be fooled, just because the subjects of this book are in a more fragile state of mind, Freedman and Barnouin refuse to make any exceptions to their insightful and illuminating critiques. 2 p.m. $14.95 (book price). Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jamescolemanfineart.com.

Sat., Sept. 27
“Jack’s Third Show.” Long hair, dramatic eye shadow and electric guitars return for an ’80s afternoon. Billed as a benefit for autism education, radio station JACK-FM stages an edgy blend of retro and new wave rockers. Billy Idol joins Blondie, The Psychedelic Furs and Devo for a musical bash that will have you dancing all day long. 2 p.m. $29-$89. Verizon Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. (213) 480-3232. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.931jackfm.com.

Sat., Sept. 27
Museum Day. Art and cultural institutions are hoping to attract folks from all walks of life by making them an offer that’s hard to refuse: free admission to museums across Southern California. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, this event gives art lovers and art novices alike the opportunity to visit venues from the Getty Center to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, free of charge. Natural history and science museums, like the California Science Center are also participating in the event. Regular parking fees do apply and advance reservations are recommended for some exhibitions. For a complete list of participating museums, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.museumsla.org/news/asp.

Sat., Sept. 27
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 40th Season Opening Gala. L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s first musical director, Sir Neville Marriner, will conduct its current director, Jeffrey Kahane, in a piano solo to celebrate its 40th year. A symbolic bridge between the orchestra’s past and its future, expect to hear classical masters Beethoven, Schumann and Stravinsky, followed by dinner, dancing and a live auction for patrons. 6 p.m. $35-$125 (concert only), $750 (full package). The Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. Saint John Ave., Pasadena. (213) 622-7001, ext. 215.

Old favorites take on fresh roles in fall TV season


After a summer filled with Olympics, political conventions and bizarre reality shows (“I Survived a Japanese Game Show” anyone?) TV viewers are aching for something different. The new offerings this fall range from international imports like “The Ex List” and “Life on Mars” to surprise comebacks like “90210” and the mini-turned-maxi series “The Starter Wife.” This new crop of shows featuring Jewish actors or characters joins returning favorites such as “Big Bang Theory,” “Pushing Daisies” and “Heroes.” So peruse our guide, pick up that remote and get ready to record your soon-to-be favorites.

Show: “90210”
Channel: The CW
Airs: Tuesdays, 8 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
The rich, hormonal guys and gals at West Beverly are back, but this time the student body actually reflects the real Beverly Hills High’s large Iranian-American population. While tuning into this re-launched Aaron Spelling guilty pleasure won’t curb your longing for the days of Andrea, Brandon and Steve, the return of Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty) might help. Throw in David and Kelly’s half-sister, the rebellious Silver (Jessica Stroup), and “Arrested Development’s” Jessica Walter as an alcoholic former-actress grandmother, and those thoughts of Dylan’s sideburns should fly right out of your head.

Show: “Sons of Anarchy”
Channel: FX
Airs: Wednesdays, 10 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
Ron Perlman (“Hellboy”) heads a gun-running motorcycle club in a rural California town, and his nephew, Jax, is having second thoughts about joining “the family” — much to the chagrin of Jax’s mom (Katey Segal). For those who miss “The Sopranos,” including Drea de Matteo, this could become your next addiction after second two of “Mad Men” ends in October.

Show: “Dancing With the Stars”
Channel: ABC
Premieres: Monday, Sept. 22, 8 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
The folks behind “Young Frankenstein: the Musical” said Cloris Leachman, 82, was too old to handle eight performances a week. Tune in to the seventh season of “Dancing With the Stars” to see the original Frau Blucher, the oldest dancer on the show thus far, compete against Susan Lucci and Toni Braxton to become the queen of the dance floor.

Show: “The Ex List”
Channel: CBS
Premieres: Friday, Oct. 3, 9 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
Just like with “Numb3rs,” CBS once again puts a Jewish show on Friday night (thanks guys). Be sure to record this adorable import from Israel about a city-dwelling single gal named Bella Bloom (Elizabeth Reaser), who learns from a fortune-teller that Mr. Right was a former boyfriend. Thus, the “ex list” comes in to play for Bella and her friends (Rachel Boston, Adam Rothenberg, Alexandra Breckenridge and Amir Talai). It made it big it Eretz Yisrael as “Mythological X,” and considering the “Bachelor” doesn’t start until January, this romantic dramedy makes a great substitute.

Show: “Kath & Kim”
Channel: NBC
Premieres: Thursday, Oct. 9, 8:30 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
Another import, this time from Australia, features recent newlywed-turned-divorced daughter Selma Blair and mom-who-won’t-grow-up Molly Shannon. Sandwiched between network hits “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office,” the scheduling could prove promising for this bawdy comedy.

Show: “Life on Mars”
Channel: ABC
Premieres: Thursday, Oct. 9 at 10 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1970s — especially now that “Swingtown” is off the air — the American version of this BBC show might fill the void. Sam Tyler, a police detective in 2008, lands in 1973 after a car crash. Harvey Keitel plays Sam’s boss who, of course, doesn’t believe this “I’m from the future” shtick. But how will Sam’s love life with 21st-century girlfriend Lisa Bonet play out in the space-time continuum?

Show: “Testees”
Channel: FX
Premieres: Thursday, Oct. 9, 10:30 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
“South Park” writer and “Kenny vs. Spenny” creator-star Kenny Hotz enters the world of experimentation, where 30-something roommates Peter (Steve Markle) and Ron (Jeff Kassel) work as human guinea pigs at TESTICO, a not-quite-normal product testing facility. Every week the two test a new product — with ridiculous side effects — and then have to live their lives as best they can. It’s a comedy. No, really.

Show: “The Starter Wife”
Channel: USA
Premieres: Friday, Oct. 10, 10 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
Emmy-winner Debra Messing returns in the show based on Gigi Levangie Grazer’s best-seller about a divorcée who restarts her life when her husband dumps her for a younger woman. Many Angelenos should be able to relate to this humorous hit mini-series turned maxi-series that pokes fun at all things Hollywood. Of course, it’s another one that’s on Friday nights, but, luckily, DVRs can record two shows at once.

Show: “Surviving Suburbia”
Channel: The CW
Premieres: Sunday, Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m.
Why You Should Watch:
Bob Saget slips back into the dad role sans Olson twins. Given the lack of hit family sitcoms, the show’s premise about a normal family and their crazy neighbors with the distractingly hot daughter could be fun to watch. Think “Married With Children,” but in reverse.

Valley Cities JCC opens doors at new site — a church



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On July 8, when Valley Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC) began operating at its new site a former church in the heart of a heavily Latino area of Van Nuys it did so with little fanfare. Instead, the focus was on making the reception comfortable and warm.

Executive Director Marla Minden and the center’s staff greeted parents with bagels and baked goods as they arrived at the new building with their children for summer camp.

“It wouldn’t ever be the building,” Minden said. “It’s what’s inside the building. They came; they looked. We made it so welcoming.”

The recent relocation to Van Nuys capped a four-year struggle filled with uncertainty for Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, which sought to remain in its mural-adorned building in Sherman Oaks after becoming independent in 2004. Board members from Friends of Valley Cities spent several years negotiating to purchase the property, which the center had called home since 1959, only to have it sold last year to a neighboring school, The Help Group.

With the move to 14701 Friar St. complete, Valley Cities JCC is beginning a new chapter in its nearly 50-year history.

“I’m happy it’s there,” said Stephanie Steinhaus, a preschool parent. “We have a home.”

The 20,000-square-foot property until recently housed a Latino Presbyterian congregation, Centro Cristiano Para La Familia, as well as the Korean People’s Community Church and the International Institute of Los Angeles, which for 29 years helped new immigrants in the Van Nuys area.

The relocation to a non-Jewish neighborhood hasn’t dissuaded its member families or the organizations that rent space from using the center, according to its organizers.

Before the move, Friends of Valley Cities JCC estimated that about 1,000 people used its Sherman Oaks building each week, and the nursery school’s various classes were either wait-listed or at capacity. Minden said the families and the groups followed and that nothing has changed in terms of programming.

“We didn’t lose any families,” she said. “We opened with 60 children in preschool and 60 children in the day camp.”

While parents say driving the additional three miles to the new center just off Victory and Van Nuys boulevards isn’t a problem, the largely Latino area has been an adjustment for some.

“Is it my most favorite neighborhood? No,” parent Kathy Weiss Squires said. “But a neighborhood is what you make it.”

Minden said the center is leasing the property, with an option to buy in five years, but organizers anticipate they will purchase within the first two years. Fundraising by Friends of Valley Cities has provided the center with enough money to cover the first two years, and a capital campaign will begin in September to purchase the property, she said.

Michael Brezner, Friends of Valley Cities president, said the new location was an accidental find. After negotiations for the Burbank Boulevard property fell apart in 2007, board member Ariel Goldstein’s nanny-housekeeper mentioned the church, which was looking for a buyer.

With assistance from Jewish Community Centers Development Corp., which had sold the Burbank Boulevard property, Friends of Valley Cities signed documents for the new property on May 22, Brezner said.

Although the configuration of the center is different from the Sherman Oaks property, the square footage in Van Nuys is the same. The brick buildings a sanctuary on the west side, offices and classrooms to the north and multipurpose rooms on the east side form a courtyard filled with shady trees.

“The whole flow of the building feels better,” Minden said, adding that the courtyard in the front will lend itself well to a Sukkot celebration.

The first round of property improvements included new landscaping, painting, air-conditioning and security gates in the front and surrounding the playground. A second phase will remove the numerous stained glass images of Jesus from the chapel, which seats 500.

While the center isn’t currently using the chapel, Minden said HBO is considering it as a possible shooting location.

Parking at the new center is comparable to the Sherman Oaks location, which had its spaces impacted by the construction of the Orange Line busway. Three lots surrounding the center provide 90 spaces, and a playground behind the property can be converted to provide additional spaces.

Minden, who started with Valley Cities as a parent, said that the Sherman Oaks property, which saw several additions over its nearly 50 years, had a different feel from the new one.

“There’s something that’s very unique about that building, and there’s something incredibly unique about this building,” Minden said. “It’s very warm, very intimate It feels like home already.”

For more information about the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, call (818) 786-6310.

JDub throws off the label and opts for change




Golem live (‘Romania, Romania!’) at the Knitting Factory in NYC June 2007

JDub was never supposed to be just a record label, and as JDub records celebrates its fifth anniversary with a free concert on July 27 downtown at California Plaza, it is more clear than ever that the organization’s founders have greater ambitions than merely putting out good Jewish CDs.

Aaron Bisman, who co-founded the label with Jacob Harris when the duo were finishing college in New York, readily admits those ambitions.

“We believed there were legs for the idea behind the label,” Bisman says, his eyes alight with the passion of someone who after a half-decade is still excited by what he is doing. “We wanted to change attitudes about Jewish music and culture. We wanted to create something for young Jews, our contemporaries, to create spaces and music that would make them want to be there.”

And it wasn’t about making money. What sets JDub apart from other Jewish music purveyors is their not-for-profit status, which allows them to seek grants and work closely with other Jewish nonprofits. The Six Points Fellowship program, a partnership among the label, Avoda Arts and the Foundation for Jewish Culture, substantially funded by UJA-Federation of New York, is a good example.

“We wanted to bring together artists who had never done a specifically Jewish project before,” Bisman says.

The two-year fellowship program provides 12 artists with a living stipend, financial project support, professional development workshops and ongoing peer- and professional-led learning opportunities.

The vision has already begun to bear fruit. Having built a strong foundation in New York, Bisman and Harris have begun the slow, hard work of expanding their outreach to Los Angeles and other cities with a substantial Jewish presence. They have already cleared a major hurdle, receiving a “Cutting Edge” grant of $250,000 from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. In the long run, the idea is to create spaces and events for young Jews, whether affiliated or not, with the goal of making Jewish culture cool.

“They have figured out a way to allow their contemporaries to find a way to comfortably express themselves,” says Marvin Schotland, CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation. “It’s another way in a complex environment to test what will attract other people to get comfortable with their identity and to take some step beyond showing up at a concert. JDub has the capacity to get them to show up at a concert, but they’re interested in doing more than that, and they are interested in connecting with other participants in the Jewish community. We believe this initiative will have a major impact on the Jewish community in Los Angeles.”

Of course, no one is expecting an overnight transformation of Los Angeles’ diverse, diffuse Jewish community. JDub’s program is designed to build gradually, creating links between self-identified Jews in the arts communities, the Jewish communal world and audiences. And somewhere along the road, JDub also hopes to nurture new bands and performers to sign to their label.

In the very short term, the July 27 concert is a useful launching pad for JDub in Los Angeles, highlighting two of their bands — Golem, a hard-driving klezmer-punk-gypsy fusion, and Soulico, a powerful crew of Israeli DJs whose guests for this performance will include the Ethiopian-Israeli MCs of Axum and Sagol 59, the grand old man of Israeli hip-hop. In its sheer atypicality, the double-bill is typical of JDub, Bisman says.

“Both [bands] help us fill in the picture of the diversity of the world of Jewish music we’ve always been striving for,” he says. “Eastern European Jewish — and non-Jewish — folk tunes played as rock and punk, led by an amateur female ethnomusicologist, and an Israeli DJ crew building original hip-hop out of Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms.”

Not coincidentally, both groups have new CDs scheduled for release in early 2009. (Hey, we said they weren’t just a record label.)

“New York has been our base of support and our home,” Bisman says. “But our plan is to grow as a national organization, to find artists and funding outside New York City.”

Schotland is optimistic.

“For us, while the art is significant, it’s the vision they have for the utilization of the art to provide a way for young Jewish adults to identify with their Jewish identity [that] was most impressive about their proposal,” he says. “The proof of the pudding will be five years from now.”

Golem, Soulico, with Sagol 59 and Axum as guest artists, and Slivovitz and Soul will be performing free at Grand Performances (California Plaza, Waterfront Stage) on Sunday, July 27 at 7 p.m.

Don’t hold your breath on plans for baby


Nothing is more exciting than finding out that you’re having a baby. The moment I found out I was expecting, I began making grand plans. I read the books, spoke to pregnant friends and questioned all the new mommies I knew. Then I made some big decisions.

Disposable diapers were clogging the landfills — I would use cloth. Baby foods had preservatives — I would puree my own. Cavities begin before teeth appear — no bottles in bed.

There would be no junk food, no TV, no yelling, no spanking, no spoiling, no bribing. I would provide only classical music and educational toys. I would never use food for reward or punishment. My baby would never use a pacifier or learn to suck his thumb. The list went on and on, and then our precious son was born.

Shortly after we came home, our son started an interesting habit. When upset, he would cry very hard, turn blue around the lips and make no sound. Then the bluish color would spread until he hysterically gasped for air and turned pink again. I got somewhat used to this routine until he progressed to the point of passing out.

“He’s a breath holder,” the pediatrician said calmly.

“The books said nothing about breath holders,” I wailed.

“It’s not very common, but it happens,” he said. “Don’t worry. He’ll start breathing again as soon as he passes out. Just don’t blow in his face.”

“What?”

“They used to say that if you blow in the baby’s face, he’ll catch his breath,” the pediatrician said. “But it really doesn’t work; it just makes him madder.”

He paused right before administering the vaccination.

“When I give him his shot, he’ll probably start crying,” the pediatrician said as he stabbed the needle into my baby’s thigh.

Sure enough, the crying began, the lips went blue, the face grew ashen and my baby passed out. It happened again with another shot in the other thigh.

As I packed up the diaper bag, sniffling back my own tears, the pediatrician warned me: “Don’t let him manipulate you, or he’ll use breath-holding to get what wants. He’ll grow out of it eventually. See you next month.”

From that moment on, my grand promises were cast aside. Attempting to avoid crying and fainting episodes, I broke my own rules. I kept pacifiers everywhere and shoved one in his mouth at the smallest whimper. When he tired of pacifiers, I taught him how to suck his thumb. When he wanted up, I picked him up.

Diaper changing was a particularly tricky time. He’d be happy and bubbly for the first 30 seconds or so, but if it took any longer than that, he would become frustrated at being on his back and begin to cry. Since I could change disposable more quickly than cloth, I fired the diaper service. Once I had crossed the diaper line, it was easy to give in on anything.

I developed a do-what-works attitude. Why be so rigid? Jar food was just fine. In fact, he ate so much that I switched from organic to whatever was on sale. I used generic wipes on his tender tush.
One time, I found the dog licking his face after a messy spaghetti meal. My son loved it. From then on, I sat him on the kitchen floor and let the dog clean him up after he ate. A mother must find clever ways to make her job easier.

As the doctor predicted, the breath-holding eventually subsided. By the time my second son came along, my child-rearing methods had evolved considerably.

Potty training? M”&”Ms for a tinkle in the toilet. Television? How did we grow up without videos? Spanking? Watch your toddler dash into oncoming traffic and then tell me you never spank. Yelling? Ever seen a cheesecake after 10 minutes in the microwave? Bribery? Try taking two toddlers to the market and see how long it takes before you say: “If you’re good, mommy will buy you….”

That breath-holding baby is now 16 years old. A few thousand dollars in orthodontia fixed the overbite that the thumb caused. He regularly uses the potty without expecting M”&”Ms. The last time he had a shot, he hardly let out a peep.

The only time he holds his breath is when he’s swimming, and the bribery item of choice has progressed from cookies to car keys. He does, however, still eat his way through the grocery store.

So, have your baby, make your plans, set your limits, follow your rules. And when things don’t go the way you expected and the mess is just too big and you feel like crying until you pass out, do what I did — put the baby on the floor and let the dog clean up.

Originality trumps repetition in the holiday songs battle


I will be frank. I’m tired of hearing the same holiday songs over and over. So the best Chanukah present I’ve received this year is a pile of Chanukah-themed CDs with lots of new holiday songs, many of them quite good. Here’s what crossed my desk this December.

The Klezmatics: “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah” (JMG) and “Wonder Wheel” (JMG). I wasn’t that enthused by the “Matics” Guthrie Chanukah set when it was released last year, but I have to admit I was wrong.

This is a spirited, jaunty and frequently funny set that should be particularly appealing to children (and will give their parents a respite from “The Dreydl Song”). The set adds four instrumental tracks to last year’s release, allowing the band to stretch out and show their chops, but my favorite is a carry-over, “The Many and the Few,” a classic example of Guthrie’s skill at rendering narratives into song lyrics redolent of ballad classics.

“Wonder Wheel” continues the Klezmatics’ collaboration with the Guthrie Archives, which is looking like a very fruitful pairing indeed. Drawing a wide range of moods and tones from the archives collection of previously unset lyrics, the band gets to show off its considerable range, from a funky faux-Latin “Mermaid Avenue” to a lovely Calpyso-ish lullaby “Headdy Down,” from a weirdly Asiatic/alternative-country “Pass Away” to a klezmer “Goin’ Away to Sea.” One of the surprises of the set is how profoundly spiritual some of the Guthrie lyrics are. One expects the good-natured progressivism of something like “Come When I Call You” and “Heaven,” but the deeply felt religious feeling of “Holy Ground” is unexpected and moving.

The LeeVees: “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” (JDub/iTunes). When the LeeVees’ “Hanukkah Rocks” came out on JDub last year, I wrote, “Alt-rock heavies Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis felt that the post-punk world desperately needed a Chanukah record of its own…. The result is a very funny, smart self-satire, with adolescent agonies turned into the difficult choice of sour cream vs. applesauce (‘Tell your mom to fry, not bake’) and of not getting presents (well, there are ‘six-packs of new socks from each of our moms’).” Now, they have added an EP, mostly of playful acoustic versions of the previous Chanukah tunes and a punchy new tune “Jewish Stars,” downloadable from iTunes. Like the originals, these are amiable, bouncy and witty rockers. Thirteen minutes of pure pleasure.

The Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble: “Chanukah Is Freylekh!” (self-distributed). This is a very jolly set of European-style performances — tsimbl and fiddle predominate, no brass — that often feels like a family gathering. And that’s appropriate, because the CD comes with dance directions for kids, as well as the usual translations, bios and such. It is a delightful recording, fueled by Cahan-Simon’s warm, friendly sound. Available from Hatikvah Music, (323) 655-7083 or hatikvahmusic.com.

Poppa’s Kitchen: “A Rockin’ Hanukkah” (self-distributed). A cheerful MOR-rock set of new Chanukah songs from Robert Romanus (who you may recall from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Scott Feldman. The EP (only 21 minutes) has one song for each night, a cheerful blend of California rock and holiday spirit, witty lyrics and some hook-filled tunes. Available from cdbaby.com.

Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman: “Fli, Mayn Fishlang! Fly, Fly My Kite!” (Yiddishland). It is devoutly to be hoped that casual listeners will not dismiss Schaechter-Gottesman as the “flavor of the month” because she has become so prominent of late; she has more than earned the attention, and I, for one, hope it continues for a long time. The quality of musicians she attracts is one mark of how good she is — this set includes contributions by Lorin Sklamberg, Binumen Schaechter, Matt Darriau and Ben Holmes. This CD features her Yiddish children’s songs, which have a charming wistfulness that reminds me more of a French chanson than anything else. There are also songs for several holidays (including a couple of Chanukah tunes) and, as usual from Schaechter-Gottesman, a lot of yearning lyrics about the changing of the seasons. Available from yiddishlandrecords.com.

Julie Silver: “It’s Chanukah Time” (HyLo). Of course, there is another way to pep up those tired traditional holiday songs — you can reinterpret them, change the lyrics around, make them contemporary. This is often a recipe for disaster, but Silver’s “The Dreidel Song” reworked as a frisky country rocker works wonderfully (almost hilariously) well, and sets a high standard for the rest of this set. A reggae “Al Hanisim” and a Latin-flavored “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” work almost as well. The only problem with this approach, even when it’s done right, is that the focus shifts from the message of the holiday to a guessing game: What’s next, a goth-metal “Mi Yimalel,” “Maoz Tzur” as a morning raga? Silver doesn’t do anything that absurd, so the set doesn’t spiral out of control, but there is an inevitable lingering doubt in the listener’s mind that some of the choices were motivated by the need for the unfamiliar rather than the musical possibilities. Still, it’s a nicely played and sung set. Available from hyloproductions.com and at Barnes & Noble.

In addition to these Chanukah-themed recordings, there are two big-ticket items to keep in mind when doing your year-end gift shopping. The ongoing partnership between Naxos Records and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music has resulted in 50 CDs showcasing the remarkable range of Jewish American music; although they will continue to issue new recordings on a regular basis, they are celebrating this milestone by offering a set of those first sets. The deluxe box set of all 50 Milken Archive CDs will be available for $349, a savings of $100 if purchased individually. Available at milkenarchive.org.

If you are feeling less ambitious or less solvent, or if you know an aspiring Jewish musician, you should consider Yale Strom’s latest project, “The Absolutely Complete Klezmer Songbook,” published by Transcontinental Music. This volume boasts more than 300 songs that Strom has collected in his travels through the Old Country, and comes with a CD that features his performances of 36 of them. At $49.95, it is a must for anyone interested in East European Jewish music. Availble wherever music books are sold.

George Robinson, film and music critic for Jewish Week, is the author of “Essential Torah” (Shocken Books, 2006).

Single, 60, and invisible no more


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can I say but the beat goes on.

He’s a nice person with a good heart.

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

The Trailblazer’s Toolbox: Programs That Grab


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Superpower: Datedar


Some folks claim they have “gaydar” — they can tell whether someone is gay.

Some folks claim they have “Jewdar” — they can tell whether someone is Jewish.

I’ve
got “datedar” — I can tell if a couple is on a first date.

It’s kind of a cool power … I mean none of the X-Men, Superfriends or wizards in “Harry Potter” have ever shown the ability to tell instantly if they are in the presence of a couple on their first date.

I was recently in line with my boyfriend at the Farmer’s Market Coffee Bean, when I overheard a young couple (probably early 20s) in front of us. Both wore jeans: He had on a nice T-shirt with a plaid shirt over it, she had on a baby doll T-shirt. I turned to my boyfriend and told him: They’re on a first date.
He looked at me with a slightly bewildered expression and asked how I knew. I then told him what confirmed it: He offered to pay for both of them; she politely said that wasn’t necessary. He insisted. She relented. While waiting for their coffee, he informed her about his car; she remarked how nice that model of car is. The kicker: They never touched, but their body images totally mirrored each other.

I tried to stop looking in their direction while I waited for my mocha — but I couldn’t help it. My curiosity would not allow me to let it go. I watched them get their drinks and walk out the door (he held it open for her). I smiled and secretly wished them a good date (I couldn’t very well say it out loud, now could I?).

Sometimes I don’t even need the datedar — just a really good ear. One night at a sushi restaurant in Woodland Hills, I watched a nicely dressed woman sitting in the waiting area. She kept futzing with her hair and looking at her watch. A few minutes later, a nicely dressed man walked in. He looked at her and said, “Linda?” She stood up from her chair and said, “David?”

They shook hands and did an awkward half-hug thing, and I thought: “Hmmm? JDate?” They took their seats at the sushi counter, and I spent the remainder of my meal stealing glances at their interaction. And to confirm my suspicions, the word JDate was mentioned twice.

When I see a couple on their first date, I have to restrain the urge to walk up to the female half and ask (in my mother’s voice), “So, how’s it going? Do we sense a second date here?” I think people on their first date are so cute — like “adorable outfit in the window of Baby Gap” cute — that you just can’t help but say, “Awww, cute!”

But why should I care so much about two people whom I’ve never seen before and — more likely than not — will never see again? Is it the relief that “thank God it isn’t me?” Is it the sense of nostalgia — thinking back on my first date with my boyfriend (also a coffee date)? Is it our desire to know everything about everyone (thank you, Google)? Is it that Cupid has come through and put another couple on the road to love? I think it might be a smidge of all four.
Unfortunately, my datedar doesn’t work beyond date No. 1. If you are on your second date or beyond, mazel tov — but I wouldn’t be able to tell. It’s like my Kryptonite kicks in after the couple says, “Good night.” However, the datedar does have the ability to morph into “newlywedar.”

When I was on a cruise with my best friend, I got to put my newlywedar to the test. We were sitting in the ship’s theater, waiting to watch a show, when a young couple holding hands walked down the stairs and sat two rows ahead of us. A few minutes later, the guy stood up and began walking back up the stairs — but not before he gave his ring a couple of turns. As he passed me, I said, “Congratulations.”

His new bride heard me and turned around.

“How did you know?” she asked.

“He was playing with his ring,” I told her with a smile.

Newlywedar is nice because you actually can talk to the couple — the only problem you’d encounter would be if you were wrong and he was twisting his ring because he was having an allergic reaction to something that made his hands swell up. Luckily that rarely happens.

It isn’t hard to increase your datedar — or newlywedar — powers. All you need is the ability to observe little details about those around you — a la Hercule Poirot or Nancy Drew. However, make sure not to stare too long at the couple or you will just creep them out.

Having datedar won’t make you famous, it won’t save the world and you don’t even get to wear a cool costume — but it is free, and it makes you feel good. And maybe that’s enough.

And to all you singles who will be embarking on first dates this weekend, look for me — I’ll be the smiling blonde waiting for her Banana Mocha.

Iranians Open Shul in Garment District


With a new Torah in their arms, about 100 local Iranian Jewish businessmen sang Hebrew songs and danced down a busy street in downtown Los Angeles’s garment district June 13 to celebrate the official opening of a new synagogue, where many Iranians have their businesses.

As a DJ blasted Israeli music and kebab dinners were served, congregants packed the elegantly decorated 700-square-foot sanctuary, known as the “Downtown Synagogue,” to give thanks and pray. The shul is situated inside a store, alongside fabric outlets, on Cecilia Street, between Eighth and Ninth streets.

“Baruch Hashem, we are very pleased with the new synagogue,” said Avi Cohan, a local Iranian businessman who is one of the founders of the Downtown Synagogue. “It looks just amazing with the nice chairs, and it’s perfect for many of us who wanted a place for prayer at the end of the work day.”

Prior to the festivities, approximately 25 Iranian Jewish business owners gathered at a local textile warehouse, where they each pledged to donate between $260 and $1,500 for each of the last Hebrew letters Cohan was writing to complete the synagogue’s Torah. The Torah was made in Israel for the congregation, and funds still needed to be raised to cover the cost.

Cohan had reason to boast about the new synagogue, whose initial dozen or so congregants first began to assemble in his downtown office to recite Mincha and Arvit prayers nearly 12 years ago. The congregants formed the initial Downtown Synagogue because they were often unable to beat the rush hour traffic to arrive at daily services at synagogues in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles.

“It’s very convenient for me, because sometimes during the week, I’m in downtown and need a place to pray, so I go there because there is always a minyan, and it’s close by,” said businessman Dara Abaei, an Iranian community activist.

Cohan and other founders said they wanted to create a place of spirituality, as well as a social center, in the business district, which also has an Iranian shul in the jewelry district, between Broadway and Hill streets.

“Our main goal was to little by little get businessmen in our community to close their businesses on Shabbat and bring them closer to God,” said Cohan. “Many are also, unfortunately, too busy during the day to make it to a synagogue to say the Kaddish on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths, so our synagogue provides them with a place to do that.”

Although the afternoon ceremony marked the official opening of the synagogue space, Cohan said congregants have unofficially been holding services at the Cecilia Street location for the last two years.

Contrary to most shuls, the Downtown Synagogue is open only on weekdays and closed on Saturdays and High Holidays. Between 50 to 60 people regularly attend. On Tuesdays, congregants also hear a devar Torah by Rabbi Yosef Shem Tov of the Torat Hayim Kohel in the Pico-Robertson area.

The move to create a formal space for the group began in 2003, when local Iranian businessmen Ezri Namvar and Solomon Rasetgar stepped forward to furnish the rent-free store situated inside a building they co-owned. Namvar and Rastegar recently sold the building housing the synagogue, but they said the current owner, who is not Jewish, has continued to permit the congregation to stay there without paying rent, Namvar said. The new owner was not available for comment.

Cohan said approximately $15,000 was raised through direct contributions. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, who generally generate the revenue for synagogues through membership fees, Iranian Jews have traditionally raised such funds by auctioning off aliyot during services or asking individuals for direct donations.

Namvar said his family has always strived to keep Judaism alive in Los Angeles and worldwide by supporting Jewish groups, regardless of their specific denominations.

“Our passion is for Jewish education, and we try to help organizations that promote Jewish education, whether they are Orthodox, Reform or Conservative,” Namvar said.

For more information on the Downtown Synagogue call (213) 215-6061.

 

Arsonist Attacks Persian Synagogue in Tarzana


Police have labeled as an arson-related hate crime a fire ignited early
Friday at the rear door of a yet-to-open Persian synagogue in Tarzana.
Investigators found anti-Semitic graffiti at the scene, as well as a
burnt door and trash.

The attack came two days before the grand opening of Beith David Education Center’s new building. Congregants are scheduled to carry Torahs from the shul’s original location nearby at Reseda Boulevard to the new home in the
18600 block of Clark Street
on Sunday, July 9.

Parviz Hakimi
“I hope the people who have done it, they come to their senses,” said Parviz Hakimi, the synagogue’s vice president, who hopes those responsible will turn themselves in.

The blaze was started at 3 a.m. using a pile of discarded carpet scraps and cardboard boxes that had been moved to directly beneath the oak front door, according to Sgt. Jim Setzer of the LAPD’s West Valley Division. The flames were quickly extinguished by the synagogue’s fire-suppression system, which runs along the building’s eaves. Damage was limited to the door.

Hakimi said the initial damage estimate is $4,000, enough to classify the crime as a felony.

Anti-Semitic graffiti was found on a retaining wall of the building as well as on a window that looks into a room where Kohanim wash their hands and feet.

A joint House of Worship Task Force that includes detectives from the LAPD’s criminal conspiracy section, L.A. Fire Department investigators, as well as FBI and ATF officials were first on the scene after a congregant living nearby called police at 6:30 a.m. Officials are still investigating and currently have no suspects.

Because construction has not been completed at Beith David, the building is presently without a security camera system. However, LAPD detective Ray Morales said police were able to collect forensic evidence at the scene that could help investigators identify the arsonist.

Following an inquiry by the mayor’s office and City Councilman Dennis Zine, the LAPD reported that patrols of the area will be stepped up in advance of the new shul’s Sunday ceremony.

“I’m horrified to see this, especially because this is my community. It’s a very sad day,” said Fortuna Ippoliti, area director of neighborhood and community services for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“It’s probably some misguided kids,” Tarzana Neighborhood Council President Leonard Shaffer said as he looked over the scene. “It’s really ridiculous.”

The attack comes three years after a string of arsons in a nearby area targeted The Iranian Synagogue, Da’at Torah Educational Center, as well as the Conservative shul Valley Beth Shalom. There have also been attacks on the nearby First Presbyterian Church of Encino and the Baha’i Faith Community Center. Farshid Tehrani, an Iranian Jewish immigrant allegedly suffering from depression, was arrested in connection with those crimes in May 2003.

Beith David Education Center’s journey to the new location has been a long one. After a years-long battle over parking that has kept the congregation in its Reseda Boulevard location, Hakimi says nothing will stop the congregation from moving to Clark Street.

The synagogue purchased the former post-office building for $1 million in 2002, but L.A. City Council approval for the new structure turned into a two-year battle. The Tarzana Property Owners Association claimed the Orthodox synagogue would require at least 150 parking spaces, claiming that members followed a more Conservative style of worship and often drove to services. Synagogue representatives rejected the argument, saying that its congregants were Orthodox, regularly walk to the shul on Shabbat and do not need the parking.

Following City Council approval of the Clark Street site in 2004, the Beith David congregation has devoted the last year and a half and has spent a $1.2 million on renovation of the building in advance of its grand opening. Beith David has limited the advertising of the Sunday event to Radio Iran 670 AM, a local Iranian newspaper and word-of-mouth among congregants.

Like Shaffer, Beith David Vice President Hakimi believes the targeting of his synagogue was likely a hate-crime by youths and not a targeted attack related to the City Council battle or animosity toward Persians.

“This is an isolated situation, and it doesn’t reflect on the community that we live in. That is my hope,” Hakimi said. “But it’s a very sad incident.”

 

Class Notes


New Yeshiva Flying SCY High
Founding board members of the new Southern California Yeshiva High School (SCY High) for boys in La Jolla knew that with a history of failed yeshiva high schools in the area, they had to offer the community something new and innovative. So they, along with headmaster Kevin Cloud, developed a school that utilizes high-tech project-based learning to integrate all disciplines — from science to literature to Gemara.

The school, the only Orthodox boys high school in the San Diego area, attracted 17 boys in ninth and 10th grades last year, its first year of existence, and next year between 25 and 30 are expected to be enrolled in the ninth through 11th grades. One Los Angeles boy boarded with relatives, and next year several families are opening up their homes to students who want to board.

As a school starting from scratch, teachers were able to take novel approaches to study.

The ninth graders, for example, read Goethe’s “Faust,” then rewrote it as short film. They created sets — some using “South Park”-style puppets, some using stop-action dolls and action figures — set it to music, and filmed short movies. The 10th graders read Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” then rewrote a modernized version then studied and debated the moral implications of making Faustus Jewish.

“What you do in project-based learning is you take the ability the students have in one subject and you bring that enthusiasm into another subject,” Cloud said.

The students also get traditional instruction, but even there things tend to blend.

In Rabbi Moshe Adatto’s Gemara class, students had to present talmudic arguments in a PowerPoint flowchart. Each student is given a Dell laptop when they enter, and the school is wired for high-speed wireless Internet access.

To Adatto, who previously was a teacher at the Valley Kollel, it’s all part of making kids love school and love Judaism.

“We’re trying to create lifelong learners, and to me that has two components: They have to know how to learn, and they have to want to learn,” said Adatto, who organized Shabbatons and other events to build school spirit.

All but one student has reenrolled for next year, and an anonymous survey that all of the parents filled out brought back astonishing results for a Jewish school: No one — not one family — reported being anything less than satisfied.

For more information on SCY High School, contact (858) 658-0857 or visit www.scyhigh.org.

Follow the Fellows to Israel
Three Southern California teens were among 26 selected nationally to visit Israel on a five-week Bronfman Youth Fellowship this summer. Priscella Frank of Calabasas High School and Benjamin and Mitzi Steiner of Shalhevet were selected following a rigorous application process. They will participate in an intensive program of study and travel in Israel designed to develop leaders committed to Jewish unity.

The fellows participate in seminars and dialogues with diverse rabbinic faculty and spend a week with a group of Israeli peers who have been chosen through Amitei Bronfman, a parallel Israeli program. Bronfman Youth Fellows are asked to complete 40 hours of community service when they return home at the end of the summer.

3 Books = 31 Flavors
Students at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy have another reason to pick up a good book — to satisfy their sweet tooth. As part of the Be a Star Reader program, elementary and middle school kids who read three books this spring were awarded a free ice cream cone at any Baskin-Robbins. Arna Schwartz, the school librarian, has run the Be a Star Reader program for several years, purchasing Baskin-Robbins gift certificates. This year, Robert Schwartz, who owns the Baskin-Robbins on Kinross Avenue in Westwood, offered to sponsor the program. Other Schools or youth organizations interested in participating in the Baskin-Robbins Reading Rewards Program can contact Robert Schwartz at (310) 208-8048.

To Bee or Not to Bee
More than 150 boys from Chabad schools across the world gathered in Los Angeles in April for a battle of wits on Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot. Cheder Menachem in Los Angeles was the host school of the chidon, or bee, which attracted 1,000 spectators to the finals held at Emerson Middle School. The girls’ competition was held the week before in New York. Local winners were Sender Labkowsky, first place, older division; Mendel Mishulovin, third place, older division; and Shmully Lezak, third place, younger division.

ADL Reaches 700,000 Students
As part of LAUSD’s Live Violence-Free Day, 35,000 teachers in the district were urged to use materials and activities they received from the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) A World of Difference Institute, impacting more than 700,000 K-12 students in one day. The activities and lesson plans were designed to assist educators in addressing issues of bias, discrimination, bullying and violence, and focused on empowering students to become agents of change on their campuses. For more information on ADL education programs, contact Jenny Betz at (310) 446-8000, ext. 233.

 

Scheduled Relaxation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, that.

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

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

Even if it means I have to schedule it.

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

Spectator – The Theme Park Without a Prayer


Bible Storyland must have a guardian angel. Dissolution by the clergy, dormancy for 45 years and a fatal fire were not powerful enough to erase the plans for this Bible-based theme park from history.

And now, art collector Harvey Jordan is working to inform Californians about this piece of their past in a new exhibition at the University of Judaism titled, “Dream Parks: Artwork From the Bible Storyland Theme Park.”

Nearly five decades have elapsed since Nat Winecoff, former Disney promoter and theme park developer, conceived of a $15 million Bible story-based Disneyland-esque place, which he planned to build on 220 acres of land in Cucamonga (now Rancho Cucamonga). Investors included actor Jack Haley and Donald Duncan of Yo-Yo and modern-day parking meter fame. However, the clergy allegedly quashed the idea and Bible Storyland was never erected.

More than 200 drawings and watercolor paintings of Winecoff’s brainchild, created by former Disney artist Bruce Bushman and a handful of other artists, remained after the deal went sour. Another art collector purchased the artwork from Winecoff’s estate and kept it holed up in his apartment until he and his possessions perished in a fire. Miraculously, 50 paintings of Bible Storyland survived the blaze.

Bible Storyland was a unique concept that mingled Disneyland-type family-oriented rides and attractions with biblical stories. A press release issued in 1960 described the plans at length.

To be constructed in the shape of a heart, Bible Storyland would have included different “lands,” each with its own theme, tied to either pre-Christian times, the Bible or the New Testament. Parkgoers would arrive at a Star of David garden and could then saunter through the Garden of Eden and visit Adam and Eve. Visitors could also venture to Israel and ride animals through Noah’s Ark Carousel, explore the inside of the whale with Jonah and watch Moses on Mount Sinai. Other locales would have included ancient Egypt, Babylon and Rome, as well as Ur, where Abraham began his journey to the Promised Land.

Jordan has assumed the role of promoter and savior of the history of Bible Storyland.

“I am now the holder of Bible Storyland,” he said. “From what I understand, I have the rest of the drawings and nobody else has kept them alive or written about it.”

The art can be seen at the Borstein Gallery at the University of Judaism through Aug. 20. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310) 440-1201 or visit

Jazz and Classical in Perfect Harmony


Throughout his career, musician Uri Caine has gambled that he could find a niche in unconventional musical settings — and he’s usually won. His body of work includes hard-swinging jazz, contemporary imaginings of Jewish musical themes and controversial reworkings of hallowed masterpieces by Bach, Beethoven and Mahler. Not only has the 49-year-old Caine dared to alter the notes written by classical masters, but he’s also incorporated decidedly nontraditional sonic elements into his recordings — like D.J. effects and the voice of a Sephardic cantor.

For his next daring feat, as the composer-in-residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), Caine will debut a concerto for two pianos and chamber orchestra this month in Los Angeles, incorporating improvisation between his piano and the piano of LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane, as part of a salute to Mozart in the year marking the 250th anniversary of his birth. Caine’s piece is hardly a clichéd “jazzing up” of Mozart. Instead, the new composition uses the Austrian master as a point of departure for a composition written in a contemporary musical language that is very much Caine’s own.

“People ask me, ‘How do we categorize this music?'” says Caine, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his wife, artist Jan Caine. “‘Should we put it in the classical department or put it in the jazz department?’ As an idealist, I say put it in both. See what happens.”

LACO’s Kahane, whose musician son Gabriel first urged his skeptical father to explore Caine’s music, says that because of the composer’s unusual level of mastery in multiple genres, Caine does far more than simply translate a classical style into a jazz idiom.

“He’s literally reimagining the music and placing it in a great many different contexts,” Kahane says. “His stylistic vocabulary is so vast, and he’s so skillful in moving from one vocabulary to another, that he’s able to use all these different languages as commentary on the piece — and uses the piece to comment on other pieces, and other pieces besides the piece to comment on it. One of the wonderful things about Uri is that you don’t know what’s going to come out.”

Caine has had his ears wide open to a broad musical palette ever since he was seduced by the jazz, classical, funk and pop music of Philadelphia as a teenager in the mid-1970s. His musical education also had a distinctive Jewish flavor; as the son of two professors who diligently taught their children “Eliezer Ben-Yehudah” Hebrew, Caine ended up hearing a lot of Israeli pop and Sephardic music. The family would sing Jewish folk songs together around the table.

“My parents grew up in the generation of young people after the Holocaust — and they were embracing the Hebrew movement,” Caine says. “They weren’t religious necessarily, but at some point they thought about moving to Israel, even though they never left — they still live in Philadelphia.”

After studying with prominent composers George Rochberg and George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, and heading off to nighttime jam sessions that sometimes included jazz legends Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley, Caine spent time finding himself. After stints in Philadelphia and Israel, Caine decided in 1985 to move to New York City, perhaps the most vibrant but challenging jazz city in the world.

Caine credits his successes today to a willingness to stick with his musical vision through lean times.

“Follow that instinct,” he urges young musicians. “It’ll happen, if you work hard, and you can keep moving somehow.”

Caine’s critical buzz arrived with the release of Urlicht/Primal Light, a bold re-imagining of various Mahler compositions, released in 1997. While tradition-minded listeners objected — some walked out in protest at a 1998 performance in Toblach, Italy — the piece received a composer’s prize for best Mahler CD of the year.

Caine thought of the Mahler project in the manner of a jazz musician interpreting an established work. Just as in the 1960s, Miles Davis would reconceive a tune written by Cole Porter, so Caine would transform Mahler’s teeming stylistic soundscapes. Inescapably, some listeners saw the piece as an artistic reaction that embodied Caine’s Jewish identity, because of Mahler’s ultimate conversion to Christianity.

“Maybe, if you’re a German, you’re looking at the project as this New York Jewish person reinterpreting Jewish music — on the one hand, that seems very racist, because everything is reduced to that,” Caine says. “On the other hand, I understand it. Mahler’s life is a very interesting subject from that point of view.”

Caine is fascinated by the complexities of Jewish identity, but resents having the aesthetic breadth and complexity of his work reduced to a simple religious or political message: “The artist should be free — I mean everybody should be free — to like what they like, and not have to be pressured by the group.”

Still, Caine is hardly dismissive of his Jewish background: “It’s that conflict between an individual just trying to embrace different things and use everything that is out there. And also the reality that you come from a tradition. A very long, proud tradition of survival and innovation and creativity.”

Caine’s own work is also marked by inventiveness. And yet, say admirers, he’s the rare bird who can take on intellectually demanding projects without drowning in pedantry. His work can be complex without losing its playful vitality.

Uri Caine will premiere his “Concerto for Two Pianos and Chamber Orchestra” on May 20 at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Boulevard, Glendale, and May 21 at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA campus. $22-$80. For more information, call (213) 622-7001 ext. 215, or visit

Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 — Original Sin.

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

2 — Faith vs. Law.

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

3 — The Messiah.

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

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

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

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

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

 

When Faiths Jam


At the Southern California Islamic Center last Saturday night, only Shawn Landres dared utter a four-letter word. That word was, “kumbaya.”

Yes, the evening brought together about 150 Jews, Muslims and Christians for a night of prayer and music at the center, which had never before hosted such a gathering.

And yes, it began with a drum circle.

But if the faithful had one thing in common, underneath their kippahs and collars and hijabs, it was that not one of them wanted this night confused with those circa-1970-“Free to Be You and Me” warm and cuddly attempts at interfaith dialogue. No, this was Faith Jam 2006.

And the biggest difference between those previous attempts at ethno-religious harmony and this one? This one seemed to work.

Musician and community organizer Craig Taubman had wanted such an event to be part of the weeklong “Let My People Sing” celebration. The Passover-themed musical happenings took place in synagogues and community centers throughout L.A. An interfaith component, he told me, fit the theme: “Passover is about liberation, and we’re enslaved by our hatreds.”

Organizing took finesse. Taubman tapped Landres, director of research at Synagogue 3000, to use his ample interfaith Rolodex. He brought on 16 Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups as co-sponsors, including Abraham’s Vision, IKAR, Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

The Islamic Center came on board enthusiastically, according to its religious director, Jihad Turk. But there were conditions: grape juice, not wine, for Havdalah; no dancing; appropriate dress; and no overt mention from the Christians of Jesus as God or the messiah. The center vetted the gospel choir’s songs, and in the program its name, The Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church Choir, became COR A.M.E.

Another concern was overloading the event with Jews, a drawback of interfaith dialogues past. Landres compiled three R.S.V.P. lists and cut off the Jewish respondents in order to ensure equivalent amounts of Muslims and Christians. By 8 p.m. the place was full, the drumming had stopped, and Turk quieted the crowd with the traditional, piercing Muslim call to prayer.

The evening had three acts. First came ritual. Taubman and Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, another co-sponsor, lit the traditional Havdalah candle, woven together from three wicks.

“This night and nights like this are so long overdue,” Rabbi Levy said. “Tonight we pray to come together to celebrate our differences and treasure our oneness.” (The rabbi also happens to be my wife, but no person of any faith seemed to hold that against her.)

The Rev. Wilma Jakobsen of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena gave a brief sermon, urging the audience members to work within their faith traditions to help the poor and oppressed.

Then Turk invited everyone to shed their shoes and join the center’s men and women for the traditional evening prayers, or isha, men shoulder to shoulder in front, women behind them. “We hope to get a better understanding of who the Other is,” Turk said.

Several Jews migrated over to the prayer room and lined up as the prayer leader led the worship. It was the full-on experience — standing, kneeling, bowing — just what you see on the evening news but with, yes, some Jews and Christians sprinkled in. I mentioned to a woman standing nearby that the young man leading the prayers, Abdelwahab Ben Youcef, was almost unnaturally handsome.

“Oh, he’s an actor,” she said. “He played one of the Palestinian terrorists in ‘Munich.'”

After the ritual came the main program: the music. The Christ Our Redeemer gospel choir lit up the room, followed by Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim recording artist and head of the co-sponsoring Progressive Muslim Union. Then came the Yuval Ron Ensemble, whose Middle Eastern music, with its organic blending of Muslim and Jewish roots, enthralled the crowd (their CD table did brisk sales) and MC Rai, a Tunisian-born Muslim hip-hop artist. Two comedians, the Jewish Beth Lapidus and the Muslim Maz Jobrani provided comedy breaks.

And afterward came the mingling.

Why was this night different from all other attempts at interfaith dialogue?

First, the crowd skewed young. Because the agenda was largely musical, the night brought out young Jews and Muslims, the demographic that wanted a fun night out, not a lecture.

Second, the ritual wasn’t dumbed down. People who knew their stuff conducted Havdalah and the Muslim evening prayer, without abridgment or reinterpretation. I asked Landres why that was — and that’s when he said the word.

“We’re not doing ‘Kumbaya’ where we all get together and hug,” he said. “This is the way a new generation does dialogue.”

What Landres seemed to mean was: There was no dialogue. We didn’t have to sit in a circle and look into the Other’s eyes and tell him how we feel. No one led a pointless discussion about Mideast peace — as if we have any say in it.

“It’s just breaking the ice,” Turk told me, “and music goes beyond words.”

Actually, I noticed only a modest amount of real mixing. Most people hung with their own, enjoying the music, baklava, mint tea and enhanced bottled water beverage. The reviews were positive.

Islamic Center members Nadim and Gita Itani — he’s Lebanese, she’s Iranian — pronounced it good.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Nadim, a 30-something architect. “And it’s about time.”

The apparent success of the enterprise gave him hope.

“It’s foundational,” he said. “Singing beside a Jew as we close the Sabbath, that’s when you get goose bumps.”

A young Palestinian American who only wanted to give his name as Muhammed — “I work in the entertainment industry,” he explained — said the Havdalah ritual he witnessed touched him, too.

“We have to all get together,” he said. “People who are opposed to this kind of night, they shouldn’t even be in this country.”

Now that kind of intolerance? It’s a beautiful thing.

 

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday April 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

PASSOVER: Songs for a Swinging Seder


Of all the Jewish holidays, none is so firmly rooted in the home and so joyously celebrated with song as Passover. This simple fact would lead you to expect an avalanche of Passover records, but this year the avalanche is more like a mild rain of pebbles, at least in the quantity department. The quality is pretty high, but don’t count on finding much for your own seder table. These records should come with the warning: “Trained singing professionals; do not try this at home.”

The two most unusual and interesting of the four new CDs both use hip-hop as a touchstone. Samples, cut-ups, rapping, multiple overdubbing with hard beats — the usual package — used artfully by Craig Taubman on “The Passover Lounge” (Craig + Co.) and Josh Dolgin, better known as SoCalled, on “The SoCalled Seder: A Hip-Hop Haggadah” (JDub).

Taubman’s outing is more musically conservative, generally staying close to the familiar holiday tunes and drawing on a trippy vibe that nicely complements his breezy tenor singing. Co-producer Luke Tozour provides some tasty beats and samples and a lot of friendly ambient sound. (Hey, guys, my seder never sounds this mellow — where is all the screaming and yelling?) It’s a nice little package that turns the Four Questions into juicy, dreamy funk and the recounting of the plagues into something like “old-skool horror” rap. If Taubman has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, the humor is affectionate and endearing.

SoCalled, unsurprisingly, is after something tougher, with more street cred and a straight-razor edge. Taking samples from old how-to-do-a-seder records and slicing and dicing them into a bubbling stew of breakbeat sounds, scratching from P.Love, klezmer instrumentals from Elaine and Susan Hoffman Watts, high-powered sax funk from Paul Shapiro, and a startling rap from Killah Priest on the plagues, he has created a Pesach for downtown hipsters. I love it but I’m pretty sure my zayde would not. As the old joke goes, if he were alive, this would kill him. Be forewarned.

If you are seeking a more traditional Passover recording, you might be more comfortable with “The Spirit of Passover: Voices of the Conservative Movement” (Cantors Assembly/United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), a sampler that was actually released last year but which didn’t turn up on my desk until a few weeks ago. The current issue of Judaism is devoted to a long discussion of the current state and possible future of the Conservative movement, but if you want a truly vivid portrait of the many directions in which its adherents are pulling, this CD is the thing.

The record opens with a burst of Hollywood Strings-style kitsch that suddenly turns into a veritable explosion of “Ki Lo Na’eh/Had Gadya” sung by the Three Jewish Tenors. Meir Finkelstein, Alberto Mizrahi and David Propis sound like the musical equivalent of human cannonballs on this gleeful tribute to Moyshe Oysher, but it’s not a great idea to open a record at this energy level, because anything that follows is bound to be a letdown.

And much of what follows is a new-agey, Celine Dionish ode to Rebbe Nachman written by Jeff Klepper and sung by Eva Robbins, although nothing is quite so dire as “The Empty Chair.” Things couldn’t get worse than that and, fortunately, they don’t. Indeed, there are some real high points: a lithe “Dayeinu” performed by the Syracuse Children’s Chorus, a supremely simple but powerful “Hodu Ladonai” from Sam Weiss, a haunting “Livbavtini” in which a multitracked Ramon Tasat duets with himself and an audacious “Prayer for Dew: Tal” in which Moshe Schulhof sings with a recording of the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt. If you look up “chutzpahdik” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a photo of Schulhof, but to his everlasting credit, he holds his own with the man most consider the single greatest hazzan of all time. (Available from www.TheSpiritSeries.com.)

The final entry in this year’s Pesach sweepstakes is a somber one, Max Helfman’s “Di Naye Hagode” (Milken Archive/Naxos). Helfman’s oratorio is not, strictly speaking, a Passover commemoration in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a 1948 piece he wrote in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on Passover in 1943. Using the seder as a structural armature on which to mount “di naye hagode,” that is, “the new telling,” Helfman wrote a frequently powerful, occasionally bombastic piece for choir, narrator and orchestra. This recording features particularly forceful contributions from the Choral Society of Southern California, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale and narrator Theodore Bikel, who never succumbs to the temptation to “emote,” wisely allowing Itzik Fefer’s stark, bleak text to do the hard work. The CD also features an effective rendition of Helfman’s “Hag Habikkurim” and a surprisingly mournful “The Holy Ark.” The result is one of the best releases in the Milken Archive series to date.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.

 

PASSOVER FOOD: Treats to Leaven Desire for Dessert


Passover desserts are a challenge to the cook because so many ingredients are forbidden, among them flour, grain, cornstarch, baking powder or baking soda. So we substitute matzah meal, potato starch and versatile fresh egg whites to bake all of those traditional favorites — and lots of new ones, too.

The good news is that it is not difficult — all of these carefully tested delicacies are fairly simple to prepare and will be a welcome addition to your seder dinner, as well as for family meals during Passover.

For all the chocolate lovers, the food processor Cocoa-Pecan Cookies will become a favorite. Just prepare the dough and have the children or grandchildren help by dropping them by the spoonful onto the baking sheets. The batter can be kept in the refrigerator and a fresh batch of cookies can be baked each day.

Something new for the holiday, use the charoset ingredients to make a Passover Fruit Cake filled with nuts and dried fruit that offers a tasty and a crunchy treat. It is similar to the Italian delicacy known as Panforte that originated in Sienna. The mixture is tossed together in a large bowl, spooned into parchment-lined baking pans, and baked for an hour and a half. The good news is that these loaves will easily keep for the eight days of the holiday.

During Passover last year we were invited to the home of Alice and Nahum Lainer, who love to entertain. Alice served a delicious Apricot Torte, and I persuaded her to share her recipe for this wonderful pastry. Because some Jewish households do not use matzah meal or cake meal, the combination of egg whites, apricot puree, spices and a topping of apricot jam make an ideal dessert. It is the perfect after-dinner pastry to serve your guests, accompanied by a glass of sweet wine or hot tea.

For another sweet treat, pass a plate of Rocky Road Clusters, everyone’s favorite. They are made with only three ingredients, chocolate, marshmallows and pecans. Simply melt the chocolate, add marshmallows and nuts, and fill small paper cups with the mixture. This is another great project to do with the children.

Bring a platter of the Cocoa Pecan Cookies or Rocky Road Clusters as an edible gift to share with friends and family at the Passover seder meal.

Alice’s Apricot Torte

1 1/2 cups blanched whole almonds, plus 1/4 cup sliced for garnish
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter or nondairy margarine for pan (one-quarter)
1 cup sugar, plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups diced dried apricots
Zest and juice of 1 small lemon
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
8 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup apricot jam
Passover powdered sugar (recipe follows, optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Place whole nuts in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet and sliced nuts in a single layer on another baking sheet. Toast nuts until golden and aromatic, five to eight minutes. Shake the pans halfway through toasting to make sure nuts brown evenly. Set aside to cool.

Brush a 10-inch spring form pan with melted butter or margarine, sprinkle with sugar and tap out excess. Set aside.

Place 1/4 cup sugar, whole almonds and apricots in the bowl of a food processor; process until finely chopped, one to two minutes. Add lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves and pulse to blend. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg yolks and 1/2 cup of the sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Transfer to a large bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites with salt and lemon juice until frothy. Slowly add 1/4 cup sugar, and continue whisking until peaks are stiff but not dry. Fold beaten whites into egg yolks. Add apricot and almond mixture, and fold in until just combined. Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake for about 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and a wooden pick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. If necessary, cover torte lightly with foil to avoid burning. Transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the torte, and release from pan. Allow to cool completely on wire rack.

Place apricot jam in a small saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and strain. Brush onto cooked torte. Sprinkle with sliced almonds and powdered sugar.

Makes one 10-inch torte.

Passover Powdered Sugar

1 tablespoon Passover potato starch
1 cup sugar

In the bowl of a food processor, combine potato starch and sugar. Process until very powdery and resembles powdered sugar, about two minutes. Let sugar settle for about one minute before removing processor cover.

Makes about 1 cup.

Passover Fruit Cake

2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter or nondairy margarine
2 cups pitted dates, thinly sliced
2 cups dried apricots, quartered
1 cup golden raisins
1 1/2 cups toasted whole almonds
1 1/2 cups toasted walnuts pieces
3/4 cup coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate, optional
3/4 cup matzah cake meal
1 tablespoon potato starch
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla or orange juice

Heat the oven to 300 F. Brush one (5-by-9 inch) loaf pan or two (3-by-7 inch) loaf pans with melted unsalted butter or non-dairy margarine and line with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the dates, apricots, raisins, almonds, walnuts and chocolate, if using. Combine the matzah cake meal, potato starch and sugar and mix well. Add to fruit mixture and mix evenly. Beat eggs and vanilla to blend. Using a rubber spatula or hands, stir into fruit mixture until well blended. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan and spread evenly, press into corners of pan.

Bake until golden brown, about 1 1/2 hours. Cool in pan on rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of pan. Peel off paper and let cool on rack.

Wrap in plastic wrap and foil. Chill at least one day or up to two months. To serve, place cake on a wooden board, and using a sharp knife, cut in thin slices.

Cocoa-Pecan Cookies

1 1/2 cups toasted chopped pecans
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/4 cup matzah cake meal
1/4 cup potato starch
5 large egg whites
1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped semisweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Combine pecans, 1 1/2 cups of sugar, cocoa powder, matzah cake meal and potato starch in a food processor and pulse on and off until nuts are finely grated. Add 1/2 cup of egg whites and pulse to blend.

Transfer batter to a large bowl and stir in the nuts and chocolate. In a separate bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the remaining egg whites until soft peaks form, add the remaining sugar and beat until a stiff meringue forms. Using a rubber spatula, mix half of the meringue into the pecan/chocolate mixture and then fold in the remaining meringue.

Drop batter by well-rounded teaspoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheets, leaving 1 inch between cookies.

Bake for eight minutes. Cookies should be dull, but very soft. If not dull, bake for one more minute. Transfer parchment to a rack to cool, before removing.

Makes about two- or three-dozen cookies.

Rocky Road Clusters

1 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
1 cup miniature marshmallows or large marshmallows cut in quarters
1/2 pound semisweet chocolate, melted

Place small paper candy cups on top of a large tray and set aside.

In a large bowl, toss pecans and marshmallows together. Add melted chocolate and mix well. Spoon chocolate mixture into the candy cups and refrigerate for several hours until firm. Store in refrigerator.

Makes about 24.

 

Humor in ‘Eat’ an Acquired Taste


When Rabbi Mordecai Finley, leader of the nondenominational congregation Ohr HaTorah, saw the new Passover comedy “When Do We Eat?” — he loved it.

“I laughed and laughed and laughed,” he said. He saw the movie three more times, and each time he liked it better.

Hap Erstein, the film reviewer for Florida’s Palm Beach Post, had a different reaction.

Since seeing the movie about a dysfunctional family trying to make it through a Passover seder, “a bad taste has been left in my mouth,” Erstein said.

Where Finley saw a story about the “redemptive power of a seder,” Erstein saw “mean-spirited and low-targeted humor.”

By now, the creators of the film, which has played in film festivals around the country and opens in theaters today, have come to expect such polarized reactions to their movie. Viewers either love it or hate it.

“When Do We Eat?” centers on the Stuckman family, which includes grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman); father Ira (Michael Lerner), who tries to lead “the world’s fastest seder”; his neglected wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren); and their children.

Daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a sex-surrogate. Son Ethan (Max Greenfield) recently became Chasidic, but has a hard time resisting the wiles of his sexy cousin, Vanessa (Mili Avital). Youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is an autistic obsessed with the number seven. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira’s daughter from a previous marriage, is a lesbian and brings her African American girlfriend, Grace (Cynda Williams), to the seder. Zeke (Ben Feldman), a teenage stoner, slips his father some ecstasy halfway through the meal.

Salvador Litvak, the film’s 40-year-old director and producer, co-wrote the screenplay with his wife, Nina Davidovich, 38. The way they see it, “When Do We Eat?” fits into a current trend of “in-your-face, proud-to-be Jewish” cultural statements, from Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae singer whose latest album topped the charts last month; to “Go for Zuker,” the recent German Jewish comedy about a dysfunctional family; to the irreverent, New York-based Heeb magazine.

“Some people get it, some people don’t,” said Litvak, an observant Jew who wears tzitzit and wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to study Talmud. While “When Do We Eat?” opened the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, it did not make it into the Boston or New York Jewish film festivals.

“The people who get it,” he said, “are the people who can laugh at themselves.”

Erstein, in his review in The Palm Beach Post, labeled the movie “lowbrow sitcom” and charged Litvak with “trafficking in broad caricatures and ethnic stereotypes.” In an interview, Erstein said the movie reminded him of “Meet the Fockers” and “There’s Something About Mary,” comedies that use crude jokes to target the lowest-common-denominator viewer.

What bothered him about this movie, Erstein, 56, said, was the way it portrayed Judaism.

“It’s taking cheap shots at it,” he said.

Here lies the central contention, the age-old question: Is this movie, ultimately, good for the Jews?

“Some people seem to have a reaction that it isn’t good for the Jews,” said Davidovich, who co-wrote the film. “I think that’s a short-sighted reaction, because the cause of anti-Semitism through the years — well, a large part of it — has been people’s perception that we think we’re better than them. In this movie, we’re portraying Jews as no better than anybody else.”

But no worse than anyone else, either, Litvak added, explaining that the family was made to be outrageously dysfunctional for comedy’s sake.

Davidovich stressed that she went out of her way to contradict stereotypes.

“What drives me nuts,” she said, banging a fist on her skirt, “is in popular culture, Jewish women are always portrayed as unattractive, big-mouthed, annoying, bossy women” and “Jewish men are always portrayed as dorky, nerdy, nebishy, insecure, self-effacing.”

So, she chose an all-Jewish, good-looking cast.

Davidovich and Litvak insisted that in the end, their film comes down on the side of Judaism. The movie shows that the Jewish religion, and the Passover seder in particular, can provide a framework for personal redemption, Litvak said.

Rabbi Mark Blazer, the 38-year-old leader of Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, agreed: “This [movie] can really show people what the Passover seder can do, that it can be a really transformative experience.”

Blazer also sees the movie as part of a trend toward Jews’ opening up about Judaism in popular culture. For years, Jews who produced TV shows and movies shied away from discussing their Jewishness on screen, he said. But today, Jews are finally willing to explore the essence of their religion in their art.

Blazer attributed the opposing reactions to the movie to “a generational gap.” Younger Jews do not feel as anxious about seeing Jews portrayed in a negative light as those born closer to the time of the Holocaust, he said.

“Some see this movie, and they worry about the message that it sends,” he said. “They’re worried that it’s going to contribute to anti-Semitism.”

But “for us,” he added, “we don’t have that same level of discomfort.”

For more information on showtimes, visit ” target=”_blank”>http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=15595

 

Another Tendler Steps Down


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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so, Sholom Tendler said.

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

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

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

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

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

So why is Sholom Tendler leaving?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Olmert Receives U.S. Thumbs-Up


Low-key, detail-oriented, a master of the backroom deal: The same qualities that make Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert uninspiring for some Israelis are the ones that Americans who deal with him find exciting.

Olmert’s attention to the fine print and his less-than-mythic status in Israel have become subjects of parody at home.

But it’s just those qualities that have made him a favorite among Jewish officials and politicians in Washington.

“He’s very familiar to many members of this administration, and across the board they would all have had a positive impression of him,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel until last summer and who now lectures at Princeton University. “He’s very smart, focused on details. When you’re dealing with him, you’re not dealing with someone uninterested in substance.”

Olmert’s powers of persuasion are about to be put to the test: He has pledged to move ahead immediately with plans to withdraw unilaterally from more West Bank territory.

Olmert wants a Palestinian state in place by the end of his term, and says he will look for ways to deal with Palestinians not affiliated with Hamas, the terrorist group set to assume control of the Palestinian Authority after winning legislative elections in January.

The P.A. president, Mahmoud Abbas, has outlined a similar scenario: The Palestine Liberation Organization, which has no Hamas affiliation, would be the partner, Abbas said in interviews, and Abbas would bypass the Hamas Cabinet and Parliament by putting any deal to a popular referendum.

Abbas did not explain how he planned to control Hamas, which already was setting much of the agenda through terrorist attacks even before it took over the government.

U.S. officials say they’re eager to get started with the new Israeli government.

“We will of course engage with the Israeli government in discussions about how we move forward,” Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, said on CNN recently. “I would note that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza ended up turning over to the Palestinians territory for the first time in the 30-some years of this conflict, and that was a good thing.”

Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said Olmert has a policy wonk’s understanding of the United States.

“He has a very strong command of how Washington works. Not just Washington — he knows how the United States works,” said Ayalon in an interview. “On the state level, even local politics, it’s quite impressive: He knows many of the governors by name.”

Kurtzer agreed: “He knows how to make the rounds of a room.”

Olmert’s best deals have been done in back rooms, said Marvin Lender, a Connecticut entrepreneur who is one of Olmert’s most ardent U.S. backers.

“Ehud has always worked behind the scenes,” Lender said. “He has built tremendous relationships in Washington.”

His charms are evident in one-on-one relationships, Kurtzer said. Olmert’s friendship with Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative until last year, was key to settling a prickly customs-free trade agreement among Israel, the United States and Egypt, Kurtzer said.

His admirers admit that Olmert, whose military career was undistinguished and whose reflexive sarcasm often gets in the way of his lofty thoughts, may not be equal in stature to mythmakers like Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon.

“He doesn’t come with negative baggage, but he also doesn’t come with a hero status,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Nonetheless, Olmert’s association with Sharon, the larger-than-life warrior-statesman whose debilitating stroke in January set the stage for Olmert’s ascension to the Prime Minister’s Office, will help sustain him.

“A critical door-opener for this administration is that he was Sharon’s choice as the alternative prime minister,” Kurtzer said.

Olmert’s loyalty to Sharon also is a plus, said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a member of the House’s International Relations Committee.

“His loyalty was legendary,” said Ackerman, who met with Olmert the day after Sharon’s stroke. “You didn’t have to guess where he was going to stand. He made it clear at that meeting that he was not the prime minister, that he was hoping and praying that the prime minister would take his rightful place.”

Since then, Olmert has left Sharon’s seat empty at Cabinet meetings.

Olmert’s distaste for soaring rhetoric and lack of a glorious military career may be a welcome change in a Washington used to Israeli leaders who often seem to aspire to prophecy, said David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The United States will be very cognizant of the fact that he doesn’t have Sharon’s gravitas or his national security credentials,” Makovsky said of Olmert. “Frankly, the idea of a civilian prime minister will be refreshing here in Washington.”

Olmert already has staked out differences with Sharon, mapping out clear plans for the next four years: Unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank that for the most part would hew to the security barrier, evacuating 70,000 settlers and annexing other settlements that would bring at least another 100,000 settlers under Israeli sovereignty.

Olmert maintains Sharon’s legacy of setting borders for an Israel that is guaranteed a Jewish majority, but “in many ways he’s far more explicit in the scope of his political goals,” Makovsky said. “The White House is gratified he made those ideas of settlement evacuations clear before the election.”

Sharon typically played his cards much closer to his chest, and delayed discussing the dimensions of last year’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank until it was inevitable. Sharon also jealously guarded Israeli sovereignty, casting the withdrawal as solely an Israeli prerogative.

Olmert has said he would consult immediately with the “Quartet” — the diplomatic grouping of the United States, Russia, European Union and United Nations, which is overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — as soon as the elections are over.

However he proceeds, Olmert will have an attentive ear here, cultivated over years of trans-Atlantic dealings: first, as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s U.S. point man during the Madrid negotiations in 1991 and then as Jerusalem mayor from 1993-2003, when he stressed Israel’s claim to the entire, unified city.

“He brought people closer emotionally to Jerusalem,” Lender said.

Ken Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recalled traveling with Olmert to Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in 1999 to counter Arab pressure to de-Judaize an exhibit on Jerusalem.

Olmert traveled to the United States so often, first as mayor and then as Sharon’s deputy on peace matters, that his Israeli accent has faded.

“They used to joke that Ehud Olmert could be seen on two planes crossing the Atlantic in both directions, he comes here so often,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.