Dating 101: Fingers Crossed

I have been quietly dating a lovely man for a few months. He is a wonderful father, grandfather, and son. He is kind, smart, funny, generous, gentle, and respectful. He treats me with a tenderness I have never experienced in a relationship before. He extends the same respect to my son, which I appreciate and admire very much. We have a wonderful time together and I feel nervous, but content.

We don’t have a lot of things in common, and are politically on opposite sides of just about everything, but he allows me to have my opinion. He also allows me to spend a lot of time trying to change his opinion. He is open to change and growth and knowledge. I adore this man am quite certain that if I can get out of my own way, we will be important to each other in a lot of different ways.

I have had a series of complicated and difficult relationships, and while my relationship with George is complicated in some ways and difficult in others, it is also easy, calm, nurturing, and fun. We laugh at many things, including each other, and I feel blessed to have stumbled upon this man. He is unlike anyone I thought I would ever date, but has all the qualities I was looking for in a man.

It is new, exciting, comfortable, and connected. I don’t know where we will end up, but being on this road with him has brought me happiness. I have been writing about my dates and relationships for years, always being clear that I only date Jews and Democrats. I am now dating a man who is not a Democrat or a Jew, and I am counting my blessings.

Time will tell what we become to each other, but we are both happy and hopeful. It is strange to be dating a man who is not Jewish, but I am working through it. It is frustrating to date a man who is not a Democrat, but he is working through it. It is unusual to be dating a man who takes such good care of me, so I am crossing my fingers and keeping the faith.

Non-Jewish man returns chametz

A non-Jewish man who took possession of the chametz given to him by a haredi Orthodox community just before the start of Passover returned the goods shortly after the end of the holiday.

The return of the chametz, including expensive liquor, was reported in haredi newspapers and The Jerusalem Post, and picked up by several Israel-themed blogs.

The non-Jewish recipient of the goods, a Muslim resident of the Shuafat neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem, reportedly called Rabbi Simcha Rabinowitz of the Ramat Shlomo community shortly after Passover ended to say that he would return the goods. Rabinowitz had encouraged his followers to gift the chametz this year instead of selling it.

The Life in Israel blog suggested that “the rabbi probably told the non-Jew to do this whole thing, just to impress upon the people that their ‘gift’ or ‘sale’ is a real business transaction and change of ownership and not just a fictitious loophole.”

Bibi slams rabbis’ ban on renting to non-Jews

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blasted a ruling by dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis that forbids renting homes to gentiles, and more specifically to Arabs.

Netanyahu said the ruling, which became public Tuesday, was inconsistent with democratic values.

The ruling comes less than two months after leading rabbis in Safed signed on to a letter drafted by the city’s chief rabbi calling on Jews not to rent to non-Jews in the northern Israeli city, as well as a month after rabbis in the haredi Orthodox Israeli city of Bnei Brak issued a religious ruling forbidding residents to rent apartments to African refugees, echoing a similar ruling for southern Tel Aviv.

“How would we feel if someone said not to sell apartments to Jews?” The Jerusalem Post quoted Netanyahu as saying Tuesday evening at a Bible contest. “We would protest, and we do protest when it is said among our neighbors. It is forbidden that such things are said about Jews or Arabs.”

Among those signing the letter are the chief rabbis of Ramat Hasharon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Rishon Letzion, Carmiel, Gadera, Afula, Nahariya, Herzliya, Nahariya and Pardes Hannah. Top national-religious Rabbi Shlomo Aviner signed the letter, as did Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, son of the Shas Party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Top haredi leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv also signed.

The ruling states that renting to non-Jews and Arabs will deflate the value of the home and of homes in the area. It says that neighbors of those who are renting or considering selling to non-Jews or Arabs should first warn the neighbor personally, and if the behavior continues to notify the community. The offending landlord, according to the ruling, must be ignored and not be called to the Torah for an aliyah.

Israeli civil rights organizations and Knesset members criticized the ruling and called for rabbis who signed to be fired from their jobs. Municipal chief rabbis’ salaries are paid for by the state.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel issued a statement calling on Netanyahu to condemn the ruling and take action against those who signed it.

“Rabbis who are civil servants have an obligation to the entire public, including Israel’s Arab citizens” the statement said. “It is unthinkable that they would use their public status to promote racism and incitement.”

Two U.S. Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the New Israel Fund, praised Netanyahu for his denunciation of the ruling.

“It is outrageous and unacceptable that rabbis across Israel are promoting blatant discrimination against non-Jews,” the ADL said.

The NIF called on Netanyahu to set in motion the suspension of the municipal rabbis from their posts.

Jewish Money

Give Bernard Madoff credit for one good deed: As much as his self-confessed Ponzi scheme revealed weaknesses in the Jewish world, it also laid bare many ofour strengths.

Trials and tribulations tend to do just that — bring to light the good, the bad, the ugly. When some people behave at their worst, others are forced to, or revealed to, behave at their humanly best.

That’s what any fair look at the Madoff scandal shows. The standard worry is that Madoff’s actions will give rise to a vicious anti-Semitic backlash. But I don’t see it, despite the fact that all the cretinous Jew-haters have come forward online, using this scandal as proof of Jewish financial perfidy.

Complete Madoff CoverageEarlier this week, when I entered the search terms “Madoff” and “Jewish” into Google, the top responses included and, a neo-Nazi Web site. That should alarm no one: The only people more obsessed than neo-Nazis with a famous person’s specific degree of Jewishness are Jewish journalists.

But anti-Semites never need a reason to hate Jews. They were penning their poison before Madoff, and they’ll be spreading it long after he’s gone. Madoff doesn’t make anti-Semites more rational, just more topical.

But will their spew gain more traction in the wider community? I doubt it.

It’s not just that Madoff’s victims were disproportionately Jewish. (That fact alone should give pause to the idea that we possess some super-Spidey sense of financial acumen.)

It’s that the list of victims reveals something truly remarkable about the Jewish world: its deep and far-reaching philanthropy.

What, for instance, does this partial list of Madoff-afflicted charities have in common: Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the Chais Family Foundation, the Wunderkinder Foundation, Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, The JEHT Foundation, Julian J. Levitt Foundation, Technion—The Israel Institute of Technology?

The answer is that they spend much, if not all, of their time and resources helping non-Jews.

Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation supports more than 75 diverse organizations and institutions, from the American Museum of Natural History to the Young Musicians Foundation. It gave generously to Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services and to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, two institutions founded by Los Angeles Jews that serve a largely non-Jewish population.

A much-loved anti-Semitic trope is that “tentacles” of Jewish power encircle Wall Street, the White House, the media. But the truth is that it is the tentacles of Jewish philanthropy that reach far beyond our small, numerically insignificant community.

Public radio? The Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation gave millions to WGBH in Boston. According to The Boston Globe, the Shapiro Foundation gave more than $80.3 million over the past decade to hundreds of schools, hospitals, arts groups and community-based nonprofits in the Boston area and beyond.

Human rights? The JEHT Foundation in Massachusetts gave millions to the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, among many other organizations.

The arts? The Arthur I. and Sydelle F. Meyer Charitable Foundation of West Palm Beach, Fla., wiped out by Madoff, supported the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, the Norton Museum of Art and a downtown Palm Beach amphitheater, among others. Tentacles indeed.

The list is much, much longer: The money that Madoff lost had done incalculable good, saving lives, advancing art and science, making the world a better place.

In his Sunday column, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote that liberal Americans are less generous than conservative Americans. “Liberals show tremendous compassion in pushing for generous government spending to help the neediest people at home and abroad,” Kristof wrote, “yet when it comes to individual contributions to charitable causes, liberals are cheapskates.”

I don’t know if Jews, among the most liberal of voters, fall into the cheapskate category, or whether Jewish giving pushes up the liberal average. There is no comprehensive study of Jewish philanthropy to compare Jewish giving, whether to synagogues or for other purposes, to general American giving, according to Gary Tobin, director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

But if you scroll through the list of Madoff’s philanthropic victims, you’ll find plenty of evidence that even Jews who have shed every vestige of their ancient practice short of circumcision still resonate to the prophetic call to heal the wider world.

In the second volume of his “Code of Jewish Ethics,” (Bell Tower, 2009), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin traces the textual roots for this precept back to the Talmud.

“The Talmud ruled that, ‘we provide financial support to the gentile poor as well as to the Jewish poor,'” recounts Telushkin. “This ruling was issued at a time when the non-Jews among whom the Jews lived were usually idolators with values antithetical and often hostile to Judaism.”

Telushkin concludes: “If we donate only to Jewish causes or to individual Jews in need, we may stop seeing everyone as being equally created in God’s image and therefore worthy of our help. After all, we are all members of one race, the human race.”

That’s something the Madoff scandal makes clear Jews haven’t forgotten.

Q&A with showbiz power broker Irv Weintraub: Why doesn’t Hollywood give Jewish?

Irv Weintraub, chief operating officer of the William Morris Agency, talks about his distaste for business travel, the philanthropic flipside of Hollywood excess and why Jews in entertainment don’t support Israel.

The Jewish Journal: What’s the best thing about your job?
Irv Weintraub: I never know what I’m going to end up doing during the day. And the personalities of people in the business are certainly ‘interesting.’ What I also love is that mostly everybody I deal with has a good soul.

JJ: Mostly everybody?
IW: There’s always going to be the occasional people who are self-centered. People tend to get jaded about what they are and what they do, how they contribute to society at large. That’s why we encourage people to get involved with their community, so they can get some perspective.

JJ: Because there’s egocentrism in entertainment?
IW: It’s all about what your character is. If you have a real firm grounding in values, I think that you can still deal in this business and draw upon those. Sometimes people don’t want to leave that last dollar on the table.

JJ: How have you found time to raise a family?
IW: It was one of the many reasons for taking the [WMA] job. If you want to be good at your job, you have to put in the time. There’s no free pass. My second year in public accounting, I was out of town for 13 weeks. To be on the road and then living in hotels out of suitcases is not glamorous. I don’t care where you’re going.

JJ: Were they nice hotels at least?
IW: No. There aren’t many nice hotels in Midland-Odessa, Texas.

JJ: How do you rationalize the excess of Hollywood, how people in entertainment have three Ferraris at home, and yet there are nearly 80,000 homeless people sleeping on the streets of Los Angeles?
IW: I drive a very nice car. I’m part of the culture you’re talking about. But people who know me also know that I’m not only charitable financially, but give time. I can think of some of the people you might be talking about — and I know that they are very charitable — they just don’t want it known. That’s part of the dilemma that Hollywood faces. If your ego needs that build up, you’re gonna publicize the fact ‘I give to all these organizations.’ Look how many people give anonymously — they don’t need that.

JJ: Isn’t ego publicized in where you live and the car that you drive?
IW: I don’t think the Torah says you have to live a poor life. I think what it says is, you have to do something to improve the world in which we live. For me, it’s always been — can I look myself in the mirror and feel like I’m doing the right thing?

JJ: Why do people think Jews run Hollywood?
IW: I’m not sure I want to answer that question.

JJ: Do you think it’s true?
IW: There’s no question that there are very prominent people involved in this business who are Jews. There are also people who are not Jews. For a long time this was a business where successful people happened to be Jewish.

JJ: You make it sound circumstantial.
IW: I’m not a historian; if you look at people who are in significant positions in the business, the percentage of Jews is probably higher than what you see in the general population of Los Angeles and probably the country. Whether it’s heritage or skill set, or the needs that this business has, people tend to gravitate to maybe where their skills match. Is it something unique in the Jewish heritage that Jews are more creative? I don’t know.

JJ: What does it actually mean to be a Jew in Hollywood?
IW: When I have reached out to people in the Jewish community in Hollywood and talked to them about Jewish causes, they’ve been very receptive. If you were to look at the giving record in [The Jewish] Federation, you would not see some of the most prominent Jews in Hollywood on the list of the most prominent temples today like you did 30 and 40 years ago. I think there are myriad causes that people feel are very important today and may not have existed then.

JJ: Why do you think Hollywood is less inclined to ‘give Jewish’ nowadays?
IW: We have one thing that’s not happening now that happened then, which was the memory of the Holocaust. We are 50-plus years removed. The urgency that existed then doesn’t exist today. The Federation campaign did better with Lou Wasserman — people didn’t tell him no. There isn’t that iconic person like Lou who is willing to be identified publicly with their Judaism.

JJ: How would you characterize Hollywood’s attitude toward Israel?
IW: There are many in Hollywood who don’t want to be identified with the complexities that surround the state of Israel. It’s more difficult for them to say ‘I support what Israel is doing,’ if you look at press that’s come around with regard to the Palestinian situation.

JJ: Why doesn’t it bother you?
IW: I have a better understanding of what’s going on. I think the portrayal at times — in papers in the U.S. and around the world — can be viewed as anti-Semitic. Only with knowledge can you respond to that.

This interview was edited for space and content.

Community Briefs

Decoding a ‘Right’ Supreme Court

Two prominent federal judges presented different portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court’s future to an audience of several-hundred Jewish lawyers at the Beverly Hills Hotel last week.

The June 15 forum, titled, “Where Will Another Right Turn Take Us?” featured Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Alex Kosinski, both of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals based in Pasadena. The moderator was former Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, now dean of the Pepperdine Law School.

Reinhardt is widely regarded as left leaning; Kosinski more conservative.

Reinhardt expressed deep concern over what he characterized as a dangerous rightward trend,

“The Constitution matters regardless of the majority views in this country,” Reinhardt said.

Reinhardt also spoke critically of possible appointees to the Supreme Court by President Bush: “I think it can only go from bad to worse.”

The younger Kosinski, speaking more extemporaneously, took a far less worried view of the court’s future.

“Nothing changes until there is a political battle,” Kosinski said.

He added that even an overturning of the court’s landmark 1973 abortion rights ruling, Roe v. Wade, would not mean a broad end to abortion access, but would instead initiate state-by-state legislative battles to legalize or ban the procedure.

“All the court can do is allow the legislative process to happen,” he said.

Citing recent Supreme Court rulings, Kosinski said the court for decades has been striving for a centrist path that Americans would broadly accept. This effort, he said, resulted in integrated schools and sexual privacy rights. “The Supreme Court [has] managed to come to grips with the popular will,” Kosinski said.

Reinhardt expressed less trust in popular will, referencing the cultural experience of the audience: “Jews should not have that confidence after the history that we have undergone.”

Reinhardt also spoke to the issue of judicial activism, saying that part of a judge’s legal philosophy stems from life experience.

“The judgments about the Constitution are value judgments,” he said. “Judges exercise their own independent value judgments. You reach the answer that essentially your values tell you to reach.”

The event was sponsored by the legal services division of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and taped for broadcast by C-SPAN.

Holocaust Museum Post Goes to Bialosky

A Southern California businessman and Republican fundraiser has joined the governing council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Bruce Bialosky, a Studio City CPA, said that one of the museum’s primary missions is reaching out to non-Jews.

“The Holocaust museum represents not just the history of what happened to the Jewish people,” Bialosky said. “It represents the history of what happened to humanity.

It is the obligation of all Americans to become aware of what happened.”

“The single-most fulfilling thing I do when I am in Washington is sit outside the museum and watch [non-Jews] walk in,” said Bialosky, who founded the L.A. chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

About 90 percent of museum visitors are non-Jewish.

Bialosky was a Bush-Cheney ’04 “Pioneer,” meaning that he raised more than $100,000 for the president’s re-election campaign. He also served as the campaign’s California Jewish outreach chair. Bialosky’s wife, Teri, is also a Republican, but she is serving on Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa’s transition team.

At the 12-year-old museum, Bialosky will be completing a five-year term that expires in 2009. He’ll be joining 12 other new appointees who were named in mid-April.

The new governing council members include former New York Mayor Ed Koch and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld. They’ll join a governing board with a total of 55 presidential appointees plus other government representatives.


Non-Jews Provide Key Community Support

They are security guards, schoolteachers, cooks and banquet
hall waiters. They are waitresses, agency and museum executives and
walkie-talkie-toting synagogue maintenance workers. There are hundreds of
non-Jewish support staff at synagogues and other Jewish institutions throughout
Southern California, and they are integral to the life of the Jewish

“Amazing, amazing people,” said Conservative Rabbi Mark
Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “I
don’t think our Jewish institutions could function properly without the efforts
of our non-Jewish support staff and even sometimes senior staff.”

Here, then, are three representative profiles of the
commitment and professionalism of these vital people:

Louis Martinez, 67.

Employer: Sinai Temple, Westwood. Martinez has worked at Sinai
Temple for the past 20 years. He plans to retire this year for health reasons
on a synagogue pension.

Occupation: “Officially, I’m the superintendent and head
custodian. Normally, I’m an electrician, and I fix everything.”

Background: Martinez attends services at a Catholic church
with his wife. Their 19-year-old adopted daughter from Guatemala attends the University
of San Francisco. Martinez has lived for 20 years in an apartment on the temple

“I know this building,” he said. “When I have to vote, my
voting place is here. When I knew someone passed away, I feel so sad. If you
know them from only one ‘hello’ every weekend, they are like a part of my

What He Will Miss Most in Leaving Sinai Temple: Rabbi David
Wolpe. Martinez records each of Wolpe’s Sabbath sermons. “I love him. For good
behavior and general things, you don’t have to be Jewish. His speeches are for

Marciel Cano, 43.

Employer: Valley Beth Shalom, Encino.

Occupation: Maintenance staff member/parking lot attendant.
Cano oversees the synagogue’s large parking lot, which serves the congregation
attending services and weekend events and the schoolchildren and teachers on
weekdays. He is usually the first person at the synagogue each morning.

“I open the temple every day,” Cano said. “I’m the first
person here every day. It’s hard to enforce [parking] rules when you see people
every day.”

Background: Cano, who was raised Catholic, is originally
from El Salvador, where he has an adult daughter. He is single and has worked
at Valley Beth Shalom for 13 years.

One of His Proudest Moments: Cano was one of six synagogue
workers who quickly moved seven Torahs to safety after a May 7 arson attack.

“[The Torah] is a very valuable part of the religion,” Cano
said. “We did it because we think it was the right thing at that moment. This
job is different from other jobs. You feel like part of the congregation.”


Dorothy Mackendrick, 31.

Employer: Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles.

Occupation: Assistant education director. “I manage all of
the school programming for all of the kids who come through on field trips.”
she explained, “and I also manage the teacher professional development

Background: Mackendrick was raised Presbyterian in Michigan
and comes from a Swedish/German/English/Scottish family. She studied political
science at Wellesley and is married to a high school English teacher.
Mackendrick has worked at the Skirball since October 1994.

What She Loves About Her Job: “Because the mission of the
cultural center is based on the values of Judaism, including hospitality and
education and caring for the earth — sort of the whole idea of tikkun olam
[heal the world] — that is a way that I find myself really connecting,” she

“Everybody’s background [at Skirball] is valued.”
Mackendrick continued. “Everything that we do is infused with Jewish values.
And so it depends on how you see what Judaism is. And I think that’s the most
important thing, finding those connections.” Â

A Love Like Mime

In my San Francisco days, I once had a brief romantic affair with a mime. I was living in a house with lots of bedrooms, which were rented out to many different people. One of them was her, Angie, a young woman who each day would leave the house, go down to the park and do her mime thing, collecting dollars in a hat. I would tease her and we would flirt.

One day, coming out of the bathroom after a shower, I couldn’t help notice Angie approaching me, taking hold of my bathrobe, pulling me into her bedroom, and having her way with me. A perceptive guy like myself notices these things. No words were exchanged, and I didn’t feel awkward about the silent seduction, since she was, after all, a mime. We did everything that afternoon — walking against the wind, pulling a rope, being trapped in an imaginary box. I’d never enjoyed mime so much before or since.

If this sounds like a fantasy, I agree. It does sound like one, but I swear it’s true. Not that there aren’t female Jewish mimes who seduce guys coming out of the shower, but I’m guessing it’s not a large percentage of the female Judaic populace. Angie was Italian, and since that day I’ve dated both Jewish and non-Jewish women. None of the Jewish women came anywhere near being a mime. But they did offer qualities I’ve come to love and look for in my PRPs (potential romantic partners). Which is not to say that non-Jewish women wouldn’t or couldn’t have those qualities — but in my experience, these qualities are most likely to be found in Members of the Tribe.

Obviously, there’s that unique connection to our shared culture, history, religion, traditions and — my personal favorite — cuisine. Oh, sure, I could have taken Angie to temple with me, and she could have explained to everyone that just because she’s Italian doesn’t mean she knows cast members of “The Sopranos” personally, and then entertained everyone with her impression of being trapped in an imaginary sukkah — but it’s just not the same.

I remember standing at the school bus stop in the 11th grade, talking to Joan Reid, a Protestant, on whom I had a huge crush. She told me that her mother recommended that she date and marry Jewish guys because “they’re more dependable, they treat you better, they don’t beat you and they’re more professional.” So it’s not just Jewish women who have this appeal. A few months later, while making out on the beach on prom night with Joan, surrounded by our empty bottles of Southern Comfort and apricot brandy, I just knew she appreciated how dependable and professional Jewish guys are. But I digress.

Jewish women, to me, always seem to have this inner glow, a warmth, a kindness, a sensitivity, an intelligence that I just don’t find in their non-Jewish counterparts. And my Jewish radar, my Jadar, plugs right in to it. I think Jewish women are prettier than others, and I love the fact that they’re mostly brunettes. Blondes seem so, so … goyish. Finally, just try asking an Episcopalian for a plate of matzah brei. She’ll look at you like you’re from another planet.

“That’s some sort of Jewish food, isn’t it?”

Yes, darling, but you don’t have to be a rabbi to eat it.

My mother got remarried to an Irish Catholic man, whom I really like. She is very happy with him and even urged me not to limit myself to dating only Jewish women. How’s that for turning the stereotypical Jewish mother on her head? Truth be told, I don’t limit myself to dating Jewish women. Because, after all, variety is the spice of life, true love is rare, and you never do know where you’ll find it. And while I’m not a betting man, if I had to place a bet on this, I’d say the odds are that I’ll end up with a Jewish woman. And if she has an appreciation for mime, so much the better.

Mark Miller will be speaking with three other Journal singles columnists on Oct. 10 at Friday Night Live at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood.

Mark Miller is a comedy writer
who has written for TV, movies and many celebrities, been a humor columnist for
the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, contributed to numerous national publications
and produced a weekly comedic relationships feature for America Online. He can
be reached at


Righteous Rescuers Honored

Though certainly one of the most bitter memories of history, the Holocaust was also a time of true heroism and great humanity. On Sun., May 6, Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Simi Valley dedicated a grove of trees to the non-Jewish heroes who risked their lives to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Lidia Furmanski of Pasadena, a rescuer from Poland, and Bert Lerno of Simi Valley, a Jewish Dane who was rescued, were guests of honor at the dedication ceremony.

"Mount Sinai’s mission is to provide solace and honor human spirit," said Arnold Saltzman, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks. "The Grove of the Righteous Rescuers is an eternal testimonial to the thousands of non-Jewish rescuers whose courage and respect for their fellow men and women set a high standard for us all."

The Grove of the Righteous Rescuers is the first of its kind in this country and consists of 20 olive and almond trees. An additional 18 Jerusalem pines were donated by the Jewish National Fund, best known for planting more than 210 million trees in Israel. Through the grove winds a path among stone plaques acknowledging each of the 38 countries where citizens, at their own peril, protected Jews. In addition to a commemorative plaque, the centerpiece of the grove is a fountain of water surrounding an eternal flame. Dr. Edward Kamenir noted that the "combination of fire and water represents two extremes that can live in harmony." Kamenir worked as a volunteer to develop the new cemetery and was inspired by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust memorial, to create a memorial to the heroes of the Holocaust.

"In front of [Yad Vashem] is a grove of trees dedicated to the righteous gentiles of the world. It impressed me that they had a place," Kamenir said. "Wherever we memorialize those who were sacrificed by the Nazis there should also be a memorial for those who sacrificed themselves to save them."

Simi Valley Mayor Bill Davis spoke during the ceremony and worked with local school children to plant a few trees in the grove.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, the ceremony’s keynote speaker, focused on the importance of remembering our history. "One thing is more powerful than death itself — memory," Schulweis, said, adding that "memory is a subtle art. You have to know how to remember."

Schulweis, the founder of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, noted that if you leave people with only a melancholy memory, that memory could turn to cynicism. "Remember evil and do not forget goodness,"he said.

Skirball at Five

When the Skirball Cultural Center opened in April 1996, its founding president and CEO, Rabbi Uri D. Herscher, didn’t buy the philosophy “If you build it, they will come.”

“My theory was, ‘If they come, then you build,'” the rabbi said. “Prophesy is for fools.”

Not long before the Skirball’s fifth anniversary, Herscher acknowledged that the community response has exceeded his wildest dreams. Fifty thousand visitors were anticipated in 1996; some 300,000 showed up. Half of the adult visitors have been non-Jewish, far more than expected.

Herscher has since taken his own advice: People came, so the center built. At the fifth-anniversary celebration April 21 and 22, Skirball leaders will dedicate Ahmanson Hall, phase two of a massive expansion program.

Located on the north end of the 15-acre campus, the building features an airy, 20,000-square-foot domed hall, Cotsen Auditorium, reminiscent of New York’s Lincoln Center. The auditorium can be transformed from a banquet and conference center to a tiered theater seating up to 515. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows opens onto a courtyard of pale gray stone and an informal outdoor stage. The $45 million structure, designed by renowned Skirball architect Moshe Safdie, includes a three-floor, subterranean parking garage with 600 spaces.

The hall will allow the Skirball to expand its programs to include “every aspect of literature and the performing arts,” Herscher said. It will also help further the center’s mission to explore “the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of democratic ideals” and to “offer hospitality … to every ethnic and cultural identity in American life.”

“Our goal as an institution is to use the instrument of discovery called culture to bring diverse people together in a safe home,” Herscher told The Journal.

The mission has earned high marks among leaders in the multicultural megalopolis of Los Angeles.

“The Skirball has established itself as a thriving cultural organization within the community,” said Stephanie Barron, a Los Angeles County Museum of Art vice president and chief curator of modern and contemporary art.

“In an amazingly short time, the Skirball has proven to be crucial to the cultural life and health of L.A.,” noted Barry Munitz, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Skirball’s neighbor in Sepulveda Pass. “Its broad range of programs serves as an adhesive in a city that is physically spread out and ethnically diverse. The Skirball helps to bring people together when the natural momentum of the city is to spread apart.”

When the Skirball quietly opened its doors five years ago, the goal was to host community and arts activities and to provide a new home for the Skirball Museum of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) — a collection of 25,000 pieces of Jewish art and Judaica previously hidden away in HUC-JIR’s basement. Herscher, HUC-JIR’s former executive vice president, intended the opening to be without fanfare. “I was never quite secure that we would finish it, so I didn’t want to disappoint anyone,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995.

But in record time, the institution flourished, drawing national attention for exhibits of prominent Jewish artists such as George Segal and Larry Rivers and a controversial show on Sigmund Freud, among other exhibitions. Angelenos of all types crowded Magnin Auditorium in the main building for lectures, movie screenings, readings, dance recitals and live performances of the L.A. Theatre Works radio series. “Conversations” sold out with famous personalities such as TV giant Norman Lear and playwright Neil Simon.

A concert series inside the center’s Zeidler’s Café grew so popular that it was forced to move outdoors to the Taper Courtyard adjacent to the main building in 1998. Today, the world music, jazz and classical concerts draw some 2,000 people per show.

With the advent of Ahmanson Hall, the large performance events will no longer be seasonally limited to summertime concerts on the courtyard. Dance programs are in the works, and a classical concert series by the L.A. Philharmonic Chamber Players is slated to begin this fall.

But don’t expect art for art’s sake. “The Hebrew word for rabbi is rav, which means teacher,” Herscher said. “So every single event must offer an educational experience.” Herscher envisions youth and family concerts like the ones the late conductor Leonard Bernstein used to host.

Indeed, children have become a crucial target audience for the Skirball, which pays to bus in L.A. Unified School District students weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. “The field of psychology has taught us that if you want to infuse ideals, you’ve got to start as young as possible,” Herscher explained.

The 30,000 youngsters who visit the Skirball each year learn about Jewish and American values, for example, in two unique gallery “classrooms,” built during the center’s extensive redesign and renovation last year. One of the classrooms depicts a cheder, a Jewish classroom from Eastern Europe; the other suggests a turn-of-the-century American public school.

When the Skirball dedicates its $34 million Winnick Heritage Hall in 2003 — phase three of its building program — the primary focus again will be upon young people. There will be an outdoor amphitheater for the performance of children’s programming. And two 3,500-square-foot children’s galleries will feature a core collection relating the biblical story of Noah’s Ark to multiculturalism today. “It’s the loveliest way to teach children about the immigrant experience,” said Herscher, who hopes the new building will help to bring 20,000 more children to the Skirball each year. “Because every pair of animals is different, it’s perfect to show how we can all get along. It’s a great message for a city like L.A., where people have settled from a variety of cultures around the world.”

While the Skirball is generally lauded as a cultural center, its art exhibits have generated mixed reviews from at least two prominent Los Angeles art critics. “The Skirball has made a big contribution to the total cultural picture of this city, but I don’t think visual art is their strongest suit,” said Suzanne Muchnic, art writer for the Los Angeles Times. “I have yet to be bowled over by an exhibition there.”

“The Skirball has fulfilled its role in [enhancing] the pride and morale of Jewish constituents, but if we’re talking specifically about art-related exhibitions, it hasn’t hit its stride yet,” concurred Edward Goldman, the art critic for National Public Radio. “It seems like they are narrowing their scope to Jewish themes and subjects…. Now that the Skirball has such visibility, and they’ve built up such a prominent space for themselves, I’d like to see them launch a much more ambitious program embracing a much wider range of subjects and themes. That’s what this city needs. I’d like to see something to slightly rock the boat and upset a bit the status quo.”

Herscher said he appreciates the constructive criticism. He noted that the Winnick building will feature an 8,000-square-foot gallery that will provide the necessary space for more ambitious changing exhibitions. It’s hoped that the inaugural show, tentatively scheduled to originate at New York’s prestigious Museum of Natural History, will focus on the life and work of Albert Einstein.

Nevertheless, Herscher insisted, the Skirball’s mandate is to be a cultural center first. “We have an important museum component, but we’re not a museum in the classical sense — we never have been and we never will be,” he said. “When we display art, we have a message about how we can enrich communal life.”

Herscher clearly knows how to enrich communal life, both on a public and personal level. On the second night of Passover, he hosted a seder that read like a Who’s Who of cultural leaders: “He invited me, as well as the presidents of CalTech, USC and the Huntington Library,” Munitz told The Journal. “Some of us are Jewish, some not. It [was] intercultural and interinstitutional work at its absolute best.”

Why does Herscher believe a Jewish institution should further civic life in Los Angeles? “No one people can live in health unless the total community is healthy,” he said. “That is what [the patriarch] Abraham taught us when his first act as Jew was to welcome three strangers to his tent and to give them shelter.”

For information about the Skirball, call (310) 440-4500.

Strangers at the Feast

My worst Passover was my first in Los Angeles, more than half a lifetime ago. I had nowhere to go the first night, and the second night, a college friend took me to an institutional seder that was so sterile and faceless that I went home early and, paraphrasing Scarlett O’Hara, vowed, "As God is my witness, I’ll never go without a seder again."

And I haven’t, because since then I’ve made one every year. Only during a two-year sojourn in my extended family’s Expected Attendance Area have I failed to haul out the haggadot and start rounding up everyone who wants a place at the table.

There were only five of us at the first seder I made, in 1978, including a live-in boyfriend and a non-Jewish guy I knew from work who had always wanted to go to a seder. I had taken my 23-year-old self to J. Roth (of blessed memory) and bought copies of the most up-to-date haggadah I could find in those days before feminist, peacenik and other alternative haggadot were in mass circulation.

It was the first seder at which I drank the third and fourth cups of wine, because my family never got back to the service after shulchan orech. But no one got tipsy, because Live-In Boyfriend and I were pouring Manischewitz; nobody knew from Baron Herzog back then.

The next year, we had to put both leaves in the garage-sale Formica dining table. By 1983, the spring we lived in New Hampshire, we had graduated to fake French provincial, my parents’ old dining room set. Two years later, I made the seder about eight minutes after Live-In Boyfriend moved out.

The following spring, the love of my life had his feet under my seder table (and still does). Ten years ago, leftover marinated green beans from our wedding luncheon made a nice cold side dish. Many pages of our haggadot have been papered over with new readings.

Blood relatives are rarities at our seders: once, years ago, an uncle and aunt happened to be in town; more recently, one of my sisters lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years. My husband and I have no family in Southern California, and because guilt infliction seems to be effective only from parents to offspring, I haven’t been able to persuade my Arizona-based mom and dad to join us.

So every year we troll for folks who need a seder and don’t have one. We find them in the synagogues we belong to, sometimes in classes and at work. Every year the Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism, where my husband studied for conversion six years ago, sends us two or three people. This year the role of "the gentile who’s always wanted to go to a seder" will be played by the lone Christian in my husband’s Hebrew class.

Many of the faces around the table change from year to year. People move in and out of town, in and out of our lives; we change jobs, attend different schools, find ourselves hanging out in different circles than we did the year before.

Some perennials have developed, though: folks from shul who like our combination of fun, attention to the haggadah, and enough good food to feed an army, and a longtime friend whose husband always seems bemused by our seders, which are nothing like the ones he grew up with in London.

My best friend, Barry, used to come every year and complain that we never had enough unattached gay men at our seder. Finally, he passed up our first night a couple of years ago to go to a seder that was all gay men. He came back. We’re family.

I identify with our ancestor Abraham, who always was more comfortable welcoming passersby into his tent than he was depending on the kindness of strangers. While there have been years when we’ve been invited to someone else’s home for seder, I decline with thanks. Tempting as a work-free seder might be, there are people who count on us now.

Tomorrow night, my husband and I will sit side by side and gaze out over the mixed multitude in our living room. Our dog will lie under the table, waiting for something to drop. We’ll tell the story, sing the songs, eat and drink, talk about Egypt and deliverance. And even if Elijah doesn’t show up, the Shechinah will be there.

Berlin Bound

More than 300,000 visitors have thronged the Jewish Museum in Berlin since it opened to the public in February 1999, and more are coming at a clip of 20,000 each month.

The figure is astonishing, considering that the building is completely empty. The exhibits, tracing the 2,000-year Jewish presence in Germany, won’t be in place until the formal inauguration next year on Sept. 9.

What attracts the primarily non-Jewish visitors to the multilingual guided tours is the exterior and interior architecture of the building by the Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind.

The building zig-zags on a site near the old Berlin Wall and, seen from above, resembles, according to one’s perceptions, a shattered Star of David or a bronzed lightning bolt.

The exterior walls are covered in zinc, with diagonal slashes across the facade that serve as the building’s 350 oddly shaped windows.

Reached by an underground passage, the interior is marked by slanted corridors, one leading to the empty upstairs exhibition halls. Another points to the outdoor Garden of Exile, with its 49 rectangular concrete columns, each sprouting an olive tree. The columns are slightly tilted, leaving an impression of a world somewhat askew.

A third corridor leads through a heavy steel door into the Holocaust Tower, a high angular room of concrete walls, with a single slit of light at the unreachable top. When the door clangs shut, a sense of oppression and suffocation grips most visitors.

Throughout the five-story building are “voids,” black-walled, permanently empty spaces, that embody the absence left in German life by the expulsion and murder of its Jewish citizens.

“Few buildings have evoked the unspeakable with such clarity,” a Los Angeles journalist wrote. So powerful is the impact of Libeskind’s creation that some visitors break into tears, and it has been proposed to leave it empty permanently as a mute Holocaust memorial.

Museum director W. Michael Blumenthal, who left Berlin for Shanghai as a young Jewish refugee and later became secretary of the treasury in the Carter administration, will have none of it.

The building’s purpose goes beyond its architecture,” he notes. “There were many Jewish citizens in this country, and they were not always helpless victims. They lived here for centuries and were profound contributors to the life of their country. This is part of German history that must not be forgotten.”

A network of Holocaust memorials is in place or rising in Berlin and throughout Germany, but “without showing how Jewish Germans lived here as citizens, the picture would be incomplete,” Blumenthal adds.The permanent exhibits will be divided into three parts. The primary one will chronicle the triumphs and tragedies of German Jewish history since Roman times. A second will focus on Judaism and everyday Jewish life, and a third will depict the Holocaust and the slow reconstruction of the Jewish presence in Germany.

Originally, the Jewish Museum was conceived as merely one wing of the adjoining Berlin municipal museum. It has taken more than a decade of stormy political debates and personality clashes to arrive at the Jewish Museum’s present autonomy and status as the largest Jewish museum in Europe. (The museum’s Web site at offers a brief illustrated tour of the facilities.)

The construction costs came to $65 million, underwritten by the Berlin municipality. The current annual budget is $18 million, of which the German federal government contributes $12 million and the city of Berlin some $6 million, says Eva Soederman, the museum’s spokeswoman.

In addition, the museum is seeking private donations to help support an information center, research facilities, interactive learning center, lectures, workshops, theatrical events and films.

Another appeal has been for personal mementos by German Jewish émigrés to illustrate their former lifestyles and cycles. The response has been so overwhelming that additional staff had to be hired to handle the incoming packages.

“Our emphasis will not be just on famous persons and names but on ordinary people,” Soederman says. “For instance, we now have the histories of 8,000 German Jewish families.”

Adding to the research resources will be the transfer or access to the archives of New York’s Leo Baeck Institute and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

When fully functioning, the Jewish Museum expects some 500,000 visitors a year. One reason for a year-long delay in its opening has been to install additional air conditioning and other utilities to handle the large crowds.

German interest in the museum has been intense, perhaps not surprising in a country whose media coverage of the Jewish past and present sometimes borders on the obsessive.

This preoccupation hasn’t been lost on Blumenthal, who spends one-third of each month in Berlin and the rest at his home in Princeton.

“Each month, I arrive in Berlin as an American,” he noted in frequently quoted observation, “and I leave as a Jew.”

One Berlin newspaper interviewed visitors to the empty building and quoted a student as saying, “I hardly know any Jews, but I want to learn about them.”

The article concludes that “the visitors are searching for continuity of the Jewish presence in Germany. They want to see Jewish life in Berlin once again.”

Tom Tugend recently visited Germany as guest of the European Academy Berlin.

An Acquired Taste

A friend told me about a scene he witnessed recently at a delicatessen. There was a woman who apparently was not Jewish standing in line at the bakery counter. When they called her number she pointed to the prune and poppy seed hamantaschen and asked for a dozen.

“No, you want these,” said the elderly Jewish woman who was serving her, pointing to the apricot hamantaschen instead.

“No, I want those,” the woman reiterated pointing again to the prune and poppy seed variety.

“Honey, these you will like” the Jewish woman replied pointing to the apricot flavor, “Those,” she said looking at the prune and poppy seed tray, “need an acquired taste.”

An acquired taste — enjoyment or understanding resulting from regular exposure — is something Jews have appreciated from the beginning. Remember what happens this week in the Torah at Mount Sinai? A cloud descends from the mountain top; a strange brew of mist and ash. Moses appears from out of the cloud, takes a long, sweeping look before he speaks and then, in one mighty blast, laws tumble forth from his stony face; an avalanche of statutes and ordinances, thou shalts and shalt nots. When Moses finishes, as if in some great, unrehearsed symphony, the 600,000 Jews listening to him shout “Na-a-seh v-nish-ma” (We will do and we will listen).

From the start, Jews affirmed that in order to really understand Judaism they had to practice it. I often tell my students who study with me in order to convert to Judaism that becoming a Jew is like learning to swim — a textbook only takes you so far. A student behind a desk can read every book ever written on swimming, see every instructional video, hear the best motivational speakers and then, no matter how lengthy or extensive their training, enter the deep end of a pool and quickly drown.

Everyone understands the difference between learning and doing when it comes to swimming and to a lot of other things, too. How many times have your kids stared at something on their plate and heard you say, “Try it — it’s good?” How many of us really enjoyed our first beer? We readily accept that our first trip to the symphony might not captivate or inspire us, but if we work at it each concert gets better. We have to study, read up and ask questions. Any skill that enhances our life and brings us pleasure — painting, playing the piano, even a decent game of tennis — takes time, effort and practice. It’s a fact of life most Jews understand; except when it comes to Judaism.

Many people want simple answers to tough personal and societal questions. People want “spirituality” without taking the time to acquire the religious knowledge and the skill that real spirituality demands; they want the keys to inner doors of wisdom without first unlocking the outer doors of study and practice.

I hear it almost daily; every rabbi does. “Rabbi, I’m not very religious and I don’t know or do very much but I feel Jewish and that’s the important thing.”

To this statement I usually reply, “I’m not very knowledgeable and haven’t practiced at all, but I feel like a doctor. Why not let me try bypass surgery on you?” The two statements, it seems to me, are equally absurd. It’s not that feelings are unimportant. Pride in our heritage as Jews is crucial. But if it’s pride without any real understanding or commitment then it’s false pride. Feeling Jewish is not enough.

New Age religion, minimalist Judaism, easy answers and liberal social policies are meager responses, mere avoidances of the real effort required to find meaning. Judaism isn’t easy. Seeking meaning involves living, praying, making Shabbat, giving tzedaka, mourning, celebrating and even eating like a Jew.

Our ancestors understood that doing preceded insight; effort necessarily came before reward. It’s an equation that seemed clear to them and seems equally clear to a lot of us in every aspect of life except our spirituality. Why do we deny that a Jew who wants to find meaning in his tradition has to put forth at least as much regular effort as the Jew who wants to improve his golf game?

The woman behind the deli counter was right. Judaism is an acquired taste. We have to try it over and over again in order to discover just how sweet it is.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” published by Behrman House.