Where it comes from

Not all of us realize it, but Parshat Emor is one of the most frequently read Torah portions we encounter. We typically read it in May, and again on Passover’s second day and on the first two days of Sukkot. It is read on these two festivals because, like D’varim (Deuteronomy) chapter 16 in Parshat Re’eh, it sets forth critical details that define the Torah observances’ unique requirements for us.

Why not take a moment’s pause in reading this commentary, if you will, and open your Chumash to this week’s portion. Look at Leviticus 23. Do you see how it is all there, laid out for us? The Passover seder, the stack of three matzot and the horseradish or lettuce for maror, the celery or parsley or potato for karpas, the four cups of wine and hiding the afikoman and singing “Mah Nishtanah” and “Dayenu.” It’s all there.

Same with each holiday that follows. The nightly count of Omer. The tradition of staying up all night on Shavuot, the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah, fasting and no leather-supported footwear and the other restrictions of Yom Kippur, the etrog for the sukkah and the minimum architectural requirements of the sukkah itself, from the topping to the walls.
It’s all there.

And that is why — whether your Jewishness is Orthodox Litvak, Modern Orthodox, Chasidic Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, New Age, Humanist, Ashkenazi, North African/Edot Mizrach Sephardi, Spanish/Portuguese Sephardi, Persian, Hillary Democrat, Obama Democrat or Republican — all Jews practice these same traditions. The Passover seder. The ram’s horn on the New Year. Fasting on Yom Kippur. Building a sukkah with all the toppings and acquiring, among other species, an etrog for the service.

We all do it the same way because, when we open our Chumashim and look at Parshat Emor chapter 23, it’s all there.

Only it isn’t.

Not only is it not all there. Virtually nothing of it is there. None of it. Nada. No seder and no etrog. No ram’s horn and no fasting. None of it. Zilch. Gornisht.

So where did it all come from?

It all comes from the Torah Sheh-B’Al Peh, or Oral Law, as recorded ultimately in the Talmud.

None of it appears in the Torah She’bikhtav, or the Written Law. Look it up. Use a Concordance. These core mitzvoth of Judaism are never recorded in the Chumash. Yet virtually every Jewish community in Jewish history has understood that one attends a seder and does and sings all the seder things on Passover, blows the horn of a ram in a certain cadence of soundings on Rosh Hashanah, fasts and avoids leather-supported footwear on Yom Kippur, and uses an etrog and not a lemon on Sukkot.

Without a mindset and lifestyle that place the Talmud and the Oral Law at the center of our Jewish lives, our Judaism becomes empty and void because its heart and soul have been extracted. Without it, we drift into a form of Seventh Day Adventism, only with better Hebrew, more fundraisers for Israel and more holiday recipes.

As you read Parshat Emor this Shabbat, think about the central role played by the Oral Law in understanding, celebrating, and living the Written Law. They go together because they were given to our nation at Mount Sinai with the intention that they would.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.

Pesach — in your own words

A Jewish American soldier finds himself in the Iraqi desert on the first night of Passover and improvises a seder with another soldier by drawing a seder plate in the sand.

Meanwhile, a Jewish lawyer from Menlo Park discovers that our centuries-old haggadah does not actually tell the story it’s supposed to tell — the Jewish Exodus — so he compiles and publishes his own.

In Chicago, a family of Jewish socialists who don’t believe in God have a seder where they celebrate their fight for social justice while singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Forty years later, their daughter in Los Angeles uses yoga to find God and creates a special seder for her Alcoholics Anonymous group.

If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I asked you if there were Passover experiences that really moved you. Well, all I can say is I’m glad I asked.

Philip M. Peck wrote: “During the first Gulf War, I was mobilized to an Infantry Division. We were training 24/7. As a young lieutenant I had an extra responsibility of loading all our armored vehicles to be taken to the ships when the first night of Passover was approaching. As the sun was setting, I realized that there would be no seder for me. I looked out over the desert and smiled. I thanked God for allowing me to reach that day. It gave me great comfort that all over the world there would be seders. It gave me even greater comfort knowing that my family would be gathering around a seder table.”

“At that point, I walked over to the young sergeant who was helping me load the tanks on flatbed trucks,” he continued. “I said to him that I needed to tell him a story, a great story. This young man, who never met a Jew, was about to celebrate his first seder. I drew a seder plate in the sand and took out whatever I had from my MRE’s [Meal, Ready-to-Eat] to make a seder. My sergeant listened as I then told the story of Passover from memory. This experience has never left me. Every seder that has followed has been a great gift.”

Seth Watkins, a Jewish lawyer from Menlo Park, wrote: “Passover hasn’t been transformative because the standard traditional haggadah omits the story of the Exodus. I solved the problem by compiling a haggadah with the Exodus story in it (ExodusHaggadah.com), allowing each of us to understand, a bit better, what our ancestors endured in Egypt. The result has been transformative. People of all Jewish affiliations — or none — are transfixed by the story, or discuss details, and nobody asks the dreaded question, ‘When do we eat?'”

Because Seth is a scholar of Semitic languages, he was able to bring his personal touch to the haggadah. He researched ancient translations of certain biblical terms, which, according to him, further elucidate the Exodus story. (I used his haggadah for the second seder, and I think he’s on to something.)

A woman from Los Angeles wrote: “When I was younger, my family celebrated Passover with another family whose father was a psychoanalyst and whose mother had been raised in anarchist, very left-wing political Jewish circles in Chicago. My family did not believe in God either, but both families wanted not to assimilate, not to deny our Jewishness.”

“So we had our seder, and what stayed with us kids was the social and political dimension — that we were pledged to help anyone who suffered from injustice. We sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ (this was the ’60s) and labor songs.

“Now I’m a grown-up, and I am still hosting a seder, this year for my 12-step group! I’ve become more religious, or more spiritual, than I ever was as a kid. I used yoga to help me find God, and it actually worked. I wanted a scientific way to enter the field of religion, and yoga as taught by a yogi from India provided that. I find that when I celebrate Pesach with my brother-in-laws I’m a little inundated with Hebrew and traditions. But when I create my own, mostly in English, and relate the themes of freedom and deliverance to oppression I or my friends have suffered, it means more.”

As I reflected on what all these people wrote, it struck me that what really moved them was not the Passover story itself, but what they personally brought to it.

Improvising a seder in the Iraqi desert, teaching your kids about social injustice, adding the Exodus story to the haggadah, creating a special seder for your friends at Alcoholics Anonymous — these are all examples of Jews putting their personal stamp on their Judaism. And why not?

We are all one family, yes, but we are also a family of individuals, each with our own dreams and dramas and personal baggage. We are moved by different things. As Jews, we are especially moved when we bring our individual uniqueness to our Judaism.

The people who answered my Passover question were moved when they took a 3,000-year-old story of liberation and did something very Jewish with it: They made it their own.

If any of us feel like emulating them, we all better hurry — Passover is only 12 months away.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.


Micah has a question about maror. Click the BIG ARROW

Stop sugarcoating intermarriage

Not many years ago, it was taken as axiomatic that intermarriage constitutes a significant threat to Jewish continuity. For individual families, we understood that more often than not,
the children of the intermarried would be raised as non-Jews. And since intermarrying Jews have fewer children, and because most of their children won’t identify as Jews, intermarriage implied fewer Jews in the next generation.

The community responded admirably, albeit inadequately, to this challenge. For many good reasons, it expanded funding for day schools and trips to Israel. Synagogues and Jewish Community Centers (JCC) became more welcoming and accepting of intermarried families. It supported a variety of “Jewish outreach” efforts aimed at bringing families closer to Jews and Judaism by teaching Jewish practices and values. In contrast, “interfaith outreach” seeks to make all mixed-married couples feel more accepted, even when they choose to celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays in the same household.

Social scientists, myself included, have charted — and implicitly celebrated — the growing and exhilarating diversity of Jewish identities, communities and innovation. Since the early days of American Jewish sociology and its founder, Marshall Sklare, of blessed memory, we have documented the rises, falls and rises of Jewish identity over the life course. Jewish identities today are more varied, fluid and mobile than ever.

But with this said, we need to recognize that as a group, intermarried Jews are far less active in Jewish life — however one measures it — than inmarried Jews. The large gaps cover number of Jewish friends, raising one’s kids as Jews, belonging to synagogues and JCCs, living with Jewish neighbors, attending worship services, celebrating Jewish holidays, giving one’s children a Jewish education, caring about Israel, giving to Jewish causes and their own assessment of the importance of being Jewish.

When we ask intermarried Jews, “how important is being Jewish to you?” as a group they score far lower than inmarried Jews.

Some news from the field has been encouraging. But for every report of an apparent success, we have an overall pattern of, let’s call it “less than success.” Sure the Baltimore Jewish population study reports that 62 percent of children in intermarried homes are being raised as Jews, but the rate in San Diego is 21 percent and apparently less than 40 percent nationwide. Just 15 percent to 20 percent of intermarried couples are synagogue members, as compared with 60 percent of inmarried couples.

While Jewish religious engagement is steady or rising, Jewish connections and “collective identity” trends are clearly declining. While the inmarried are leading more intensive Jewish lives, the intermarried as a group remain much less engaged.
Every time we hear of an intermarried child who maintains an active Jewish life, we must remember that the more Jewishly engaged — people reading this column, for example — raise children with the best chances of maintaining Jewish continuity, even when they out-marry.

Thus, some Jewishly engaged parents assume that the wonderful experiences of their Jewishly committed intermarried children must be a sign that we’re “winning the battle.” In reality, most intermarried Jews come from weak Jewish educational backgrounds, often with only one Jewish parent.

Some outreach advocates say intermarriage is a fact, feeding the fatalistic view that there’s nothing that can be done to influence the rate. Yet there’s much that is being done to affect the rate.

Some sociologists claim we can find evidence of high rates of Jewish commitment among the intermarried as a group, if only we measured properly. But on no measures do the intermarried outscore the inmarried.

Some speculate that because Jewish identities are fluid, or because the intermarried have become so numerous, the intermarried as a group may well move toward significant Jewish engagement. Yet no study shows the gap narrowing. Jewish identities are changing — but the basic import of intermarriage is not. San Francisco, for example, reports that from 1986 to 2004, observance patterns by the inmarried climbed, while those for the intermarried fell, further widening the gap between inmarried and intermarried.

The Steinhardt Foundation/Jewish Life Network published my study, Smug Alert

Films: The trials and tribulations of fathers and sons

For so many Jewish men, it always comes back to fathers and sons, despite what Philip Roth might think.
Look at the films of Daniel Burman, the rising young star of the New Argentine Cinema. “Waiting for the Messiah,” “Lost Embrace” and his latest, “Family Law,” which all revolve around a slightly feckless but well-meaning young man, played in all three by Daniel Hendler, and his relationship with an absent or soon-to-be-absent father.

Burman, 33, is a slender, good-looking brunette with long, arching, graceful fingers that he uses to adjust a cup of coffee on its saucer as he sits in the bar/lounge of a hip downtown New York hotel, answering questions for a parade of journalists. He smiles easily, if somewhat shyly, but carries himself with an earnestness that belies the wittiness of his films.

“We’re kind of shy in my family,” he explains through an interpreter when asked about his father’s reaction to the new film, which centers even more than its predecessors on the father-son relationship. “We react with understatement to everything. But when my father saw the film at the Berlin festival, he seemed pleased.”

Burman comes from a family full of lawyers, including his father. Like the father-and-son lawyers who are at the heart of “Family Law,” he worked in his father’s office, and he did go to law school briefly, but abandoned that career after less than a year.

“My family was very supportive of my career choice,” he says. “After all, I was already earning a living from film.”

One way he paid back his family’s support is in the affectionate portrait of Perelman, Sr. (Arturo Goetz) in “Family Law,” which he readily acknowledges was based largely on his father.

Does that mean that Hendler has been Burman’s alter ego through the unofficial trilogy of films on which they have collaborated?

“It’s hard to say,” he says with a slight wince. “There are some things we have in common. But we don’t share the same ego.”

His next project, a comedy about an older married couple who are struggling with the “empty nest” syndrome, will take him away from the trilogy, but he readily acknowledges that he will probably come back to Hendler and to his own growth in a few years, “maybe five, maybe 10.”

It’s an actor-character-director relationship that echoes the odd triangulation of Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Leaud and the fictional Antoine Doinel, the Truffaut-like protagonist of “The 400 Blows,” “Stolen Kisses” and “Bed and Board” among others.

That comparison tickles Burman immensely.

“I like Truffaut very much,” he says, beaming.

He is less sanguine about the frequent comparisons between his work and that of Woody Allen.
“It certainly doesn’t offend me,” he says. “A dream of mine is to present Woody Allen with DVDs of my films. But it’s not a fair comparison. We’re very different filmmakers.”

Certainly Burman’s characters are much less conflicted about their Jewish identity. They wear it with a casualness that is, quite frankly, alien to Jewish-American film.

“I think my parents taught me to enjoy being Jewish,” he says. “It’s not just about following rules or singing songs. It’s not as easy as just not eating ham. In the United States people seem to take a defensive attitude about being Jewish. For me it’s so intimate that I don’t need to express it all the time. It’s not damaged by the banality of daily life.”

Indeed, one might say that by its very nature, Jewish observance is defined by — and defines — daily life. Appropriately, that focus on daily life in all its ordinariness is a large part of Burman’s films, and that points up another place where he parts company with Americans.

“It seems contradictory, but the banality of daily life makes the dramatic incidents invisible,” he opines. “Life is not like it is in most American films, where something dramatic happens every few minutes. [In real life] the big existential themes express themselves in the everyday.”

Burman says that his writing is an outgrowth of that condition.

“When I write I don’t think about those things. It’s reflected in the mirror of the characters.”
“Family Law” opens Friday, Dec. 22 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 and Laemmle Town Center 5.

Alys Willman-Navarro assisted in this article by translating during the interview.

Jewish bond doesn’t draw all to Holiday observances

They include a law professor, a newspaper editor, a computer scientist, an architect and a retired Army colonel.
However diverse, they have one thing in common: They generally do not attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yet they are neither self-denying Jews nor rare exceptions. Some are intensely dedicated Jews, and all feel bound to the Jewish people. Statistically, 39 percent of all American Jews, and 44 percent of all Jewish college students, do not attend religious services, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor of computer science and a leading international authority on artificial intelligence. He is also president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to carry on the work and world view of his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
With his wife, Ruth, Judea Pearl is co-editor of the award-winning collection of essays, “I Am Jewish,” the title reflecting his son’s last words before his execution.
Yehuda Pearl grew up in Bnai Brak, one of the most ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Israel, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Chaim Pearl, a Chassid from Poland. It was not exactly the place to declare oneself a nonbeliever, but Yehuda did just that at the age of 11.
“I had thought a great deal about it and decided that it was impossible that the deity worshipped by my parents and grandparents existed,” he said. “Everybody thought it was just a youthful phase, but I never got over it. I cannot believe that there is a God who listens to my prayers.”
Yet, the Pearls light candles every Friday night and make Kiddush.
“My parents and grandparents did this, and I do so in their memory,” he said.
“Or perhaps, to show my daughters something about their tradition.”
With a laugh, Pearl recalled a recent dialogue with a Muslim academician, after which he, some Jewish friends and about 30 Muslims adjoined to a restaurant for dinner.
It was a Friday night, so Pearl asked the waiter for glasses, a bottle of wine (juice for the Muslims) and recited the Kiddush prayer. Both his Jewish and Muslim friends were flabbergasted.
“But you said you were secular,” they said, shaking their heads.
Bret Israel, editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section, usually takes a long walk on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur near his home in the Hollywood Hills.
“I am not a deeply meditative person, but I find that a walk on that day helps to cleanse the spirit,” he said.
Some years, he will take the holiday walk along Santa Monica Boulevard or another city street. “For me, it’s a way of being of this world and not being of this world,” Israel said.
Israel was raised in a Reform family on Long Island, N.Y., had a bar mitzvah but stopped going to synagogue during his college years.
His immigrant grandfather from Germany was adamantly secular and refused to step into a synagogue as a matter of principle.
“I am not like that. I’ll go occasionally with a friend, usually to Temple Israel of Hollywood,” he said. “But in general, by temperament and philosophy, I don’t feel comfortable in organized worship.”
However, in the past two years, Israel has taken to fasting on Yom Kippur, explaining, “Somehow, it’s a cleansing experience.”
Jonathan Zasloff loves Shabbat services, takes and teaches classes on Judaism, fasts on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av and generally walks out of the High Holidays services before they conclude. A UCLA law professor, specializing in environmental and urban planning, Zasloff, 41, was raised in a Conservative home and tends to attend Conservative synagogues.
However, “I find much of the liturgy and services outdated, inaccessible, highly stylized and not very spiritual,” he objected. “And too many of the services are formalistic and stilted.
“I don’t like other people praying for me,” he continued. “Though I find parts of the services meaningful, we must find some ways to make them more participatory and interactive. That’s why I like to go to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”
Architect Allen Rubenstein, project manager for capital construction for Beverly Hills, grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s. His American-born parents observed no particular ritual on Friday nights, “but we always had chicken soup,” he recalled. “And on Sunday mornings, we had herring and boiled potatoes.”
When he reached 13, his mother wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, and Rubenstein shudders at the recollection.
“They sent me to an old rabbi, who spoke hardly any English and rapped me on the knuckles,” he said. “I read without understanding anything.”
The experience did not induce a love for religious study. “I saw no reason to go back,” he said.
Rubenstein moved to the San Fernando Valley and married. When his two daughters grew up, “they sort of wanted to have a bat mitzvah because their girlfriends had them. I was neither for it, nor against it,” he said.
Occasionally, he went to a synagogue for the High Holidays, “more to listen to the sermon than for the service.” But last year, when his daughter invited him to her temple for Rosh Hashanah, he declined.
So what makes Rubinstein, a thoughtful and sensitive man, a Jew at all?
“Culturally, I feel very comfortable in a Jewish environment. It’s in the food we eat, the family feeling, what we talk about,” he replied. “I feel connected to Israel, and I support Jewish charities. But when it comes to the formal parts of religion, I feel alienated.”
Rubenstein’s daughter, Karen Willis, is on the board of directors at Temple B’nai Hayim, a Conservative congregation in Sherman Oaks, and sends her children to a Jewish day school.

Thrown For A Loop

“Avi we’re doing some looping for a movie called, ‘The Mount of Olives.’ It was filmed in Israel and we’re looking for Hebrew and Arabic speakers.”
Being an actor and comic in Los Angeles, you run into some interesting gigs. When my friend, Joey, himself a Christian Arab from Lebanon, called me about this one, I couldn’t resist.

Looping is plugging in background sound for movies after they are shot so they sound more realistic. I had done some looping sessions before, but they were all in English. While this movie was also in English, there were plenty of scenes with Hebrew and Arabic in them. My Hebrew is far from perfect, but I can still pull off the Israeli accent so I was pretty sure I could do the job.

I got to the soundstage early in the morning, and the first person I met was a really nice guy named Sayid from Egypt. He was an accomplished actor, and I even recognized him from the movie, “The Insider,” with Al Pacino.

As everyone else arrived for the looping and we filled out paperwork, we began schmoozing a little. (I’m guessing the Arabs would use a different word to describe it.) There were people from Egypt, Sudan, a really sweet girl from Iraq, a Druze from Lebanon whose family lived in Haifa, and four other Israelis beside me. There were Christians, Muslims, and Jews with all different levels of religious observance. I myself had to leave a little early because the session was on Friday, as I observe Shabbat.

The first few scenes were harmless enough — we covered small background conversations, mostly in Hebrew. I immediately noticed that while we were all very friendly with one another, when it came to where we all sat, all the Israelis were on one side, and the Arabs on another. I didn’t read too much into it and figured it was just out of convenience as most scenes were in either one language or another.

“OK guys, I need all five Hebrew speakers. This is right after a bus bombing, and I need as much sound as possible. You’ll notice paramedics, victims, etc.”
All five of us approached the microphone. We watched the scene with no sound and it was pretty gory. There was blood everywhere. We each decided who we would cover on the screen and got started. When the cue came, we all immediately started screaming our parts. You heard shouts in Hebrew of “My leg, my leg!” “I’m bleeding help me!” “Where’s my father!” “Out of the way, move, move!”

The one Hebrew-speaking woman was doing a great job crying in agony. When the sound cue was over we all stopped, and Joey chimed in, “I don’t know what you guys were saying but … man. Really intense guys.”

I looked over toward the Arab speakers, and I noticed them all staring back and forth at each other. The Iraqi girl named Yasmin Hannaney, who couldn’t have been nicer, finally just looked at us all and said, “Wow guys.”

I could tell they were affected by it, but oddly enough we sort of weren’t. It just seemed like we were almost too used to seeing it.

Shortly after there was a scene at a gravesite where Kaddish was being said. Two women displayed prominently in the shot were answering “amen,” and they needed to be dubbed. The only two female voices we had were Yasmin and the other Israeli woman. Yasmin smiled as she asked us, “How do I say it, aymen or amen?” As we told her the right way she just smiled and thanked us.

The next few scenes shifted to shots of Palestinians at various rallies, and Joey asked if he could get as many guys up as possible: “OK guys, we need a lot of volume to cover the chanting. Sayid, why don’t you lead.”

I suddenly found myself, along with all the other Israeli men, chanting “Allah Akbar,” and various other chants about God’s glory in Arabic. I couldn’t help but grin as I was doing it. Here I was, an Israeli-born Jew raised in a hugely Zionistic family, chanting at a Palestinian rally. I’d even spent the last three years leading a group of comics to Israel to perform to help support the state. I was at least hoping I would get a good joke out of all of this.

I’m not sure how I would have felt had I had to do some scenes where the chants were “Death to Israel” or something similar. Luckily it never came up. The time just seemed to fly by. Before I knew it I had to leave, and Joey told me it was fine. He completely understood, as opposed to most Jews I deal with in Hollywood who seem to always give me problems over my observance.

I felt badly that I had to sneak out so quickly, not having said goodbye to everyone, but I’ve kept in contact with some of the people from the session. Yasmin and I have e-mailed back and forth, and she’s started an organization dealing with making films in the Middle East.

I was honored when she asked me if I wanted to be involved and immediately accepted. I invited her and some of the other guys to some of my upcoming shows.

It seems ironic that if you want to make a movie about Arabs and Jews fighting with each other, the only way you can make it work is if you have them getting along.

Tisha B’Av Dilemma: Day of Solemnity or Celebration?

Traditional Jews mark Tisha B’Av by fasting, reading from the Book of Lamentations and observing rituals of mourning.

Not all congregations observe the solemn day, however. Tisha B’Av at The Valley Temple, a Reform synagogue in Cincinnati, took on a less somber demeanor last year. Temple Sisterhood members spent the holiday busily hosting their annual rummage sale, sorting through piles of household goods, toys and clothing and hawking them to prospective buyers.

In all fairness, the scheduling of the rummage sale on Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which falls this year at sundown on Aug. 2, was not deliberate. But the fact that Sisterhood members were not aware of the holiday, according to one spokesperson who asked not to be identified, reveals that Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar for Jews, is also a nonevent in some, usually Reform, congregations.

It also reveals how the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred in both 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. and which Tisha B’Av commemorates, resonates differently among various denominations.

“There’s a challenge for Reform Jews around the observance of Tisha B’Av, and communities make all kinds of choices,” said Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of worship, music and religious living.

The Valley Temple was not the only Reform synagogue last year to host a rummage sale or new member brunch on Tisha B’Av. This is not surprising considering that references to the Temple’s rebuilding have been moved from the Reform movement’s liturgy. Granted, Reform Judaism does not deny the existence of the Temple or its historical role.

“But the difference theologically is that we’re not looking for restoration of the Temple and Temple sacrifices,” Wasserman said.

Some Reform Jews, as did 19th century Rabbi David Einhorn, actually see the holiday as celebratory, crediting the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jews with enabling the Jewish people to survive and become “a light unto the nations,” as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah (42:6 and 49:6).

Tisha B’Av is observed in most Conservative synagogues, according to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

“The question for Jews like us is what does it mean to celebrate Tisha B’Av at a time when Israel is ours and Jerusalem is ours,” he said.

His congregation, in fact, tackled this question at a Tisha B’Av discussion several years ago, where, drawing on the Shavuot model of study, they spent two hours learning and debating. Afterward, they read the Book of Eicha, as Lamentations is called in Hebrew, and prayed.

Valley Beth Shalom traditionally partners with Adat Ari El in neighboring Valley Village for Tisha B’Av services. While both Conservative and only 10 minutes apart, the synagogues embody very different cultures, reflected in opposite approaches to the fast’s observance. Valley Beth Shalom engages in discussions; Adat Ari El, which is hosting this year’s service, favors a more emotional approach. This year, the service, in addition to reading the Book of Lamentations, will consist of some modern dramatic readings and the lighting of six candles, to commemorate the Holocaust and other tragedies that occurred on the ninth of Av, according to Rabbi Moshe Rothblum.

There doesn’t seem to be a basic theology or ideology concerning the role of the ancient Temple in Conservative Judaism, according to Feinstein. He believes that the age of animal sacrifices, appropriate at one time, has been superseded by an age of prayer, relegating the Temple to a symbol.

“When I read the prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple, I interpret that to mean the unification and redemption of the Jewish people,” he said.
At Reconstructionist Temple Beth Or in Miami, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian observes the eve of Tisha B’Av with her 125-family congregation. Usually the program includes a reading of excerpts from Eicha, followed by a contemporary take on Tisha B’Av, such as a discussion of Milton Steinberg’s “As a Driven Leaf,” a novel that unfolds during the time of the Temple’s destruction.

This year, Lillian is taking a slightly different approach. Tisha B’Av eve will include readings from Eicha, as usual. The following evening, congregants will focus on Darfur and modern genocides, a project of the temple’s social action committee.

“The destruction of the Temple was in many ways a genocide, killing Jews and kicking them out,” she said.

References to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem have been removed from Reconstructionist liturgy. But because the movement is decentralized, individual synagogues have ample leeway in terms of how they celebrate various holidays, Lillian said.

There’s no ambivalence in the Orthodox world, however, concerning the role of the Temple.

“We pray [for its rebuilding] three times a day,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox community.

Orthodox congregations across the spectrum continue to commemorate Tisha B’Av in traditional ways, such as observing a 25-hour fast from sundown to the next night, not wearing leather shoes, sitting on low stools or on the floor during the evening service and reciting Eicha and other elegies.

It is a day of absolute mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem’s two Temples. For many Orthodox Jews, and increasingly across the denominational spectrum, the day also encompasses other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people on the ninth of Av, including the fall of Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, in 135 C.E., the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the beginning of the Jews’ deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.

Additionally, many in the ultra-Orthodox community memorialize the Holocaust on Tisha B’Av rather than on Yom HaShoah, the traditional day of commemoration for most Modern Orthodox and other denominational congregations. This is due, in part, to a reluctance to add new holidays or days of mourning to the calendar. More importantly, according to Shafran, “The illustrious rabbinical leaders of a quarter-century ago felt that nothing short of Tisha B’Av could suffice for a tragedy as great as the Holocaust.”

But in the ultra-Orthodox, as well as Modern Orthodox, communities over the past few years, on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av, a revolution of sorts has been taking place in many of the nation’s largest cities. Instead of what Shafran describes as “sleeping or sitting around and suffering,” groups of Jews are gathering by the thousands in large halls to hear dynamic speakers expound on relevant topics such as senseless hatred or hurtful speech.

“It’s become a mass movement of Jews from one hall to another, and it’s become a very dynamic day,” Shafran said.

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low

Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

“We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

“We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

“I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

“The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

“I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.


Proposal Advocates Shoah Forgiveness

Sam Oliner wants to help an estimated 200,000 Jewish survivors worldwide free themselves of their psychological bondage. The time, he believes, has come.

In the 1970s, several years into teaching Holocaust-related studies at Humboldt State University, Oliner, now 75, experienced his own dark night of the soul. A German student tearfully told him that she was dropping his course because she could no longer stand her guilt at what her ancestors had done.

Unwittingly, she helped move Oliner toward his own epiphany.

Had he, he wondered, unfairly pushed onto this woman his rage from when the Nazis murdered his family in Poland? Had he forgotten how Balwina Piecuch, a Catholic peasant, had taken him in, saving his life?

Through these memories, Oliner turned a personal corner to come up with an admittedly controversial proposal. It is time, he says, for Jews to collectively forgive the new generation of Germans for their parents’ atrocities.

No, Oliner is not advocating forgetting Nazi atrocities, which would be contrary to the spirit of the Holocaust Memorial. Rather, he wants to find ways to forgive the younger generation of Germans, who have acknowledged their nation’s collective responsibility and made bona fide reparations. This, he contends, would allow survivors to finally let go of a bitterness eating at their own souls.

Oliner’s personal turnabout resulted in studies, which still continue, at his Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt. From there, Oliner and his wife, Pearl, have interviewed more than 500 rescuers who risked everything to save others, while seeking no personal reward.

What, he wondered, makes these altruists, spanning from the Holocaust to Sept. 11, different from the rest of us? Are they happier, more at peace with themselves? And what can we learn from them?

Oliner was surprised that neither high self-esteem nor degree of religious observance correlated with altruistic behavior. Rather, rescuers tend to be exceptionally empathic, including fascists driven by visceral outrage at witnessed inhumanity, their private empathy overpowering their public ideology.

Rescuers also tend to have been raised in integrated neighborhoods and tend to identify less with their own ethnic group and more with humanity at large. Their families also usually stress reason over physical punishment in discipline, allowing for development of a more nuanced sense of right and wrong and lesser fear of authority.

They share strong social skills, allowing them to work well in networks. One Polish rescuer estimated that saving a single individual required an underground network of at least 10 others to feed, transport and house their charge.

Rescuers also share a strong moral sense, which enables them to lie, as needed, to authorities to safeguard their charges. Yet, they also valued family and truth. Rescuers, then, could see the grays and maintain a balance between when to tell the truth and when to shade it. And yes, rescuers also like themselves better and tend to be more successful at business.

After publishing his initial findings in “The Altruistic Personality” (Free Press, 1988), Oliner co-sponsored dozens of inter-group reconciliations, developing his model calling for victimizers to publicly acknowledge their wrongs and make restitution. The final part of his model calls for victims to grant collective forgiveness.

He recently helped lead an intergroup reconciliation in Humboldt County, where whites in 1860 slaughtered more than 100 Native Americans on Indian Island, off Eureka, in a land grab. At the reconciliation meeting, white civic leaders expressed remorse and, with money they had raised, deeded part of the island back to Indian descendants who, in turn, granted this new generation forgiveness. It wasn’t perfect. But it represented considerable progress.

Not everyone buys into Oliner’s model. His former mentor, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, calls it “ill timed and ill conceived. Only the brutalized people have the right to forgive. It’s wrong for others, even their children, to do so in their name.”

Instead of one people forgiving another, he said, each people should promote its own rescuers from within its own ranks, thereby modeling healthy behavior.

David Harris, executive director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee, which co-sponsored Oliner’s studies, endorses the model in principle. Still, he acknowledged, “It is impossible for some survivors to let go of their anger. And so, it is up to their children to look at a changed world with new eyes.”

Harris, whose father fled Berlin in 1933, reopened the committee’s Berlin offices eight years ago with his father’s blessing.

“I was convinced that Germany has made a good faith effort to face its past directly, and to indemnify those hurt,” he said.

Like Oliner, Harris sees the five-acre Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which opened last May just a stone’s throw from Hitler’s bunker, as another step in putting the past behind. Having turned their personal corners, each now sleeps better. This is the gift they would bestow upon their own people.

Joseph Hanania is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently writing, “The Baghdad Blues,” a memoir of growing up as a Jewish Iraqi American.


Taking Winter Break on Jewish Time

Francis Bilak and her extended family are taking a cruise this week, but to do so, Bilak’s son, Michael, is missing a week of preschool at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy.

Hillel, like two-dozen other Orthodox schools in Los Angeles, doesn’t have the last two weeks in December off. Instead, yeshiva day schools take their winter break during the last week of January — the end of the first semester. Families like the Bilak’s have to adjust their schedule to a calendar that is a beat or two off from the rest of the world’s rhythm.

The current schedule was adopted by Orthodox schools in the last two decades, when the Orthodox community made a collective decision to follow a halachic ruling by the great contemporary sage, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, according to Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, dean of Valley Torah High School in Valley Village and president of the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Yeshiva Principal’s Council.

Feinstein ruled that Jewish schools must be open on Dec. 25 to avoid giving any impression of Jews observing Christmas. He said that it was not appropriate for Jewish schools to be closed on Christian holidays, regardless of their status as national or legal holidays. Most schools offer a two-day Chanukah break, and some of them close for New Year’s Day (this year the two calendars coincide).

Although Feinstein’s work was published in 1956, the Los Angeles Orthodox community did not institute the policy until the 1980s, perhaps because the community was not as large, observant and as unified as it is now, Stulberger explained.

“As a community, it was time to make a stand,” Stulberger said.

Ruthie Gluck, whose daughter is in nursery school at Hillel, agreed with that reasoning.

“Children always have a happy, positive feeling associated with breaks from school, and I don’t think Jewish children should connect that feeling with Christmas,” she said.

While many Orthodox parents don’t see any threat or problem with having Christmas off, they still must adjust to the school calendar. For some, the schedule is a nuisance, disrupting family vacation plans. On the other hand, some couples enjoy the opportunity to drop the children off at school and spend a day off together.

Rabbi Moshe Dear, headmaster of Yavneh Hebrew Academy, is happy to take advantage of the late-January break, when popular vacation spots and local attractions are less crowded and sometimes less expensive than during the holiday season.

Many decry the fact that while the school is technically in session Dec. 25 (or this year Dec. 26), the day is often wasted, because non-Jewish teachers and support staff are given the day off. Some schools have special programs on that day, but that is little consolation for day school parents who suspect their kids have too many days off.

While Los Angeles public schools require 180 days of instruction, Jewish day schools — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — tend to have fewer school days. Day schools aim to provide between 175 and 180 days of instruction, but often don’t hit that mark, according to Gil Graf, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

This year, for example, Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy, a Conservative day school, has 162 days of instruction, while students at the Reform Brawermen Elementary School of Wilshire Boulevard Temple attend school for 164.5 days. Yeshivat Yavneh, an Orthodox day school, has 170.5 days of classes, plus Sundays for boys in Grades 5 to 8.

This year was particularly hard on the calendar as all the High Holidays fell in the middle of the week, and some schools had as few as five days of classes during October.

Even so, Graff pointed out, school days at most Jewish schools are longer than at public or secular private schools, so students might be getting more hours in the classroom. A sixth-grader in day school, for instance, has anywhere from 10 minutes to more than an hour longer of school daily than a sixth-grader in public school. While most Jewish schools let out early on Fridays, most public schools have weekly or biweekly early dismissals for staff development.

Still, day school parents often complain that their children seem to be home too much — for parent teacher conferences, for teacher training days — given the workload students are expected to master and the tuition parents pay.

Another change in the Orthodox school calendar in the last two decades has been giving all of Sukkot off, resulting in 10 to 12 days of vacation in early fall.

“The Jewish community in Los Angeles used to have fewer families who built sukkot at home,” Stulberger explained, “so the schools remained open to give the children the opportunity to partake of the mitzvahs of Sukkot, such as benching lulav and eating meals in the sukkah. Now that so many families have sukkot at home, chol hamoed [the intermediate days of the holiday] is a time for families to enjoy the holiday together at home.”

Most non-Orthodox day schools are in session during Sukkot. Pressman Academy has school during Sukkot but refrains from assigning homework during that time, said Rabbi Mitchell Malkus, Pressman educational director.

Wilshire Boulevard also has school throughout Sukkot, even though most families build their own sukkahs at home.

“Reform Jewish education is now much more of an extension of home observance,” said Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim, head of Judaic studies at Wilshire Boulevard,” rather than a replacement of it.”


Calendars Remove Anti-Israel Day

A campaign by Berlin-based activists has resulted in the erasure of “Al Quds Day” from some interfaith calendars in the United States and United Kingdom.

As Iran’s president was calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, members of Together Against Political Islam and Anti-Semitism were busy calling for “Al Quds Day” to be wiped off calendars — and the campaign is paying off.

Institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, from Harvard University to Northumbria University in England, have announced that they are deleting Al Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day — a holiday that focuses on the destruction of Israel — from calendars where it had been listed as a religious holiday. Al Quds Day fell on Oct. 28 this year.

The point is not just to clean up calendars, said political scientist Arne Behrensen, a co-founder of the activist group, but “to engage the political left in confronting Islamism and Islamist anti-Semitism.”

Members of the pro-democracy group include people of Iranian, Kurdish and Turkish background. Many of the Iranian and Kurdish members are refugees from their homelands.

The annihilation of Israel is the raison d’etre of the “holiday” that the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini created after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It is marked with anti-Israel demonstrations in some Islamic countries, as well as in cities with large Muslim populations outside the Islamic world.

Berlin police have taken increasing interest in defusing the event in recent years, since an incident in which an Al Quds Day demonstrator proudly displayed his small children wrapped in mock suicide bomb belts. All posters and banners at the event now must be submitted for approval, including those in Arabic, and statements calling for Israel’s destruction are banned.

That may be why Berlin’s Al Quds Day demonstrations have declined in numbers, Behrensen said. His group has held counter-demonstrations for three years running.

That trend held true this year as well. Only some 400 marchers attended this year’s event on Saturday, down from 1,500 in 2004 and 3,000 in 2003, said Anetta Kahane, a co-organizer of a counterdemonstration and a member of the Berlin Jewish community.

The group also succeeded in getting a German organization to remove Al Quds Day from its calendar in 2003. This year, Behrensen focused on British and American institutions that he found on the Internet.

One recipient of the campaign’s recent e-mail, Debra Dawson of Harvard United Ministries in Cambridge, Mass., said she had checked with her group’s Islamic chaplain “and he assured me that this day is not an Islamic holiday, so I am removing it from the site.”

Spike Ried, president of the Northumbria University Students’ Union in Newcastle, England, said his group had removed the event from its online calendar and issued a written apology. It reads in part, “We now understand that this day is considered offensive to Israeli and Jewish people worldwide.”

Students submit dates to the calendar, and Al Quds Day “was included on the understanding that it was a religious day,” Ried said. After discussions with both Islamic and Jewish student groups, he added, “we understand now that it is a political day, and have therefore removed it.”

The union also has “drawn up measures to ensure that this does not happen in future,” he said.

Del Krueger, creator of an online interfaith calendar (www.interfaithcalendar.org) that is a source for many others, said he also had removed Al Quds Day from future calendars.

However, the event remains on the calendar for 2006, where it is defined as a “somewhat controversial Islamic observance.”

George Fraser, a city council spokesman in Dundee, Scotland, said the “entire calendar is being removed” because of the issue. The University of North Carolina in Asheville said it had removed the Al Quds Day listing from its calendar of holy days.

Terry Allen, administrator at the Charnwood Arts Center in Leicestershire, England, said he added Al Quds Day after finding it on Krueger’s site, believing it “was a Muslim religious festival.” The activists’ letter pressed him to look deeper.

“I would like to apologize for any offense which has unintentionally been caused by this mistake,” he wrote to the group.

A spokesperson for the Boy Scouts of America said the issue was under discussion there as well.

Behrensen chose to focus on the calendars after reading a lecture by Mansoor Limba, an Iranian, in Malaysia in December 2004. Limba spoke with pride of how Al Quds Day was becoming accepted as an Islamic holiday around the world, recognized by a long list of organizations, including some Jewish ones.

“This is their strategy, to spread their propaganda worldwide,” Behrensen said. “We thought, if we want to counter them, let’s see what they’re doing, and we’ll try to prevent their success.”


Court Nominee Alito Through Jewish Lens

The long paper trail of hard-hitting conservative opinions that Judge Samuel Alito has left in his wake is perfect fodder for the kind of left vs. right, black-and-white confirmation battle that this town relishes.

For Jewish groups, however, the clarity of Alito’s record fades to gray.

President Bush’s new nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld religious freedoms that the entire Jewish community cherishes, on one occasion strongly defending the right of a Jewish employee to Sabbath observance. Yet his views on the establishment of religion as well as abortion hew to a tough conservative line that much of the community repudiates.

“He wrote a very important opinion in expanding what little is left of the free-exercise clause,” Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), said, referring to the constitutional guarantee of free religious practice.

On the other hand, in several cases dealing with the constitutional prohibition against the establishment of a state religion, Alito indicated a leaning in favor of religious speakers “to the exclusion of those who might not want to listen,” tern said.

Stern emphasized that the AJCongress had yet to make a decision on where it stands regarding Alito.

Bush announced the nomination of Alito, 55, on Monday, just days after Harriet Miers, his White House counsel, withdrew her name. Miers’ lack of a paper trail failed to satisfy Republican conservatives, who for years have clamored for a nominee who could be trusted to unambiguously issue rulings in supports of a conservative agenda, especially on the issue of abortion.

A corporate lawyer, Miers also drew fire because of her lack of judicial or constitutional experience.

By contrast, Alito’s 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, establishes a strong constitutional and conservative record. Social conservatives who vigorously opposed Miers’ nomination immediately hailed the decision.

“President Bush has hit a home run with this nomination,” Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, said in a statement.

Just as predictably, liberal groups mounted an immediate call to arms.

“The judicial philosophy of Samuel Alito is far to the right,” People for the American Way wrote at the start of a 24-page evisceration of Alito’s record, posted on the group’s Web site within minutes of his nomination. “He has demonstrated hostility toward the principles undergirding a woman’s constitutionally protected right to govern her own reproductive choices.”

Liberals already were making much of a nickname Alito earned among some lawyers, “Scalito” – meaning “little Scalia,” a reference to Antonin Scalia, widely regarded as the most conservative judge on the Supreme Court.

National Jewish groups at times have been pivotal in joining liberals in opposing judicial candidates; President Reagan’s failed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 stands out as an example. The White House was eager on Monday to get out the message that Alito was safe for the Jews.

“Judge Alito has been a strong defender of religious liberty as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Jeffrey Berkowitz, White House liaison to the Jewish community, wrote in an e-mail within minutes of the announcement.

Legal scholars say Alito substantially expanded First Amendment rights in 1999, when he ruled that the Newark, N.J., police department violated the rights of Muslim officers by banning them from wearing beards, though it allowed an exception for health reasons.

Another Alito opinion had a more immediate impact on Jewish observance. In Abramson v. William Patterson College in 2001, the court considered the case of Gertrude Abramson, who sued the New Jersey institution in 1995, claiming that it violated an earlier agreement to allow her to take off Jewish holidays. Abramson also alleged a pattern of harassment, including meetings scheduled on the Jewish Sabbath.

The court ruled in Abramson’s favor, but Alito’s separate concurrence was even stronger, citing favorably an amicus brief filed by the Orthodox Union.

Title VII, the applicable civil rights law, “does not permit an employer to manipulate job requirements for the purpose of putting an employee to the ‘cruel choice’ between religion and employment,” Alito wrote.

Such insights are typical of Alito, his former law clerk, Jeffrey Wasserstein, told JTA.

“He is a Catholic, but his sensitivity to non-majority religions was quite interesting to watch, not what one would expect from someone being tarred by the press as extraordinarily conservative,” said Wasserstein, an observant Jew who served with Alito from 1997-98 and now is a health care attorney.

Despite his tough opinions, Alito has a reputation as a modest, accommodating figure, even among his most strident opponents. People for the American Way noted that — unlike Scalia, whose sarcasm is notorious — Alito’s “tone during oral arguments is probing but always polite.”

Wasserstein agreed: “He is very modest and self-effacing.”

Alito expressed interest in Wasserstein’s own Sabbath observance, and was quite probing when it came to religious cases, he said.

“During the Muslim police case, we spoke about Islam and its precepts,” Wasserstein recalled.

Wasserstein insisted that Alito did not come to cases with preconceptions, but liberal groups and their allies in the Jewish community already were fretting at a body of work that suggests otherwise. Of special concern are two cases in which Alito upheld the right of New Jersey towns to display Christmas-season cr?ches.

In the opinion in the cr?che cases, “he was on the opposite side of much of the Jewish community,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.

Alito’s assent in a 1992 abortion-rights decision is perhaps his most controversial. The court upheld a Pennsylvania law that imposed a 24-hour waiting period for women who wanted abortions, required minors to inform their parents and required abortion clinics to publish reports about their operations.

Defeating that case became a rallying cry for pro-choice advocates, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in a landmark decision the same year.

Significantly, however, the appeals court had struck down a portion of the law that required women seeking abortions to inform their husbands. Alito was the lone dissenter from that part of the decision, saying such notification was not an undue burden for women. His willingness to go a step beyond marked him as an “extremist” in liberal circles.

The National Council of Jewish Women, which usually takes the lead in abortion-related announcements, has yet to weigh in, but sources said the group is working on a strategy.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Democrats’ leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, already has linked Alito to “the radical conservative right.”

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), the Jewish chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must consider Alito’s appointment, was more circumspect, but notably held back the enthusiastic endorsement of other Republican senators.

“We are in the process of assembling his opinions,” said Specter, a Republican moderate who is pro-choice. “It is estimated that he has been involved in about 3,500 cases and has some 300 opinions which he has written.”

That record suggests a clear battle, Pelavin said.

“We’re going to have the kind of debate over judicial philosophy in the Senate that has long been brewing,” he said.

The Jewish lines already were being drawn.

The Orthodox Union does not endorse judicial candidates, and Alito is not an exception, said Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington director.

However, Diament said, Alito is “clearly someone who is sensitive to religious minorities.”

Should the left mount a multibarrelled assault on Alito’s church-state record, Diament said, “our role will be making his record clear, trying to prevent it from being distorted.”

Pelavin suggested the Reform Movement also would have a role to play — probably not one particularly sympathetic to Alito.

“It’s not just about competence, it’s about the court shifting on fundamental issues, including reproductive rights and religious liberty,” he said.


Kosher Stylin’

If we are what we eat, then at this moment I’m a big fat Gordo’s burrito with extra cheese. But I’m a veggie burrito because for the past several years, I’ve been cultivating my own brand of kosher. I like to call myself “kosher style.”

It’s a phrase that’s apt to confuse, so let me explain. No pork. No shellfish. No conscious mixing of meat and dairy. I’ll eat meat out, and though I pass on cheeseburgers at Barney’s, I wouldn’t ask Alice Waters to hold the butter in preparing my filet of beef ? la ficelle (assuming ficelle isn’t bacon). My theory: Unless I see dairy, it’s kosher enough.

I have plenty of friends who keep more strictly kosher than I do, but even some of them make exceptions — like bouillabaisse in France or lobster in Maine. I deviate when I’m the guest in someone’s home, and the options are slim — my rationale being that it’s better to not shame a host than to stick to my half-baked rules.

There are those who may cringe at my interpretation of Jewish dietary laws, but it’s not like I eat this way because the Bible tells me to. Nor do I see it as a mitzvah commanded by the God I’m not always sure I believe in. And it certainly isn’t because I grew up this way.

It began with a request from a Holocaust survivor who once advised, “Order kosher meals on airplanes, because the day you stop ordering them is the day they’ll stop making them.”

Forgoing regular airplane food was a sacrifice I could make.

I remember the first time a flight attendant called out, “Ravitz, kosher meal?” Heads of passengers whipped around to look at “the Jew,” and there I sat, donning my jeans, fleece and baseball cap, looking like any other 20-something American.

I didn’t want the attention, but when it came, I kind of liked it. That nasty little packet of excessively wrapped, overcooked — and yet simultaneously frozen — meat sparked conversation. People would ask me about my kosher meals: “I’ve always wondered what this is all about.”

I even got confessions: “You know, I recently found out my grandfather was Jewish.”

I felt like an ambassador for my people, called forth to enlighten flight passengers over stale rolls.

Soon I was changing the way I ate on the ground, pork products being the first to go. Then I struggled to relinquish shrimp, New England clam chowder, steamed mussels. California rolls were missed, until I found salvation in “imitation crab.” Then came the meat-and-dairy conundrum, which wasn’t that bad, barring the loss of chicken Caesar salads and my mom’s grilled bleu cheese steak. The mere thought of it still makes me drool.

At a crawfish boil I attended in Alabama this summer, people around me snapped off heads, slurping the prawns’ insides, while taking turns asking me questions.

“What, you don’t like this stuff?” “You allergic?” “What’s wrong with you?”

I stammered, embarrassed by the repeated calls of attention. “Well, you see, I sort of keep kosher.”

“What’s that?”

I blathered about split hooves and chewed cuds before someone interrupted, “But why do you keep kosher?”

I gave the best answer I could come up with: “Because it reminds me of who I am.”

In September, Sophia Café, a new kosher restaurant, opened on Solano Avenue in Albany, walking distance from my home. When I first spotted it, I was floored. How could a glatt kosher restaurant survive in a place like this? It’s not like the Bay Area is a bastion of religious observance.

I walked inside and got my answer.

There was the visitor from Los Angeles who said her son passed up going to Cal because kosher food was so hard to come by. There was the woman planning for observant houseguests from the East who will need places to eat. There was the father in an Orthodox family who kept thanking the owner for his restaurant’s presence.

The mashgiach, who oversees kosher practices in the kitchen, said it’s the only glatt kosher restaurant in the East Bay. He also said it wouldn’t survive on kosher eaters alone.

I have a feeling that a certain Holocaust survivor would have something to say about that. Lucky for me, the restaurant’s meat was served hot and without wrapping.

Jessica Ravitz completed her masters in journalism at UC Berkeley and currently is a staff writer at The Salt Lake Tribune. She can be reached at jessica_ravitz@yahoo.com.

Listen Well


A number of years ago we spent a family weekend in Palm Springs. I asked my kids what they wanted to do. First mistake: Never ask your kids what they want to do on vacation. It’s guaranteed to be something you can’t do.

My daughters answered, “Let’s go ice skating.”

I looked at them and said, “I don’t know how to ice skate.”

They looked at me incredulously and said, “That isn’t a problem, just learn.”

With such an answer I couldn’t refuse their request.

As I was trying to keep my balance on the ice and not break any bones, an old lady screamed from the side of the ring: “Hey mister, you really don’t know how to skate.”

What a brilliant lady, I thought.

But then she screamed instructions: “Bend your knees more.”

She didn’t let up. Suddenly she screamed, “What is wrong with you, can’t you hear me?”

I suddenly stopped, ran into the wall and looked right into her eyes, begging for compassion, and said, “Lady, it’s hard trying to learn how to do this at my age.”

She looked at me without any compassion and said, “You should be ashamed giving such an answer. I was a teacher for 50 years. The one thing I know is that you can learn anything in life if you do two things: One, put your mind to it, and two, listen well.”

Those words of advice are essential as one learns this week’s Torah portion.

From the very opening word in this week’s parsha one realizes concentration is crucial if one is to achieve any understanding. The medieval commentator, Rashi, wondered why the Torah opened this portion with the words, “And these are the laws,” and not simply, “These are the laws.” He answers that whenever a portion of the Torah begins with the expression, “these,” it signals a discontinuity with whatever preceded it. But whenever the wording “And these” appears, it connects the present discussion with the previous one. The discussion of Revelation at Sinai from last week’s reading, notes Rashi, connects with this week’s Torah reading. Just like the Ten Commandments took place at Sinai, so, too, this portion devoted to civil laws was also taught at Sinai.

This, however, is most perplexing, for where else was Torah taught if not at Sinai? The late 20th century rabbinic thinker, Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, in his masterful work, Pahad Yitzhak, suggests that the connection between the two Torah portions addresses popular confusion. If you ask people what comprises a religious duty, they answer: praying, fasting etc…. But if you would ask, if giving food to the poor or assisting one’s fellow man is a religious duty, they will say: “That is morality not religion.” They have a distorted view, argues Hutner, that religion contains only ritual laws, but laws that concern our interaction with others are not of religious consequence.

It was this very point that led the 19th century commentator on Rashi, the Be’er Yitzhak, to note that revelation at Sinai involved a tremendous miracle. Rashi had commented that when God revealed the Ten Commandments, it occurred in two stages. The first stage was something man can’t imitate. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said all of the Ten Commandments in one utterance.” God said each of the commandments at the very same moment. But then there was stage two: “He went back and repeated each and every commandment by itself.”

The Be’er Yitzhak wonders why God had to reveal the commandments in such a fashion. He answers that God said all of the commandments together so that no one should think that any one commandment is more important than any other. You might think that the ritual laws, which are Nos. 1-4, are more important since they are listed first. Of course custom requires that we list items and something has to be No. 1 followed by No. 2, etc…. The message, however, is that all commandments, whether they deal with God and man, or man and his interaction with his fellow man, are equal in God’s eyes.

Not long ago I met with a young man who is in the music business. In an almost confessional fashion he told me, “Rabbi, I am not that religious.”

I answered him, “I don’t know if you are religious or not, but please don’t get the word ‘religion’ and the word ‘observance’ confused.”

He was shocked, and asked what I meant.

I said that just because one is observant and keeps all of the ritual laws, that doesn’t make one a religious human being. A religious person is one who observes both the ritual and moral laws. Ritual observance alone doesn’t make one a religious individual.

When the woman at the ice rink said to me, “Remember, listen well for when you do you really can achieve anything,” she was, in effect, summarizing the message of Parshat Mishpatim: Listen to the words of Torah and you can achieve a just society.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.


Thanksgiving’s Sukkot Roots

Did you know that Thanksgiving is really a Jewish holiday? Although Thanksgiving is not on the Jewish calendar, historians believe that Sukkot may have inspired America’s favorite farewell to fall, often nicknamed "Turkey Day."

"The pilgrims based their customs on the Bible," said Gloria Kaufer Greene, author of the "New Jewish Holiday Cookbook" (Times Books, 1999). "They knew that Sukkot was an autumn harvest festival, and there is evidence that they fashioned the first Thanksgiving after the Jewish custom of celebrating the success of the year’s crops."

Linda Burghardt, author of "Jewish Holiday Traditions" (Citadel Press, 2001), said, "Sukkot is considered a model for Thanksgiving. Both holidays revolve around showing gratitude for a bountiful harvest."

Today Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, but President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t propose this timing until 1939.

It was Abraham Lincoln who made Thanksgiving a national holiday. Roosevelt actually changed Lincoln’s decree that Thanksgiving be observed on the last Thursday in November, which may fall on the fifth Thursday of the month.

The pilgrims’ invited local Indians to the first Thanksgiving during the fall of 1621. Historians speculate that this celebration occurred somewhere between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, but most likely in early October, around the time of Sukkot.

"Originally, Sukkot entailed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem," said Greene, who believes the two holidays share much in common.

The Puritan Christians who landed on American shores seeking religious freedom were called pilgrims, in deference to their journey from England. Their dream of finding a place where they’d be free to worship as they pleased is a recurrent theme in Jewish history.

After their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the ancient Israelites lived for a week in temporary huts while giving thanks for a plentiful harvest. Likewise, during their first winter in Massachusetts, the pilgrims dwelled in makeshift huts, wigwams that the Indians helped them build.

While Sukkot remains a seven-day observance, the first Thanksgiving celebration continued for three days, a time frame more similar to the Jewish harvest festival than today’s Thanksgiving dinner, which often begins in late afternoon and ends several hours later.

With its pumpkin pies and cranberry garlands, Thanksgiving mirrors many of Sukkot’s customs and culinary themes.

Burghardt said she is amazed at how many of the same foods are connected to both holidays.

Piping hot casseroles brimming with vegetables and fruit grace the American and Jewish harvest tables, as do pastries that are filled with apples, nuts, pumpkins and squash. Stuffing one food inside another as a metaphor for abundance is the hallmark of Sukkot cuisine.

Yet there’s nothing more opulent than the elaborate bread stuffings found inside Thanksgiving turkeys.

Greene enjoys transforming traditional Thanksgiving recipes into kosher cuisine.

"I like mixing new and old world themes," she said.

One of her favorite recipes is glazed turkey with fruit-nut stuffing. Bursting with so much produce, it’s a one-dish harvest festival. Because the pilgrims and Indians shared roasted corn during the first Thanksgiving, Greene’s double-corn bread is a fitting choice. It is soft and moist, almost like a kugel.

Harvest-time cranberry relish is always a big hit at Greene’s house.

"Several years ago, I invited a family of Russian Jewish immigrants to celebrate their first Thanksgiving. While they adored traditional American foods, they were especially fascinated with the taste and bright color of cranberries."

But since the two holidays are so close in time, is there any reason for American Jews who celebrate Sukkot to pay homage to a second harvest festival six weeks later?

"Participating in Thanksgiving is how we feel American," said Greene, a former food columnist for the Baltimore Jewish Times, who used to submit a Thanksgiving story every year.

She agrees with Burghardt that Thanksgiving is a lovely experience. It’s an easy holiday to include friends and neighbors of other faiths.

"While Thanksgiving is not technically a Jewish holiday, it’s not a Christian one either," Burghardt said. "It’s a great equalizer with a multicultural theme."

Although Burghardt believes that Thanksgiving, with its chocolate turkeys and pilgrims, lacks Sukkot’s depth, Greene feels there’s something spiritual about the whole country partaking in a communal meal, even though menus and customs vary from home to home. At her table, she asks guest to share one thing for which they’re grateful.

"Like Sukkot, at Thanksgiving you’re supposed to invite people to share abundance with your family," Burghardt said. "You can’t serve too much food. Could there be anything more Jewish than that?"

Glazed Turkey With Fruit-Nut Stuffing

Fruit-Nut Stuffing:

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 celery stalks, diced

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups cranberries

12 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped

6 dried apricots, coarsely chopped

1 cup raisins

3 medium apples, cored and diced

1 1/2 cups chopped nuts

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

Salt and pepper to taste

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1. In a medium-sized saucepan sauté the onion and celery in oil over medium-high heat, stirring until tender but not browned. Transfer to a large bowl. Set aside.

2. In the same (unwashed) pan, combine orange juice and sugar, bringing mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir in cranberries and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer cranberries, stirring occasionally for about 10 minutes, or until berry skins pop.

3. Mix in prunes, apricots and raisins. Remove from heat. Transfer mixture to bowl containing onion and celery. Cool to room temperature. Add remaining stuffing ingredients and mix well.


1 12-14 pound turkey, completely defrosted in refrigerator

Canola oil

1. Clean turkey well and discard giblets. Rub skin with canola oil.

2. Fill the body and neck cavities of the turkey with stuffing, allowing room for expansion. Tuck the legs under the band of skin or tie legs together with heavy cord. Skewer or sew neck skin closed against the body. Place turkey, breast up, on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Roast in a preheated 325 F oven for about three hours.

Yield: 10 servings

Double Corn Bread

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1/3 cup canola oil

1 (about 15-ounce) can cream-style corn, including liquid.

(Note: Because cream-style corn does not contain dairy products, it is pareve.)

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Coat an 8-inch square baking pan with no-stick spray.

2. In a medium bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Make a well in the center, and add eggs, oil and canned corn. Beat wet ingredients with a fork to combine them, then incorporate dry ingredients. Stir only until all ingredients are completely moistened and combined.

3. Spoon mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Cut into 16 squares and serve directly from the pan.

Harvest-Time Cranberry Relish

1 medium-sized navel orange

1 12-ounce package fresh cranberries, sorted, rinsed and drained

1 medium-sized apple, cored and cut into eighths

1 medium-sized pear, cored and cut into eighths

1/4 cup walnut pieces

1/4 cup dark raisins

1/2 cup dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Use a sharp knife to remove the colored part of the orange rind. Set aside. Remove and discard the white pith. Cut orange pulp into chunks.

2. Put orange rind and pulp into food processor fitted with the steel blade with the remaining relish ingredients. Pulse the mixture until ingredients are finely chopped but not smoothly pureed.

3. Chill relish covered for several hours, stirring occasionally until the sugar completely dissolves and flavors blend.

Yield: about 3 1/2 cups

From "The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook," by Gloria Kaufer Greene.

The Few, The Proud, The Jewish

In the entire U.S. military there are about 50 Orthodox Jews — and I am one of them. Why am I telling you this?

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine. In 1976, when I was 5, my parents, sister and I immigrated to the United States and settled in Seattle. I grew up mostly nonobservant, but maintained some connection to Judaism during the summers when I would attend a Chabad day camp. My family and I would also go to Seattle’s Chabad House once in a while during the holidays, mostly for the free food and ample vodka.

As a child, I always wanted to serve my country. By nature I was machmir (strict) and never did anything in a half-hearted way, so I decided that I would join the best fighting force in the world, the U.S. Marine Corps.

The typical Jewish reaction was: “What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in the Marines?”

My parents, who escaped the USSR to keep me from having to serve in the Soviet military, thought I was crazy. On Feb. 8, 1989, four days after my 18th birthday, I shipped off to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.

On the third day of boot camp, we were sitting in formation when a drill instructor approached the platoon and barked, “All my Jews, stand up.”

I thought to myself, “Here we go, the persecution of the Jews is about to begin.”

Out of 87 recruits, I was the only one to stand up. He ordered me to report to a major standing off in the distance, which I nervously did.

I saluted and said, “Sir, Pvt. Ekshtut reporting as ordered, sir!”

I will never forget the first thing he said to me: “Do you know that you are one-tenth of one percent of all Marines in the Marine Corps?”

He introduced himself as Maj. Goldberg — or some similar Jewish name — and explained that only one in 1,000 Marines is Jewish. He then invited me to attend Friday night services at the nearby Navy chapel. I accepted.

I went on to serve overseas, in exotic locations like Okinawa, Korea, the Philippines and Bangladesh. During the first Gulf War, I was deployed for seven months on a Navy ship in the Middle East. That winter, I lit Chanukah candles in the middle of the Persian Gulf.

After four years of active duty, I continued to serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year in the Marine Reserves. After graduating college as a civil engineer, I spent a few months in Israel where I decided I needed to learn more about what it means to be a Jew.

After several years of learning, I was going to synagogue every Shabbat, putting on tefillin every morning and trying to keep kosher. The only time I could not keep the Sabbath was when I was doing my monthly weekend duty in the Reserves. It was not that I wasn’t allowed — on the contrary, the more observant I became, the more supportive everyone was. I lit candles and made “Kiddush” in the barracks on Friday night, and my friends would even do the “labors” that were prohibited for me on the Sabbath. But in the Reserves, Saturday is the main training day.

It was time for me to make a decision: leave my beloved Marine Corps or stay in the Marines and not be so machmir one weekend a month. After nearly 13 years of service, I left the military to keep Shabbat.

However, a lot of what I learned in the Marines made me a better Jew. Jewish observance is similar to military training — except you don’t have to sweat as much or crawl in the mud.

Being a Marine taught me self-discipline and responsibility, how to answer to a “higher authority,” the value of teamwork, family and community, pride and self-esteem. By being charged by the real commander-in-chief, God, to wake up early and go to minyan, put on tefillin, pray three times a day, keep kosher and live in a Jewish community, we acquire some of the same qualities that the military teaches.

So for me, becoming an observant Jew was a straightforward transition. Nothing else would suffice. I continue to learn and grow Jewishly –I’m even on the board of my synagogue now.

I ask myself, would I want my son, when one day God grants me one, to join the military? In both good Jewish and military tradition, I will cross that bridge when I get to it. My more immediate objective is to find my beshert (soulmate). However, I know that if my future son does serve in the military, he’ll be a better man and a better servant of God because of it.

Mikhail Ekshtut, a civil engineer in Seattle and chaplain assistant in the Air Force Reserve, can be reached at

Ask Wendy

An Unreasonable

Dear Wendy,

My wife and I recently had a falling out with very close
friends whom we’ve known for over 40 years. When their daughter became engaged,
they told us early on that, for budgetary reasons, our children would not be
invited to the wedding. We said, at that time, that unless our youngest was
invited, we would not be able to attend. That child, age 10, was born after we
lost our 17-year-old daughter in a car accident. He is therefore very special
to us and everyone in our family knows as much. We have also never left him
with a babysitter. Our son was not invited to the wedding. My wife believes
that if our friends valued our friendship they would have granted our request.
Our friends explained that they were not comfortable inviting our son given
that no other children were being included. They called three times the month
before the wedding, and have called several times since, to say that they did
not want the friendship to suffer. Who is in the wrong?

Friend in Need

Dear Friend,

I don’t know how anyone survives the loss of a child. But
people do. And somehow you have. By your own admission, your youngest child is
dearer to you for having been born after a tragic loss, but the rest of the
world cannot be expected to grant your son similar special status. I would add
that your son would probably be bored senseless at an event where he is the
only child. You have jeopardized a valuable and longstanding relationship
because your friends failed to play by your rules at a time when the only
people who really mattered were the bride and groom. Friendships are not
predicated on unwavering submission; disagreements, no matter how serious or
hurtful, are not grounds for termination. Your feelings were hurt; your friends
have acknowledged this by calling numerous times. Call them back today. If you
feel the need to rehash the issue one more time then do so and put it behind
you. Your friendship survived the loss of your daughter. Don’t let it fall
apart over a simcha.

To Kosher or Not to

Dear Wendy,

I am getting married and would like to accommodate my
fiancé’s family. They are insisting on a strictly kosher wedding reception. If
we serve a dairy meal, several of my relatives with dietary restrictions who
are not Jewish or observant will have little to eat; if we serve both meat and
dairy, many of his relatives will be very upset. I am desperate to find a

Blushing Bride

Dear Blushing,

Strict adherence to the laws of kashrut does not allow for
compromise. This is just one of the many things you will learn if you marry
into a religious family — and it is one of the easier lessons. When it comes to
the do’s and don’ts of Sabbath observance, your learning curve will be much
steeper. As long as you and your fiancé are on the same page, and his family is
patient and tolerant, you will find your way. The good news is that a gifted
Jewish caterer can deliver a delicious meal that speaks to all of your
concerns: would you believe velvety chocolate cake with nondairy whipped cream?
Your in-laws will be able to attend; your guests will never know. As for the
main course, why not a rare filet with (nondairy) hollandaise sauce? For those
vegetarians among your guests, I have yet to meet a caterer who does not offer
an alternative meal for those with dietary restrictions.

Where Do We Go From

Dear Wendy,

I have been dating the same man for two years. Three months
into our relationship he started talking about getting married. We decided then
that we were moving too quickly. Now, I find that we are “stuck” in the dating
phase and that my boyfriend refuses to discuss marriage. My best friend tells
me to be patient. Should I move on?

Lady in Waiting

Dear Lady,

I’d say that your aim is closer to the mark. Two years is a
respectable amount of time for any two people to decide if they are meant for
each other. Especially if you had discussed marriage in the early days of the
relationship, it is all the more bizarre that your boyfriend can’t stomach the
issue now. Time to tell your boyfriend that you need to know if the
relationship is heading in the direction of the altar. Do give him a chance to
defend himself before you flatten him on your way out the door.

Cape Town Clash

A controversial conversion has reignited a dispute over Orthodox Jewish standards between South Africa’s Orthodox establishment and one of the largest Orthodox congregations in the Southern Hemisphere.

Attempts to paper over the cracks between the beit din, or the Jewish law court, the Union of Orthodox Synagogues and Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation had been made in August. At that time, Sea Point members, who had been considering pulling out of the union to set up their own rabbinical court, decided instead to give the parties six months to work things out.

However, the issue has erupted again as the result of an article in the latest issue of Noseweek, a South African publication known for investigative journalism. The article focuses on the validity of the conversion that Karin Berman underwent before her marriage to construction magnate Saul Berman, a prominent Sea Point member.

Karin Berman was married to the late Christiaan Barnard, who performed the world’s first heart transplant in 1967.

Members of the beit din reportedly told Karin Berman that they do not recognize her conversion or marriage and said the child she is expecting will not be recognized as Jewish. The credentials of the Paris rabbi who converted Berman were withdrawn 20 years ago, when he was discredited for having certified conversions for a fee, Noseweek reported.

However, Sea Point’s U.S.-born rabbi, Elihu Jacob Steinhorn, insisted that the conversion was valid. Noseweek reported further that the rabbi who married the Bermans in Rome said that he had accepted everything as kosher, based on an introduction from Steinhorn. Steinhorn denied the rabbi’s statement.

The conversion squabble, however, masks deeper issues that have been dividing the South African Orthodox world for some time. Steinhorn told Noseweek that the conversion was "the least of the issues" involved in the dispute.

The heart of the dispute centers on whether Sea Point must observe the standards of halacha demanded by the country’s chief rabbinate in Johannesburg, or whether it can adopt looser standards.

"The fact of the matter is that in the Orthodox world today outside of South Africa, which is very provincial, very closed and very British, there’s a whole world called modern Orthodoxy," Steinhorn said.

"We in Sea Point are its only representative in South Africa," he continued. Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris "can say what he likes, but he does not represent modern Orthodoxy."

Steinhorn disputed claims that the fervently Orthodox community was growing stronger in South Africa, dismissing them as "public relations." The fervently Orthodox, he said, are "disenfranchising most of Judaism."

The Noseweek article mentioned that Harris objected to an invitation that Sea Point extended to Tzili Reisenberger, an Israeli-born theologian at the University of Cape Town, to address the congregation.

"We see nothing wrong with inviting a professor who teaches Bible at the university to come and give a shiur [lesson]. That’s part of modern Orthodoxy," Steinhorn said.

A statement attributed to Harris in Noseweek, charging that Reisenberger officiated at same-sex marriages, was "baldly untrue," said Clive Rabinowitz, Sea Point vice president. Harris later apologized to Reisenberger and retracted the accusation, admitting that his statement had been incorrect and defamatory.

But Harris described as "patent nonsense" the notion that the beit din was being "unnecessarily harsh" and using the controversial conversion to "coerce" Sea Point into stricter observance. At issue, he said, is the fact that "there’s a lot of cheating going on here," with Sea Point congregants defining for themselves what modern and centrist Orthodoxy are.

"Modern or centrist Orthodoxy is observant," Harris said. "The only differences between it and ultra-Orthodoxy lie in attitudes to non-Jewish people and attitudes to general scholarship. They are not differences about the observance of Torah, and this is where both Steinhorn" and a prominent congregant, Judge Dennis Davis, "have got it wrong."

In that sense, Harris continued, Sea Point "is cheating by putting their own definition on modern Orthodoxy."

Harris described as nonsense the article’s assertion that Sea Point was "the last outpost of ‘liberal Orthodoxy,’" resisting "the flood of ‘fundamentalist pietude’ washing south from Johannesburg."

"They are defining Orthodoxy in their own way, and no one else in the Orthodox world will accept it," Harris said.

Rabinowitz, who proposed the resolution to disaffiliate from the union in August, said the public spat was "extremely unfortunate."

Negotiations between Sea Point and the union are "limping along," said Rabinowitz, who predicted that the talks "may yet lead to a resolution of the problems."

Steinhorn said he was not optimistic that things would be resolved between the beit din, the union and Sea Point. "We want unity," Steinhorn stressed, "but I don’t think they can live with modern Orthodoxy," he said.

Tisha B’Av Times 4

Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning in commemoration of the destruction of the two Temples, is notable for at least two reasons. For one, it may be the only holiday that Hallmark hasn’t designed a card for. And it seems to be the one holiday that most Jews have heard of, but few seem to know much about. As with quarks and RNA and Rothko, we can drop “Tisha B’Av” into a conversation, hoping all the while that we won’t be asked to actually explain it.

Here’s how to fix that: On Aug. 11, at 5:30 p.m., in the social hall of Congregation Etz Jacob (7659 Beverly Blvd.), you can attend a free meal as part of the observance of the holy day. The meal will be served prior to the beginning of the fast and will include a discussion with Rabbi Rubin Huttler on the laws and customs of the meal, the fast and the day of observance.

The meal will conclude across the street from the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument Amphitheatre in Pan Pacific Park. There, participants will eat the traditional hard-boiled egg dipped in ashes, and hear two speakers discuss another traumatic time in Jewish history: the prisoner uprising in the Treblinka concentration camp. U.S. Immigration Judge Bruce J. Einhorn, Adjunct Professor of International Human Rights Law and War Crime Studies at Pepperdine University School of Law, will speak on the lessons of the Temple destructions and Treblinka, and businessman and philanthropist Fred Kort, one of the few remaining survivors of Treblinka, will offer his recollection of the camp.

After the two addresses, the audience will read from the Book of Lamentations under the stars, using only flashlights for illumination. “It’s a very dramatic atmosphere,” Miriam Huttler told Up Front. “It’s a very moving way to mark Tisha B’Av.”

For reservations for the complementary meal, phone (213) 938-2619.

How To Mark Tisha B’Av, Part II

At the Westwood Kehilla Synagogue, a full day of special presentations will mark the Jewish day of mourning, beginning on Monday evening, Aug. 11, and running through Tuesday. In addition to the traditional services, Rabbi Eli Stern will speak about the “conceptual underpinning of the root causes of the various tragedies marked by Tisha B’Av and offer a paradigm for the bringing about of the Messianic redemption of the Jewish people,” according to synagogue publicity. Yaakov Glasser will discuss the elegies that commemorate the tragic events in Jewish history. This is no lighthearted holy day.

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, the kehilla will join more than 100 synagogues worldwide in sharing a special made-for-Tisha B’Av video featuring Rabbi Yissacher Frand of Baltimore and Paysach Krohn of New York. Both will speak on “Peace Among Jews” and offer practical advice for interpersonal relationships. Why this subject? It was baseless hatred among Jews that brought about the destruction of the Second Temple, writes the Talmud. So why not work to prevent it from happening again?

For more information, call the Westwood Kehilla Synagogue at (310) 441-5288.

How To Mark Tisha B’Av, Part III

One way Up Front chooses to mark the destruction of the Temples is to update readers on the increasingly inevitable destruction of a local one. After The Journal reported last year on efforts to save Boyle Heights’ historic and once-magnificent Breed Street Shul, the Los Angeles Times ran a similar article. A public outcry followed both articles, and the Los Angeles City Council, prompted by the Southern California Jewish Historical Society, enacted a measure to surround the shul with a high fence to keep out the vandals, crack addicts and prostitutes who called it home.

Meanwhile, the parties contesting the future of the shul — the SCJHS, on one side, and Rabbi Mordechai Ganzweig, who claims title to the property, on the other — convened at the behest of an interested community member in an attempt to reach an agreement.

According to a source present at the negotiations — which nearly broke apart in acrimonious debate — the SCJHS agreed to buy the property from the rabbi for a price that the organization would determine. The purchase funds would be put into escrow and distributed to a charity chosen by the widow of Osher Zilberstein, the synagogue’s longtime former rabbi. The SCJHS, in return, signed a covenantal agreement with Ganzweig that the structure would never be used for any religious services other than Jewish. Sources estimate a possible purchase price at around $100,000.

For a while, everybody seemed happy.

But that was August 1996. One year later, the SCJHS has yet to make a firm offer to Ganzweig. One source told Up Front that the historical society is looking into the possibility that the rabbi cannot sell what he doesn’t legally own. Ganzweig’s lawyer claimed during the negotiations that he can produce a clear and unencumbered title to the property. The parties have not been in contact, and none were available for comment as The Journal went to press.

In the meantime, the stately old shul off Cesar Chavez Boulevard — one of the last remaining monuments to that era of Los Angeles Jewish history — continues to decay.

“Tear it down; make it into a social center or a museum — I don’t care what they do with it,” said one of the participants in last year’s meeting. “Whatever they decide, they should have done it already.”

Music, Solemn and Otherwise

To bring you into that Tisha B’Av mood — and to lift you out of it — we can recommend a newly released album available on CD or cassette. In “The Covenant,” keyboardist/producer/arranger Wally Brill combines original recordings of the great cantors of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, lifted from original 78-rpm recordings, with creative vocalizations and new instrumentation. The technique is called sampling, and if it has worked for a generation of great rap artists, why not for a past generation of great cantors.

And it does work. Take the first track, “Kiddush L’Shabbat.” As Cantor Ben Zion Kapov-Kagen sings the traditional blessing over the wine, Ari Langer weaves his lyrical violin work around the cantor’s voice. The same magic is worked in “Rtzeh,” featuring a chilling recording by Cantor Gershon Sirota. And in “A Typical Day,” Brill mixes the descriptions of life in Auschwitz by survivor Helen Lazar with a stunning liturgy sung by Cantor Samuel Malavsky.

Using instruments ranging from the Indian tabla to the Australian didgeridoo, Brill has managed to enrich, not cheapen, these great cantorial recordings. We’ll be listening to it long after this Tisha B’Av, and the next. “The Covenant” is available at most record stores.