Mayim Bialik: Being religious isn’t trendy in Hollywood


People of faith working in Hollywood are often out of step with the entertainment industry, American actress Mayim Bialik said.

“I think in general it’s never going to be trendy to be observant or religious in Hollywood circles,” Bialik, 39, told Fox411 in an interview broadcast over the weekend. “There are people I know of faith and we tend to congregate together. I study Jewish texts weekly. That’s something really positive to me when you’re a person of faith, it stays with you all the time.”

Bialik is known in Hollywood as an observant person. She said she gets a lot of flack for being a modest dresser, including getting labeled as a prude.

“Being a modest dresser, that for me is a certain amount of my religious faith — privacy and chastity. Just because I have a body, doesn’t mean it means to be on display,” she said.

Bialik also spoke about the “negative attention” she received on the Internet for her recent visit to Israel. “It really doesn’t matter what I support or believe, the fact that I’m Jewish and go there is enough – that should be alarming to most people,” she said.

Bialik, who has written for the JTA-affiliated Jewish parenting site Kveller for the last  five years, plays Amy Farrah Fowler on the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” She recently launched a new website, GrokNation.com.

Israel Police on high alert ahead of Yom Kippur


Israel Police have been holding talks with Israeli Arab representatives in bid to diffuse tensions ahead of Yom Kippur, after the burning of an Upper-Galilee mosque earlier this week. Police hope that calm will be restored in time for Yom Kippur on Saturday.

Security forces sealed off the West Bank on Thursday at midnight, and the blockade will last for 48 hours until Yom Kippur at midnight. The blockade can only be lifted for humanitarian or medical reasons and with the permission of the civil administration.

The Taba border crossing and the Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan River border crossings to Jordan will shut down at noon on Friday and reopen on Saturday at 9 P.M. The Allenby terminal will close at 11 A.M.

Air traffic to and from Israel will halt from 1 P.M. on Friday to 9:30 P.M. on Saturday and the border crossings to Jordan and Gaza will close down. The weather forecast bodes well for fasters, with comfortable temperatures.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Laughing for Unity


It was one of the stranger events I’ve attended since I moved to the hood.

A friend sent me an e-mail telling me I “can’t miss” this Jerusalem rabbi’s one-man show Sunday night at Beth Jacob Congregation. I opened the e-mail a few minutes before show time, so, on a whim, I ran over to catch “The Four Faces of Israel,” starring Rabbi Benji Levene. After two hours of Benji, my head was spinning.

The show was a mock interview of four Jewish characters — a Charedi rabbi from Mea Shearim, a secular bus driver from Zichon Yaacov, a French artist living in Safed married to a non-Jew, and an American Zionist philanthropist living in Los Angeles — all played by Rabbi Levene. On this night, the interviewer was played by the evening’s master of ceremonies, one of the leaders of the Beth Jacob Congregation.

The characters were more like caricatures, and sometimes they were buffoons. The Charedi rabbi gave a little slurp and a burp, and proceeded to reinforce every possible Yiddish stereotype one might have about the insular Charedi world, with one caveat: Occasionally, out of the blue, he’d get up and give an impassioned defense of Charedim. We don’t do the army? Hey, Ben Gurion himself understood that “the Torah kept the Jews alive.” That’s why he gave us an exemption.

We don’t stand for a minute of silence to commemorate those who have died fighting for Israel? Why can’t we mourn the way the halacha (Jewish law) tells us to mourn?

After the interview, when the rabbi went backstage to change into his next character, the interviewer read a list of prepared questions for the audience: Who’s more likely to be living in Israel 100 years from now, a secular Jew or the rabbi? Who better represents authentic Judaism? Who’s more of a Zionist, the Charedi rabbi who lives in Israel, or the secular Jew who lives in the Diaspora?

It was clear that the questions had a pro-religion agenda — which was an omen of things to come.

The next three characters were also buffoons, but they were secular. The bus driver was an ultra-Zionist who fought in all the wars, and who wouldn’t mind “doing Kippur,” as long as nobody tells him when to do it. The French artist who had a non-Jewish wife and a non-Jewish son was a “cosmopolitan” who celebrates art, beauty and morality, and who thinks there can’t be another Holocaust because “all the artists of the world would get together and write a song.”

And the American philanthropist, who wore 100 pins and medals and said he visited Israel 226 times — this year — kept reminding us that he “doesn’t need the world to know that [he] gave $4.5 million to Israel this year, not to mention what [he] gave last year.”

It’s with these three secular characters that the show lost some credibility. After their interviews, instead of asking the audience questions that would encourage them to look at “the other side of the stereotype” — like they did with the Charedi character — the show continued to ask leading questions with a pro-religion agenda: Who’s more committed to living in Israel, the Charedi or the secular Jew? Who’s more committed to Judaism? Who will be more Jewish in the future?

This had a jarring effect.

Ostensibly, the idea of the show was to confront us with the exaggerations and unfairness of stereotypes, so that we could get beyond them and build mutual respect and unity among Jews. But the pro-religion bias kept interfering. It’s like the show was saying: “We respect every Jew, but we’d respect you so much more if you were more Torah-observant like us, and the Jewish nation would be so much better off.”

That may be true, but that kind of patronizing usually works only when you preach to the choir. If the show’s creators have designs on the wider Jewish world, they might consider taking a more even-handed and respectful approach to the secular characters.

Imagine, for example, if the show played up the idea that secular Jews already have a certain level of “Torah observance,” like when they visit sick people in the hospital, help the needy, protect the environment, resist gossip, fight for their country, donate money to charity, take care of their health, respect their parents and so on. In other words, instead of telling secular Jews that their lives are devoid of Jewish content, the show would invite them into a much bigger “Torah Tent,” one where they feel they already belong, and where they’d be more open to learn more about their Judaism. In this bigger tent, the charedis might even learn a thing or two.

In any event, when Rabbi Levene showed up as himself at the end of the show and poured out his soul in favor of loving every Jew, it was hard not to fall for him. This rabbi — grandson of the renowned Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as the “Tzadik of Jerusalem” — is so passionate in his desire to bring Jews together, all you can do is root for him to succeed.

Maybe the reason my head was spinning after the show is that while I didn’t connect with the rabbi’s comedy, or even his strategy for unity, I fell for him anyway. I felt the love he had for everyone in the room, and I wanted to love him back.

The face that will stay with me in “The Four Faces of Judaism” was the fifth one, the one of the rabbi without make-up or costume.

On that face, one could see a simpler message: Sometimes it’s more important just to love, than to be funny or smart.

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

Our Cross to Bear?


At first blush it seemed an odd thing for an observant Jew to do: Slogging my way through morning rush-hour traffic to get downtown to demonstrate against the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ decision to remove a small cross from the county seal.

And yet, I felt compelled to be there. The supervisors had already capitulated, in a 3-2 vote, to a threat by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to sue the county over the cross. Surprised by the public outcry, the supervisors called for another vote to consider a so-called “compromise” with the ACLU in which the cross on the seal — just one of a dozen various symbols of the region’s history — would be replaced by a mission. But as one clever observer noted, a mission without a cross just looks like a Taco Bell.

For years the actions of the ACLU have infuriated me. Their reflexively leftist positions have accomplished the exact opposite of what their name suggests: Instead of promoting civil liberties, they have hampered them at every opportunity, particularly by trying to eradicate symbols of Judaism and Christianity from public life and, by extension, have stifled free expression. Their successful bullying tactics have so cowed public officials that they simply fold when the ACLU comes complaining. In fact, the ACLU first targeted the city of Redlands, whose city seal also has a cross, and now bureaucrats there are busily taking black marker to the crosses until they can redesign the seal. Things must be pretty slow at the ACLU if this is all they can come up with as a threat to our national civil liberties.

By the way, the Los Angeles County seal also includes the pagan goddess Pomona, goddess of gardens and fruit trees, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the ACLU. Their animus is toward Christianity and Judaism, and it is as limitless as it is hypocritical. While they are now busily checking for crosses on county seals (and the cross on the Los Angeles County seal is so small they probably needed a magnifying glass to see it), they are only selectively bothered by Christian symbols. In 1995 they represented — are you ready? — the Ku Klux Klan, who were denied the right to erect a 6-foot cross in front of the Ohio Capitol State building. This bastion of “free speech” and civil liberties took up the Klansmens’ case (Capitol Square Review Board vs. Pinette), rejecting Ohio’s argument that allowing the display violated the separation of church and state. According to the ACLU, a tiny cross on a county seal representing part of the county’s history is intolerable, but an enormous cross put up by virulently racist Klansmen in front of a state capitol building is an expression of free speech. Got it?

Many of the demonstrators, led by radio talk show host Dennis Prager, argued that by eliminating the cross from the seal, the supervisors were rewriting history — a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. Like it or not, Los Angeles was founded by the Rev. Junipero Serra as a mission, making Christianity a central element in the county’s early history. For a group claiming to stand for free speech and civil liberties, eviscerating the truth of our history is unconscionable.

Most people understand the danger inherent in rewriting history. That’s why the 1,000-plus demonstrators at the Hall of Supervisors were multiracial, multiethnic and religiously diverse. (Of course, one would not know that from the coverage in the Los Angeles Times, which chose to include a photo making the gathered crowd look like a good ol’ boy come-to-Jesus meeting. The photo was so misleading and out of context that the Times ran a correction the following day.) I was pleased to find some of my religious friends among the crowd, including David Altschuler, who took his 10th-grade daughter out of school for the occasion. Like me, David came to show non-Jews that “many Jews appreciate the freedom that Christians in this country have granted to us.” Many people who noticed his kippah came up and thanked him for coming.

I probably would not have come to value the importance of this issue had I not studied with Rabbi Daniel Lapin, founder and president of Toward Tradition and formerly the rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice. For nearly 20 years, he has been a lone voice in the wilderness, arguing that it is the uniquely tolerant brand of Christianity practiced here that has given Jews the kind of freedom unprecedented anywhere in the Diaspora. On Jewish participation in the fight to save the cross on the seal, Lapin said, “Seldom have Jews appealed to the Christian community in vain when we needed help with issues important to us, such as supporting Soviet Jewish immigration or fighting domestic anti-Semitism. This is a chance for the organized Jewish community to return the favor.”

If anyone would have told me in my early adulthood that I’d become a defender of the cross, so to speak, I would have been as incredulous as if they’d also predicted I’d one day vote Republican. But people change. Sometimes, people become open to new ideas, even previously foreign ideas. The cross on the county seal is small, but the fight to preserve it is very, very big. I demonstrated not only to preserve the truth of our history, but also because I’ve had enough of the tyranny of the ACLU. This time, they’re after crosses. Can anybody doubt that next time it will be a Star of David?

Judy Gruen is an award-winning humorist and columnist for Religion News
Service. More of her columns can be found at www.judygruen.com.

Pay Attention


Even if the reader is a person who does not regularly attend Shabbat worship services when the Torah is read, the text of Nitzavim will be somewhat familiar, inasmuch as it is offered not only as a reading during the Sabbath we are about to observe, but it is also presented as the Torah text in the midst of the morning of Yom Kippur. So, even the least observant among us, when wending their way to a synagogue to observe the High Holidays, ought to find this material from Deuteronomy to be not at all strange.

In his final days, Moses is reminding the people, whom he has led for 40 years, that there was that unique moment when they gathered together to receive the word of God, and that the message delivered was not for them alone, but for everyone that would follow.

I find myself especially interested in the posture the Israelites assumed when they were receiving God’s words, as transmitted via Moses. Our tradition teaches that every man, woman and child who was assembled at Mount Sinai when Moses descended from the summit heard his message while standing at full attention.

That really comes as no surprise. After all, when any of us are in the presence of a truly important person, or when we ready ourselves to be the recipients of a very significant message, it’s difficult to imagine that we’d be anything less than completely attentive — both physically and mentally.

I believe that from this, we are to learn how important it is for all of us to determine what is really vital and what is merely superficial; and then to be completely attentive to the former while letting the latter simply blow away.

Just imagine how much time we waste reading, viewing, listening to, talking and thinking about trash. It’s within this context that Moses Maimonides proved to be totally accurate when he declared that most of us are "ignoramuses," not because we are stupid, but because we don’t actualize most of our intellects. He was critical of the fact that we choose to be lazy and wasteful of many opportunities to learn and to do.

Nitzavim tells us to pay attention to — and then to act on — what’s significant, and to ignore anything and everything that isn’t.

Another lesson we learn from this text is that the Israelites all stood together, and that successive generations of their progeny — and that includes you and me — have a Torah mandate to be part of a unified entity which is accepting of the lessons that are imparted in the Holy Scroll, and that we are ready to use them to positively affect our lives and the lives of each person with whom we interact.

Thus, when I hear some Jews deriding others with whom they may have a disagreement, when I’m in the company of those who insist that they are "more Jewish" than others and when I’m subjected to derision because I’ve expressed an opinion that seems to be at odds with mainstream thinking, this kind of projected negativity, and an obvious lack of cohesiveness, challenge the demand found in Nitzavim. We are told to stand together — certainly not as mindless robots, but as discerning individuals who embrace the moral truths found throughout the Five Books — and to vouchsafe the freedom of will that is guaranteed to all of us in these precious tomes.

So, just as we are to be attentive to the instructions provided to us in the Torah, we need to pay attention — with unconditional nonjudgmental objectivity — when we are in dialogue with those who express opinions that are similar to our own, as well as when we are exchanging ideas with those whose opinions and/or orientation are unlike the ones we champion.

After all, not only do they deserve to be heard, but they also may even say something which could be life-altering, if we but take the time to really listen.

+