Religion Deserves Respect


I wrote a couple of blogs last week that generated a lot of comments. I received messages on jewishjournal.com, Facebook, Twitter, and email. One of the blogs was about political affiliations, so I expected those, and the other one was about an F List celebrity, which I knew would generate a dialogue. I love it when readers reach out to me. We don’t always agree, but when they feel strong enough about my words to share their own, it matters to me. Comments are always encouraged.

There is a woman in Tennessee who comments quite often. She is quite religious and does not comment without mentioning Jesus and keeping me in her prayers. We disagree about everything, and frankly I think her views on certain things are nothing shy of crazy, but she is always respectful and kind. I am a person who thinks life is better when you have faith. It can be faith in God, yourself, or the Green Bay Packers. It doesn’t matter where faith lies, just that you have it.

I am Jewish and write for a Jewish publication, but this woman in Tennessee is certain Jesus is the key to happiness. It is actually quite charming and I admire her conviction. I know nothing about her or her life, other than the fact she lives in Tennessee and thinks Leann Rimes is the greatest human being to walk the earth since Jesus. Crazy to be sure, but God Bless her for having faith and never wavering, even though other readers on my blog go after her quite often.

Last week after Tennessee commented on my post, a long time reader replied to her comment. In it she questioned Tennessee’s faith, saying her opinion was not in line with her religion. I found it to be offensive and rude, so I let everyone know with a rather colorful choice of words. In a time where there is so much religious hate in the world, I simply could not let anyone come to my blog and attack anyone’s religion. My religion is attacked every single day and I wasn’t going to allow it.

I have no problem with people not sharing the same opinion, and people don’t have to agree with everything I write, but to attack someone’s beliefs is not cool. I am of the opinion Leann Rimes is a sociopath who needs to be medicated and perhaps hospitalized. Just my opinion, but this is America, and this is my blog, and I have the right to write whatever I want. If Tennessee thinks Leann is an angel who should be sainted, good for her. Her opinion can be questioned, but not her faith.

To tell Tennessee her opinion makes her a bad Christian is not only idiotic, but it is hurtful. I let the woman who commented know where she could put her opinion of Tennessee’s faith. I then got a series of tweets from the woman who attacked religion, and she was not pleased with me. She let me know she was a longtime reader and to lash out at her was not only uncalled for, but unkind, and mean spirited. I immediately felt bad about my response as it really wasn’t nice.

I didn’t know who the woman was on Facebook, but on Twitter realized she is a lovely lady who has been reading my work for a very long time. She has always supported me and made an effort to stay connected. That is irrelevant however because whether or not I knew her, my attack should never have happened. Two wrongs don’t make a right and rather than go after her, I should have explained myself in a kind and articulate way, which is what happened on Twitter.

I told the reader I was offended by her bringing the woman’s religion into her comment, and she understood why I reacted like I did, and explained it was never her intention to upset me or offend Tennessee. I escalated the situation by losing my temper, which was a real shame. These are two lovely women, with different views, and my approach should have been to diffuse not ignite. It ended up being an important moment and I have been changed for the good by it.

To Tennessee, thank you for keeping me in your prayers. I appreciate that very much and wish you health and happiness always. To Sally, thank you for calling me out and teaching me something. Please accept my apology and know that I will be more thoughtful moving forward. Opinions may differ, but religion deserves respect. Have a great weekend everyone. Be safe, be kind, say sorry, count your blessings, and keep the faith.

 

 

Letters to the Editor: Schulweis, God’s Road Rage, JCCs


Rabbi’s Words Echo on

Thank you for today’s column. I wish I could have heard it [Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis’ speech], but reading about it was wonderful (“Because You Suffer…,” March 8). Old is good, and older is perhaps even better. Again, thank you.

Carol Mann
Via e-mail

 

A Frustrated God

I don’t believe in censorship but I wish the Journal had chosen not to print Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ Torah analysis (“God’s Road Rage,” March 1). At first I thought it was a Purim satire, but even as such it would be highly inappropriate for a Jewish publication to print. Describing the Almighty as a terrible tot, throwing temper tantrums and much worse, is shocking and unworthy for the author and the publisher. If this is the God Kipnes believes in, why become a rabbi? Why bother to pray? Why stand up for the Torah?

Would the Journal have published the same article while substituting the word God with Allah? I don’t think so. You would have too much fear from, or respect for, the Muslim faith.

My first instinct was to wish Kipnes had shown better judgment and not written such a scurrilous attack on God, but then I remembered Beruria’s advice to her husband, Rebbe Meir, and in that spirit, I hope Kipnes will do teshuva. I also hope the Journal will apologize to its readers for its complicity in this public act of chillul Hashem.

Rabbi Robert Elias
Knesset Israel of Hollywood

 

The comments of my colleague, Paul Kipnes, were theologically offensive in the extreme. Leo Baeck, one of my favorite thinkers, did much to bridge the gap between traditional and modern thought. Leo Baeck speaks of God’s “altruistic jealousy,” knowing full well that humankind cannot be at its moral best without a loyal devotion to ethical monotheism. Comparing God to an enraged motorist is way beyond the bounds of what is acceptable.

Rabbi Louis J. Feldman
Van Nuys

Rabbi Paul Kipnes responds:  Upon receiving the comments of Rabbis Elias and Feldman, neither of whom I know, I did what any thinking person should do when confronted by those who seem offended by my comments: I picked up the phone and called both. By the time this letter is printed, I will have met for coffee with Rabbi Elias. I am still playing phone tag with Rabbi Feldman. I hope that both conversations become learning opportunities to bridge the theological gap, explain perspectives, and perhaps build a connection Jew to Jew, rabbi to rabbi. That’s how Jews disagree and yet remain one community.

Regarding the d’var Torah criticism, I offer these insights:

• Jewish mysticism — and midrash and Torah for that matter — posits a God that is not perfect, but rather grows in knowledge and understanding over time. The whole point of creating humanity, it teaches, is so that God can “self-actualize” (to borrow Maslow’s term).

• If God is not perfect, then it is permissible to experience God as becoming frustrated, even enraged, with the Israelites’ behavior. This need not weaken one’s belief in our God; rather it shows that God can be talked to and argued with (see Abraham at Sodom, Moses after the Golden Calf). We pray to a God who grows and changes. How wonderful if we, who are created in the image of God, could be more like God, listen to the advice of others and learning not to act out our anger.

• It is easy to condemn the views of others. We Jews particularly need not be afraid or enraged when someone makes theological claims that challenge our views. Unlike extremists in other religious groups, Jews allow for every argument about and with God. We encounter them with thoughtfulness to discern where there might be truth that we overlooked.

I believe in God with all my heart, soul and might. And I humbly apologize to those for whom my words offended their understanding of God.

The Ugly Truth About Food

In claiming that by rating products for their nutritional value, a supermarket violates capitalist principles (Ayn Rand 101), Marty Kaplan broadcasts his unfamiliarity with those principles (“Grocers: Don’t Buy Our Dreck,” March 8.)

It makes perfect sense for a supermarket to distinguish itself by offering customers something (information) that its competitors don’t; shoppers who want this data will be more likely to shop there.

There is no downside; once inside the store, customers concerned by a Cap’n Crunch’s low score won’t stop buying cereal, they will just substitute a healthier alternative. Purchases and revenues will be reallocated, not reduced.

It might be a problem for the producers of sugary cereals, but those producers also make healthier alternatives, so they too will simply see a shift, not a loss.

In sum, it is the self-interest of economic competitors (Adam Smith 101), not state paternalism, that is providing the social benefit that Kaplan celebrates.

Mitchell Keiter
Los Angeles

 

I will suggest to my local stores that they use your system of quality food rating. What a great idea! I cook everything from scratch since I don’t like so many sub-par ingredients in prepared foods. But this system helps women who don’t have the time to cook every day.

Marguerite King
Via e-mail

 

Bleak Future Without JCCs

I am afraid that in the future, the withdrawal of support for the Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) in 2001 will be looked at as the start of the decline of Jewish life in Los Angeles (“Left Without a JCC, Valley Jews Look to Start Anew,” March 8).

The JCCs occupied a crucial niche both geographically, where there were no nearby synagogues, and psychographically, for those who wanted to remain affiliated with the Jewish community but couldn’t afford or didn’t want to join a synagogue.

They provided a full range of activities from preschool to youth athletics to senior care to Sabbath and High Holy Days services for those who otherwise would have nowhere to go.

Interfaith families found them uniquely welcoming.

Unfortunately, once the JCCs close and the land is developed, it will be difficult if not impossible to recreate them.

There were financial troubles and fiscal mismanagement, but for a community as wealthy as ours, shame on The Federation — and on us all — for letting this happen.

Daniel Fink
Beverly Hills

Correction

The article “Three Films to Focus on Israeli Air Force” (March 1), misstated a current project by Mark Lansky. He is producing a film on the life of his uncle, Meyer Lansky, based on the book “The Devil Himself” by Eric Dezenhall, and other sources.

UJ Students SupportIsrael, Mixed on Iraq


“President Bush has the best interests of the United Statesand the world at heart … if push comes to shove, I would fight with theAmerican Army,” said Jacob Proud, a 20-year old freshman in bioethics at theUniversity of Judaism (UJ).

“I question the real motives for this war… I want mycountry and Israel to be as just and righteous as possible,” observed MarkGoodman, 26, a second-year student in the UJ’s Ziegler School of RabbinicStudies. The opinions, expressed in separate interviews during the first weekof the war in Iraq, illustrate an obvious and a more subtle point.

For one, not all students think alike, not even in auniversity whose students are, by self-selection, dedicated to Judaism.Secondly, even within the UJ, undergraduates and rabbinical students sitlargely on opposite sides of the fence.

It’s risky to jump to big conclusions from a very smallsample of interviews, and the perspectives might have been different amongstudents at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion or anOrthodox yeshiva, and most certainly at a secular institution like UCLA.

But thanks to the diversity of backgrounds in the UJundergraduate college, which is nondenominational, the viewpoints of itsstudents seem to represent sizable Jewish constituencies.

The Jewish Journal held a roundtable discussion with fourundergraduates. Besides Proud, they were Michael B. Salonius, 29, a senior inJewish philosophy; Samuel Sternberg, 19, a freshman in international business;and Rachel N. Tobin, 21, a senior in political science.

The students’ support for the war, though varying in fervorand rationale, was striking and reflected, they said, the overwhelmingattitudes among UJ’s 124 undergraduates.

Salonius, the oldest, most bearded and most reflective ofthe group, would have liked “a more complex and nuanced explanation [of Bush’sdecision]. But at the core,” he added, “this is a clash of civilizations and Ihope our values will win.”

Sternberg, whose backpack sports a “Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Jewishness”sticker felt that “the situation would fester” if action had been delayed.While acknowledging that his generation had no clear picture what it meant tobe in combat, he would be ready to serve in the armed forces, if drafted.

Rachel Tobin perceived no gender gap in war support betweenmen and women. She said that she would be willing to join a demonstration toback the troops, but worried about “the many unknowns” and admitted to acertain “hypocrisy” in counseling her brother against Army enlistment, if itcame to that.

All four concurred as to their strong personal and emotionalattachment to Israel and expressed deep concern for the fate of the JewishState. On balance, they hoped that the American action would ultimately benefitIsrael. The anti-war peace movement generally earned the undergraduates’contempt.

“The peace movement has been hijacked,” Salonius said.”There is no place for a Jew who supports Israel.”

Rabbinical student Goodman and his first-year schoolmateDanya Ruttenberg, 28, represented a sharp difference in tone and attitude.

“I’m afraid this war will do a lot of damage and might leavethe Middle East in worse shape than before,” Ruttenberg said. “We must hold ourgovernment accountable for its actions and make certain that it sets up aviable structure for life in the area after the war.”

Goodman felt that, “It is easier to be a ‘patriot’ and justback the government … but this war is not necessarily justified and manyother countries are questioning our real motives.”

Both students estimated some two-thirds of the 67 rabbinicalstudents shared their general reservations about the war. The differencesbetween undergraduates and rabbinical students seem to run deeper than justtheir perspectives on the war.

“There’s a lack of support for Israel in the rabbinicalschool,” charged Sternberg, and his viewpoint was seconded in even strongerlanguage by a graduate student in management, whom we encountered at theuniversity library.

Indeed, much of the campus apparently looks at therabbinical students as both leftist and elitist, a perception seen assimplistic by Ruttenberg and Goodman.

“I am strongly pro-Israel, but being critical of itsgovernment is not being anti-Israeli,” Ruttenberg said. “It is not black and white,the world works in shades of gray.”

However, she added with a smile, “This is the left coast andpeople who come to study here tend to be unconventional.”

Goodman, who will leave in the summer for the required yearof study in Israel, emphasized that, “I have a deep love for Israel. I havemany close friends there and I am terribly concerned for their safety.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinical school,questioned both the extent and validity of the impressions of his studentscited by others.

“This has been a pro-Zionist school from the beginning,” hesaid.

“Our rabbinical students took the lead in putting up anIsraeli flag on campus. We currently have 13 students in Israel, they’re theones who are putting their bodies on the line.”

As for the perception that the rabbinical students are”elitist,” Artson recalled, “When I was studying at Harvard, the graduatestudents didn’t mingle with the undergraduates.

 It’s not a matter of looking down at anyone, but there is abig differences in age here and you hang out with the people in your ownprogram.”  

It’s Not Our Right to Challenge Israel


I grew up in Australia in the 1960s and well remember, as a child, sitting by the radio or television anxiously awaiting developments during the Six-Day War.

I vividly recall scouring the paper for details of troop movements during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and remember being unable to sleep at night for fear that Israel might not exist when I awoke the following morning.

But I also remember a more powerful lesson from childhood. My Jewish day school education left me with the enduring belief that decisions regarding the security interests of the State of Israel were best left in the hands of those whose sons and daughters were asked to fight its battles.

Whatever our opinions about Israel’s claim on the territories, its attitude to Palestinian nationalism or its rights to self-defense, no one was asking us to risk our lives for Israel’s sake.

I had neither the right nor privilege to challenge the government of Israel’s decisions on how to protect its citizens. If I did so, I was in some way undermining that government and endangering Israel’s existence in a hostile world.

In a cynical age such as ours, this parochial attitude might seem charmingly out of date. And yet, this central tenet of a Zionist education remained embedded in my consciousness throughout high school, through my student leadership days and even into my 30s, when I had to make strenuous efforts to channel my bitter opposition to the Oslo process into nonpublic activism.

I resisted and continue to resist attacking a democratically elected government of Israel. I remain committed to the notion that short of living full time in the Jewish State, the policies of Israel, for better or worse, deserve to be publicly respected.

The wisdom of this approach is often challenged, particularly within my own ideological circle. My usual response to such criticism is that the State of Israel will always have far greater enemies than its own government, and that these enemies are much worthier of challenge.

Maybe that is why I am so angered by advertisements and articles in our local papers that claim that alternative voices are being muffled in the community. By "alternative," they, of course, mean opposition to the Israeli government.

When I read the most recent lachrymose statement on the back page of The Jewish Journal, my first reaction was a sense of irony. How often during the long years of Oslo, when many in my own circle felt that Oslo was a deathtrap leading Israel not to peace but war, did we feel like pariahs, with no audience or forum to hear our perspective? Yet, I still can’t remember anyone suggesting that we buy advertising space proclaiming our sense of exclusion. Despite our worst fears, we knew that time would prove us tragically right.

My second reaction was more pointed. What does this self-described loyal opposition really want?

For two years, Israel had a national unity government composed of left and right — a government that achieved a record 70 percent approval rating.

It was a government in which the prime minister’s own right-wing party was in the minority. It was a government whose leader had expressed support for the creation of a Palestinian state. It was a government that had laid down a clear agenda for negotiations, had accepted many American proposals from Mitchell to Tenet to Zinni. It was a government attempting to extricate Israel from one of the most difficult security situations it has ever encountered.

While Israelis are dying in their dozens, for no other reason than that they are Jews in the wrong place at the wrong time, who are we to tell the Israeli government how they can best be protected? Maybe this unity government doesn’t have all the answers, but surely it is better equipped than any of us to under take the necessary problem-solving.

Finally, I thought of the many community forums in which I have participated or which I have attended. In these community gatherings, there has almost always been another spokesman with an alternative point of view.

No one that I am aware of has ever been ejected from a forum for challenging anyone’s right-wing perspective. Even this very paper, which represents itself as the voice of the community, has, to its credit, pains over the course of the past two years to achieve a balance between competing points of vie .

It is said that when truth becomes apparent, it blazes so intensely that the unprepared must shield their eyes. That certain members of our community remain blind to realities in the Middle East can be debated.

But whatever we believe to be the solution to the Middle East conflict, there is no advantage to either Israel or ourselves in denouncing the policies of the democratically elected government of Israel.

We are outsiders. It is not our democratic right or even our Jewish right to voice opposition to Israeli policies, anymore than it is Israel’s right to voice opposition to American social policies.

If you want that right, then live in Israel and become a citizen. In the meantime, we should allow those who must contend with daily risks to their own and their childrens’ lives to make their own security decisions entirely free from our unwanted interference.


Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and senior editorial columnist for www.Jewsweek.com.

Low Profile, High Impact


It is tough to estimate current public opinion regarding Valley secession. In the two years since the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) began its investigation into the possibility of secession, the world and the people of Los Angeles have radically changed their priorities. To paraphrase Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of two little areas don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Still, in interviews at locations around Los Angeles, when people had opinions about secession, it was primarily favorable.

"It may be good because the city’s too large, and you have a lot of wasted money happening," said Westside resident Amy Raff. "So if you were to break it down, and deal with the issues on this side of the hill, specifically, and keep the money here to deal with those issues, and the money on that side to deal with those issues, then it would be good."

Iris Zaft, 53, moved to West Hills four years ago from the Pico-Robertson area. She said her vote would depend heavily on weighing the social benefits of secession.

"If it would benefit people who are sending young people to school, it would be very good for the Valley," Zaft said. "[The city of Los Angeles] may be harder to govern because it’s so large and so diverse; and there are senior citizens’ needs and families’ needs and young people to consider. If [secession] would help those people, it would be a good thing."

Zaft said either way the secession issue ended up being resolved, it should not affect relations within the Jewish community.

"I’m still friends with people from Pico-Robertson. They might ask me what I like and what is different living here, but it doesn’t separate us."

Allan Abramson, 47, an engineer with Los Angeles County’s Public Works Department, said he had mixed opinions about the issue.

"There are valid points on all sides," he said. "From what I understand, there’s definitely money in the Valley, so if the secession would allow the Valley to keep the money here and not support South-Central or the poorer areas of Los Angeles, that’s what some people feel good about. It’s going to tax the governmental system; the infrastructure will have to be divided and rebuilt. It will take a lot of time but the logistics are fairly surmountable."

Abramson said it probably would not affect his department. "Depending on how they break up the services, there might be some voids where the county would have to provide some services. That’s what L.A. County Public Works does. The county provides services based on the requests of incorporated cities which aren’t big enough or don’t have the facilities to provide those services."

Like Zaft, Abramson said the effect of secession on the Los Angeles Jewish community would be negligible.

"You have family on this side of the hill; you have family on that side of the hill. There are temples and synagogues on both sides. If you’re in the situation of doing shiva and you’re in the city and want to go say Kaddish, you go to a synagogue there; if you’re in the Valley you go to a synagogue in the Valley. It wouldn’t make any difference," he concluded.

In addition to its less-than-glamorous profile, the secession issue also suffers from the public’s lack of understanding of what it means. Most people interviewed said their main reason for supporting secession was that it would improve local schools, implying that a secession from the city would naturally result in the creation of a new school district for the new Valley city. However, the State Board of Education (which must approve any measures for creating new school districts) ruled in early December that San Fernando Valley schools could not break off from the Los Angeles Unified School District, because the district relies too heavily on funding from Valley residents and because such a move would further segregate city and Valley schools.

Political analysts like Raphael Sonenshein, a professor at California State University Fullerton, say they fear current misunderstandings about the real impacts of secession could have dire repercussions if the issue goes to a vote in November.

"What we don’t know is what information will be on the ballot or what the terms are going to be, because no one agrees on the terms right now," Sonenshein said. "It is extremely difficult to answer whether you are for or against secession when it is only posed as an abstract. The problem is, this is such a big deal, it is difficult for people to get their arms around the consequences, whether good or bad. People are taking a lot of shortcuts in their analysis because it is simpler that way."

Sonenshein said much of how people will ultimately vote on the issue rests on what kind of information they receive in the next seven months.

"That’s why we have political campaigns. It allows for the information to be brought to the table, and then tested against each side," he said. He added that in his opinion, the polls should have shown even more support for secession than they did "because most of the information coming from LAFCO points out the ways secession would work. But that will all be tested in the heat of the political campaign."

LAFCO officials will submit their decision regarding placing the issue before voters on the November ballot later this month. In the meantime, watch for The Journal’s final segment in this series, which will examine the likelihood of secession passing and the role the Jewish-community, as voting bloc, will play.

Frequently Asked Questions


I was the oldest child at the Passover table during two decades of social turmoil, and so invariably I was the one to whom questions were directed.

"Why does your generation think it can have everything its way?" my relatives began after the afikomen was eaten. They wanted my opinion on everything: civil rights, interracial dating, Vietnam, communism, women’s rights. Seder after seder, their questions reflected a world turning upside down fast. And I was expected to account for it.

Passover is only days away. Decades after my childhood seders, the world is still spinning, and I am still doing my accounting.

The young men and women at this year’s seder table might ask about Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat or Enron.

But young and old alike are just as likely to ask other more personal questions. They may ask about cancer.

In a year of dealing with lung cancer, I continually face the ultimate decisions of illness. But disease, like history, does not belong to me alone. I inevitably report to my daughter, parents and brother, my cousins and wide extended family and friends whose love and concern make every night a seder and every phone call a meeting with the Four Children. They ask:

What is your prognosis?

Do you know how long you have to live?

Do you know about X or Y secret treatment in Germany/Mexico/Canada?

How do you feel?

No matter how well-intended these questions, they always cut to the bone. It can be no other way. There are always Four Questions, themselves angry, brash, insouciant and designed to one-up the self-satisfied, reflecting the Four Children of love.

A question in Hebrew is kasheh (difficult), and it is anything but the softball, Larry King-type of inquiry designed to keep people superficially serene. "Kasheh," writes Avivah Zornberg, is the hard-edge of resistance that changes worlds. A question is a radical act. When we ask each other questions, we go to the wall of what life and love can bear. A father who asks a daughter what is your prognosis has to be — fears to be — prepared for the worst. He cannot tolerate anything but the truth.

We are trained at the seder table to ask about the worst. Why were we slaves? How were we freed? If the questions mean anything, they are about essential connections: between parent and child, between Jew and non-Jew, between God and ourselves. They shake us up, set us free.

I have struggled with this hard-edged, radical, rude, crude, know-it-all Jewish tradition all my life. Every questioner is an expert; every probe comes from yet another Wise Child second-guessing and undermining some of the most difficult judgments a person can ever make.

Yet how could it be otherwise? The seder table pits the Wicked Child, the "I" who makes decisions for herself, against the Wise Child, the "we" who wins liberation as a group. This tension between the "I" and the "we" is the undercurrent of Jewish life. No wonder we relentlessly ask our questions, pushing and probing the limits of the truth, hoping and praying for the Outstretched Arm to liberate us once again.

Anxiety is the tremor of the powerless. Questions are the weapons of self-control.

I have never asked my doctors for a prognosis, and, gratefully, they’ve never offered one.

I have no idea how long I have to live. And neither do you.

I am open to all scientific wisdom; Western medicine, including that in the United States, has a lot to offer.

I am feeling fine, thank God.

What Is the Holiday Miracle?


Nes Gadol Hayah Sham.

We all agree that the letters on the sides of the dreidel stand for "A Great Miracle Happened There." (In Israel, of course, the letters stand for Nes Gadol Hayah Po — "A Great Miracle Happened Here.")

But — and this is why there’s a book titled "Two Jews, Three Opinions" — what miracle are we talking about?

"It’s obviously the oil," my son Zack, 17, says. "Read your Rashi."

When the Talmud asks "What is Chanukah?" Rashi, one of the leading rabbinic commentators, interprets this to mean "What is the miracle of Chanukah?" The Talmud then explains that when the Maccabees entered the defiled Temple, they found a small amount of oil, enough to last only one day. But, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.

Thus, we light candles on our menorah for eight days to commemorate this miracle, fulfilling the only commandment of this — yes, hard to believe, minor and nonbiblically ordained — holiday, which is also appropriately called the Festival of Lights. Additionally, if possible, we display the menorah in a window to publicize the triumph of Jewish faith over the forces of darkness.

"No," says Jeremy, 12. "The miracle is that the Maccabees conquered the Greek army. I studied Ancient Greece, and they had a pretty good army."

The First and Second Books of the Maccabees, which are contained in the Apocrypha, a series of books that were excluded from the Bible, support Jeremy. These tell the story of how the small band of Maccabees, led by Judah, fought for the right to practice Judaism — to observe Shabbat, to study Torah and to eat kosher foods. They overcame the stronger, larger army of the Syrian-Greeks, as well as scores of Jews who readily embraced the Hellenistic culture, and reconsecrated the Temple. There is no mention of oil.

The military victory, and not the oil, is also commemorated in "Al Ha’nissim," the special prayer included in the Amidah during Chanukah. "You delivered the mighty into the hand of the weak, the many into the hand of the few… " it says.

"That’s not a miracle. That’s hard work," Zack argues. "A miracle implies something that is beyond human capacity."

"Like fighting holiday crowds and standing in long lines to buy a Microsoft Xbox?" I ask.

In truth, that is the miracle of Chanukah. Not merely that we stand in long lines to buy the Xbox or GameCube or Fisher-Price Rescue Heroes. But that year after year, century after century, we gather with our families to kindle the Chanukah lights, chant the blessings, eat latkes, spin dreidels and, a recent innovation, exchange gifts.

Even in darkest Europe during World War II, many Jewish concentration camp inmates saved bits of oil or shoe polish, fashioned wicks out of threads and enlisted spoons or scooped out potatoes to serve as menorahs. They risked their lives to light Chanukah candles.

For the miracle, in short, is that we Jews have survived, or, as we say in the "Shehecheyanu" blessing on the first night of Chanukah, that God has "kept us alive and sustained us and let us reach this time."

To achieve this, we needed both miracles — the oil, which symbolizes our commitment to Judaism, and the military prowess. Without either, we would have perished.

This, of course, is an old story, going back to Amalek, the quintessential evil-doer and the first to attack the Israelites. Amalek was defeated, but, as the Torah states in Exodus 17:16, "The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”

This is also a modern story with a new Amalek, Osama bin Laden, who wants to annihilate our Western and Jewish ways and institute his fundamentalist brand of Islam.

And so Chanukah seems darker this year. Not because it comes in the Northern Hemisphere before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, but because it comes after Sept. 11.

Nearly three months later, it comes after our shock, which has protected us with a shield of surrealism, has worn off, leaving us with the stark and painful reality of thousands of senseless deaths.

And it comes after we’ve seen unemployment and long lines at food pantries across the nation rise, along with increased reports of depression and anxiety.

In addition, the Israeli-Palestinian violence — now 14 months old — shows little sign of abating.

But despite our somber moods, it is imperative that we celebrate Chanukah this year as fully and joyfully as possible, focusing on its enduring story of survival.

My sons, along with ancient and modern Jewish authorities, can continue to debate the nature of miracles. Whether they result from divine intervention, such as the parting of the Red Sea or Daniel’s escape from the lions’ den. Whether these supernatural phenomena are preordained or allegorical. Or whether miracles come from human struggles that eventually triumph in the face of great adversity.

But at the end of day, this Chanukah, we again need both kinds of miracles — our faith, as Americans and as Jews, and our military might — to dispel the darkness that has fallen on our world.

In Country


Israel may suffer from a lot of shortages — oil, water, new immigrants — but it has an astounding abundance, an endless supply, of opinions.

I began hearing them on my Delta flight to Ben-Gurion Airport. I heard more standing in the passport-control line — and I hadn’t even officially stepped foot in the country yet.

A few more came my way as I headed south toward my brother-in-law’s kibbutz in the Negev. A high school student wearing a kippah and tzitzit poked his head into my car and asked where I was headed. He heard my American accent. "It’s good you’re not afraid to come here," he said, as if I had asked. "You know, we watch the reports on CNN, the kids getting shot in your high schools, and we think it’s really dangerous in America."

These opinions come unbidden, without preamble, as if people are just jumping into the middle of an ongoing conversation.

That conversation is a mostly depressing one, as I’ve heard in the past few days here. The economy has been sucker-punched by the plunge in tourism, the worldwide recession and the high-tech bust. The pre-Oslo sense of isolation has returned, made worse by a sense that Israel has been betrayed by its Palestinian peace partner and by its American Jewish supporters, who have voted with their feet to stay away in droves.

But if the al-Aqsa intifada has darkened opinions, it has also refined them (opinion in Israel has long been more diverse, more freewheeling and less infected with guilt and jingoism than its American Jewish counterpart). The left here, as evidenced by a recent newspaper interview with Chaim Shur, the father of the left, is now more wary, if not outright disdainful, of its former Palestinian partners. The right, as evidenced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself, is more willing to consider the limitations of force.

And the debate continues, amid a daily life that is as full and vibrant as ever. After all, Israelis have always argued politics the way Angelenos talk about movies and real estate — it’s just what’s in the air.

The only opinion that’s been hard to come by here is how the current crisis will end. To that question, I usually get just a slow, silent shrug.

Keep Your Opinions to Yourself


Recently, The Jewish Journal announced that it was hiringreporters and stringers to cover the San Fernando Valley andsurrounding areas. In response, we received numerous resumésand clips of people looking to write…columns. Is that, we wondered,a particularly Jewish phenomenon? Why report what others say and dowhen you would rather report to others what you think?

Whatever the case, we are full up on columnists, though we alwayslook forward to your letters and submissions to the “Other Voices”guest column. What we need are sharp, eager, insightful reporters toadd to our growing paper. The Journal has been a breeding ground forfine journalists — Joe Domanick, Steve Weinstein and Duke Helfand toname a few all got their starts here before moving on to the LosAngeles Times and books.

If you are interested, please send us your resumé andwriting samples. Columnists need not apply. –Robert Eshman,

Managing Editor

SHOCKING!OUTRAGEOUS!WRONG!

“Israel, for example, is a major center of the prostitution slavetrade,” Robert Scheer wrote in his Los Angeles Times column two weeksago.

A major center? Well, according to Scheer, that awful factcame straight from an article by Michael Spector in the Jan. 11 NewYork Times. According to Spector, indigent women from countries inthe former Soviet Union are brought by underworld traffickers throughHaifa under false pretenses. There, pimps destroy or withhold thewomen’s visas and force them into a life of prostitution. Thesituation is horrendous. But, as Spector reported — and Scheerfailed to note — Israel is not exceptional. As many as500,000 women — a far greater number than that in Israel — aretrafficked into Western Europe alone, reported Spector, not tomention Turkey and Asia.

There’s no doubt that Israel needs to take its share ofresponsibility for this human tragedy. But how can Scheer, whom wegenerally admire, be helping by singling out Israel? The Internet nowsings with the white slave trade libels that so enlivened19th-century anti-Semitism.

We called Scheer to find out if he knows something that Spectordoesn’t. So far, no response. — R.E.

Live from Algeria

The Torah scroll you see in this photo was hand-scribed on animalskin, not the traditional parchment, 400 years ago in Algeria. Theonce-thriving Jewish community there has dwindled to 300 souls. Whencommunal leaders learned that the current government was going toconfiscate important religious artifacts, they put the Torah on acamel and sent it across the Sahara. Eventually, it was procured bythe parents, students and staff of the Abraham Joshua Heschel DaySchool in Northridge, who raised money for its purchase throughperformances of “Fiddler on the Roof.” For more information, call(818) 368-5781. — R.E.

Everyone’s Got a Story

Are you now or have you ever been part of the establishment of theState of Israel?

If you have, or if someone you know has, the Jewish Federation ofGreater Los Angeles and the Simon Wiesenthal Center want to hear fromyou. The two organizations are preparing a commemorative album for aCBS Television special that will celebrate Israel’s 50th birthday,and they’d like to publish your account. If you are a current or pastCalifornia resident with a story about your experience to share, call(818) 597-9523 and ask for Sheli. — R.E.

Be a Star, Help a School

Ohr Eliyahu Academy is a Westside Orthodox day school with areputation for fine Judaic and general studies, a superb specialeducation program, and, lately, financial difficulties. A benefactorhas come to the school’s aid with a most interesting offer: buy aguaranteed walk-on in a new film by Tony Scott, the maker of “TopGun,” “Crimson Tide” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” and the money will bedonated to Ohr Eliyahu. The walk-on will be sold by voice-mailauction, so call (213) 969-4960 to place your bid. See you at themovies. –R.E.
Denzel Washington and apreviously unknown actor in “Crimson Tide”

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