Israeli reality TV in L.A.: Six singers in search of acceptance

The Latino students at Franklin High School, located north of downtown Los Angeles, sat stone-faced in the school’s auditorium, waiting to find out what justified missing the period before lunch. Against the backdrop of an American flag and an Israeli flag, Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan informed them that they would influence the fate of six Israeli singers.

“You represent the country,” he announced to the students in late January.

The singers who would perform for these teenage judges were contestants in Israel’s new reality TV show, “Chai B’LaLa Land,” a name that plays on the phrase “Live in a Dream World” and the city of music dreams: Los Angeles. The show is designed as a combination of “American Idol” and “Big Brother,” and has given six stars in the world of mizrachi (Mediterranean) music a chance to achieve the near impossible for any Israeli artist: crossover into America. Starting in January, the singers lived together for six weeks in a Los Angeles mansion as they fought for a distribution deal with Geffen Records, headed by mega-producer Ron Fair.

“We see America through their eyes,” Shabi Zaraya, the show’s chief editor, said. “In Israel, they’re very famous. Everything comes easy to them. They’re stars. They don’t know what Americans expect of them in the music industry and how to be a star in America. It’s funny, exciting, and we have everything in this format because the meeting between them and America is crazy. They have a problem of language, mentality and missing home.”

The show — Israel’s most expensive reality show to produce to date — is the brainchild of Kuperman Productions, the company that created the 2006 reality hit “The Successor,” which had notorious “psychic” Uri Geller find his Israeli heir. The American remake of Kuperman’s award-winning sitcom “The Traffic Light” premiered on Fox last month.

With its local — and tribal — connections, Kuperman opened coveted doors. The contestants worked with Johnny Wright (manager of Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears) and Israeli-born mixer/engineer Tal Herzberg, who was just up for a Grammy for his work on Lady Gaga’s “The Fame Monster.” They performed for Tori Spelling, among other celebrities.

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles teamed up with Kuperman to shoot an episode at Franklin High.

“It’s a difficult neighborhood,” said Dayan, sitting at a wobbly picnic table outside the auditorium. “Kids here are members of gangs, so it’s important for us to reach out to them and show them Israel and the diversity of Israel.”

On this day, Israeli reggaeton superstar Alon de Loco immediately got the audience cheering when he hopped on stage with his gold chain and gansta pose. Of Moroccan-Iraqi descent, de Loco could easily be mistaken for Latino with his dark, Sephardi features and goatee.

“Six years ago, I had no money, a little kid in my hand and a wife,” he told the students. “And I said to myself, ‘How can I make it better — a good life for my family and my future?’ The only thing I knew how to do was reggaeton.”

He won over the crowd as he gyrated his hips and grabbed his crotch, Michael Jackson style, while singing a Spanish-Hebrew version of his rap song, “Madre.”

Zehava Ben rose out of the slums of Be’er Sheva to become Israel’s reigning mizrachi diva. She got her share of catcalls when she came out in tight jeans, a leopard-print spaghetti-strap tank top and high heels, but the 43-year-old brought the energy level down with her syrupy ballad, singing: “You won’t find the love in the world like the love of your mother.” Her twin sister, Eti Levi, couldn’t revive the crowd, but Israeli audiences will be more interested in what happens backstage between the twins. The show reunited them after years of bitter sibling rivalry.

With bright pink pants and a glowing blond mane, Julietta Agronov is the closest any of the singers gets to a Britney or a Christina. As she sang a Spanish-Hebrew pop tune about girl power, tinged with mizrachi instrumentals, students looked discerning and attentive but were still well behaved. When Avihu Shabat, an Enrique Iglesias look-alike and son of famous Israeli singer Shlomi Shabat, took the stage in tight leather pants, it was the girls’ turn to call out “sexy.”

But David “Dudu” Aharon, Israel’s Singer of the Year, got the crowd out of their seats — by request.

“If you want to respect me,” he shouted, “get up on your feet.” It was either a Freudian slip or a language error when he shouted “wake up!” instead of “get up!” Eventually, they joined him on stage as his smooth vocals entertained.

An informal poll crowned de Loco the winner.

“We could relate to his music more than the rest,” Keidy Rivas, 19, a senior, said.  “It was reggaeton, and that’s what we and Franklin High School listen to.”

“He was also dancing a lot more,” added Rivas’ cousin, Daisy. “Catching our eye and not making it boring.”

If Franklin High represents America, de Loco will be coming back, but with three daughters and a baby on the way, the experience has taught him what’s really important. “I can have success, money and the crowd,” he said, “but without my family, I’m nothing.”

“Chai B’LaLa Land” will air this summer on Yes, Israel’s satellite cable network.

Israeli and Palestinian shed their armor in ‘Desert Sunrise’

Even as a Hollywood vision of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict plays with much farce and caricature in Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan,” a more serious and tragic look at the situation will grace the smaller stage at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood, with the West Coast premiere of playwright Misha Shulman’s “Desert Sunrise.”

The play opens in the south Hebron hills in the West Bank with Tsahi, an off-duty Israel Defense Forces soldier (Oren Dayan), pointing his gun at Ismail, a Palestinian shepherd (Dominic Rains). Having just broken up with his settler girlfriend, Tsahi is lost and seeking a way back to the main road. Ismail, waiting for his Muslim Palestinian girlfriend, Layla (Miriam Isa), is the only one who can help Tsahi find his way.

At first suspicious of one another, the foes gradually open up with both rhetoric and humor. Eventually, their shared love and distrust of women reveal their more human bond.

“A collision cracks open bias and fear so that they’re left with no choice but to experience each other in a purer state — stripped of their usual armor of politics, religion and even personal history,” director Ellen Shipley said during a rehearsal break. Shipley is best known for her work as a songwriter, having written Belinda Carlisle’s hit, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” among others.

Seeking to take a break from songwriting to return to her theater roots, the Brooklyn-born director discovered the play through theater professor and director Michael Rutenberg, who taught both Shipley and Shulman at Hunter College.

“I cried when I read it. I felt so much,” she said. “Everything opened up to me — as a director, as a human being, as a Jew. I felt compelled that this is something I should do, and that I would have a perspective on it that’s different from Misha’s.”

Shulman, 30, directed the 2005 New York run to critical acclaim. Born in Jerusalem to American parents, he has made his home in New York after completing IDF service and enjoyed his first professional success as a playwright with “The Fist,” a play about an IDF “refusnik” (conscientious objector).

“Desert Sunrise” was inspired by his father’s memoirs of expeditions to visit Palestinian cave dwellers in the Hebron hills with the peace activist group, Ta’ayush. Shulman followed his father’s footsteps to get better acquainted with the region.

“I would have never written this play had the people of the south Hebron hills — the Palestinian cave dwellers — had they not refused to turn to violence,” Shulman said in a phone interview.

Shipley has never been to Israel, but she spent time researching the conflict and Israeli and Palestinian culture.

“It’s an interesting experience as an Israeli to write a play that’s culturally specific — about the Middle East, with music and dance, Hebrew and Arabic — and hand it over to an American who’s less familiar with the region, and to see how what I was doing could maybe be better translated to an American mentality,” Shulman said.

Shipley chose to work with a cast of young, multiethnic actors — younger than in the original production. “There’s an element of innocence that allows them to open up to each other,” Shipley said.

Dayan, 21, grew up in Tarzana to Israeli parents. He speaks fluent Hebrew, but spent time with his Israeli friends to perfect an Israeli accent. The play has given him more insight into the Palestinian side of the conflict. “I was obviously more biased to the Israeli side, only because I was less familiar with the other side. Through the process of working on this play and learning about the cave dwellers, it opened my eyes to a world where there is nobody who is really right.”

Rains’ Persian accent is real. The 26-year-old left Iran with his parents at a young age. He moved to Los Angeles from Texas several years ago to pursue an acting career. He took a break from his role on the soap opera, “General Hospital,” as Dr. Leo Julian to “commit myself to something that didn’t have to do with me, and more to something else.”

Born to a Muslim family but not a practicing Muslim, he and Dayan are now good friends, spending time together offstage. “I haven’t been around many Israelis,” said Rains. “It’s been a nice experience to be with these wonderful people.”

The play has also become a tool of self-discovery for actress Isa, 25, born in Florida to a Cuban mother and Lebanese father in a household that taught “everything, from atheism to Christianity.”

“Throughout my childhood I ran away from my Middle Eastern side,” Isa said. “Then I got cast in this play, where I’m forced to immerse myself in the culture — and it’s the most amazing thing. Now, at 25, I have a pride for my Middle East side that I didn’t have before.”

To prepare for the role, she tried to assume the mind of a female Palestinian militant oppressed by tradition, society and political systems. Offstage she wore a hijab and attended mosque services. She specifically refrained from seeing “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” so she could stay true to her character. She has learned to see the angry, violence-prone Layla as “a human being who has her tragedy, her struggle, her ideals, her zeal — that’s what she died for. She now has a story.”

This kind of deeper understanding is what Shipley hopes to draw from her audience.

“What interests me more is what happens to these three people — it’s much more fundamental, the need for connection, the need to be seen for who we are, to be accepted, forgiven, to be loved,” Shipley said. “It asks the audience to suspend beliefs and old biases they may have walked in with.”

For more information, call (323) 960-7784.

Birthright Israel, sex and the column

Birthright Israel

Your idea of creating multiple levels of free services and programs for various Jewish groups is brilliant (“Free at Last,” June 6). In retrospect, and l’havdil, we should take a lesson from Hamas and Hezbollah. What gives these organizations their popular support among the masses is the free medical clinics, schooling, mosques, food, etc., that they provide to their people, filling a gap that is not provided by the local governments.

Their continuous belligerence against Israel provides spiritual fulfillment to the masses and at the same time causing the suffering and misery. If it were not for this war mongering, Hamas and Hezbollah could have been a huge community success.

Birthright provides a spiritual and apolitical fulfillment. While most Jewish people do not need the material support, your suggestions for apolitical “Jewright” can provide the spiritual fulfillment within the Jewish community and increasing the bond among the people.

Nahum Gat
Manhattan Beach

Once again, you hit the nail on the head. It is hard to believe that Birthright has been in existence only eight years. I wish it had been around when I was growing up.

Our 26-year-old twins went on separate trips, and each returned transformed in different ways. After Birthright, one son gave up sports marketing and became program director at UC Davis Hillel. He is now focusing his career in the Jewish nonprofit arena.

The other son saved his money and got some help from the Jewish Free Loan Association. He left a successful job in film post-production and is now working in Israel for a year. These transformations would never have happened without Birthright Israel.

Our children’s enthusiasm has trickled down (or up) to me and my husband, who have secular Jewish roots. Woefully uninformed on Israel, we subscribe to The Journal to educate ourselves and help us feel more in tune with our sons.
Neither of us has ever been to Israel. Like many baby boomers, we are treading to keep afloat financially and can’t make the journey. We hope to do it some day.

In the meantime, I wish some philanthropist would fund “Deathright Israel” — to guarantee all American Jews one visit to Israel before they die.

Susan Amerikaner

Sex and the Column

We always hear about the negative impact that pop stars like Britney Spears have on the teens and preteens that look up to them as role models (“Sex and the Column,” June 6). It’s even sadder when an adult Jewish female like Orit Arfa tries to emulate the characters of “Sex and the City.”

During this Shavuot holiday period, it might do Arfa well to brush up on her study of the Jewish women in our rich history: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel and Ruth are better characters to pattern one’s life after than Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha.

Daniel Iltis
Los Angeles

The Wright Flap

In his long diatribe against Sen. Barack Obama, the writer exposes himself as a right-wing ideologue (Letters, June 6). For example, he included the exact words repeated for days by right-wing media and blogger dittoheads that Obama had thrown his “grandmother under the bus” because Obama, in his memorable speech on March 18, 2008, said that he had some understanding of white racisim from his own white grandmother (who helped raise him), when at times she expressed it in his presence.

By his attempt to show some understanding of the issue, Obama no more threw his grandmother under the bus than the Rev. John Hagee (who the writer shamelessly defends) tolerates our religious belief. Sen. John McCain literally begged Hagee (a professed bigot) for his endorsement and only disavowed it when it was publicly disclosed that Hagee incredulously said Hitler was sent by God to murder 6 million of us to create the State of Israel.

It is wishful thinking by the writer that Obama’s chance to be president has been torpedoed by his past association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. McCain and the writer want us to focus on this guilt by association nonissue, rather than on Obama’s own actions and words and the terrible political and economic conditions our beloved country has fallen into under the Bush/Cheney regime.

For the future well-being of our country (and Israel’s), we have to change course and not pursue the same disastrous one that McCain assures us he intends to continue.

George Magit

MBA Student Success

Every week, when The Jewish Journal arrives, I look for the American Jewish University (AJU) “success” ads (Advertisement, June 6). You’ve probably seen them. They feature graduate students of various ages and backgrounds.

This month, AJU featured an MBA student — Noelle Ito, the 27-year-old director of development for the Little Tokyo Service Center. Our family is acquainted with Noelle in a different context. Noelle was a high school classmate of our late son. Throughout his battle with cancer, which began during their senior years in college, Noelle exhibited incredible loyalty and support.

She inspired others to stay connected. After our son died in 2004, Noelle was a prime mover in implementing a fundraiser in his memory. Thanks to Noelle, the all-volunteer 2nd Lt. Andrew Jacob Torres Memorial Golf Classic has raised more than $230,000 for cancer research.

Noelle brings tremendous energy, organization and style to all our efforts. It has been said that “one day, cancer will be a disease of the past.” When that day comes, the credit will go to the Noelle Ito’s of the world and also to the institutions, like AJU, which nurture them.

Anita Susan Brenner
La Canada Flintridge

An Opinion essay by Arnold Steinberg ("Historic Prop. 13 Property Tax Revolt Turns 30," June 6), omitted the fact that the article was reprinted from the Weekly Standard. The Journal regrets the error.

Sex and the column

One of the first things I did when I arrived in my hometown of Los Angeles for the summer was to rush with my friend Lori to see “Sex and the City” on opening

We weren’t the only ones.

The movie was sold out all over Los Angeles, but as committed fans, we made the trek to Manhattan — Manhattan Beach, that is — despite the current gas prices, to see the only 10:30 p.m. Friday showing available within a 30-mile radius.

The line, filled mostly with women, went around the block. I had gotten all dolled up in shiny golden (knock-off?) Kenneth Cole heels, brown leggings and a golden wrap — just to sit in a movie theater. We stood for a half-hour in the cold beach weather — me in my heels and Lori wrapped in a blanket she found in her car — but we didn’t mind. The mood was cheerful and expectant. It wasn’t the sluggish anticipation we experienced in line for the new “Indiana Jones” movie along with fathers and sons.

We passed the time examining everyone’s shoes and chatting with a 50-year-old mother of five kids who’d brought her 18-year-old daughter to see the movie.

Already, during the previews for romantic comedies, we were all cheering and jeering. We weren’t strangers — but sisters — all connected by our familiarity and sympathy for our mutual best friends: Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha.

But we didn’t only come to see fictional characters, but ourselves; the characters are more like Freudian concepts — there’s a bit of each of them in each of us. Sometimes we channel our inner Miranda — cynical and hard. When we feel sappy and romantic, we channel the prudish Charlotte. And then there’s Samantha — raunchy and horny. And, of course, there’s Carrie — intelligent, open and a bit neurotic.

When I first started writing singles columns, I was living in Tel Aviv, Israel’s big city. I titled my column “Sex in Tel Aviv” and described my wish to write about a life as fabulous as that of the show’s syndicated columnist, Carrie. With all its hip bars and cafes, Tel Aviv seemed suited to Carrie-esque adventures, only I didn’t make as much money or go out as much as she did, and, most of all, I never developed a clique of fabulous girlfriends.

Even in Tel Aviv, generally sheltered from Israel’s security issues, I faced predicaments unique to a Jewish American Israeli: surviving a terrorist attack in Sinai, going out on a date with a repressed ultra-Orthodox Jew and encountering a Palestinian at a bar. I was both fortunate and unfortunate to live in a city where struggles reach far beyond simply finding love and a good pair of Manolos.

But no matter the topic, Carrie Bradshaw gave me permission to divulge my romantic life for the entire Jewish world, garnering both fans and foes. Sometimes I wonder: Would I have written half the stuff I did if not for her example? Would I have made the men I dated fodder for my columns without their knowing it? Would I have shared the pain of my first time? I don’t know.

My openness has not exactly procured me a “Sex in the City” lifestyle, either. I’m still single, still pretty poor and still don’t have a clique of girlfriends. I took on the sexual honesty, but got no fantasy to show for it.

The film is even more fanciful than the TV show. Despite their added years, the women have never looked so posh, perfect — and plastic. Sure, there are difficult moments of betrayal and break-ups, but how bad can those be when you’re wearing Prada and Dolce and Gabbana? Renting apartments in Manhattan on a whim? Jetting to Cancun to ease the pain?

I also faced another challenge in applying “Sex and the City”-style dilemmas to my own life: The community for which I write.

The Jewish world is often covert when it comes to female desire. Jewish women aren’t supposed to open up with their rabbis about our pent-up desire for a one-night stand. We can’t openly eye another congregant in shul and comment “that guy is hot!” without getting a lecture about middot (good deeds) before looks. I know I speak for some girlfriends when I admit that I have suffered a lot of confusion about the not-so-good deed — in part because extramarital sex is associated with much taboo in Jewish communities across the board.

And maybe that’s why watching “Sex in the City” has always offered such pleasure, and why I have taken Carrie Bradshaw’s example of honestly sharing the nitty-gritty, sexually charged challenges of single life with more than just my girlfriends.

So while I may not have enjoyed such a glamorous life of sex in the city, if I have fostered a bit more openness to the needs and challenges of the Jewish woman attracted to secular life, then maybe I have done my share of tikkun olam, even if I won’t be wearing Manolos when I get the backlash.

Orit Arfa is a Jewish Journal contributing writer based in Israel who is spending the summer in Los Angeles. She can be reached via her Web site:

10 dating tips for men

I don’t think I’ve enjoyed enough successful relationships to justify my doling out advice to men about how to sweep a woman off her lonely sofa and into a date
with him.

But maybe that’s because I haven’t enjoyed enough successful dates. Dating is not only an art, but a skill, and I’ve met few men who have mastered it.

The following are some tips — or call them fantasies — for good dating that I’ve compiled based on successful dates I’ve had. Warning: They place the burden of the work on the man. The sexual revolution might have done a lot to confuse men about dating, but I think most women still like to be courted. As much as I like to be a strong, active and go-getting woman, sometimes I look for a date to experience what no professional achievement can offer: The celebration of my own femininity and quintessential female characteristics — grace, active passivity and receptivity.

These tips apply when there is mutual attraction between the two sexes — they won’t work magic when the woman gives clear indications that she is not interested. Here goes:

Ask a woman out on a date. What a concept! This means, don’t just say, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to a party Saturday night, want to come?” This also means, don’t send an e-mail (or worse, a text message) saying, “Hey, wanna do coffee sometime?” It means phone her or say to her in person, very specifically: “I’d love to take you out. What are you doing tomorrow?”

Choose a specific venue for the date. I hate it when guys ask, with uncertainty, “So what do you want to do?” I know sometimes men like to let women feel in control, but I like to see the first date as a dance — let the man take the lead. Don’t choose an ordinary venue — like Coffee Bean or Starbucks. Surprise her with a new cafe designed with a funky concept or a tapas bar, for instance.

If the date goes well, end it with a specific conclusion, not just “We’ll be in touch.” Don’t rely on the woman to make the next move. Show her that you are confident by saying that you are looking forward to seeing her again — if indeed you are — and that you will call her in the next day or two.

Initiate contact within two days after the date. Call or e-mail — but don’t text! Tell her how much you enjoyed the date — but be specific about what you enjoyed —her ideas on the elections, her passion for Israel, etc. Don’t offer corny compliments about her outfit or her eyes. Arrange the next date over the phone without letting too much time pass so that she doesn’t have too much time to doubt you.

Invest in her interests, but sincerely. There is nothing more attractive than a man who gets to know the heart of a woman by investigating what is important to her. For example, if she raves about a particular movie, look it up on Google. If she mentions an artist that she loves, offer to take her to a local museum showcasing his/her work. I once told my date how much I was influenced by “The Fountainhead.” He went out the next day and bought it. He read it within a week, enjoyed it sincerely, and indulged me in lengthy discussions about the book’s ideas. He got me.

Once you graduate beyond coffee or drinks, plan creative dates. Take her to a new art gallery, a hike into the mountains, a bike ride at the beach. Show that she’s special enough for you to put thought into the date.

Don’t pressure her for sex — ever. A man can innocently request a kiss, but, ideally, he should let the woman take the lead when it comes to sexual play. This restraint proves a man is after her soul, not just her body. You can definitely initiate affection — like handholding and cuddles. Most women love that.

In the beginning, don’t bug her or call her too often. Better to offer a few intelligent statements about her or the date rather than hammering her with one-line text messages that say generic things like “Have a great day” or “Thinking of you.” Try to avoid “biting,” “poking” or “teasing” her via Facebook. All this can come across as phony or desperate. Unless she is really insecure and needs this fawning, give her space.

Never play games. A wise woman’s worst fear is that she is dating a player or jerk. This means, call when you say you’ll call. Pick her up when you say you will. Never flake on plans without a really good, honest excuse.

Keep it up. There might be a point where you get complacent — she has responded very well to all your initial planning — and the dating action balances out. You feel comfortable around each other and the woman will initiate playful dates and outings too. But make sure that the romance and thoughtfulness never stops — even if your final date ends at the chuppah.

Orit Arfa is a Jewish Journal contributing writer based in Israel.

The Great Shave, the anti-Semitic professor in the U.S. Mail, Barack, Orit, Hillary and Suissa

The Great Shave

Loved your video on getting a haircut and shave on Lag b’Omer. I think it’s great that you raise awareness about our customs and traditions.

I think you made one faux pas, however. Religious Jews don’t allow a razor to come in contact with their face when shaving, which is why Orthodox Jews use only electric shavers instead of razor blades.

Your barber wasn’t allowed to shave you, according to Jewish law. Jews who observe the custom of not shaving would’ve shaved using a Norelco or Remington instead.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Community & Synagogue Services Director
Orthodox Union West Coast Region

Professor Anti-Semites Love

Why the righteous indignation (“The Professor Anti-Semites Love,” May 9)?
The fact is that we are clannish, have a history of marrying within and not thinking positively of much of the outside culture. We do tend to select for mates along either intellectual or financial lines.

Historically, we have tended to benefit from niche businesses, such as banking during the primacy of Catholicism, when it was prohibited to Catholics, and entertainment during the primacy of Protestants, when they looked down on such businesses. We do tend to be far more visible, disproportionately to our numbers.

What professor Kevin MacDonald has done is to provide a laundry list of reasons why the losers can’t successfully compete against Jews and Jewish culture. I read the article, and I came away thinking that this bitter man is like many others who resent the need to change in order to compete.

It is true: Jews want to chuck the morally bereft outside culture. It is our mandate to be first a blessing to the world, then a kingdom of priests and a light unto the nations. Why be Jewish if Jewishness serves no purpose? We feel a moral elevation compared to outside culture based upon the mandate for our existence.

Of course, we are in conflict with non-Jewish culture. Our mandate requires us to influence the others, to convert outside society not to Judaism but to an enlightened Noahide society. Jewish culture and Jewish society developed in a direct response to the mandate.

It is most certainly benefiting our survival. When we are persecuted, we strengthen our ties with each other and to Judaism. When we are not persecuted, we rise to visibility in the face of non-Jews.

MacDonald is perfectly correct in many of his assumptions and observations.
Rather than feel hurt from the truth, I would feel proud that even the least observant Jews have the spark to influence outside society, as seen by MacDonald’s assessment.

Craig Winchell
via e-mail

Bad Cover Choice

After working for the U.S. Postal Service for 34 years, I retired recently. In high school, I was the school paper’s compositor for one year and its sports editor for two years. The Jewish Journal definitely needs my help in improving on whoever decides the covers of your paper.

I was upset and disgusted that you had a professor that anti-Semites love grace the cover [on May 9]. I purposely would turn the paper upside down so as not to look at his puss. And I wasn’t interested to read the article, even though my friend read it and asked if I had.

Please send me an employment application before you lose any more readers and advertisers due to your yellow journalism.

Joseph Hammer
Los Angeles

Eshman and Suissa

I would like to combine my thoughts on two articles in the May 23 Journal — Rob Eshman’s “Wednesday With Ben” and David Suissa’s “Israel Fest or Jewish Fest.

First, I hope I am not the first person to point out in Eshman’s column that he presented one Jewish point of view — and in my opinion, not the best — as to the nature of God and suffering. He consulted a rabbi who says, “I do not believe in a God who gets involved in the activities in individual human beings.”

Well it’s no wonder people abandon God — they feel like God abandoned him.

I love Suissa’s idea to have a Jewish festival. That way, once and for all, we can put it out on the table what are the different categories of Jewishness and what do they believe about that lifelong question that we have about God and religion: Why do bad things happen?

The answer we will get from the rabbi Eshman consulted will be clear. Yet, the answer from hopefully every other brand will hopefully have something a little more inspiring that will actually make someone want to connect to God.

Perhaps some people forget where the name “Jewish” comes from. It comes from the tribe of Yehudah, the name given to Leah’s fourth son. It was a name, meaning thank you — as in, Leah was thanking God for remembering her and giving her that fourth son. Remembering her — an individual.

So if someone wants to say they don’t believe in a God who gets involved in individual suffering, they have every right. But if they do, I wonder if they should be calling themselves Jewish.

But, of course, that is just my opinion. Everyone can figure it out for themselves at Jewish Fest 2009.

Liane Pritikin
via e-mail

Regarding Rob Eshman’s article depicting the slowly destructive disease of ALA (Lou Gehrig’s disease), our cousin in Israel, David Cohen, was diagnosed with ALS in 2003, and one of the first things he did was to create a research and support organization called IsrALS.

I invite you and your readers to learn more about how we can increase research, especially with stem cell research, which is more accessible in Israel, to battle this “orphan” disease.

Orit’s Jerusalem beauty pageant adventure

This video follows Orit’s participation in the “Prettiest of Women” beauty pageant held on Valentine’s Day (February, 14, 2008) at the Israel Mall, Talpiot in Jerusalem. There were 13 contestants total. Click to see which award Orit took home…(Note: Not all contestants appear.)

Leave Israel alone!

Inspired by Chris Crocker’s infamous and passionate YouTube appeal for people to leave Britney alone in the wake of her failed performance at the MTV 2007 Music Video Awards, Orit from Israel has created a passionate appeal to the world community to LEAVE ISRAEL ALONE!


This is directed to anyone who dares bash Israel and demand she make concessions.

Debra Winger explores Jewish/Arab day schools

Students at the Hand in Hand Max Rayne Bilingual School in Jerusalem didn’t know they were meeting a celebrity. They weren’t born when the films “Officer and a Gentleman” and “Terms of Endearment” garnered Debra Winger her Oscar nominations.

But Winger’s tour last month to the Hand in Hand Arab-Jewish day schools was not necessarily meant to move the students, but to enrich her own understanding of pathways for Arab and Jewish co-existence.

“I’d like to think I’m helping, but in the end, it feels selfish — how much I got out of seeing this and what it did to my heart,” the 53-year-old actress told a group of reporters in the library of the school’s new Jerusalem campus.

Raised in a secular Jewish household in Cleveland, Winger volunteered on a kibbutz in 1972 and has maintained her connection ever since. In fact, she was introduced to the bilingual schools following a talk at the Jewish Federation in Florida on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary.

Speaking to the federation audience, she recalled a “fight” she had with an Arab American friend that was triggered by the Second Lebanon War, which broke out while Winger served as a judge for the Jerusalem Film Festival.

“We couldn’t even talk to each other,” Winger told The Jewish Journal, recounting the episode. “She would forward me e-mails with newspaper articles for me to read, and I would reply, saying could you please replace ‘Zionist occupation’ with ‘Israel’ before you send it to me, and then I’ll read it, because I want to hear different opinions, and you have to show some respect.”

Eventually the two reconciled and made their private peace.

“I think in a way we have a deeper, richer understanding and more openness,” she said.

At first, the audience — perhaps expecting a more “what-Israel-means-to-me” type speech — responded with silence to the story. But then Lee Gordon, director of the American Friends of Hand in Hand and the bilingual schools’ co-founder, initiated a contagious round of applause. After the talk, he spoke with her about the schools’ efforts at promoting dialogue.

Initially, Winger was skeptical of the educational franchise.

“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s another Jewish school that’s inviting a few Arabs, kumbaya, and, you know, it doesn’t ultimately work,'” she said.

But she accepted Gordon’s invitation and went to Israel with her husband, director and actor Arliss Howard, and their 10-year-old son. Upon touring three of the Hand in Hand schools, Winger’s skepticism softened.

“I used to think I could see the face of a peacemaker,” she said, “but clearly, I’ve been wrong way too much. The [students] look like peacemakers to me. They understand the dilemma in a different way.”

At one point, Winger stopped two children in the yard, and they admitted they didn’t know who she was. They thought she was just some American visitor.

“Do you have any questions for me?” Winger asked.

They stared and smiled.

The students carry on their day as usual in what comes across as a typical elementary school. Teenagers roam the halls in jeans and sneakers, and toddlers storm the yard at recess. At one point, Winger joined the children for folk dancing in the yard.

Several clues hint to the school’s uniqueness. Two languages are spoken: Hebrew and Arabic. Some female teachers wear the traditional Muslim hijabs. Universal messages of love and peace taken from the Torah, the Gospels and the Quran, as well as from great Western thinkers, are printed in Hebrew and Arabic on classroom doors.

The Jerusalem student body is equally diverse — 50 percent Jewish, 40 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian. The majority of Arabs are Israeli citizens.

A good portion of the classes are taught by an Arab-Jewish team. The school supplements the state curriculum with programs that attend to the dual nature of the school. From fourth grade on, Jews and Arabs study their respective religious traditions independently.

The Jerusalem branch opened 10 years ago, along with the Galilee branch, followed by new schools in Wadi Ara and Beersheva. The new Jerusalem campus testifies to the growth of the school from a small, first-grade class to a full-fledged day school with 450 children. The school is expanding into high school, and this fall will add a 10th-grade class.

Seventh-graders Areen Nashef, a Muslim, and her Jewish best friend, Yael Keinan, both 12 years old, smiled mischievously when they got called out of class to speak with The Journal. This is not the first time they’ve spoken to the press. Friends since first grade, they often get together outside of school and sleep over at each other’s houses.

“I thought Areen was a Jew when we first met,” said Yael who has long, dirty-blond hair and a pink paper clip dangling from her earring. “After a few days, she told me she was an Arab, and after that it didn’t matter.”

Both are proud for breaking stereotypes of the “other.”

“I went to my cousin who lives in Taibe, up north,” said Areen. “They didn’t know that I study at a bilingual school. They study in Arabic and learn Hebrew because you have to communicate. When I told them I study with a Jew, they asked, ‘What, they didn’t hit you, hurt you?'”

Yael, who describes herself as traditional, has encountered similar suspicions.

“I have a friend who couldn’t believe I had an Arab friend. She saw only what she saw on the news,” Yael said.

Both thoroughly enjoy their studies.

“It’s fun to speak more than one language and also learn another culture,” said Yael.

Speaking in Hebrew, the students have much to say about sensitive issues, particularly politics. Areen described wanting “to feel that Jews were hurt by the Nazis.” On the same note, Yael recalled visiting Arab villages that fell to the Israeli forces during the War of Independence.

“I don’t identify with the Jews or the Palestinians,” said Areen. “I just know you have to have two nations. I think you may need a Jewish state, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of another people.”