Remembering the John F. Kennedy assassination: Sabbath eve: November 22, 1963

The twenty-second of November, 1963 was, as traditional Jews say, a “short Friday.” At Rambam Torah Institute, the Orthodox day school on West Pico Boulevard at which I was a ninth-grade student, the day's teaching schedule had been compressed accordingly. Around 11:20 a.m., as a bell signaled our dismissal from morning Hebrew studies, a pair of students came bursting across the playground, yelling for all the world to hear, “Kennedy's shot! Kennedy's shot!”

Fifty years?  Doesn’t seem possible, but there you are: “Ask not…”  Ich bin ein Berliner…. “You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President.”   Like Pearl Harbor little more than 20 years earlier, the JFK assassination is what separates generations: “Where were you…?”

I was growing up in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, then as now a largely Jewish enclave amidst the City of Angels, In late October, my extended family had gathered to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah.  The Biblical Hebrew text I intoned from the bima that Shabbat morning might have been spoken by the Lord to Abram, but doubtless applied to the benevolent superpower within whose peaceful shores we dwelt: “And I shall make of thee a great nation, and I shall bless thee, and make thy name great…” 

Like all good Jewish youngsters an avid baseball fan, I mailed a Bar Mitzvah invitation to L.A. Dodgers uber-hurler Sandy Koufax, fresh from leading his band of Chavez Ravine brothers to a four-game World Series sweep of the hated Yankees.  Though the future Hall of Famer never showed, I did receive a (mechanically) autographed picture-postcard – “Best Wishes, Sandy Koufax” – that seemed to add a proud exclamation point to the occasion.  

Then, almost before we knew it, the wrenching news from Texas that Black Friday – the real one – abruptly imbued everything that had come before with a trivial, through-the-looking-glass quality.  I vividly recall picking listlessly at my brown-bagged sandwich in the school lunchroom that midday, as teachers and students alike anxiously awaited word of the President’s condition.  Presently, an 11th-grade student walked by, clutching a small white transistor radio.  As he passed, I caught a tinny burst of instrumental music, the mind-ingrained melody an instant punch to the gut: And the rockets’ red glare…

Young as we were, horrifying as the day’s events were, we were fortunate at least in that our traditional Jewish upbringing afforded us a sort of emotional safety net.  For this was not only Friday, but also Erev Shabbat – Sabbath eve.  That afternoon, even as I watched the bizarre black-and-white images flickering across our antiquated household television screen – a Stetson-wearing Dallas police detective holding aloft a bolt-action rifle,  JFK’s casket arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, a somber Lyndon Johnson addressing the nation for the first time as President – I took instinctive comfort in the familiar rituals of the approaching Sabbath: the aroma of freshly baked challah, a pot of soup simmering on the kitchen stove, even the smell of fresh polish on a pair of dress shoes.

Before long, it was time to stroll to our local synagogue for Friday evening services. KENNEDY DEAD, screamed the Preview editions of Saturday’s L.A. Times sitting in the news-racks at Pico and Robertson. At shul, before making Kiddush, the rabbi broke precedent and spoke, lauding JFK and his support of Israel.

Following our own Kiddush and Sabbath dinner at home, it was time for Birkhat ha-Mazon, the Grace After Meals.  By tradition, the after-meal blessings are preceded on the Sabbath and Festivals by recitation of the 126th chapter of the Book of Psalms. This is one in a series that carries the introductory designation Shir ha-Ma’alot – a song of degrees, or ascents.

“Those who sow with tears,” we sang in Hebrew, “in glad song shall they reap.” As our voices rose, the ancient words seemed to take on powerful new resonance. One Shabbat would soon follow another, we realized, and a few weeks hence our homes would be filled with the reassuring glow of Chanukah candles.  However strange and unpredictable things seemed on this new side of time, life would go on; the nation would recover. We would ascend from our grief; we would once again sing with joy.

Twenty-six hundred Sabbaths later, the torch has once again been passed to a new generation, one with no direct memory of the Kennedy presidency,  Yet, JFK’s life and legacy – his all-too-human shortcomings notwithstanding – continue to resonate in our national life, and to inspire millions more around the globe.  The ner tamid – the eternal flame of Jewish tradition – burns brighter than ever, even as JFK’s eternal flame at Arlington challenges us to ever strive for greatness.

May his memory be for a blessing.  May we sing with joy, always.

Lewis Van Gelder

No faith, no Jewish future

In my last column, I suggested a number of reasons for the rise of Orthodox Judaism and the decline in membership among non-Orthodox denominations. 

In this column, I would like to discuss one important reason that often goes unnoted.

That reason is faith — not only faith in God, but specifically faith that the Torah represents the word of God. 

“Represents the word of God” does not necessarily mean that God dictated every word to Moses. Nor does it necessarily imply any specific form of divine communication. How the Torah came to be is an entirely different question from whether it ultimately comes from God. 

Having taught the Torah much of my life, I am well aware that there are challenging, even difficult, parts of the Torah. However, in almost every case, with intellectual honesty coupled with a belief in the divinity of the Torah, those difficulties can be surmounted. 

Take the often-cited example of the law demanding that a son who will not listen to either his father or mother and who is “a stubborn and rebellious glutton and drunk” be stoned.

As it turns out, this law was one of the most morally elevating laws in mankind’s history. By stipulating that the son must be taken to a court and that only the court can execute him, and that the son had to revile both his mother and father, the law permanently took away the right of a father to kill his child. 

This was likely a first in human history. Throughout the world, as in the Code of Hammurabi, children were the property of their father — who was, therefore, allowed to kill his child. The Torah law ended that. Moreover, it is unlikely that one son in Jewish history was ever stoned by a Jewish court. On the contrary, thanks to the Torah, Jewish family life was the most peaceful in every society in which Jews lived. Would that those who in believe in “honor killings” today had inherited such a law in their holy works.

Whatever the difficulties moderns may have with believing that the Torah is divine, the difficulties with believing that the Torah is just a creation of men are far greater.

Of course, many Jews who don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah — or even in the God of the Torah — feel Jewish and some are deeply devoted to the Jewish people. Indeed, it was secular Jews, not Orthodox Jews, who founded Israel. But over the course of a few generations, without belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah coming from God, most Jews will gradually leave Judaism and eventually the Jewish people.

Take Shabbat observance as an example. There are excellent rational, non-God-based  reasons to observe the Shabbat. But the reason the vast majority of Jews who do not work on Shabbat (or on the Torah’s other holy days) refrain from work is that we believe God commanded us to. Over a few generations, those who believe that men wrote the commandment to observe the Shabbat will eventually abandon it. But those who believe that God gave the commandment will not.

Similarly, if one does not believe that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, let alone that God took the Jews out of Egypt, one can be a committed Jew and even celebrate Passover. But over time it strains credulity to believe that generation after generation of Jews will celebrate an event they don’t believe ever happened. They may celebrate family time together at a seder, but not Judaism.

The centrality of belief in a God-given Torah obviously challenges most non-Orthodox Jews. But it should also challenge many Orthodox Jews. 

Many Orthodox Jews think that observance of halachah, more than faith, is what ensures Jewish survival. Every yeshiva student is taught the famous line from the Midrash: “It would be better that the Jews abandoned Me [God] but kept my commandments.”

But Conservative Judaism provides a nearly perfect refutation of this idea. Many Conservative rabbis in the past, and many today, have led thoroughly halachic lives, virtually indistinguishable from many modern Orthodox rabbis. If halachah is what keeps Jews alive, the Conservative movement should not be in decline — and it should certainly attract more Jews than Reform, the least halachic of the major denominations. 

Furthermore, if halachah is the single most important thing to the Orthodox, why has Orthodoxy been so opposed to Conservative Judaism and to Conservative rabbis who have been scrupulously halachic? The answer is that the Conservative movement dropped belief in a God-given Torah. (Jewish Theological Seminary Web site: “The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism … not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font.”) And it is that, not lesser observance of halachah, that is the primary reason for Conservative Judaism’s decline. 

Judaism cannot just be a commitment to the Jewish people, love of Israel or even just ritual observance. As important as each is, none will ensure Jewish survival as much as belief — belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah of God.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Open Judaism: Judaism wins if all denominations win

There’s a nasty food fight going on right now in the Orthodox world between the stringent groups and the more open ones.

This latest brouhaha was ignited when the “open Orthodox” Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) yeshiva invited non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars to a roundtable discussion during the installation of YCT’s new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. 

As reported by JTA, the Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America issued a statement condemning the roundtable, saying it “does violence” to the principle that a yeshiva should shun rabbis of non-Orthodox movements that have led Jews “down the path toward Jewish oblivion.”

Since then, a verbal war has broken out over the appropriateness of YCT’s inclusive beliefs and actions, and whether its open views on many issues disqualify them from being considered “Orthodox.” 

The aspect of the dispute I want to focus on is the underlying premise from the more stringent groups that the Orthodox have little or nothing to learn from the non-Orthodox.

Are groups like Agudath Israel and others so insulated and sure of themselves that they can’t possibly see the value of engaging with non-Orthodox rabbis and scholars?

In the wake of the recent Pew study of American Jewry, and the subsequent conclusion among many Orthodox that “our side won,” I’m afraid that this sentiment is likely only to get stronger.

That is a real shame, because, in many ways, the future health and vibrancy of Judaism in America will depend on our ability to learn from one another.

Judaism will only win if all denominations win.

The paradox that comes out of the Pew study is that “religion” is both a savior and an obstacle. Raise your kids Orthodox and send them to Orthodox day schools and, not surprisingly, the odds will go up that they will remain Jewish and marry within the faith.

But this Orthodox segment to which I belong still represents, after all these years, a strong yet distinct minority of Jews. A large majority are simply losing interest in “religion” under any denomination. As The New York Times reported, the study found “a significant rise in those who are not religious.” 

The question we must answer, then, is this: For the large group of Jews who are turned off by anything “religious,” what can Judaism offer that will instill in them a strong Jewish identity?

Hint: It’s not just tikkun olam and ethics. The only answer I see is: Everything.

Yes, everything that can strengthen their Jewish identity, including Jewish culture and learning the story of their people.

The biggest failure, in my view, of the American Jewish community has been the failure to marry the obvious “do-goodism” of religion with the compelling “knowism” of Jewish culture.

It’s as if they exist in two different worlds — as if you can’t recite prayers and learn Jewish poetry in the same place, or study Torah after you study Philip Roth, or learn the story of King David and the story of medieval Jews, or debate the role of the Chasidic movement in Jewish history while debating a Chasidic tractate, or study Jewish music and art while also engaging in social activism.

I consider Shabbat one of Judaism’s greatest gifts, but why does it have to be only a religious experience? Why can’t we fully observe the Sabbath, recite all the prayers and follow all the rituals, while still incorporating Jewish poetry, history and philosophy? 

In so many ways, we have divorced Jewish culture from Jewish religion and, as a result, have ended up with a narrow-box Judaism that turns off most Jews of the new generation.

Trying to upgrade the religious experience is fine, but it’s hardly enough. What we need is to add more items to the Jewish menu to strengthen Jewish identity. Culture can do that. 

It’s easy to cancel a membership to a synagogue. It’s a lot harder to cancel a membership to a 5,000-year-old people whose story and culture are your own.

Our cover story this week on the success of the Skirball Cultural Center points the way to a more vibrant Jewish future — having more synagogues in America open up to the riches of Jewish culture and the Jewish story.

A big part of this opening-up process is opening up to one another. In the same way that Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has begun an “open Orthodox” movement, we ought to begin an “open Judaism” movement.

Yes, the non-Orthodox and non-religious have plenty to learn from the Orthodox, but this quaint notion that it doesn’t work the other way around is borderline offensive. Just look at one scholar of the Reform movement who was on the YCT roundtable, Rabbi David Ellenson.

My Orthodox friends will be happy to know that Ellenson is a renowned expert on … Orthodoxy. In fact, if you pick up his book on Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, a prominent contributor to the creation of Modern Orthodoxy during the late 1800s, you’ll learn how Hildesheimer promoted the keeping of Orthodox tradition while also introducing certain innovations to meet the demands of modern life.

It makes you wish we had more Hildesheimers around today, or at least Orthodox synagogues that would invite scholars like Ellenson to share their knowledge.

Learning from one another doesn’t dilute our identity. It enriches it.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Mitzvahland: For all your Jewish needs

On Sunday, my wife and I drove out to the Valley to buy a new sukkah. It was time. I’d bought our old sukkah from an Armenian Catholic who supplied booths to vendors in farmers’ markets. When his orders began to spike in September, he realized he could have a good little side business selling these things to Jews for their holiday of Sukkot. Only in America.

That was 15 years ago. This time, I couldn’t find a listing for his company, but I did reach the owner of a place called Mitzvahland on Ventura Boulevard in Encino.

He spoke in a thick Persian accent, and I felt like I had just reached the trading pit on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “Sukkahs? Yes! Size? Yes, we got it, we got it! Tarp, yes, come!” And he hung up. If you want a sukkah, call a Judaica store the day after Yom Kippur. If you’re looking for customer service, call L.L. Bean.

So we drove to Encino, the Old Country. When I grew up there, there were Jews, but nothing like what’s happened since. In the late ’70s, the Iranian Jews arrived. Then waves of Israelis settled in. We third-generation Ashkenazi children moved to the city or farther west, to Conejo. What was once a monochromatic, acculturated, if not assimilated, Jewish community became more observant, diverse, multiethnic.

We pulled into a mini-mall near Balboa Boulevard. Across a large storefront shul hung a huge banner that advertised the time for prayer services. Mitzvahland took up two more storefronts. 

Inside, it was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. An elderly Iranian-Jewish man was behind the cash register, helping a customer and speaking into his cell phone. The store phone rang. He picked it up and now had three conversations going — one in English, one in Hebrew, one in Farsi.

A dozen customers crowded the sukkah display, next to which lay a stack of shiny metal pipes and a huge mound of bamboo poles. Two young religious Jews helped them make sense of the sukkah kits for sale. A woman in a low-cut blouse — unlikely to be Orthodox — waited patiently. Behind her two barrel-chested Israelis wearing tight T-shirts advertising a nightclub held pounds of bright plastic fruit decorations, eager to pay. Another Israeli man walked in, checkbook in hand.

“What is the end of the line?” he asked, slightly mistranslating the Hebrew phrase. 

At the counter, a young father ordering his first sukkah presented a list of specs right out of “This Old House.” “Just get the kit,” the owner said.

My wife went to the back of the store, where a vast table was covered in neatly laid out etrogs and boys formed branches of myrtle, willow and palm into a sheaf of lulavs. A boy of perhaps 8, wearing an embroidered velvet kippah, was braiding dried palm fronds together to form the holster that holds the three branches together. “Does that come with the sukkah?” a woman, clearly a first-time sukkah buyer, asked. 

Nope — another $45, at least.

Growing up, most of my friends were Jewish, but we didn’t know from lulavs and etrogs or even Sukkot. Those were the “Mad Men” years. It was edgy and funny to be culturally Jewish, like Barbra or Woody, but to practice the rituals, to identify religiously — that was for the Orthodox.

Slowly, that has changed — partly because of the immigrants, unabashed in their affiliations, and partly because the needs that the mysteries of tradition and community fill could not long go unmet. The doomsayers keep telling us that a new generation is turned off to Judaism. But one sure sign they’re wrong is the number of non-Orthodox Jews who now put up sukkot, or celebrate the holiday with others. 

“Thirty years ago, people thought sukkot were only for synagogues,” Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, who grew up Conservative, told me. “It was a revelation you could build one in your backyard. Now, everyone and their mother is selling sukkot on Pico-Robertson.”

Sukkot turns an average autumn evening into summer camp. No one does it because they have to, like Yom Kippur, but because they want to. 

And so, even as the American Jewish community has grown wealthier, more powerful, more stable, we find ourselves pulled toward Sukkot, the symbol of a tentative existence.

 “We dwell in fragile booths because we are secure,” wrote Rabbi David Wolpe. “Only someone who feels safe chooses a rickety dwelling.”

In our solid, complicated lives, we yearn to reconnect to what is true, simple and sweet: shelter, food, community.

The night before we decided to buy a new sukkah, I had a dream that I was 15 years old and working at Miss Grace Lemon Cake, where I worked on and off through high school. 

In my dream, I was packing the warm sugary cakes into their tins — just as I used to do as a teenager — but every so often I’d stop to eat a slice. In the morning, the dream meant nothing to me.

It was only after we loaded our sukkah kit in our car and drove away that I realized: Miss Grace Lemon Cakes used to be located in the exact storefront where Mitzvahland is now. What was sweet, is still sweet, and will remain sweet — and we will keep returning to it, as the saying goes, generation after generation. There is no end of the line. 

See their commercial here:

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Reform leader Rick Jacobs slams Israeli gov’t discrimination against non-Orthodox

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said American Jews should no longer acquiesce to Israeli state-sanctioned discrimination against women and non-Orthodox Jews.

“I would fight passionately for the right of Orthodox Jews to pray freely at the Kotel or anywhere else, so I can’t understand why we acquiesce when the rights of non-Orthodox Jews are denied by the Jewish state,” Jacobs said to wide applause in a speech Tuesday at the closing plenary of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, where Jacobs served as the scholar in residence. “This is a moment that calls for Israel and the world Jewish community to address equality for all streams of Judaism by the government of Israel.”

Jacobs cited the case of activist Anat Hoffman, head of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, who was arrested last month at the Western Wall for leading a women's prayer service while wearing a tallit prayer shawl — an act that contravenes an Israeli law that has survived Supreme Court challenges.

“Yes, the Israeli Supreme Court has the authority to restrict the prayer of women and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall. But why is this holy Jewish site run like an Orthodox synagogue? Why can’t there be space and time for both egalitarian prayer and for more traditional forms of prayer at this holy place?” Jacobs asked. “So long as Israel remains the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams, the Zionist dream of the ingathering of the exiles in a Jewish state for all Jews cannot be fully realized.

“It is time to end this discrimination once and for all,” he said, adding, “When women are subjected to discrimination at the Kotel, it feeds other forms of discrimination by the ultra-Orthodox against women — on buses and in other public facilities.”

Jacobs also called on American Jews to ensure that Israel not become a partisan issue, saying the Jewish community's traditional bipartisan consensus on Israel must be restored following a divisive U.S. election campaign.

“The pro-Israel community must be large enough to include the IDF veteran campaigning for peace on the college campus, the AIPAC activist lobbying members of Congress, the human rights activist protesting unlawful seizure of Arab homes in Jerusalem, the West Bank settler and the Jew who protests the lack of religious freedom in the Jewish state,” he said.

Approximately 3,000 people attended this year's GA held in Baltimore Sunday through Tuesday.

Rabbis for Romney

Many political organizers talk about themselves as reluctant activists, but when Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg said it wasn’t his intention, initially, to establish the group Rabbis for Romney, it’s hard not to believe him.

“I don’t hate Obama, and I don’t glorify Romney,” said Rosenberg, a 64-year-old Orthodox-ordained rabbi who leads Congregation Beth-El, a conservative synagogue in Edison, N.J. “I just know what I have, and I’m not happy with what I have, so I’m willing to throw the dice with someone new.”

Rosenberg, who said he is a registered Democrat who voted twice for President Bill Clinton, launched Rabbis for Romney in September with little more than an organization name and a solicitation e-mail. Even today, aside from a list that he won’t share of what he says are 100 rabbis’ names, the group doesn’t have much of a presence on the Web or on the campaign trail.

Its entire reason for being, Rosenberg said, is not so much to oppose the re-election of President Barack Obama as to oppose the members of Rabbis for Obama who have endorsed him.

“I don’t think there should be rabbis for anybody,” Rosenberg said. “But then 613 rabbis decided they were going to make a whole to-do in the press, and that’s wrong.”

Those 613 Rabbis for Obama helped reignite a long-running debate about whether Jewish clerics should take positions on political issues.

But unlike those rabbis, who all have made their names public, and who include some pulpit rabbis, next to nothing is known about the majority of the Rabbis for Romney group.

Rosenberg, who said he received hate mail in response to organizing Rabbis for Romney, would not release the names of the rabbis who have contacted him to join the group, but he did disclose that every rabbi on his list of about 100 is male. Eighty percent of the Rabbis for Romney are Orthodox-ordained; the rest are Conservative, he said. Some work for synagogues, others as educators, and still others are retired. None lives on the West Coast, but some live in Israel, Rosenberg said. 

Although the group is called Rabbis for Romney, at least some of its members appear to be inspired more by antipathy for Obama than by love for the Republican nominee.

Rabbi David Algaze of Havurat Yisrael, an Orthodox synagogue in Queens, N.Y., is co-chairman of Rabbis for Romney. Speaking to The Jewish Star of Long Island, N.Y., Algaze reportedly said the “main purpose [of Rabbis for Romney] is to counter the impression of Rabbis for Obama.”

Calling Obama “one of the most hostile” presidents toward Israel and the Jews, Algaze told The Jewish Star that “Romney will do even better for Israel. We saw his presentation of [God] and values rather than the atheistic and other values of Obama.”

Rosenberg was less sanguine than was Algaze about Romney — “I don’t know the guy, I never went out to dinner with him” — but was no less opposed to Obama’s re-election.

“I don’t trust Obama,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not saying he’s been bad to Israel; I’m not one of those guys. I just don’t like his apologizing to the Arab world. I don’t like him dealing with extremist Muslims. He’s not my cup of tea.”

And though Rosenberg said he hoped Romney, if elected, would take a different tone in his interactions with Israel than Obama has, the rabbi acknowledged that such talk is, at this point, purely speculative. Nevertheless, Rosenberg said the Republican could count on his vote. 

“With me, Romney is going to be a better president because, economically, he knows something about business,” he said. 

Gambling British haredim blamed for spate of burglaries

Gambling debts among haredi Orthodox British Jews spurred a spate of burglaries in Jewish homes and institutions, The Jewish Chronicle reported.

The London-based newspaper quoted Police Det. Allen Windsor as saying that “there have been a large number of burglaries at Jewish properties for a long time, but recently we have identified members of the Jewish community carrying out burglaries at communal buildings.”

On Thursday, the Chronicle reported that a recent break-in at the city’s Beth Shmuel Synagogue was attributable to gambling debts. Police arrested three Jewish suspects aged 17 to 19, and they admitted to breaking and entering the synagogue and taking keys to a car parked nearby.

Other incidents included the theft of a car and the robbery last year at the home of a Jewish charity director.  The alleged car thief is said to have been planning to use the proceeds to feed his gambling addiction, while the alleged burglar owed $48,000 to an Israeli gang, the paper said.

The Chronicle also reported that a 23-year-old London Jewish man will stand trial next month after denying four charges of burgling a Jewish primary school.

Rabbi Chanan Tomlin of the United Kingdom's Kids Trust charity said there was a “significant” gambling problem among strictly Orthodox communities in Manchester.

“Poker is a problem among yeshiva students,” he said. “There is a poker culture among these young Jews. Some of them are going to casinos and some are addicted to scratch cards.”

The Jews of Kaifeng, China

Jewish liturgy and ritual frequently remind us that the Israelites were scattered to the “four corners of the earth,” as symbolized by the four fringes of the tallit, or prayer shawl. The extent of the geographic dispersion of the Jews over millennia has been vast, ranging from Baghdad to Burma, Marrakesh to Melbourne, Jerusalem to Los Angeles. 

But it wasn’t until I arrived in China for a two-and-a-half week stint to teach Jewish history that I realized just how dispersed these “four corners” are.

In Kaifeng, where Jews once lived — and still do — I witnessed the past and present of one of those dispersed “corners.” I also learned what it is like to teach Jewish history in China, where the field of Jewish studies is undergoing a surprising growth spurt.

The absence of a firm trail of historical evidence leads some to maintain that reports of a medieval Jewish presence in China are unfounded. I tend to agree with another group of scholars, who believe that there was such a presence — and that Kaifeng (pronounced “Ky fung”), in Henan province, is the oldest known Jewish community. This group argues that Jewish merchants, most likely originating in the Middle East, traveled along the vaunted Silk Road and made their way to and through China as early as the seventh century C.E. A document written in Judeo-Persian detailing business activity dates Jews in China to the early eighth century. Meanwhile, scholars surmise that sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries C.E., Jewish traders — likely of Persian origin — laid roots in Kaifeng. Kaifeng was no mere station along the Silk Road, and surely no backwater. It was one of the “Seven Ancient Capitals of China,” serving as the administrative center for five dynasties. Even more remarkably, Kaifeng was reputed to be the largest city in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries, with a population estimated at between 700,000 to 1.5 million. The list of other leading urban population centers in this period includes Córdoba (Spain), Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo and Baghdad, all of which were or would become home to large populations of Jews. In fact, the Jewish romance with the city was not a modern invention. In a city, one could find a spirit of openness, new ideas and, of course, abundant commercial opportunities. In this sense, it would be no surprise that Jews made their way to medieval Kaifeng.

Kaifeng in its golden age was a masterfully designed city, with three sets of city walls, at the center of which was the elaborate Forbidden City where the emperor and his court were located. The Jewish community lived within the city walls, dwelling in close proximity to the community’s first synagogue, built in 1163, whose construction was commemorated in a stele dated to 1489. Unlike many of their medieval co-religionists, the Jews of Kaifeng, it appears, were largely unscathed by discrimination or persecution. The Song Emperors, based in Kaifeng, held the Jews in high esteem. And the Jews maintained good relations with their local Chinese neighbors. 

It is reasonable to assume that amiable relations hastened the pace of cultural integration. Within several hundred years, many of Kaifeng’s Jews, who at their peak numbered several thousand (some estimate as high as five thousand), lost knowledge of the Hebrew language. And yet, a key feature of traditional Jewish life remained throughout the entire existence of the community, even up to today: Jews in Kaifeng abstained from eating pork. Another distinctive feature of the Kaifeng community also survived: One of the Song Emperors, who could not pronounce the Hebrew names of the Jews in his realm, bestowed on them seven Chinese family names that are still in use today.

The existence of this community was unknown to the West until 1605, when the intrepid Jesuit scholar and missionary in China, Matteo Ricci, received a visit from a Kaifeng Jew in Beijing. After an initial confusion in which the two thought they belonged to the same religion, Ricci recognized that he was dealing with a previously unknown phenomenon: a native Jewish community in China. This well preceded the later communities established in the late 19th century in Shanghai and Harbin. 

A model of the Kaifeng synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Some decades later, the city of Kaifeng, including its Jewish community, confronted a major disaster. In 1642, a devastating flood of the Yellow River wreaked massive destruction upon the city, killing large numbers of residents, including Jews, and laying waste to much of the city’s infrastructure, including the synagogue. The glory days of Kaifeng as a world center of commerce were over.

After the flood, the Jews did manage to rebuild their synagogue, distinguished, like the original one, by a large Chinese-style roof, along with a number of other distinctive Chinese features. But the community’s best days were past. Fewer and fewer Jews attended the synagogue or had familiarity with Jewish ritual. In 1841, another major flood hit Kaifeng, again destroying much of the city, including the second synagogue. And this time, no communal institutions were available afterward to provide support or services to Kaifeng Jews. 

One might assume, on the basis of this story, that the history of Kaifeng Jewry has come to an end, a victim not of anti-Semitism but of Chinese hospitality. My visit to Kaifeng suggests otherwise. My host in China, professor Xu Xin, one of the founding figures of Jewish studies in China (about whom more later), took me to visit Esther Guo Yan, a woman of about 25 or 30 who preserves one of the seven Jewish family names. Esther is the granddaughter of the last renowned Jewish notable from Kaifeng, and she runs a tiny, rough-hewn shrine to the history of Kaifeng Jewry. She waits for the occasional tourist to find her home, which is located in the historic Jewish quarter. Her interests are both to recall the old Jewish community and to bring knowledge about Chinese culture to what she refers to as her “hometown,” Jerusalem.

Indeed, a strong connection to Israel marks the larger group of Jewish descendants whom I met in Kaifeng. I first visited them at the end of their weekly four-hour study session of English and Hebrew with their ebullient, chain-smoking Israeli teacher, Shulamit Gershovich, who had been sent by Shavei Israel, an international group that seeks out lost Jews. She is concluding a six-month stint teaching the Kaifeng group and lives in one of the two rooms that now serve as a kind of community center under the name Beit HaTikvah (House of Hope). This name was bestowed by the center’s founder, a young American Jew named Eric Rothberg, who began to work with and teach the group two years ago. 

On a Thursday evening, I met with a group of eight students, some of them bearing the ancient names of Kaifeng Jews who, thus, are “descendants,” and others who have no Jewish blood but are married to descendants. Here in Kaifeng, as in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the most important criterion of Jewishness is not the rabbinic standard of matrilineal descent. Rather, it is the willingness and desire to be a Jew. Against remarkable odds, the members of Beit HaTikvah are assiduously studying what it means to be a Jew. Though a small number of younger family members have been sent off to Israel or the United States to study and undergo formal conversion, the majority of the 25 or so attendees at Beit HaTikvah are on their own path of Jewish self-discovery in China, where they likely will remain. (I should add that, in the ancient and venerable ways of the Jews, there is another group of a similar size studying at a different locale in Kaifeng with a Messianic Jew named Tim Lerner, though I did not get to meet them.)

Without a doubt, the highlight of my time in Kaifeng, and a reflection of the group’s indomitable spirit, was the Shabbat I spent at Beit HaTikvah. I was brought to the Friday night gathering by Ari Schaffer, an Orthodox undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, who is conducting research on the community. The small, nondescript room was filled with some 25 people, ranging in age from 16 to 75. On one wall was an unusual array of symbols: the flag of the State of Israel on the right, the flag of the People’s Republic of China on the left, and in the middle, the Shema prayer flanked by a pair of Hebrew words, shemesh and kamon.  

Shemesh means sun. Kamon’s meaning is a matter of dispute; some scholars believe it refers to an angel, while others maintain that it connotes moon. In any case, this pair of words seems to have served a sort talismanic function for the community.

After candlelighting, Gao Chao, the leader of the small community, began to sing “Yedid Nefesh,” the medieval poem sung at the outset of Kabbalat Shabbat. Typically enough for this community, Gao Chao is not of Jewish descent. He is married to a descendent, but has taken on the responsibility of learning Hebrew and Jewish prayers so as to serve as the prayer leader on Friday nights. He led the community through Kabbalat Shabbat, with members joining in in their Chinese-inflected Hebrew (which was rendered into Chinese characters for them to follow). The degree of ritual fluency for a community that does not include a single halachic Jew and has been studying Hebrew intensely for only two years was remarkable. The community chanted with gusto and competency many of the standards of Jewish liturgy and custom on Friday night: “Lechah Dodi,” “Ve-shamru,” and “Shalom Aleichem.” It was particularly moving when the congregation joined with Gao Chao to sing the penultimate line of the Friday night Kiddush: “For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations, and with love and good will given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.”

After services, the entire group sat down to a potluck vegetarian Shabbat dinner, my first with chopsticks as the utensil of choice. Dinner was tasty and spirited, but a mere prelude to the memorable post-meal singing. We sang the grace after meals and then spent several hours singing zemirot and other Hebrew and Israeli songs at the top of our lungs — aided, it must be said, by a potent Arak-like beverage native to the region. One member of the community — not herself a Jewish descendant, but married to one — had assumed the Hebrew name Netta. She seemed to know virtually every Hebrew song sung. She had an infectious smile, beautiful voice and a true sense of oneg Shabbat — the joy of the Sabbath. Other members did not know many of the songs, but added their own enthusiastic and well-timed rhythm by clapping and pounding the table.

The one song that all knew was the one whose name adorns the current Kaifeng community: HaTikvah. At a certain point in the midst of the cacophonous frivolity, the group rose as one to offer a sonorous version of “Hatikvah” — in Chinese! Those of us who knew followed in Hebrew. It was another stunning moment in an evening of stunning moments. Few of the community members are likely to make aliyah, but somehow they have managed to develop a strong bond with and sense of pride for Israel. There was also a strong sense among all of us present of the past and future shared by Jews. Assembled at a long Shabbat table in Kaifeng, we experienced, in the rawest and purest form I’ve ever witnessed, the unbroken spirit that links Jews scattered over the four corners of the world, from California to China.

Follow the Jewish Journal on Twitter:

Religious zealots attack “immodest” Jerusalem shops

A sign at the ice cream parlor may caution men and women not to lick cones in public, but the warning didn’t stop Jewish zealots vandalizing the shop in Jerusalem’s main ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Other businesses in Mea Shearim, including a book store and dress shops, have been damaged in night-time attacks by Sikrikim, a group of some 100 ultra-religious men who want one of the holy city’s most tradition-bound quarters to become even more conservative.

“Promiscuity” reads graffiti scrawled in black at the entrance of a clothing shop selling dresses whose lengthy hemline and drab colors have been deemed too racy by the group.

Other stores in the neighborhood, where men wear traditional black garb and women bare little but their face, have had their windows broken, locks glued and foul-smelling liquid smeared on walls.

“They also threw once a bag of excrement inside and smashed our windows three times,” said Marlene Samuels, manager of the Or Hachaim bookshop, whose bright lights and large storefront sign stand out among smaller and more dimly lit businesses.

The shop has been attacked more than 10 times since it opened a year and a half ago, Samuels said. The latest assault was last week when one of the store’s branches had its locks glued overnight.

Samuels said the shop’s owner met with the Sikrikim several times. The store stocks only religious books, but they include volumes published by Orthodox institutions that are Zionist—anathema to the Sikrikim, who believe a Jewish state can be established only with the coming of the Messiah.

Named after a small Jewish group which 2,000 years ago fought against Roman rulers and suspected Jewish collaborators, the modern-day Sikrikim strike at night and some wear masks to hide their identities.

“They use aggressive tactics and they also ask for protection money which involves paying (a religious inspector) coming in and removing the books he deems unfit,” Samuels said.

Meir Margalit, a Jerusalem councilman from the secular Israeli Meretz party, voiced concern that the existence of the Sikrikim, although a tiny minority, signified a growing divide among Jews in Israel.

“Society is becoming increasingly extremist. With the Sikrikim particularly, who are religiously motivated and rule out any position but their own, one cannot reckon, only fight them,” Margalit said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 7.7 million population. With an average of eight children per family, they are a fast-growing population. Many live below the poverty line and keep to dozens of their own towns and neighborhoods.

Mea Shearim area is small, less than half a square mile (1.3 square km), and home to about 30,000 residents considered among the most tight-knit and reclusive of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It takes about a minute to walk from Jerusalem’s city center to Mea Shearim, but the dozens of synagogues and Hassidic courts dotting its narrow alleyways are a world away from the cafes and bars of downtown Jerusalem.

Sikrikim attacks have also been reported at Beit Shemesh, a mixed secular and religious town with a growing ultra-Orthodox community, about half an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. The latest target there has been a religious girls’ school.

The Sikrikim who reside near the school object to the way the girls dress. Since the school year began in September they have regularly picketed outside shouting out at the students, most of them younger than 12, that they are promiscuous.

“They claim to be religious but what they do is a crime against God, against the Torah and against humanity,” said David Rotenberg, who works at Or Hachaim.


Up the road, the Zisalek ice cream parlor has separate entrances for men and women and a sign—posted at the request of local religious authorities—asking them to avoid any show of immodesty by licking cones in public.

“They (the Sikrikim) had a real ball with us,” said Guy Ammar, one of Zisalek’s owners, describing vandalism similar to attacks against other shops in the area.

“But we were not deterred. Residents here told us not to give up and business is going well now.”

Sikrikim shun the media and have made no public comment about their activities.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said an investigation was under way following two complaints lodged by Or Hachaim Center but no suspects have yet been arrested.

Some business owners in Mea Shearim said police has been slow to act, reluctant to get involved in what they see as internal disputes among different religious sects of a closed community.

Rosenfeld said that no other businesses have filed formal complaints in recent weeks.

A few minutes walk from Zisalek Ice Cream is the Greentech music shop, where Hassidic music plays in the background and one DVD in a collection of ultra-Orthodox movies is a suspense film about the battles of a rabbi against Christian missionaries.

The Sikrikim “do not like anything that changes the character of the shtetl and the way it was a hundred years ago,” a worker in the music store said, using a Yiddish term for the small towns where Eastern European Jews lived before the Holocaust.

Shlomo Kuk, an ultra-Orthodox journalist from Jerusalem, said the Sikrikim shouldn’t be seen as representative of devout Jews known as “haredim.”

“One thing is certain: they may dress like haredim but what they do is utter sacrilege which blackens the name of the entire haredi community,” Kuk said.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall

Beck apologizes to Reform Jews

Fox News host Glenn Beck apologized for comparing Reform Judaism to radical Islam.

In an apology on his radio program Thursday, Beck said he had made “one of the worst analogies of all time” in saying on a radio show on Tuesday that, like Islamic extremists, Reform rabbis place politics ahead of religion. He delivered a special apology to Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, who was among the Jewish leaders who slammed Beck for his comments and demanded he apologize.

“To Abe and everybody else, if I offended you it was not my intent,” Beck said, noting that he often disagreed with Foxman but in this case the ADL chief was correct. “I see how I did that and I apologize for the action and the words. Enough said.”

The comments that got Beck in trouble Tuesday came in the context of a wider discussion about a recent open letter, signed almost exclusively by non-Orthodox rabbis, criticizing him for repeatedly comparing his ideological foes to Nazis. “There are the Orthodox rabbis and there are the Reform rabbis,” Beck said on Tuesday. “Reformed rabbis are generally political in nature. It’s almost like radicalized Islam in a way where it is just—radicalized Islam is less about religion than it is about politics.”

Foxman welcomed the apology and issued a statement saying the matter had been put to rest.

Jewish Funds for Justice, a liberal group that has scuffled with Beck repeatedly—most recently by taking out full-page advertisements calling on Beck to be censured for his misuse of Nazi analogies—said the statement was “welcome but incomplete.” The organization said Beck’s comments were of a piece with his longstanding hostility to toward religious groups that pursue a social justice agenda, calling it a “systemic” problem.

“We reiterate our call on [Fox News chief] Rupert Murdoch to end Mr. Beck’s tenure at Fox News and for Salem Communications to commit not to add his syndicated radio show to their New York stations,” the group said in a statement. “Anything short of this reflects an unwillingness to take seriously the harm Mr. Beck causes to many in our community and beyond.”

VIDEO: Blacks and Jews are back together and working side by side for an Obama victory

JTA’s Eric Fingerhut and Ron Kampeas on Thursday’s events at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.  With a focus on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, they explore a new emphasis on rebuilding the Civil Rights-era alliance of Jews and Blacks.  Included—Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. John Lewis.

Lauder letter to Olmert urging Disapora role in Jerusalem negotiations stirs passions

The president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) has roiled the organization’s branch in Israel by writing to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a plea to allow Diaspora Jews a voice in any decisions on Jerusalem’s future.

Ronald Lauder, in his Jan. 8 letter on WJC letterhead, wished Olmert success during President Bush’s visit to the region and expressed the hope of world Jewry that Israel can attain peace.

Lauder closed the letter urging Olmert to take into consideration “the prayers, the hopes and the views of Jews around the world when you discuss the future” of Jerusalem.

“While recognizing Israel’s inherent prerogatives as a sovereign state,” Lauder wrote, “it is inconceivable that any changes in the status of our holy city will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in the decision.”

Among those complaining about the letter was Shai Hermesh, chairman of the WJC’s Israel branch, which was listed at the top of the letterhead, along with the WJC’s world headquarters in New York. Hermesh said the letter was sent without any consultation with the Israeli branch and contradicts the WJC’s longstanding policy of keeping out of Israel’s political affairs.

“Ronald Lauder is allowed to print a letter or do whatever he wants, but he should take into consideration that never, never, never in the past did Jews in the Diaspora make decisions for Israel,” Hermesh said last week.

“We feel that Jews around the world are our brothers, and their support is very important to us, but political decisions should be taken only by the Knesset and no one else, including the Israeli branch of the World Jewish Congress,” he said. “That is totally unacceptable by us. Decisions should be taken only by the elected government and no one else.”

The flap over Lauder’s letter comes as right-wing and Orthodox groups in the United States are waging a campaign to keep Israel from sharing or dividing Jerusalem in any future deal with the Palestinians. The effort has reignited the argument over what role, if any, Diaspora Jews should have in deciding Israeli policy.

Lauder said he sent the letter without consulting the WJC’s governing body, though he did run it by the WJC’s secretary-general, Michael Schneider. Schneider said he approved of the letter, as long as Lauder made it clear that Israel is a sovereign state with the ultimate right to make its own decisions.

The goal of the letter, Lauder said, was not to pressure Olmert or Israel into taking a hard-line stand on Jerusalem but to foster debate on what he sees as the most important decision facing the country. Lauder added that he would not have taken a similar step regarding other territory up for discussion, including the Gaza Strip, West Bank or Golan Heights.

“The letter simply states that it was important to discuss Jerusalem with the Jews of the Diaspora, because we all play a role and Jerusalem is a key factor,” Lauder said.

The WJC was not going to take an official position on Jerusalem, he added.

“I was speaking for both the World Jewish Congress and the Jews of the Diaspora, and saying please listen to the Jews of the Diaspora,” Lauder said.

Lauder said he was unaware of any protocol for sending out such a letter on WJC letterhead but believed he had to act quickly.

“That is the job of the World Jewish Congress,” he said.

The spat could signify a clash of personal political differences among WJC officials. Lauder has been a longtime supporter of hawkish factions and leaders in Israel, including Knesset opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Hermesh is a member of Olmert’s Kadima Party.

The feud that ultimately led to years of scandal and turmoil at the WJC began with a fight over the decision by Edgar Bronfman, Lauder’s predecessor and a supporter of left-wing Israeli politicians, to send a letter on his own stationery to Bush urging him to pressure Israel to cease settlement construction.

Hermesh and Lauder dismissed any suggestion that a political fight was brewing, saying that the WJC’s policy is to avoid jumping into Israel’s political fray as an organization.

Lauder, who took over in June as WJC president after a contentious battle with Bronfman’s son, Matthew, has long been an outspoken critic of any plan to divide Jerusalem.

In 2001, when he was the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Lauder sought permission from the umbrella body to speak at a rally in Jerusalem that was organized to head off the reported willingness of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make concessions on the city’s status in talks with the Palestinians.

After failing to secure approval, Lauder proceeded to speak at the rally anyway, saying he was doing so as a private individual. His decision to speak at that event pushed the Presidents Conference to adopt a policy forbidding its chairman from speaking publicly, unless he or she has a clear mandate from its member organizations.

Matthew Bronfman, who ultimately became chairman of the WJC’s governing board after deciding last spring to run on a joint ticket with Lauder, was in Latin America and unavailable for comment, Schneider said.

Contacted about the issue, Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the WJC’s executive, a separate body from the governing board, was vacationing in Cape Town, South Africa, and said he was unaware of the letter. Kaplan, a South African steel magnate, was the primary opponent of Lauder and Bronfman in the leadership election last year.

Lauder’s letter comes after Olmert took heat in November for telling reporters that Diaspora Jews should not have a say in what Israel does regarding Jerusalem. Those remarks came as right-wing groups tried to put pressure on the prime minister in the lead-up to the peace gathering in Annapolis, Md.

Olmert later clarified that he welcomed comments from Diaspora Jews but never rescinded his position that Israel alone is sovereign in conducting negotiations.

The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi

In 1970, Abraham David Cooper was arrested by Washington police during a sit-in across from the Soviet embassy and put behind bars in a jammed holding cell. The then-20-year old Yeshiva College student came away from the experience with two important observations that may have changed his life:

  • First, that he didn’t like being in jail.
  • Second, that the established Jewish organizations had been missing in action in what Cooper considered the defining Jewish struggle of the time.

In the intervening 37 years, Cooper has made a point of being present in many of the world’s hot spots, and, at the same time, managed to stay out of prison. And during roughly the same time span, he has played a key role in creating one of the most activist Jewish organizations in the world, working outside the boundaries of the traditional organized community structure.

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Cooper’s formal title today is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). That curious academic rank is a holdover from his initial work with the SWC-affiliated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but it hardly defines his role and influence on this Jewish institution whose mission is to promote understanding among the world’s people.

Cooper, 57, is, in most respects, the alter ego of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and the 33-year-long relationship in which their interaction and division of labor are defined by a kind of shorthand telepathy, requiring no organizational chart or chain of command.

But if today the SWC is a worldwide presence — with seven offices at home and abroad, a landmark Museum of Tolerance, a reported 400,000 member families, high-profile donors and entr�(c)e to presidents and kings — a considerable share of the credit goes to Cooper.

While Hier is the ultimate decision maker and both men respond interchangeably, and instantly, to the endless real or perceived crises facing Israel and the Jewish people around the globe, Cooper does have specific areas of responsibility and expertise.

One is interfaith relations; another is the burgeoning area of cyberspace. Cooper testified before Congress as long as six years ago that the increasing sophistication of Internet propaganda by hate groups, white supremacists and Islamic extremists was exerting growing influence among younger people.

From his Pacific-oriented vantage point in Los Angeles, Cooper is the point man for relations with Japan, China and other Far Eastern nations, introducing Holocaust exhibits, exposing anti-Semitic literature, and establishing ties with political and religious leaders.

“Abe is the Wiesenthal Center’s ambassador to most of the world,” Hier said.

This “ambassador” also shows up in some unexpected places and situations.

Last year, for instance, Cooper was drafted as witness to a peace treaty signed by the so-called O.G.s (original gangster), the founding elders of the Bloods and the Crips, two of the most fearful rival gangs in South Los Angeles.

He was recruited for the assignment by Katy Haber, a London-born film producer, who has been working for many years with at-risk youth and the homeless in the African American community.

Haber had met Cooper while working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance and had no doubt that he was the right man to win the confidence of the gang members.

“Who would be more appropriate than a man who works on conflict resolution with world leaders?” Haber asked rhetorically. “Besides, he is a man of deep intellect, extraordinary sensitivity, and one of the major humanitarians in our community.”

In the introductory meeting and after guiding the O.G.s through the Museum of Tolerance, Cooper complemented the broad lesson of mutual understanding with concrete specifics on community activism, finding jobs and how to deal with authorities.

Cooper said he has no particular formula or technique for bringing opposing sides to the table or bridging differences.

“Part of it is my background as a New Yorker, an American and a Jew, which has given me a certain quiet self-assurance,” he said. “Another part is the example set early on by my father.”

By way of contrast, Cooper was on the other side of the world last summer, on the Indonesian island of Bali. He was there as the organizer of the “Tolerance between Religions” conference, which brought together such unlikely participants as leading Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, victims of the three faiths targeted by suicide bombers, and a Holocaust survivor.

In one speech, carried by Arab networks and worldwide, former president Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, upbraided Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust.

Cooper’s organizing partner was C. Holland Taylor, CEO of the Libforall Foundation, which works with Muslim religious, educational, business and entertainment leaders to stem the spread of Islamic extremism.

After the Bali conference, Taylor and Cooper led a high-profile peace delegation from Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, on a weeklong mission to the Jewish state.

The experience impressed Taylor, who in a phone call from Indonesia described Cooper as “a brilliant strategist, who grasps immediately what can be done and who can juggle a dozen issues simultaneously.”

In the relationship between the Wiesenthal Center’s two top men, Cooper’s loyalty and admiration for Hier is unquestioned, but there is one easily noticed distinction between the two Orthodox rabbis.

As the Center’s clout has increased over the years, so has criticism of the institution within the general, and Orthodox, communities.

Complaints, mostly sotto voce, are aimed at the center’s alleged intrusions on the turfs of older community organizations, its political influence, the high salaries paid its top executives, violations of standards for nonprofit organizations, alarmist tactics and, in Israel, plans to build a $200 million Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

In practically all these criticisms, the target is Hier, who is sometimes described, in awe, fear or derision, as a “New York street fighter.” By contrast, Cooper gets off unscathed.

Don’t dismiss Iran Holocaust conference as harmless fringe elements

Even Borat, the bumblingly anti-Semitic comic character, could not have contrived a more absurd and utterly offensive assemblage: David Duke, erstwhile Imperial
Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, alongside Robert Faurisson, the French pseudo-academic who argues that the Holocaust never happened, accompanied for dramatic effect by a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews whose anti-Zionist fanaticism motivates them to desecrate the memory of millions of murdered Jews.

On Monday and Tuesday, they and other likeminded sociopaths “debated” at the Iranian Foreign Ministry in Tehran whether or not my grandparents and my 5 1/2-year-old brother were gassed at Auschwitz. And the sponsors of the “International Conference on ‘Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision'” are the very folks James Baker and Lee Hamilton, authors of a recent re-evaluation of U.S. policy in Iraq, want to enlist to stabilize the Middle East.

Other participants in this perversion included Australian socialite Michele Renouf, who explained that anti-Semitism is caused by “the anti-gentile nature of Judaism,” and Rabbis Moishe Arye Friedman from Austria and Ahron Cohen from England, who strutted through the conference halls and gladly posed for the cameras.

Friedman told the press that he believes that only about 1 million Jews perished in the Holocaust, and Cohen declared that he does not consider Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sponsored the conference and who has called frequently for the Jewish state to be destroyed, an anti-Semite.

The Tehran reunion of misfits demonstrates conclusively why the Ahmadinejad government cannot be allowed anywhere near responsible political endeavors of any kind. If the international community ostracized South Africa during apartheid and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it should isolate present-day Iran in the most remote diplomatic Siberia imaginable.

Ahmadinejad has made it clear that his espousal of Holocaust denial is a pretext for his desire to destroy the State of Israel. In response, a group of Iranian students showed tremendous moral courage by publicly demonstrating against their president, burning his picture and protesting the “shameful conference” which, in the words of one student, “brought to our country Nazis and racists from around the world.”

In contrast, the reaction of the U.S. government was surprisingly, even shockingly, subdued. Substantially after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Tony Blair all sharply condemned the Tehran conference, the White House issued a statement calling the event an “affront to the entire civilized world” and accusing the Iranian regime of providing “a platform for hatred.”

President Bush, however, has not personally spoken out on the subject, relegating his administration’s response to an institutional press release. The man who usually never misses an opportunity to bash one of the charter members of his Axis of Evil seems to have developed laryngitis.

So, apparently, have Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Their failure to use their bully pulpit on this occasion not only plays into Ahmadinejad’s hands, but serves to empower Holocaust deniers generally.

Why does the Tehran conference have ominous significance? Because Duke, who managed to get 43 percent of the vote in his unsuccessful 1990 U.S. Senate campaign from Louisiana, will now be able to tell students at colleges in heartland America with a straight face that his contention that there were never any gas chambers has international academic and institutional support. And because the noxious views emanating from the podium in Tehran are hardly unique.

Pat Buchanan, a former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and now a well-paid television commentator, would have fit in perfectly. He once wrote that it would have been impossible for Jews to perish in the gas chambers of Treblinka and has referred to a “so-called Holocaust-survivor syndrome” which he described as involving “group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics.”

Professor Deborah Lipstadt has long maintained that while we should never engage Holocaust deniers in debate, we must nevertheless expose them at every opportunity. The Tehran conference is not just another gathering of skinheads in some obscure beer cellar; it is a government-sponsored effort to evoke and manipulate the darkest, most heinous impulses in society.

Every single one of us, from the president of the United States on down, must repudiate this inexorable obscenity publicly, unambiguously and in person.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a lawyer in New York, is founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

New book tries to keep Orthodox, well, Orthodox

“Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism; How to Respond to the Challenge,” by Faranak Margolese (Devora, 2005).

Several years ago, I received an online questionnaire asking things like: “If you had to attribute your not being observant to one thing, what would it be?” and “Did you ever feel rejected because you were not observant enough?” Now my answers, as well as those of 465 other Orthodox rebels, are the subject of the book, “Off the Derech.”

Written by Faranak Margolese, a Los Angeles native and graduate of Yeshiva of Los Angeles Girls High School who now lives in Jerusalem, the book seeks to explain why some Jews who grow up in observant homes and attend Orthodox schools drop halachic observance later in life. By understanding this phenomenon, she believes Orthodox communities and individuals could more effectively remedy it.

But this book is not aimed at people who went off the derech, which in Hebrew means “path.” Instead, it’s intended for those seeking to ensure Orthodox continuity. Throughout the book, Margolese does not treat those who went “off the derech” with disdain or disapproval; rather, she turns her critical focus to certain behaviors and attitudes of Orthodox people, which can turn younger generations off to Torah Judaism.

Nonetheless, her book has earned her praise from leading Orthodox rabbis for outlining an integral path of honest introspection for Orthodox communities, making the book a fitting read for the High Holidays.

Margolese conceived of the idea for the book when she began to notice that many of her friends who grew up in religious homes were no longer observant. Margolese describes a period in which she herself experienced her share of doubts, which resulted in lapses in her observance of Shabbat and kashrut.

Eventually, she resolved the emotional and intellectual conflicts she had with Torah Judaism and has fully committed herself to the Orthodox way of life. Her own experience contributes to the sensitivity with which she tackles the subject.

In an extremely lucid and logical style, Margolese makes a praiseworthy attempt not to oversimplify the reasons why people of different Orthodox shades abandon observance, which she defines loosely as the halachic observance of Shabbat and kashrut. Often, a complex series of factors and experiences trigger defection.

One main reason, she argues, is negative emotional associations young Orthodox Jews develop toward Judaism as a result of hurtful encounters with Orthodox people. These include parents who make children feel rejected for failing in religious observance, teachers who call students “wicked” or “dirty” for dabbling with secular ideas or behaviors, or any Orthodox Jews, particularly rabbis and educators, who are overly judgmental or nitpicky regarding the minutiae of Jewish laws at the expense of kindness and understanding.

Margolese separates emotional and intellectual issues and explains that emotional dissatisfaction is more an influential motivator than intellectual issues with Judaism. In fact, a majority of her respondents affirmed that they still believe in the Divine origins of the Torah. Nevertheless, she found rabbis and teachers often turn their students off to Torah Judaism and rabbinic authority by downplaying their sincere quest to understand God, Torah and reasons for observing mitzvot, (commandments).

Margolese offers several remedies, which put the burden of change on potential role models. Prescriptions include: parents not dogmatically enforcing religious observance at the expense of their child’s emotional well-being and sense of security; parents and educators grounding their emphasis on maintaining observance with the humanitarian purpose, inspiring vision and rational context underlying mitzvot, and practitioners not shying away from questions posed by intellectually curious Orthodox Jews.

By turning culpability to observant people, educators and communities, Margolese successfully removes blame from the ideal Orthodox system she portrays. If only the practitioners were the models of the best of Orthodoxy fulfilled — open, spiritual, psychologically perceptive and halachic — then fewer people might leave the fold.

In keeping with her loyalty to Orthodoxy, Margolese does not devote separate discussion to a popular reason why some people leave Orthodox Judaism: Orthodox Judaism, no matter how it is taught or presented, entails too many restrictions, many of which could be unfulfilling and stifling, both in thought and day-to-day practice.

It is only natural that Margolese defend the belief system and lifestyle she is ultimately advocating, but her remedies will probably not apply to those who have questioned the basic tenets of Orthodoxy and found them wanting.


Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel

In recent weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our routine paled in comparison to many Israelis, who were dashing into bomb shelters, being forced from their homes, arranging funerals. Still, it was a change, part of our anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.

But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us who are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of the political spectrum have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.

The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.

One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity; with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-?-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life.

“Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.”
The book is not exclusively about Israel, but those were the sections that moved me. And they are what I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.

“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans — from “Yehuda” (1931) by Meyer Levin to “Exodus” (1958) by Leon Uris to “Light Years” (2005) by Tamar Stein (see sidebar). Perhaps it is this kind of reading that can begin to provoke understanding of the conflict a continent away. l

To push fiction as a complement to the newspaper, the television and the Internet in our quest for information and understanding about Israel, we asked readers to help us create a list of the best novels and short stories about Israel written by Diaspora authors:

  • “Yehuda” by Meyer Levin: Based on the author’s own experiences, this book is the first known novel depicting life set on a kibbutz in then-Palestine of 1931 (1931).
  • “Exodus” by Leon Uris: A detailed account of the transition from the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe to the founding of Israel sets up a fictional background for political arguments on issues of the 19th and 20th centuries (1958).
  • “A Weave of Women” by E.M. Broner: A group of very different women band together to save a shelter for wayward Jewish girls (and learn a lesson or two in politics, when they change its official name to “Home for Jewish Future Homemakers”). “Life’s contradictions live throughout this novel,” wrote one reviewer (1978).
  • “Preparing for Sabbath” by Nessa Rapoport: A young woman’s spiritual quest, set in Jerusalem (1981).
  • “The Hope” by Herman Wouk: An epic novel about Israel’s fight for statehood. The author delves into the personal lives of the dramatis personae, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat (1993).
  • “Operation Shylock: A Confession” by Philip Roth: An impostor, calling himself “Philip Roth,” causes a furor in Israel by advocating “Diasporism,” the polar opposite of Zionism, encouraging Israelis to return to Eastern Europe (1993).
  • “The Jewish War” by Tova Reich: A radically religious, polygamous man, Jerry Goldberg transforms from a mere social worker in the Bronx to a terrorist leader of a group of American Jews in Israel who secede a portion of the West Bank to form their own nation in this satire (1995).
  • “From a Sealed Room” by Rachel Kadish: The lives of a young woman from New York, a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli housewife intersect (1998).
  • “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone: A journalist in Jerusalem, reared both Jewish and Christian, feels devoid of a true sense of identity, despite the fact that he is surrounded by some of the most devoutly religious peoples in the world. “The characters in ‘Damascus Gate’ may be ‘God-struck,'” wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, “they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions” (1998).
  • “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander: “A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud,” noted Kirkus (1999).
  • “The Family Orchard” by Eve Nomi: Spanning six generations, this epic follows the lives of one family grounded in Jerusalem (2000).
  • “House of Guilt” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen goes on a hunt to find a tycoon’s wayward son, with his search leading him right into the heart of the West Bank (2000).
  • “Strange Fire” by Melvin Bukiet: A dark comedy about a speechwriter for the Israeli prime minister (2001).
  • “Crimes of the City” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen must track down the killer of two nuns in Jerusalem while contending with a host of religious and political tensions (2001).
  • “The Ascent of Eli Israel” by Jon Papernick: In seven modern-day stories, the scene is established in Israel, and the plots are mostly driven to underscore hypocrisy, touching on cultural tensions and war (2002).
  • “Quiet Street” by Zelda Popkin and Jeremy A. Popkin: A woman living in the suburbs of Jerusalem must come to terms with reality as she watches her 18-year-old daughter take on the role of soldier instead of farmer (2002).
  • “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King: Set in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. King has been described by writer Wendy Shalit as “a writer who writes about a devout lifestyle that she actually lives” (2003).
  • “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy” by Aryeh Lev Stollman: “An expert weaver, Stollman brings together themes of religion, science, and love into an emotional whole,” noted Kirkus (2003).
  • “Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller: A cohort of Jews from the United States ventures to the West Bank to build a new community, but their settlement becomes a primary target of violence (2003).
  • “The Butcher’s Theater” by Jonathan Kellerman: A chief inspector of police who is also a Yemenite Jew begins work on a case involving the death of an Arab woman. After a second killing occurs, the inspector bears witness as Jewish-Arab conflicts ensue (2003).
  • “Ten Thousand Lovers” by Edeet Ravel: A novel, set in the 1970s, about the relationship between a Canadian émigré and an army interrogator. “The tragedy here is both anticipated and inevitable,” said Booklist, “but the textured personal story rises above its political context like a melody soaring beyond the steady rhythm pulsing below it” (2003).
  • “An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant: This collection of 10 short stories covers a breadth of characters — from the secular to Orthodox, young to old — through whom Leegant poses questions about faith, love and change (2003).
  • “The Place Will Comfort You” by Naama Goldstein: In this collection of short stories, American Jews make aliyah and Israelis immigrate to America (2004).
  • “Faith for Beginners” by Aaron Hamburger: An American Jewish family teeters on the edge of collapse. In a last resort, they travel to Israel on a package tour with a mission to reinvigorate their spirituality (2005).
  • “The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy: According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Hasak-Lowy artfully reveals layers of personal and national identity,” including one story about an Israeli ex-journalist working in the cafe at Yad Vashem who clashes with an American businessman over a stale pastry (2005).
  • “The Covenant” by Naomi Ragen: Set in 2002, a pregnant Israeli woman, her husband and their child are abducted by Hamas (2004).
  • “Light Years” by Tammar Stein: A 20-year-old woman leaves Israel for college in the United States after her boyfriend is killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv restaurant (2005).

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

Don’t Hide From Outreach — It Will Find You!

I don’t know where I got the idea or who put it in my head originally, but during my whole childhood the idea was clear: Orthodox Jews were “weird.” Really weird. Of course as a kid my definition of “weird” ran closer to anyone who was the slightest bit different from me rather than someone you would actually see in a circus freak show. Still, while most things as a kid were not clear, save for baseball, one thing was: stay away from the Orthodox Jews. Which made sense.

I mean since Orthodox Jews were not of this earth, I should steer clear of them.

Which I did. In fact I took this idea so to heart that I managed to stay away — far away — from Orthodox Jews for the first 30 years of my life. Until the Orthodox Jews came after me.

It started innocently enough. My then-girlfriend, now wife of 12 years, and I were dating, and during one dinner we were discussing whether we were really compatible. Everything checked out. We had similar views on most things. As a throwaway we checked in on religion. We both knew the other was Jewish, but we discovered that although we were both born Jewish, we both knew “zip-a-dee doo-dah” about Judaism. All that Reform Jewish Sunday school didn’t teach us anything about our heritage. So, we decided to try and find a class in Los Angeles on Judaism and learn something together.

We really did not know if such a class existed in Los Angeles (so disconnected from all things Jewish were we back in the day). Our only lead was an article I had read in the L.A. Times about a program called 20something at some place called Aish HaTorah. We decided that we’d go there and see if they could steer us in the direction of a class. We had no idea it was an Orthodox organization. We had no idea the organization focused on kiruv (outreach). Boy, were we in for a surprise.

The rabbi we met there was amazing, but still Orthodox, so that gave him two and a half strikes against him. Sure he was intellectual, kind, happy and smart, but come on — he was Orthodox. Soon, his true colors came out: He started doing something really weird. He started inviting people from the class over to his house for dinner. I mean who in Los Angeles invites strangers to their house for dinner? At first, we were glad he didn’t choose us, but then we started to resent him for not choosing us. You know — it was like a bad party. You didn’t want to go, but at least you wanted to be invited!

Finally, he did invite us. We were insulted it took so long, so we accepted. He told us to meet him at the shul around 5:30 p.m. on Friday evening. Like fools we thought this was just a neutral meeting point. When we got there we saw his real reason for telling us that time and place: There were Friday night services going on. That’s right — he had tricked us into going to synagogue! I felt betrayed. Even my father had never stooped to such levels to get me to go to services. At least he was always straight forward.

“Shut up and get in the car. We’re going to synagogue!” he’d say.
At the rabbi’s home, we met his family. His wife and kids were nice, but again — they were Orthodox. During dinner, however, they seemed very normal (for weird people) and Debbie and I really enjoyed ourselves. In fact we thought these Friday night “dinner parties” were great ideas. It was also amazing not to have any music playing while we ate because it encouraged conversation. And what conversation we had. Talking about the Almighty and His role in the world and the Torah. By the end of the evening we felt, well, elevated. This was so different than the feeling we got when we had dinner with our non-Jewish or Jewish, but secular, friends. There, the conversation usually went to new lows of gossip or worse. It was quite a contrast.

But then, on cue, the rabbi and his wife did something really weird. I guess they just couldn’t help themselves. It was their nature. They actually suggested that we stay at their house for the night.

It doesn’t get much weirder.

I mean why in a gazillion years would we want to spend the night at their house?

Did they think we were homeless street people who needed shelter for the night?

Hello! We have apartments! You know, like normal, nonweird people?

Of course when we got back to my apartment, we realized that we had locked both sets of our keys to our apartments inside and could not get them until the morning when the manager arrived. In short, we were stuck. We sheepishly went back to the rabbi’s house with our tails between our legs and told him our lament.

He smiled and said, “You should have just accepted the invitation when we made it instead of going through all that!”

Pretty funny for a weird guy.

We quickly realized that these dinner parties on Friday nights were actually religious in nature. That was OK. We were there for the conversation and the food (his wife is an amazing cook). But soon it got to be a little much. I mean how could these people do this every single week? Why would you? So after a while of “doing Shabbat” we decided to take a break for a couple of weeks. One day I came home from work and there was a message on my machine from the rabbi. He said, “Where are you and Debbie? I haven’t seen you for a while? Please call me.”

I was furious. What, was he taking attendance? Was he tracking our coming and going? Who was this guy? I immediately called Debbie and told her of the intrusive call. I told her I’m going to call him and give him a piece of my mind. I’ll teach that weirdo.

I called him.

“Rabbi? This is Ross,” I said very curtly.

He didn’t notice my rude tone.

“Ross!” he said. “It’s so nice to hear from you.”

“Yeah,” I continued. “Look, I’m really upset about your message. I mean what, are your tracking us? Do you take attendance? This is really intrusive.”

“Oh,” he said sounding saddened. “I’m so sorry. It’s not that at all. It’s just that I really like you and Debbie and I miss you when you’re not around.”

I was shocked by his caring. I was also ashamed at my behavior.

“Hold on,” I said. “I’ll get Ross.”

I hung up the phone after our conversation (which included yet another invitation to a Friday night dinner party) and just sat there stunned.
“This guy really cares about us,” I thought to myself.

I mean no one cares about anyone in Los Angeles, but this guy really cared about us. The thought was overwhelming. Suddenly this man and his wife were no longer “weird.” They were actually something special to us. They were our friends.

Slowly, our view of Orthodox Jews started to change. Oh, sure, there were still some “weird” things that they did, like the seders that never ended and wherein you don’t eat until 11:30 p.m. — if you’re lucky — but we were more open to seeing what these strange practices were all about. And even though they ran contrary to our own childhood experiences where the seder at my house, for example, ran about an hour and we all watched TV after the festive meal, we were more willing to overlook the differences and started focusing on finding truth.

And we found truth. Among those weird Orthodox Jews that we are now proudly a part of. It wasn’t easy and it took a lot of love, devotion and patience from our newfound friends — the rabbi (who eventually officiated at our Orthodox wedding) and his wife. And it took a lot of time. But they never gave up on us.

Ross Hirschmann is a former civil litigator. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters.

This Week – In and Out

Last Friday, when the sun went down in Los Angeles, the Jewish community came alive.

At Sinai Temple in Westwood, 2,000 people packed the sanctuary — standing-room only — to hear Elie Wiesel speak during Friday Night Live services as part of the temple’s centennial celebration (see story on page 13). Afterward, hundreds of 20-somethings stayed for a special Q-and-A session with Oprah’s favorite Holocaust author.

Not three blocks away, Israeli novelist Amos Oz held an overflow Shabbat evening crowd of 800 in his thrall as Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel’s guest speaker.

I stopped in at two other synagogues that night: at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform shul in Bel Air, a capacity crowd attended the usual, uplifting service, and on La Cienega Boulevard, at Conservative Temple Beth Am, 100 United Synagogue Youth from around California greeted Shabbat on the rooftop, a foretaste of raucous summer camp nights to camp.

On the way home — you may have gathered that, yes, I drive on Shabbat — I took Pico Boulevard, quiet but for the dozens of Orthodox Jews walking home from services.

That’s just a few square miles of L.A. Jewry — I never made it over the hill, or even to the hill, where hundreds flocked to services at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

There’s only so much herring one Jew can eat, my grandfather used to say; it’s hard to be two places at once.

You’d think by now the fact that Jewish life is lived so intensely in Los Angeles would cease to amaze me — after all, this is the second largest Jewish population in the United States. But there remains such a constant wailing over the state of Jewish life that I occasionally have to wonder whether the worriers actually know any, um, Jews.

The latest round of “Oy Veying” was transatlantic. Two weeks ago, the profoundly talented Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews in Washington, D.C., that Jewish life is experienced more completely in Israel than anywhere else.

There is, he said, “a fundamental boundary between Jewish identity in Israel and Jewish identity in the Diaspora.”

The former, he argued, was richer, more meaningful and authentic, rooted in the land and language of the Jewish people. The latter, he said, led to an attenuated sense of Jewishness.

“I cannot keep my identity outside Israel,” he said.

Outside Israel, Yehoshua argued, one wears one’s Judaism like a coat that can be taken on or off. Inside Israel, one wears it like skin.

The remarks before the American Jewish Committee touched off a war of words among Israeli and American Jews. The Israeli daily Haaretz ran essays with supporting and competing views. Yehoshua apologized for the bluntness of his remarks in subsequent interviews, but held to them in a more refined way. It’s an argument Yehoshua and a certain stream of Zionists has been making for years. And while I logically rebel against it, there’s a part of me that understands Yehoshua.

Many years ago, I met him while he was on a speaking tour in Los Angeles. We stepped outside his Marina del Rey hotel so he could smoke his pipe. We spoke, in Hebrew, about how the feeling of one’s Jewishness is of a different quality and intensity in Israel, where I had just been living, than in, say, Marina del Rey.

There was a bit of silence. He knocked the dottle from his bowl and turned to me.

“You have to come back,” he said, then walked inside.

If there weren’t a grain of truth in what he’s still saying, people wouldn’t be so upset. But there are other truths as well about Jewish identity: competing, confusing, contradicting ones that I have come to appreciate in the years since. Having lived in Israel, I can tell you the Jews there don’t all walk about aglow with the flame of their Jewishness. Yehoshua’s novels are populated with characters as spiritually bereft in Tel Aviv as Philip Roth’s are in Newark.

As it happens, I do meet Israelis all the time who are leading rich Jewish lives — they’re in Los Angeles.

Diaspora just may be as important to the Jewish existence, and the Jewish psyche, as Zion. There is a practical aspect — money and political support from outside Israel helped create and helps sustain the state — as well as a more ethereal one. The power of being the landless outsider, some might argue, roots us in ideals.

“In the name of nationalism,” wrote Douglas Rushkoff in “Nothing Sacred,” “Jews abandon iconoclasm, the long-standing insight into the false idols of land-based peoples…. Zionism has become a mantra for Jews fighting against assimilation. But Judaism itself was formulated as a way of transcending the obsession with physical territory and focusing instead on the supremacy of time and the realm of ideas. What’s more assimilated than rallying around a flag and fighting for a plot of land, just like everybody else?”

Yehoshua isn’t saying that our existence depends on in-gathering — he knows that argument falls flat in the face of 2,000 years of Jewish existence in exile. But he fails to appreciate the fact that so many of us live in the tension between his truth and Rushkoff’s, belonging everywhere and nowhere, forever trying to be in two places at once.


Famous and Jewish

Let us now praise famous Jews.

Bless them, so smart or so accomplished, often both. It makes us swell with pride — we can’t help ourselves — to learn that Gene Wilder is really Jerome Silberman. That Sarah Jessica Parker didn’t have to undergo a reverse nose job to acquire her exquisite profile. That three-thirds of “60 Minutes” — Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, and producer Don Hewitt (originally Hurvitz) — is actually three-tenths of a minyan.

And don’t even get us started on Shawn Green. A Jew who batted .300 — Psalms were written for less.

But stick a microphone in their faces and ask them what Judaism means to them, to their children, and suddenly some of the smartest, most accomplished and articulate people in the world go numb.

That’s what happens often in Abigail Pogrebin’s new book, “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish” (Broadway).

What’s fascinating about the 62 souls she interviews is that we know so much about them and so little about their beliefs. With notable evangelical exceptions, most Americans are more comfortable talking about their sex lives than their spirituality.

But Pogrebin, a former producer for Charlie Rose and “60 Minutes,” had the tools to push her interviewees beyond their comfort zone. When she presses former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on the extent of his Jewishness, he finally snaps: “It’s your book. You decide.”

The book makes an interesting counterpoint to last year’s “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl”(Jewish Lights), in which more than 100 mostly prominent Jews offer their own credos. Here the editors, Daniel’s parents Ruth and Judea, tapped not just headliners, but thinkers and scholars whose insights provide a kind of road map for thinking through issues of identity.

Indeed, Jewish identification has been a hot issue in the Jewish professional world. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey counted about 3.9 million Americans who identify themselves as Jewish by religion, and about 5.3 million who identify themselves as Jewish using broader criteria such as ethnicity or ancestry. The former number represents a decline from a decade ago, from 5.5 million Jews. High intermarriage and low fertility rates among Jews are the usual suspects.

“Breed, you Sons of Abraham, breed!” the comedian Bill Maher ranted after the statistics were published. “Without Jews, who’s going to write all those sitcoms about blacks and Hispanics?”

The putative decline sparked a controversy when Jewish Theological Seminary provost Jack Wertheimer published an essay in October’s Commentary lambasting liberal streams of Judaism for not emphasizing fertility. The essay, a Hogwartian blend of social science, dogma and hearsay, also rejected the embrace of intermarried couples and alternate forms of family life.

“Might it be true,” he wrote, “that Jewish men want to marry someone more like their mother than the typical young Jewish woman of today, and that Gentile women happen to fit the bill?”

In the end, Wertheimer calls for a return to Orthodox norms despite the fact that the vast majority of Jews have voted with their feet to reject them, a resolute stand against non-standard Jewish families and intermarriage and, I suppose, for non-Jewish women to stop drinking the polyjuice that shape-shifts them into Jewish mothers.

So why am I not as scared as Jack Wertheimer?

For one, the statistics are of dubious value. On Nov. 3, a new analysis of more than 20 Jewish populations by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University found that there might be as many as 6.5 million American Jews, depending on how people define Jewishness. Some researchers have put this number of people who identify, even in some inchoate, Pogrebin-like way, as Jews, at 13 million.

The point is, identity in today’s world is not fixed but fluid. It’s also maddeningly individual and it’s never unalloyed: Anyone can choose Jewishness at any point along a life path, and many, many people do. That means institutions that reach out in different ways at different life-cycle moments –preschools, synagogues, camps, mortuaries — must be able to welcome, educate and retain members of the tribe who possess only a vague sense of Jewishness.

At the same time, people are coming to Judaism outside institutions, in new, unusual and, sometimes, unrecognizable ways. Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevy, in town this week for a speaking engagement, told me the same phenomenon is happening in Israel.

“We are in a post-Orthodox, post-secular world,” he said.

Tens of thousands of young Israelis congregate for Jewish festivals, listen to spiritual rock ‘n’roll and hip-hop, and dance and pray and blow shofars into the night. It is too early to tell where this movement may lead, what kind of Judaism may evolve from it, and how it will spread around the world.

But the message of such movements is clear, with apologies to Holbrooke and Wertheimer: “It’s our Book. We decide.”


Israel Should Accept All Jews as Jews


On March 31, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that 17 foreigners converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbinic courts must be considered as Jews under the Law of Return. The Law of Return has long extended legal recognition as Jews to Reform and Conservative converts who have moved to Israel from the Diaspora.

What is novel about this recent ruling is that while the ritual requirements necessary for conversion were completed outside the state under non-Orthodox rabbinical auspices, these particular proselytes were already living in Israel, and they were prepared for conversion by Reform and Conservative teachers in yearlong courses within the state.

While the court did not address the issue of non-Orthodox conversions completed within Israel, the logic put forth in the holding could well be extended to define non-Orthodox conversions finalized in Israel as legally sanctioned as well.

Reform and Conservative religious leaders — and I include myself among them — have predictably applauded this decision for its affirmation of Jewish religious pluralism, and many secular Israelis have expressed the hope that this holding may open the door to Judaism to the 250,000 persons already residing in Israel whose entry into the Jewish people and religion has been delayed or denied in recent years by the state-sanctioned Orthodox rabbinical courts.

Orthodox leaders have just as predictably labeled this development as “tragic” and Shas leaders have gathered the requisite signatures required to call a special session of the Knesset, where their hope is that they might weaken the impact of this legal ruling. An Orthodox rabbi ridiculed the decision by caricaturing such conversions as being akin to “conversion by fax.”

Such negative responses to Reform and Conservative conversions by Orthodox rabbis are hardly novel, and these statements echo a position that has been adopted by numerous Orthodox rabbis during the last 200 years.

I regret the stance these Orthodox authorities have adopted. As the late Conservative authority Rabbi Isaac Klein pointed out in “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” (Ktav, 1979), the members of a Jewish court convened for purposes of supervising a conversion need not be ordained rabbis.

He therefore argued that it would be wise to affirm the authority of all rabbis — whether liberal or Orthodox — to conduct conversions and to regard them as valid in all instances where the traditional rites of conversion are observed. As Klein put it, such a policy would embody the rabbinic principle of mipnei darkhei shalom — following the ways of peace.”

His advice in this instance strikes me as prudent in a diverse Jewish world, where most Jews do not identify as Orthodox, and especially so in Israel, where a vast majority of Jewish citizens do not regard themselves as Orthodox, and where all are yet tied to Jewish fate.

As the late Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik maintained, in a contemporary setting of competing Jewish religious and secular expressions, most Jews will not affirm a brit ha-yi’ud — a covenant of common religious purpose. Yet, even if such “common religious purpose” cannot be attained, he recognized that all Jews are nevertheless bound together by a brit ha-goral — a covenant of common destiny and fate.”

While I acknowledge that Soloveitchik himself would not have applied this typology to the issues of Jewish personal status, the logic inherent in his notion, that there is “a covenant of common destiny” that unites all Jews, allows for a definition of membership in the Jewish people that extends far beyond the confines of the traditional religious definition. Such definition better addresses the vast reality that is Jewish life today.

The Reform and Conservative batei dinim that brought these petitioners “under the wings of the Divine Presence” correctly recognized that these persons who have come to live in Israel have attached themselves to the drama and joy of Jewish history and destiny in the most concrete ways possible.

These men and women pay taxes and choose service in the Israel Defense Forces for themselves and their children. They live their lives as Jews according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar and displayed their commitment to Judaism by undergoing lengthy periods of study. In confirming the legal validity of their conversions, the Supreme Court has acknowledged their tangible signs of Jewish devotion.

The Israeli Supreme Court has wisely chosen not to punish these converts by denying them recognition as Jews. In so doing, the court has performed an act of tikkun olam (healing the world). Let us hope the Knesset does no less by not revoking the full rights of Israeli citizenship that has now been granted these people as the Jews they are.

David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


Marriage 101

In the midst of the chaos of trying on bridal gowns, negotiating with caterers, checking out wedding halls and booking a band, bride-to-be Rochel Friedman decided to take a course.

Friedman, 25, who lives in the Fairfax area, had been engaged for three months when she called up a close friend and said she wanted the friend to give her a 10-lesson course in the Jewish laws of taharat hamishpacha (family purity). Taharat hamishpacha requires a husband and wife to abstain from physical contact while the wife is menstruating and for seven days afterward.

"I wanted to have a marriage that is conducted in the right way," she said. "But I wouldn’t know what the right way is unless somebody could teach it to me, because these laws are very complex. There is not only the dos and don’ts of the mitzvah, but you also need to learn the beauty of it and you need someone to explain to you how this can enhance your marriage."

In the Orthodox community, premarital counseling in the form of the kallah (bride) or chattan (groom) classes where taharat hamishpacha is taught, have traditionally been de rigueur for every engaged person. These courses are generally taught privately by a rabbi (for men) or rebbetzin (for women) considered knowledgeable in the laws. For the most part these courses are given gratis, as the teachers feel it is their duty to provide the knowledge which will help build stable Jewish homes.

"There is no question that taharat hamishpacha makes for stronger marriages," says Rabbi Yitzchok Summers of Anshei Emes Synagogue, who has been teaching chattan classes for 15 years. "It develops the relationship beyond the physical," he says. "In the classes I teach, I explain the way taharat hamishpacha enables one to fuse the physical with holiness and spirituality, which makes for a much stronger relationship between the husband and wife."

"For a Jewish bride, I think these courses are vital, because I believe there are three pillars of Judaism — keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher and observing family purity," says Rebbetzin Judith Cohen, who teaches kallah classes for brides from Aish HaTorah. "On a practical level, when you have to abstain from physical contact for 12 days a month, you want it more, so it creates a sense of longing and desire which keeps the marriage fresh and exciting."

It is not only the Orthodox community that sees the value in preparation before going into a marriage. "I send people with great encouragement to the Making Marriage Work program [a 10-week program that covers a range of topics from using Judaism to enhance the marriage, financial issues, family planning, communication skills and conflict resolution] at the University of Judaism," says Rabbi Joel Rembaum, a Conservative rabbi from Temple Beth Am. "I think it is very important, and I honestly feel that there should be some way communally that we should make premarital counseling mandatory."

Rembaum says that although he does not counsel couples about the laws of family purity per se, he meets three times with every engaged couple that comes to him. "I encourage them to assume the responsibilities of what a Jewish home represents," he says. "I tell them what the experience of living a Jewish life can do for them as a couple, and what it can do for them in terms of raising children."

Judy Urhman, the director of Making Marriage Work, says the course attracts both Reform and Conservative Jews, and many of the students have been referred to the course by their respective rabbis, who understand that premarital counseling is necessary to build strong relationships.

"We did a study of our alumni, and the people who take Making Marriage Work have a 9 percent divorce rate, compared to a national divorce rate of around 50 percent," Urhman says. "I think there is something in the course that can help everyone."

The Israeli Supreme Court’s Conscience

The conscience of the Jewish state has spoken through the recent landmark ruling of Israel's Supreme Court. It has taken an important step toward removing the pariah stigma from tens of thousands of Jews who converted to Judaism by the rabbinic authority of non-Orthodox rabbis, but ignored by the Jewish state.

With this new ruling, Israel's Interior Ministry is to register Israelis converted under Reform or Conservative auspices as Jews. That earned identification, previously denied them, will henceforth be inscribed on their national identification card. Jews in limbo have returned to their chosen home.

Imagine the joy of Russian Jews who made aliyah, fought in the wars to defend the State of Israel — some of whom were slain in battle and refused burial in Jewish cemeteries because they were not regarded as Jews — and who now will no longer suffer from such humiliating disenfranchisement.

What fulfillment of dreams does this ruling promise for themselves and their children? The ruling, of course, is a first step. Regrettably, these converts can be married only by Orthodox rabbis who alone are authorized to perform marriages legally recognized by the state and who alone have in their power the decision as to who is a Jew. The evolution of a democratic, pluralistic Jewish state requires time, vigilance, courage and unflagging effort.

The decision of Israel's High Court of Justice has regrettably met with predictable partisan denominational responses. Orthodox leaders regard the Supreme Court decision as a secular transgression of Orthodox halachic jurisdiction; non-Orthodox leaders understand the ruling as strengthening religious pluralism and as an act of Jewish unification.

In my view, the ruling embodies the moral and legal tradition of Judaism that — no less than 36 times throughout the Torah — mandates us to love the stranger, to know the heart of the stranger and, following many ethical imperatives, reminds us that we too were strangers.

Moreover, the rabbis of the tradition induced in the thrice daily “Amidah,” the 13th petition of which appeals to God to let His tender mercies be stirred for the gairei ha-tzedek (faithful proselyte). The Supreme Court's ruling expresses a transdenominational judgment that offers a healing balm to the self-inflicted wounds of sectarian denominational politics.

In these parlous times, when the enemies from without seek to tear us apart, this momentous ruling points the way to peace from within. When the rabbis in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) speculated as to the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the second Temple, they did not point to the external factors of the superior military might of the Romans. Nor did they point to the lack of the study of Torah and ritual practices by Jews. The second Temple fell, they maintained, because of groundless hatred; because of internal factionalism that stemmed from disrespect for the judgments and perspectives of others. How then does one rectify the sins of groundless hatred which is still within us? Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine, answered, “The sin of groundless hatred can be overcome only with the mitzvah of causeless love.”

The Supreme Court's ruling should be greeted by all segments of world Jewry — secular and religious, left and right — as a therapeutic gesture toward the healing of our divided people. Through embracing the stranger in our midst, we may overcome the estrangement between us.

The Supreme Court ruling has deep traditional roots. Obadiah the proselyte once asked Talmudist and philosopher Moses Maimonides whether he could halachically pray, “Our God and God of our fathers.” Since Obadiah was a Jew-by-choice, he was informed by other rabbinic authorities that he was prohibited from reciting such a prayer. Maimonides ruled as follows: “By all means you are to pray 'Our God and God of our fathers.' If we trace our descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, your ancestry is from Him by whose word the world was created.”

The Supreme Court decision continues the spiritual and halachic tradition of Jewish moral sensibility. The Supreme Court's decision augurs the dawn of a harmonious state.

Waiter, Hold the Knishes

They’re vanquishing the Viennese table, banning the bars, and even putting the kibosh on fancy kugels in Borough Park and other fervently Orthodox neighborhoods, where weddings have become extravagant — and very, very expensive — affairs.

A group of 27 influential Charedi rabbis will soon issue a takhana, or rarely issued formal guideline, setting strict limits on the number of people who are to be invited to an Orthodox wedding, the number of musicians hired to play, and even the type and amount of food that is to be served.

These rabbis, led by Yaakov Perlow, the chief religious authority of the fervently Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, are leading a charge to change the communal culture around frum weddings, where even families of moderate means feel social pressure to invite upward of 1,000 people and serve them food from lavish smorgasbords set with everything from intricate ice sculptures to glatt kosher prime-rib-carving stations.

"It’s gotten to the point where the amount of money being spent on weddings is absurd," said Shia Markowitz, an Agudath Israel of America lay leader who is helping to organize the new guidelines.

Markowitz was at one wedding where the groom was a Kohen, and the caterer carved an edible statue out of watermelon pulp shaped to resemble two hands held up praying, in the Dr. Spock manner of kohanim.

Paying for such frills is taking too big a bite out of Orthodox families’ budgets, Markowitz said, since a bare-bones wedding today costs $35,000, and fancier parties easily reach more than $150,000. And that’s for one wedding alone, in families with four, six and even 10 children who need to be married off.

"People borrow money to pay for them, they take out second mortgages, and then are stuck because they can’t repay it," Markowitz said. The stress caused by these money woes "is even affecting people’s health and shalom bayis," or the peace in their homes.

The rabbinic authorities who have signed onto the takhana, which is still in draft form and being tweaked, include the leaders of the Torah V’Das, Chaim Berlin, Mir and Lakewood yeshivas, as well as rabbis from Monsey, Riverdale and Philadelphia.

A draft was distributed to roughly 3,000 people at the Thanksgiving weekend annual convention of the Agudath, where it sparked spirited discussion — almost all of it positive, according to people there.

Now news of the guidelines is spreading farther through the Orthodox grapevine, and members of the takhana-organizing committee have received phone calls from as far away as Israel and Los Angeles, expressing support and interest in applying them there.

But there has been some negative feedback, too, which has already made the guidelines more generous than they were in earlier drafts: at first the rabbis wanted to ban beef from the list of potential entrees and limit the number of musicians to four.

Now beef is again an acceptable alternative, along with chicken or fish, for an entrée to be accompanied by not more than two simple side dishes, preceded by soup or salad, and followed by an un-fussy dessert, for a total of no more than three courses, according to the guidelines.

A one-man band is the preferred alternative, but up to five musicians may now be hired. Ideally, artificial flowers are to be rented, and gowns rented from communal services that supply the Orthodox community. But at most, no more than $1,800 is to be spent on flowers, Markowitz said.

There is to be no bar at weddings — a few wine and liquor bottles may be placed on tables — and the smorgasbord is to be a modest, primarily cold buffet. And there are to be no more than 400 adult guests invited.

Giving muscle to the guidelines is the fact that the rabbis who sign on — and organizers hope to have hundreds eventually committed — will refuse to attend weddings that don’t adhere to the takhana.

Now people will have to choose which prestige they value more — spending thousands on sculptures of chopped liver or having numerous rabbis in attendance, Markowitz said.

"Our goal is to bring down a $35,000 wedding to under $15,000," he said.

In their takhana, the rabbis will also do away with the vort, or engagement party, which used to be nothing more than a friendly l’chaim at the bride’s family’s house shortly after an engagement was announced, but in recent years has become like a wedding before the wedding, with hundreds of guests in a rented hall eating catered food running up a bill of thousands of dollars.

"People invite their 1,000 closest friends" to their engaged child’s vort, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union (OU). "It’s an imposition on everyone invited to something superfluous, which was invented by the caterers to waste people’s money."

Genack said he favors the takhana, even though his kashrut certification agency oversees caterers, whose businesses will suffer if the community adheres to the guidelines.

"I don’t think the focus of concern should be on the parnossah [income] of the caterers, but on what’s appropriate for the community," said Genack, who wasn’t sure if the OU or its allied rabbinical organization would take up a similar effort.

The takhana effort is garnering nearly universal acclaim, even from those whose pocketbooks will be hit the hardest.

"Would it hurt my business? Definitely yes," said Moishe Baum, owner of Baum’s Superior Caterers in Brooklyn, which handles weddings large and small, lavish and simple. "It definitely would take a cut of my budget, but I do believe that God has many ways of sending money, and we’ll find other ways to bring it in."

This isn’t the first effort by Orthodox leaders to rein in the lavishness of weddings.

The earliest recent attempt may have been by the Gerrer rebbe, who in 1978 issued a decree requiring his Chasidim to limit attendance at their weddings to 120 people or fewer, and instructing them to invite family up to the first-cousin level and not beyond.

"The community adheres to it," Baum said.

Years ago Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, a widely respected kashrut authority based in Baltimore, wrote an article in Agudath Israel’s magazine The Jewish Observer, appealing to people to use common sense and restraint when planning weddings. It did not have the power of rabbinic enactment, however.

But even more serious, and specific, rabbinic intervention in wedding matters is nothing new: Rabbis governing central European Jewish communities in the 16th and 17th centuries dictated to their mostly impoverished constituents how weddings should be handled — all the way down to the fineness of the lace on the bride’s wedding dress.

Exploring Faith’s Price

“Love and Liberation: When the Jews Tore Down the Ghetto Walls” by Ralph David Fertig (Writers Club Press, $17.95)

On Jan. 9, 1807, Prince Jerome of Prussia decreed that the fortifications of the ancient city of Breslau could be destroyed. After 540 years of isolation, the Jews of Breslau tore down the ghetto gates. Under Napoleonic law, they were now free to pursue their religion while becoming citizens of the state.

For some, this meant breaking away from the strictures of Orthodoxy and embracing a new religion; for others, it meant a splintering of Judaism’s moral authority. Nothing would ever be the same again: under the new guard, freedom brought justice, but with it, a loss in faith.

It is exactly the price of this faith that author and retired judge, lawyer and civil-rights freedom fighter Ralph David Fertig dissects in his new historical novel, “Love and Liberation.” The story of three Jewish protagonists is played out against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the collapse of the Roman Empire, the emergence of capitalism and the birth of Reform Judaism. Like any satisfying puzzle, the pieces of this book intertwine through fiction and historical fact to give us a bird’s-eye view of the forces that ended feudalism and ushered in the Age of Enlightenment.

Like “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant, a biblical fiction about Dinah, “Love and Liberation” reveals more truth than historical fact. We feel, along with the characters, a time when the spirit of revolution was fueled by new movements in literature, philosophy and religion: how some Jews held on, desperate to maintain the old, familiar ways of the ghetto, while others, like Fertig’s protagonists, became energized in the discovery of change.

Despite some overly long expository dialogue that works against the flow of narrative, the book is finely written, bold and direct. It dishes up such a wealth of interesting historical accounts and believable characters that we feel rewarded and entertained. Fertig is a fresh voice in Jewish historical fiction.

Flawed Methodology

No one seems to believe what Pini Herman does. While all observers – particularly outside of the Orthodox community – take for granted the phenomenal growth of the Orthodox, he continues to stand behind the seriously flawed methods he used in the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey of 1997. That’s the one that no one can believe, the one that claims that Orthodox numbers have actually declined in L.A. When his office stonewalled several requests from the Orthodox community to examine the raw data, a little skullduggery on our part turned up what really happened. The L.A. survey was not a census, but a survey of a smaller number of households, whose results are then extrapolated statistically. For that to work, you have to sample the community according to its actual composition. If 30 percent of your respondents call themselves Conservative, then you assume that the larger population also has 30 percent Conservative Jews. If your sample is off, so are your results.

That is precisely what happened. Those who made the calls got their phone numbers from two sources: random-number calls and the Federation list.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see why the Orthodox were seriously undercounted. Neither of the two methods used by the census-takers accurately measures Orthodox demographics. The first fails because the Orthodox are not uniformly spread throughout Jewish Los Angeles. They are heavily concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods. Taking a random sample from all neighborhoods seriously undercounts us.

The second sampling list – drawn from Federation sources – is even more problematic. Orthodox Jews give charitably to scores of recipient agencies, far beyond the per capita giving of other parts of the Jewish population. But Federation is not one of their favorite causes, for a variety of reasons. Using any Federation list for a general census, then, is a guarantee for undercounting the Orthodox community. And the sample takers reported that there was much greater responsiveness to their questions from members of the Federation list than the other!

Additionally, the phone method relies on the willingness of people to answer a series of questions over the phone. Ask yourself who is more willing to answer those questions on a Friday afternoon – a member of a Reform household with 1.4 children, or a mother of eight, frantically trying to finish her Shabbat preparations?

If the U.S. Census Bureau employed methods as unscientific to downgrade African American strength, there would be a congressional inquiry. Luckily for Pini Herman, it’s only Federation money he’s using.

Lost Tribes

The placard near the escalator of New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel directed seekers up to the ballroom level for the founding convention of Edah, the fledgling voice of Orthodox liberalism. Stenciled below the arrow in bold blue letters, as if to fortify the fainthearted, was the slogan: “The Courage to Be Modern and Orthodox.”

Upstairs, a crowd of some 1,200 Orthodox Jews — triple the organizers’ expectations — milled about in an atmosphere almost giddy with excitement. After years of retreating before rising religious and political conservatism in the Orthodox community, they had come from across North America to reignite the moderate spirit of what used to be called Modern Orthodoxy.

“It’s an amazing outpouring,” said Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, Hillel director at UCLA. “The Modern Orthodox community has come out in droves to cry out, ‘We are here; we can’t be ignored any longer.'”

Edah was formed two years ago to press for greater tolerance and openness in the Orthodox community. Run on a shoestring budget out of a tiny Manhattan office, the group sponsors lectures and seminars and runs a controversial internship program for Yeshiva University rabbinic students. The conference was its debut as a national membership organization.

Shas Blinks First

Prime Minister Ehud Barak last weekend won his first trial of strength with his religious coalition partners. The Israel Electric Corporation defied Orthodox protests and laboriously transported 250 tons of turbine parts over Friday night from a factory in Ramat Hasharon, north of Tel Aviv, to a new power station 80 miles away in Ashkelon.

Officials appeared to have postponed the shipment while they reviewed alternative routes and timings, but, with the panache of a commando operation, they decided at the last minute that they had no choice and sent the massive load on its 13-hour journey at 8 p.m. Hundreds of secular Jews lined the highway and cheered the convoy of flatbed trucks that was accompanied by nine police cars and crawling along at barely 5 miles per hour.

The traffic police argued that moving the turbine on a weekday would snarl up major roads for hours in the heart of the country. Engineers ruled out minor roads for fear that bridges would collapse under the weight. Another suggestion, to transport the load over three nights, was dropped because no suitable stop-over points were found along the route.

The Sephardic Shas Party, which had threatened to pull its 17 Knesset members out of the coalition if the turbine rolled, was left spluttering with indignation. National Infrastructure Minister Eli Suissa, who spearheaded resistance to the move, branded it “unprecedented chutzpah.”

The Electric Corporation decision was endorsed in advance by the prime minister, who insisted afterward that it was a professional, not a political, matter. “In line with the status quo, which has been in place for 50 years,” his office announced, “the movement of such unusually large loads has been carried out on Shabbat and festivals.”

Government officials pointed out that 20 similar journeys had taken place on the Sabbath over the past six months, two as recently as July. Until now, the religious parties had never complained.

The battle of the turbine is not yet over, however. Another five shipments, each as huge as last weekend’s, have still to be moved south. The same experts who couldn’t find an alternative to Sabbath “desecration” last week are looking again, but the dilemma hasn’t changed.

Shas is still breathing fire and brimstone, with United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party panting reluctantly in its wake. But few, if any, political observers believe it will pull out. Shas leaders know that Barak could manage without them. He would have little difficulty adding secular fringe parties to the 58 seats he would still command in the 120-member parliament.

The turbine campaign is widely interpreted as part of the struggle to succeed the disgraced Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, who is due back in Israel this weekend after a summer’s seclusion in New Jersey. Eli Suissa, who wants to stop the loads moving, is pitted against the more malleable Labor and Social Affairs Minister Eli Yishai, who enjoys the blessing of the movement’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

More to the point, Shas cannot afford to be out of government. Rabbi Yosef said so in as many words during the coalition negotiations in June (which made it much easier for Barak to bring Shas on board with a minimum of concessions). The Shas independent school network, the foundation of its power in the impoverished “development” towns and inner-city slums, has a deficit of at least 65 million shekels (about $16 million).

“As of today,” Shlomo Ceszana wrote in Ma’ariv this week, “the network is on the verge of collapse. It has no money for salaries, and, though it expands every year by thousands of pupils, it wants to keep growing. Such growth is only possible if the funds keep flowing.”

For funds read state subsidies. Over the past decade, Shas has eaten into the Likud’s blue-collar heartland by providing free education, from kindergarten up, for more hours a day than the state secular and religious schools can afford. It throws in free meals as a bonus. All of this is paid for by the often-reluctant taxpayer.

The expansion was particularly marked during Binyamin Netanyahu’s precarious government, when religious parties were constantly upping the price for their allegiance. Barak promised to bail out the Shas schools, but only if they opened their account books, taught secular as well as Torah studies and raised their teaching standards.

Rabbi Yosef knows that this is his only hope. Without the fund-raising talents of Aryeh Deri, who is appealing a four-year corruption sentence, Shas has no alternative source of finance. It would also lose the patronage commanded by the party’s four ministries, which provide hundreds of jobs for Shas loyalists.

Ma’ariv’s Ceszana estimates that Rabbi Yosef “controls the tap on a budget of about 1.5 billion shekels in the Religious Affairs Ministry, and the appointment of local rabbis and religious councils.”

Without the schools, without the charismatic Deri and without the pay packets, Shas would soon shrink back to its old level of about four Knesset members. It doesn’t look like a party about to commit suicide.

Taking the First Step

Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core .”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom , or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha , or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am , the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

Taking the First Step

Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core.”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom, or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha, or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am, the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

Torah Portion

It was my third funeral of the week, and I wastired of death. I thought this one would be easier than the others,since it was an elderly woman who suffered terribly and truly wantedto die. Her name was Sarah; her only relatives left were her nephew,Harry, and his son, Joel.

So I gathered with Harry, Joel and a few others atSarah’s grave to talk about her life, to pray and then to lower herbody into the silent earth. Joel showed up with an armful of books.Recognizing just what books they were, I was betting on trouble. Icould tell that Joel was a recent devotee of the ba’al teshuvahmovement — a group of formerly nonobservant Jews suddenly, orslowly, adopting Orthodox-like views and behaviors.

It’s not that I have anything against peopletaking their Judaism seriously; it’s just that, in the past, I’ve hada few book-toting people challenge me in the middle of a funeral inthe most inappropriate way, substituting zeal for knowledge andrespect. But Joel was cool — he liked the way things werehandled.

After the funeral, still standing near Sarah’sgrave, Joel asked if he could read something from one of his books. Inodded. Joel had brought along a friend of his, a young woman whosehusband had died just a month before. Although all of us listened, itwas clear that Joel was reading to her. His text? Ezekiel’s vision inthe Valley of Dry Bones — a miraculous passage in the Bible thatdemonstrates God’s ability to resurrect the dead.

After he finished, Joel turned to me and said:”This idea of the dead being reborn was the hardest thing for me toaccept about Judaism. But then one of the rabbis I study with showedme a lemon seed and said, ‘If Hashem can make an orchard grow fromthis seed, then He can do anything.'”

I was impressed with Joel’s fervor, but not hislogic. “Why,” I wanted to ask him, “if Hashem can do anything, whydidn’t Hashem prevent the Holocaust, or my friend’s liver cancer?”But I didn’t mess with Joel; it wasn’t the time or the place.Besides, his friend was comforted by the thought of seeing herhusband again in some messianically resurrected state. I suppose, formany, that’s enough. During the car ride back to temple, I enviedJoel’s faith, but I also knew it wasn’t in me to ignore all of theevil in the world that contradicts it. For most of us, faith comesless easily and sure.

Take our ancestors described in this week’s Torahportion. There they were, after witnessing God’s powerful plaguesagainst the evil Pharaoh, fleeing through the parted sea, manna fromheaven, a cloud to lead them by day and a pillar of fire by night,miracle after miracle, and, now, Moses is just one-half a day latecoming back from Mount Sinai with the Ten Command-ments, and what dothey do? They panic, lose faith and start to worship a goldencalf.

In a lot of ways, this theme is repeated again andagain in the Torah — faith comes and goes for our ancestors. I thinkit’s the Torah’s way of telling us that we don’t have to be like Joelto be part of the Jewish people. Not that there’s anything wrong withthat kind of faith; it’s just not the only kind of faith.

An Orthodox rabbi, Irving Greenberg, said it best:”After Auschwitz, faith means that there are times when faith isovercome…. We now have to speak of ‘moment faiths’…interspersedwith times when flames and smoke of the burning children blot outfaith, although it flickers again…. The difference between theskeptic and the believer is frequency of faith, and not certitude ofposition.”

Toward the end of this week’s Torah portion, Godpunishes but ultimately forgives and sends Moses back up the mountainto give the people a second chance. How wise of our tradition to makeroom not only for those with Joel’s faith but for the rest of us too.

Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at WilshireBoulevard Temple.