Girl Doesn’t Let Pain Stand in Way of Her Bat Mitzvah


Preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah is time consuming. A student in the throes of becoming a teenager has to learn Torah and haftarah portions, plus required prayers and blessings. Then there’s the speech, the mitzvah project and the weekly meetings with the cantor or rabbi, or both.

It’s a lot to sandwich between school and family life.

Now imagine preparing for such a momentous occasion while enduring the ongoing pain of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Abby Ross, 13, had been struggling with aching joints since second grade, not long after she had a bout with chicken pox. And despite treatments that rendered her homebound for weeks at a time, Abby and her family were determined to not let her medical condition overshadow or get in the way of her ceremony last November at University Synagogue, a Reform congregation in Brentwood.

“When she sets her mind to it, she does it,” her father, Ed Ross, said.

When Abby was 8, her parents assumed she was lazy when she complained about the difficulty she had walking up stairs. Eventually, her knees hurt so much there were days she couldn’t walk. Her fingers began swelling, sometimes to the point that she couldn’t write. Although her fingers didn’t hurt as often as her knees, “when it hurt, it hurt bad,” Abby said. 

A problem with Abby’s eyes led doctors to finally diagnose her condition.

At first, her parents thought she suffered from a recurring bout of pink eye. But a pediatric ophthalmologist found she had uveitis, an inflammation of the eye’s middle layer, which can lead to blindness and is associated with arthritis, among other conditions.

A rheumatologist diagnosed Abby with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Also know as juvenile idiomatic arthritis, this inflammatory disorder affects some 300,000 children in the United States.

Doctors put Abby on a drug used in chemotherapy, which left her fatigued and nauseous. She occasionally missed school for weeks at a time following the treatments, and her mother, Debbie, stayed home to care for her.

“Some days, I was like, ‘Why?’ when it was really bad pain,” Abby said. “Other days, it totally didn’t hurt.”

After more than four years, Abby switched from treatments at UCLA Medical Center and Childrens Hospital to having her parents give her injections at home.

“It became routine, but the first few times were tough,” Ed Ross said.

Abby studied more than an hour each night, five days a week in the nine months leading up to her bat mitzvah. She also wrote three speeches: one explaining her Torah portion, one detailing her haftarah and a personal speech reflecting how far she had come as a Jew and how she could be a better Jew in the future.

For University Synagogue’s community service requirement, Abby said it was a no-brainer: the Arthritis Foundation.

“I wanted to do something meaningful for me,” Abby said. “Throughout this process, I wanted everything to be equally important. If I did Heal the Bay like everyone else, it would’ve looked like it was something I had to do. I had motivation. I had pride. I wanted to do something that mattered to me.”

As a fourth-grader, Abby convinced most of the fourth- and fifth-grade class at Westwood Charter School to attend the annual Arthritis Walk. The next year, her fifth-grade class walked.

For her bat mitzvah project, Abby raised $1,500 for the foundation.

Her mother, Debbie Ross, said she has already started signing up people for this year’s walk at Emerson Middle School.

Rabbi Morley Feinstein said he was amazed by Abby’s growth as a Jew and her motivation to earn a Golden Kippah, taking on the extra work that included attending Shabbat services regularly and making amends with someone.

“When a child reaches out and helps someone else, they grow as a Jewish adult,” Feinstein said.

Abby and her family recently received word that her arthritis is in remission. Although it could return at any time — or never again — Abby said she doesn’t spend much time thinking about it. She’s busy living her life, and when it comes to her condition she keeps a practical outlook typically reserved for worldly adults.

“It’s kind of scary,” she said, “but I’m sort of, like, I’ve been through this before. It can’t be as bad.”

Pain and Pleasure and Guilt, Oh My!


Late last Saturday night, a thin strip of indoor/outdoor red carpet led from the parking lot of the Magic Castle in Hollywood to a small, close-ceiling function roombehind the glamorous house of tricks.

Inside, 100 or so young Jews gathered to celebrate the third issue of Guilt & Pleasure, a literary quarterly out of New York whose first issue featured a cover photograph of a border collie smoking a cigarette. Stacks of the summer 2006 issue lay about, but it was too dark in the small, nightclub-like space to read anything but the turquoise-colored title: “The Magic Issue.”

A bar anchored the back of the narrow room, featuring no-host, all-you-can-afford $10.50 cocktails, and several rows of folding chairs faced a teensy stage.

The young man next to me, a writer with darkly alert eyes and a sardonic smile, said the magazine serves a young, hip, intellectual Jewish audience “not quite being served” by Heeb, another magazine out of New York.

It seems to me the distinction is perhaps the Gen Y equivalent of the differences among the AJCommittee, AJCongress and the ADL — that is to say, indecipherable to outsiders. As near as I can tell, both publications are aimed at young Jewish men with darkly alert eyes and sardonic smiles, and the women who hope to marry them.

All around me were plenty of examples of both: dressed up (the Magic Castle has a coat-and-tie policy, even in its dungeon), animated and about as cool as Jews who aren’t Leonard Cohen can possibly be.

The emcees, Jill Soloway and Jessica Chaffin, took the stage, having won the thankless job of trying to figure out exactly what kind of Jewish jokes would make these particular Jews laugh. Both were trying hard for laughs, which of course is the death of cool.

They brought on the magician, Andrew Goldenhersh, who looks like Rasputin but otherwise seemed very nice. He held two raw eggs, had volunteers strap him into a straight jacket, and said he would wrestle his way out without cracking the eggs. When he had freed himself, he reached inside the white coat and pulled out two fully alive chickens.

It was brilliant, but that’s not magic, of course; that’s tricks.Out came a contributor to the issue, Gregor Ehrlich, who read his essay on how his life has intersected with the lives of various chickens. After a few very dry, very sardonic minutes, a heckler called out, “What’s this about?”

“It’s about chickens,” Ehrlich said — unflappable — and continued.

Indeed, what is it about?

Ever since national studies back in the 1990s showed a marked decline in the numbers of young Jews affiliated with Jewish life, along with a rise in intermarriage rates, Jewish professionals and the foundations they hit up have made it a priority to captivate this precious demographic — aka, the future of our people.

No one knows what works, so everything gets a try. Salons? Here’s a couple grand. Yiddish rappers? Here’s another thou. Leadership seminars in a snowy resort town? Here’s $100K.

Both Guilt & Pleasure and Heeb are nonprofit publications that required substantial donations to get them going and keep them afloat. The former distributes 20,000 copies of a 154-page, four-color journal on heavy stock. That’s a lot of cholent for the poor. Heeb received its tens of thousands from foundations established by Andrea and Charles Bronfman and Steven Spielberg, and G & P has tapped many of the same resources. The idea is that publications will reach and give voice to a generation of Jews otherwise cut off from their roots, thus drawing them back to the fold.

They cost a lot. But do they work?

There is no hard evidence. But the media echoes Heeb produces make Judaism palatably hip to the youth market, at a time when Israel, that other noticeably Jewish product, has been less than beloved by college kids. And every Jewish generation needs a safe place for its intellectuals to play among themselves, whether it was the original Yiddish Forverts or Commentary, Lillith or G&P.Back at the Magic Castle, the comedians finally took hold of the night.

Jeffrey Ross, a standard fixture at celebrity roasts and my favorite un-famous comic, got up and killed. He insulted the venue — “I had to put on a tie for this s—hole?” — insulted the organizers and insulted the audience.

When he called the cheeky Times columnist Joel Stein “just like Tom Wolfe, but without the talent,” some in the audience gasped at the audacity, because Stein, like Jon Stewart, is Jewish hipster royalty — the court jester with mainstream media exposure. Plus Stein was sitting in the front row. (No worries, he has a sense of humor.)

Ross got big laughs with well-told Jewish jokes. “The other night my girlfriend and I rented a Jewish porn movie,” he deadpanned. “It was called, ‘I Don’t Do That’ … which I think was a remake of ‘Eeeew.'”

Rewind 40 years, clean it all up a bit and you’re back in the Catskills.Same with the next comedian, Jeff Garlin. The co-star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” turned out to be a real Falstaff in the faux-English venue, one-upping Ross in viciously insulting the hosts, the Castle, the audience, then improvising a set that ranged from anti-Semites trying out their accents to comedian Dane Cook.As I left, an embarrassed magazine promoter pulled me aside. “Write about the magazine,” he said, “not the evening.”

OK: Guilt & Pleasure is good, often very good, and the magic issue is its best.But the evening wasn’t all bad, either.

What seemed to work was what Ross and Garlin did, which, really, was the stuff that worked for Mason and Rickles and Groucho, and no doubt for generations of tummlers and badchanim before them. Insults. Self-deprecating humor. Mockery. Screwing with the status quo, even when the status quo are hip Jews who think they’re the ones screwing with the status quo.

Every generation of Jews thinks it is the revolutionary one, the one that will upturn the traditions and set the old ways. But we are a people with a long, valued tradition of invective and obstreperousness. This week’s Torah portion makes a point of singling out the wayward son for punishment, but centuries of rabbis afterward found a way to soften the harsh decree, and bring him into the fold.

The strength of Jewish culture is its ability not just to give birth to its own critics, rebels and jesters, but to set an honored place for them at the table. To think there is a status quo that Jews will not attack, or to think any one generation is the first to attack it — now, that’s illusion. l

Fit L.A. – Let’s Take a ‘J-Walk’ Around the Block


I enjoy walking if it’s through a store during a sale or to show off a grandchild. But walking for the pure fun of it isn’t fun for me. The last time I exercised was when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles, and I jumped up and down in the living room as they played.

Enter the Neshoma Orchestra and their two CDs to walk by, “J-Walking” and the recently released “J-Walking the Next Step.”

After schlepping 40 years in the desert, it’s hard to imagine a CD to exercise by coming from a people who have harbored a subconscious distrust of walking. But with my daughter’s upcoming nuptials, my unending kvetch about fitting into the dress won out over my skepticism.

Tuesday, 8 p.m.

I dusted off the portable CD player, stuck an earphone in my ear, put on as flattering an outfit as I could conjure up and hit the open road, one foot in front of the other.

Before I knew it, I had gone a block, then two, humming along with the familiar Yiddish melodies that played faster and more upbeat than I ever remembered. Strains of “Chabibi” coursed through my veins.

My mother’s Yiddish musical selections ran more toward, “My Yiddish Mama” and “Make Mir a Bisala Yingala” from The Barry Sisters. “Sob Your Heart Out Greatest Hits.”

So there I am, walking along at a jaunty pace, humming and moving without my usual stops to check the time, but actually enjoying the pace.

At three blocks I began forcing myself to ignore the objections of my feet and focus on the beat.

I had made it through four songs and I was feeling empowered. Suddenly, the old anti-exercise gene kicked in and my body began to rebel and slow the pace. I fought valiantly and luckily, the next selection was more upbeat. I kicked into overdrive to “Reb Shlomo’s Niggun.”

I was feeling good, and a bit shocked that I had just absorbed five Yiddish songs without shedding a tear.

I decided to push my luck, so I kept walking, farther than I had planned. I wasn’t sure if it was endorphins or the music, but I was feeling good; so good in fact, I pressed forward, another street, another, until I had gone farther than ever before.

I was pretty sure that by now, my pushy Jewish genes had taken hold, awakened by the chemicals released in my brain to combine with more than 5,700 years of feistiness.

Whatever it was, it was working, so I tested myself even more and attempted an uphill walk. This was major since the flat terrain was enough of a challenge.

I looked up toward Sunset Boulevard. It could’ve been Mount Sinai. Oy, that’s steep, I thought. But I was pumped with Yiddishkayt and defeat was not an option. I began the ascent. Gevalt, could I be this out of shape?

The songs had gotten to me and Yiddish was flowing out of my mouth now like lies from a politician. “Hodu” suddenly kicked in, and so did I. Breathing heavily, I climbed ever upward, inspired, pumped, lungs aching, feet screaming obscenities. I could not be stopped. I was a Jewish walking machine, sucking in air as I ascended higher and higher toward Sunset Boulevard. Mouthing silent oys as I schlepped, the beat growing faster and more upbeat, I was inspired and — oy, was I tired. Could I reach the promised land of Sunset Boulevard? I knew I would pay for this the next morning, but I didn’t care. I refused to look upward and focused on my feet so as not to notice how high I was climbing. I wondered how long I might lie on the street if keeled over before someone would find me.

I could be lying there, Yiddish music blasting from my unconscious ears, my headband covering my eyes, just another exercise victim who had crossed a threshold of pain.

This daydream diverted my attention long enough to get my second wind and I was off. Huffing and puffing nearing the top, almost there, thousands of years of Jewish determination pounding in my veins, two feet more, one, I was there. I stood on Sunset Boulevard and peered downward like Moses glimpsing the River Jordan.

The beat compelled me onward, so I walked along Sunset, so filled with accomplishment I thought I would burst.

I walked toward home until I found a downhill street on which to begin my descent. Whoa, this downhill was almost as hard. I fought to keep the rhythm, until I reached Santa Monica Boulevard. I trudged up the steps and tore my shoes off, the music still filling my ears, joyous, upbeat. I had done three miles and walked uphill. There was no talking to me now. I was filled with hope. Tomorrow I could do this again. I felt it; I knew it.

Wednesday, 8 a.m.

I opened my eyes, and flush with optimism I stepped out of bed. Oy, flush with pain.

But there was no stopping me. I was a Jew with her music and a worthy goal of fitting into the dress for her daughter’s wedding.

 

Artist Depicts Pain of Genetic Ailment


 

When he was 6 years old, Los Angeles artist Ted Meyer had two life-changing experiences. He won his first art show prize after copying a flamingo drawn by an older friend. Secondly, he was diagnosed as suffering from Gaucher Disease after intensive bouts of pain in his knees and hip bones.

“It felt like someone was slowly breaking your bones for days on end,” Meyer recalled.

Initially, his parents took him to several hospitals in the New York area, where puzzled doctors shook their heads and warned that they might have to amputate the boy’s legs. Finally, a European intern at Mount Sinai Hospital recognized the symptoms of Gaucher Disease, but in the absence of any effective treatment at the time, all he could prescribe were painkillers.

Over the next year, Meyer’s stomach distended, he was constantly fatigued and he bruised and bled easily. Doctors removed his large spleen when he was 7, but that offered little relief. And his persistent nosebleeds seemed only to worsen.

“I didn’t go to school much, and I was the smallest kid in my class,” the 47-year-old Meyer remembered. “I had to stay in hospitals three or four times a year, and there were some weeks when I couldn’t move my legs at all.”

Meyer’s grandparents had emigrated from Lithuania, Poland and Russia. His parents were carriers of the abnormal gene that can cause the disease, but they were not affected. Meyer’s older brother has Gaucher Disease, too, but a third brother never got it.

Between bouts of pain and hospitalization, Meyer developed his painting skills and eventually got a bachelor’s degree in design at Arizona State.

His early works reflected his own physical struggles, and in the series “Structural Abnormalities,” he depicted painted contorted structural images.

“I was at war with my body, and these paintings expressed my trapped and isolated feelings,” he said. “My condition was so rare that there was no one I could talk to about it.”

In his early 30s, Meyer underwent two sets of hip replacements, but 10 years ago, he started receiving the new enzyme replacement infusions and within six months showed dramatic improvement.

Now living in a combination apartment and studio at the Brewery Arts Complex in downtown Los Angeles, Meyer is a well-known graphic designer for magazines and Web sites and has written four popular books.

One of his eye-catching “Structural Abnormalities” paintings is on the cover of “Message to Elijah,” an educational video on Gaucher Disease narrated by actor Elliott Gould.

Every two weeks, Meyer visits a doctor for enzyme therapy, though “after 10-12 days, I usually get tired and feel some pain,” he said.

Long-haired and slim, Meyer would be taken as a healthy specimen on the surface, and he usually doesn’t mention his affliction. One reason, he said, is that New Age devotees in California, who like almost every one else have no idea what Gaucher is, usually advise him to just take some herbs for his problem.

A major hurdle facing many Gaucher patients is the huge cost of the treatments, which can run to $200,000 a year.

“I am lucky that I have insurance through an authors’ group, but even so, you can reach the $2 million lifetime cap in 10 years,” Meyer noted.

Meyer is among an estimated 1,000 Los Angeles-area Jews of Ashkenazi descent with Gaucher Disease. Experts estimate that only about one in 10 is receiving proper treatment. Approximately 50,000 area Jews are carriers of the defective gene and could pass the disease to offspring.

The chief reason for the low treatment rate is that many Los Angeles doctors, including Jewish physicians, are not trained to recognize the symptoms of Gaucher, said Dr. Barry Rosenbloom, a UCLA professor and director of the Comprehensive Gaucher Treatment Center at Tower Hematology Oncology. The center is listed by the National Gaucher Foundation as the primary treatment facility in the Los Angeles area.

“Once correctly diagnosed through a simple blood test, Gaucher patients can be restored through treatment within one year,” Rosenbloom said.

The Comprehensive Gaucher Treatment Center is located at 9090 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 888-8680.

Detailed information about the disease, as well as financial assistance, is available through the National Gaucher Foundation. Call (800) 925-8885, or visit www.gaucherdisease.org.

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He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Dated


You know how Harry Potter has a scar emblazoned on his forehead from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named? Dan has a big T for Trouble on his, marking him as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Dated.

Let me start in the middle: I go to this party at an awful place in Santa Monica, in some dark and crowded and loud basement bar, and I feel like I’ve accidentally, anachronistically stepped into a college party circa 1992 except that everyone here is old — by old I mean my age — and it’s hard to have a proper conversation.

Of course you don’t go to a bar for proper conversations — I’m not that old — but you can hardly see anybody or anything except the mosh pit of bodies swaying in 2-by-2 dancing/flirting/making-out duets. Maybe it’s just one of those nights when I feel terribly left out of everything no matter where I go. (I’ve just come from a Shabbat dinner with lots of married couples and kids — try finding an outfit that fits both these occasions.) Or maybe it’s Dan.

I met Dan a few weeks ago at an awesome party downtown. It was held on the entire floor of an industrial building on Spring Street, where a dozen or so artists were showing their work — mostly photographs and paintings but with a couple of jewelry and clothing designers interspersed. The lighting and the ceilings were low in a way that made everyone look more scintillating than they might in a retro basement bar in Santa Monica. Of course, it could have been the flutes of wine or the chocolate truffles. Or could it really have been Dan?

I wasn’t even looking to meet someone. I was actually dating someone else.

Which is why Dan and I could talk like normal people, and not single people on the make, dressed up in our best costumes and our most sparkly personalities, working furiously to obfuscate our skeletons beneath endless layers of jaunty jingles. So we talked about — what else? — relationships.

My one-two analysis: Dan has commitment-phobia, candy-store syndrome, and/or model rocket-scientist disorder. The thing is, like with milk or eggs, he can predict the exact shelf life of his relationships, but he goes for it anyway, pretending it’s real because he wants the comfort. He’s the guy that, out of the blue, when things were going perfectly well, says that things are not going well at all and disappears like he’s in the FBI Witness Protection Program. Dan is like many of my male single friends — friends I swear I’m going to dump because of the pain and torture they subject on womankind.

On that particular night, Dan’s problems didn’t bother me, because I had someone else. But then a little while later, I didn’t.

So when Dan called a few weeks later to invite me to this party in Santa Monica. I remembered his periwinkle eyes and his scruffy brown hair and the way he constantly touched my arm for punctuation. I said yes.

I finally locate him among the throngs, and we start talking. The problem is, we continue our conversation where we left off a few weeks ago: He regales me with his dating problems. How this one girl in Northern California is outdoorsy and smart but she lacks passion. How this other girl in Los Angeles is an aerobics instructor with an awesome body but not an intellectual.

“I want someone who is smart and challenging and has interests and is Jewish,” he says. “Is that too much to ask for?”

“Me!” I want to say. “Me! I’m smart, I’m Jewish, I’m passionate, I’m outdoorsy, I’m cool. What’s wrong with me?”

But I know: We’ve entered the friend zone. I’m like the fat girl in high school that boys confided in but never dated. Except that in high school I was the girl that everyone dated and didn’t confide in. So, I don’t know what to say when Dan points out the hot waitress. Okay, it’s hard to ignore her: fake boobs, butt tattoo, nimble waist that is so out of place in this dump — but am I such stuffed cabbage that I have to hear about the next entrée?

I’ve always heard stories of couples who were friends before they started dating, or people who claimed to have married “their best friend.”

But how is that possible? How can you see a person stripped of all their games, their pretensions, their public face, and still go through with it anyway?

Even in the darkness of this alcohol-drenched room, I can see Dan clearly: I’d never get anything more than an extended one-night stand that seemed like a romance. And he’s told me way too much about his technique and the endgame.

So I said my goodbyes and left Dan to go after the hot waitress. That’s what friends are for, right?

 

After the Miscarriage


When my doctor informed me, in the seventh week of my first pregnancy, that I had miscarried, he accompanied the news with what he surely thought was a comforting idea.

He told me that God wanted perfect children, and this was His way of making it happen.

It was the first of several inappropriate and unhelpful comments that people would offer me. I drove off from the appointment sobbing, ran a red light and smashed my car.

The pain and anguish of infertility has been passed down from matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel to women today. But while our traditions have given us words to say and ways to act during other lifecycle events — death, birth, marriage — there is little guidance for how to help a friend or loved one deal with the loss of a pregnancy or the pain and despair of infertility.

When, after a second miscarriage, my husband and I reached out for support to friends and family — many of them in the happy throes of birthing and raising their own families — we were surprised by some of the comments we got in return.

On several occasions, friends advised, “Perhaps reducing stress by relaxing more could be helpful,” implying that stress had caused these miscarriages.

“I know so many people who have adopted and then gotten pregnant.”

Uh, OK. This helps me how?

Then there was this chestnut: “Covering your hair leads to healthy babies” — except, of course, for the countless healthy children born daily to those with uncovered hair.

From others I got: “It was meant to be,” or “it will work next time” or “at least it happened early.”

Everyone surely intended to be helpful, but they missed the mark.

What I really needed were people who were there just to listen, and fortunately I had friends and family members who understood this. Some realized the importance of calling to say hi, perhaps while their children were napping, rather than when they were crying or playing in the background. I appreciated the friends who would call on a spur of the moment and invite me to coffee, just the two of us, knowing I still found larger groups somewhat intimidating.

Miscarriage and infertility can be as isolating as they are painful.

Raising a family has always been a desire and priority of mine. After my first miscarriage, I picked myself up and quickly regained hope. I knew that this was quite common. Surely this was just a small bump in the road, and nothing to be too concerned about.

After a couple months of healing, physically and emotionally, I became pregnant again. My husband and I were filled with renewed hope and joy. But my new doctor informed me that a certain hormone level of mine, one that is a good indicator of a healthy pregnancy, was lower than normal.

I was convinced that this pregnancy would be strong and there was just something that seemed right about it, but after several week I miscarried again.

This time I was overcome with a grief that lingered. For a long time, I would cry for no apparent reason. I had trouble facing my friends, walking into my synagogue or being around pregnant women. I felt scared, ashamed, lonely and angry. I wondered whether I had done something wrong, been a bad person or perhaps had been lacking in faith.

Throughout this time, many of my friends were announcing their pregnancies, having children and announcing second pregnancies. Pregnancy and motherhood began to dominate the conversation. I felt as though I had been excluded from a club that all my friends were joining.

Pregnancy began to take over my thoughts. I felt as though this aspect of life was becoming unattainable.

Yet time has a way of healing wounds. Slowly, my husband and I have picked ourselves up and prepared for the process once again. Sure, there have been times that I retreat, avoiding contact with my peers and preferring to stay home alone. But we are now seeing a fertility specialist, and while it adds to our stress and poses different problems, we are optimistic.

If you have friends or family members in my situation, you can provide solace and support. Don’t blatantly avoid the topic, which just makes it the elephant in the room. Don’t play the cause-and-effect game (i.e., “Perhaps if you just relax and let things happen it will work out”). And don’t make empty promises: “It will all turn out OK.”

But absolutely do call periodically just to say hi and chat. And look for ways to hang out one-on-one or in small groups (e.g., coffee, dinner). And you can say things like: “I know it’s been hard lately. Please don’t hesitate to ask if I can help in any way.” By saying this, you already have.

Infertility and miscarriages remain largely taboo within the Jewish world, but there are ways that you can help a loved one through those difficult times.

Andrea Lesch Weiss is a social worker who lives in Los Angeles with her husband Jonathan. She can be reached at andreaweiss@gmail.com.

 

The Painful Holidays


A feeling of trepidation takes hold of my heart. The Jewish holidays are upon us again, and as a 30-something single in a family of all married siblings, I’m feeling anxiety and pain.should be excited, as I get to spend two days with my parents, brothers, sisters-in-law and their kids. However, for weeks before a holiday arrives, I experience apprehension that grows exponentially as each holiday draws closer.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love my family very much. I’ve always gotten along with my siblings and their spouses; I love my nieces and nephews like crazy, and I’ve always considered my family to be closer than most. The idea of being with them should ease the pain of being single and alone, and should ease the sense of loneliness I feel being single among married couples.

Hence, my feelings of guilt, because I do not look forward to being with my family during the holidays. I don’t look forward to having to put on a happy face, when cheerful is the last thing I feel. I don’t look forward to the questions my nieces invariably ask, when wanting to know why I am not yet married.

It is as if an important part of me is missing. I watch the loving eye contact between my siblings and their spouses, the hand holding under the table as we eat the holiday meals and the cheerful chattering of my nieces and nephews. I listen to talk of the kids’ baseball leagues, dance lessons and where the next family get-together should be held.

Someone tries to pull me into the conversation every once in a while, but I don’t really have anything to add. I feel separated from what is going on.

What I really want to say aloud is, “What about me? I want someone to talk to, to love, who will understand me, and really listen to me, and have things in common with me. I want to enjoy my own little boy and girl.”

Sitting in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, I have tears in my eyes, because another year has past, and I’m still alone. And being with my family only makes it worse. Seeing the happiness among my family members and knowing it’s due to the one thing I don’t have — a loving spouse and children — makes my heart ache.

Jewish holidays are times when families come together. But I don’t have my own family yet. And this point is driven home to me very clearly every time I’m with my siblings for the holidays.

I sit at the meals wishing there was someone who could understand what I’m going through, and I’ve come up with what I think is a really good idea: If there were one or more singles sitting at the meals with me, this would surely ease the loneliness I feel. They would probably be feeling some of the same emotions as I am, and we could support each other, just by sharing these times together.

I would have someone to laugh with when my nieces asked their probing questions, someone to roll my eyes at when my siblings were acting mushy and I was feeling vulnerable, and someone who would be going through what I was going through and could relate.

There are always some singles who have nowhere to go for the holidays, because their families aren’t observant or perhaps they live too far away. If these singles were invited for the Jewish holidays by families like mine, where there is one single among many married couples, this could have multiple benefits.

First and foremost, it would be a tremendous mitzvah on the part of the families doing the inviting. It would also alleviate some of the pain that the singles feel at being the only one who is single. Personally, having another single around for the holidays would make me feel less alone and more open to enjoying my family’s company, without the added burden of loneliness.

Before the holidays wrap up for the year, I wish to call out to families who have singles in their midst. I wish to tell them that we, the singles, are lonely and need help this time of year, help that could come from having other singles around.

So please, this year when we are all trying to make changes, do something new, something good, and invite singles to your tables and to your homes on Yom Tov. You will warm others’ hearts, and maybe even your own.

Michele Herenstein is a freelance journalist working in New York. She can be reached at michelesherenstein@yahoo.com.

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Letters


Misunderstanding

I would like to clarify a misunderstanding in a recent press release from the Orthodox Union that was reported in The Journal, “Mourning For Gaza, New Orleans” (Sept. 30). The OU organized a nationwide ta’anit dibbur, or period of silence, over this past Shabbat. The purpose was to mark the tragic destruction of synagogues in both Gaza and New Orleans with a resanctification of our own synagogues.

In no way was the OU making a political statement, pro or con, regarding the disengagement. Nor was the OU in any way suggesting that the destruction of synagogues was Divine retribution, as was intimated in The Journal.

Instead, this was merely our way of expressing our profound sorrow over the loss of holy places in the world, and our desire to counteract the loss of holiness with an infusion of added sanctity into our own communities and synagogues on the last Shabbat of the year.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Director
Community and Synagogue Services
West Coast Orthodox Union

New Orleans Fixture

I am a native New Orleanian. I was looking for Universal Furniture in New Orleans to get a price on furniture I’d purchased that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, so I can present it to the insurance adjuster. The article written by Ann Brenner about Hurricane Katrina popped up because Universal Furniture was mentioned in it (“City’s Plight Brings Flood of Memories,” Sept. 9).

People have told me that in the last great hurricane of New Orleans (Hurricane Betsy), the owners of Universal Furniture erased the debts of the people who still had balances on furniture purchased and financed by Universal Furniture. I don’t know if it is just a story or the truth, but I do know that Universal Furniture is a New Orleans fixture that is well respected.

I am not Jewish; just ran across the article and truly enjoyed it because it spoke of my home. Perhaps, Ms. Brenner could do a followup, as she did before, just about the city of New Orleans, its beauty and charm, and the beauty of the people who made it unique.

The city does look war-torn and desolate. We are a strong people, and realize tough times don’t last, tough people do. I do plan to go home soon.

Name withheld by request

Portraits

What a wonderful series of portraits of real people asking real questions and coming up with diverse answers (“How We Worship,” Sept 30).

In Detroit when I was a child, there was a barrier between different branches of Judaism and even between different temples. But now, times are different, and we are finally learning to love and appreciate the many ways of wrestling with the mysteries of God’s presence.

Thank you for showing so much respect and so much good writing in these diverse vignettes. I hope anyone who hasn’t yet read this article and met their interesting neighbors will do so during a free moment during these days of awe.

Leonard Felder
West Los Angeles

Never Again

I never thought that I’d be writing a letter defending the NRA, but Irene Joseph must be a descendent of Marie Antoinette, when told that the poor masses of people huddled outside the castle walls are starving, by responding, “Let them eat cake.”

As for me, my “faithful companions” are Mr. Colt, Mr. Remington and Messrs. Smith and Wesson. I also own several “never again” rifles.

I am Jewish and will never be led to another slaughter of my people without defending myself. The memory wall of my temple is filled with the names of the dead, including nine family members murdered in one day in pre-war Poland. I’ll bet that they wished they had the chance to protect themselves with guns.

I’m also a new and proud member of the NRA, and also a long-time member of the ACLU. I hope that with my financial support, both sides of the gun issues, including extremists like Ms. Joseph on the far left, will learn to compromise their views somewhere in the middle, where only a true democracy can govern.

Elliot Gilbert
Chino Hills

I am Jewish and a member of the NRA and proud of it. I am also proud of the fact that Sandra Froman is Jewish and president. The facts misstated by your readers are incredible. The thought that gun control would take guns out of the hands of criminals puts forth an incredible naiveté, mostly by well-meaning people who really haven’t done much research. We do have drug control, and that does not seem to be working.

Steve Flatten
Los Angeles

Cruel Statement

Thank you, thank you, thank you Rabbi Wolpe for your words regarding Rav Ovidiah’s foolish and cruel statement blaming the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina on G-d’s wrath against President Bush for supporting the relocation of the Jews of Gush Katif. (“We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge,” Sept. 16).

The rav’s absurd and insensitive words only serve to horribly minimize the grief and loss of those stricken in the Gulf region, and to demean the pain and sacrifice made by those affected by the resettlement in Israel. Instead of acknowledging the sad similarities of both situations, he pits one tragedy against the other, thereby denigrating both.

Rikki Moress
Freeland, Washington

 

Happy Non-Anniversary


I know that I was angry at L. I remember feeling frustrated and sad, not so much over L., but about the life we had envisioned, that I had started to view as a reality. I found myself mourning the losses that never were — theoretical, suppositional losses — the honeymoon we would not spend in Jerusalem; the home we would not set up together; the children we would not have.

L. and I broke off our engagement last year, a month before our wedding date of June 20.

On the day our wedding was to have been, I was intensely aware of the time when we would have been standing under the chuppah, without seeing a clock or watch. My breath stopped, and I stood still, feeling the growing ache in my chest. I spent the day alone, and I cried. And I thought about cosmic meaning and why this was happening to me. And then everything was fine.

Sort of.

It was not a pleasant summer, but June 21 marked a new phase. Once the day of the non-wedding passed, I was able to move on.

It was a weird time. People didn’t know what to say. It was not a tragedy; it was not even heartbreaking like a divorce when children are involved. I recognized that. But it did suck.

“Better now than later,” people said.

Better still would have been before the invitations went out, guests made plane and hotel reservations and gifts were delivered. As L. was from Colorado but studying in New York, all the gifts had been delivered to my parents’ house in New York, and served as a reminder for weeks of what would not be — until everything could be sorted out. One of the hardest things was having to explain to each person why the gifts were being returned.

I immediately missed having someone in my life; I missed being a couple, interacting with others as a couple, a state I had graduated to after years of singlehood. I had been one of the elite, an engaged man, a living defiance of statistics and the fear of commitment. I missed L.’s smile, and the joy of giving to someone so fully and with such love. How could it have fallen apart so quickly, all in the span of a week?

Of course, hindsight is astounding in its clarity. I was so eager to marry that I made the mistake of getting engaged to the wrong woman. I remain thankful that the marriage did not go through, not because L. is a horrible person — on the contrary, she is sweet and lovely — but simply because we were wrong for each other.

I think I agree with what some rabbis say — that you could get married to 90 percent of the opposite sex and make it work … but why should you have to? Why not look for the 10 percent who are actually a good fit for you?

All the anger, sadness, frustration have long since dissipated. I can barely recall how excited I was on our first date, or the pain I felt when it was clear things would not work out. Instead, I remember all the wonderful friends — and people I had not been in touch with for years — who called to tell me of their own broken engagement stories.

A few months ago, I took apart the scrapbook I had made for L. as an engagement gift, and just this past week, as part of a cleaning spree, I threw out all the pictures I had of her. I don’t like throwing out pictures — something about seeing faces in a wastebasket is eerie — but I didn’t feel right holding onto them. It was the closing of a book, and having not read it for a while, it was slowly fading, the details becoming distant memory, the story a blend of the real and the imagined. June 20 came and went like a dream.

Michael Rose is a New York-based writer at work on his first novel. He can be reached at mcarose@gmail.com.

 

Bird’s-Eye View


 

One day, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar was riding his donkey along the coastal road. He was enjoying the beautiful scenery and reviewing in his mind the wonderful study session he had with his rabbi at Migdal Eder, when he encountered a man who was extremely ugly.

“How ugly you are,” said the startled rabbi. “Are all the people in your city as ugly as you are?”

The man responded calmly, “What can I say? Go to the artisan who crafted me and tell him that his handiwork is ugly.”

Upon hearing that, Ben Elazar realized that he had gravely sinned and begged the man to forgive him. But the man refused to forgive him until Ben Elazar spoke to the Creator. The rabbi ran after the man a long way until they came to a town. The town’s people called out: “Welcome, rabbi.”

The man asked the people, “Whom are you calling rabbi?”

The people pointed to Ben Elazar.

“If this is a rabbi,” said the man, “let there be no more rabbis among the Jews.”

Eventually the man forgave the rabbi after a public apology, and Ben Elazar had learned a humbling lesson.

I have always understood the reply of the man as one of acceptance: “This is who I am, this is how God created me, I am not as lucky as you, but you have to accept me.”

But today I read his words from a totally different point of view.

He is not talking with self-pity but with pride, and he does not regard the rabbi as better, wiser or luckier. The man Ben Elazar encountered drew upon the wisdom of Job who said, in reference to the weak and the poor: “Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?”

What the man was telling Ben Elazar was that they were equals, that they were peers and that the same Creator who created the rabbi in his image also created also the “ugly” man. So who is a truer image of God?

The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?

We are human beings, created in the image of God; we talk and communicate, smile and cry, laugh and get depressed. We feel pity at the sight of a helpless animal and frustration when we can do nothing to help. When we realize how similar we are, the road is open for understanding and for appreciating the unique gifts and talents of every human being.

In this week’s parsha, we read about the purification process of the leper. According to the rabbis, the sin of the leper is the sin of judging the fallacies of others and making them known to all, and most of us, like Ben Elazar, are guilty of engaging in this kind of judgment. The leper is rejected and alienated in order for him to experience, even for a short while, the pain he afflicted upon others by judging and rejecting them. When his process of purification is completed, the Torah commands that “the priest shall order two live clean birds … to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered … and he shall take the live bird … and dip … in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered … and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.”

This ceremony is shocking and powerful. The bird is an analogy to the neshama, the soul. The slaughtered bird is the person who was offended by the leper, as our sages have taught us that insulting someone in public is tantamount to murder, and the same follows for gossip and calumny.

The live bird, representing the leper, is dipped in the blood to signify that he is stained by that sin. It is sent free in the open country to tell the leper that on one hand he is now cleansed and free to join the community, but that on the other hand he should always remember his past actions and avoid such behavior in the future. He is also told that once he spread the word, it is very difficult to retrieve it and undo the damage, since it is like a bird that can fly freely everywhere.

Let, then, the clean bird of our soul fly free and unstained in the open country, and let it see, from a bird’s-eye view, only the good and positive in our fellow human beings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.

 

Kosher Slaughtering Proves Humane


 

Many people expressed concern about the standards for humane treatment of animals at a kosher slaughterhouse after viewing a well-publicized video of kosher slaughter at the AgriProcessors plant in Iowa, which was released by the animal rights organization PETA.

Any slaughterhouse, whether kosher or nonkosher, is by definition a disconcerting, blood-filled and gruesome place. Torah law, however, is most insistent about not inflicting needless pain on animals and in emphasizing humane treatment of all living creatures.

Kosher slaughter, shechitah, involves cutting the trachea and esophagus with a sharp, flawless knife. At the same time, the carotid arteries, which are the primary supplier of blood to the brain, are severed.

The profound loss of blood and the massive drop in blood pressure render the animal insensate almost immediately. Studies done by Dr. H.H. Dukes at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine indicate that the animal is unconscious within seconds of the incision.

After the shechitah at AgriProcessors, an additional cut is made in the carotid arteries to further accelerate the bleeding. This is not done for kashrut reasons, for after the trachea and esophagus have been severed, the shechitah is complete, but rather for commercial reasons to avoid blood splash, which turns the meat a darker color. The carotid arteries are attached to the trachea, and at AgriProcessors, the trachea was excised to facilitate the bleeding.

In the overwhelming number of cases, the animal is insensate at that time. However and inevitably, particularly when it is considered that 18,000 cattle were slaughtered during the seven-week period when the video was shot, there was a tiny percentage of animals whose carotid arteries were not completely severed, so they were not completely unconscious. Although this is very infrequent, the removal of the trachea immediately after the shechitah has now been discontinued.

It should be kept in mind that in a nonkosher plant, when the animal is killed by a shot with a captive bolt to the brain, it often has to be re-shot, sometimes up to six times, before the animal collapses. The USDA permits up to a 5 percent initial failure rate.

At AgriProcessors and at other plants it supervises, the Orthodox Union (OU) is committed to maintaining the highest ritual standards of shechitah without compromising the halacha (Jewish law) one bit. The OU continues to vouch for the kashrut, which was never compromised, of all the meat prepared by AgriProcessors.

As I indicated previously, images of slaughter — especially selected images in an abbatoir — are jarring, particularly to the layman. Statements by PETA that animals were bellowing in pain after the shechitah are an anatomical impossibility. After the animal’s throat and larynx have been cut, it cannot vocalize.

PETA is well known for the passion it brings to the issue of animal rights, but it is an organization devoid of objectivity. PETA’s comparison of the killing of chickens to the Holocaust is, at a minimum, morally obtuse. So to whom should we turn for an objective view about the situation at AgriProcessors and about kosher slaughter in general? Here are the opinions of some experts:

1. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge inspected the plant. She found the handling of the animals to be humane and commendable.

She said after viewing the shechitah that the animals were unconscious within two to three seconds. She also said that chickens were handled more carefully by the rabbis than by her own “grandmother on the farm.”

2. AgriProcessors is under constant USDA inspection. Dr. Henry Lawson, the USDA veterinarian at the plant, told me that he considers the treatment of the cattle at AgriProcessors to be humane, and that the shechitah renders them unconscious within a matter of seconds. He determines this by certain physiological criteria related to the eyes, tongue and tail of the animal.

3. Earlier, Rabbi Dr. I.M. Levinger, a veterinarian and one of the world’s foremost experts on animal welfare and kosher slaughter, called the shechitah practices at AgriProcessors “professional and efficient,” emphasizing the humane manner in which the shechitah was handled.

Levinger was also highly impressed with the caliber of the ritual slaughterers. He issued his evaluation following a thorough two-day on-site review of shechitah practices and animal treatment at the plant. He viewed the kosher slaughter of nearly 150 animals.

4. AgriProcessors has hired an animal welfare and handling specialist to evaluate the plant processes. The specialist was recommended by both Dr. Temple Grandin, a foremost expert in animal welfare, and also by the National Meat Association. In reviewing the shechitah process last week, the specialist made the following observations:

\n

• The shechitah process was performed swiftly and correctly;

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• The shechitah cut resulted in a rapid bleed.

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• All animals that exited the box were clearly unconscious.

The OU and AgriProcessors are committed to the Torah principles of humane treatment of animals. At the OU, we constantly review our procedures, evaluate them and if necessary, improve or correct them. We don’t want ever to be wedded to a mistaken procedure.

AgriProcessors has been completely cooperative in working with the OU and shares our philosophy.

As Torah Jews, we are imbued with the teachings which require animals to be rested, along with people, on the Sabbath and fed before the people who own them, and that the mother bird must be sent away before her young are taken to save her grief. These and similar statutes make it clear that inhumane treatment of animals is not the Jewish way.

Kosher slaughter, by principle, and as performed today in the United States, is humane. Indeed, as PETA itself has acknowledged, shechitah is more humane than the common nonkosher form of shooting the animal in the head with a captive bolt, for reasons noted above.

The Humane Slaughter Act, passed into law after objective research by the U.S. government, declares shechitah to be humane. For Torah observant Jews, it cannot be any other way.

Rabbi Menachem Genack is the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division.

 

Meet the Fockers


 

If the religion of Ben Stiller’s character, Gaylord “Greg” Focker (pronounced Faw-ker), was hinted at in the movie, “Meet the Parents,” there’s no escaping it in its sequel, “Meet the Fockers,” in theaters this week.

The first time around, audiences rooted for Greg, as he tried to find common ground with his WASPY soon-to-be in-laws, Dina and Jack Byrnes, played by Blythe Danner and Robert DeNiro. Now all that’s left is for the in-laws to meet each other.

This time, we’re on Focker turf, at the tiki-style abode of Greg’s parents, Roz (Barbra Streisand) and Bernie (Dustin Hoffman), in Coconut Grove, Fla.

The loud, affectionate, occasionally crude, left-wing bohemian Fockers are essentially the polar opposites of the Byrneses. And so the fun begins, as Greg tries to convince his future father-in-law that his family won’t be a “chink in the chain” of his lineage.

“If you really boil it down, it’s sort of the difference between cats and dogs,” producer Jane Rosenthal said, “The Byrneses have Jinx the cat, who’s back, and the Fockers have Moses, their dog. So it’s cat people vs. dog people, really.”

Moses the dog is just one of many Jewish nods in the film. There are Yiddishisms like bubbeleh, meshuggeneh and Rozaleh.

There is Bernie’s greeting to his son when he first arrives: “You look like a young, Jewish Marlon Brando.”

There is Roz’s classic greeting as she hugs Greg: “Honey, you feel thin. Have you been eating?”

And then there’s the incident with the foreskin….

Of course, in the tradition of “Meet the Parents,” chaos ensues when these two families get together.

Even if the plot does feel forced at times, for those who subscribe to the belief that other people’s pain is funny, “Fockers” has a good chance of amusing.

“Meet the Fockers” opens Dec. 22.

 

A Man Walks Into a Hospital and . . .


The Room

Irving Brecher, 91-year-old wannabe-stand-up comic, is nervous. The Doctors Emeritus Society of Cedars-Sinai is at the buffet in the Harvey Morse room, a conference hall where the old practitioners gather every month to hear specialists on subjects like pain control. Sometimes a marine biologist will discuss Darwin.

Brecher wrote Marx Brothers movies. His stories are about Harpo playing golf without pants.

“When do we get started?” today’s guest lecturer wants to know.

“After everybody stops going up for more,” Dr. Frederick Kahn tells Brecher in a soothing tone. Kahn has been friends with Brecher for 50 years. He is almost 80 and coordinates emeritus events.

“Sometimes we’ll bring a gerontologist in from one of the universities,” Kahn says. “They scare hell out of these old guys.”

“Irv has such a brilliant mind,” says the great comedian Jan Murray. “But he worries about material.”

Murray is 88, and here with his doctor to see his friend perform.

Even before the movies, Brecher wrote gags for radio and vaudeville. He wrote for Milton Berle and George Burns and created the golden-age sitcoms “The Life of Riley” and “People’s Choice.”

“This is the biggest crowd we’ve ever had,” says Sylvia Stern of the Emeritus Society, mentioning Dr. Jack Matloff the famous cardiologist and Dr. Bernard Strauss the famous urologist.

Asked about his contribution as a Jew to medicine, Brecher offers this riposte: “The money I spent in pharmacies?”

“I love Irv and respect him as a great artisan,” Murray says. “What is he worried? He’ll kill ’em for crissake.”

He’s seen Brecher in action at numerous tributes and benefits. Murray tells Norma, Brecher’s wife, that he will now do to Brecher what Berle used to do to him: “Sit right up front. First row. When I played New York, I’d go out and I’d see Berle sitting in the first row, and I wanted to die from nerves. I was a kid! Here is a guy right in front of me I know knows every joke, knows everything. And instead of worrying about the audience of maybe 800 people, I’m worrying about this yontz here.”

“How are you, Jan?” Stern asks.

“I’m all right,” Murray says. “I passed away three days ago.”

Murray doesn’t do stand-up anymore.

“I’m retired about five years,” he informs us. “I developed asthma. So for about 10 minutes I’m all right and then I’m gasping. You can’t ask the public to spend money to see an old Jew gasping for breath on the stage. It’s not nice.”

The Routine

“His friend Groucho Marx called him, ‘The wicked wit of the west,'” announces Kahn in introducing Brecher. “He’s performed for the Friars Club and Hillcrest….”

“Talk into the microphone!” Brecher motions at him. Frail and with vision problems from glaucoma, Brecher takes a few minutes to make his way up onto the portable gray rostrum. Shooing away an offer of a stool, he stands holding the jokes he’s scrawled in black Magic Marker on 5-by-7 cards.

“I got here today with a walker,” Brecher begins. “This is progress. The last time I was at Cedars I was on a gurney.”

Silence.

“Obviously now you know my vision is not great,” he continues. “My eyesight is so bad, this morning I couldn’t find my hearing aid.”

“You, I’ve been told are the emeriti. Once I was introduced as so-and-so ‘the dean emeritus of comedy.’ I didn’t really care for that. To me, emeritus means you’re outta work. And a dean out of work has lost his faculties.”

Can they hear him? A single loud guffaw flies from Murray in the front row.

“Hillcrest is famous for its comedians, its food and its old members,” Brecher says of the club. “George Jessel had said, ‘The average age at Hillcrest is dead.’ I joined 61 years ago. One of the reasons I enjoyed it was the weird members. There was a pawnbroker named Manny who was so tough. Once a starving actor came into the club and asked for help. Manny gave him an appetite suppressant. He was really tough. He had one charity: the Jewish Home for the Aging. Each year he gave them two aging Jews.”

Nothing.

“By the way,” Brecher leans into the microphone. “Is this the Harvey Morse room or the Harvey Morgue room?”

He pushes at his flash cards. He isn’t killing, he feels like the blind leading the deaf. Finally, he does his material on Viagra and Palm Springs, too dirty for this newspaper. He thanks the doctors for their “so-called attention.” And that’s it. Brecher’s a brave man.

The Reviews

“That was very good,” says Kahn offering an arm. “They really did enjoy it.”

“No they didn’t,” Brecher says.

“Yes they did.”

“Well, they’re half-asleep and half-senile,” Brecher says.

“They didn’t understand some of the humor.”

“They didn’t? It was in English!”

But Brecher remains semi-sanguine.

“The nice thing about speaking to a group of doctors after a week of working on the material,” he concludes. “The audience is sedated and you can use it the next time.”

Hank Rosenfeld tells stories on “Weekend America,” a new syndicated radio show from KPCC 89.3 FM. In November, Irv Brecher celebrates the 60th anniversary of his adapted screenplay “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

In Search of ‘Shlomi’


Shlomi, the 16-year-old protagonist of the Israeli film, “Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi,” has his hands full.

He cooks the family meals, cleans up, does the laundry, is the peacemaker in his quarrelsome Moroccan family and bathes his grandfather, who greets him every morning with the film’s title.

For his pains, the wide-eyed Shlomi is considered none too bright by his family and in school, where he is flunking out.

Worse, Shlomi believes the outside world’s assessment of him, which seems to be confirmed by his first attempt at romance. When he suggests to his girlfriend that they “upgrade” their relationship — Hebrew slang for having sex — she “freezes” him out.

At home, the situation is even worse. His obsessive mother has kicked out her hypochondriac husband for a one-time slip with her best friend. Shlomi’s older brother is the mother’s favorite, and she regales the boy with clinical details of his real and fancied sexual conquests.

Shlomi’s older sister has twin babies but regularly returns to her mother’s home to detail her fights with her husband, who shamefully surfs the Internet for porn.

It all looks like another story of another dysfunctional family, a recurring theme in Israeli movies, when Shlomi’s life slowly turns around.

A perceptive teacher and school principal gradually peel away Shlomi’s layers of self-doubt and discover an exceptional mind and poetic sensibility.

A neighboring girl recognizes Shlomi’s real inner worth, and in a beautiful scene they shyly offer each other their finest gifts — she, the herbs she grows in her garden, and he, the diet-defying cakes he bakes in the kitchen.

The film’s theme is “the pain created by the gap between one’s outer image and the inner truth,” said Shemi Zarhin, the film’s director, himself of North African descent.

“Monsieur Shlomi” is a charming film, a word rarely applied to Israeli movies. Oshri Cohen portrays Shlomi with absolute veracity and his relationship with his grandfather (Arie Elias) is deeply affecting.

As a special bonus, Ashkenazic viewers will get a much-needed insight into the lifestyle of Israel’s Sephardic Jews. Although director Zarhin’s ancestors came to Palestine nearly 300 years ago, “both I and Oshri grew up with the mindset that we were part of Israel’s underclass,” he said.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Shlomi” opens July 16 in Los Angeles.

Kibbutz Camp Offers Hope to Survivors


In Kibbutz Negba, a dozen Israeli teenagers attending a summer camp in the guesthouses of this Negev kibbutz were asked to model small trees, and then decorate them with photographs of themselves.

One sculpted a tree that had been struck by lightning and died. Another molded a three-pronged cactus; one branch had been cut short.

A third boy made a tree from modeling clay and paper; it refused to stand up. "If you give it too much attention," he explained, "it falls down. If you don’t give it enough attention, it falls down."

In another class, younger campers were asked to stick pictures of themselves in a setting of their choice. Most drew a house; one drew a coffin.

These are no ordinary children and this is no ordinary camp. All of this week’s 150 campers have lost parents, brothers, sisters or other relatives in terrorist attacks. The art classes are taught by therapists.

"We give them a chance to express themselves," said Vinnie Ofri, one of the therapists. "I get them to work on themselves, to imagine places they would like to be. But I’m careful not to open things I won’t be able to develop in the time I’m with them."

The camp is named after Koby Mandell, one of two 14-year-old truants bludgeoned to death while hiking in the Judean wilderness near their West Bank home two years ago. His parents, Seth and Sherri, who made aliyah from the United States in 1996, channeled their grief by launching the Koby Mandell Foundation, which provides "healing" activities for more than 350 bereaved families.

Camp Koby is their biggest project — a series of three 10-day camps for a total of 500 youngsters from 55 towns and villages all over Israel and the West Bank and Gaza settlements. To bridge the religious-secular divide, they have separate all-boys, all-girls and mixed camps. One family sent six children. This week they welcomed their first five from the Druze minority.

The other morning, the site was buzzing with art and drama groups. Teenage boys were practicing karate on a shaded lawn; girls were pounding on finger drums in a clubhouse.

"The camp gives them the freedom to be kids," explained Sherri Mandell, a slim 47-year-old writer with three other children. "They don’t have to feel guilty at being alive. Everybody is the same. Kids are often silent victims because they don’t want to bother their parents. Here they get a lot of attention. The camp becomes an extended family."

As well as a professional director, a psychologist, a resident rabbi, therapists and coordinators, the camp has a team of young madrichim who live and work with the children, two such counselors for every five youngsters.

Their job is not just to play with their charges, but also to listen to them and comfort them. During our visit, a withdrawn 8-year-old boy on the brink of tears refused to join the others. No one forced him. A madrich quietly took him aside, then offered him a mobile phone to call home. He preferred to play video games on it.

The camp seems to work. In an art class for 8- and 9-year-olds in a converted henhouse, Nadav Littenberg was painstakingly coloring a frame around his picture with crayons. His cousin was killed on the West Bank a year ago. Nadav came to the camp with the dead boy’s brother.

"It’s lots of fun here," he enthused. "It helps you to forget, though you don’t really forget somebody you lost. It helps you to get better. Everybody tells his story about who they lost and how. It’s easier with people you didn’t know before. I couldn’t do it with my class at school."

The foundation is run by Seth Mandell, 53, an extrovert Orthodox rabbi in shorts and biblical sandals who used to work for Hillel on American campuses. His budget for the coming year has grown to $1.5 million, most of it contributed by well-wishers in the United States.

In addition to Camp Koby, the Mandells arrange healing retreats for bereaved mothers, two-day getaways for widows and mothers. Sometimes whole families come along, including fathers. They hold shorter children’s camps at Sukkot, Chanukah and Pesach.

"The emphasis is on a combination of fun and healing," Sherri Mandell said. "If not fun, at least relaxation and some element of release." She calls it "therapy lite."

Mission to Argentina


Last month, seven Los Angeles rabbis and five community leaders traveled to Argentina for a whirlwind 72-hour trip. The mission, organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, helped them gain firsthand knowledge of the crisis in Argentina. Upon their return to Los Angeles, the leaders have begun promoting the Federation’s Lifeline to Argentina campaign, a $1 million challenge grant matching every dollar raised. Below are some of their thoughts and photos of the trip.

“We all promised this Jewish family of ours that we in Los Angeles — whose lives are so blessed — would not forget them. At our final meeting we were able to visit the now-abandoned Jewish community center (one of several that has had to close) that is currently used for only one purpose — a unique “community pharmacy” that the Tzedaka Foundation and JDC run to provide free medicine for those in need. We watched in awe as a combination of paid and volunteer pharmacists showed us how they process 16,000 prescriptions a month that literally are keeping the Jewish people alive.” — Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation

“One of our most memorable experiences was a visit to a nonsectarian soup kitchen sponsored by the JDC. Downstairs, JDC staff and volunteers serve a hot meal each day to children who live in the local shantytown. Upstairs, their mothers learn to weave colorful fabrics into clothing to provide a meager income for their families. Amid the pain and suffering, the JDC brings a message of hope as it carries out its mission of tikkun olam.” — Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president, Board of Rabbis

“I was most moved by the unity and cooperation between the various movements and denominations within the Argentine Jewish community. I did not feel the polarity that exists here between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy. The Argentine community is a great example of how crisis brings people together and breeds innovation and fosters unity. There is a lot we can learn and emulate from the Argentine Jewish community.” — Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Sephardic Temple Tifererth Israel

“For me, the highlight of the trip was to see the creativity the Jewish community has used to address the problem of decreasing enrollment in Jewish schools because of the poverty. They responded by building afternoon schools where they feed children a hot lunch and then offer a variety of Jewish and secular programs in a Jewish environment. Such a program is Morasha, organized by the Orthodox community of Buenos Aires. It serves 1,200 students and reaches out to the entire spectrum of Jews.” — Rabbi Elazar Muskin, Young Israel of Century City

Exit Strategy


After 10 extremely passionate months together, Amanda decided to end our relationship. She thought it through very carefully and took the steps she felt were necessary to break things off. There was just one small step she overlooked — telling me.

So here’s how I found out: Coming home after work one night, I noticed that the clothes Amanda usually kept hanging in my closet were gone; just the empty hangers remained. The stuff she kept in the bathroom — also gone. I was expecting her that night and she never appeared.

My phone message to her was not returned. No word from her for the next two days. Had she been kidnapped? Been in an accident? Spoken to one of my old girlfriends about me? I called her sister and left a message, but never heard back from her either.

Finally, after two days, there was a message from Amanda on my answering machine: “I’m out of town for a few days. I needed to get away to think about our relationship.”

Which, as it turns out, is woman-speak for: “You’ll see me naked again when Osama bin Laden becomes a rabbi.”

I finally reached her by phone. What followed was a half-hour conversation, in which Amanda told me she was leaving because, basically, she wanted a different kind of guy.

“But you seemed so happy with the guy you had during our 10 extremely passionate months together,” I reminded her. And I pointed out things she had said to me frequently; little things like, “I love you,” “You’re the man I’ve been waiting for all my life,” and “This is the most incredible relationship I’ve ever had.”

But none of that mattered now. Her mind was made up, her heart was closed down, the security systems were activated and that was the last time we communicated.

As psychiatrists are fond of saying, “And how did that make you feel?” Well, Dr. Melfi, I felt shocked, depressed, angry, abused, mislead, hurt and abandoned — which, incidentally, were the actual names of the Seven Dwarves before Disney started fiddling with them.

But then I got to wondering why Amanda chose to dump me in such a cold fashion when what preceded it was 10 months of passion. And the only thing I could come up with was that Amanda chose to take the easy way out — for her. She didn’t want a confrontation, an argument or the pain of raw, exposed emotion; she simply left — and left me holding the big, unopened Pandora’s box of sudden loss.

But painful experiences are invariably learning experiences, and what I learned from Amanda’s emotional cowardice is that there is an art, if you will, to breaking off a relationship. That is assuming, of course, that your intention is to behave like a human being, to honor the relationship and to be considerate and respectful of your partner’s feelings. Think of it as a farewell gift to your partner. Or think of it simply as the right thing to do.

For the love of God, don’t just suddenly vanish. Nor should you do it via phone, e-mail, letter or through a third-party intervention. All of those techniques are simply wimping out, hurtful and just plain wrong. You know it, I know it, Dr. Phil knows it.

The only way to end a relationship is face to face. Raise the issues. See if there’s a chance to work them out or get help to do so. If not, tell him or her the honest reasons, and acknowledge all the good in the relationship. If you sense there’s a mutual desire to stay friends, discuss that. If not, wish your partner happiness and good luck, give him or her a hug and leave.

Remember how kind and gentle, thoughtful and respectful you were going into the relationship? Well, your exit strategy should involve those identical qualities. But be forewarned — if you don’t use those qualities, I sincerely hope that the giant, angry Karma Monster tracks you down and torments you in the Extreme Punishment Room for all eternity. Oh, by the way, if you see Amanda there, give her my regards, won’t you?


Mark Miller is a comedy writer who has written for TV,
movies and many celebrities, been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times
Syndicate, contributed to numerous national publications and produced a weekly
comedic relationships feature for America Online. He can be reached at markmiller2000@attbi.com

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Healing the ‘wounds’


When rabbi and author Jan Goldstein was suddenly faced with the news that his 12-year marriage was ending — leaving him with primary custody of his three children — he felt his life was ruined, until he learned to make sense of his pain.

In his new book, "Sacred Wounds: Succeeding Because of Life’s Pain" (Regan Books, $24.95) Goldstein recounts his personal journey of self-actualization and offers a nine-step process toward transforming pain into empowerment.

"The pain is not going away. But it’s going to serve a purpose in our lives if we let it," said Goldstein, an award-winning poet, playwright and screenwriter, who is now happily remarried.

In addition to being instructional, each chapter includes a story about someone who has taken one of Goldstein’s nine steps. In "Step One: Acknowledging the Wound," Goldstein tells the story of Debrah Constance, a woman who overcame the obstacles of her three failed marriages, alcoholism, cancer and a near-death car accident, and used her own experiences to establish A Place Called Home, a safe house that today provides a nurturing environment to several hundred 9- to 20-year-olds in South Central Los Angeles. In the book, Constance says, "Coming to terms with my wounds has meant acknowledging and believing in myself. It has also meant learning to believe in others."

Goldstein said that while the book is always relevant, it is especially applicable in today’s time of war.

"The images and losses have an impact on all of us … and what they ought to be doing is reminding us what’s really important," he said.

Jan Goldstein will discuss and sign "Sacred Wounds: Succeeding Because of Life’s Pain" on Tuesday, April 22 at 8 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 111 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (626) 585-0362.

Learning From Loss


When painful loss occurs in our lives, we want to make some sense of it: Why did she get so sick? Why did I lose my livelihood? Why can’t we conceive a child? Why did he die? In his new book, “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times” (Riverhead Books, $23.95), David Wolpe, author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood, begins by asserting that during periods of great pain, we tend to ask the wrong questions. Whether consciously or not, we search in vain for an answer to the plaintive “why” in order to gain some measure of control over what has made us so powerless.

“God,” Wolpe writes, “gives this privilege to no one.” When the author’s wife was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently rendered infertile by it after the birth of their daughter, he began “a quest of my own — not for an answer but for an approach. I was not searching for a why but for a how: How do I make this loss meaningful? Could I, with the powers of my own hand and heart, with the help of those whom I love, turn a painful, inexplicable loss into a generator of purpose and of hope, even of blessing?”

“Making Loss Matter” is not a practical how-to book or a groundbreaking theological treatise. Despite many brief and affecting forays into Talmudic lore and biblical narratives, the book is designed as an informal conversation with a broad, multidenominational audience. With a liberal use of personal anecdote, others’ experiences, metaphor and more than an occasional nod to the signposts of modern culture (Internet chat, Star Trek and our culture’s worship of youth all rate a mention), Wolpe’s intention is to engage the reader in a serious but accessible meditation on how to live meaningfully, despite the inevitable blows that threaten us with bitterness or despair.

Growth comes through pain, he argues. “Without loss, one remains a child.” In broad chapters titled “Home,” “Dreams,” “Self,” “Love,” “Faith” and “Life,” Wolpe explores how human connection, sacrifice, responsibility and the acceptance of loss as the price of an engaged, fully lived life will help us to wrestle with impermanence and tragedy.

One of Wolpe’s strengths as a writer is that he’s an erudite reader. He has a pleasingly eclectic well to draw from, so references to Somerset Maugham and Rabbi Akiva are handled with equal deftness.

Another is a fairly reliable gift for literary turns of phrase. Wolpe has a facility with language that often lends poetic and emotional heft to prose which may otherwise sit woodenly on the page (as is too often the case with “inspirational” books of this genre). In a chapter titled “Faith,” he writes: “When I pray, I try to break my heart … Prayer is not about the accuracy of the ritual but about offering up one’s heart. It is not that God, or the world, needs one’s heart, but that we need to be able to offer … Prayer is the moment we agree not to hide.”

Those readers familiar with Wolpe’s books may be surprised by the degree of personal disclosure here, but the book is enriched by it. The author’s recounting of his vulnerability to loss and candid descriptions of his struggle with faith and the existence of God lend his musings a measure of authenticity and accessibility that might have been obscured behind a more formal and distant rabbinical voice.

Religion, he writes, “dooms itself to irrelevance” and “loses its central mission” when it falls into the clumsy trap of attempting to defy those simple things we know to be true: Life is not fair. Some “whys” are essentially unanswerable. Religion without reason cannot provide an explanation of the natural world. Our bad and good behaviors are not laboriously weighed and counted in order to determine the fate that befalls us.

For readers struggling with doubt and the elusiveness of faith, Wolpe will prove a compelling voice because he combines a belief in the importance of spiritual searching with the admission that certainty and clarity often elude him, too. Still, he insists, the search itself enriches and elevates our lives, even if the spiritual destination of it is only glimpsed intermittently.

As he acknowledges in his introductory chapter, the questions Wolpe wrestles with here are not new but, rather, are “recurrent questions.” The appeal of “Making Loss Matter” is not that it is philosophically ambitious, but that it explores those timeless questions in an affectingly personal, modern voice which is well-versed in the spiritual and cultural vocabulary of our times.

“Faith,” he writes, “is not denying that death is tragic; it is insisting that it can carry lessons, that it can bring meaning into the lives of those who remember.”


Author Rabbi David Wolpe


‘My Hardest Struggle Is the Struggle for Faith’

Author and Rabbi David Wolpe found himself rewriting the manuscript that would become his latest book, “Making Loss Matter,” as events in his own life began offering immediate lessons about pain and coping which rendered his earlier drafts irrelevant. After their daughter’s birth, Wolpe’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. Despite her victory over her illness, it left the young couple unable to have a second child. Their life together was suddenly rocked by fear and loss.

“The book became so personal,” Wolpe said in a recent conversation with The Journal, “because I no longer had a choice in the matter. I couldn’t possibly write it any other way. For example, some early drafts in the book had some pages addressing the pain of infertility. This was written at a time when my wife was pregnant. I had no personal experience with it, and that portion of the book was somehow flat. My editor suggested that we leave that part out, and after rereading it, I agreed. I never dreamed at that time that later, after my wife’s cancer, we would be dealing with that exact form of loss.”

In both his book’s final draft and public talks to his congregation at Temple Sinai and elsewhere, Wolpe shares this painful chain of events in his family’s life in service to his larger message: the importance of extracting meaning from personal loss.

“Instead of speaking from what I had learned, I spoke about what I felt. Having had that loss has made me much more open and less cynical.”

Well before that, Wolpe said, he had to learn the pulpit rabbi’s art of “speaking to 1,000 people as if it was a one-on-one conversation.” But until recently, he was always partially obscured by the mantle of “rabbi.” Discussing his personal experiences behind the pulpit and in print does, he said, make him feel a bit “exposed and uncomfortable, even while it has its own comforts. People’s responsiveness to it has been very rewarding … Even so, it’s a bit weird. For the first time, I’m standing without the pulpit in front of me.”

Describing his latest book as “a companion to loss,” Wolpe said that a key element of the book’s message is that “it’s important we extract what value there is to be had in that loss, to consider what was valuable in that person and find a way to use it to continue one’s life … to create meaning.”

Essential to a meaningful life, he added, is the forming of deep human connections, not the false, fleeting “communities” free of real long-term commitment that seem to substitute for it in modern American life, whether it be on the Internet or elsewhere.

“In the same way that lighter, more superficial entertainment drives out more serious entertainment, so does lighter, more artificial community replace real, substantive community,” which is more enriching and more complex.

Certain American cultural myths, Wolpe said, are antithetical to a realistic grappling with that complexity. “There’s the notion that natural means healthy,” he said, “and that every problem has a solution. There’s a myth that love is exclusively about flowers and hearts and ease and joy, and a belief that judgments and demands and responsibilities are negatives.”

The courage to engage in life — despite its impermanence and tragedies — comes from faith, he said, and Wolpe is candid about his own difficulty in sustaining it.

“My hardest struggle is the
struggle for faith, which, of course, I am still in,” he said. “It constantly needs to be renewed. It’s essentially the struggle between my head and my heart.” — Diane Arieff, Contributing Editor


A Magical Season


A typical seventh-grade essay might be about a soccer game, a trip to the mall or a favorite pet. But Mathew Rudes isn’t a typical 12-year-old, and the essay he wrote for his first-period English class at Porter Middle School in Granada Hills earlier this year wasn’t typical either. It was about pain, a subject Mathew knows about all too well.

Mathew has a very rare form of Marfan Syndrome, a disease that affects the body’s connective tissue — and consequently practically every organ in Mathew’s body — except his extraordinary mind. It is usually passed down from parents, but in Mathew’s case, it was a spontaneous genetic mutation. When he was born, doctors told his mother, Carol, that Mathew probably wouldn’t live. But he has lived longer than most of those who have Marfan Syndrome and has become part of a UCLA study. But his life as been anything but easy. Already he has had two heart operations. In any given week he could go into the doctor three or four times. He lives under a terrible cloud — the possibility that his aorta could swell and burst at any time. Carol, his mom, is on call 24 hours a day. And on Rosh Hashanah this year, Mathew ended up in Children’s Hospital for 10 days.

When Mathew was well enough to do some school work, he wrote the essay about his experience for his teacher, Mrs. Illig. She said it was the best personal essay she’d ever read. But this wasn’t the only writing Mathew had done. When the Starlight Children’s Foundation granted him his wish for a laptop computer, he whipped out a story called “Monstress Mayhem,” about a boy with special powers who confronts an evil queen and an army of dragons in a land called GinGin. Mathew finished the 155-page story before he had finished the sixth grade. The tale was even picked up by a production company after Mathew was featured in an L.A. Times article.

Lately Mathew hasn’t been able to write much because he has been too ill. “That’s one of the things that’s very depressing to him,” his mother says. “Writing was his way of handling his energies.” But last summer, Phyllis Folb, director of marketing and communications at Starlight (and former head of PR at the Jewish Federation) asked Mathew to make a Chanukah card for the organization, which grants wishes to seriously ill children. Mathew drew the card on his computer, hand-colored it and wrote this inscription inside: “May a piece of the magic stay with you every day of the year.” He quizzed Dr. Michael Joseph, his UCLA pain management doctor, on the card’s meaning. Joseph, like many of Mathew’s physicians is Jewish and understood immediately. The star of David surrounded by shards of color spreading in all directions represented the special quality of Chanukah. The beautiful multihued stained glass was the holiday joy that people could carry away with them. The Magen David alone remained unbroken.

The star may also be a symbol of Mathew, a brave 12-year-old who won’t let pain defeat him. To purchase Mathew’s card or other Starlight holiday cards, call (877) 316-STAR (7827).

Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer