Your child’s Jewish identity can flourish in Los Angeles

Photo courtesy of PJ Library

Last month, my wife and I were blessed with our third child. When we welcomed our first child home from Cedars-Sinai four years ago, my wife and I looked at each other and asked, “Now what?”

I remember that apprehensive moment distinctly. We spoke about our hope of raising kind, well-adjusted children who felt the same connection to Judaism and the Jewish people that we did. But, there is no training manual for parenting in general, let alone for how to raise a Jewish child in ritzy, 21st century Los Angeles.

Fortunately, like many new parents, we received a great deal of solicited and unsolicited advice. The best advice introduced us to the numerous opportunities for young parents in Los Angeles to weave our new child (and ourselves) into the fabric of our Jewish community.

PJ Library

This is a no-brainer and should be on every new parent’s to-do list. Each month, PJ Library sends free Jewish books to more than 500,000 families with children ages 6 months through 8 years old. There is no catch. The books celebrate Jewish values, culture and tradition. My daughters have adored each book, especially the ones about Jewish holidays. “Good Night Israel,” a variation on the classic “Goodnight Moon,” is my personal favorite. It is refreshing to see children eagerly greet the mail carrier in hopes of receiving a new book from PJ Library. Watching children choose a physical book over screen time is a modern miracle of Maccabean proportion. Nes gadol, indeed.

Zimmer Children’s Museum

Photo courtesy of Zimmer Children’s Museum

Fortunately for us, the best children’s museum in Los Angeles happens to be a Jewish museum, located in the same building as the offices of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The Zimmer not only provides a beautiful interactive space for quality learning and play, it does so through Jewish themes. An annual membership, starting at $109, includes free admission for two adults and all of their children and grandchildren, plus discounts for the Zimmer’s terrific camps and classes. The museum is also a popular place to host a birthday party for your child.

Jewish education

These days, it seems, parents start thinking about their children’s schools — how to get accepted and how to pay for them — even before conception. In Los Angeles, only one-third of the estimated 60,000 school-age Jewish children attend Jewish day schools or religious schools. Yet, countless formal and informal Jewish educational opportunities and resources exist here. A decade ago, Builders of Jewish Education launched jKidLA, a website and concierge service that provides information and helps assess Jewish educational options based on a family’s specific needs and preferences — from Parent and Me classes to preschool and early education. After my wife and I made the commitment to send our kids to Jewish day school, jKidLA helped us navigate the multitude of options.

Finding a Jewish community

Becoming a parent for the first time is a major inflection point in one’s life. It often enhances the desire to be part of a larger community, especially one with other first-time parents and children. This transitional period is an ideal time to “shul shop” for the right congregation or synagogue where you can put down roots, and to explore a local Jewish Community Center, if you are lucky enough to live near one.

Membership rates are more forgiving at this stage in our lives, too. A synagogue, congregation or JCC will invariably offer Tot Shabbats for young children and special gatherings for young families. In addition, studies show that Jewish summer and family camps have a high impact on fostering a child’s Jewish identity. To that end, the Jewish Community Foundation recently awarded a significant Cutting Edge Grant to the Federation’s Family Camp Pilot to create more meaningful camping experiences for families with small children. My wife and I have also benefited from Jewish parenting classes, including a fun, informative series offered by GoSephardic, geared toward new parents. Finally, hands-down, the best resource to learn about Jewish life in Los Angeles is the Jewish Journal. The invaluable print and online publication contains everything Jewish that’s fit to print each week.

Shabbat as a ‘palace in time’

It is often said that “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” This was true for my family and for most Persian-Jewish families. Growing up, I always found Shabbat dinner special. Regardless of observance level and whatever else was going on in our lives, our extended family knew that a lively evening with three or four generations and great food awaited us every Friday night. Ask any Persian Jew and he or she will extol the virtues of a family Shabbat dinner. Spending Shabbats and Jewish holidays with family are memories that will endure for a lifetime and instill in your child a passion to continue the tradition. In these uber-wired, underconnected times, the Friday night dinner tradition is being adopted far and wide across cultures as a way to bring families closer. If not already a part of your practice, consider treating Friday night Shabbat dinner, in the words of the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, like a “palace in time.”

Lead by example

Finally, channeling Mark Twain, the reports of the communal demise of millennials and GenXers has been greatly exaggerated. Americans in their 20s, 30s and 40s — and certainly such Jews in Los Angeles — care about issues greater than themselves and are increasingly willing to put their time and money where their mouth is.

I find my own community work not only personally rewarding but a valuable opportunity to involve my children and weave the value of tikkun olam into their lives. I take my children to as many events and service opportunities as possible, such as packaging meals for needy Jews with Tomchei Shabbos, and hosting as many meetings and events at our home as feasible.

We cannot take for granted that our children will care about the Jewish community simply because we do. The next generation’s connection to Israel is no exception.

Studies show that children learn far more by watching what we do than by listening to what we say, especially when we try to teach empathy and gratitude. When it is not possible to include them, I explain to my toddlers: “Daddy won’t be home tonight to put you to bed because he is working on a mitzvah or tzedakah project.”

We cannot take for granted that our children will care about the Jewish community simply because we do. The next generation’s connection to Israel is no exception. I take my children to the annual Celebrate Israel Festival, join them at their school’s annual Independence Day activities, and read them books and share stories about the Jewish homeland.

If the issues you care most about extend beyond the Jewish community, consider engaging in that philanthropy or activism from a Jewish perspective. Whether you care passionately about criminal justice reform or climate change, cancer research or children with special needs, there is a Jewish organization in Los Angeles working effectively on it.

Sam Yebri is a board member of the Jewish Community Foundation, Builders of Jewish Education and 30 Years After.

Affordable tips for decorating kids’ rooms

I have decorated a lot of kids’ rooms in my day. I love it. I find that decorating for the pint-sized set can be a lot more fun than decorating for grown-ups because I get to incorporate a big dose of color and whimsy into the design. And what I’ve learned is that adding color and whimsy doesn’t cost a lot.

Good thing, too, because children grow up so quickly — changing interests as quickly as they change shoe sizes. So, why spend a fortune on decorating if you’re going to have to do it every few years? With these decorating tips, you really can stretch your budget along with your imagination.

Play with wall color

I love to start with a new wall color. A coat of paint can completely change a kid’s room for less than $50 in paint and supplies. And, boy, do I have fun choosing the colors — orange, lime green, turquoise, grape purple, anything but Swiss Coffee! I have no problem choosing bold colors because I know it’s easy to repaint if you or your child wants a new look. 

Think temporary

Incorporate decorating touches that can be removed easily, so you can change them out as your kids grow up. One great option is peel-and-stick wall decals, which are available at Bed, Bath and Beyond, Target and many mass retailers. There are decals with polka dots, flowers, animals, sports themes, inspirational phrases — you name it. They’re easy to put up and easy to take down. 

Always keep this removability factor in mind. I once made a canopy out of a hoop and sheers to hang above a girl’s bed. Although it looked like a permanent fixture, it was actually attached to the ceiling with a 3M Command Hook, so it could be removed anytime without damaging the paint.

Follow a theme by accessorizing

Again, always anticipate a child’s changing tastes. As much as he or she might want a “Star Wars”-themed room, getting a bed in the shape of a Tatooine landspeeder is not the most cost-efficient way to decorate. (I would want one, though. Totally.) Instead, rely on easily replaceable accessories such as bedding, pillows and wall decals. The same goes for hand-painted murals: Don’t invest in custom-drawn artwork for your kids’ walls; if they want a mermaid, a storybook or a dinosaur theme, make it happen through the accessories. 

Allow kids to grow into it

I used to automatically buy twin beds for kids’ rooms. But you know what? Kids get big. Purchasing at least a full-size bed will allow them to be comfortable even when they come home to visit (or live) after they’ve graduated from college. As for other furniture such as dressers, nightstands and bookcases, choose timeless pieces that don’t scream “for kids only.” If it’s too juvenile, you’ll have to replace it by the time they hit the middle school years. 

Make it easy to keep organized

Cleaning their room is just not in kids’ DNA. At least if there are plenty of organizers, they won’t have any excuses. Outfit their room with shelving for books and school supplies, bins and baskets for toys and clothes, and under-bed storage boxes to hide rarely used items. With the right tools, cleaning their room won’t be so much of a chore.

Turn their drawings into art

Sure, the refrigerator door is a nice place to showcase your kids’ artwork, but to really encourage their creativity, treat their drawings and paintings like masterpieces. Even if your child is doodle-challenged, put his or her scribbling in a frame and mat, and it will look like it’s from a modern art exhibition. Interestingly, this kind of art, though juvenile, becomes more treasured as the years go by. I’ll bet many of us wish our parents had kept our childhood drawings. 

Make it interactive

Camp advice for parents: FAQs

Every year in the months prior to the beginning of camp, I get numerous phone calls from parents who have a variety of concerns about sending their children to camp for the first time. If you’re one of these parents, allow me to offer some advice.

First of all, know that you are not alone! Most parents and children have concerns about sending kids away for an extended period of time. It’s perfectly normal to have those concerns. I always think of it as part of the camp experience. It’s like a ropes course — a little scary at first, a thrill when you are doing it, and when you are done you want to do it over and over again. That being said, here are the most common concerns I hear from parents, and my responses:

I won’t be able to talk to my child while he is at camp.

Yes, that’s true. If I’ve learned one thing over the last 12 years of being a camp director it’s this: the experience is harder on parents than it is on kids. While the kids are at camp, they are busy going from activity to activity. Camp is packed with fun, adventure and games. The days at camp fly by, and for the most part kids are having the time of their lives. 

The truth is that separation does affect children … but in a good way. At camp, kids develop great coping mechanisms that will stay with them for a lifetime. There’s great value in campers becoming more independent by having their own experiences. Kids who go to camp year after year are more prepared to handle the challenges of being independent when they are on their own at college. 

The fact that you can’t talk to them affects you a lot more than it does them. And don’t worry; there are still ways to be in touch. Most camps have Web sites where you can send your kids daily e-mails. We print them and give them to the kids. Also, we post hundreds of pictures. 

And look at it this way: If you don’t have any other kids at home, this is your time to enjoy yourself! Go see movies, read books, catch up with old friends — this is your summer too!

So much is being discussed about bullying these days. How do you handle the emotional safety of my child?

Camps take the emotional safety of their campers extremely seriously. I personally consider it just as important as their physical safety. Because we have children and staff in residence, camps are often better equipped than many schools to handle the emotional safety of their campers. We’ve developed our staff trainings with the assistance of social workers, school counselors and other camp professionals. We train our counselors to identify the signs of bullying before it happens. At my camp, we have every camper and staff person sign an anti-bullying contract. Campers know in advance that bullying is grounds for being sent home. Honestly, we seldom see cases of bullying at camp. Most of the time kids are really sweet to one another. 

Who is taking care of my child all day?

Our counselors are fantastic. Most of them grew up at camp. They are enthusiastic about camp, love their Judaism and are excellent role models to their campers. What I have observed is that they take the responsibility of supervising campers extremely seriously. Also, because we’ve watched the majority of them grow up at camp, we’ve known them for years. We choose the cream of the crop to be counselors. Every summer I am reinvigorated by the next generation of young leaders.

My child doesn’t know anyone else going to camp. I’m concerned that she won’t make any friends.

Every camp gets its healthy share of newcomers each summer. It’s part of our culture. We are the experts in icebreakers, name games, and team-building activities. The first day of camp is filled with these activities. At our camp, we give the first day a theme that every staff person knows, “Every Camper Has a Friend.” By the second day of camp, it’s nearly impossible to tell who the newcomers are. Many years ago, when I went to camp for the first time, I didn’t know anyone. It was the best thing for me because I was forced to meet new people. Twenty-seven years later, I am still friends with many of those same people.

I’m concerned that Judaism won’t be observed the way we do it in our family.

Luckily, there are a variety of Jewish summer camps in Southern California. I know all of them very well, and they are all excellent. They are also very different from one another. My suggestion is that you learn about the different camps before you make your decision. Make sure the way they treat Judaism at camp is aligned with what you want. If your synagogue is only speaking about one particular camp, pressure them to have a camp fair or presentation where all of the Southern California camps are represented. Trust me, if they’ll host, we’ll come.

I have a child who doesn’t want to go to camp.

Campers often have many misconceptions about Jewish overnight camp. They might think it’s going to be boring, or that they’re not going to get the necessary break from their typical classroom setting. My suggestion is to share with them how much fun camp is. Get on the camp Web sites and show them the camp promotional videos. (You may want to go to camp after watching the videos!) Tell them it’s like a sleepover at a friend’s house, except with a lot more friends and for a longer time period.

Going to camp can be one of your children’s most meaningful experiences. They will make lifelong friends, try new things, become more self-confident and have the time of their life! After getting past the initial reluctance, they will not only have a blast, but they will grow in more ways than you can imagine. 

Looking forward to seeing you at camp this summer!

Survey: Israeli parents give children cell phones for peace of mind

One in four Israeli children between the ages of 6 and 8 has their own cell phone, a new survey found.

The number increases to one in three children for ages 9 to 11, and 91 percent for children ages 12-14, the survey by the Israeli cell phone company Pelephone found.

The survey of 920 Israeli mothers of children ages 6-14, representative of the general population, took place at the end of July.

Some 93 percent of the mothers said they gave their children cell phones so that they can have peace of mind, and be able to contact them when they want.

Ninety-two percent of the children with cell phones use them to send text messages. Seventy-five percent use apps, according to the survey.

What I want for Father’s Day

If you’ve never had a tooth extracted, I can assure you that it is everything you’d imagine and more, especially since I opted out of the general anesthesia that would’ve rendered me unconscious during the procedure. Turns out, I didn’t need it. You can imagine the surprise of the oral surgeon and his team of assisting nurses when my arm twitched involuntarily, exposing the fact that I’d fallen asleep in the chair while they all worked in my open mouth.

What’s worse, the offending arm twitch also woke me up. As I reluctantly drifted back to consciousness, I heard the oral surgeon ask, in amused amazement (or was it “amazed amusement?”), “Did he fall asleep?!”

It seemed this was a first for them. One of the nurses responded, “It shows how good we are.”

Not that they weren’t doing a good job (at least, I hoped they were), but I felt compelled to correct her, “Uh bwuh bwuh bwuh.”

Being fluent in the language of people who have surgical equipment in their mouths, the oral surgeon knew that translated to, “I have a 15-month-old baby at home.”

“That would explain it,” he laughed. “This must be a break for you. I love it!” Then, turning on the drill, he added, “You can go back to sleep now.”

And I did. Not really. But I do confess that, sometime later, I was actually looking forward to an ultrasound I had to have performed because I thought that it might present the opportunity to catch a few winks.

To my horror, I have become a cliché: the sleep-deprived parent.

When people found out that my wife and I were expecting our first child, they all warned us to enjoy our sleep now because soon we weren’t going to be getting any. And I mean, everybody. That was the first response of every single person we told, at least the ones with kids.

Everything they say about the effects of sleep deprivation is true. Remember, it is an accepted form of torture in many countries, none of which, to my knowledge, is cruel enough to administer it in conjunction with forced diaper changing.

Since our son, Gabriel, came to live with us, both my wife and I have experienced the phenomenon of entering a room and being unable to remember what we went in there for. We fail to find things that are right in front of us. We have a sense that there are people we should be holding grudges against, but we can’t remember who they are, or what they did.

On one occasion, I refilled the humidifier with water and turned it on, only to be baffled as to why I couldn’t get any steam to come out of the spout, no matter how high I turned up the dial. I fiddled with it for several minutes, until my wife, in a moment of clarity, suggested that I plug it into an electrical outlet.

Hopefully, none of my current employers are reading this. If they are, I can assure them that my work is the one thing that, for some reason, has not been affected at all.

Everything they say about the effects of sleep deprivation is true. Remember, it is an accepted form of torture in many countries, none of which, to my knowledge, is cruel enough to administer it in conjunction with forced diaper changing.

There is a flip slide to this coin. The truth is, I enjoy sleep now more than I ever have before; it’s just not my own. There’s no accomplishment more satisfying — at least in my life thus far — than finding the perfect combination of soothing techniques necessary to lull a crying baby to sleep in your arms. The moment is thrilling and never ceases to amaze. You cannot believe what you have just achieved, even though you witnessed it with your own eyes. And although Gabriel is always adorable — if you don’t believe me, just ask my wife; she’ll tell you — when he sleeps, he is absolutely angelic.

Who cares that we never get to the movies anymore? I can watch Gabriel (sleeping or waking) for hours on end, completely transfixed and entertained, which is lucky for me as we now attempt to wean him from breastfeeding. When he wakes at 3 or 4 in the morning, expecting to nurse, it is I who must deal with him, as there is no way for my wife to distract him from what he really wants.

As I yearn for my pillow, it would be easy for me to curse my fate, but, eventually, Gabriel will rest his head against my chest, and I’ll feel his little muscles twitch in my arms as he relaxes into slumber. And I know that, one day all too soon, these moments will be cherished amongst the most memorable and meaningful of my life.

What do I want for Father’s Day?

Sleep. Or not.

Howard March is a writer and producer in film and for television in Los Angeles.

Opinion: Chewable Xanax and the shoe debacle

I had to look inside myself, which was kind of like looking into my high school locker: moldy half-eaten sandwich, a few loose Starburst candies, heaps of notebooks and burrito-stained gym clothes obscuring the few things of value. Sure, there’s a book of Sylvia Plath poems and a valid bus pass, but good luck finding them while avoiding that festering tuna salad from yesteryear. 

When I looked inside myself, it took a second to clear out the debris. Also, I usually forget the combination to the stupid lock.

All of this inner turmoil was catalyzed by one simple moment, just picking up my 2-year-old from day care. He went to put on his shoes and socks, struggled mightily, finally succeeded, after which he looked at me, paused for a beat and started bawling. He lunged at me for a hug and I knelt down to look him in the eye.

“I’m scared,” he said, sobbing. Me, too, dude. If I wanted to see someone overreact to one of life’s challenges, I could just look in a mirror.

My child, facing a difficult task, got through it only to melt down completely. It’s happening, I thought. This kid needs chewable Xanax.

Hoping his day care teacher didn’t notice, but knowing she had, I grabbed his coat and hustled him out of there.

Driving home, I was baffled. I mean, you would think irrational crying jags related to under-achieving would be right up my dark alley, but this one had me stumped. I knew he put on his socks and shoes after naptime every single day, but I was uncharacteristically early that day, and I happened to be there. Had I thrown off his game? Did he have performance anxiety doing this important task in front of Mom? Have I already passed along some deep, depressing cultural pressure to earn love through accomplishment?  

The day after the shoe debacle, the day care lady snagged me as I turned to exit.

“We have to talk about what happened with the shoes,” she whispered gently. I knew she was right.

According to her, the problem wasn’t in his skill level, but in his confidence. “You need to tell him that you know he can do it. He doesn’t think you believe in him. You don’t trust him, so he doesn’t trust himself.”

That’s when I looked into the rusty old locker of my soul and realized; she is right. I wanted to think it was some Montessori mumbo-jumbo, but I knew it was the truth.

When I saw his little hands struggling with the heels of his tiny socks, it looked so impossible, getting them up, closing the Velcro on his sneakers, the whole thing just looked too hard, and I was pretty sure I was going to have to jump in and help him. The truth is, I didn’t think he could do it, and he sensed that, and he got scared and wept.

“But, you won’t pass the bar,” said my mom to my brother, moments after he announced he would be applying to law school.

He passed the bar on the first try and has been a lawyer for years, but you see how this runs in my family, runs like a kid with inside-out socks.

Since the day care talking-to, I have kept a watchful eye on myself. I convince myself to believe he can hold onto the swing chains without falling, no matter how high I push him. I convince myself that I believe he can spear pieces of broccoli with his fork, or hang up his coat, or turn pages of a book.

Fear of those you love failing isn’t mean or belittling or dismissive; it’s a protective mechanism. That doesn’t make it right. If I don’t have confidence in the little things now, I could project the idea that I don’t trust him to tackle big things later. So, I guess I have to trust myself to at least fake trusting him. Locker closed.

Teresa Strasser is a Los Angeles Press Club and Emmy Award-winning writer and the author of “Exploiting My Baby: Because It’s Exploiting Me”( Penguin). She blogs at

Searching for the soul

On a recent Friday night, during one of her rare articulate moments, I asked my 88-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s if she could feel her soul.

“Yes, I certainly can,” she answered slowly, searching for her words, as she struggled to express the reflection of the feelings inside.

“How?” I probed.

“I believe in it. I always have,” she said.

I had come to Grancell Village at the Jewish Home for the Aging to pick up my 90-year-old father and bring him home for Shabbat dinner. My mother was so unusually alert that evening, so I brought her too.

At our house, with our adult children present, her ability to talk continued. I was so surprised that I brought out the volumes of hand-written recipe books that she began in 1947 and asked her if she knew what they were.

She picked them up and felt them. “Of course, I know what these are.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“These are a part of me,” she said slowly. “They are connected to who I am.”

I noticed that she had answered far deeper than saying, “These are my recipe books.”

I didn’t need any more evidence that she indeed felt her soul.

The next day, my father told me, she had reverted back and couldn’t string three words together.

At the age of 56, I have learned that we assume upon ourselves many labels and classifications during our lifetime. As much as we try to hold on, nothing stays static. In the last year, one of my most active identities has become being the son of an Alzheimer’s victim. As each week passes, the week before looks like a time when my mother was capable of miracles. A little more than two years ago she was still driving and cooking Rosh Hashannah dinners for 20 people. Now I don’t even have to worry about her reading this article. Always a voracious reader, she stopped reading a year ago.

My father, who doesn’t appear a day above 60, has stepped up in a big way, always at her side, completing her sentences and her movements, so that they can remain together in their apartment at the Jewish Home.

In my new capacity as the son of an Alzheimer’s victim, I have many questions. Some of them are Jewish questions. One kept me up for hours the other night, leading me to my bookshelf at 3 a.m., combing through volumes to see what insights I might glean. What happens to the soul during Alzheimer’s?

Right now, while my mother is still in physical form, where is her soul? The soul that was so deeply emotional, at times irrational, always larger than life, filled with equal amounts of love and anger, happiness and discontent that could burst forward with dancing, singing, crying, yelling and admonition—the soul that always reached out to those in despair, touching people with deep reservoirs of friendship and concern?

Does that soul still exist? Is it sick, too? Does it also have Alzheimer’s, while she is still alive? Maybe it is completely present, having pulled inside itself until it is released from this ailing body? There are comments my mother still makes as she did at my house that evening, when I can still see sparks of her soul.

When I put this question out to my friend, Larry Neinstein, a cantor and doctor who is head of student health at USC, he had much to say. Larry has multiple myeloma. In the last two years, he has survived through a successful blood transplant and refers to his ongoing chemo treatments as appetizer chemos, main course chemos, dessert chemos and triple high-dose atomic blasts. Larry thrives in remission, holding his breath of life from blood test to blood test. He is an inspiration to our entire circle of friends, who all stand in awe of his active life filled with family, work, hikes, music, trips abroad and his continuing to attend international conferences as a world-renowned keynote speaker on adolescent medicine.

Larry wrote me a few days later:

“The soul, I think, is only a flickering light when we are born,” he wrote. “It gains and grows in strength, meaning and depth throughout our life, through our families, our friends, our colleagues, through the profound moments, through music and through dance. At the same time, our soul is partially emptying itself to others, to our children as they are born, to friends and to the colleagues that we touch. It was like an ‘Ah ha!’ moment, when I was staring at my 1-month-old granddaughter’s eyes, and she was staring back with a combination of emptiness and fullness, of love and yearning, for her soul to have a chance of so much to come.

“I realized at that moment that my soul is in so many places and people, to one small degree or another,” he continued. “And the better life I have led, the deeper that soul that is in me, but the less that is left as I age. If I have led a full life, there will be none left on one side, and an immense amount left elsewhere.” 

Another friend of mine, a writer and editor, when I told him about these same questions, asked me in return, “Is this really about the questions?  Isn’t all this actually about the relationship with your mother?”

I gave his very penetrating question days of thought. While I might be psychologically in constant relationship with her understanding, and acting out the effect a parent has upon a child, I am no longer in an active give-and-take relationship with my mother.

As I told my brother, wife and kids recently, “The mother I knew is gone. This is not the same woman. This is a remnant of my mother. Shades of my mother have been removed, lifted to some other place. Without her full soul, I may recognize her physical appearance and even some of the things she says; her expressions and her scant memories. But while I give her all the respect and care she deserves—the attention and even interaction—there is no longer the exchange of dynamism and love between us that there once was.

She told me just three years ago, while we were driving on the 405, “You see this freeway?  If I ever get Alzheimer’s or any kind of dementia, you roll me out of this door right here and tell them I jumped out myself. I don’t ever want to be living like that in one of those places. Do you hear me?”

That was the mother with whom I was having a relationship. I often wonder what my responsibility is toward the mother I knew and her ebullient soul, as opposed to one at the Jewish Home?

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

The Parent Trap

Teenagers in Tennessee who want tattoos need a note from Mom or Dad. A minor in Indiana had best have parental permission if he of she is planning to pierce anything other than ears.

In both Israel and America, parents and politicians alike are searching for some solution to the plague of outrageous crimes committed by teens. In classrooms, state houses and homes, arguments rage about whom or what is to blame. What causes youngsters, especially youngsters from “better homes,” to harm each other? Too many guns? Too few dress codes? Two-income families? A permissive society?

Predictably, teenagers have responded that parents don’t know what they are talking about, that their views are Victorian, if not moronic. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quip about his father: “When I was 17,” he is reputed to have said, “my father knew nothing. But when I turned 22, I was amazed to discover how much my father had learned in just five years.”

Although all parents who have raised teenagers — and all children who have survived their teen years and reached adulthood — can recognize the truism in this quip, we currently seem more perplexed than ever by the challenge of child rearing; by the dynamics involved in the “generation gap” that has led to the current gory headlines. Why are children deaf to the advice parents offer, and why does it take so many years before we understand the true value of our parent’s wisdom?

It is these questions that are answered in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah, in the third among the numerous mitzvot recorded in this portion, instructs us about the disturbing law of the ben sorer umoreh, “the stubborn and rebellious son,” whose terrible behavior causes him his life at the hands of the high court (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

But who is to blame for such a wicked son? Is it the child’s fault, the parents’ fault, or a combination of both? Maimonides declared that a son becomes “stubborn and rebellious” when parents are too permissive and allow him to lead a life of irresponsibility. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, an earlier 12th-century biblical commentator, agreed with this position and claimed that the Torah did not place the burden of responsibility entirely on the child. Based on the Talmud, he argued that the son could justifiably be tried and punished only if the conduct of his parents has been beyond reproach. If they did not provide a good example for him to emulate, then they have no right to bring him to court for “stubborn and rebellious” conduct.

The Torah notes this cause and effect when it states, “If a man has a rebellious son that hearkens not to the voice of his father or the voice of his mother….” Who, we must ask, is the Torah referring to? Who hasn’t hearkened to the voice of his parents? The simple answer is that this is referring to the child.

Perhaps, however, the Torah means that the parent himself didn’t listen to the voice of his parents. The “stubborn and rebellious son” never sees a living example of parents showing respect to grandparents. Is it surprising, therefore, that the Talmud instructs us to call our parents by the titles, Avi Mori — my father, my teacher — and Imi Morati — my mother, my teacher? A parent is supposed to teach, and teaching means setting an example for our children to emulate.

A philosopher once said, “Example is not the main thing, it is the only thing.” Although rearing children has never been easy, no child becomes suddenly intractable. The process of education begins at the very moment the child is born, and parents have to set the example for children to follow. If we do not do this, we shall produce what the Torah calls “the stubborn and rebellious son,” which will result in one more battle line across the “generation gap.”

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Aug. 20, 1999.

Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Alike, But Different

I am one of three totally different children, and my parents have assured me that none of us is adopted.

I find this hard to believe.

I am not sure if my siblings have thought about this, but it has certainly crossed my mind a few times. How could three such radically dissimilar children, with varying temperaments, tastes and tendencies have the same parents?

This is a question I hear from many of my friends and congregants with more than one child. Sometimes it is said with chagrin, sometimes with delight, but always with a mixture of surprise and resigned acceptance. This is just the way it is.

However, far greater than the biological mystery of unlike offspring from the same parents is the challenge of parenting these children. Many siblings have different temperaments and personalities, and they respond to the same things in widely divergent ways. A technique honed over years with one child might prove totally ineffective with another.

For instance, I have one child who is very susceptible to bribery. When he was young, I could threaten to take away dessert and often I would get the desired result. My power to deprive him allowed me some semblance of control.

But I have another child for whom deprivation means nothing. When he was young, I could take away every single video, game, toy, stuffed animal, food or anything else that gave him any pleasure, and he would shrug it off as if he were flicking schmutz off his shoulder.

Into this maelstrom of frustration comes a teaching on this week’s Torah portion with a very simple yet profound observation: “You shall not plow with an ox and ass together” (Deuteronomy 22:10).

On the surface, the commandment expresses straightforward agricultural advice: do not pair animals together of unequal strength. According to professor Jeffrey H. Tigay in the “Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary” (Jewish Publication Society, 2001), if yoked together, the stronger one (the ox) might exhaust the weaker one (the ass), leading to potential harm and injury of that animal.

However, going deeper we see that this could also apply to how we parent our children. Whether they have the same birth parents or just grow up in the same home, each child is different. They have different ways about them — different strengths, skills and interests. They have innate talents with certain tasks and natural gifts in other areas. And they have their very own shortcomings and weaknesses as well.

Each child is a unique manifestation of God, and we cannot lump them together blithely. We cannot place them under the same yoke, burden them with the same expectations, and assume we will get the same results. As with other human beings, different offspring should be considered as individuals. We need to see them for who they are and not bind them to someone else.

The Torah’s insight makes parenting both more difficult and easier at the same time.

On the one hand, parenting requires that we know and are sensitive to each child as he or she presents himself or herself to us. We cannot be on automatic, assuming that what worked for one will work for all.

On the other hand, the Torah releases us from the unrealistic expectations that we place upon ourselves and our children. Understanding that our children are not alike, we can free ourselves and them from the pressures of being like their siblings — or other children for that matter — and get down to the business of learning and enjoying who they are.

I’m now the father of three very different children with very different temperaments, tastes and tendencies. I wonder if they sometimes think that one of them must have been adopted. It is only natural, I suppose.

But personally, I just hope and pray that every day I am up to parenting them in the way that fits each of them best.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard is the incoming senior rabbi at Adat Ari El.

Our Uri

Hours before the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah went into effect, Israel Defense Forces tank commander Uri Grossman, the son of acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman, was killed by an Hezbollah anti-tank missile. This is an excerpt of the eulogy David Grossman delivered at his son’s funeral:

At 20 minutes to three in the morning, between Saturday and Sunday, our doorbell rang. Over the intercom, they said they were from the army. For three days,
every thought began with a negative: He won’t come. We won’t speak. We won’t laugh. He won’t be that kid with the ironic look in his eyes and the amazing sense of humor. He won’t be that young person with understanding beyond his years. There won’t be that warm smile and healthy appetite. There will no longer be that rare combination of determination and refinement. There won’t be his common sense and wisdom. We won’t sit down together to watch “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld,” and we won’t listen to Johnny Cash, and we won’t feel the strong embrace. We won’t see you going to talk to your brother, Yonatan, with excited hand movements, and we won’t see you hugging your sister, Ruthie, the love of your life.

Uri, my beloved. For your entire brief life, we have all learned from you. We learned from the strength and determination to go your own way. To go your own way even if there is no way you could succeed. We followed with amazement your struggle to get into the tank commanders’ course. How you never compromised with your commanders, because you knew you would be a great commander. You were not satisfied to give less than you thought you could. And when you succeeded, I thought, “Here’s a man who knows his own abilities in such a sober and simple way. Here’s a man who has no pretensions or arrogance, who isn’t influenced by what others say about him, whose source of strength is internal.”

From childhood, you were like that. A child who live in harmony with himself and those around him. A child who knew his place and knew that he was loved, who recognized his limitations and strengths. And truly, from the moment you forced the army to make you a commander, it was clear what kind of commander and person you were. We hear today from your comrades and your subordinates about the commander and friend. About the person who got up before everyone else in order to organize everything and who went to sleep only after everyone else had. And yesterday, at midnight, I looked at our house, which was quite a mess after the visits of hundreds of people who came to console us and I said to myself: “Nu, now we need Uri, to help us get everything together.”

You were the leftie of your unit, and you were respected for it, because you stood your ground without giving up even one of your military assignments…. You were a son and a friend to me and to Ema. Our soul is tied to yours. You felt good in yourself, and you were a good person to live with. I cannot even say out loud how much you were “Someone to Run With.” Every furlough you would say: “Dad, let’s talk,” and we would go, usually to a restaurant, and talk. You told me so much, Uri, and I felt proud that I was your confidante.

I won’t say anything now about the war you were killed in. We, our family, have already lost in this war. The state of Israel will have its own reckoning….
Uri was such a quintessential Israeli boy; even his name was very Israeli and so very Hebraic. He was the essence of Israeli-ness as I would want it to be. An Israeli-ness that has almost been forgotten, that is something of a curiosity.

And he was a person so full of values. That word has been so eroded and has become ridiculed in recent years. In our crazy, cruel and cynical world, it’s not ‘cool’ to have values, or to be a humanist, or to be truly sensitive to the suffering of the other, even if that other is your enemy on the battlefield.

However, I learned from Uri that it is both possible and necessary to be all that. We have to guard ourselves, by defending ourselves both physically and morally. We have to guard ourselves from might and simplistic thinking, from the corruption that is in cynicism, from the pollution of the heart and the ill-treatment of humans, which are the biggest curse of those living in a disastrous region like ours. Uri simply had the courage to be himself, always and in all situations — to find his exact voice in every thing he said and did. That’s what guarded him from the pollution and corruption and the diminishing of the soul.

In the night between Saturday and Sunday, at 20 to 3 a.m., our doorbell rang. The person said through the intercom that he was from the army, and I went down to open the door, and I thought to myself — that’s it, life’s over. But five hours later, when Michal and I went into Ruthie’s room to wake her and tell her the terrible news, Ruthie, after first crying, said: “But we will live, right? We will live and trek like before, and I want to continue singing in a choir, and we will continue to laugh like always, and I want to learn to play guitar.”

And we hugged her and told her that we will live.

We will derive our strength from Uri; he had enough for many years to come. Vitality, warmth and love radiated from him strongly, and that will shine on us even if the star that made it has been extinguished. Our love, we had a great honor to live with you. Thank you for every moment that you were ours.

— Father and Mother, Yonatan and Ruthie.

Translated from the original Hebrew by professor William Cutter, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

A Mother’s Wish for Her Daughter’s Day

Aaaah, to be a Jewish parent 1,000 years ago. Sure you had to worry about anti-Semites trying to exterminate your people, dying from the flu and wild animals eating your children for lunch, but what a breeze to plan your child’s bar mitzvah. No invitations to send, no DJs to hire, no out-of-towners to house. And, best of all, no agonizing over The Speech.

I’m not talking about your child’s discussion of her Torah portion. After all, your Uncle Harry and Aunt Rose from Florida do not expect a 13-year-old to shed new light on a religious text that has been analyzed by theologians for 2,000 years. I’m talking about your speech to your child — where you have 60 seconds to sum up your feelings about a moment that was 13 years in the making. What makes that speech — The Speech — particularly difficult is that the subject is adulthood, but your 21st-century child is light years from becoming an adult.

Things were different 1,000 years ago. People could legitimately be characterized as “children” or “adults” and age 13 was a logical dividing point: marriages would follow a bar mitzvah by a year or two and life expectancy was relatively short. Today, despite our tradition that sets the 13th year as the start of adulthood, 13 is not the end of childhood or the beginning of adulthood. Instead, it is the start of a new stage — teenager. Neither an adult nor child, a teenager is like Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me, Pull-You: Sometimes he seems to be pushing toward adulthood, and at other times he is pulling back toward childhood.

Because parents are speaking to a new teenager about an adulthood that is still far away, The Speech is difficult to write. A parent in 1005 C.E. had it easy: “Son, mazal tov on your bar mitzvah. May you marry one of your cousins next year, have a dozen children and take good care of our goatherd. Amen.” What we should say in 2005 is not as clear.

I have given The Speech a lot of thought lately. Not because I am faced with writing one in the short term (my daughter’s bat mitzvah is in October 2007), but because several friends are choreographing bar mitzvahs this year. When they are not agonizing over invitations and caterers, they are stressing out over The Speech.

One friend called to lament that her rabbi suggested that she write a speech that spoke to her “hopes and dreams” for her child.

“What should I say?” she implored.

I suggested some sappy boilerplate that would satisfy her rabbi, the congregants and her child. But after I hung up the telephone, I realized that the clichés I suggested, the ones that we routinely recite to our teenagers at their bar and bat mitzvahs, really don’t represent the anxiety over the teenage years that rests deep inside our parenting souls.

Of course, I won’t embarrass my daughter at her bat mitzvah by sharing the stress that I will surely feel as I watch the sun set on her childhood. I will undoubtedly tell her that my hope for her is that she retain the special spark she demonstrated from the moment of her birth through her 13th year. But, just between you and me, here is The Speech I would like to give to my daughter on Oct. 13, 2007.

The Speech

“When a ‘friend’ offers you your first hit of marijuana, I hope you say: ‘No, thank you. I am not mature enough to try a drug. I plan on trying it just once during my senior year in college after it has been screened by a reputable lab not to contain any dangerous substances.’ But if either curiosity or peer pressure overtakes you and you are inclined to say ‘yes,’ I hope that you are at your friend’s house, and her incredibly responsible parents are upstairs watching TV (very quietly), and you start coughing so hard that the parent’s race downstairs to make sure you are OK. (And you are so mortified at being caught that you never experiment with drugs again.)

“I hope that you don’t attend parties in homes where the person responsible for making the mortgage payments and paying the water bill is in Hawaii.

“I hope you learn early on that the angst endemic to the teenager years is temporary and that your life is full of possibility.

“I hope that you never go through that phase where you are embarrassed to be seen with your parents.

“I hope that you always want me to tuck you in.

“I hope that you never get in a car with someone who has been drinking, doing drugs or has had their driver’s license for less than 10 years.

“I hope that you continue to think tongue piercings are gross, smoking is stupid and Britney Spears doesn’t know how to dress.

“I hope that your middle school girlfriends unanimously decide that back-stabbing each other is cruel, and treat each other like actual friends.

“I hope that you don’t have a boyfriend until you are at least 16, and that he doesn’t have anytime to fool around with you because he is too busy studying (because he wants to get into Harvard), practicing the piano and running in marathons to raise money for worthwhile charities. And when you break up after the prom — because you listened to my advice that you should go to college emotionally free to date other people — I hope that it is you who did the breaking up because I don’t want you to suffer the excruciating pain caused when someone you love dumps you.

“I hope that you are always healthy, are the only teenage girl on the planet to love every inch of her body, and count spinach and oranges among your favorite foods.”

“I hope that everyone who meets you throughout your life loves and respects you as much as I do.


Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

Child’s Play

Is our culture trying to scam us into having kids?

This is an epic question and I only have 850 words, so let me start close to home, with my grandma.

“Listen to me,” she said last week over the phone from Reseda. “You have to have kids. You’ll never regret it. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do. Listen to your grandma.”

Catch any celebrity parent on a talk show and you’re likely to hear the same sentiment about the singularly life-changing effects of parenthood. When Jude Law, Eminem, Denise Richards and Esther Strasser agree on something, you have to give it consideration.

The only way to find out if this magical experience really happens, this moment of euphoric selflessness, this instant reshuffling of values and priorities, is to actually have or adopt a child of your own. There’s no other way to test the hypothesis. It’s like swallowing a new medication to see if it works for you. Let’s say it doesn’t, well, that’s one heck of a seizure you had to have to find out. Or worse.

“You can’t explain it,” parents tell me. “When it’s your own kid, you’ll understand.”

According to most parents, your own children’s cries rarely sound annoying and their poop literally doesn’t stink. In fact, their bodily fluids won’t gross you out at all and, in no time, you’ll be wiping their little noses with your bare hands and not minding one little bit.

You’ll excuse me if I need just a little more evidence. Here I am, somewhere between 29 and death, and I’ve got to figure out if it’s worth it, because if it is, I’m going to have to arrange my life accordingly; you know, decide if my mate is father material, maybe find some sort of stable employment, get air conditioning in my car.

I could be looking at years of carpools and making meals (which I don’t currently do for myself unless it involves a diet ginger ale and six pieces of toast), purchasing bottles and diapers and pajamas and “Harry Potter” books and “American Girl” dolls. With almost no proof that parenting is a positive experience, I’m expected to sign on for stomach flus, ballet recitals and protecting a vulnerable little being around every body of water, sharp surface and stranger.

There will be years of whining (assuming I’ll be a bad parent who can’t set boundaries) and tedious descriptions of what the cat is doing and what’s outside the car window. When I want to be alone, this will involve finding and paying a babysitter, who, if karma exists, will drink all of my beer and make long-distance calls. How will I even take a bath? Or go to the gym? I have to tell you, the closer I get to mating, the more freaked out I get. And I can’t get a straight answer.

In sharp contrast to the bill of goods grandma is trying to sell me, some mothers are admitting that it’s not all fuzzy blankies and painted clouds.

“Mothers Who Want to Kill Their Children,” screamed my TiVo, describing a recent episode of “Oprah.”

Actress Brooke Shields also went on “Oprah,” discussing her book about post-partum depression. I don’t know much, but I know this: If there’s a disorder dealing with hormone imbalances and resulting in wanting to drive a car into a wall, I’m going to get it. No matter what Tom Cruise says about natural healing, it’s going to take more than a few jumping jacks and some folic acid to make me all better. I’ll be the one at the Mommy and Me class staring out the window while my child is in the corner experimenting with matches.

It won’t surprise you to know that my mother wasn’t all that big on having children. It was the thing to do, so she did it, but it was never a passion of hers. I have to factor that into my ambiguity; my main maternal role model took a job driving a city school bus after I was born so she could afford a nanny to take care of me. Let that sink in. The woman preferred inhaling diesel fumes in Van Nuys to singing nursery rhymes and spoon-feeding.

My only hope that I won’t loathe parenting is the fact that I’ve raised two kitties from the pound. I know there’s no comparison at all to raising actual children, but I’m heartened by how much I adore my cats, pet their whiskers for hours and take them for shots without even resenting it.

I just wish I could trust parents. Once you have a kid, you sort of have to say you love the whole experience. Maybe nature even convinces you that you do. Maybe you get Stockholm syndrome, which is to say, you must fall for your tiny captor to survive the ordeal.

This brings me back to grandma. She seems like someone I can trust. What would she have to gain by lying to me? Oh yeah, grandchildren.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She’s on the web at


On Jewish Mothers

I was raised on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx by a woman who could have taken Olympic gold in Jewish mothering. Sonia, Abie-the-tailor’s

wife, never stopped fearing for my life. She made me wear galoshes on sunny days (“It might rain, you never know!”), and warned that if I left the house with wet hair Iwould die one hour later of pneumonia.The worst thing is when my mother does her worrying in front of other people — like boys! When I’m 13, I have my first solo piano recital. I’m wearing a sleeveless, scooped-neck dress that Abie copied from Seventeen. The whole building is there, including Stanley Eichenholtz from 5B. I think Stanley likes me. Whenever we pass on the staircase, he always punches my arm.

I finish the last piece, and I stand up to do the curtsy that Mrs. Blitzer taught me. This is my favorite part. Suddenly, in the middle of my moment of glory, my lunatic mother runs up on the stage, throws a schmattadickeh old cardigan over my bare shoulders, and screams in a heavy Yiddish accent, “Cover up! You’re perspiring! You’re gonna catch a bug!”

The humiliation is not over, because the next time Stanley passes me on the staircase, he says, “Cover up! You’re gonna catch a bug, ha, ha!” And then he punches me on the arm. I am so ashamed. Why must my parents be such immigrants?

I have to acknowledge that, in her better moments, my mother also paid for piano lessons, took me to movie musicals and saved nickels and dimes for years so that I could go to Europe after college. Also, my mother never left the house without a pocket full of crumbs for the sparrows and a pocket full of change “for the poor people” — totally innocent of the fact that she was the poor people. And as little as she had, she would share it.

Mama rented a room to a recent immigrant from Poland. The man had been a professor, but now was scraping by as a janitor. My mother felt very sorry for him, but she knew he’d be too proud to take charity. So when he came home at night she would make up a story: “Oy, Mr. Rabinovitz, I made this all this food and now my daughter’s not coming over for dinner. Do me a favor, have some or I’ll have to throw it out.”

So Mr. Rabinovitz would “do her a favor” and have some.

Ashamed? I should have been proud. But she was still a constant source of embarrassment to me, and after the Stanley Eichenholtz incident I swore that when I grew up and had a child of my own, I would never be an overprotective, interfering, super-doting Jewish mother.

Then I became a parent and — you guessed it — history repeated itself. My son treated hip, worldly, sophisticated me with the same scornful superiority I dished out to my simple, old-country mother.

Back in his college years, he announces he’s going to Vegas for the weekend with some friends. I ask how he’s getting there, and he rolls his eyes and heaves one of those “parents-are-such-a-pain” sighs. He patiently informs me that they’re going in Dave’s car.

I look at Dave’s car, and I see Death. Dave’s car is an open jeep: no roof and no sides. We are a family that drives Volvos. I point out that if they take that car through the desert, not only will they be burned to a crisp, but they won’t have any protection in a collision. I suggest that they rent a nice four-door sedan. More eye-rolling, more sighing and then the killer accusation: “Would you please stop being such a Jewish mother!”

Why fight it? I decide to plead guilty: “Listen, I am a Jewish Mother! And maybe one day you’ll thank me for it! Here’s some money. Rent a real car!”

The boys are driving back from Vegas. There’s a van in front of them with a heavy glass door strapped to the roof. Suddenly this glass door comes loose, flies through the air, and crashes right onto the top of the rented car. But the heavy steel roof protects the kids and nobody gets hurt! So I do the best I can to protect my child. Just like my poor mother did the best she could.

Then I read “The Joy Luck Club,” and I think, “Those Chinese mothers are very familiar.”

And I see this movie, “My Left Foot,” and I think, “That Irish mother is very familiar.”

Then a black girlfriend calls about her teenage son. She’s concerned because he can’t find a summer job, so she asks me to find him a little computer work.

“I will pay his salary,” she says. “Just don’t tell him where the money’s coming from.”

This sounds very familiar.

Then I get my nails done and the Vietnamese manicurist, Kim, tells me she has six children and they all live in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a very bad neighborhood.

“All children full scholarship: Berkeley, UCLA, M.I.T., Harvard, Amherst, Yale,” she says. “You want to cut cuticles?”

Well, I may have turned into my mother, but I am not alone. Everyone has turned into my mother!

Annie Korzen (“Seinfeld’s” Doris Klompus) tours and lectures worldwide with her solo show, “Yenta Unplugged.” Her humorous essays have aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and will appear in and Her web site is

The Circuit

Juniors Rule!

Rachel Firestone and Michel Grosz, both juniors at Milken Community High School, were among the 26 teenagers across North America to receive 2003 Bronfman Youth Fellowships that entitled them to spend five weeks in Israel this summer. Firestone and Grosz were chosen from 197 applicants. The fellowships were started by Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Ladies First

AMIT Los Angeles Council held its annual Mother and Daughter Luncheon at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. The event was co-chaired by Gertrude Fox and Janice Fox-Kauffler. (From left) Sondra Sokal, AMIT national president; honoree Renee Firestone; presenter, Oscar-winning movie producer Branko Lustig (“Gladiator,” “Schindler’s List”); and honoree Klara Firestone.

Kol Rockin’

Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform synagogue, honored Howard Bragman, Marianne Lowenthal and Steve Tyler at a Beverly Hilton gala. (Back row, from left) Rabbi Denise Eger, Alexandra Glickman, Bruce Vilanch, Andrew Ogilvie and Cary Davidson. (Front row, from left) Judith Light, Lowenthal, Tyler and Bragman.

Garden Groove

(From left) Marilyn Ziering; Hanna Khoury, AICF violin scholarship recipient; and Janet and Max Salter. AICF is a privately funded financial supporter for talented Israeli youngsters and cultural institutions.

The America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s (AICF) Los Angeles Chapter held its annual fundraising event at a Beverly Hills garden party and dinner in honor of Max and Janet Salter.

East Coast Represents

Rabbinical students Michoel Lerner, 21, of Brooklyn, and Shmuel Cohen, 20, of Montreal, spent three weeks at a Chabad center in Thousand Oaks training to distribute Jewish resources.

Heavy Medals

A scene from Aviva’s 2003 Triumph of the Human Spirit Award Gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (From left) Honoree Wallis Annenberg, Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson and honoree and Olympic gold medalist and UCLA softball coach Lisa Fernandez.

Funky Cold Medina

Hashalom, which offers free Jewish education for children in public school, held its third annual banquet. Israeli singer Avihu Medina (“Al Tashlicheni”) and local crooner Pini Cohen performed.

Chai Note

Chai Lifeline’s 4-year-old West Coast office will now be known as the Sohacheski Family Center, in honor of benefactors Marilyn and Jamie Sohacheski. (From left) Marilyn and Jamie Sohacheski receive a plaque from Rabbi Simcha Scholar, executive vice president of Chai Lifeline, and Randi Grossman, West Coast regional director.

Boat Trip

Some 75 singles strapped on their sea legs for Aish Los Angeles’ sunset cruise aboard the RegentSea, one of FantaSea Yacht Club’s sailing vessels. The four-hour Marina del Rey cruise featured games and a dinner under the stars.

Ink Tank

This year, Jewish journalism’s big night took place in our own backyard — make that backlot.

The Grill at Universal Studios served as backdrop for the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) annual conference’s 2003 Awards Banquet, where the prestigious Simon Rockower Awards were presented. This was the first Los Angeles visit of the AJPA conference, with The Journal welcoming 140 editors and journalists — representing Jewish newspapers nationwide — to the Beverly Hilton for industry-related symposiums.

“It’s been a wonderful year,” said Mark Arnold, the newest publisher of the 26-year-old Jewish Journal of North of Boston.

The conference offered some charged discussions. Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman moderated “Screen Shots: Pop Culture, Hollywood and The Jews,” a lively exchange between entertainment industry liaison Donna Bojarsky; screenwriter Andrea King; Endeavor Agency partner and former Jewish Federation Entertainment Division Chair David Lonner; and “Sex & The City” creator Darren Star. Panelists discussed the paradoxal tightrope of working in a Jewish-built, Jewish-dominated business that tends to shun Jewish culture in favor of other ethnic stories.

“The Jewish community is completely separate from the Hollwyood community,” observed Bojarsky on Jewish Los Angeles’ divide.

Lonner blamed Tinseltown’s “narcissistic society” as the reason why many Hollywood Jews do not explore or support issues pertaining to Israel.

“It’s just not as important in their day-to-day world,” Lonner said. “It’s all Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.”

Star joked that Hollywood Jews are “too busy getting behind France like Woody Allen,” then observed, with seriousness, “as much as they’re Jews, they do not want to be defined by their Jewishness.”

The panel acknowledged a palpable stigma surrounding telling Jewish stories. King could see why Hollywood does not find Jews courting Jews romantic comedy fodder.

“As a writer,” she said, “I can see how it’s more interesting to have two characters on ’30-Something’ having the Christmas tree/menorah debate rather than two people making latkes together.”

A Jewish-Latino relations panel found writer Gregory Rodriguez walking his Jewish audience through issues affecting Latinos via the prism of the Mexican American immigrant experience. Beginning with the mestizo (“mixed heritage”) origins of Mexicans, Rodriguez compared and contrasted his group with the Jewish community.

“Jews are the most highly organized ethnicity in America,” he said, before expressing his frustration with polite, pro forma Jewish-Latino dialogues, and Los Angeles’ Jewish elite as power players reluctant to own up to its profound socio-political influence.

“If we can’t discuss Jews honestly,” he said, “that does a disservice to everybody.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency Editor Lisa Hostein presided over the Rockowers with Awards Committee chair Neil Rubin. Up-and-coming comedian Joel Chasnoff kept the audience plotzing. Keynote speaker Alvin Shuster, senior consulting editor for banquet sponsor, the Los Angeles Times, was “definitely impressed by this cross section of talent.” AJPA President Aaron Cohen won the Joseph Polakoff Award and a raffle prize. Among 2003’s multiple winners was The Journal — congratulations to Managing Editor Amy Klein (“Sin”); contributing writer Gaby Wenig (“Jerusalem Mayor Visit Sparks Snub”); and Art Director Carvin Knowles, whose cover designs won first place in the “Excellence in Illustration” category.

A Buttons-Down Affair

Comedian and Oscar-winning actor Red Buttons with Ruta Lee at the annual fundraiser for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center support group, The Thalians, which also included Debbie Reynolds, Joe Bologna and Renee Taylor.

Students Score

Downey B’nai B’rith Lodge 1112 awarded Al Perlus scholarship awards of $50 to five outstanding area high school students: Edith Moreno of South Gate High School, Carlos Avelar of Bell High School, Juan Pasillas of Huntington Park High School, Roselyn Ithiratanasoonthorn of Downey High School and Franchesca Gonzales of Warren High School. n

Love, American Technion

A total of 44 American Technion Society supporters took part in the organization’s annual mission to Israel. Among the participants pledging a total of $6 million to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology at its Mount Carmel campus in Haifa: Inga Behr of Pasadena, Rodica and Paul Burg of Palos Verdes Estates, Chuck Levin of Beverly Hills, and Sherry Altura and Rita and Steve Emerson of Los Angeles.

Medical Mission

Dr. Lawrence Libuser of Marina del Rey was among a group of doctors and volunteer medical personnel sent on a mission to aid refugees in Ghana. The United Nations-run refugee camp has over 50,000 people, most natives of Liberia. The medical envoy will treat as many of these refugees as possible during their summer mission.

Wise Guys

Youth volunteers from the Stephen S. Wise Temple Summer Camps volunteer at the Union Rescue Mission. (From left) Lily Tash, Loren Berman and Alex Alpert.

A Syn’s Big Win

Shomrei Torah Synagogue of West Hills won the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s (USCJ) Solomon Schecter Award for Excellence. The award will be presented at a USCJ convention to be held in Dallas in October.

Bank’s Boost

From left) Dan Meiri, regional director of Bank Leumi USA-California, celebrates with Bank Leumi supporters Jan Czuker and Max Webb the American subsidiary’s second quarter upswing — a yield of $9.5 million in net income; an increase of 2.2 percent from 2002’s second quarter.

Flag Day Fete

Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary dedicated a monument with Jewish War Veterans (JWV) in honor of Flag Day. Participating (from left) Jerry King, color guard; Ralph Leventhal, past JWV department commander; Lt. Col. Rabbi Alan Lachtman of Temple Beth Torah of Temple City; Steve Rosmarin, past California JWV commander; Mark Freidman, CEO of Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary; California JWV Commander Odas Flake; and Mel Margolis, color guard.


Donors Gary (far left) and Karen Winnick (second from right) congratulate the first researchers to receive the Winnick Family Clinical Scholar title at the naming of the Winnick Family Clinical Research Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center: Daniel Cohn, PhD, (second from left), an expert in the genetic causes of dwarfism, bone development and short stature; and Kidney Transplant Program Director Stanley Jordan, MD, (far right). The third Winnick Clinical Scholar, human autoimmune disease specialist Sandra McLachlan, PhD, is not pictured. The Winnick Family Clinical Research Center at Cedars-Sinai is primarily engaged in translating human genome research into treatment against a gamut of diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

Kids Page

10 Commandments

On Shavuot, we read special sections from the Torah. One of those is the Ten Commandments. The first five are engraved on the right tablet. The second five on the left. The first five, according to the rabbis, fall into the category of commandments “between humans and God” — like: Do not make idols or worship other gods. The second five fall into the category of “between human and human.” But the commandment “Honor thy father and mother” is on the second tablet. Is this a commandment between humans and God?

The rabbis say that although our parents gave birth to us, God was involved in giving us life and raising us. That is why when we honor our parents, we are also honoring God. I am writing this on Mother’s Day, and I can tell you the rabbis are right. I couldn’t have done it without God’s help!

What do you feel about Israel? Send us your poems and writing about Israel. We’ll pick as many as we can to appear on our Kid’s Page! Send your poems to

Jerusalem in My Heart

By Benjamin Ackerman

Jerusalem is a beautiful place,

When you go there you might have tears in your face.

The reason is because of the wars,

They could steal your babies and knock down your doors.

The Golden Dome is a beautiful sight,

When the sun shines on it, the dome looks so bright.

In the Western Wall there are prayers for peace,

When the enemies try and get them, they scare off the geese.

So let’s all pray for no more wars,

For no more stolen babies and knocked down doors.

Benjamin Ackerman is in the third grade at Sinai Akiba Academy

Your Letters

JCC Closures

As a longtime Jewish Community Center (JCC) devotee and one-time Hollywood-Los Feliz director, I find our community’s possible loss of any part of the JCC system as tragic and appalling (“Flourish, Not Fail” and “JCCs in Jeopardy,” Nov. 30). Yes, the handwriting has been on the wall for some time. Wherever the blame is to be lodged matters less now than saving the distinctive contribution the system has, can and must continue to make to Los Angeles’ diverse Jewish community.

All of our institutions have their role and vital purpose, but JCCs are and will always be the only Jewish door that many Jews will go through. How many Jews will be less Jewishly involved without JCCs?

Jerry Freedman Habush, Van Nuys

Last Friday at lunchtime, I heard the first rumor that the Westside JCC was to close down as of Jan. 1. When I went to the center later that afternoon to help coach my daughter’s basketball team, and then play a quick game myself before Shabbat, the rumor was confirmed. I was incredulous. My entire existence in Los Angeles is inextricably bound up with the Westside JCC, where I have played basketball three times a week for 12 years.

I can find another basketball game. What about my daughters, who played, went to camp and swam there? What about the hundreds of preschoolers for whom the JCC was a wonderful learning environment, and a most inviting gateway to Judaism? And what about the seniors, many of them immigrants with little support structure, for whom the Westside JCC was the center of their world, the site of a friendly smile, a nutritious meal, and daily physical or cultural stimulation? Are these people, young and old, simply to be forgotten?

If so, then we have moved tragically away from any meaningful sense of communal responsibility. Throughout Jewish history, crisis has always been met with creativity. The case before us is surely not the first financial crisis to hit a Jewish institution. Why then has the crisis been met not with creativity, but surrender? Why is the immediate response to shut down the centers? To the best of my knowledge, there was no public debate about the “restructuring” (i.e., closing) of the JCCs. Nor was there any opportunity to undertake a communitywide campaign to save them.

One wonders if the leaders of the organized Jewish community have much appreciation for the history of the JCC movement. Do they know that the JCC has been the paradigmatic Jewish communal institution in America, open to Jews of all persuasions and denominations? Do they recognize that in a vast city like Los Angeles, the JCC literally constitutes community for thousands of Jews otherwise without a Jewish home?

We hear much about the new and improved Federation, with its aspiration to represent and reach out to the entire Jewish community. We hear much about the spanking new facility at 6505 Wilshire Blvd., which required millions of dollars of renovations. But what we do not yet hear are expressions of concern and compassion for the thousands who will be put out of their Jewish home if the JCCs close. What we do not yet hear is a plan of action to offer the essential services and fulfill the vital social and communal function of the centers. It may well be the case that years of mismanagement brought the JCCs to the brink of closure. And it seems clear that we are in a serious economic downturn.

But it is precisely at such moments of crisis that true leaders step to the fore. John Fishel, Todd Morgan and their colleagues at The Jewish Federation must now demonstrate their mettle. This is the measure of Jewish communal responsibility. We should expect no less from our leaders.

David N. Myers, Los Angeles

The plight of the Jewish Community Centers in Los Angeles saddens me deeply. My 41 years in Jewish communal service was motivated by a dual desire to strengthen the overall Jewish community, and to provide assistance to those least able to afford alternative services. My tenure as director of the Westside Jewish Community Center from 1977 until my retirement in 1995 was guided by those principles.

It is always regrettable when cutbacks in human services are required. I urge that as buildings are closed and staff fired, the most central issue in the minds of decision-makers be: Which of the services that will be lost are available elsewhere in the community, and which will cause genuine hardship for those directly affected?

There are other swimming pools and health facilities in the community, but there is only one Senior Adult Day Care Center for the frail elderly at Westside JCC. There are other places with drama groups and Israeli dancing, but services to the Russian immigrants in Hollywood must be maintained. The single-parent families, poor elderly and other Jews in need must be assured that services they value and deserve will continue. They must not be left behind because they cannot pay their way.

A Jewish community should not be judged by the magnificence of its buildings or by how it serves the upper middle class, but rather by the dignity, respect and genuine services it provides to those least able to pay. May our communal leadership rise to the occasion.

Mort Schrag, Los Angeles

The Valley Cities JCC is a precious resource for parents like me. If it closes, many will be left without options. Many parents who put their children in the JCC after-school programs can’t afford a private Jewish school. [A JCC] is Judaism in action — a place where children have a safe and enriching place to go after school and elderly people can drop in for classes and companionship to fend off boredom an depression. The center also runs an excellent and affordable nursery school.

In a city with one of the largest and wealthiest Jewish populations, how can we let this happen to the JCC? My son has been going to the Valley Cities JCC after-school program for three years. From the JCC, my son has gotten a connection with his heritage and religion that he will carry throughout his life; he has been part of a family of people who care about each other; and he has had the opportunity to explore all kinds of new interests and hobbies. How can our children and our elderly not be more of a funding priority?

Leila Lavizadeh, Van Nuys

I have always equated the JCCs with Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” I grew up with an active Jewish community in Cleveland, and played basketball at the JCC during high school. After college, the JCC gave me the gift of a wife. Finally, after retirement, the JCC gave the gift of exercise and meeting Jews from different countries and economic brackets. Where else on any given day could one have the opportunity to practice up on their Hebrew, Russian and Farsi?

I only hope that future generation of Jews and non-Jews have the wonderful experiences from our “Giving Tree.”

Richard Bernstein, Los Angeles

We, the undersigned, are members of the Westside Jewish Community Center and parents of children in the center’s preschool who have committed ourselves to working within the Los Angeles Jewish Community. We are deeply troubled by the lack of dissemination of information to the public and feel disappointed and shocked by the nonexistent public discussion regarding the closing of the Westside JCC.

We have become aware that all non-preschool employees have received letters of termination. This indicates a far graver situation than the “restructuring” that was discussed in Nov. 30 article.

It is shortsighted to believe that because some of the services that the Westside JCC provides are duplicated by other institutions, both inside and outside the Jewish community, that the Westside JCC does not play an integral role in the Jewish life of Los Angeles. We are acutely aware that the Westside JCC is the sole gateway into the Jewish community for many Jewish constituencies.

In place of carefully crafted public statements, we urge a process of communication, which includes all concerned parties, namely the Westside JCC and Federation administrations, their boards, The Jewish Journal, and the constituencies who directly benefit from the services and programs of the citywide JCC structure.

Jason Ablin, Director of General and Integrated Studies, Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple; Lisa Bellows, Ablin Care Coordinator Jewish Family Service; Dina Bernat-Kunin, Unit Director, Vista Del Mar; Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Rabbinic Director, Milken Commnity High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple; Aryeh Cohen, Jewish Studies Chair, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; Andrea Hodos, Jewish Studies Faculty, Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Los Angeles Hebrew High

In Tom Tugend’s article (“The New Face of the UJ,” Nov. 30) Los Angeles Hebrew High School (LAHH) is spoken of in terms which are inconsistent and not representative of the views of the board of trustees or the administration. We have been supported by the University of Judaism (UJ) for many years. Together, we have continued to find a way to provide excellent Hebrew and Judaic education at the UJ facility each Sunday morning for more than 400 Jewish teens. The UJ’s leadership have been consistently forthright and flexible with LAHHS, and we are grateful that our two institutions have continued to focus on quality Jewish learning.

Carol Askuvich, President Board of Trustees
William Cohen, Principal

High Time

For the past three years, in meetings that often go toward midnight, a handful of local parents, educators and community leaders have been coming together to plan Los Angeles’ next non-Orthodox Jewish high school.

Now it has come to pass. Late last month, the Core Group, as the parents call themselves, announced the September 2002 opening of the New Community Jewish High School in the West Valley.

Against a background of world tragedy and looming recession, organizers see the school as a sign of communal growth and vibrancy. “The Jewish community is moving westward,” said school co-chair Howard Farber. “There are enough spaces at our elementary schools, like Kadima, Adat Ari El, Valley Beth Shalom, Heschel, and so on, but there are not enough Jewish school spaces for our graduates. Milken [Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple] is great, and they have been wonderful to us. But our community needs more schools.”

Instead of hand-wringing over the limited number of non-Orthodox Jewish high schools, concerned parents devoted hours to starting a new one. “It is an incredible group of people,” Farber said. “When we sit in meetings, there’s not one person who wants to leave early, or cut it short. There is a level of energy and creativity and cooperation that is just nice to see.”

The energy paid off. Elana Rimmon Zimmerman, who works as program director at Valley Beth Shalom and is the mother of two children in day schools, co-chairs the group with Farber. “I always think the opportunity to be part of something new is exciting,” Zimmerman said. “How often during our lives do we get to be part of something at the very beginning?”

Open House

While they have no permanent site yet, the school will use the Bernard Milken Campus in the West Valley as its temporary location when it opens next fall.

From their office suite in Tarzana, school planners are sending out brochures to spread the word. They have consulted with a consortium of San Fernando and Conejo Valley day school principals — administrators whose own student populations will be key feeder schools to the new campus. They have three open houses scheduled for this fall and winter, and are offering a tuition discount to families of the very first group of freshman, the Class of 2006.

School planners are reluctant to quote exact rates, emphasizing instead that significant assistance will be available.

Even in stronger economies, tuition has been a major challenge facing parents and day school administrators. The New Community School organizers say their approach to it was guided by a bedrock commitment to Jewish education. “A Jewish school should not be a commodity,” Powell said. “It should not be a luxury item — you can afford it, you buy it. It should be like a birthright, a community entitlement. What that means, ultimately, is that every family who wants a Jewish education for their child should be able to have one. We have a two-page brochure for families that goes over our tuition assistance policies. We want to be able to accept people who cannot afford to pay the full price. That’s why endowment is so important. That is our central challenge.”

The Core Group may be pioneers of a sort, building a 9th through 12th-grade school from scratch, but taken together, they are not lacking for established contacts or professional support. Both Farber and Zimmerman have a long record of involvement in local Jewish community organizations. “This is hardly a case of some parents getting together and with no experience, deciding they’re going to start a school,” Zimmerman said. “We are hardly neophytes. We have some of the most professional and experienced people participating as our guides, every step of the way.”

The group consults with a 30-member rabbinical cabinet composed of local pulpit rabbis. They’re assisted by the AVI CHAI Foundation, The Jewish Federation Council, the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), and other organizations. The connections run deep: Farber’s mother, Janet, is president of the BJE, and his father, Jake, is the incoming chairman of the board of The Jewish Federation. Farber himself is a graduate of the Wexner Fellows Program.

The new school’s National Advisory Board includes historian-author Deborah Lipstadt, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Rabbi Daniel Landes, the director of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

The Headmaster

Still, even with the impressive roster, there will be parents who are skittish about the prospect of placing their student in the first class of a new school, preferring instead to wait out the first few years until a school becomes a tried and tested commodity. To those who hesitate, Farber says the answer is simple: Dr. Bruce Powell.

Powell is well-known in education circles as a committed and experienced educator at the high school level and as someone who can bring a considerable resume along to meetings with parents and potential donors. After heading up the general studies department at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles, Powell ran the school at Stephen S. Wise, which later became Milken High School. After a successful 10-year stint as head of school at Milken, where three of his own children graduated, he has continued as an educator and consultant, working closely with Jewish high school start-ups nationwide. At a time when most Jewish institutions across the board are suffering from an acute shortage of qualified Jewish educators and administrators, the new school is given a considerable boost with Powell as the head administrator.

Under his direction, the school’s four-year curriculum will offer courses in Jewish ethics, text and Hebrew language, along with a slate of Advanced Placement classes, (chemistry, music theory, macroeconomics, etc.), and a host of arts and multicultural electives like drama, dance, African American Studies and Modern Israeli Literature.

Why a Jewish High School?

In an interview with The Journal, Powell crystallized the philosophy of a school whose founders have already devoted, in Zimmerman’s words, “countless hours” to discussing vision, purpose and moral education component.

“I’m the last person to sit here and say that Jewish school is some kind of all-purpose panacea,” Powell said. “Nothing is. But it’s critical that our children know who they are, not just to enrich our homes, but to connect with the fabric of the country.

“We have this incredible treasure of a heritage sitting there, and our kids can’t access it or participate in it if they’re ignorant of it. We say things like ‘Jewish continuity,’ but these are empty phrases if there is no content. Why perpetuate something if you don’t know what it’s about? Jews have made a unique contribution to the world and to this country, a contribution grounded specifically in Judaism. The founding forefathers of this country knew Torah. There was a time when to be admitted to Harvard, a student had to know Latin, Greek and biblical Hebrew. Half the world uses our book as a basis for their civilization, and we don’t read it enough.”

Most of the faculty for the school is already lined up, Powell said — this despite what experts say is a severe shortage of Jewish educators nationwide. Powell acknowledged the shortage, but found ways to work around it. “We just have to think creatively,” he said. “There are pulpit rabbis, for example, with a deep background in Judaica, who might take a small cut in salary if it meant having Shabbats and holidays off in order to have a life with their families. There are veteran educators who are excited by the prospect of being in on something from the beginning.”

That excitement is palpable speaking with Farber, Powell and others involved in the project. What began as an idea will soon be another part of the city’s growing Jewish-education system, another institution to make good on one generation’s promise to the next. Powell is certain that alone will draw parents and students to join the endeavor.

“There is a tremendous appeal in truly being a founder of something,” Powell said. “Parents who will be with us from the outset have that this opportunity, and so do the students. It’s a tremendous opportunity for kids to blossom and to lead.”

The New Community Jewish High School will be holding open houses on Nov. 14, Nov. 19 and Dec. 2, at the Bernard Milken campus, 15580 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. For reservations or additional information, call (818) 344-9672.

Childhood Echoes Onstage

The two voices began screaming inside Murray Mednick’s head the minute he sat down to write a play some years ago. The characters were arguing viciously about money.

They sounded alarmingly familiar.

“I recognized my parents,” said Mednick, founder of the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop/Festival, one of the most important theater labs in the nation. “The dialogue just poured out of me at breakneck speed. The play came out whole.”

“Joe and Betty,” one of three Jewish-themed Mednick plays in Padua’s 2001 season, is his most autobiographical work to date. The searing piece is set in his childhood home in a Catskills hamlet in 1951, the year his beloved grandmother died. But it doesn’t offer the usual idyllic view of the mountain resort area frequented by New York Jews during the last century.

Like Mednick’s parents, also named Joe and Betty, the protagonists live in a freezing, filthy hovel across the street from an Orthodox synagogue. Their six children, who are discussed but never appear onstage, are lice-ridden and malnourished. The siblings hide in closets and under beds to escape from Betty, who is mentally ill and physically violent. The sullen eldest child, Emile, Mednick’s alter ego, is so traumatized by his bubbie’s death that he rarely speaks.

As Betty whines about her life (“God hates me”), Joe calls her the “Monster From the Deep.” It’s a metaphor for the Jewish psychic angst caused by centuries of anti-Semitism, Mednick suggests.

“There was a desperate, destructive anxiety and hysteria that had been handed down, the cumulative result of generations of impoverishment and persecution … that took its extreme form in my parents,” the intense, soft-spoken author said during an interview in his Santa Monica home.

In real life, Mednick, now 61, was so hungry that he stole money to buy food. At the age of 14, he went to work in a run-down hotel frequented by Holocaust refugees who were also obsessed with food. “They ate grimly, as if only to survive,” Mednick recalled.

At home, he turned to books “primarily as an escape from the noise and the chaos”; he read Tolstoy and Hemingway in the wee hours, the only time the house was silent. His sympathetic teachers allowed him to sleep in and to miss school in the mornings. During his senior year, they collected several hundred dollars to help him attend Brooklyn College. By then, Mednick was writing short stories. “My writing saved me,” he said. “From my Judaism, I inherited a reverence for the idea of text.”

Eventually, he joined a circle of Lower East Side poets, discovered the theater and won an Obie and a Guggenheim Fellowship for his cutting-edge work. In 1978, he created the Padua festival, now called Padua Playwrights Productions, which, he says, is dedicated to noncommercial drama in a country where “theater is drowned out by film and TV.”

Best-known for his Native American-tinged “The Coyote Cycle,” Mednick, a member of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, says he didn’t feel confident enough to explore his Jewish roots in a play until recent years. “I was so damaged by my childhood that it was a frightening thing to revisit,” he said.

After a six-year hiatus, Padua reopened this season with Mednick’s “16 Routines,” drawing on the stand-up rhythms the author heard while working as a busboy in the Catskills.

“Mrs. Feuerstein,” which debuts July 6, was inspired by a photograph of a glamorous German couple Mednick saw in the nonfiction book “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” several years ago. Max Wohl was a member of an SS execution squad stationed in Poland; while sipping champagne and eating finger sandwiches, his wife, Freida, watched him butcher 50 Jewish men in a town square later hosed down to remove the blood. “It made me want to examine the notion of revenge,” Mednick said. “I set out to explore, ‘Who do you take revenge on, especially now? Who do you kill?'”

In the play, a Holocaust refugee named Mrs. Feuerstein squares off with this German couple. In Mrs. Feuerstein’s fantasy life, she and Freida begin a torrid lesbian affair. “It’s an allegory of the eros of revenge and expatriation,” Mednick explained. “Freida longs for expiation, and Mrs. Feuerstein longs for revenge. When the two meet, it’s like an erotic thing. They are drawn to one another.”

“Joe and Betty” runs through June 23 at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 692-2652.

Finding Middle Ground

First comes love, then comes marriage. But when baby makes three, an interfaith couple has to face hard decisions about their child’s religious upbringing. Arlene Chernow, who for 16 years has headed the outreach department for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, believes it’s vital for parents to commit to a single religious identity for the entire family. If the interfaith family rejoices in Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, their youngster will not be perturbed by the fact that some relatives wrap holiday gifts in red and green, and celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If, from the start, the child knows he or she lives in a Jewish household, Hebrew school can be a strong and positive experience.

Unfortunately, says Chernow, “we see more and more children coming into classrooms not knowing who they are religiously.” In some cases, non-Jewish spouses are resentful of the religious school obligation, fearing the loss of their own religious identity as their youngsters are schooled in Jewish tradition. At times, a child’s enrollment in Hebrew school sparks a tug of war between two parents who can’t articulate to one another their own feelings about their religious inheritance. If parents divorce, the situation intensifies.

Chernow feelingly describes one small boy who was brought to temple religious school weekly by his non-Jewish dad, then went home with his Jewish mother. At first, the child dealt with the turmoil in his home life by disrupting the classroom, making everyone miserable. Finally, he settled on his own private solution. Once he arrived at school, he would duck under his desk for 10 minutes, speaking to no one. Then he’d emerge, saying, “I’m Jewish now.”

When Chernow meets with Jewish religious school educators, she stresses their crucial role in making an interfaith family feel part of the congregation. One challenge for a teacher is reassuring interfaith children that they are truly welcome in the classroom, no matter what non-Jewish customs and attitudes may persist at home. These children often ask tough questions, because they’re covertly seeking to establish the fact that they’re truly Jewish. For Chernow, the three key strategies are “support, respect, refocus.” If, during a lesson on Chanukah, a little girl asks why daddy has a Christmas tree, the teacher should support the girl as a valued member of the class, encourage respect for each family’s individual choices, and — for the benefit of the rest of the students — refocus the discussion on dreidels and Maccabees.
When a child hops into the car after Hebrew school, excitedly displaying an ornament for the sukkah, it’s only natural for his non-Jewish parent to feel intimidated by this unfamiliar holiday. Chernow points out that parents who want to share in their children’s excitement can turn out to be a hidden asset in the classroom. She has met many non-Jewish mothers, in particular, who strongly desire a religious identity for their family. Once they gain a basic knowledge of Jewish practice, they sometimes become the teacher’s best friend.

Such is the case of Patty Lombard, the mother of two daughters at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Though herself a Catholic, Lombard has spearheaded the writing of a parents’ guide called “Celebrations.” This looseleaf notebook — which includes background on each major Jewish holiday along with vocabulary, activities, recipes, songs and blessings — was presented to every preschool family when school began in September. The purpose, Lombard says, is to “try to give parents enough information that they can enjoy celebrating with their child.”

Chernow insists that parent education is the key to turning an interfaith family into a family engaged in raising happily Jewish children. She says, “I really see a child’s Jewish education as something that has an impact on the whole family. The more that a temple and school can do to educate the parent while they’re educating the children, the stronger the child’s identity will be.”

Addressing Anxieties

Each November, Valley Beth Shalom holds a meeting at which its youth director urges parents to send their teenagers on a summer trip to Israel. In 1999, more than 100 families attended. This past November, there were only eight. The low turnout appears to reflect parental anxiety over safety issues in the Middle East. Lisa Kaplan, who heads The Jewish Federation’s Israel Experience Program office, explains that “in times of peace, the students make the decision. In difficult times, the parents make the decision.”

Currently, many families seem to be having second thoughts about Israel trips for their teenagers. Maya Foner, shlicha for the West Coast branch of Young Judaea, notes that by now she’s usually deluged with inquiries about teen summer travel options. This year, she says, “The phones aren’t ringing.”

Other youth leaders are facing similar problems. That’s why a number of Jewish organizations that have long sponsored teen trips to Israel are going out of their way to woo reluctant parents.

Every organization enumerates its security procedures. These include well-guarded buses, itineraries that bypass trouble spots and constant checks with Israeli authorities about the safest routes for travel. Various groups have instituted new policies, including deposits that are fully refundable almost until departure time.
Young Judaea’s Foner tells nervous parents that “there is no financial risk whatsoever until June 1.” Thereafter, up until the planes take off in late June, families will be charged only $500 if they pull their children out of a program that costs participants nearly $5,000 to attend.

Young Judaea, which also sponsors a year-long Israel program for high school students, sends parents regular security bulletins. This gesture has earned them the gratitude of many worried families. Lorri Lewis, mother of a Palo Alto student on the Young Judaea Year Course, told the organization that “your daily updates have been a boon to my sanity.”

Foner insists that “we know how to keep them safe.” She reminds families that Young Judaea’s parent organization is Hadassah, and “a million Jewish mothers would not risk kids’ lives.”

United Synagogue Youth (USY), affiliated with the Conservative movement, recently held a free four-day trip to Israel for parents from every USY region. These parents, all of whom had committed to sending their own children to Israel this summer, were given an on-the-spot security briefing so that they could reassure other families when they returned.

The Los Angeles Ulpan, sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), has been sending local teens to Israel for 37 summers, regardless of the political climate. Two weeks ago, the BJE’s David Ackerman and Stacey Barrett held information sessions at which moms and dads could ask the tough questions. Attendance was low, but those parents who showed up — many of whom had been to Israel themselves — seemed seriously interested in sending their children. One father asked if the travel restrictions necessitated by the current unrest would diminish his child’s Israel experience. To this Barrett replied that the crisis would actually enhance the ulpan, giving teens a stronger sense of Israel’s role in the Jewish world.

Barrett, who alternates with Ackerman in chaperoning Ulpan trips, says, “We know this year that it will be a smaller group. And it will be a more intense group. We’re sure they will bond and it will be an amazing experience. I wish I could go with them this year.”

Honoring Dedication

Shirley Levine is a woman with many admirers. She was the founding principal of both Abraham Joshua Heschel Day Schools in Northridge and Agoura and has been dedicated to their success for more than 25 years. Just speak with one of the many parents whose children attend one of the Heschel schools and he or she will be quick to list her talents.

“She is so extraordinary,” says Ellen Smith, a parent with two children at Heschel West in Agoura. “She knows what has to be done and is tireless in accomplishing whatever is needed for our children.”

On Nov. 5 at the Partnership in Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) Conference in Cambridge, Mass., Levine received unprecedented recognition for her leadership and unparalleled excellence as a Jewish educator among all educators in North America. For the first time in its history, PEJE presented an award for Distinguished Professional Leadership in the Day School World. The award was created with Levine in mind.

“This was our third conference of grantees. Ever since Heschel became a grantee, we’ve been trying to get Shirley to come, but this was the first year she was able to come out,” says Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the director of PEJE. “We felt that it was extremely important to recognize her contributions to this school.”

Though Levine was the inspiration for the award, Elkin is hoping that further opportunities for such recognition of other leaders in Jewish education will present themselves. “We may try to replicate it in the future. But that could be hard to do, because few people dedicate themselves to a school for 20-plus years.”
PEJE is a national initiative designed to strengthen the quality of Jewish day school education in North America. The goals of its Challenge Grant Program, in which Heschel is a participant, are to enhance the excellence of new day school initiatives and to increase universal Jewish literacy through access to quality Jewish day school education.

Levine was extremely honored by the award. “I had worked with PEJE in establishing Heschel West, so they knew my work.”

But this was her first opportunity to attend a PEJE conference; her lack of attendance in the past is further evidence of her dedication to her schools.

“It’s hard to get away from the schools. So I was just excited about being at the conference. They had a dinner and Rabbi Elkin was telling us about this wonderful woman who had done all these great things and I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to meet this woman.’ I was looking around trying to see who it was,” said Levine.
Though a complete surprise to Levine, those who know her and her work feel it was completely deserved. In the Heschel West newsletter, assistant principal Rob Anker wrote, “This recognition confirms Shirley’s preeminent position as a leader not only for Heschel West, but also for all educators who aspire to excellence.”

The Conversation

We were too late for the early bird special at the Swiss Chalet restaurant in Delray Beach, Fla., but there was a line anyway for the roast chicken that is widely acclaimed as being almost as good as my mother’s.

In Delray Beach last week, as in the rest of south Florida, people were still talking about the presidential election. On movie lines or waiting for yogurt they were yet shaking their heads about chads, recounts and dimpled ballots, even though George W. Bush was already layering in the conservatives in his cabinet.

Mom, Dad and I read the menu and discussed our various options, both political and culinary.

As soon as we’d ordered, Dad slapped his hands on the table, like he always did to signal a change in the subject.

“Marlene, your mother and I want to talk about our arrangements,” he said.

“Now?!” my mother said, crumpling her napkin.

“We bought our cemetery plots,” he continued. “We’ll be right near Murray and Roberta.”

“You argued with them while they were alive,” I said of my uncle and aunt. Then I fell quiet. The chicken came, and I was glad we’d ordered fried onion loaf. It would crackle and pop if I couldn’t.

My parents have always thought ahead. When we were children, my mother had a freezer plan by which she ordered exactly three months’ worth of meat and chicken and boxes of carrots and peas. By the 12th week, we were down to eating chicken fricassee made of neck bones.

The key was planning. Each week’s menu was completely preordained and without variation: Monday and Thursday were fish; Wednesday, lamb chops; Friday, chicken or beef; Saturday, cold cuts; Sunday, Chinese eating out. My mother was an accountant of the mealtime portion.

Turns out that this penchant, which created in me a feeling of suffocation and rebellion, allowed them to breathe. My parents are adept at seeing a road long before it begins to curve.

First they took to snow birding, joining Jerry Seinfeld’s parents half the year in Florida. Then, three years before retirement age, my mother and father arranged to sell the business. Five years before climbing stairs would become an issue, they sold the Long Island house and moved to a city condo. From their foresight I’ve learned that the best definition of a surprise is something you planned for that came out well anyway.
Bless them for this. I picked up one of the two hefty chicken legs and bit into the flesh. Here they are, teaching me again.

Mom and Dad had done more than buy adjoining plots. They had their act together, providing me with a simple list of everyone I might need, in a single handwritten sheet of paper entitled “Just in Case.” My parents, who had started talking to me about college when I was in seventh grade and who taught me to drive by scoping out places to parallel-park hours in advance of my driving lesson, were way ahead of the game once again. And when I asked for even more detailed information, my mother and father did not flinch.

We in the baby boomer generation these days have aging parents, if we’re lucky. Yes, we talk politics, the stock market and careers, movies and the arts, and the pursuits of our children. Nevertheless, these days our parents lie heavy on our minds and in our hearts. About this topic, which the mortuaries horrifyingly call “pre-need,” we say nothing.

The polite ones among us don’t want to ask. The arrogant ones pretend we’ll never have to know. Others have parents who want us to make up their minds.

Silence is no shield, ignorance no sword.

The hot political issue these days may be Death with Dignity, about providing a death that avoids endless agony.

But an equally potent topic, one more spiritual than legal, is Life with Dignity. That’s the responsibility of the aging and their loved ones: to recognize what’s what and what must be done. Life with Dignity means getting the damned conversation over with, so normal living can resume.

My husband, who had been so brave in some regards, couldn’t do it. We’d talked about everything, I guess, over many years, about love and ethics and forging a fair society. But we’d never had a conversation like this. Though he had been ill for a while, he resolutely refused any talk about anything but today, or, at best, tomorrow.

“You think I’m going to die,” he accused me when I brought up the inevitable.

So it came to me to bury him myself. If I can spare you the experience of making sudden arrangements, let me try.

The funny thing was, my mother had just reupholstered her kitchen chairs. The seats are bright red floral on a dusty beige background. The kitchen walls are newly wallpapered in a pleasing print to match. My parents are filled with plans: to buy a new car, to take college courses, to visit me. And plants: the house is filled with new and reflowering orchids. And I’d just bought them a new toaster oven!

The chicken and the onion loaf were still on my plate. OK, we’ve had the conversation. Now let’s eat!

Human Sacrifice

The government of Israel has wisely chosen to cooperate with a U.S.-led international commission that began investigating Israeli-Palestinian violence this week. Led by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the commission hopes its work will reduce the violence in the region and lead the parties back to the negotiating table.

By cooperating, Israel can have greater input into the commission’s agenda. Here, for example, is one area for the investigators to consider: whether Palestinian parents are recklessly endangering the lives of their children by allowing them on the front lines of the conflict.

The images of Palestinian children confronting Israeli soldiers have by now become symbolic of Intifada II. They are standard fare on nightly news programs and have turned up in full-page ads taken out by the Arab-American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as evidence of Israel’s excessive use of force.But though the ADC ad and the news broadcasts evoke the lone Chinese protester facing a tank in Tienenman Square in 1989, there is one big difference: the Chinese protester was an adult. In the ADC ad, the protester is Fares al-Uda, age 14.

The Israeli human rights group B’tselem, which has monitored human rights violations by all sides in the conflict, criticized the Palestinian Authority last month for urging Palestinian youths to confront Israeli troops. According to the ADC, since the beginning of Intifada II, 258 Palestinians have been killed, 68 of them under the age of 18. Among the dead is Fares al-Uda, killed days after his photo was taken.

Children under 18 years of age are not old enough to know what’s worth dying for. Are they aware, as Palestinian and Israeli leaders are, that the war they are fighting on the streets can only lead back to the negotiating table?

Do Palestinian children racing out of the house to join in protests know their deaths are merely chits to be cashed in when Yasser Arafat and the Israelis once again sit down? Do they know their young lives may feed a propaganda machine but will hardly change Israel’s negotiating position? After all, Israeli children have also been victims of Palestinian terror.

Around the world and throughout history, children have been used to fight adult wars, and the Middle East is no different. These Palestinian children are taught to hate the Zionists, and they are egged on by adults who should know better. Caught up in the violence, they become victims.

There is something cruel and cynical about allowing children to place themselves in harm’s way, but that seems to be part and parcel of the Palestinian strategy. To people who accept the inevitability of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians — and this includes a majority of Israeli and American Jews — the martyrdom of Palestinian children is mystifying. Why are these children anywhere near Israeli guns?In Los Angeles, concerned pediatricians have spoken out against such child sacrifice (see page 11), but Palestinian spokesmen say it is Israeli military policy that accounts for the exhorbitant child death toll. In a recent report, Amnesty International took Israel to task for using “excessive force” against demonstrators, but it also criticized Palestinian leadership for not doing enough to keep children away from the violence.Perhaps Mitchell’s commission could help distribute the blame more evenly, and maybe even save young lives in the process.

Sibling Rivalry

I have three sisters, two older and one younger. My youngest sister, Debbie, was born when I was 8 years old. In the months leading up to her birth, I remember clearly the anxiety I felt over the possibility that it might turn out to be a boy and I might end up with a brother.

I suppose most 8-year-old boys would be thrilled at the possibility of having a younger brother to play with, boss around and teach the important ways of boyhood. So I must not be like most young boys. For months I had been telling my parents that if my mother gave birth to another boy, I was moving out and leaving the family! I was definitely not up for any competition in the boy department of my family — sorry, that job was already taken.

So, when the fateful day arrived on Oct. 9, 1957, I recall the anxiety and anticipation with which I greeted the arrival of my yet-to-be-known sibling.

I was sitting in class when a call came in asking that I be sent down to the principal’s office. I knew immediately it must have something to do with the impending birth of my sibling, so I raced down to the office, where I found my father waiting for me and my sister Candy, who was in another class at the same school. When, with a big smile, our dad informed us that we had a new baby sister, I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to welcome Debbie into the family.

But as the years went by, reality set in, and I became convinced every time my parents let Debbie do something that they would never have allowed me to do at the same age, that it must mean they loved her more — and I was jealous.

I even recall teaming up with an older sister to bring our “grievances” to the attention of our parents so we could enlighten them as to how unfair they were being and how unequally we were being treated. And I remember how deep the feelings could be.

So when I read this week’s Torah portion reminding us about the intense sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and how fearful Jacob was of meeting up with his brother once again, knowing how he had abused and mistreated him, I thought back with great sadness on my own misplaced childhood jealousies and insecurities.

The fact is that too often parents do love their children differently, showing preference for one over the other and letting them know in a hundred different ways that no matter what they do, they will never really measure up. I see it in my work as a rabbi all the time, and every time I do it breaks my heart, knowing how fragile children’s egos really are.

In Vayishlach, we catch a glimpse of something remarkable, something redemptive in the human soul. When Jacob finally meets up with Esau bringing along his childhood fears and vulnerabilities, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). And Jacob, startled and awed by the open love of his brother, sweeping away decades of hurt and fear, replied, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).

Would that we could all be as generous of spirit as Esau. Perhaps our real challenge from the Torah this week is to embrace the spiritual gifts of both brothers — from Esau to learn generosity of spirit, and from Jacob to look into the eyes of everyone we meet and have the vision to see the face of God.

Sibling Rivalry

It’s a cautionary tale for parents, and one whose message will resonate with children: the new DreamWorks telling of the biblical tale of Joseph in the animated direct-to-video film “Joseph: King of Dreams.”In a style similar to that of “The Prince of Egypt,” which told the story of Moses, “Joseph: King of Dreams” imagines the childhood of Joseph and illustrates the dangers of favoring one child and the extremes to which sibling rivalry can lead. Animated by their jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sell their preferred brother to Egyptian slave traders. It’s an act they come to regret.

Fortunately for Joseph, he has an ability to interpret dreams, a talent that ultimately helps move him from slavery to a position as a powerful advisor in the court of the Egyptian pharaoh.

In Egypt, happily married and a father himself, Joseph one day encounters his own brothers, who have come to plead for food. It is a time of famine, a situation that Joseph had foreseen, and for which Egypt was well-prepared due to Joseph’s accurate interpretation of a recurrent dream Pharaoh had had.

Although he is now a powerful grown man, Joseph struggles with himself over how to treat his brothers, as his hurt, anger and desire to be loved by his family emerge once again – a situation with which any child could identify. And we see Joseph’s wish to forgive and help his family win out over his desire for revenge – a useful lesson to all.

The film ends with a joyous but sad reunion with his beloved father, Jacob; sad because of all the lost years when they weren’t together, joyous because they finally found each other. Then Joseph welcomes the family, and they live with him in the palace.

It’s a well-told and compelling story, one your children will find riveting. In fact, 9-year-old Tzvia Berrin-Reinstein has this to say: “I think if kids liked ‘The Prince of Egypt,’ they’ll like ‘Joseph: King of Dreams,’ [which has] the same kind of characters.” Tzvia especially liked “the music,” and “Joseph’s coat, which was all shiny.” Asked if she would like to watch it again, the answer was a resounding “Yes.”

The film includes the voices of Ben Affleck (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Armageddon”), Mark Hamill (“Star Wars”), Steven Weber (TV’s “Wings”), and Judith Light (TV’s “Who’s the Boss?”) and features five new songs by John Bucchino, sung by Jodi Benson (“The Little Mermaid”), David Campbell and Maureen McGovern.

It is directed by Robert Ramirez and Rob LaDuca and produced by Ken Tsumura, with a screenplay by Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Joe Stilman and Marshall Goldberg.

The movie is currently in release. Look for it in your local video store.

Where the Heart Is

They say you can never go home again.

Well, you can. Only you might find yourself staying at a Travelodge, driving a rented Ford Contour and staking out your childhood home like some noir private eye just trying to catch a glimpse of the Johnny-come-latelys that are now living in your house.

It’s a familiar story. Kids grow up, parents sell the family home and move to some sunnier climate, some condo somewhere, some smaller abode. We grown-up kids box up all the junk from our childhoods – dusty ballet shoes, high school textbooks, rolled-up posters of Adam Ant – and wonder where home went.I’m not a sentimental person, I told myself. I don’t need to see old 3922 26th Street before we sell the place. I even skipped the part where I return home to salvage my mementos from the garage. I let my parents box up the stuff, which arrived from San Francisco like the little package you get when released from jail. You know, here’s your watch, the outfit you wore in here, some cash. Here’s the person you once were.

After a year, San Francisco called me home again. I missed it. High rents had driven all my friends out of the city to the suburbs, so I made myself a reservation at a motel and drove there in a rented car. The next day, I cruised over to my old neighborhood. There was the little corner store my mom used to send me to for milk, the familiar fire station, the Laundromat.

I cried like the sap I never thought I’d be. I sat in the car, staring at my old house, tears welling up. It had a fresh paint job, the gang graffiti erased from the garage door. New curtains hung in the window.

I walked up and touched the doorknob like it was the cheek of a lover just home from war. I noticed the darker paint where our old mezuzah used to be. I sat on our scratchy brick stoop, dangling my legs off the edge, feeling as rootless as I’ve ever felt.

You can’t go home in a lot of ways, I discovered that night, when I met up with an ex-boyfriend. “Great to see you,” he said, giving me a tense hug. “The thing is, I only have an hour.”

What am I, the LensCrafters of social engagements?

As it happens, his new girlfriend wasn’t too keen on my homecoming. We had a quick drink and he dropped me back off at my low-rent motel, where I scrounged up change to buy some Whoppers from the vending machine for dinner. I settled in for the evening to watch “Three to Tango” on HBO.

“You had to watch a movie with a ‘Friends’ cast member,” said my brother, nodding empathetically.

“That’s sad.”

My brother and I met up at our old house, like homing pigeons, though we could no longer go inside. We walked down the street for some coffee, and I filled him in on my trip. He convinced me to stay my last night at his new place in San Bruno, just outside the city. I’ll gladly pay $98 a night just for the privilege of not inconveniencing anyone, but he actually seemed to want me.

“I love having guests,” he insisted. So I went.

It’s surprising how late in life you still get that “I can’t believe I’m a grown-up” feeling, like when your big brother, the guy who used to force you to watch “Gomer Pyle” reruns, owns his own place. It was small and sparse and he had just moved in, but it was his. The refrigerator had nothing but mustard, a few cheese slices and 14 cans of Diet 7-Up.

We picked up some Taco Bell, rented a movie, popped some popcorn, and I fell asleep on his couch. Insomniacs rarely fall asleep on people’s couches, I assure you. I don’t know why I slept so well after agonizing all weekend over the question of home, if I had one anymore, where it was. I only know that curled up under an old sleeping bag, the sound of some second-rate guy movie playing in the background, my brother in a chair next to me, I felt safe and comfortable, and maybe that’s part of what home is.

But it’s not the whole story. As much as I’d like to buy the clichés about home being where the heart is, or as Robert Frost put it, “The place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” a part of me thinks the truth is somewhere between the loftiness of all those platitudes and the concreteness of that wooden door on 26th Street.

I’ll probably be casing that joint from time to time for the rest of my life. I’ll sit outside, like a child watching someone take away a favorite toy, and silently scream, “Mine!”


“I was in all of one spelling bee in my life,” confides Myla Goldberg, the author of “Bee Season,” who’ll read from her stunning debut novel at the Jewish Book Festival this week. The overachiever was in the fourth grade, and she smugly expected to win – until she was asked to spell “tomorrow,” her Achilles-heel word. She spelled it “tomarrow.”

“I lost immediately,” says the 28-year-old author in a telephone interview from the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her underground cartoonist husband, Jason.

Cut to 1997, when the writer went off to “eavesdrop” at the National Spelling Bee and was “simultaneously fascinated and repulsed” by parents and children who were “pathologically” into the bee. Goldberg, who’s not a crier, wept whenever kids misspelled and “comfort counselors” came to drag them off the stage. “It was just the absurdity and the fatalism of it all,” says the author, who’s played accordion in a transsexual vaudeville act called the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. “It was all about losing.”

The bee, for Goldberg, became “the perfect metaphor for childhood,” for desperately trying to please parents and ultimately realizing you can’t.

The result was “Bee Season,” the story of a Jewish family’s unraveling after the previously unremarkable 9-year-old daughter distinguishes herself as a spelling prodigy. Eliza Naumann’s Reconstructionist cantor dad then introduces her to kabbalah; her spurned brother seeks solace with the Hare Krishnas, and her mother descends into mental illness. Newsweek called “Bee Season” (Doubleday, $22.95) a “Jewish ‘Ordinary People.'” But it’s more like “American Beauty.”

Goldberg, who in a promotional photo wears funky striped tights, was, like the fictional Myla, a nerdy misfit who arduously tried to please her father. “I thought that because everyone in my family was a science person, I needed to do that, too,” she says (her dad’s an engineer; her sister is an engineering doctoral candidate at Stanford). Goldberg did the science fairs and attended the science magnet high school. She tried not to be artsy. “But it didn’t work,” says the author, who eventually began editing her high school literary magazine.

Soon after attending the ’97 National Bee, the Oberlin grad remembered her college fascination with Abraham Abulafia, a 13th century kabbalist who said letters can help you talk to God. As research for “Bee Season,” she pored over obscure mystical tracts and trekked to the Brooklyn Hare Krishna temple, where she gave a fake name, pretended she was a lost soul and asked lots of questions.

All the while, she supported herself by working as a reader of TV movies, most of which she loathed. She expected to spend her life working yucky jobs to support her writing habit. Then, like the fictional Myla, she unexpectedly became a star. As Goldberg was preparing herself for rejection letters, Doubleday snatched up “Bee Season”; rave reviews ensued everywhere from Time to The New York Times.

On the surface, her life hasn’t changed much: She still writes six hours a day in a corner of her living room, surrounded by obscure, preelectronic items such as a magic lantern. “But I no longer have to have a day job while I write,” she says. “And that’s really cool.” – Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

Majoring in Courage

These are tense days for the Los Angeles parents of Jewish students studying at Israeli universities and yeshivas. Their sons and daughters are among some 4,000 Americans studying in Israel this year in a wide range of programs. Major universities, yeshivas, kibbutzim, the Israel Defense Force are just a few of the institutions that offer American students programs in Israel. According to the Israel Aliyah Center, there are l00 students from Los Angeles currently studying in Israel.

With the escalation of violence engulfing the Palestinian territories, the parents of these children worry and ponder issues of safety and security while maintaining close daily contact with their sons and daughters by phone and e-mail. When the crisis intensified, it was expected that many students would return to their homes in the U.S. Instead, 97 percent of the students from the L.A. area have elected to stay in Israel, maintaining their studies and offering their moral and physical support to the embattled Jewish state.When it became clear that the cease-fire was not holding in the conflict, and alerts were issued to the students by the State Department, Dana and Gary Wexler told their daughter Miri, who is 20 and studying at Hebrew University, that they wanted her to return home.

“We have been very concerned for her safety,” Dana told The Journal. “We trust her judgment, but you never know when you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. ” But Miri chose to stay.”She loves Israel,” Dana said. “She’s thrilled being there. She knows the language. She took the ulpan and is very fluent.”

“This crisis brought me face to face with all the issues of my Jewish and Zionist ideology, of what would I do,” said Gary. “Would I take my child out if push came to shove? And I realized I would. My first priority as a Jewish parent is the concern for my child’s safety, not my responsibility to Zionist ideology. But my daughter chose on her own to stay.”

Asked how he felt about his daughter’s decision, Gary replied, “I’m frightened, I’m jittery. On the other hand, I’m proud of what Miri has chosen to do while she stays. She went and got herself a job at the YMCA kindergarten, which is a coexistence kindergarten of Jewish and Arab kids. Because she really believes that they need to learn to live together.”

Gregg and Merryl Alpert’s daughter, Sarra, 20, is also studying at Hebrew University and has also decided to remain in Israel. A literature major, Sarra won a national essay contest prize from Masorti, the Conservative movement in Israel, for an essay in which she wrote about her relationship to Israel.”We feel our primary job has been to support her in how she has worked through this decision,” Gregg said.

“We told her, of course, we’re concerned for her safety. But this was a decision she needed to make. We were there to advise her and to help her think it out and offer her whatever support she asked for. We wanted to make sure she knew she had our permission to get on a plane and come right home if she wanted to. I was proud of how she thought it through.” he said.

In Sarra’s prize essay, which was titled “The Lizard’s Tail,” she described the tension between the desire to seek the richness of life and the knowledge there are really frightening situations in the world. “And now, in Israel, there’s a classic example of that situation,” said her father.

Sol and Pearl Taylor’s son, Benjamin, 23, is studying at Darche Noam, a yeshiva in West Jerusalem. Benjamin graduated from UC Santa Barbara, majoring in political science, and had previously spent his junior year at Hebrew University. “We keep in touch daily,” Sol said. “I would prefer he be here, but if he feels he’s comfortable there, it’s okay.”

Sol described how Benjamin developed a strong feeling for Israel. “We come from an orthodox background,” Sol said. “Benjamin started going to an Orthodox shul, Shaarey Zedek, becoming shomer shabbos. He’s similar to his grandparents.They were founding members of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights.”

While Sol emphasized his family’s support for Israel, he too cited the Palestinian conflict as a source of unease. “Those Jewish settlements in Gaza: who would want to live in such a Godforsaken place? And they’re just another thorn in the side of the Palestinians living there.”

Yael Weinstock, who is 18 and planning to become a rabbi, is studying in Jerusalem on a program called Nativ, a United Synagogue project of yeshiva study for Conservative youth. Her parents, Alan and Judy Weinstock emphasize that Yael’s choice to stay in Israel was “her own decision.”

“We’ve been quite calm about it,” Alan said. “We have only asked her once if she felt a desire to come home. She said no. Each family has to make their own decision.”

For the Weinstock family, as for so many others, the Holocaust remains a cornerstone of their love of Israel and their belief in its importance. “My parents are survivors from Poland,” Alan said. “So when my daughter went to Israel, she could meet family and friends of my parents for the first time, people she’d heard about for many years. They were the real chalutzim of the country. So for my daughter, that connection to Israel is very strong.”

“We’re proud of her all of her life,” Alan continued. “She’s a very special young lady.”

Reviving a Public School

Four years ago, when Robyn Ritter Simon’s eldest son was ready to start kindergarten, she looked at her local public school and found it lacking. It was not that Canfield Elementary School fell short academically. The Simons live in a West Los Angeles neighborhood that is heavily Jewish and her son would have been one of the few white children — and perhaps the only Jewish child — in his class.

Simon, who grew up in West Los Angeles and met her husband at Emerson Junior High School, was a strong believer in the public school experience. So she won permission to shlep Brandon to Westwood Charter Elementary, a school she regards as a model of enlightened diversity. Still, she continued to look longingly at the school down the street, wishing she could bring to Canfield some of the strong neighborhood support that made Westwood Charter so attractive.

In 1996, while pushing her twins in their stroller, Simon met three other mothers who shared her hopes for Canfield. Though their children were still toddlers, they began to strategize, working closely with principal Sylvia Rogers to address Canfield’s needs. Each of the four found her own area of expertise. Denise Neumann, a former interior designer, dug gardens, organized campus beautification days, and ultimately became president of the Friends of Canfield booster club. Nicole Gorak, a photographer with a background in public relations, spread the word to other parents and owners of local businesses. Teresa Grossman, who works as a bookkeeper for actors and musicians, learned the art of grant writing and helped Canfield win funds for new playground equipment. Simon, a journalist who once hosted a public affairs television show, lobbied Los Angeles Unified School District bureaucrats on Canfield’s behalf.

Love and Marriage

The midrash says that poverty is the worst of all afflictions. But I think it’s something else — loneliness. Human beings are lonely creatures, craving love. I see it in the eyes of elderly men who lose their wives of half a century or more. I see it in the longing and desperation of women in their 40s who cannot seem to find the right man. We all want to reach out to someone who will reach out to us. We all want love.

It’s not that marriage is a guarantee against loneliness. There are plenty of married people who are lonely, who, because of the mortgage, the children, or the lack of will, suffer but tough it out. It’s just that marriage is a calculated and magical approach to fighting loneliness, which seems to work better than any other.

I remember when my parents told their five children that they were getting divorced. We were gathered around the dinner table; red sauce on white spaghetti noodles covered my plate. How like my mother to feed us, to do her duty, before delivering bad news.

“I think we have to talk,” my father said. Then, for the first time in my life, I saw him cry. My mother wanted freedom. He wanted to stay. No, neither of them had cheated on the other. Dad would get an apartment nearby. Mom would make him a soup for us to bring when we visited. I was 14 and, in my adolescent simplicity, I asked them only one question: “Do you love each other?”

I don’t think they answered. At least I don’t remember their answer. I do remember the look on their faces. It was a look that said: “You are only 14. You have so much to learn. Marriage is not as simple as love.”

I told my dad to get a big enough apartment for me, too, because I was going with him. Two of my older sisters tore into my mother and told her that if she was so unhappy, she could move out of the house and we’d bring her a nice soup. The Leder children were not going to take this lying down. We united, we protested, we sulked, and we succeeded. Somehow, after seeing our reactions, my parents realized that they had built more together than they thought, and that the downside of loneliness was steep. They decided to fight for their marriage. So far, it has lasted 48 years.

Because it was almost snatched away, I learned at 14 that marriage was not the perfect or the only answer to the human condition, but it was the best answer. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate more how most men and women need each other and how much children need them both. I’ve come to appreciate the role God and destiny play in the miracle of human love — how lucky we are to find what other creatures on Earth lack.

When I stand under the chuppah with couples, I always remind them that their wedding is not their marriage; marriage doesn’t happen on a particular day or place. A marriage is built through months and years of laughter, toil, adventure, sex, lack of sex, rest, no rest, understanding, confusion and forgiveness. I remind grooms that the Talmud says, “If your wife is shorter than you, bend down and listen to her”; that they have to try and understand each other with all their might. I remind them that the Hebrew word for marriage is kiddushin, taken directly from this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim. Both words have as their root the word kadosh, meaning holy or separate. So I tell these couples that if they treat each other as kadosh — sacred, fragile vessels, easily shattered — they’ll be able to hang on, snuggled beneath the blanket of years, come what may.

Then, when all the words have been spoken, they break a glass to remember there will also be sadness. They kiss. They feast. They dance, and they love. Later, if they are lucky and devoted, they will find another kind of love, built together through the years, a richer, deeper love — a love that is a marriage.

Steven Z. Leder is rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.