It’s not about a plan


“Remember a time that you felt everything was right. The world just worked. You were in the moment. You felt calm, alive, complete. There was no other place you wanted to be but right there. Everything about that moment worked,” Rabbi Sherre Hirsch writes in her new self-help book, “We Plan, God Laughs: 10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted” (Doubleday).

What Hirsch most wants is for people to find their “sparkle,” as she writes in Step 7, “Finding Your Divine Spark.”

That’s why she left her job as rabbi at Sinai Temple a year and a half ago. Although she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was 19, after serving at the Conservative synagogue in Westwood under Rabbi David Wolpe for eight years, she decided to move on.

“It was an incredible position for me, and I loved my congregants, I loved teaching and counseling,” she said. But “there were other things I wanted to do,” including spending time with her husband and three kids, and, it turns out, broadcasting her messages of spirituality and hope to a much broader audience.

On a recent day that meant a morning interview with Sam Rubin at KTLA and an afternoon at CBS, with The Jewish Journal sandwiched between—and there have been appearances on “The Today Show,” “Tyra,” Naomi Judd’s “Good Morning” and PBS’s “Thirty Minutes.”

Which may be because Hirsch does sparkle. In a black satin shell and immaculate ivory pants, the 39-year-old’s blue eyes, framed by purple mascara, shimmer as she talks about her message.

“I want people to take a risk, to believe that life may not have turned out like you planned,” she said, leaning forward eagerly on her hands. “I wanted people to have hope more than anything, in an age where people lose hope and get stuck.”

Hirsch knows from plans and getting stuck. Her mother was a small-town Midwesterner who met her knight in shining armor when she was 15. She got married at 19 and had two kids by the time she was 24. But her husband lost his job, became depressed and verbally abusive. After Sherre and her brother left for college, her mother, in her early 40s, finally left her husband. Eventually she rebuilt her life and remarried.

“When I officiated at [my mother and stepfather’s] wedding, my mother wore my wedding dress. What I said then under the chuppah was that, at her first wedding, she was waiting for someone to rescue her. But at this wedding she had rescued herself,” Hirsch wrote in her book. “She had taught us all that to live the life you want, you have to be willing to leap. You have to be willing to realize that your life is not scripted. The happy ending starts with you.”

In recent years many self-help gurus—and rabbis—have taken on the subject of happiness in books and lectures. So what makes this one any different?

“I think that when people say something in a new way, people hear it in a new way,” said Hirsch, who lists Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) and Rabbi Ed Feinstein (of Valley Beth Shalom) as inspirations. She also admires Oprah and Katie Couric as “communicators,” which is how she sees herself.

“Do I think I’ve written Aristotle’s new treatise?” she asks. “No.”

She focuses on tried-and-true concepts, such as “finding meaning” and “celebrating the divine in you.” But Hirsch said she didn’t want to write a “rabbi’s” book—i.e., a Jewish scholarly book.

“I wanted them to feel like they were talking to their friend, not being preached at by a rabbi. ‘What would I say to my best friend, and what would they say back to me?’ I wanted a different level of intimacy.”

Every chapter is infused with personal stories—of herself, her family, her congregants and Judaism. She chattily intersperses stories about God’s 13 attributes to teach about our own 13 positive attributes. She uses the Jewish new moon to show how we express our faith in the future, and shows how Moses’ doubting God means that only with doubt can one gain true faith.

What may appeal to a national TV audience—and on the Web site momlogic.com—is that Hirsch, in her own words “is a Midwestern girl.” (She was born in Ohio, although she grew up in Palos Verdes.)

That and the fact that she’s a female rabbi.

“Many of the audiences are women. I’m relatable, a mother with kids, I dated a ton—I struggle with the regular challenges that everyone struggles with, and I’m not afraid to be vulnerable or real,” she said. “I hope that people feel my authenticity.”

“I think everyone makes plans and things don’t go the way we plan,” she said.

People need to stop being so focused on the plan and just take action and see where it unfolds: “We’re not in charge—we can control our actions, but we can’t control our results.”

For her, spirituality is part of the equation, something that should be more than a yearly event on holidays.

“People can incorporate faith into their daily lives,” she said.

“I’m interested in helping people come closer to their faith,” she said. “If you find your faith, you find a way back home.”

Accountability


As usual, it started out with questions.

“Where do you work? What do you do? Have you been on any trips lately?”

I was all for talking about myself, what I do, where I’ve been, where I’m going. But then it got personal.

“Are you renting? How much do you pay per month?”

Real estate is a touchy subject. But it’s one that anyone in any major city discusses. I used to feel guilty about renting a place, what with everyone and their mother owning property, but now with the subprime mortgage rates and the housing market crash, I feel smugly superior that I didn’t fall prey to the greed. Yes, I rent! Isn’t that great?

And then it got really personal.

“And are you still single?”

It was that one word that really got to me. Still Single. Still. As if I hadn’t accomplished anything in the last year. As if I hadn’t published articles, essays — been on NPR, for God’s sake! — influenced people with my writing. As if I hadn’t started teaching at a university, traveled around the world, lost 10 pounds, learned how to surf, counseled countless friends and family members through countless crises. It all had been erased to nothing — nothing! — with that one question: “Are you still single?”

OK, so what if it was my accountant who was doing the asking?

For the last six years I’ve been doing my taxes with this seemingly sweet older lady. She is tall, white-haired and stooped over, with blue eyes that might be described as kindly if you’ve never sat down with her for a tax interview. If you had, you might say her eyes were steely blue and her demeanor hawkish. The woman, God help her, will ferret out any and every possible deduction known to mankind. Especially if you’re an artist, which many of her clients are. Why, then every activity you do, from reading newspapers to traveling, to meeting with people to anything that might have a direct influence on your art is fair game.

(But, Mr. I.R.S., if you’re reading this, she and her firm are totally and completely legal. Case in point, many of my seemingly “social” interactions are part of my writing. Most of them are, since I write about myself.)

But deductions are not the point. The point is that when she asks me if I’m still single — she has to ask me, it’s part of her job — it chafes. It brings up a lot of issues for me. Am I still single? Am I in the same job as last year? The same house? The very same life? What have I done with the last 12 months of my life that we can tell the I.R.S.?

I imagine my accountant saying, “They’re going to audit you because everything in your life sounds suspiciously similar to last year and beyond!”

Mind you, she asks, “Are you still single?” in the same tone she asks, “Are you still driving a Volkswagen?” and “Are you still subscribing to The New York Times? And The New York Review of Books? (I let the latter lapse because it was just too dense, and there’s no one in L.A. bars to discuss it with.)

But as I answer, “Yes, still single. Same job. Same car, same house,” in my mind I picture others who file with her from year to year, making dozens of changes and updates to their files: Change of name (married), change of residence (bought a house), change of mortgage (paid in full), sale of stocks (to pay for house), number of dependents (one, two, three).

Look, it’s not necessarily any cheaper to file as a married person than as a single person.

But we’re not talking about money here (Mr. I.R.S., I definitely am talking about lots of money from you!). We’re talking more than financial accountability. We’re talking life accountability.

I know in Judaism we review our year on Rosh Hashanah, and we tally up our good deeds and bad deeds before Yom Kippur. For our superficial — or more worldly — deeds, we use the Gregorian New Year to make resolutions. On our birthdays, we take stock, using the number of years as a measuring stick.

But on all those occasions it’s possible to fudge a bit. To make things look better than they are (“OK, so I wasn’t such a bad Jew this year — even though this is my first time in synagogue, I did give tzedakah to every homeless person who asked …”). In the run-up to April 15, though, it’s hard to lie. (Actually, it’s criminal.) It’s all laid out there in front of you in stacks of paper that you’ve finally separated, organized, catalogued and filed.

Still writing. Still renting. Still driving a VW. And yes, still, ahem, single.

It’s all naked and exposed before my accountant. But that’s what frustrates me so. There is so much beyond those cut-and-dried numbers. There’s poetry behind the columns. “Romeo and Juliet” can’t be summed up as, “Both Capulet and Montague family have one less dependent this year.”

And neither can my life. I may not be married yet, but I’ve met dozens of wonderful people — men and women — this year. I’ve deepened my relationships to dozens I’ve already known, been to fabulous places and, most importantly, learned so many new life lessons: on how to love, how to be loved, whom to love, whom to leave and to whom to give a second chance.

And these things can’t be measured on paper. No matter who — my accountant, my parents, my relatives, my so-called friends — is asking.

Films: The ‘Little Miss’ that could maybe hopefully


When Peter Saraf signed on to co-produce the film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” he says he did so without hesitation. The script, about a dysfunctional family’s road trip, spoke to him immediately, and he was proud to bring his great-aunt and great-uncle to see it.

As the film began rolling, however, Saraf began to have some reservations. The family comedy features Alan Arkin as a grandfather who snorts heroin and yells obscenities. How would Saraf’s great-uncle, an 80-year-old concentration camp survivor, react?

“I kept looking over at him when Alan would go into one of his expletive tirades,” Saraf said. “He was just laughing!”

Audiences of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds warmed to “Sunshine,” much like Saraf’s relatives, after its July 26 opening.

The film first gained momentum with a standing ovation at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which led to a bidding war for distribution rights. Box office success followed, with a domestic gross of more than $59 million as of Jan. 4, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

The numbers are expected to keep growing, with “Sunshine” still being screened in some theaters, even as it was released on DVD Dec. 19. Not bad for a film with an $8 million budget.

The Fox Searchlight release has also been a critical favorite, garnering film festival awards, Top Ten of 2006 honors from the National Board of Review and American Film Institute, as well as multiple nominations for Gotham, Satellite, Independent Spirit, Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards. In light of this, “Sunshine” is poised to be an Oscar contender, as well.

The movie begins with the shabby Arizona home of the misfit, middle-class Hoover family. Richard, played by Greg Kinnear, is the motivational speaker dad who can’t get his book published; his wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is depleted from years of running and supporting the family; Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), is a gay Proust scholar, who recently attempted suicide after being jilted by his lover; hedonist Grandpa has been kicked out of the nursing home for his heroin vice; son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), is an angry teen who’s taken a vow of silence; and then there’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), the heart of the film, a pudgy, bespectacled 7-year-old innocent whose dream is to win the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant.

When Olive learns she’s won a last-minute spot to compete in the pageant, she has two days to make it to the competition in Redondo Beach. The family piles into their broken-down yellow Volkswagen minibus and heads west.

The minibus that chugs along despite falling apart through the film is a metaphor for the troubled Hoovers. And “Little Miss Sunshine’s” promoters have enjoyed drawing a parallel between the family’s hard-won personal triumph and the success of this “little indie flick that could.” While an Oscar win might seem like a long shot, dismissing “Sunshine” would be a mistake.

The Golden Globes singled out directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for a best musical or comedy nod, as well as Collette for best actress in a comedy or musical. And tradition has it that the Globes, to be held this year on Jan. 15, are fairly good predictors of Academy Award nominations.

Another Oscar bellwether is the Producers Guild of America, which included “Sunshine” as one of five feature films nominated for the Darryl F. Zanuck producer of the year award. The Producers Guild Awards will be held Jan. 20.

The film’s universal appeal seems to tap the same spirit that propelled audiences of every background to see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” another indie feature that toyed with universal themes of family dysfunction. Saraf credits “Sunshine” screenwriter Michael Arndt for writing family relationships that ring true for all audiences.

“There is an honesty in the dynamic in that family,” Saraf said. “The script has a wonderful sense of humor as well as a real emotional underpinning, and I think that’s what people are really responding to.”

Co-producer David Friendly also sees the appeal of “Sunshine” in this light. The son of legendary CBS News president Fred Friendly, David personally identified with the script’s complicated father-son relationships.

“I did have a powerful father figure,” he said, describing his dad as a “larger-than-life character.”

One scene that felt particularly reminiscent for Friendly occurs toward the end of the film, as the family is nearing the freeway offramp for the pageant. Richard, who is driving, can’t figure out the exit, and thus keeps circling, while a cacophony of direction-yelling ensues around him.

Friendly fondly recalled being lost in Portland, Ore., with his father behind the wheel.

“Dad was sort of commander in chief insisting he knew his way around…. Doing loops around the airport,” he said.

The ability to channel such real human moments is what audiences of all demographics have embraced in “Sunshine,” and both Friendly and Saraf say that is enough, regardless of any awards buzz.

Friendly says that’s part of the moral of “Little Miss Sunshine” — to enjoy the experience, rather than being focused on winning — and it’s also something he absorbed from his Jewish upbringing.

“You learn from all the seders around the table. You get a good sense of what’s right and wrong, and the ethics of a good life,” he said.

“I think that also fundamental to the theme of the movie, we all want to succeed, but at what price? If you get too focused on the wrong things, it begins to corrupt other things.”

Attention, menschen! CAIR; Michael Richards; Shoah survivors


In 2005, The Journal profiled 10 “Mensches of the Year ” and it became one of our most popular and widely appreciated cover stories. We plan to make this an annual feature … and we’d love your help.If you know someone whose great work on behalf of others goes unsung, who doesn’t get paid for what he or she does (or doesn’t get paid near enough), whose life is the embodiment of the values of tzedakah — please pass their name and contact info to us with a very brief sentence or two describing why they should be featured as one of our 10 mensches of 2006.

Send your nominations to: letters@jewishjournal.com. Names must be received Dec. 15 in order to be considered.

CAIR

Your publication of the inflammatory rhetoric of CAIR-L.A.’s Executive Director Hussam Ayloush as if it were a reliable source of fact or reasonable opinion makes one question your editorial judgment (“Letters, Nov. 17).

It is very peculiar that Ayloush and his organization, who claim to promote “dialogue, mutual respect and trust and cooperation,” would resort to ad-hominem attacks against Steven Emerson, actually calling him “America’s most vicious Islamophobe.” Moreover, incitement and provocation are not constructive tactics. If CAIR is truly serious about promoting mutual understanding, Ayloush would not have written a letter that clearly defeats CAIR’s stated objectives. Furthermore, the letter serves as a form of psychological warfare, which attempts to erode the credibility, trust and reputation of Emerson with your readers and the general public.

Based on Ayloush’s unfair characterization of Emerson, it appears that he and CAIR have one primary objective, which is to discredit and silence anyone who dares to identify terrorists who happen to be connected to a radical Islamist network. This should be of great concern to the entire community, Christian, Muslim and Jewish alike.

Margo Itskowitch
Beverly Hills

The Survivors

“The Forgotten Survivors” (Nov. 24) raises some crucial issues for the Jewish community, which must decide if it will make a concerted effort to endow the last days of these victims of Nazism with a greater measure of dignity and peace.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) established the Holocaust Survivor Services program of the Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles more than a decade ago. Last year, the Claims Conference allocated approximately $1.5 million to JFS, from various sources of Holocaust restitution funding. This financial support is absolutely critical to the work of JFS in assisting and supporting needy Jewish victims of Nazism.However, the Claims Conference needs partners in this endeavor. It is important for the larger Jewish community to recognize the need and to respond.

Hillary Kessler-Godin
Director of Communications
Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany

Thank you for remembering “The Forgotten Survivors” in this week’s cover story. We at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) agree that it is our responsibility to offer support and companionship to impoverished Holocaust survivors, both locally and worldwide.

We have recently joined in a collaborative effort with a local organization called The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which sends money and letters to survivors living in Eastern Europe. This project is both educational and philanthropic, offering a unique exchange between the American Jewish community, and Jewish individuals living in their original Eastern European hometowns. Their stories give us singular insight into the vast changes of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before, during and after World War II.

Students in Russian and Yiddish classes at NCJHS are volunteering their time to translate letters to and from the survivors in Eastern Europe, enabling international Jewish friendships to form. We are incredibly proud of these young people and encourage the community to get involved with the Survivor Mitzvah Project, as well as the local organizations listed in the original article, through zzmail@sbcglobal.net or (800) 905-6160.Hannah Pollin
Yiddish Teacher
Lisa Ansell
Head of World Languages
New Community Jewish High School

I estimate that in Los Angeles 47 percent of Holocaust survivors, or more than 4,000 survivors, are currently living in poverty. During the past eight years, the L.A. community has experienced a significant increase in the proportion of Holocaust survivors in poverty from the 32 percent in poverty found in my 1997 research, that was cited in the cover story by The Jewish Federation, to 45 percent of L.A. holocaust survivors in poverty, as compared to 35 percent of Holocaust survivors in poverty nationally in 2005.

An additional $1,000 a year allocated to each impoverished Holocaust survivor in our community would cost $4 million, and during the next 10 years progressively less, as the median age of Holocaust survivors is 81. [For a Federation] that raises $55 million dollars a year and boasts more than $600 million in its Jewish Community Foundation, this would be a good initial gesture of concern for this regrettable situation where the most traumatized and weakest among us grow poorer as they grow older.

Pini Herman
Phillips & Herman
Demographic Research

Thank you for your Nov. 24 cover story “The Forgotten Survivors,” which recognized the vital work of Jewish Family Service (JFS) and others in assisting the aging and impoverished Holocaust survivors in our community.

We are deeply grateful to The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany for its generous and crucial support of our JFS/Holocaust Survivor Services program. In our last fiscal year, the Claims Conference provided $1.5 million to help us meet the needs of survivors living in Los Angeles. We are also appreciative of the ongoing support by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and The Morgan Aging with Dignity Fund that helps us maintain and sustain our work with survivors of the Holocaust.

We encourage the entire community to continue to support us in this important mission.

And Get Thee Out: Jews and Hollywood


Rob Eshman, whom I admire a lot, and who argued strenuously — even pleaded — for his name not to be mentioned in this (but clearly lost), was nice enough to ask if
I would write something for this special issue of The Journal (which I admire — and read — a lot), and I was very flattered.

He suggested, as a general topic, Jews in Hollywood. Being a Jew in Hollywood myself, this sounded dandy to me.

Since life in general (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) is more or less constantly ironic, it made me shake my head to think how odd it is that every single person around the world, from Europe to Africa to the remotest parts of Asia, even to places there has never been electricity, let alone movies, would feel instantly and unshakably certain the words “Hollywood” and “Jews” were not only synonymous, but interchangeable.

You could find a tribe of 30 short, naked, isolated people near the Amazon (the river, not the bookseller), who don’t speak English and have never even seen another human for 700 years, and who are pretty sure the entire world actually ends at the edge of their forest; and if you parachuted into their village in the middle of the night, woke them up and screamed, “Quick! Who runs Hollywood?” every confused one of them would look at each other, shrug, and say, “Why, the Jews, of course. Everyone knows that.”

You could probably do the same thing on Mars.

Only we Jews would say, “Actually, that’s not true.”

Ah, well. Not the first time, eh?

I remember when the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” came out. Now, there wasn’t one element of this movie that involved Jews. The book (a beautiful story, by the way, by Nikos Kazantzakis) and the screenplay were not written by Jews, the stars were not Jews, the director (Martin Scorsese) was not a Jew, the producer was not a Jew, the cinematographer was not a Jew — well, you get the idea. But the head of Universal at the time, Lew Wasserman (who has since passed on), was Jewish, and that was enough to get lots of folks saying, “Aha! The Jews in Hollywood have done it again.”

Done what? I don’t know. I guess we just did it again.

I’ll bet if you went to the bar Mel Gibson got drunk at that night and looked hard enough, you could find a guy — three landlords and two owners and seven property managers ago — whose daughter’s old freshman roommate took an adult education pottery course in the ’70s from a Jew. Close enough. “The Jews did it to Mel!”

The only thing I know about being a Jew in Hollywood is that, to me, they are two completely separate and distinct things. Whatever the word “Hollywood” actually means, I’m an actor, a writer and a comic, and I love it all. I love show business. I’d be a hand model if anyone ever asked. (No one has, so far, but then again it’s only Monday morning.)

Being a Jew is different, and that’s why I titled this column, “And Get Thee Out.” As many of you know, we just read Lech Lecha this past Shabbos. (I still pronounce it “Shabbos,” because it reminds me of my parents.) This part of the Torah, with Vayerah coming right after, is some of the most shatteringly powerful Jewishness in my life, year in, year out. The Torah, and the Psalms, and so much else in the liturgy is often so moving to me I have to put it down and take a breath. It seems so real, so clearly “of God.”

I’m bringing that up because it was still so strongly with me this morning, I really wanted to talk about it with someone, even for just a couple of minutes; someone in my work, my world, the creative life. The Business. Someone I deal with all the time. Someone who would get it, who feels the same way I do, who hears the same music.

Well, my agents are Jews, and my manager is a Jew, and my entertainment lawyer is a Jew, and my publicist is a Jew, and the agent in New York who negotiated my book deal with Regan for “Spoiled Rotten America” is a Jew (Come on, folks, you didn’t expect me to go a whole article without getting a plug in, did you?) and the producer, director, stars and writers of a movie I’m in that screened Saturday night are Jews, and I really, really like them all, and respect them all, and admire their work and their families and their hearts very, very much.

But I couldn’t talk to them about Lech Lecha. They would have politely listened if I insisted, but have had no idea what I was so lit up about.

So I called my friend Jonathan Last in Washington, a great writer. He’s Catholic and religious, but I can talk to him about God and Jewishness in the greatest depth, and he always gets it. There are folks I could call around here, of course, and they’re Jews. Like my rabbi. But they’re not in show business.

This morning, I dropped my kids off at school but had to miss the minyan, because one of them had a thing in class he was doing. It’s a Jewish school, so I had my tallis and tefillin with me and figured I’d daven in the chapel alone. This happens a lot.

As I was going in, Cantor Judy Aronoff was coming out, someone I admire immensely, whose Jewishness and knowledge and kavanah shine like a sun. We talked for a moment, and then I went in and stood before the ark and davened. Then I got a cup of coffee at the cart Crystal runs out front every day, and drove to Universal.

So if someone asks me what it’s like to be a Jew in Hollywood, I swear I don’t know. I know what it’s like to be a Jew, and how far I’d like to go. I know what it’s like to be in “Hollywood,” and how far I’d like to go. But I don’t have the slightest idea of how the twain shall meet; unless, as Lou Costello once said, it’s “the twain on twack twee.”

So every day, as long as God gives me life, I’ll listen to His order, and “Get thee up, and get thee out.” Like today: I davened and came to work.

And decided to write this and tell you about it.

Actor, writer and comedian Larry Miller, whose next movie, “For Your Consideration,” opens Nov. 17, is the author of the new book, “Spoiled Rotten America” (Regan Books), but I guess you already know that.

Life at 85: what a trip!


I was born in Chicago some 85 years ago. My home was Jewish Orthodox and consisted of my mother, her two brothers and their father, my grandfather. I specify
my grandfather because, in those days, nobody ever thought of placing their old father in an old folks’ home.

My closest friend while growing up was Alan, who lived across the street. Each evening, we would go for a walk — generally lasting about two hours. He and I really liked each other, but this walk was a very silent one, neither of us had much to say.

In 1943, I left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. It was during the war, and I became a flight test engineer and copilot on the airplane known as the B-25. From then on, Alan and I spoke on the phone but also had personal visits during the years.

The other day, I got a call from Alan, who is now 87 and a widower.

Now, not as before, there was ongoing conversation. Not silent anymore. But what did we have to talk about? The talk ran easy. We spoke for a long time about his hip problems and my back and other health problems. The opening, “How are you?” was for one minute, and the health conversation lasted for one hour.

Now you may ask, why I am telling you the story of my friend? It has to do with my past. When he and I were growing up, how in the world would we ever know or think about hip problems at the age of 87? We would have asked: What do you mean by “the age of 87?” It was another world. A world of which we had no knowledge.
My reaction to our long conversation was very emotional. I was in tears when it was time to say goodbye. I said, “Alan, you have my love.”

BR>
But this is what the past does for you — it is really another life; it’s gone but never forgotten. That thought will always put a tear in your eye.

The goodbye was so different than our youthful, nonspeaking days.

The conversation with Alan opened the door of my brain. I suddenly realized I am 85 and part of another world: It’s called the present. I have gone through the youth time, the middle time when I was 40 to 60 and, now, I find myself in the third stage. What a trip! Really unbelievable.

We look back on the past because it was another era. In our youth and young years, life included activities you chose. Your responsibilities were minimal compared to those as you grew older. Being young and thinking young allowed you to exist in a world that is the start of the middle age.

Of course, there are exceptions, and some people are required to give more of themselves as required by family obligations. But those times somewhat establish the makeup you will carry the rest of your life.

From the middle age, we enter what is called the old-age era. Old age is intended to slow the flow of time so we can get back to the real “hopefully pleasant” moments of the past.

How do I handle belonging to the senior group? How do I accept the present? It is very, very hard to say to myself: “You are old.” Stepping into this stage is not easy; it’s difficult to accept the number 85.

At 85 I have given up driving. I just can’t see well enough. There are two other “loves of my life that also went by the wayside: tennis and jogging. My eyesight also contributes to hardship in reading the newspaper. I find it difficult to really accept the fact that I can no longer do all of the middle-life chores or continue with many of my chosen activities. I find myself thinking about the activities that came so easily in my middle life.

But in the “old age” category, one must force oneself to realize the here and now. Activities must conform to the present place you are in life, both physically and mentally. When you come to accept the present position, time wise, I think you can then enjoy what you have — and prosper with all the good things that are there.

You can take advantage of the knowledge of the past, an example of which is the seven-member men’s club I belong to. It used to be that each time we met, the opening welcome was a cordial handshake. The past brought me to ask this group of men, a gender that often refuses to show hidden emotions, “Are you glad to see each other?”

The answer was, of course, “Yes.”

So I suggested a hug in place of a handshake — and the hug has taken over.
I find others, friends not in their 80s, display emotional tenderness to me and my wife, who is 84. I detect my friends thinking that age brings great knowledge not present in the early years. Another great experience is having our family close by and the joy they exhibit at having us with them.

The past is very important; it contributes to the actions of the present. Look back and enjoy your thoughts, but the present is here and now. Live it up, take pleasure in your friends and do not feel bad thinking about who you are today. Tell your thoughts and become a charter member of “Senior Time.”


Red Lachman is a short-story writer.

Public Reactions Are Strong to A Personal Journey


Los Angeles photographer Naomi Solomon capped off her informal summer presentation series “Settlers: A Photographic Journey of the Life and Disengagement of the Jews Living in Gaza” at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills last week, drawing more than 150 people.

Her evocative slide-show was a culmination of her personal explorations of life in Judea, Samaria and Gaza that began with her initial visit in 2002 to the mixed secular-religious Judean outpost, Ma’aleh Rechavam, and continued through the Gaza disengagement of August 2005.

After months of post-production since her return to Los Angeles, Solomon created a show of 100 select photos, which she has presented largely to Orthodox synagogues in the L.A. area. However, she says her mission to portray the diversity, humanity and culture of settlers and settlement life through her photographs is far from complete.

“My focus now is to branch out of local synagogues,” Solomon told the Jewish Journal in a telephone interview.

Predicting a particularly strong anti-Zionist sentiment on campuses this year, she plans to secure speaking engagements at universities, as well as at Reform and Conservative synagogues. Synagogues of all streams, however, have sometimes been reluctant to host her, as they fear that her presentation is too “political,” a fear that Solomon attributes, in part, to her provocative title.

While in her presentation Solomon makes clear her stance against unilateral withdrawals, she asserts that her aim is to “share her experience” rather than her political opinions.

“My goal is to unravel a human story within a political tornado,” she said.
Her photographs range from romantic scenes of settlers building homes, tilling land, playing guitar and surfing on the Gaza coast, to the more emotion-packed scenes of settlers protesting and soldiers evacuating settlers and demolishing their homes.

Solomon cannot say with any certainty that the recent war in Lebanon has drawn more interest in her work, although she believes her presentation is already changing perceptions. At the end of the recent show at Nessah, which climaxed with the image of the gates of Gaza closing, many congregants were tearful and the hall was silent. She related that on several occasions audience members came up to her afterward and retracted their support for the disengagement.

Rosenbergs’ Granddaughter Tackles Washington ‘Hill’


What do you do for an encore when your first work is a powerful, heart-wrenching documentary about the life of your notorious grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg?

The Rosenbergs were executed for spying for the Soviet Union in June 1953. Their personal story was told 51 years later by their granddaughter, Ivy Meeropol, in the powerful 2004 documentary, “Heir to an Execution.”

Ivy Meeropol
Now the 36-year-old filmmaker has followed her ground-breaking and very personal film with a six-part cinema verite-style political series, “The Hill,” which begins airing on the Sundance Channel on Aug. 23. It gives viewers an unprecedented look into what goes on in the office of Florida Jewish Congressman Robert Wexler and the way in which his young staff dictate his actions.

At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Spa in Pasadena, Meeropol talked easily about her new film, in which she takes a “fly-on-the-wall” approach capturing the behind-the-scenes intrigue and intimacies of the office of the Democrat Wexler, who is a strong supporter of Israel.

Meeropol lives on the East Coast with her husband, Thomas, a production designer in films and commercials, and their 15-month-old son, Julian. She is the first to admit that it was the emotionally stirring documentary about her grandparents that was instrumental in persuading the congressman to allow her and her all-seeing cameras into his inner sanctum.

Meeropol said she discovered her love of politics after working in Washington as a legislative aide and speech writer for Democratic Rep. Harry Johnston, Wexler’s predecessor.

“It makes sense that I would want to do ‘The Hill.’ I was feeling some nostalgia for my time in Washington,” she said. “I loved working there. And I was always amazed that people really don’t know what goes on. They don’t know that it’s all these very young people who are advising members of Congress — for better or for worse — on how to vote. It’s a compelling story.”

Wexler and his team gave her the green light after viewing “Heir to an Execution.”

“They all felt I had dealt with the subject very sensitively and I wasn’t someone who would exploit things,” Meeropol said. “And they quickly forgot that I was in the room with a camera. Since I had worked in the same capacity as some of the people you see in the film, I was able not just to gain access but tell the story in a way that others wouldn’t be able to do.”

The first episode, set in November 2004, focuses on Wexler’s support for the Kerry-Edwards presidential ticket. He and his staff go to a Boca Raton temple — along with actor Mandy Patinkin — to try to sell a “why I trust John Kerry on Israel” message to voters. Wexler discusses attending an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference and refusing to deliver a soft speech. But all of his staff are utterly devastated when Kerry loses.

Wexler, his foreign policy adviser, Halie Soifer, and his staff come across loud and clear on their strong support of Israel, their opposition to Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and President Bush’s Iraq policy — although Wexler originally supported the war.

Meeropol, an open, friendly young woman talked enthusiastically about her new film series, as well as her pedigree. While she had come to Pasadena to talk about “The Hill,” the conversation inevitably turned to “Heir,” her critically acclaimed film that humanized but didn’t lionize the grandparents she never met.
That first documentary gave her career as a fledgling moviemaker a huge boost. It was the calling card the young filmmaker needed, but it came with some built-in insecurity.

“I was essentially elevated immediately to the status of successful filmmaker on my first one out of the gate, and I wondered if that had more to do with who I am — that kind of celebrity status that came with it — or was it a good film as I thought,” she said.

Though she didn’t start out life to be a documentary filmmaker, her future was almost dictated by her history.

“I had been grappling with the story of my family for years as a writer, trying to figure out what I would contribute that would really demonstrate what I would have to say about it,” she said.

The documentary idea evolved, she said, “in part because I realized there were people out there who knew my grandparents who weren’t going to be around much longer. I knew if I didn’t get these people’s stories, then they were going to be gone, and I’d never forgive myself. So that’s how it started.”

After her grandparents were arrested during the height of the Cold War, the ensuing scandal stunned and rocked Jews in America. Her father, Michael, was only 7 when his parents were arrested, and he and his 4-year-old brother, Robert, soon discovered that their relatives didn’t want to have anything to do with them. In 1957, the boys were legally adopted by Anne and Able Meeropol, who were not related to the family.

Growing up, Meeropol said, “We were quite cultural Jews, not religious, very secular. Passover was the only Jewish holiday we celebrated, because it was kind of cultural, historic. So we had seders. But I was never bat mitzvahed. Ironically, though, I’m very identified as a Jew because of the Rosenbergs. You can’t get rid of it. You’re Jewish royalty, even though my mother is a Lithuanian-Irish Catholic,” she said with a laugh.

The fly-on-the-wall approach to “The Hill,” she said was a direct result of the personal nature of her first film.

“I wanted to do something very different,” she said. “I wanted to do the political series as pure verite as possible.”

Meeropol now says she feels comfortable about revisiting other periods of her life.

“I worked as a nursing assistant at a nursing home because my other grandfather, Abel Meeropol [who died at 78 when she was a freshman at college], ended up in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s.

She visited him regularly and said she wanted to work in the home to make sure her grandfather was well cared for: “I had no idea what that really entailed. They were so desperate for nurses’ aides they hired me without any experience, and I was thrown right into that.”

Now Meeropol said she’s interested in making the nursing home experience the topic of her next film.

“I’d like to tell the story about life in a nursing home — focusing more on the people who work there,” she said. “It’s a very contemporary issue, and more and more people are going to have to deal with it. It’s a fascinating world — just like ‘The Hill.'” l

Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.

Dear Mr. Sensitive


Jokes survive on the Internet like Styrofoam in a landfill. Perhaps you’ve already read these “Actual Personal Ads in Israeli Newspapers”:

  • Professor with 18 years of teaching in my behind wants American-born woman who speaks English very good.
  • 80-year-old bubbe, no assets, seeks handsome, virile Jewish male under 35. Object: matrimony. I can dream, can’t I?
  • Sensitive Jewish prince whom you can open your heart to. Share your innermost thoughts and deepest secrets. Confide in me. I’ll understand your insecurities. No fatties, please.

dlsaltzberg@gmail.com.

Scheduled Relaxation


Last Sunday afternoon I was standing in my shower scrubbing my tile. It suddenly occurred to me — in the midst of Ajax and scouring pads — that the man who was ruling my fantasies was on a plane coming back from a sure-it’s-professional junket in Las Vegas.

Something was wrong with this picture. I dropped my sponge and ran to call my girlfriend: “Hey. You gotta help me. All of this straight-and-narrow is getting to me. I need to have some fun.”

We met at a local restaurant reminiscent of the hip, urban San Francisco eateries of our 20s, had a drink, stayed late, and laughed as the waiter batted his lashes.

“Listen,” I told her over martinis. “I think I’ve forgotten how to play.”

She looked at me with the knowing eyes of a friend and said, “Me too. I feel like all I do is work on myself. Where’s the friggin’ fun part?”

What occurred to me as I started thinking about it is that I used to rely on my relationship life to have fun. I’d fly to New York, run around the city, eat passionately with my boyfriend for 10 days and come home. I’d rush home from work, throw all my clothes on the floor, don a slinky dress and feverishly drive to the beach for a drink date. I’d hike up Runyan Canyon in the middle of a storm with my dating man, laugh uproariously and kiss in the rain. It was flash and dash, delight and joy — and sometimes even love. What is was was fun.

I relied on my relationship life for downtime, too. It was the time I hung out in bed, took the slow walk around my neighborhood, had the morning-after breakfast made sloppily and slowly between intimacies.

But lately all of that has been different. I stopped dating for a while altogether (no need to go into the now-mercifully distant reason why), and in the wake of a more careful re-entry into dating life, I’ve become a project girl. Creative things that I’ve been longing to express my whole adult life I’ve taken on like a conquest. I write, I paint, I sing, I cook and I songwrite. It’s rich and it’s full and it’s fulfilling.

But what it also is is busy. And beyond my projects and an involved social life, there seems to be no genuine relaxation time. There are no goof-off, just-for-fun days where there’s nothing to do but play. I’m not sure I even remember what play-time looks like anymore.

Yet — to be totally honest — when I think back on some of those play-time, nostalgia-inducing boyfriend experiences, I have to admit that as sweet and easy as those encounters could be, they were just as often peppered by the nervous tension of “being together” when we weren’t all the way there, or by the dodging and ducking of using our intimate connection to mask other, bigger incompatibilities. That wasn’t relaxing.

As the years have gone by, I realize I’d just as soon be alone than continue to go through cycles of head-spinning effort with someone in exchange for a couple of moments of grace. So I don’t do that anymore. And though this kind of spiritual honesty has created an ease in my nervous system (and a welcome death to that horrible intimate uncertainty of giving myself where it’s not appreciated), I have to stop and wonder, have I become overworked and underplayed?

I don’t want to say that getting rid of the -isms has gotten rid of the fun part. That’s not it. But there’s something here about playing and free-falling joy that I’m missing. Something in the enjoyment of what is already here, versus the pregnant push of needing to create it. To observe, appreciate, enjoy, relax, and receive. That’s what I’m missing. And now that I’m officially dating, it seems kind of imperative to bring this ethic back onto the playing field.

I was on my cell with my wise girlfriend yesterday — the one who gives me that uncannily timed girl-advice that saves me from giving in to my idiotic post-second-date fears — and three times in row she cut out at a pivotal word.

“What?” I intoned. “On my cell. You cut out.”

She laughed outloud: “Receive, sweetheart. It kills me that you missed that. Relax and receive!”

Oh, that.

If I’ve forgotten how to have downtime, if I’ve joined the ranks of the over-diligent in my efforts to not fall into wary paths of love, then it’s time to loosen the reigns a bit. Underplaying means I have to let go of my project-queen, art-making cottage-industry, and just be done for a while.

So, with the grace of personal discovery, I’ll be amending that busy behavior, whether I’m accompanied or not. It’s time to enjoy whoever I’m seeing, and have fun on my own. It’s time to let go, go slow, play, hang out and take some time to do absolutely nothing.

Even if it means I have to schedule it.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and has recently been at work on Fox’s telenovellas “Table for Three” and “Fashion House.” Her newly completed folk-pop CD “I Burn” is online at

Drive Sends Love, ‘Gratitude’ to Troops


As Carolyn Blashek knows only too well, good things come in small packages. The founder and motivating force behind Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that sends care packages to American troops overseas, Blashek serves as an inspiring testimony to one woman’s dedication to provide faith and hope to lonely soldiers.

Blashek is a Jewish mother in Encino who, like most Americans, was horrified by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. However, her reaction was slightly different than that of the average Jewish mother — she tried to enlist in the military. She soon discovered that, at 46, she exceeded the age limit of 35, and “as a civilian there were very few opportunities to show your support to the military.” She began volunteering at a dilapidated military lounge at LAX, until one day in March 2003 (the outset of the war with Iraq), a heart-wrenching talk with a despondent soldier inspired her to create a system to show soldiers that she cared.

“I’m going back to a war zone,” she recalls him saying. “I just buried my mother, my wife left me and my child died as an infant. I have no one in my life. For the first time I don’t think I’ll make it back, but it really wouldn’t matter because no one would even care.”

Blashek was devastated as she realized that many of the soldiers are fighting in foreign countries without support systems.

“What gives someone the strength to survive when bullets are flying?” she wondered. “The belief that someone cares about you.”

She decided to express her compassion by sending food, entertainment, and personal letters in packages.

“The Jewish mother in me had this need to communicate concern and love and appreciation,” she said with a little laugh. “It’s that sense of nurturing… the Jewish mother element.”

Primarily through word of mouth, the project snowballed. What began three years ago as a humble living room project financed and organized by her alone exploded into an organization that coordinates donation drives for packages across the country.

“Now I’ve sent over 111,000 packages in three years,” she said.

After Operation Gratitude’s third annual Patriotic Drive, which is to take place at the end of this month, she hopes to reach 150,000.

Blashek vividly recalls an emotional encounter she had with Kayitz Finley — the son of her local rabbi, Mordecai Finley of Congregation Ohr HaTorah — to whom she sent packages while he served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both a soldier serving in a distant land and a member of her local community, he became her inspiration. “The first most emotional experience I had through all this was when he came home and he and I got to meet in person for the first time,” she said. “It was at a Saturday morning service. We saw each other, threw our arms around each other and couldn’t stop hugging. Neither of us could get any words out. We both just kept saying ‘thank you’ to each other. It was very powerful.”

Operation Gratitude’s Third Annual Patriotic Drive continues at the California Army National Guard Armory, 17330 Victory Blvd, Van Nuys on June 17-18. Items requested for donation can be found on the website

Invitation to a Ritual


My hair is starting to go. I sent out a notice to the friends who have banded together to support me since I received my cancer diagnosis:

To: All recipients
From: anejenzmom@aol.com
Subject: Upfsherin

Peter, who has been cutting my hair since 1981, will be coming over at 7 p.m. this Sunday night to give me a buzz cut. Since strands of hair have been lingering in my brush and on my sweaters and tickling my face, the time has come to celebrate the fact that the elixirs are doing their job.

An upfsherin is traditionally a ceremony for 3-year-old boys getting their first haircut, but I will be renewing this tradition to mark the progress of my healing journey. You are invited to join me and be a witness for this rite-of-passage. Please bring goodies or musical instruments. I will be providing the hair.

Over the last weeks, I have received gifts of head coverings. A friend, who is both a rabbi and a cancer survivor, brought the beautifully embroidered crown kippah that graced her shining dome during her treatment. A student sent three hand-knit “comfort caps” made by women in her synagogue to cover cancer-tender heads like mine. Several friends have suggested sheitl (wig) shopping.

I don’t think I’m the sheitl type. While I am tempted to see what I would look like with perfect hair and make no judgments about those who choose to cover chemo-induced baldness with manufactured manes, I’m not sure it’s for me. I fidget a lot. My fingers fiddle and scratch at irregularities in fabric and skin. I can’t see me keeping my hands off the hairpiece or wearing it with grace. Also there is a tendency for things around me to be askew — paintings, mirrors, papers. My eyeglasses are always lopsided. I suspect that my wig would reflect this cockeyed balance. I’m not sure I could pull the wig thing off.

Moreover, I’m not sure I want to wear a wig. I don’t want to sugar coat the fact of my cancer. While there is no telling what caused my disease, I think that the fact of cancer –so much cancer — is something we need to look in the face. Cancer, like the devastation that I witnessed in the post-Katrina Gulf South, reveals the diseased infrastructure that riddles our ailing planet. Cover-up and denial exacerbate deterioration.

I don’t feel like an individual singled out to get this rare and nasty cancer. I feel like an envoy sent on behalf of planet earth.

“Look at me,” I want to say. “I am the face of the planet we share. I am your face. Look at me and take healing action. I am not going away. I become more toxic with every gallon of gas, every paper plate, and every soda bottle not recycled You have a choice. You can cover me over with a veneer and deny the future or you can meet my gaze and enlist to save the earth.”

I have spent my career making visible things that are often carried silently inside. To wear a wig, so that the world would not know that I have cancer and to protect those who see me from the reality of my illness, would betray my work and my values.

I am the ribbon lady. I give out rainbows of ribbons to mark what’s really happening with people. My ribbons mark mourning (black) and other life changes (blue), such as divorce, ending a relationship, relocation, loss or change of job, illness or becoming a caretaker for someone else who is ill. I have ribbons for yahrzeits (green) and ribbons for those who have dealt with any of these challenges in the past and have found them to be their teachers (purple). These categories actually reflect the Talmud’s description of those who walked the mourners’ path in the Temple: “mourners, those with someone sick at home, those who have lost a significant object, and excommunicants.” Inevitably, when I offer ribbons, most everyone takes one or more. It appears that just about everyone is in the midst of some sort of personal challenge. The assumption that “normal” means “good” is shattered.

Being marked with the ribbons makes it easier for people to feel more authentic. Visibility brings relief from the incongruity felt when inner experience is masked by the persona they felt obliged to present to a community unaware of their challenges or committed to the myth of normalcy.

When those who suffer do not have to mask, their energy is diverted from hiding to healing. Without the burden of covering up brokenness, people are able to attend to their deeper needs. Without veneers, people are given the comfort of authenticity. When we encounter them, we look honestly into the face of human experience. We surrender the illusions about what normal looks like. Hopefully with eyes opened, we will not avert our gaze and respond with compassion.

The season of masking is past. Both Mardi Gras and Purim are behind us. It’s time for being visible. I guess it is no wig for me.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

9/11 Museum Head Uses Shoah Lessons


Alice Greenwald vividly recalls touring the Auschwitz concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor and watching how the woman shared her story with her children and grandchildren.

It was as if she was trying to instruct her heirs as to the kind of people she wanted them to become, Greenwald remembers.

“What struck me about that experience was that in a world that exists after something like Auschwitz happens, every one of us is her grandchildren,” she said. “We all are obligated to understand what it means to be a human being and the kind of people our parents and grandparents want us to be.”

For more than two decades, Greenwald has been helping to give people a palpable understanding of the Holocaust through her work with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Beginning this month, she will turn her attention to another terrible atrocity: Greenwald was named in February as the first director of the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York, which will commemorate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their nearly 3,000 victims.

“Where the two [events] intersect for me in my professional life is in the area of memorialization,” she said recently in her Holocaust Museum office in Washington. “We deal with great loss here at this museum, incomprehensible loss. And we deal with trying to integrate that loss into our collective understanding of history, our personal history of what it means to be a human being.”

Greenwald was a member of the Holocaust Museum’s original design team, working from home as a consultant after stints with Jewish museums in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Chicago. She joined the museum full-time in 2001 as its associate director for museum programs.

Gretchen Dykstra, president and CEO of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, said Greenwald immediately understood the memorial’s goals.

“What struck us so quickly was how immediately she understood the sensitivity of what we were doing,” she said. “She’s not somebody who comes knowing a lot about 9/11, but she knows a lot about memorializing and education.”

The hardest part in designing the New York museum, Greenwald said, is that “there isn’t a human being on the face of the planet who doesn’t have a 9/11 story.”

Greenwald herself was unpacking boxes in her new Washington home on that day, having just moved from Philadelphia. Her husband, on an Amtrak train bound for New York, had called to ask if she knew why he and his business associates weren’t moving.

The carpenter working in her home heard her gasp when she turned on the television. They watched the second tower fall together, and immediately embraced.

“This was a man I knew for 10 minutes,” she said. “And we hugged each other in an embrace, watching the television in complete disbelief, because we needed to be with another human being in that moment.”

Emotions are still very raw for those who survived the Sept. 11 attack, and for the families of those who died. But Greenwald has experience dealing directly with survivors and families who may visit the museum.

“Other museums have other constituency issues, but I don’t think they have to deal with the sensitivities we have [at the Holocaust Museum],” she said. “We are immensely fortunate to have the voice of authentic witnesses.”

The proximity in time to the event will be one of her biggest challenges in New York, she said.

“The institution will have to be flexible, because the world will keep moving forward and we don’t know what events will re-characterize our understanding of 9/11,” she said.

She has watched the Holocaust Museum evolve, noting that it was built before “Schindler’s List” and other mass-media portrayals of the Shoah.

The Sept. 11 museum will be part of several structures planned for the area where the World Trade Center stood. The foundation is constructing the museum and a separate memorial, Reflecting Absence, that will honor those killed on Sept. 11 and in a previous attack at the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

A visitor’s center and performing arts building also are being planned. Half the site has been zoned for new office buildings, which are being erected separately.

The museum will highlight the magnitude of the attacks, as well as the global response and civic rebuilding.

“You are dealing with a site that is a burial site. People died there. That gives it a sacred quality one has to respect,” Greenwald said.

She compared it to the Holocaust Museum, which she said garners its power from its proximity to other memorials and buildings of power in Washington.

Dykstra said she has been struck by the Holocaust Museum’s impact on visitors, and hopes to replicate that.

“I think what the Holocaust Museum does so beautifully is it takes a historic series of events and personalizes them in a way that universalizes them,” she said. “It’s overwhelming but not didactic.”

The Sept. 11 museum is slated to open on the eighth anniversary of the attacks, in 2009. Greenwald said there is much to be done before then, and she is excited to be a part of this “thrilling” stage of a museum’s birth.

“Each stage will have its own challenges and its own rewards,” she said. She calls it a “Dayenu situation,” saying that if she can at least advance the plans, it would be enough — although she hopes to see the museum built and operating.

“We have to remember that it’s about people,” she said. “There’s a tendency to want to memorialize the building, and there is some significance to that. But this is not a memorial to a building; it’s a memorial to people.”

 

Abortion Doc’s Son Weighs Thorny Past


“Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City and the Conflict That Divided America” by Eyal Press (Henry Holt and Co, $25).

Every father should be a hero to his child. But a child’s hero and an adult’s hero are often two different people, even when they inhabit the same body. Eyal Press, in his debut book, undergoes the difficult but riveting task of reconciling those two versions of his father, whom he clearly holds in heroic esteem. As the child of a Buffalo, N.Y. gynecologist who performs abortions, Press had a front-row seat for the abortion debate during its most tumultuous and violent years of the 1980s and ’90s, peaking with the 1998 assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Press’s father’s colleague. Gunned down in his home by an anti-abortionist sniper’s bullet after attending Friday night services, Slepian became a symbol of the violent wing of the movement to oppose abortion.

The release of “Absolute Convictions” could not be more auspiciously timed, given the recent passage in South Dakota of the most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation nationwide. That law, and proposed bills in other states, has reignited debate over the future of Roe vs. Wade. The case, decided in 1973, “would turn tens of thousands of Americans, some of them housewives, others previously disengaged evangelical Christians, into full-fledged crusaders,” Press writes.

It would also deeply affect the career of Press’ father and the life of his family — who arrived in Buffalo in February 1973, just three weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision came down.

Over the next three decades, the Presses would find themselves at the center of an increasingly shrill and dangerous abortion debate, one that would lead to the death of their colleague and bring terms like “24-hour surveillance” and “death threats” into their own lives. Less than a decade after Slepian’s death, Press returned to his hometown to dive into the cavernous questions of “life,” “choice” and “freedom” that the abortion debate encapsulates. The book, a well-reported work of journalism with a personal heart, is not content to simply recount the fear and chaos that followed Slepian’s murder, but instead seeks to understand how such a violent act came to pass in the first place. The great strength of this fine book is that it successfully presents twin narratives: a clear-eyed journalistic look at the evolution of a movement — political and religious — to oppose legalized abortion, and the story of a son coming into an adult’s understanding of his father and the role he played in that larger drama. Press, a left-leaning investigative reporter who has published in The Nation, the American Prospect and The New York Times Magazine, adeptly mines his family’s history while never losing his journalistic passion for social policy issues.

Press writes of his admiration for his father, Israeli-born Dr. Shalom Press, in somewhat simple terms — the pride a child feels in the vague sense that his dad does something worthwhile for a living. Throughout “Absolute Convictions,” however, Press’s admiration graduates from that youthful feeling of “My dad does the right thing” into an adult appreciation that enables him to report and reflect more thoroughly on the history and meaning of the anti-abortion movement.

The moment in the book when Press embraces this mature and more complex view takes place in the Rev. Rob Schenck’s Washington, D.C. office. Schenck is the founder of the evangelical advocacy organization Faith and Action and a leader in the pro-life movement. Sitting in Schenck’s office, listening to him describe with exhilaration and passion why he felt that protesting abortion clinics — including Press’s father’s practice — was “one of the most spiritual exercises [he] had ever engaged in,” Press is forced to admit that there is genuine conviction behind the pro-life perspective.

“If I place myself in Schenck’s shoes, I can imagine his sense of exhilaration,” he writes. “At the time, I could not contemplate the idea that a noble impulse might be motivating the protesters — they were doing their best to make my father’s life miserable. But if I step into the moral universe Schenck described to me — a world where every unborn child represents God’s creation and life begins at conception, where this is not a matter of debate but of truth as handed down in Scripture — the ethical imperative is clear.”

At a moment when all eyes are cast forward, Press’ account is a wise attempt to look back, reminding ourselves of how this issue, which once attracted the attention mainly of Catholics, became the center of the moral and political universe for so many evangelical Protestants — some of whom demonstrated their convictions through violent means. Press’s complicated journey takes his readers to that murky crossroads where religion, politics, family and law all meet.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Mass.

 

First Person – A Coming Out (of Egypt) Story


Sixteen years ago this month, I planned to take the Passover message of liberation to heart. I was going to come out of the closet to my sister and my parents and, in doing so, free myself from the bondage of keeping this huge and personal part of me from them. I was going to verbalize the secret I had feared revealing to them for more than 15 years since I first was able to put words to the feelings.

I grew up in a small, quaint New Jersey suburb of New York, a commuter town ideal for raising children. Since having moved to Los Angeles in 1987, at the age of 25, I generally visited my parents and sister back in New Jersey an average of once a year. That once a year was usually Passover time, since I had the time off from my work as a day school educator (and would enjoy the additional bonus of being able to lock up my home for the holiday and sell my chametz without having to go through the cleaning and other laborious pre-holiday preparations and rituals).

Perhaps my plan to come out during Passover was just practical, since that was when I typically returned home; or perhaps it was a flair for the dramatic or symbolic, since I had come to think of the emotional bondage of keeping my secret as a modern-day equivalent to the physical slavery of my ancestors. Either way, it was during Passover of 1990 that I had planned to come out to my parents and tell them I’m gay. I returned to my childhood home that year armed with several articles and a book titled, “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” all designed to prove how normal it was to be gay.

I had come out a year earlier (also at Passover) to Rob, one of my best friends from college on whom I had had a crush. We got in his car, and I asked him to pull over on the way to wherever it was we were going because I had something really important and serious to tell him. He pulled into a parking lot (my elementary school parking lot) and turned off the engine. I loosened my seatbelt, turned to face him, took a deep breath and said, “I’m gay.”

To which he responded, somewhat anticlimactically, “Is that all?”

I don’t know if I was more relieved or disappointed, but there was no rejection. My first coming out was successful.

It took an entire year after that to muster the courage to tell my sister — who responded, “I still love you, and of course I won’t tell anyone.” To this I said that I wasn’t telling her so that she would now have to keep the secret. Coming out to my sister was planned to precede the coming out to my parents by several days. It was my warmup, my practice. But anticipating these two experiences, as anxiety-filled as they were, was nothing compared to the immeasurable angst I felt as I practiced and replayed over and over how I would reveal my secret to my parents.

The day I was going to tell them, I went to New York City to visit friends. I took the commuter train back to our town and felt the rumbling in my stomach as I anticipated freeing myself from my personal Egypt. The train sped closer and closer to home. With each station the train pulled into I could feel the rumbling in my stomach increase, and as I walked to my parents’ home (my childhood home) my stomach was on the verge of exploding. I tried to eat normally, but my appetite was limited. The meal, the conversation were overshadowed as I got closer to the point of expelling my truth, all the while wondering whether I would actually be able to follow through on my plan.

After dinner, I told my parents that I had something I wanted to say. They sat down at the table, dishes already cleared. With the gasses in my stomach doing triple axels, I mustered the courage — more courage than I had ever needed to do anything to that point in my life — and I said the words that liberated me from the self-imposed oppression that I had endured since realizing years earlier (beginning in third grade, if not even before) that I felt different than what I thought others felt: “I have something that’s really hard to say … I’m gay.”

Silence. Unbearable silence. To fill the silence I gave them the book and articles that I had brought. Perhaps I had brought them as much to help my parents through this new world as to prove to them that I was serious and that this was thought out. My father’s first words were: I’m shocked but I’m not shocked. (I had never really dated girls and though not effeminate, I fit some of the stereotypes.) My mother, tears filling her eyes, expressed her fears and her anxiety for me — I wouldn’t have a happy life, I would be alone — I did my best to assuage the concerns, but I had, after all, been working toward this moment for years and for them it was all new. And, frankly, I hadn’t thought through the post-liberation experience. The idea of telling my parents that I’m gay was so overwhelming that I hadn’t thought past anything but their initial reactions.

My father left to go to a meeting. My mother went to the sink to do the dishes. There was quiet again, but this quiet was the aftermath, the quiet that occurs when the truth and all of its realities, some becoming known and others not yet thought, become real, and we are trying to make sense of the implications. I felt a confusing mix of feelings – relief, anxiety, disappointment – and freedom from the mitzrayim, the narrow places, in which I had been stuck all those years.

On reflection, I wonder whether, thousands of years ago, the Israelites, too, didn’t experience the disappointment that the liberation wasn’t quite as easy and complete as expected. I suppose the fantasy was that I would come out of the closet and would be told, “Is that all?”

But my parents had more invested than my college friend. Their picture of my future, and by extension their future, would take longer to sort through, reimagine and come to terms with. The beginning of my liberation was now, in some ways, their new wilderness. It would be up to them whether they would turn it into a self-imposed bondage.

Due — in no small part — to my coming out, I have come to believe that our primary task in life is to know ourselves, accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to hope that those who love us will do the same. Each year we are to imagine ourselves as slaves in Egypt and to re-experience the bitterness of the oppression symbolically through retelling the story and through the sensory experiences of the seder. We are to think about the way we are enslaved and oppressed today, how we oppress ourselves and how we can help end the oppression of others. How we can take ourselves out from our personal house of bondage. How we can free ourselves and how we can come out.

Jeff Bernhardt is an educator, Jewish professional and writer living in Los Angeles.

Hineni


I expected to be dealing with an empty nest when my daughter started college. I projected my availability to friends who had yielded my attention during my childrearing years. I dragged writing projects onto my computer’s desktop to await the plane ride from NYU to the rest of my life. Instead, the levees broke in my hometown. I spent the next three months as a relief worker with the Red Cross and the New Orleans Jewish agencies in service to those displaced and/or traumatized by Katrina.

I expected to be dealing with the aftermath of Katrina when I returned to Los Angeles. I imagined myself as an advocate for the restoration of New Orleans, recounting the environmental deterioration, government malfunction, and dire future the hurricane signaled. Instead I was diagnosed with cancer. I now spend Mondays in a lounge chair, with an IV flooding my body with toxic, life-giving chemicals and much of the rest of the time in my bedroom reacting to their impact.

Despite the broken lives and landscapes and the mountains of debris, my time in the South brought personal healing. I am a writer and a psychotherapist. I spent the last 30 years mapping the territory of grief and redemption, a journey begun with wounds obtained in New Orleans. It felt that my personal and professional curricula had been a training program anticipating just this disaster. Indeed, I found that each day, despite tears and fatigue, my experience graced me with the ability to say, ” Hineni” (I am here) to the tasks to which I was called.

In Mississippi, I counseled shelter residents, dished out food, filled out relief forms and orchestrated art therapy for child evacuees. In New Orleans, I led Rosh Hashanah services for a congregation ranging from the barely affiliated to members of Chabad. In Baton Rouge, I led Shabbat services and taught religious school and adult education for those impacted by the disaster. I assisted Jewish Family Service with clinical and administrative work, hosted luncheons for displaced elders and helped with grant-writing and other projects.

Shortly after Katrina, I awaited what was called “deployment” to the place where I would do my Red Cross duty. I chuckled because in the last years “deployment” has had, for this rabbinic student, a spiritual meaning. Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, says that we are deployed at birth, sent forth like arrows, to walk in God’s ways and make the world holy. There seemed a connection between my deployments, both in the Red Cross and the mystical sense. In both cases, personal will was superseded by a greater will. I wanted to go to Gulfport, but I needed to await my assignment, determined by the greater need and not my own desire. This is also the spiritual task: to quash the desires that keep us from “walking in God’s ways,” aligning ourselves with God’s will. In both cases, spiritually and professionally, I am challenged to choose paths not determined by the needs of my ego, but by the needs of the place — hamakom. In this case, the place was the Gulf South, but HaMakom is also a name of God. In connecting deployments and HaMakoms, I made my commitment to hineni.

Was I prepared to say hineni, the word that Abraham and Moses said when they answered God’s call? Hineni’s literal meaning is an unequivocal acceptance of what is asked. It also implies a faith that I came to understand more deeply in the Red Cross shelters in Mississippi, where I met people who had waited out the storm and its 30-foot waves on their rooftops and in trees. Their homes reduced to straw, they were living in a room with a 150 others. But there were two phrases I heard from person after person: “This is God’s will” and “I am blessed.” Liberal Jews don’t speak this way. I had to translate.

At first I thought that by saying, “This is God’s will,” they were saying “God did this to me,” implying a God that doles out punishment and reward with a direct hand. This doesn’t work for me. I have seen too many bad things happen to good people.

After tragedy, people want desperately to make sense of what happened. It can be unbearable to live with the discomfort that the workings of the universe are a mystery. But we learn to make peace with the fact that we will never have answers for life’s biggest questions and we accustom ourselves to an ambiguous universe, embracing what lies ahead, without being tormented by the past.

“It’s God’s will,” doesn’t mean “God singled me out and did this to me.” It means, “What will I do with what I have?” Saying “It’s God’s will,” we accept and move on. To say “I am blessed” in the midst of catastrophe implies a commitment to go forward without the torture of second-guessing and self-blame. We choose hope instead of despair. We say ” hineni.”

And now, as I sit, not on the bimahs of congregations to whom I had hoped to bring messages of Katrina, but on the chemo-couch, I am again challenged to say ” hineni.” If I could say it in Mississippi, I have to say it here.

Anne Brener, author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourners’ Path through Grief to Healing” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2002), is an L.A. psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and on the faculty of The Academy for Jewish Religion.

 

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac



HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

(February 19-March 20)
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Josh Groban

There’s a study that shows that lab rats don’t get as stressed from being shocked as they do from not knowing when the shocks will come. Put that rat on a regular shocking schedule, and it doesn’t freak out. How does this apply to the human Pisces? Some of your anxiety right now comes from a simple lack of knowledge. Get more information. The more you know, the less you will suffer from the fear of how and when that shock will arrive. This week, make a special effort to befriend casual business contacts. A stream of new work may be coming your way, and you never know whose friendship will yield rewards.

(March 21-April 20)
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Matthew Broderick

That whole “pay it forward” thing is pretty easy, as far as good deeds go. If someone is prompt, warm or even excellent in a service they provide, it’s all about referrals. Your generosity will come back to you. Aries employees may face a heavy workload this week to due the absence or illness of a co-worker. Still, if you start a project this week, it’s likely to come to fruition. Here’s the bad news: Mercury turns retrograde until March 25. That means details regarding travel, mail and technology may become frustrating. What’s an Aries to do? Back up all computer files and dip into your reserves of patience.

 

 

(April 21-May 20)
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Barbra Streisand

Business and pleasure – two great tastes that don’t always taste great together – may combine this week as someone from your social circle introduces a business proposition. The catch is that dastardly “hidden agenda” friends can have. You can’t play “hide and seek” with someone else’s agenda, but you can gently suggest that all parties show their cards and express their real desires. If you have any important messages to send, do so before Thursday. Be certain to be very clear in your communications; that funny, sarcastic e-mail that sounds hilarious in your head may be misunderstood.

(May 21 – June 20)
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Barry Levinson

Information you are getting this week is just a lot of blah blah blah until you confirm and clarify what you are hearing. Someone may be using verbal skills to manipulate your mind. Here’s where you throw down with your research skills and separate fact from fictions. Unattached Gemini may want to attend a social function with work colleagues. While it may not be the best idea for you to “dip your quill in the company ink,” don’t rule out the possibility of a co-worker bringing along a cute and appropriate-to-date friend.

(June 21-July 20)
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Sydney Pollack

Intuition has many faces. Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, or a voice whispering in your head (not the kind that happens when you forget your meds), or a nagging thought. Sometimes, intuition is just a flash. However it shows itself, this is not the week to second-guess it but to act on it. Whatever feels right is right. It’s that simple. In career matters, this is a week to embrace the old cliché about “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Information gathered privately from inside sources will help you make bold moves in your career. Who do you press for information? It’s gut check time.

(July 21 – August 21)
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Monica Lewinsky

Money may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the root of many a trivial argument. This week, you may find yourself at odds with a personal or professional partner about just how the cash is getting doled out. Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with banks, creditors or outstanding debts, this is an excellent week for these kinds of financial dealings. Also, this week may find you daydreaming more than usual. One second you’re getting on the freeway, the next, you’re already at your exit and have no idea how you got there. Harness your daydreams; they are filled with creative ideas. And try not to get too lost.

(August 22-September 22)
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Adam Sandler

Any Virgo who is studying, learning or composing simply must have privacy. Annoying roommates? Get away from them, sling the laptop in a bag and get to a coffee shop. If the family is around, hole away in a separate room for a couple of hours and get the alone time you need to focus. As for your emotional life, think of it this way. Why do athletes stretch before a big game or event? So they don’t break. Flexibility is key to your emotional health this week. Bend, stretch and don’t jump into an emotional situation ice cold. You don’t want to pull a mental hamstring and end up on the injured list. 

(September 23-October 22)
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Michael Douglas

Going to the gym and starting a fancy new workout regime in January is for suckers; that’s when everyone is trying to act on their secular New Year’s resolutions and the line for the treadmill is worse than the IKEA checkout line on a Saturday afternoon. Good thing for Libra, now is the time to start a routine with the stars supporting your efforts. Normally indecisive Libra may have a more difficult time making decisions. Should you have the mint chip or the rocky road? It all seems so critical and hard to maneuver. Just remember, all the flavors taste good – not to mention giving you extra encouragement to stick to your new workout plan.

(October 23-November 22)
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Jonas Salk

Welcome to a cosmic carnival of amusements. This week will be a delight for the senses, some cotton candy, a few rides and lots of pinball in your brain. There’s nothing to do but enjoy the frenetic energy and all the bright lights and colors. Oh, there is one thing to do: start up a romantic affair. If you’re in a relationship, this is a good time to win her a stuffed animal or buy him a stupid t-shirt. Basically, anyone you love or would like to love into your world, invite them to your carnival and show them a good time. If it’s unexpected or bizarre, embrace it.

(November 23-December 20)
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Harpo Marx

Watch out for savvy salespeople. You know the type; they tell you to get the timing belt changed when you just needed an oil change. They encourage you to buy the foundation primer when all you needed was the $10 makeup sponge. You may be especially susceptible to buying things you don’t need. Do not be “upsold.” This is also a good time to watch your money in other ways. Keep your purse on your lap instead of on the floor and keep your wallet safe. You may have big, inspiring dreams filled with metaphors and ideas. Keep a journal by the bed and write them down.

(December 21-January 19)
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Dave Attell

Don’t dismiss the oldsters in your world. Someone with far more experience than you do may have wisdom to impart this week. When it comes to work, you may have been coasting and it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig into it. Are you working as hard as you can, or breezing out at exactly 5 p.m. after a solid half hour of checking e-mails and reshuffling papers? If you leave late and get to work early, your superiors will notice. What’s more, you want get that icky feeling that comes from wasting time on someone else’s dollar.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18)
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Ted Koppell

Tuesday is the day if you are planning a small celebration for a loved one. I don’t mean a gigantic surprise party with a piñata or girl jumping out of a cake. If it just means ordering a pizza and renting a favorite movie, make it happen. Take care of the little details so a special person in your life can feel valued. As for the rest of week, you will feel more comfortable and aligned if you make sure you household chores are complete. Wash those last couple of dishes, take in the dry cleaning, wash the bath mat and all will be slightly better with the world.

Scales of Injustice


I was 10 the first time I stepped on a scale. It was the summer of 1978, and I was visiting my grandmother in Florida.

Every day, grandma and I went for our daily two-mile walk, past the golf course, past Publix, the supermarket where the old people bought prune juice and cod liver oil. On the way home we’d stop there to weigh ourselves on the giant outdoor scale.

“Girls have to be thin and beautiful,” grandma would say. “The world judges on first appearances.”

My grandmother didn’t look like you’d expect a grandmother to look — soft and round and smelling of gingerbread. No, this grandma was all sharp angles and points — her make-up and hair carefully arranged, her clothes stylish and neatly pressed. She was skinny, and the needle hovered around 120.

Then it was my turn. My grandmother would peer over my shoulder. “Same as yesterday.” Or: “You’ve lost a pound. Aren’t you happy?”

And I was.

Was I ever really “fat?” Well, no, I suppose not technically. As a child I was a gymnast, muscular, firm; my greatest pleasure was going to gymnastics and coming home to a large cheese pizza, the oil dripping on my leotard and tights. I loved food, loved everything connected with it: cooking it, reading about it, consuming it. I could (and still can) match my father Whopper for Whopper; at the dinner table my mother would shoot me dirty looks when I reached for a second helping. But this food-love was never a problem; as a child I ate pleasurably, without guilt. Occasionally, I’d weigh myself on my mother’s little green scale, wearing layers of clothes, a pair of hiking boots. The numbers meant nothing to me.

They did to my mother. She always warned that if I wasn’t careful I’d “blow up like an elephant.” This had always been impressed upon me; I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t conscious that fat was something “bad.” I remember calling home from a neighbor’s house — I must have been about 7 — for permission to sprinkle “real” sugar into a cup of tea; I was constantly warned by my mother and grandmother never to gain weight. Fat was ugly, undignified, a sign of weakness and failure. But though I was aware of this, I never really worried about it. Fat, like fatal car crashes or terminal illnesses, was something that happened to other people.

And then adolescence hit, and I quit gymnastics. My muscles wilted. My waist cried for looser belts. My breasts grew faster than I could say “D cup.”

Not surprisingly, food stopped being a source of pleasure and became, instead, the enemy. My grandmother refused to let me come to Florida unless I lost 10 pounds. The kids at school came up with all sort of creative nicknames for me (“Flabby Abby!”).

My mother insisted I “get hold” of myself and lose weight. So I joined Weight Watchers, NutriSystem, Diet Workshop. I devoured books on the Atkins Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, the Pritikin Weight Loss Program. I’d be “good” for a day or so, but then I’d binge on cookies, cakes, ice cream.

This Yo-Yo cycle went on for three years, until my grandfather died, left me a few bucks and I had enough money to send myself to a weight-loss camp, or food rehab, as I liked to think of it. Sure, it was expensive — about $3,500 for nine weeks, money I could easily have put toward college — but I thought it was worth it, and I happily forked over the cash. Losing weight seemed something I had to devote all my energies to, a full-time job, and at home there were too many distractions. I couldn’t wait to go to camp, couldn’t wait to return home and lead a different (read: happier, better, party- and boy-filled) life. How would it not be? I’d be thin.

I lost 15 pounds that summer, which I kept off for a little over a year. And then it crept back on (plus 10) and I returned to camp. This went on for six years: thin, fat, camp, thin, fat camp. In the end, none of it really mattered. Sure, I was happier when I fit into a pair of Size 6 jeans, but I was beholden to the numbers on the scale, beholden to a cycle of eating that affected everything I did.

I’d like to say that epiphany struck me over the head and one day, in a flash of clarity, I discovered that who you are on the inside matters more than externals. But the truth is much less exciting. Over time I simply got fed up — pun intended — of dedicating my energy to calories. After devoting six summers and 25 years to my size, I got bored of focusing so much thought on my body and ignoring what was going on in my head; of putting myself in an environment where I could feel superior instead of learning to feel that way in the real world; of being convinced that my life would be better once I knocked off 10 pounds, only to discover that it wasn’t.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’ve overcome my obsession with achieving a certain body type (I’d do anything, for example, to be 5-foot-8. Even 5-foot-6 would be fine). Our appearance is endlessly appraised; we live in a culture that values Cameron Diaz over Kirstie Alley, and it’s hard not to fall victim to that. My heart breaks when I see an overweight kid; nothing’s worse than being a fat child.

And food certainly still ranks high in my personal pantheon. By no means am I ready to throw in the kitchen towel and accept fat defeat. I order low-calorie or low-fat meals on airplanes, and have been known to hand the contents of the hotel minibar to the front desk. Still, you can be conscientious without being crazy. You can be a little zaftig and still attractive; some of the sexiest women I know — most of them, actually — have extra meat on their bones. And you can be fit no matter what you weigh.

But I never step on the scale, I don’t deprive myself, and I don’t eat like a refugee who might never see food again. I work out, but not maniacally. If I feel heavy, I eat less. Mainly, I try to remember that there is a wealth of things to worry about other than the size of my thighs (which are really not huge). There’s no reason to miss a social gathering because I’m too fat. There’s no reason so stay home because I’m too big.

After 25 years of dieting, this is what I know: There’s more to me than the sum of my parts, no matter how much they weigh.

Abby Ellin is the author of “Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs In on Living Large, Losing Weight and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help” (PublicAffairs, June 2005).

Wendy Chronicles — A Personal Memoir


Wendy Wasserstein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, died on Jan. 30 in New York of lymphoma. She was 55. This essay was written by her close friend, actress Caroline Aaron.

I first discovered Wendy Wasserstein at the 92nd St. Y. Known as the off-Broadway playwright of “Uncommon Women and Others” and “Isn’t It Romantic?” she was reading a monologue but did not introduce the piece. She simply came up to the lectern and began, “Women, where are we going?”

I was smitten. I felt she had plagiarized my inner life. In the last paragraph, the character says, “It’s just that I feel stranded, and I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded. I thought the whole point was that we were all in this together.”

That monologue became “The Heidi Chronicles,” which earned Wendy a Pulitzer Prize and the distinction of becoming the first female playwright to win the Tony Award for best play.

But long before the Pulitzer or the Tony was the workshop production of “Heidi” at The Seattle Rep. As part of that cast, I was on the front lines as new pages were coming out of her typewriter. I loved being around her, but for Wendy the spontaneous and instantaneous camaraderie of show folk did not come easily. The workshop was a success, and “Heidi” was on its way to New York.

The full-scale production was to be mounted at Playwrights Horizons. All of us in the Seattle workshop were to be replaced. It was not unusual to be the guinea pig actor replaced in New York with the pedigreed one.

What was unusual was I got a letter from Wendy thanking me for my contribution. She wrote that she had already worked on the play with an ensemble of actors and felt they should have the first crack at the New York production.

She then went on to say that she fully hoped some day I would be on the other side of that loyalty. And indeed I was. That letter was the beginning of one of the most rewarding and complicated friendships of my life. That letter was the beginning of “The Wendy Chronicles” for me.

It would be another five years before I would once again be the actress to her playwright, but in the interim, our relationship grew from colleagues to friends to family.

I became one of Wendy’s regular I-should-be-writing-but-let’s-meet-for-coffee-instead dates. It was a blast to help Wendy procrastinate. We shopped, gossiped and swore to get thin together. We went to each other’s openings. I was her date for award ceremonies and multiple engagements where, in her words, “I’m speaking to the Jews.”

But our most fun was going to temple together for the High Holidays. Every year we went to a different temple. The Super Bowl is probably the only ticket harder to get than one for High Holidays at a temple in Manhattan. But Wendy was always a coveted guest at all the best temples in New York, so I was in.

Wendy never wanted to belong to a congregation. She did not want to be identified by any institution.

Still, she was not above feeling obligated to the decorum of a nice Jewish girl. After Kol Nidre one Yom Kippur, Wendy wanted to go out to eat, but where?

She was Wendy Wasserstein, after all, and being seen in a restaurant at the beginning of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and atoning, would just not be right. We were two Jewish girls on the lam, looking for a good meal.

Wendy knew just the place — a small, elegant bistro on Madison. When we sat down at our table, Wendy pointed and with a whisper said, “Oh look over there, it’s Donna Karan, so we’re OK.”

I told Wendy first that I was pregnant with my now 16-year-old son. I was her date for The Outer Critics Award Ceremony, and I was bursting with my news, but it was still a secret.

“The Heidi Chronicles” won that night. Over drinks celebrating the play’s first of many prizes, Wendy told me a secret of her own. She was trying to have a baby, too.

Wendy had a way of being so personal and so guarded all at the same time that I instinctively did not press for details. I just got on the ride of her unique journey.

There were allusions to possible mates, donors or adoptions, but the how seemed insignificant. It was the chance to be somebody’s mother that was important to Wendy. It would be 10 years later before this dream would finally come true with the birth of Lucy Jane.

Fast forward five years, and it is time to enroll my son in preschool, a highly competitive world in Manhattan. Wendy agreed to be my pull and enthusiastically wrote a hilarious letter that highly recommended my 4-year-old son because she was so impressed with “Ben’s opinions about movies and books” and because she “supported his political views.”

In 1993, I became her actress again when I played Dr. Gorgeous in the national tour of “The Sisters Rosensweig.” The tour ended in Los Angeles, and I ended up staying in L.A.

My life spread out, and I added cats, dogs, fish and a baby girl to my family. Wendy came out to meet the new baby, and as we peered over the crib to gaze at Sydney sleeping, I said, “I don’t know whether to raise her to be Madeleine Albright or Kate Moss.” Without hesitating, Wendy said, “Kate Moss. She will be much happier.”

I believe Wendy wanted a happy life, but she was not a slave to securing that outcome. An interesting life, that was her brass ring, with as much happiness as possible in its midst.

Perhaps our most profound bond was we were little sisters. Our big sisters were accomplished, imperious, judgmental and brilliant. They were the women we both feared and relied on. And then, Sandy, Wendy’s big sister, was struck with breast cancer. During this time, she wrote “The Sisters Rosensweig,” and Sandy was the inspiration for the eldest sister, Sara.

I was amazed at Wendy’s fortitude and wisdom. She was learning on her feet but a quick study. Sandy, once the shtarker in the family was now the fragile one. Sandy couldn’t be the manager, the boss.

These were now Wendy’s roles, but in her infinite kindness, Wendy made it still appear that she relied on Sandy. When Sandy died, I felt so sorry for my friend, still strong but profoundly diminished by the loss.

Ironically, very shortly after Sandy died, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and Wendy was my first call. I was living in Los Angeles and Wendy flew all the way across the country to be with me. She stayed only for the day and said, “I just came to tell you two things: One, this is not a TV movie, and two, show up.”

For the next six years as Josie battled this hideous disease, I called Wendy my cancer coach. When my sister died, I thought now I only have one big sister left — I have Wendy.

The following year, I got a call from Wendy asking me to come to Washington to do a workshop of a new play. She started giggling and said, “Whenever there is a two-figure deal in a swamp, your name immediately pops into my mind. But I totally understand if you can’t do it.”

It was no money, it was all the way across the country and it was just a reading. But she was the only place I felt safe with my sadness. She was the one who had also buried a sister. I didn’t even the read the play — I just headed to Washington, D.C., in the August heat.

The play was “Rash,” a two-character play about a doctor and his patient. I knew then why Wendy had wanted me. It was a play about a woman trying to cheat death in chemo rooms, being poked and prodded, winning and losing the battle on a daily basis.

But because it was Wendy’s writing, it was a romance, a kind of love affair between this Indian doctor and his frightened female patient, and it was damn funny. She knew I had ridden sidesaddle while my sister had endured each one of these scenes.

One night back at the hotel, after Wendy had put Lucy to bed, we were hanging out watching TV, and I ventured forth into the choppy waters of Wendy’s privacy.

“Who is this play about?” I wanted to know. “It’s not about your sister or mine is it?”

“No, it’s not,” she finally replied. “It’s about me. I have leukemia. I went through a lot in the last year, and I met this great doctor, and I am OK now.”

I needed to believe her. She ducked my worry and said, “I wrote another play on my way to D.C, and maybe we should read that one, too.”

I was in.

“I don’t know if it is any good,” she demurred, “but why not put it out there and find out?”

So the next day at rehearsal, the company sat around and read the one-act version of “Third.” We mounted both for the festival at The Kennedy Center, and both were a triumph. I thought “Third” was her best writing ever, and she was energized and hopeful, with her muse at full throttle.

We once again parted for different coasts, but I felt full, with a good dose of my friend. The next year, she worked to turn “Third” into a full-length play, finished her novel, started Lucy in school, spoke to the Jews and hid from all of her friends the war she was waging in order to be OK.

Wendy spent her formative years as a student at The Calhoun School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where, she says, “I began writing to get out of gym class.” Wendy’s early resistance to physical fitness gave us Heidi and Holly and Rita and Dr. Gorgeous and “An American Daughter” and all kinds of “Uncommon Women.” But when asked about her work as a female playwright, she would always bristle.

“I am a playwright,” she would respond, “it is not relevant that I am a female. My plays stand for me, not my gender.”

Wendy did not want to represent. She wanted to reveal. But now that she is gone who will speak for us? Who will be the custodian of our dreams, our rage, our disappointments, our politics and our power? Who will remind us not to leave each other stranded, that we are all in this together no matter what our individual choices?

And who will be my big sister?

 

Cowboy Cupid Bares His Horse Sense


The “woman business” is a heck of a lot like the horse business, says rancher-turned-matchmaker Ivan Thompson. You’ve got to treat them right to ensure obedience.

The politically incorrect but charismatic Thompson is the star of “Cowboy Del Amor,” the latest documentary by acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Michele Ohayon, which opens today at the Nuart Theatre. With cinematic tongue planted firmly in check, she profiles this self-professed “cowboy cupid” as he lassos Mexican brides for older gringos who find American women too demanding.

It all began when the rancher sought his third (and now ex) wife from Mexico because he “couldn’t get to Afghanistan,” he says in the film. But she got “too Americanized” after being allowed her own car and cellphone.

“Pretty soon, she was the boss of the house — of my business, and that only left me the pissants and the tumbleweeds,” he laments.

So the horseman dumped wife No. 3 and in 1989, placed a personal ad in a remote Mexican town where he hoped the women might be tamer. He received 80 responses and realized he could rustle himself up a new career.

Filmmaker Ohayon’s career previously highlighted serious (and politically correct) subjects, such as oppressed Palestinians and homeless women. She won a 1997 Oscar nomination for “Colors Straight Up,” her profile of urban youth in the aftermath of the L.A. riots.

So why did she choose to profile the less-than-enlightened Thompson?

“I’ve always regarded this film as an exercise in tolerance, my own and others’,” she said in her Hollywood Hills home, which is decorated with modern art and Moroccan Jewish crafts. Sure, she said she wanted to “smack” Thompson for his sexist remarks, but she also found him to be honest, endearing and dedicated to his work peddling marriage.

“I hoped to show that if you disagree with someone, you don’t have to hate them,” she said. “Human beings are complex, and what I love to do in all my films is to break stereotypes, to show all sides of a story.”

Ohayon, now in her early 40s, learned that lesson early. In 1965, 5-year-old Michele watched Arab extremists torch her father’s Casablanca bookstore, the front for his illegal operation smuggling Moroccan Jews to Israel. In the family flat across the street, her parents barricaded the door as the mob searched the shop’s basement and discovered forbidden documents.

When the thugs came for the Ohayons, their Arab concierge pretended they no longer lived in the building. As the family fled to Israel that night, Michele noted that not all Arabs hate Jews. She made that point on camera in 1984 with her controversial Israeli feature, “Pressure,” about a doomed Jewish-Palestinian romance.

While working on a documentary about Palestinian artist Kamal Boulata that same year, she “clicked” with her future husband, Dutch Catholic cinematographer Theo Van de Sande, as Israeli soldiers held them at gunpoint under a military watchtower in Ramallah. When the officers demanded that they hand over their footage, Ohayon and Van de Sande exchanged a meaningful glance. The cinematographer calmly gave the soldiers footage of children playing that he had previously shot, per Ohayon’s instructions, to deceive them about the true content of the film.

Although she barely knew Van de Sande, she promptly gave up her budding career to live with him in Amsterdam, where she could not work or speak the language.

“I was this really tough, straightforward Israeli, and the Dutch are all but that, so Theo would get really hurt, and I’d have to learn to tone it down,” she said. Her experience led her to strongly identify with the Mexican women in “Cowboy” who impulsively abandon their culture for love.

She and Van de Sande solved their early problems, in part, by moving to the neutral turf of Los Angeles in 1987. Ohayon immediately began searching for a film project and found it upon reading an article on a relatively unknown subgroup of the homeless population: formerly affluent women ravaged by illness or divorce. Her ensuing documentary, “It Was a Wonderful Life,” is both intimate and searing. The same personal approach will grace her upcoming documentary, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” an unusual Holocaust story.

“Many filmmakers tend to be observational and removed, but Michele draws you into the hearts and minds of her subjects,” said Betsy A. McLane, author of 2005’s “A New History of Documentary Film.” “It makes sense that several of her documentaries have been optioned as feature films. In a way, she’s like a novelist, because she takes the time to select and develop her characters.”

Ohayon recognized another great character in Thompson when she first heard him speak on National Public Radio several years ago.

“He embodied the classic comic theme of a matchmaker who can’t manage his own love life,” she said with a laugh.

Eager to tackle lighter fare after her previous documentaries, she contacted Thompson and arranged to meet him in Texas with her digital camera in tow (later Van de Sande came aboard as cinematographer). There, the cowboy introduced her to Rick, 48, a truck driver seeking true love in a demure package.

Ohayon followed the men as they walked across the border; endured a bumpy, 11-hour ride to Torreon; placed an ad in the local newspaper; and screened prospects who called their shabby motel room (anyone heavier than 120 pounds was out).

Although critics praised the film on the festival circuit, Thompson’s matchmaking techniques sparked some debate.

“The success of the arrangement seems to depend less on true love and more on the women being skinny, attractive and content to be regularly intimate with an older American male of questionable virtue,” efilmcritic.com said.

Ohayon, too, was initially skeptical of Thompson’s tactics and said she often lashed out at his sexist remarks. But then she noted how carefully he screened his male clients. And that he found women — many of them middle class — who wanted to marry Americans for their perceived loyalty, not to obtain green cards. She saw Rick and Francis fall in love and filmed two weddings on camera.

Eventually, Ohayon developed great affection for Thompson and even grew to appreciate his horse analogy: “When you understand how much he loves horses, you see that’s the biggest compliment in the world.”

The film opens Feb. 10 at the Nuart in Los Angeles. Ohayon and Van de Sande will conduct Q-and-As Feb. 10-12 after the 5:10 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. screenings.

 

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


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Notable Jewish Aquarius:
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Notable Jewish Pisces:
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Notable Jewish Aries:
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Notable Jewish Taurus:
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Notable Jewish Gemini:
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Notable Jewish Cancer:
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Notable Jewish Leo:
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Notable Jewish Virgo:
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Notable Jewish Libra:
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Notable Jewish Scorpio:
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Notable Jewish Sagittarius:
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Notable Jewish Capricorn:
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Midlife Reinvention Not So Uncommon


John F. Kennedy once said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

Life is full of change — in fact, one of the only things we can predict and count on in life is that things won’t stay the same. For many of us, this is exemplified in our work. Indeed, statistics suggest that most adults will experience five to 12 careers or job changes in a lifetime.

An actor may suddenly be seen as “too old.” A mother faces an empty nest and decides to start a new career. A downsize, an illness, an unexpected inheritance, a change of heart about one’s goals — the causes and types of transition are varied. Some are positive, anticipated and exciting; others are sudden, unwanted and the cause of a major crisis.

Jerry Rogoway was a 50-year-old president of a very successful national chain of retail stores. He loved his work and had done great things for the company. But a leveraged buy-out during the recession of the early 1980s led to Rogoway suddenly finding himself out of work.

“I was scared and depressed,” Rogoway recalled. “I didn’t know what to do. Where do you go for work, as an ex- president of a company? I answered ads but everyone said, ‘You’re too qualified.’ They were probably right. But that’s not what you want to hear when you’re desperately looking for work.”

Rogoway would certainly have agreed at the time that he was in a crisis. But, ultimately, after much personal work, career counseling and moral support, he came to see losing his job as a true opportunity, and a chance to reinvent himself.

Most people in transition have experienced some sense of loss. And the loss of a job can impact a person’s financial stability, routines and contacts, self-esteem or self-identity.

“We define ourselves by our work,” said Claudia Finkel, chief operating officer of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). “If you no longer have that identity and bond, how do you define yourself? You no longer have a sense of self.”

Sylvia Marks-Barnett, now 67, left a successful career as an attorney to become an arbitrator in her late 50s. There were several motivating factors.

“I stopped enjoying the stress of the work; it just got intolerable,” she said. “Also, my son died of cancer, and maybe I was just starting to acquire some wisdom.”

Marks-Barnett says what surprised her when she stopped practicing law was an experience of grief.

“I was grieving the loss of who I was — a lawyer. Part of my self-image was tied up in that,” she said. “I found myself pining for the courthouse and missing all the activities of a law practice, and the rush of being able to accomplish something.”

Finkel suggests that most people, when faced with a crisis, don’t take the time to mourn what is gone.

“We’re in too big a hurry to move on,” she said. “But there’s more to moving through a career transition — reinventing oneself — than just landing a new job.”

The grief, the loss of identity and the chaos of a career transition often can be eased by professional help.

Rogoway’s desperation brought him to JVS, and last May the now-72-year-old Rogoway was honored as the agency’s Employee of the Year, an award that recognizes the accomplishments of local workers who were placed in employment through JVS.

“In career counseling with Bobbie Yanke, she stressed my worth and knowledge and skills,” Rogoway said. “She was more creative than I was, because I was focused on self pity instead of thinking, ‘Now what do I do?’ She encouraged me to make contacts and network with people I knew and who knew what I was about. That led to my next job.”

The loss of what’s familiar and solid in one’s life can leave a gaping hole. It can feel scary and dark. But the emptiness can actually be the opportunity to fill that hole with something new — something unexpected, or a hope never before realized.

Life coaching is another increasingly popular resource for moving through transitions.

In his 50s, Neil Levy made his own transition to doing life-coaching work in Reseda.

“I see my role as helping with the predictable roller-coaster ride through the transition, and then helping the person turn what appears to be a negative into a positive, and turn an ‘ending’ into a beginning,” he said. “I assist my clients in exploring the possibilities that this seemingly bad situation has created, and then take the steps to create something extraordinary that would never have been possible had life gone on as usual.”

Indeed, sometimes a crisis is exactly what it takes to inspire outside-the-box thinking and finding one’s niche.

Vincent Yanniello had worked for 10 years as a stagehand for theater and television when some scenery fell on him, causing a major back injury. Yanniello went to see his family physician.

“I asked him to give me a shot to manage the pain, so I could get back to work. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going back to that job — ever.’ Then he said, ‘They’re having law school admission tests next week. You should go to law school. You were born to argue; you argue with me all the time about your health care. You’d make a great lawyer.'”

Three months later, Yanniello started law studies at Loyola. He has spent the last 14 years working as a trial attorney, and still loves it.

“I would never have thought of becoming an attorney. It took someone objectively looking at my skills and talents to direct me into the career that I was truly born to be in,” Yanniello said.

For information on Jewish Vocational Service, call (323) 761-8888.

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, founder of Living Legacies, at www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com, and president of the nonprofit Living Legacies Historical Foundation. She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net.

 

The Hebrascope: Signs of the Jewdiac


(January 20-February 18)

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Ted Koppell

Personal space isn’t something you can rent by the month. No, it’s something you have to carve out for yourself, or you may become overwhelmed by this week’s little stressors. Alone time is your friend this week. Speaking of friends, a co-worker may open your mind to a new idea in a conversation this week, which can only happen if you’re open to conversations with your co-workers and if you can truly listen (as opposed to thinking about what time “American Idol” comes on or who burned the microwave popcorn and stank up the break room). If you network for career reasons, you never know what the side benefits of socializing may be. Oh, and I hate to be a nudge, but single Aquarians should make sure any dates you have this week are truly single.

(February 19-March 20)

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Josh Groban

As a Pisces, you should know when something or someone is a tad “fishy.” Use your excellent instincts and intuition to glean the best potential mate for you. This week — and I’m going to state the obvious here — you really have to leave the house in order to meet someone. Unless you happen to have an especially attractive roommate or delivery person, make sure to get out and about so the universe can bring you The One — or at least the one for this week. As for Pisces in relationships, being around new people in new social situations (art gallery openings, fashion shows, plays, house parties) will make what’s old seem new again.

(March 21-April 20)

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William Shatner

From about midweek, your social life is going to go all Paris Hilton. Okay, Paris without the petty rivalries with teen starlets, bedazzled cell phone and ludicrously rich boyfriend. What I mean is, the invitations will be pouring in and you will be, even more than usual, popular among your peers. Enjoy it, but don’t ignore issues related to your long term health and stability. This is a good week to lace your social interactions with some thinking about the boring stuff: Is your car insurance paid? Do you need a dental plan? Union dues paid up? Are you ready for any upcoming property tax bills? Fun, good. Cavity without dental insurance, bad. This is a simple week for Aries – — enjoy this moment and plan for the next.

(April 21-May 20)

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Golda Meir

Sucking up to the boss takes on new dimensions this week. It’s not enough that your boss thinks you’re swell, her friends have to like you, too. Your reputation may be on the line this week, and it’s confusing when you don’t know whose tush you have to kiss. The answer is easy: smile at everyone, finish all of your tasks, keep your lunch hour to an actual hour (not an hour-plus Starbucks line time), wear the shirts that are fresh from the cleaners and make a good impression at all times. You never know whose watching and (frankly) judging. By the way, single Taurus should be prepared for what can only be described as a truly odd date this week.

(May 21-June 20)

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Mel Blanc

You could call it pheromones, you could call it “chemistry” you could get all clinical and refer to it as simple sexual attraction. Whatever you call it, that physical pull will yank you right into a new relationship this week. In a somewhat creepy and perhaps jarring transition– let’s talk about Gemini parents, for whom this is an important week. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but give of yourself this week in any way you can without spoiling the little ones. Gemini health alert: the weekend could be dicey — maybe some back pain, a scratchy throat. Take care of yourself and if that means spending a day in bed with microwave popcorn and ESPN, do it and don’t feel guilty.

(June 21-July 20)

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Marc Chagall

You’ve heard of a “tell” — a detectable change in a player’s behavior that gives clues to that player’s hand? Well, stay alert for tells and other signs of deception. I’m not talking about Washington lobbyist type large-scale deception, just minor bluffing that will surround you this week. Imagine yourself at the poker table of life. Your hand is decent. Your drink is still cold. You’ve got a nice stack of chips in front of you. Just keep your eye on the nonverbal clues given by the players around you. And always remember to tip your waitress and your horoscope writer. We’re working hard for you.

(July 21- August 21)

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Bernard Baruch

“Career Opportunity, the one that never knocks.” I just quoted The Clash. Not just because of how cool it makes me feel (though I can’t deny it does), but to convey that this week, career opportunities will be knock, knock, knocking on Leo’s door. Have a friend proofread that resume, send it all over town, call anyone you know that can help you land the job you covet, enlist in any courses your current employer now offers and classes outside of work. Planetary influences are on your side. So get on it and don’t “clash” with what the stars have in store. And with that pun, I lose all cred.

(August 22-September 22)

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Alan Dershowitz

Oops. Was that a lunch meeting you totally spaced? A stack of bills you forgot to slip in the mailbox? Do you even know where your day-planner is? It seems Virgo is a bit distracted, especially on Monday. For Virgos in love, the object of your affection is clouding some of your rational thinking, particularly for those of you in new relationships. No matter, by midweek you regain your cool. This is a good thing, because your ability to remain calm under pressure will be tested. You will be a clutch player at work with big romantic rewards if you happen to wake up early on Friday morning. That was cryptic, but you know what I mean.

(September 23-October 22)

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Walter Matthau

If you find yourself in the mood to visit one of those paint-it-yourself ceramics stores, you might think it’s the effect of some horrible strain of flu. No, it’s just the stars urging you to experiment with new creative pursuits. It gets better; the celestial influences for Libra suggest that putting time and effort into your creative life could actually yield financial rewards in the future. Does that mean the manuscript or screenplay half-done on some long lost computer file may be worth rehashing? Yes. And it will probably be ultimately less embarrassing than being seen at the ceramics store painting polka dots on an oversized mug. Even if you have to spend some money — guitar strings, new computer program, yarn and knitting needles — it’s worth it.

(October 23-November 22)

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Calvin Klein

At times, Scorpio can be overwhelmed by amorous urges (which I think might make a good perfume name and could certainly be marketed to Scorpios this week). The scent of Amorous Urges will be all around you, which could lead to fulfillment or disappointment. Satisfaction is one thing, finding a mensch when you’re so sensually driven is another. Scorpios in partnerships should schedule some good together time this week, which means routine chores — carrying in the huge jugs of delivered water or taking out the trash — can wait. Smells like a good week.

(November 23-December 20)

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Steven Spielberg

I truly hope you aren’t entangled in any legal activities, but if you are, this is your week to be victorious against “The Man” or anyone else. What’s more, the stars are giving you the equivalent of celestial Ginseng right now. Your memory is sharp and you have no trouble recalling facts, figures and statistics that not only help you dazzle at work, but impress in casual conversation. At the end of the week, avoid physical labor. While your mind is strong, your body may be a bit weak or injury prone. A sharp mind is not just a tool for learning, but also for figuring out how to get other people to do the heavy lifting.

(December 21-January 19)

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Dave Attell

This week opens with all the uplifting, syrupy sweetness of a Lifetime television movie. Things are so soft-focus and unrealistically wonderful, you can almost feel Melissa Gilbert’s presence. Try not to soar too high, but you can feel good about whatever you’ve overcome for your Lifetime moment. In the middle of the week, things level out and suddenly instead of watching a poignant tearjerker on Lifetime, it’s Lou Dobbs on your celestial screen. The time will come for some highly un-fun financial tinkering involving bills or records. Just get it over with so you can switch back to Melissa Gilbert and wait for the tacky music to swell.

Lesson in Tolerance Seeks to Aid School


A group of students from Jefferson High School gathers around the tour guide, Jewish grandmother Diane Treister, at the Museum of Tolerance on a recent Friday morning.

While Treister talks about personal responsibility and respect, the students, many in jeans and T-shirts and carrying cellphones, chat among themselves, mostly in Spanish.

“This is going to be a tough group,” Treister whispers to an adult visitor. “You just hope the kids will remember what they see today. I try to tell them to be ambassadors of tolerance and to speak up. Because the Holocaust happened because no one spoke up.”

This tour is no typical high school field trip, with its predictable mix of unruly, disinterested teenagers. These students are here mainly because their school, Jefferson High, became a flash point last year for fights between Latino and African American students. The overcrowded, underperforming campus in South Los Angeles was 92 percent Latino, 7.5 percent black and, seemingly on a handful of occasions, nearly 100 percent out of control.

Since then, hundreds of students have transferred to a new school south of Jefferson, police have increased their campus presence and a new principal has taken charge. The school district also has arranged for human relations speakers to visit the campus.

Now, students are getting a special kind of training that officials hope will make a difference at school: They’re learning about human rights abuses and the fight for civil rights in the United States and, especially, about the Holocaust.

Throughout November and December, ninth graders from Jefferson High and eighth graders from Carver Middle School, which feeds into Jefferson, spent a day at the Museum of Tolerance, the educational arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

On this particular winter day, Treister leads the students into a room called the Millennium Machine, where they squeeze into six-person booths. Video monitors flash images of child abuse, including slavery, forced labor and pornography. The monitors ask, “What is the most common form of child abuse?”

The students overwhelmingly choose physical abuse. But they’re wrong. The answer is forced labor.

“I think it’s just sad,” says a girl with long brown hair, as she makes her way out of the room for the next exhibit. Here, 16 video monitors show historical film footage of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others fighting for civil rights.

Then, it’s time for the Holocaust section of the museum. Students sit on the floor, while Treister kneels, imploring them to pay special attention to this part of the tour. She explains anti-Semitism, using her own, expanded definition: “Anti-Semitism means hatred of Jews — and hatred of anyone of color.”

Two tall doors part, and the students walk into another room, where a reproduction of a Berlin street from the 1930s awaits. The ninth graders pass by a scene at a cafe, where sculpted figures sit at tables. A voiceover brings the scene to life, offering snippets of the cafe patrons’ conversations about the Nazis’ rise to power.

Less listless than before, the students eavesdrop on a recreation of the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis determined that “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was to kill all Jews in German-controlled lands. In a Hall of Testimony that resembles a concentration camp gas chamber, students listen to survivors’ stories.

Leaving the exhibit, Treister asks, “Who was responsible for this?”

“Hitler,” a student says.

“Who else?” she asks.

“The people who followed Hitler,” answers Jose Albarran, 14.

“What could’ve been done?” Treister asks.

Tames’e Smith, 15, raises her hand and says: “Somebody standing up to make a difference.”

Smith seems to get the point of the tour. The question is how she, a girl who says she has grown weary of witnessing gang fights and parties “getting shot up,” will apply what she’s learned to life at school.

Ron Rubine, the 46-year-old head of Standing on Common Ground, an organization that trains students in peer relations, tried to make the connection.

“Today,” he told the students at the start of the tour, “is going to be a day for you to think about making Jefferson a place where everybody’s included and nobody’s left out.”

After the tour, Rubine led the ninth graders in a session on how to make the day’s lessons relevant. He also brought in guest speakers — a reformed white supremacist and a gay rights activist — to broaden the message of tolerance.

“In terms of acceptance and learning more about how to get along,” said Juan Flecha, Jefferson High’s principal, “I can’t think of a better opportunity” than a trip to the museum.

Flecha added that simply visiting the Westside was eye-opening. “It’s really important for our students to see a different part of the world,” he said.

With 30 buses provided by Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry (Ninth District) and free admission tickets offered by the Museum of Tolerance through a Wells Fargo Foundation grant, an estimated 1,000 students participated.

After this day’s tour, ninth-grader Smith explains that “standing up” means stopping child pornography, “babies getting exposed on the Internet,” as she puts it.

Another student, Mayra Rivas, 14, says, “I think it could happen again — to Mexicans.” Just as Jews could not escape Europe, her own grandmother, she says, cannot immigrate to the United States today.

A certain amount of confusion — as with this questionable analogy — is inevitable because many students arrive knowing little or nothing about the Holocaust, said Beverly LeMay, manager of the museum’s Tools for Tolerance program. She added that she hopes to follow up with students.

As the day wore on, most students had paid attention to substantial parts of the presentation, sometimes participating in discussions with enthusiasm. If all went well, they will take away something of lasting value — and Jefferson High will be a more peaceful, respectful place.

“You don’t come to the Museum of Tolerance in one visit,” LeMay said, “and be resolved on all these issues.

 

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis


 

There’s a worn American flag hanging in the second-story window of Moshe Salem’s stately Valley Village home.

Which is strange if you think about it, since much of Salem’s existence is centered around Israel. He’s Israeli, his wife is Israeli, as are their four kids. Most of his friends in the Valley are Israeli, and for the last three years, he’s been volunteering as the president of the Council of Israeli Communities (CIC), a small organization that wants to serve as the central representation of Israelis in Los Angeles — an endeavor that has not quite come to fruition just yet.

There’s more of Israel inside these huge mahogany oak doors, which open onto a marble floor and thick, ivory columns: The walls flanking the entryway are decorated with dozens of colorful hamsas, hand-shaped amulets that ostensibly protect against evil; in the corner of the two story-high living room is a tarnished silver Middle Eastern tea set and several hookahs, and, of course, there’s Moshe himself, the 45-year-old advocate for Israel and for Israelis in America.

Although the organization originally began in 2001 as a pro-Israel advocacy group, when other organizations like StandWithUs began to effectively fill that role, the CIC changed direction to try to foster a relationship between Israelis and Israel, its culture and values.

After he became president of the CIC in 2002 — a term that ends in February — Salem began working three to four hours a day on CIC projects, such as hosting speakers, sing-alongs, holiday activities; working with The Federation and Jewish Agency; organizing events like the recent Rabin memorial at the University of Judaism; or inviting Israeli soldiers to talk about Israel’s care in the execution of missions.

“There is a great need for one central Israeli organization,” says Gal Shor, editor-in-chief of Shalom L.A., a Hebrew newspaper here. Shor does not believe the CIC has fulfilled that role yet, due to a membership of 5,000 out of the estimated 200,000 Israelis in Los Angeles and a lack of funding, but he says Salem has been tireless in his work.

“One good thing about him is that he’s trying. He does give his time and effort,” Shor says.

When he’s not at the CIC, Salem runs his diamond business, which he started a few years after he came to California in 1981. Like many Israelis here, Salem originally came to America to make some money, never intending to stay. But after a wife, four children and years of what he calls “living on the fence” — about whether to return to Israel or not — Salem has come to terms with the fact that they’re probably not going back to Bat Yam. Which makes it all the more important for him to try to forge a connection between Israelis and Israel.

“People ask me, ‘Why are you doing this, giving your time, your money?’ (Time away from work is money),” he said. “You have more substance in your life rather than just getting up in the morning, going to parties, going to the movies,” he said.

On a personal level, he said, he does it for his children, too: “I think my kids observe a lot. When they see an article in the Israeli papers, or when we have a gathering at the house, it enriches their life. I think, I hope, I pray that I’m embedding in them Jewish Israeli values that way.”

On a more global level, he said that somebody has to do the work that he is doing.

“If everybody says, ‘I can’t do it, I’m too busy,’ then who would do this? If nobody would do these things, then what you’re doing is emptying the community life from any cultural or spiritual values,” he said. “A community that does not have spiritual and cultural values is a doomed community.”

Moshe Salem

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So Much to Learn, So Little Time


Gina Gross would like to attend Jewish adult-education classes, but at the moment, she has a hard time even talking about how much she’d like it. The Beverly Hills licensing consultant briefly puts down the phone and turns lovingly to her 7-year-old daughter: “Dani, buzz off!”

Dani runs off to play with her 5-year-old sister, Sydney, which gives Gross a few minutes to discuss adult education, but not nearly enough leeway to pursue it.

“My kids are too little,” said Gross, who adds that her Reform congregation, Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park, “does a really good job of marketing adult education during the High Holidays. And every year I hope I’m gonna do it. And I never do it. Kids. Work. Everything else.”

There are thousands of adults in similar straits throughout Southern California.

“We are blessed in Los Angeles with a plethora of adult learning opportunities,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “Synagogues offer literally hundreds of courses for adults as do many other fine institutions.”

“Having said that,” the Conservative rabbi added, “I wouldn’t even hazard a guess to how few Jewish adults are actually involved in ongoing Jewish learning. I fear the number is relatively small. People need to avail themselves of these programs.”

There are no comprehensive statistics on how many adults attend classes related to Judaism, or even whether these classes are attracting increasing or shrinking numbers. But synagogues and local universities continue to list impressive offerings, relying on their own learned staffers and rabbis, talented community members and a broader Jewish community rich with resources and scholars.

At Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, Rabbi David Wolpe’s Torah study classes attract an average of 100 people every Thursday morning at 8:15 a.m.

“That’s huge,” said Sinai program coordinator Rachel Martin.

Lunch-and-learn events at Sinai regularly attract about 80 people.

“Anything on mysticism is really popular,” Martin said. “It’s more of the touchy-feely stuff that’s really popular.”

Over the years, said Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, congregants have shown tremendous interest in “learning about lifecycles, and in adult [b’nai] mitzvah classes.”

Courses on Israel peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, Jacobs said, but now interfaith courses and classes on Jewish cooking are on the upswing.

But who has the time? Attorney Josh Wayser and his life partner have three young children in Beverlywood and are members of both Temple Isaiah and the gay/lesbian Reform synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, in Pico-Robertson.

“If you have young children, it’s almost impossible to do adult education,” said Wayser, a national board member with the Union of Reform Judaism.

“The problem is you’re choosing between spending time with children or enriching yourself,” he said. “They don’t want to hear that you’re going off to adult education at night or on the weekend. I have to spend time way from home because of work, and I volunteer in the Jewish community. Everything personal comes last.”

Not that he hasn’t tried: “It was very enjoyable, but it was on a Saturday. On Saturday there are birthday parties and all these things that you have to do.”

Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein said that deepening one’s knowledge of Judaism should not be considered an option, nor buried near the bottom of the to-do list.

“I hate to be blunt about it, but the Orthodox have an advantage that the heterodox movements do not, and that’s the concept of mitzvah — mitzvah in the real sense of commandment rather than in good deeds,” said Adlerstein, who does extensive teaching and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “The mandate to study Torah is one of the most important of all of the 613 commandments in the Torah.”

For Orthodox Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, “the barometer of success can’t be how many people come. It’s how good the program is,” he said.

Muskin has mixed traditional Torah study with offerings such as scholar-in-residence programs. “Our approach is what the Talmud says,” he said. “If you only learn Torah from one person, you haven’t learned Torah.”

And, he added, there’s no seasonal slowdown: “We don’t only run a series that lasts for six weeks or five weeks. There are regular classes, day in, day out.”

One new option is the Internet and sites such as www.aish.com or www.askmoses.com, which are Orthodox in orientation.

Diamon of the Board of Rabbis said these sites will never replace people-to-people encounters.

“Internet learning is great,” he said. “But nothing replaces sitting down with another individual or a group of individuals and studying together face-to-face and in person. That’s classic Jewish learning.”

For Kol Tikvah’s Jacobs, Jewish learning also is about more than history, scholarship, religious tradition and ritual. It’s about a cleaned-up Santa Monica Bay, too, and fair rental housing rates for migrant farm workers in Oxnard onion fields.

“Learning Torah for the sake of Torah does not complete the act of what it is to be a Jew,” he said. “It’s a combination of action and learning. It’s what you do in terms of tikkun olam and tikkun hanefesh, the repair of the soul’ You must act, and you must do, and you must learn.”

Why a Novel?


“The Other Shulman” by Alan Zweibel (Villard, $23.95).

I write. This is what I do. I’m a professional comedy writer. My job is to sit in a room with my vocabulary, select words and put them in an order that will not only hold your interest but also, hopefully, make you laugh. It’s treacherous work. Not that it requires heavy lifting or driving at breakneck speeds, but it is equally dangerous, as one misplaced word has the power to permanently affect the life of a character you’ve created. For example, the errant word in the following sentence, “Harvey is not dead so they will have a funeral and bury him” could conceivably alter the fate of Harvey who may very well have preferred to remain above ground until he was, indeed, dead.

Writing is said to be a lonely business, solitary in the task to fill up so many empty pages. And before I decided to try my hand at writing my autobiographical novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ll confess I had fears about such an undertaking. Through the years, I’d been fortunate. Television and movie writing are comparatively social situations involving groups of similarly minded people pooling their talents to produce a script. This was my life during my years at “Saturday Night Live” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: funny people sit around a table, joke, eat pizza till all hours, share tales about their own childhoods or weekends, and the synergy ultimately results in a product that reflects the collective sensibilities of everyone involved. And my collaboration with Billy Crystal on his play, “700 Sundays,” where I helped my good friend create a Broadway show about his family, was an exhilarating experience because the continual flow of dialogue between us made time fly by and the production that much richer.

But a novel? Why, pray tell? By definition it’s the loneliest of all writing ventures. No one to talk to. No diversions except for the ones that you yourself create — like going to the movies or offering to clean your neighbor’s garage — activities that have a tendency to impede the writing process. In television, the discipline is imposed. They’re letting the audience in at 11 and we go on the air at 11:30 so there had better be a script or else the cast will be on screen with absolutely nothing to say. Deadlines. While writers dread them, they are secretly grateful that they force us to actually sit down and write. But with a novel it’s different. More lax. Let’s face it, Margaret Mitchell, who reputedly took 10 years to write “Gone With the Wind,” was very fortunate that an audience wasn’t sitting in a studio waiting for her to complete her work, because my guess is that they would’ve grown a tad cranky after a while.

But that’s also the attraction of novel writing, for it allows the author time to wander within the pages he’s writing. To explore the world he’s creating and discover the hidden virtues it may offer. To probe deep into the lives and psyches of his newly formed characters and grant them the freedom to go places and say things that the writer may never have even considered before he got to know them better. Meandering. Writing a novel is very much about the side trips that television, movies and even stage plays cannot take because the constrictions of time and space in those other media do not allow for such tangents. But in a book, the author has the luxury of stepping away from his story and wandering for awhile — to a flashback, a personal philosophy, or even a two-page description of the shoes a character is wearing — before finding his way back to the story.

In my novel, “The Other Shulman,” I’ve created a chubby, middle-aged character who takes inventory of his life as he runs through his old neighborhoods during the New York City Marathon. He is able to revisit long-forgotten memories, examine the choices he made, the people he knew, his relationship with God, and, in effect, take a look at what made him the person he is today and what he would have to do to get out of the rut his business and his marriage are in. It is a circuitous journey that I believed would be best served in the form of a novel.

The process was incredibly therapeutic, as the book is quite personal. It took me three years to write. And now I am promoting it at Jewish book fairs because I love talking to groups of book lovers. Also because it will, at long last, get me out of the house.

On Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Alan Zweibel will sign “The Other Shulman” at Temple Beth Israel as part of the Jewish Book Festival of the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal. 3033 N. Towne Ave., Pomona. For more information, call (626) 332-0700.

On Dec. 4 at 9:30 a.m. Zweibel will be speaking at Sinai Temple’s People of the Book Breakfast. $18-$25. 10400 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 481-3217.

An original Saturday Night Live writer, Alan Zweibel has won numerous Emmy and Writers Guild awards for his work in television, which also includes It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which he co-created), PBS’s Great Performances, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.? In addition to his novel, he recently released a children’s book entitled Our Tree Named Steve and collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony award-winning stage show 700 Sundays.

Buckeye State Gets a Jewish Museum


Stroll in the shadow of Jewish-owned factories like Glick Neckwear and Favorite Knitting Mills in Cleveland’s long-vanished garment district. Take a seat in an art deco theater where Ethel Merman belts out a song. Round a corner to see Superman bursting through a wall. These are among the sights, sounds and experiences visitors encounter in the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Using state-of-the-art audio, visual and computer technologies, the museum illuminates Jewish history, both local and worldwide, setting these traditions and achievements against the backdrop of U.S. and world events. Within its walls, one meets a host of colorful characters whose personal stories are brought to life in film, interactive activities and exhibits of precious artifacts.

Cleveland media mogul Milton Maltz and his wife, Tamar, pledged $8 million toward the construction of the Beachwood, Ohio museum, and to begin an endowment. The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland contributed the remaining $5.5 million to the museum, which opened Oct. 11. Research support was provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and many of the historical documents and artifacts in the museum came from its Jewish Archives.

“Although this is seen through Jewish eyes, it is really an American story,” said Maltz who, with his wife Tamar, was the visionary behind the museum. Beyond chronicling Jewish history, the museum pays homage to the immigrant spirit that, nourished by freedom, built Cleveland and this country.

Although it illuminates large themes, the Maltz Museum is compact. The permanent exhibit occupies 7,000 square feet of the 24,000-square-foot minimalist building, which is faced in luminous Jerusalem limestone. Elsewhere, exhibits throughout the meandering rooms and alcoves engage and inform museum-goers.

The museum experience begins in a light-filled, high-ceilinged lobby hung with eight huge iconic images representing the museum’s major themes. These include dramatic photos of Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, his head bloodied during the 1964 civil rights march in Mississippi, and the smiling face of astronaut Judith Resnick, an Akron native, paired with the Challenger space shuttle in which she lost her life.

Superimposed on these, a multilevel timeline shows the history of the Jews from Abraham onward, placing it in the context of world civilizations and historical events.

In the 60-seat Chelm Family Theater, a short film sets the tone — literally — for the visitor’s tour. A hazy close-up of a man blowing a shofar on a deserted hillside gradually dissolves into a sharply focused shot of the Cleveland Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, Franklin Cohen, playing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Actor Peter Strauss narrates this film, which provides an overview of the museum.

Exiting the theater, one encounters a floor-to-ceiling photo of immigrants disembarking on Ellis Island. They hold tightly to their children, bundles and valises. Anxiety, loneliness and hope are etched on their faces. This tableau ushers one into “They’ve Arrived!” — the first section of the core exhibit, which focuses on Cleveland’s first Jewish families and the immigrant experience.

Prominently displayed is the Alsbacher Document, the handwritten “ethical will” addressed to the small band of villagers from Unsleben, Bavaria, who settled here in 1839. In it, their rabbi urges the immigrants to remember their Jewish faith amidst the temptations of the New World.

To better understand the experience of those setting out for a new land, an interactive station allows a visitor to assume the identity of an immigrant, faced with numerous decisions and problems. Further along, exhibits show how schools and settlement houses enabled Americanization. Here, an interactive display challenges visitors to try to pass the citizenship test.

“Building a City” transports museum-goers to Cleveland at the turn of the 20th century. One side of the “street” looks back at the mom-and-pop shops that dotted the old Jewish neighborhoods. The other highlights Cleveland’s once-thriving garment district and pays tribute to Jewish-owned commercial firms like Forest City Enterprises, Rose Iron Works and American Greetings Corp., which all got their start here.

At the end of the street, “To Serve” focuses on the military experience of Jewish servicemen and women from the American Revolution to the war in Iraq.

A film loop shows a re-enactment of a seder held during the Civil War. Photos of soldiers appear on screen, narrated by excerpts from their poignant letters home. A Marine reservist who served in Iraq, Josh Mandel, also speaks.

Other multimedia exhibits highlight the last century of Jewish history. Dark events such as the Holocaust and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre are covered, as is the creation of the State of Israel. Lighter trends are not ignored — in one section, a larger-than-life Superman bursts through a wall into the gallery, drawing attention to the story of the comic book superhero’s creation by local artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Even Jewish gangsters have their stories told.

The final area, “From Generation to Generation,” showcases Jewish achievements from 1950 to the present in science, medicine, business, industry, literature and the arts. Alongside photos of contemporary Jewish landmarks, filmed interviews address the question on of what it means to be a Jew today.

Off the main lobby is The Temple-Tifereth Israel Gallery, which showcases treasures drawn from the collection of The Temple Museum of Religious Art. The Temple’s collection includes ancient ritual objects, sacred books and scrolls from around the world, textiles dating from the 18th century, Holocaust art, Israeli stamps, paintings, lithographs and sculpture by renowned Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz and Isidor Kaufmann.

While the museum has generated much initial excitement in the Cleveland Jewish community, its success will depend on drawing a wider audience and offering reasons for visitors to return. Maltz and Carole Zawatsky, the museum’s executive director, say they expect the museum to have regional appeal, drawing 45,000 to 75,000 visitors a year.

The changing exhibition space should be a magnet for repeat visits. The first of these temporary exhibits is “The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey” which opens Nov. 12.

Just as he hopes people from other ethnic backgrounds will see some of their own stories reflected in the museum, Maltz also hopes they will want to use its open space to mount exhibits showcasing their own heritage.

Special events and ongoing activities will also bring people to the museum, said Zawatsky, who was formerly director of education at the Jewish Museum in New York. She and her staff have created a full schedule of activities for museum-goers of all ages.

“It’s wonderful to have this in our own backyard,” said Cleveland-area resident Ruth Mayers, who attended the Oct. 11 preview gala. “This will bring an understanding of our history to Jew and non-Jew alike; it is a gift to our children.”

For more information about The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, visit

Dylan’s Jewish Pilgrimage


You may not see it beneath the gentlemanly cowboy hat Bob Dylan wears on the cover of the “Love and Theft” album — or behind the countrified smile on the “Nashville Skyline” record jacket. But in the early 1960s, if anyone cared to notice, the unmistakable persona of a Jewish kid emanated from America’s most galvanizing performer and songwriter.

Dylan didn’t kvetch like your cousin Marvin or sing Israeli songs. He was steeped in old-time American music. But his Jewishness stood out — perhaps more in retrospect, especially in concert segments that are part of the new Martin Scorcese documentary on Dylan called, “No Direction Home.”

Dylan’s gently curved nose and the kinky hair suggested a Jewish gene pool. Just as importantly, the piercing gaze, the absorption and analysis of modern culture and Dylan’s prophetic tone made the young singer as thematically Jewish as fundraising.

Not that people noticed or that Dylan seemed to care about Judaism when he emerged in 1961 on the Greenwich Village folk music scene. The skinny 20-year-old from Hibbing, Minn., had re-invented himself as the musical heir to folk troubadour Woody Guthrie.

By 1962, Dylan was re-animating tradition-laden folk music with original, topical songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War.” In 1965, he began to play his folk songs with a rock ‘n’ roll band. He wrote anthems that examined politics and described love in adult terms, transforming even that genre to a thinking person’s music with a beat.

Then, 25 years after his 1954 bar mitzvah, Dylan began performing with Jesus on his side and recorded three Christian albums. In another sharp turn, his 1983 album, “Infidels,” contained an ode to Israel, the anguished “Neighborhood Bully,” and dropped the evangelizing.

Dylan later was reported to be praying with Lubavitcher Chasidim. With son-in-law Peter Himmelman, a popular Orthodox singer/songwriter, Dylan performed “Hava Nagila” for a Lubavitch telethon in 1989. Still, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s recent concerts also have included songs from his Christian period.

So is Dylan a Jew?

His autobiography, “Chronicles: Volume One” (Simon & Schuster, 2004) — and the dozens of Dylan biographers and chroniclers over a 43-year musical career — leave that question unanswered.

The 64-year-old Dylan declined requests for an interview, but a higher authority, Dylan’s mother, once fielded that question. Beatty Rutman, who died in 2000, weighed in during a 1985 interview with Fred A. Bernstein posted on Jewhoo.com. Asked about her son’s affinity for Christianity, she said, “He never displayed it for me,” adding: “What religion a person is shouldn’t make any difference to anybody else. I’m not bigoted in any way. Rabbis would call me up. I’d say, ‘If you’re upset, you try to change him.'”

Dylan may have found his muse in New York City, but he was shaped by a small-town upbringing in the north country, as part of a small, active Jewish community. Robert Alan Zimmerman was born May 24, 1941, to Abe and Beatty Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn. The largest city along Lake Superior, Duluth was home to approximately 2,000 Jews. Abe Zimmerman managed the stock department for Standard Oil Co. until a stroke disabled him in 1947.

Dylan’s father was small in stature but had been a good athlete. “The illness put an end to all his dreams, I believe,” Dylan told L’Express in 1978. “He could hardly walk.”

The young family moved 75 miles northwest to his mother’s hometown, Hibbing, population approximately 18,000. The “Iron Ore Capital of the World” and the largest city in northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Range, the city was built on iron ore — literally. When an immense lode of ore was discovered beneath Hibbing in the early 1920s, the mining town — buildings and all — was moved south several miles to accommodate the new hematite.

Abe Zimmerman’s brothers, Maurice and Paul, operated Micka Electric supply in Hibbing. They expanded the store to carry appliances and brought in Zimmerman as a salesman.

The Abe Zimmerman household joined a Jewish community that, in true small-town fashion, dominated the business scene downtown — along a half mile of Howard Street, several blocks of perpendicular First Avenue and the surrounding streets.

“They all had good businesses. They had all the businesses,” remembered retiree Tom Petrick during a recent coffee klatch at Hibbing’s Sunrise Deli.

“The whole of Howard Street was Jewish,” recalled Dorothy Shega, with only a bit of exaggeration, between sips of coffee.

The retirees and several friends rattled off the names of prominent former Jewish merchants. The Edelsteins, Beatty Zimmerman’s family, owned two movie theaters, one named the Lybba after the grandmother of Dylan’s mother.

Hyman Bloom owned the Boston Department Store. Jacob Jolowsky operated Hibbing Auto Wrecking. Nathan Nides owned Nides Fashion Shop, sold insurance and lent money. David Shapiro was proprietor of First Avenue Market. Jack and Israel Sher ran the Insurance Service Agency. Louis Stein and James Shapiro owned pharmacies.

Hibbing’s Jewish population was small but steady — 285 in 1937 and 268 in 1948, according to “The American Jewish Year Book.” Despite Abe Zimmerman’s physical limitations, the family participated actively in Jewish life: the father as president of the B’nai B’rith lodge; the mother as president of the Hadassah group. As a young adolescent, Bobby spent summers at Herzl Camp, a Zionist facility in northwestern Wisconsin.

Bobby attended cheder at Agudas Achim, a nominally Orthodox synagogue near downtown Hibbing. Shirley Schwartz, principal of the religious school when Dylan was in class, “said that ‘Bob was a rambunctious kid, but a nice kid,'” recalled her son, Cantor Neil Schwartz of B’nai Zion Congregation in Chattanooga, Tenn.

With no full-time rabbi in town, Bobby prepared for his bar mitzvah with a teacher he remembered as mysterious. “Suddenly a rabbi showed up under strange circumstances for only a year. He and his wife got off the bus in the middle of winter,” Dylan told Spin in 1985. “…. He was an old man from Brooklyn who had a white beard and wore a black hat and black clothes. They put him upstairs above where I used to hang out….

“I used to go up there every day to learn this stuff, either after school or after dinner. After studying with him an hour or so, I’d come down and boogie.

“The rabbi taught me what I had to learn, and after he conducted this bar mitzvah, he just disappeared. The people didn’t want him. He didn’t look like anybody’s idea of a rabbi. He was an embarrassment. All the Jews up there shaved their beards, and, I think, worked on Saturday. And I never saw him again. It’s like he came and went like a ghost.”

Dylan was describing the Rev. Reuven Maier, probably a nonordained religious functionary. He lived on Howard Street above the then L & B Cafe. Apparently, Bobby didn’t attend synagogue often after his bar mitzvah, because he forgot that Maier stayed in Hibbing at least another two years, according to the 1956 Hibbing City Directory.

Judaism played a minor role in Dylan’s youth. Asked in a 1978 Playboy interview if he thought about being Jewish while growing up, he replied: “No, I didn’t. I’ve never felt Jewish. I don’t really consider myself Jewish or non-Jewish. I don’t have much of a Jewish background.”

Dylan left town to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis for a semester in 1959. He explained to Playboy in 1966 that Hibbing “was just not the right place for me to stay and live…. The only thing you could do there was be a miner and even that … was getting less and less. The people that lived there — they’re nice people … they still stand out as being the least hung-up. The mines were just dying, that’s all, but that’s not their fault.”

In 1959, Dylan began to play in Minneapolis folk clubs, but soon sought a bigger scene. He accepted the offer of a car ride to New York in 1961 to pursue his destiny, as he wrote in “Chronicles.”

A handful of Jews, most of them elderly, remains in Hibbing, said Jolowsky. Agudas Achim closed in the 1980s and has been converted into a private home. Abe Zimmerman died in 1968. His wife lived with second husband Joe Rutman in St. Paul until her death five years ago.

Dylan doesn’t dismiss the significance of where he spent his childhood. Growing up in Hibbing “gave me a sense of simplicity,” Dylan told the Hibbing High Times in 1978. Dylan-watchers believe that his Hibbing Jewish experiences — and lack thereof — are reflected in his spiritual sense and the extent to which this spirituality is colored by Judaism.

Larry Yudelson, owner of the radiohazak.com and yudel.com Web sites, which contain megabytes of Dylan data, says Dylan was looking for something that Hibbing couldn’t provide.

“My sense is the religious language of salvation and faith in Jesus he picked up very early,” Yudelson said. “I think about what it meant to grow up in Hibbing as a third-generation American Jew. My guess is Dylan connects to this Jewish absence, this yearning, which he finds in the old folk music. I think he has found a real American connection.”

In “Chronicles,” Dylan writes that the old folk songs in his early repertoire “were my preceptor and guide into some altered consciousness of reality, some different republic, some liberated republic.” Later, he considered some folk and blues performances he attended in New York to be “like spiritual experiences…. I wasn’t ready to act on any of it but knew somehow, though, that if I wanted to stay playing music, that I would have to claim a larger part of myself.”

As a songwriter, Dylan’s characters often are sinners, yet outside of the three preachy Christian albums, the religious impact comes more from his skillful use of biblical allusions and metaphors. The language of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is apocalyptic, while the tone is prophetic. “Forever Young” is a bountiful blessing. “Highway 61 Revisited” revolves around the binding of Isaac. “Jokerman” is steeped in biblical references.

Many of Dylan’s songs take a strong moral stand, calling for justice (“Ballad of Hurricane”), peace (“Masters of War”) and faith (“Father of Night”).

But using the songs to identify Dylan’s beliefs probably is reading too much into the work of a well-read, versatile songwriter, who can, like most skilled performers, fully embrace the thrust of a lyric or musical theme. Many of his songs offer no religious language or ideas.

His personal statements are no more consistent. He writes in “Chronicles” that his 1971 visit to Jerusalem was a publicity stunt. “I … got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly, and the great rags changed me overnight to a Zionist. This helped a little” in removing Dylan from the pop music spotlight. Yet on the same trip, he declared: “I’m a Jew. It touches my poetry, my life in ways I can’t describe.”

So is he a Jew?

Now he is, said Cantor Schwartz of Chattanooga, who makes the assertion on faith and analysis, rather than personal contact with Dylan: “Those of us who came from the hinterlands like he did predicted that [the Christian phase] wasn’t going to last, and we were right.”

Small-town Jews tend to adapt their practices to fit the general community, Schwartz said, recalling a 1970 Friday night service at Agudas Achim that ended early so the congregation’s six high school students, including trombonist Schwartz, could don a football, band or cheerleading uniform and attend the Hibbing High game.

“Given a milieu like that, it didn’t surprise me that Dylan strayed, but that he came back,” he said.

However, maybe he didn’t come all the way back. Scott Marshall, a born-again Christian author of “Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan” (2002, Relevant Media Group Inc.), sketched out conflicting evidence, noting that Dylan has “often been spotted at various synagogues at the High Holidays. There’s no question that the men and women and children at those synagogues do not believe that Jesus is messiah.”

Yet, in a 1984 Rolling Stone interview, after the release of “Infidels,” “Dylan said he was a literal believer in the Bible,” Marshall continued. “He said the Old and New Testaments were equally valid…. All I can add is he continues to sings these songs from [his Christian albums] ‘Slow Train Coming’ and ‘Saved.’ My thought is if he truly no longer believes that, why in the world would he sing these songs?”

Yudelson, the Web chronicler of Dylan Judaica, cautions that Christian lyrics do not a disciple make.

“He ends up with evangelicals,” Yudelson said. “He ends up with Chabad. Then he ends up with a much more normal sense that the language of the old American songs speaks to him. The Yom Kippur davening [also] speaks to him, [and] he loves his frum grandchildren.”

“I don’t think Dylan is one for drawing a strong distinction between ‘you’re inside the camp or outside the camp,'” he added. “My sense is he has a much fuzzier feeling about finding God through the music, finding God through gospel music.”

Yudelson calls Dylan “a pre-denominational Jew with a vague sense of Yom Kippur, a vague sense of bar mitzvah.” There’s a sense of Jewishness, especially culturally, but also an overriding feeling that “you’re an American.”

That description fits the model of Judaism described by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen in “The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America” (2000, Indiana University Press): That all Jewish belief and practice are individual and personal. In other words, Judaism has become what each person thinks it is.

Dylan, then, is like many Jewish Americans: both assimilated and uniquely Jewish. His particular spiritual path has been so unendingly scrutinized because he became a musical icon. His narrative with all its twists — Jewish and otherwise — now stands as a seminal American life.

When it comes to religion, the more important consideration may be the Jewish measure of Jewishness, which focuses not on belief, but action. As a social critic, absorber and conveyor of culture and as a spiritual seeker, the former Bobby Zimmerman has embodied some of Judaism’s most important traits and values. n

Andrew Muchin is a freelance journalist based in Milwaukee. His article, “Rhythm & Blues, Blacks & Jews,” in Moment magazine won the 2004 Simon Rockower Jewish journalism award for arts writing.

Kabbalah and the Modern Shrink


“Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology” by Rabbi Abner Weiss (Bell Tower Books, $24).

It was Rabbi Abner Weiss, in psychologist mode, who “Jerry” went to see after his wife, “Sandy,” found him in bed with another woman. Although Jerry and Sandy seemed like the perfect couple, they lacked intimacy, and Jerry had developed a nasty habit of risky promiscuity. Sandy wanted a divorce.

Weiss’ diagnosis?

“Jerry suffered from grossly distorted chesed/gevurah [lovingkindness/power] balance…. Like his gevurah, his chesed had also been transformed by the … kelipot of the nefesh [evil shards of the animal soul].”

Although it is an atypical psychological assessment, Weiss insists that it is a curative one.

Since the early 1990s, Weiss, former rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation and current rabbi at the Westwood Village Synagogue, has been using kabbalistic tools in his psychology practice. Recently, he published “Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology,” a book that asserts the congruity of the two disciplines.

“The American Psychological Association started publishing serious books on the spiritual experience in the early 1990s, and part of this trend was to look at the mystical experience that psychologists called ‘transpersonal,'” Weiss said. “But all the new transpersonal psychologists used Buddhist or Hindu systems. I began to wonder why nobody had looked at Kabbalah. In Kabbalah, I found this full-fledged, psychological system, fully developed, but buried in Aramaic texts.”

Weiss found that by using the 10 Kabbalistic Sefirot (divine filters/vessels for divine energy) as behavioral tools, he was able to help many patients have breakthroughs, and find their way out of paralyzing and dysfunctional behaviors.

These sefirot are arranged in four groups in what is known as the etz ha chayim (tree of life), and they form a paradigm that encompasses not only the divine but human behavior and experience. Above all, there is keter (crown), which is the repository of Divine will, and below all, as a foundation, there is malchut, sovereignty or the Divine presence. Then comes chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and data (knowledge) — the cognitive component of sefirot. The next three — chesed, gevurah, and tiferet (splendor), are the emotive sefirot. Netzach (victory), hod (empathy) and yesod (foundation) are the interpersonal sefirot.

In his professional practice, Weiss “started with the thesis that you are born with your energy system in balance, but your influences growing up throw them out of balance,” he said. “I would use kabbalistic meditations, self forgiveness and forgiveness of others [to help people] become unstuck. It is only when you become unblocked, and when you can let go and reclaim your authenticity, that you can begin to grow personally and spiritually.”

In “Connecting to God,” Weiss delineates his interest in Kabbalah, explaining its evolution, and some central tenets of kabbalistic belief, such as the makeup of the soul, and how Kabbalah understands God as “being.” In his exegesis, he does not name or credit the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, but he does give de-facto kudos to those who have helped to popularize Kabbalah.

In his elucidation of the sefirot, he explains how different energy imbalances can produce destructive behavioral patterns. As exemplars, he uses real-life examples of the patients he has treated and their [kabbalistic] diagnoses and corrective therapies. He also clarifies how, once a person’s issues are resolved, Judaism and its mitzvot can be a tool for spiritual growth. The book is peppered with lengthy guided meditations. And for added assistance, an accompanying CD is available.

In several ways, the book is a personal one. Not only does Weiss give an account of the development of his interest in the subject, he also explains how these Kabbalistic tools helped him through a personal crisis — the discovery of long-buried family secrets about his father’s chicanery.

“As a prominent spiritual leader … [I] was terrified of being unmasked as an insecure, self-doubting individual, from a less than perfect family,” he writes.

In his own therapy, Weiss wrote a letter to his father, detailing his terrible failures as a parent. Since he did not know where his father was buried (he had disappeared before Weiss was born), Weiss read the letter to a picture he had of his father.

“The experience was cathartic. I wept as I read,” he writes. Weiss also “reparented his inner child,” by cuddling a pillow that he imagined was himself as a little boy.

“My tears began to flow as I acknowledged the boy’s pain, loneliness, and fears, and reassured him that I loved him,” he writes.

“It’s the idea of the wounded healer,” Weiss said. “I use my own recovery as a model for other people’s recovery.”

While the book is an exposition of ancient Jewish concepts, Weiss is careful to use current scientific literature and studies to bolster what he presents. The book does not shy from controversial ideas. In several places, Weiss promotes past-life regressions — that is, going under hypnosis to discover who you were in a previous life, as a tool for self-understanding.

On Oct. 9, at 5:45 p.m., Rabbi Abner Weiss will be speaking at the Academy for Jewish Religion/California, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 398-0820.