Family Feud — with my family, it’s no game

I would take my mom against Clint Eastwood in any movie. Sure, he usually plays a grizzled, gunslinger with cat-like reflexes and something to prove, but if you cross my
mother, you will find yourself, like the title of Clint’s greatest Western, “Unforgiven.”

Make no mistake; this isn’t a cute story about my “zany” Jewish mother and her unswerving ability to hold a grudge. Cute stories rarely involve relatives who suffocate themselves with plastic bags, but more about my Aunt Maurine’s untimely death in a minute.

No one really knows why my mother stopped talking to her sister. I think it was something about a china cabinet that once belonged to their mother. After my grandmother died, there was a duel over the mammoth piece of furniture. My mother got it (which I only know because I grew up with it in our dining room, our only piece of furniture not from a flea market). As anyone with even one screwed-up relationship in life knows, the squabble is never about the china cabinet, but about the heap of slights and injustices that could fill it. The cabinet just stores the resentments, puts them on display.

That cabinet was my grandmother’s favorite. So was my mother, so this isn’t a family feud syllogism that’s difficult to decode. Apparently, if your parents make it obvious that you’re the favorite, your siblings hate you, they unconsciously take out their feelings of rejection and hurt on you and you become spoiled and unpleasant. Put these feelings on simmer for about 30 years, and the flavors really intensify.

Here’s the thing. I’m just guessing and speculating about all of this. All I know for sure is that after a nine-year feud, during which my aunt and mother never once spoke, Aunt Maurine effectively ended the stalemate by killing herself about six years back.

I’ve never written about it before, nor did I give it much thought, until I got into my own feud with my mom two years ago and wondered who would get the last word — or leave the feud in a stretcher.

Back to my aunt and the resounding way she stuck it to my mom by offing herself.
I should mention here that I don’t mean to be cavalier about her death or her pain; but we’re Jews. That’s how we deal. Just the other day when I was sounding depressed on the phone with my dad he asked, voice filled with concern, “Are you eyeing your plastic bag collection?”

If we took every family tragedy seriously we’d be killing ourselves. I mean, in even greater numbers.

Aunt Maurine’s death didn’t seem like one of those “cry for help” suicides, because of the aforementioned plastic bag method, a technique she got from one of those “how-to-kill-yourself” books, which was found a few feet from her body.

She left a note, too, something about how her grown children didn’t love her (a feud may have been percolating there, too; feuds are big in my family). The suicide note contained no mention of my mother. My aunt had silenced herself yet still managed to get in the last word with one final snub. Score one: Maurine.

My mother went to Aunt Maurine’s funeral, but I don’t know if she regretted the feud.

Mom has about as much gray area in her personal relationships as the linoleum floor of a 1950s diner. The point is, like Clint Eastwood, she is not likely to be lukewarm on you. There are good guys and bad guys, and once you cross over, you are dead to her.

I lived in fear of saying no to her, displeasing her in some way as to flip the off switch on her loving me. Because she raised me alone and it was just the two of us, I was so close to her that the idea of her wishing me to her emotional cornfield rattled me to my core.

In essence, I should have spent my 20s wearing a yellow ribbon because I was a hostage; I did what she wanted, gritting my teeth every second of it, but complying nonetheless. I couldn’t lose her, but I also couldn’t stand her.

If she came to visit me, she stayed however long she wanted, we ate dinner when and where she wanted, she listened when she wanted (which wasn’t often), and I basically watered and manicured my grudge garden until it was overgrown and lush, and I was often petulant and bitter. She was the kind of mother, and lots of us have them, that demand we mother them. This so flies in the face of nature that you either become the codependent wife of an alcoholic or addict — continuing to mother people you shouldn’t — or you get very, very angry. Or you get yourself some therapy. I’ve done two out of three.

Here’s where I admit something. That part of me that loved “The Bell Jar” in junior high didn’t feel so bad about the incident with Aunt Maurine and the sinister feud preceding it. It added to my “crazy family” mystique. I didn’t choose to have a family chock full of the mentally ill, but once I realized there was no way of passing them off as normal, I decided to embrace it as part of my identity.

I had met my aunt only once at a family reunion when I was kid. I remember she had red hair, wore a crisp white pants suit, lived in Orange County, seemed like she couldn’t possibly be the sister of my hippie mother and generally seemed like a nice lady. I was 6; what did I know?

I certainly never predicted I would also have a blow-up with my mother leading to a long silent feud. Curiously enough, my feud also followed a funeral. Watch out for this; in my family, one of the stages of grief is creating a vendetta with someone living.

Here was our cabinet incident: Before my stepfather’s funeral two years ago, my mother insisted I speak at the ceremony.

51 Birch Street: House of Blocks . . . House of Cards?

We all know about “the generation gap.” The “mother-daughter bond.” Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” or any number of his plays for that matter. Our literature and our language are rife with expressions of the struggles inherent in that most primal bond Doug Block with his fatherbetween parents and children.

In his personal documentary, “51 Birch Street,” filmmaker Doug Block sets out to explore his relationship with his father. His mother has died, and Block wants to document the dismantling of the family home before it is sold. A “baby-boomer” who came of age in the “let it all hang out” ’60s, Block is taken aback when he learns that his parents’ 54-year marriage was not at all what it seemed. Wrestling with disturbing revelations, Block’s film questions how well any of us truly know the people we love, how well we might really want to know them, and perhaps most importantly, what right we have to know.

On the surface, the Block family is a typical, post-war, middle-class suburban Jewish family. Mike Block and Mina Vogel married shortly after World War II, had three children over the course of four years and moved from Brooklyn to a brand-new house in the suburbs to raise their family. They were among the founding families of a Reform congregation that became the center of their social lives. Their children — two girls and a boy — went to (or more accurately “suffered through,” as son Doug describes it) Hebrew school through confirmation. Mike worked long hours as a mechanical engineer while Mina stayed home to raise the children, working outside of the home only as the children grew up. Mike and Mina were “inseparable.”

Mina’s death was shocking not only in its swiftness, but for the maelstrom of unexpected revelations that followed. Three months after his wife’s death, Mike Block traveled to Florida, returning only to announce that he was moving there to live with Kitty, his secretary from 40 years earlier. They wed shortly thereafter. As if this wasn’t enough for the Block siblings to absorb, Mike and Kitty decided to sell the family home on Birch Street. It fell upon Doug and his sisters to help their father sort through the accumulated detritus of 50 years of family life.

Block, a documentary filmmaker by vocation (“Home Page” and “The Heck With Hollywood!”) and an inveterate home-movie-maker by avocation, always felt close to his mother; her death left him bereft. In contrast, he felt both very different than and distant from his father. He hoped to use his camera, as was his wont, to help him get to know his subject — in this case his father — better.

As we travel with Block through his arduous path of discovery, watching long-buried secrets of his parents’ unhappiness slowly come to light, we see his family struggle with their newfound knowledge. And we struggle alongside them, wrestling not only with our own fears about trust and intimacy, but with questions of privacy and disclosure.

These questions come to a head when Block uncovers volumes of personal diaries his mother had written over a three- year period. Pained as his father obviously is by seeing them, he nevertheless tells his son to “save them.” Block is both drawn to and fearful of reading them, and decides to consult an “expert” on the ethical issues involved.

He turns to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, a young rabbi with a warm smile and quick wit, who Block felt was “wise” beyond his years. Asking Blake if it’s “right” to read his mother’s diaries (the mention of which causes an amusing moment of eyebrow-raising by Blake on camera), Blake first answers in true Rabbinic fashion, with another question: “What does your heart tell you to do?” Yet after wrestling a bit with the dilemma, Blake tells Block that learning more about one’s parents can be valuable, if the knowledge is used for “a holy purpose.”

Thus encouraged, Block decided to forge ahead — at times ambivalent, at times stunned.

“From the outside, to us, we thought they were actually wonderfully compatible. They had similar interests, they traveled, they bickered a bit but never argued,” Block said in an interview.

But as his mother’s diaries revealed, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage.
Block searched for ways to reconcile his image of his parents’ “model marriage” with the emerging picture of discord, anger and infidelity.

Although the film contains no explicit explanation of how Block, a “cultural” but non-observant Jew, interpreted the rabbi’s words, Block said he believed the rabbi “meant if I’m using it to honor and celebrate my mother’s life … it’s a holy thing.”
Yet, during the process of making the film, it wasn’t always clear to Block that his work hewed to this “holy” purpose.

“There were many times I thought it was a holy mess! I thought, all I’m going to do is burn in hell,” he said. “My mother will come off looking horribly, and I’ll look even worse for doing this.” He said he spent “many sleepless nights feeling the weight of picking out the right phrases and words of all the volumes of writings, to honor her complexity, her intelligence, to show her as a rounded human being.”

“On one level,” Block said, his film “is a story of assimilation, of city Jews moving to the suburbs and trying to fit in,” the pressures of which were one source of his mother’s unhappiness. Block says it’s also “very Jewish” that his family “covers up a lot of stuff through sarcasm and humor.” And he believes that his film was a profound act of teshuvah, a concept he discussed with Los Angeles Rabbi Judith Halevy while filming. Creating a portrait of his parents’ lives, including their fallibility, was for Block an “act of coming to forgiveness, and somehow getting cleansed in the process.”

Yet “51 Birch Street” is also a universal tale. Ultimately the story is — like the complex lives it reveals to us — a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a truly sad story: of thwarted potential, of betrayal and of the defeat of good intentions. But it is also a story of redemption, of two men who manage to transcend the pain of their lives to forge new relationships: Mike Block with Kitty, and Doug Block with his father.

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.”

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.

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.

Movie’s Journey Mirrors Director’s

In 1993, actor Liev Schreiber stood at his grandfather’s bedside in the blue-collar, Lower East Side apartment where he had spent many happy hours during an otherwise turbulent childhood.

In his prime, Schreiber’s grandfather, Alex Milgram, had been a tough but cultured proletarian who drove a meat delivery truck, briefly served as a bodyguard for the Communist Party, played the cello and painted in oils. But the 87-year-old Ukranian Jew had become frail and shrunken, and Schreiber, then 26, could only watch helplessly as his grandfather succumbed to complications from lung cancer.

“I didn’t know how to begin to mourn him,” said the actor, who is now 37. “He had been the pivotal figure in my life.”

Schreiber considers his film directorial debut, “Everything Is Illuminated,” a tribute to Grandfather Milgram. The film is based on the acclaimed literary novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s also about a search for a Ukrainian grandfather and for meaning.

The lushly photographed film, like the book, is a kind of tragicomic, surreal nightmare that works its way to a devastating but ultimately transcendent denouement. The movie focuses on a fictional young American who is searching for his grandfather’s shtetl, as well as for the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The character collects family artifacts in Ziploc bags during madcap travels with a malaprop-prone tour guide, Alex; Alex’s anti-Semitic grandfather, and a schizoid dog by the name of Sammy Davis Junior, Junior.

“It’s really about a man who wants to learn about his family, which happened to be swept up in disastrous historical events,” Schreiber said. “He doesn’t deal with those events from a social or political perspective, but from an individual one. He represents a new generation’s processing of history in a distinctly personal way.”

Schreiber has traveled a similar road in coming to terms with his personal history, the loss of his grandfather and the mystery — the unspoken family history his grandfather embodied.

Milgram had been Schreiber’s primary male role model after his parents divorced when he was 4 and his father left during a bitter custody battle. The grandfather spent his life savings to ensure that Schreiber’s bohemian mother, Heather, received custody of young Liev.

Although poor, Milgram provided whatever financial assistance he could as the destitute mother and child moved into a series of squatters’ apartments on the Lower East Side, without electricity or running water. The boy was often left alone all day while she drove a cab; his grandfather helped by taking him to the circus and to baseball games, buying him clothes and introducing him to Judaism via seders at his home.

Yet Milgram wasn’t a talker; he declined to discuss his childhood in a Ukrainian shtetl or his teenage years in Lodz. Nor would he talk about why he immigrated to the United States in 1914 or about his relatives who died in the Holocaust.

After Milgram’s death, Schreiber felt tormented by unanswered questions.

“Because of the poverty and isolation of my childhood,” he said, “I had grown into a detached, neurotic adult, afraid of new relationships, and those feelings intensified after my grandfather died. But I knew I had felt deeply connected to him, and I intuited that exploring those feelings might be a good way to begin feeling connected to everyone else.”

He began by writing a screenplay about Milgram. He wasn’t satisfied with the result, however. That’s where things stood in 2001, when he chanced to read a pre-publication excerpt of Foer’s dizzyingly imaginative “Illuminated” in The New Yorker. Schreiber immediately felt a personal connection to the loosely autobiographical piece about a withdrawn young American seeking to understand his grandfather’s life.

“The protagonist felt like me: This odd, very introverted character who has become obsessed with his grandfather’s history,” Schreiber said.

The actor (“The Sum of All Fears,” “The Manchurian Candidate”) identified with the story so much that he invited then 24-year-old Foer for a drink to talk about movie rights.

“I really trusted [Liev] right away,” Foer said in an interview with studio publicists. “I had no idea of what he was going to do with the book, but I knew that he cared about it and whatever he did would be a reflection of that caring.”

After hours of schmoozing about their grandfathers and what it means to be Jewish, Foer gave Schreiber the go-ahead and handed him his agent’s number. Before long, the actor was adapting a book that went on to become one of 2002’s most hyped (and best-selling) novels. It was proclaimed the first 21st-century Jewish masterpiece by a reviewer for The Forward.

Although a first-time director, Schreiber wasn’t such an unusual choice for the perfectionistic, Princeton-educated Foer. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Schreiber is considered one of his generation’s finest Shakespearean actors, having performed acclaimed turns as Hamlet and Othello at New York’s Public Theater. During a recent interview from his home, not far from his grandfather’s old apartment, he mentioned that he was still wearing the sleazy mustache required for his role as a real estate shark in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for which he won a 2005 Tony Award.

Schreiber is an intense student of words as well as a speaker of them. During an interview, he peppered his speech with references to Russian literature and also to classical music, as he spoke quietly and seriously about his life and career.

His acting work also included conscious efforts to connect with his late grandfather, he said. He pursued the role of Marty Kantrowitz in 1999’s “A Walk on the Moon” because the character — a working-class Jew who sacrifices everything for his family — reminded him of Milgram.

The actor also portrayed a scrappy boxer in Peter Kassovitz’s Holocaust-themed “Jakob the Liar” because the movie was to be shot in Lodz, where Milgram had lived for a while.

“There for the first time I felt the presence of my grandfather’s relatives and realized what they had endured,” he said. The revelation was so traumatic that Schreiber suffered what he thinks may have been a psychosomatic breakdown: He developed bronchial pneumonia for the entire shoot, but recovered immediately upon returning to the United States.

He was more prepared to tackle scenes involving the Shoah with “Illuminated,” in part because he did not see the drama strictly as a Holocaust movie.

After all, Foer’s novel had begun as a family quest: His grandfather had died when he was a boy, but his relatives had refused to discuss his past in a shtetl called Trachimbrod. On a whim, around 2000, Foer again asked his mother for details. All she could provide was a photograph of his grandfather and the woman who had saved him from the Nazis. The author immediately bought tickets to Eastern Europe, but where Trachimbrod once stood, he found only an empty field.

“I would not have written a book had I had an experience that was as profound as the kind that I tried to write,” he told the Evening Standard.

The result was his postmodernist “Illuminated,” told through the fictional Alex’s letters to Foer’s alter ego (also named Jonathan Safran Foer), Alex’s written account of Jonathan’s journey and Jonathan’s novel in progress, a fanciful history of Trachimbrod.

After purchasing the movie rights, Schreiber — who took much of the dialogue directly from the book — transformed the sprawling, complex book into a trim road-trip movie, excising the elaborate historical passages to focus more on the relationship between Jonathan and Alex, and dramatically changing the finale.

The film is among several book adaptations (including Gary David Goldberg’s “Must Love Dogs,” based on Claire Cooke’s novel) that veer from the summer trend of sequels and re-workings of television shows.

During pre-production, Schreiber cast 24-year-old Elijah Wood (“The Lord of the Rings”) as the fictional Jonathan because he felt the actor’s expressive blue eyes could convey the character’s rich inner life.

“I loved the idea of playing a person who is coming into who and what he is,” Wood, who is undergoing a similar transition, told The Journal. “And I loved what the story ultimately became: this beautiful illumination for each character as they reached some sort of epiphany.”

Schreiber, too, experienced illumination during the 42-day shoot in Eastern Europe, although he did not ultimately find his grandfather’s shtetl. He cited a scene in which one character tells another that World War II is over.

“The war for me had been a metaphor for so many things: my inner turmoil and the mourning of my grandfather, for example,” he said. “But that scene taught me that, yes, the ‘war’ can be over, because we can contain our stories and the little things in our lives, like the pieces of Jonathan’s collection that remind him of the constant companionship of his family in his memory.”

While filming the sequence in which the fictional grandfather is buried, Schreiber felt as if he were finally laying Milgram to rest.

“Because I was not ready at the time to deal with his death, I felt that, in a way, I needed to experience it again,” he said. “The movie allowed me to do so.

“My ‘illumination’ was that my grandfather is such an integral part of who I am that I don’t need to mourn the loss of him, because he hasn’t really gone anywhere. He is inside of me.”

The movie opens Sept. 16 in Los Angeles.


Private Author’s Public ‘Memory’

“Omaha Blues: A Memory Loop” by Joseph Lelyveld (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22).

As a child, Joseph Lelyveld’s parents called him “memory boy.” He was the family’s institutional memory, paying attention and recalling with ease events and people — a useful skill for someone who would reach the top of his profession as a journalist.

Lelyveld, the former executive editor of The New York Times who spent almost 40 years at the newspaper, has written an unconventional and compelling book about his family, “Omaha Blues” (Farrar, Straus Giroux). He describes the work as a memory loop rather than a memoir, as he traces a particular circuit of connections, using his reporting skills to research family mysteries and events he seeks to better understand.

“History may be linear but memory, at least mine, isn’t; it runs in loops,” he writes.

The loop circles his heart. The book delves into personal history, which might seem surprising for someone who has a public reputation as a private man. As he told The Jewish Week in an interview in his Upper West Side home, he began this as a personal exploration, unsure whether he would show it to anyone.

In 1996, when his father was dying, a family friend led him to a trunk filled with family memorabilia stored in the basement of the Cleveland synagogue, where his father served as rabbi. He had the contents shipped to his country home, and it took years before he began sifting through it, but he finally found the seeds of this book. He began writing after he retired from The Times in 2001, some months later showed it to an agent and had a contract by the time he completed what he calls his little encore, his return to The Times in 2003.

Lelyveld is the son of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a prominent Reform leader, and Toby Lelyveld, who was less interested in the role of rabbi’s wife than in her own literary studies. His father was kind but largely absent, showing the same warmth to his family as he did to his congregants. His mother preferred independence to family life, and struggled. Their marriage ultimately dissolved. For the memory boy, childhood was neither easy nor happy, as he was often left with grandparents, and once with Seventh-Day Adventists on a Nebraska farm. Early on, he developed a sense of self-sufficiency.

The family lived in Omaha, Neb., where Rabbi Lelyveld led a congregation, before moving to New York, where he took on organizational rabbinic roles, including heading up the national Hillel organization. Although Omaha faded quickly from the author’s memory as a real place, it had symbolic meaning as somewhere he was from, rather than Manhattan. He would go on to have a career as a foreign correspondent, living and working in places that were briefly home, but where he didn’t altogether belong.

He doesn’t have many memories of carefree father/son moments, but this one stands out: The summer he was 16, he and his father were driving on the highway in a new, powder-blue convertible, wearing only sunglasses above their waists, taking in the sun. When they were stopped by a state trooper for speeding, the officer noticed his father’s clerical title on his driver’s license and let them go, saying something about his being “a man of the cloth,” without commenting on how little cloth was visible.

Lelyveld also focuses on a family friend and rabbi named Ben, who gave him the devoted attention he didn’t get from his parents. Before working with Rabbi Lelyveld in New York, Ben was driven from his Montgomery, Ala., congregation for his outspoken support of the Scottsboro Boys, and he was eventually fired by Rabbi Lelyveld for his communist affiliations. Through tracking down family members, combing FBI files and other archives, Lelyveld frames Ben’s biography, weaving his friend’s story into his own.

In an endnote, he tells of how his father, as a Zionist official, would call on the publisher of The Times to advocate for the Zionist cause. He notes the irony that a half-century later “representatives of Jewish groups who wanted to talk about the paper’s coverage were usually steered to his son.”

In conversation, he mentions a visit by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein: The rabbi asked if he was Arthur Lelyveld’s son, and the editor asked the rabbi if he was Joseph Lookstein’s son. Lelyveld recalls that the senior Rabbi Lookstein, who served on his father’s Hillel Board, was at his bar mitzvah at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

But readers won’t hear about that bar mitzvah in this book. It’s not amnesia but a disinterest in certain coming-of-age details — usually found in memoirs — that makes the author selective in reporting.

Lelyveld, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, “Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White” (Viking, 1986), recognizes that memory is neither truth nor history, but a kind of storyteller. He carefully shapes the narrative, in language that’s precise and poetic, powerful, too. When he might sound whining, he catches himself, grateful for his gifts: He moved from a downcast family life into a strong and joyful marriage and to an illustrious career.

In person, he’s articulate, manages to be both confident and modest, sometimes funny, like the voice of the book. Like his father, he has a firmness of purpose.

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.


‘Down’ on the Valley

“I still feel uncomfortable going back to the Valley,” 43-year-old filmmaker David Jacobson said. “To this day, I associate it with my childhood sense of feeling lost and lonely in a stark landscape. When I begin going over the 405, my spirits just start to drop.”

Jacobson’s acclaimed new film, “Down in the Valley” — which opens the Los Angeles Film Festival June 16 — draws on his memories of desolation without and within. His parents divorced when he was 2; his older brother died in a car accident when he was 13; and the introverted boy suffered nightmares and fear of the dark upon moving into a Van Nuys tract home next to the 101. “The freeway, which we heard day and night, was an ominous presence, a violent place where hurtling steel rushed past you like bullets,” he said. “We played in empty, weedy lots.”

Jacobson’s isolation was exacerbated because he discerned no historical or cultural continuity with which to connect. Since his family was secular, he said, he had no Jewish education to help him feel part of a community and guide him through rites of passage. His bar mitzvah, in a sense, was moving in with his father after his brother’s death.

His memories led him to create “Down in the Valley,” starring Edward Norton as a delusional man who claims to be a cowboy with a mysterious past. Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Norton) drifts from the Tujunga Wash to a Chasidic neighborhood as he pursues a dangerous friendship with two latchkey kids who regard him as a hero. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a rebellious teenager, and 11-year-old Lonnie (Rory Culkin), who suffers a crippling fear of the dark, also wander aimlessly through vacant lots, strip malls, freeway overpasses and fast-food joints.

Like the director’s previous films, “Criminal” (1994) and “Dahmer” (2002), “Valley,” in part, is a disquieting portrait of a man unable to function within normal society. So it’s jarring to meet the bespectacled director, who seems more like a nice Jewish boy than the creator of distressing, if lauded dramas. He is mild-mannered and friendly, despite spending 16-hour days trimming “Valley” after Cannes reviewers called it “breathtaking” but overlong. (Variety called him a “prodigiously talented” filmmaker.) Without a trace of bitterness, he said his work places him on the margins of American independent cinema, which veers more toward the quirky than the profoundly disturbing.

It was while braving multiple rejections for his understated serial killer film, “Dahmer,” around 1999 that he started writing his latest film in France — one of the many places he has lived to escape the Valley. He currently lives in Hollywood.

Since he had identified with the isolation of Dahmer’s youth (but not with his perversities), he decided to “return to the personal in an even more direct way, by exploring my childhood,” he said.

Jacobson wrote much of “Valley’s” first draft in an 18th century rococo library in Paris: “Had I been in Los Angeles, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to deal with it, so having all that physical and emotional distance helped,” he said.

While writing, Jacobson attended a series of classic Western films, and the myths and images flowed into his story. “I wanted to depict the parallels between the bleak vistas and lifestyles portrayed in the Westerns and the modest West where I lived,” he said. “Growing up in the Valley, there was this sense of solitude, the constant fear of attack and the need of a hero to save me.”

To capture flat Valley spaces that retain old West emptiness, Jacobson decided to shoot the movie in anamorphic widescreen. But while scouting locations, he discovered the kind of childhood scenarios he remembered had moved to the North Valley. In Arleta, he found the tract home with cinderblock and overgrown palm trees that served as the children’s house. Harlan, for a time, inhabits rural Sunland, where bucolic ranches also harbor “abandoned junky cars, power lines and trailers — a weird netherland that’s both urban and rural,” he said.

While scrolling through the images in a dim Los Angeles editing room, Jacobson said the story eventually became less about the Valley than children left alone to complete rites of passage. “When they are left to their own devices, it doesn’t usually have the best ending,” he said.

The 263 movies in the Los Angeles Film Festival, June 16-26, of which The Jewish Journal is a promotional affiliate, include three Israeli films focusing on women’s issues: Raphael Nadjari’s “Avanim” depicts a young wife’s resistance to a claustrophobic, male-dominated culture; Eran Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride” tells of an Israeli Druze who cannot return to her village once she crosses the border to marry her Syrian fiance; and Anat Zuria’s documentary, “Sentenced to Marriage,” traces three Orthodox wives’ battles to divorce abusive husbands. For tickets and information, call (866) 345-6337 or visit


Local Writers Recall Times of Tyranny


In a tale rooted in personal experience, Dr. John Menkes explores the themes of loss and recovery in his novel “After the Tempest” (Daniel & Daniel, 2003). A Holocaust survivor, Menkes returned to his hometown of Vienna after the war and found that not only was his family and his home gone, but his very identity had been irrevocably lost.

Now an internationally recognized pediatric neurologist based in Los Angeles — as well as a published author and playwright — Menkes alternates between past and present to tell the story of childhood best friends in pre-war Vienna: Judith Berger, a Jew, and Anton Kermauner, a non-Jew. As the forces of Nazism take hold, the pair are separated. Judith’s parents send her to Ireland, while they stay behind and eventually perish. Anton joins the Hitler Youth. But neither Judith, who ends up in the United States, nor Anton, who is eventually stationed at Auschwitz, forget one another.

After the war, Judith returns to Vienna hoping to resume her life and find Anton. Her experience unfolds in an emotionally charged narrative that explores how its characters deal with memory, blame, guilt and forgiveness.

While these next two tales of peril, escape, capture and ultimate redemption might sound like the stuff of fiction, two Los Angeles women have written about experiences that were altogether real: life under national socialism and communism.

In “I Held the Sun in My Hands” (Authorhouse, 2004), Erika Jacoby recounts her odyssey from idyllic childhood in Hungary to the horrors of Auschwitz to the circuitous path that brought her to Los Angeles. Jacoby, who lost her grandparents and many other relatives in Auschwitz, managed to remain with her mother and aunt first in Auschwitz and then in numerous slave labor camps.

Jacoby’s straightforward narrative is a quick and compelling read. A clinical social worker, she examines her experience through a professional lens, realizing that she gained purpose from acting as her mother’s protector.

“I knew in the camps that I would not give up and become a Musulman, one who lost all will to live, because I had to stay alive for my mother…. I couldn’t let her lose another child,” she writes.

Jacoby devotes about half the book to what happened after liberation — first scrounging for food and eluding menacing Soviet soldiers; then returning to her native Hungary where she joined a Zionist youth organization and met her husband, Emil. She lived in the United States as a fugitive and then under threat of deportation before finally gaining legal citizenship.

In 1953, Jacoby and her husband moved to California, where Emil spent the next 23 years as Hebrew school principal at what is now Adat Ari El. (He later became director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, and continues to work there as a consultant.) Erika became a social worker, bringing compassion and understanding to others who had experienced similar horrors.

Born just six days before Hitler invaded Hungary, Susanne Reyto was too young to recall the Nazi era. Yet she, too, has stories of imprisonment, separation of families and life under a ruthless regime: communism.

“Most people believe suffering in Europe ended [after World War II],” she writes. “However, it is the farthest thing from reality.”

Reyto, a Beverly Hills resident, retired travel agent and member of the governing cabinet of Hadassah Southern California, penned her memoir after being invited to speak to her grandson’s eighth-grade class about this time in history. Interweaving her childhood memories with the recollections of her mother, Reyto’s “Pursuit of Freedom: A True Story of the Enduring Power of Hope and Dreams” (Jet Publishing, 2004) chronicles the family’s arduous journey from communist Hungary to freedom in America.

The book recounts her parents’ experience during the Holocaust, and how their happiness after Hungary’s liberation soon turned to dread as they witnessed the rise of state-controlled domination. In December 1949, her family attempted to flee the country, but were caught and imprisoned. Five-year-old Susanne was separated from her parents for months. The family’s assets were seized and, as known “troublemakers,” they were among the first families to be deported from Budapest and sent to a communist internment camp.

Reyto’s story is laced with gratitude — for the kindness of friends and strangers who helped her family along its journey, and for the freedoms she found in the United States. At the same time, she asserts that we must be ever vigilant against future threats to liberty.

“In this time of terrorism and religious tyranny,” she says, “it is our obligation to learn from the past to better prepare ourselves for the future.”


Playwright’s Alter Ego Returns Home

For Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, “Brooklyn Boy” represents both a return and a departure.

Like several of his early plays, the drama explores obsessions culled from his Brooklyn boyhood: “The legacies parents instill in their children, the continuity of wounding that occurs from generation to generation, the relationship between fathers and sons in particular,” the 49-year-old author said.

“But while my previous Brooklyn plays have involved the coming of age of various Marguliesian figures, I’ve never really let myself be a man in Brooklyn,” he continued. “This is the first time I’ve placed a middle-aged alter ego on that turf.”

“Boy” revolves around 40ish novelist Eric Weiss, who returns home — actually to the hospital where he was born — to visit his dying father, Manny, a shoe salesman. It’s his first trip back in a while, and he’s ambivalent: “I saw what Brooklyn did to my parents, and I knew I had to get the hell out of here,” he tells a friend. “I saw … the fear, the xenophobia, the suffocating double grip the Holocaust and the Depression had around their throats.”

Yet Eric has just had his first literary success with a semiautobiographical novel.

“So he’s at a juncture where he’s realizing that Brooklyn isn’t just a place he has to keep himself in exile from,” actor Adam Arkin (Eric) said. “He’s coming to see that whatever he has to offer as an artist is going to have to embrace who and what he was there. And what he had regarded as a kind of purgatory now can be a kind of key to his being whole.”

It appears that Margulies made a parallel journey. Before a recent rehearsal at South Coast Repertory, he described growing up surrounded by Holocaust survivors who “instilled in me a kind of fatalism and morbid fascination for recent Jewish history.” His American-born father, meanwhile, was an overworked wallpaper salesman, “physically affectionate but prone to mysterious silences,” who lived in fear of losing a job he loathed.

These twin shadows of the Holocaust and the Depression “instilled certain fears in me, legacies I had to shake,” Margulies said.

The playwright did so, in part, through his work. “The Model Apartment” (1984) is a kind of “Frankenstein” story in which Holocaust survivors have created a monster in their schizophrenic daughter; “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” (1985) features an artsy kid named Artie who spars with his father; “The Loman Family Picnic” (1988) tells of a downtrodden salesman whose son is writing a musical comedy version of “Death of a Salesman.”Margulies’ intensely personal (but not strictly autobiographical) work places him in a unique niche.

“[He] does not have the master work plan of an August Wilson … or the political urgencies of a Paula Vogel or Tony Kushner to shape and drive his work from play to play,” said Jerry Patch, dramaturg of South Coast Repertory. “Instead, his theatrical output, now more than a dozen plays, six of which have enjoyed prominent lives on American stages, has come from assessing his own changing vision of himself and the world in which he lives.”

So it makes sense that Margulies eventually left Brooklyn — and tales of restless, artist sons — to explore midlife concerns. “Sight Unseen” (1991) describes a painter, catapulted to superfame, who struggles with his identity as an artist and a Jew. The Pulitzer-winning “Dinner With Friends”(1999) was inspired by Margulies’ observations of “a succession of domestic catastrophes” in his circle

“Brooklyn Boy” began with another observation several years ago.

“My wife and so many of our contemporaries were dealing with failing and dying parents,” he said. Since Margulies’ own parents had died by the time he was 32, inventing the fictional Manny was “an opportunity to create a fantasy of what an aged version of my father might have been like.”

The character also “embodies so many of the generation who are now failing and dying; very often first-generation American Jews who were battered by the war and the Depression; who married and did all the traditional things and are now at the end of their lives with their generally overpsychoanalyzed children.”

It was the late playwright Herb Gardner (“Conversations With My Father”) who persuaded Margulies to set the piece back home: “I’d steadfastly steered clear of Brooklyn for a time in my work, because I feared I’d tread familiar ground,” he said. “But Herb convinced me it was an exciting prospect to revisit Brooklyn at this stage of my life, not as a boy but as a man.”

Perhaps the play is Margulies’ way of acknowledging Brooklyn as a source of creativity, as well as shadows.”‘Brooklyn Boy’ feels to me like the work of a more mature writer, so I’m glad I made the trip,” he said.

The play runs Sept. 10-Oct. 10 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa (previews are Sept. 3-9); for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit Margulies will speak Sept. 9 as part of Chapman University’s Visiting Writers Series at Kennedy Hall. For more information, call (714) 997-6750.

Death Doesn’t End ‘Morrie’ Phenomenon

“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” So says Morrie Schwartz in the signature line from Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie,” the best-seller about how workaholic Albom learned life lessons from his dying former Brandeis University professor.

Death apparently has not ended the Morrie phenomenon, either. Since the Jewish Schwartz succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1995, Albom’s book has spent seven years on the New York Times best-seller list and has been reborn as a TV movie and a play, to have its West Coast premiere at The Laguna Playhouse Sept. 11.Like the 192-page book, the play is based on Albom’s weekly visits to the colorful Schwartz during the final months of his life in late 1995. The Jewish sportswriter had reconnected with his favorite sociology professor after seeing Schwartz impart aphorisms on “Nightline.”

For 14 Tuesdays, teacher and student met for what both called “a final thesis,” which Albom ultimately wrote up as a book to help pay Schwartz’s medical bills.

Although he was more reluctant to turn “Morrie” into a stage production, he “grew intrigued by the theatrical legacy a play might create,” according to the New York Daily News. The challenge was to transform the book into a two-character piece with dramatic conflict — including the journalist’s change from Type A dynamo to a more smell-the-roses kind of guy.

While the play (co-written with Jeffrey Hatcher) opened to some mixed reviews off-Broadway in 2002, critics also noted viewers’ intense emotional response to Schwartz and his homiles (sample: when he tells Albom, in Yiddish, “Don’t hide your light under a bushel.”

So it’s likely that Morrie’s light will continue to shine, when the play has its first preview in Orange County this month — appropriately, on a Tuesday.

Previews are Sept. 7-10; the play runs Sept. 11-Oct. 10. For tickets and information, call (949) 497-2787, ext. 1. –NP

Disgraced Author Seeks Faith

I was fired in 1998 from my job as a writer at The New Republic and dismissed from several freelance assignments for having fabricated dozens of magazine articles. I deeply regret my misconduct, and the pain it caused. — Author’s note from Stephen Glass’ "The Fabulist."

When disgraced journalist Stephen Glass saw "Shattered Glass" last month, he felt he was viewing "a personal horror film." "It was [like] watching very good actors play out the very worst moments of my life," he said from his Manhattan home. "And like a horror film, I couldn’t watch whole chunks of the movie; I’d stare at the ground."

While the drama "gets things right in very many ways," Glass said, it neglects to describe why he fabricated: his desperate need for approval.

"I would invent a story or invent an aspect of a story … and then I would see that people liked my story and I would confuse that with their liking me," he said.

He explored these motivations in therapy and in his 2003 novel, "The Fabulist" (Simon & Schuster, $24), about a fabricating reporter — also named Stephen Glass — who braves national scorn. Like the real Glass, the fictional one retreats into a world that includes just his parents, his brother and girlfriend.

One place the real Glass found comfort was the Jewish community; several months after his disgrace, he anxiously ventured to High Holiday services at his childhood Conservative synagogue. "People knew all about the horrible sins that I had done, and here I was and what would they think of me?" he said. "[But] no one said a negative word."

Glass said he began reading Torah commentary and met with rabbis who described how a transgressor can rebuild his life. In "The Fabulist," the main character also seeks solace from a rabbi and reconnects with his religion. But observers such as Charles Lane, Glass’ former editor, believe the novel isn’t so apologetic.

"The book, in its very unflattering portrayals of everyone who … was not in Steve’s corner when this all happened, is very much in contrast with his protestatations of remorse," Lane said.

Glass, now a law school graduate, describes the criticism as "a refusal to engage the book as a work of fiction." He points out that the narrator is the worst transgressor in the book. Now "Shattered Glass" has recorded his own wrongdoings on film.

"But I hope there will someday be a time when I’ve done enough other good stuff with my life that it’ll be seen as a more complicated life," he said.

Reeve Superhero to Israeli Terror Victims

On this hot Tuesday morning in central Israel, Elad Wassa sits in his wheelchair, his dark eyes bright with anticipation. One year ago, Wassa, a Falasha (Ethiopian Jew), was working at a vegetable stand in a Netanya market when a bomb exploded as he was bending down to pick up some potatoes, paralyzing him from the chest down.

Today, Wassa, 25, is at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, practicing his speech for actor and activist Christopher Reeve, who visited Israel from July 28 to Aug. 1.

Wassa was instrumental in bringing Reeve to Israel. Last year, Wassa’s family was “adopted” by Rick Fishbein at Stephen S. Wise Temple, through Israel Emergency Solidarity Fund-One Family, which matches up families of terror victims with supportive communities in the Diaspora. Fishbein helped get a letter to Reeve, founder of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

Smiling buoyantly, Wassa wheels his chair next to Reeve’s and covers Reeve’s hand with his own as he makes his speech.

“Welcome to Israel,” Wassa stammers to Reeve. “You are my hero.”

The actor best known for his Superman role is a real-life hero to many people here in Israel, especially since the Al Aksa Intifada attacks have injured and paralyzed thousands of Israelis. For many Israelis, Reeve represents hope for the future, both emotionally, through his very public determination to walk again, and practically, through the millions of dollars he has raised for scientific research to find a cure for paralysis.

Reeve is one of the only celebrities to visit Israel since the intifada began. Most of the big names in Hollywood — including many famous Jews — have stayed conspicuously silent on the issue of Israel, and few have expressed solidarity with or visited the country. Other celebrities, like Jerry Seinfeld and Elton John, pulled out of planned Israel trips at the last minute.

“Mr. Reeve is an inspirational figure who has a unique story to tell Israel and the world,” said Yuval Rotem, Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, who invited Reeve to visit Israel and convinced the foreign ministry in Jerusalem to follow through.

“From our perspective, it is important to show that beyond the daily headlines, Israel is a country of remarkable scientific and medical advances that benefit all mankind,” Rotem said. (Reeve’s trip was sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, as well as the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, private donors Haim Saban of Saban Capital Group, Arnon Milchen of New Regency and Danny Dimbort and Avi Lerner of New Image.)

“Israel is a warm, welcoming, friendly and surprisingly relaxed country,” Reeve told The Journal. “The images you see in the press tend to be about some of the worst things that happen in the country, but what you don’t see is the wonderful color and normalcy of daily life. Certainly, one needs to be thoughtful and take certain precautions, but I feel very welcome and comfortable here.”

Reeve said that one of reasons he came to Israel was to meet Wassa.

“I get letters from all over the world, asking for my advice and personal involvement,” Reeve says in a voice that fades slightly after every few words. “Elad’s story was particularly moving to me because he is a young man and victim of random violence in a country that has seen so much violence.”

“His story touched me, particularly because he is so young, and this kind of severe illness is particularly devastating to young people,” Reeve continues. “It is easier for a young person to be depressed and to want to give up, but Elad did neither of those things. Instead, he took action.”

Reeve was older — 43 — when he became a paraplegic eight years ago, thrown from a horse during in an equestrian event. After his accident, Reeve had only 12 percent sensory ability in his body. Since then, he vigorously set about rehabilitating himself, using aquatic therapy and special bikes that stimulate his nerves with electrodes, which enabled his body to begin making its recovery.

According to some news reports, Reeve spends more than $400,000 a year on his supportive care. Now he has 70 percent sensory ability in his body. Considering that doctors told him he would stay at 12 percent for the rest of his life, his progress is remarkable.

Reeve’s paralysis and activism have helped millions of people around the world with spinal cord injuries. He brought a human — and very famous — face to paralysis. He used his fame to raise more than $45 million to fund researchers all over the globe to find cures and therapies for paralysis. Since 1999, his foundation has awarded more than $2.4 million to nonprofit organizations that help those with spinal cord injuries. He also lobbied the federal government to double financial funding to the National Institutes of Health (from $12 billion in 1998 to $25 billion in 2002); he testified before Senate Appropriations Committees in favor of federally funded stem cell research; got New York to allocate $8.5 million to spinal cord injury research, and he worked with Sens. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va) to raise lifetime caps on insurance policies from $1 million to $10 million.

During his five-day visit to Israel, Reeve met with scientists and doctors at the forefront of Israeli stem cell research. He also toured the country, met with injured Israelis like Wassa, and was scheduled to meet with government officials. As part of The Federation portion of his visit, Reeve attended a “Profiles in Courage” dinner, where met with people who survived terror attacks, and also participated in a workshop for young filmmakers from the Los Angeles Tel Aviv Master Class.

At the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department lab, two paraplegics, Tzafrir Chaklai and Asher Machmid, demonstrate to Reeve their progress, resulting from their trials of Proneuron, a company founded by Weizmann scientist Dr. Michal Schwartz.

Schwartz is one of Reeve’s heroes, says the actor’s 23-year-old son, Matthew Reeve, who is shooting a documentary about the visit. “He definitely cites her a lot and he is really enthusiastic about what is going on over here,” the younger Reeve says.

“I met Christopher as someone who was desperate for a therapy,” Schwartz says. “He had looked all over the world. He was interested in visiting Israel because he wanted to see my research not from a distance, and to learn more about what we are doing. The fact that he is here shows the world that there is more to Israel than just intifada or terrorism.”

Reeve met Schwartz when he was first injured, and he heard about her research in using the body’s own immune system to create cells that can be recruited to heal debilitating central nervous system disorders.

“Michal Schwartz came to my house outside New York and told me about a theory that certain cells in the body — macrophages — make an environment for healing and could be used to clean the area damaged right after a spinal chord injury to create an atmosphere for regeneration and recovery,” Reeve says. “A lot of people thought it was a crazy idea, but a lot of the great ideas that succeeded over time were considered to be crazy. I have tracked her progress over the years and her success is exemplary.”

The “crazy idea” produced dramatic results.

Moving slowly and deliberately, Machmid stands up, something he learned to do after the trials. Chaklai told Reeve that after the trial Machmid could move his toe and regained sensation in his leg.

At Tel Hashomer, a large Tel Aviv hospital, dozens of injured and paralyzed people enter the reception room one by one, until the room is full of wheelchairs jostling for space to catch a glimpse of Reeve.

In the front sits Idon Cohen, who went from being a 19-year-old soldier to a double amputee when a bomb exploded near his legs, leaving him with the stumps that now extend only a few inches from the seat of his wheelchair. Next to him sits Yitzchak Hamoy, a middle-aged man from B’nai B’rak who has not walked since he was injured in a tractor accident that gave him the long red scars that run up the length of his left leg. Others in the room display serious levels of spasticity; some struggle to keep their bodies upright in the chairs, others are wheeled in on beds, since they could only lie prone.

Everyone is excited to meet Reeve.

“Superman’s coming. It gives me hope to see someone like that,” Cohen says.

“I think Reeve is a very interesting man,” Hamoy says. “I heard about his accident, and I would like to see him. Maybe I can talk to him and ask him something about how he continues with his paralysis.”

Reeve enters the room accompanied by a gaggle of security personnel and minders, and the patients start asking him questions. Mostly, they want him to help them get better; to know about different treatments and different hospitals. Reeve answers the questions diplomatically. He doesn’t recommend one treatment over another, because his foundation funds many different treatments, but he is outspoken in his praise for Israeli research.

“Israel is one of the leading countries in the world that is most progressive and the most compassionate about people like us,” he tells the crowd.

He also speaks to the crowd about their injuries.

“My level of injury is higher than yours,”

he says to one girl who was in a wheelchair, but could move her arms, who asked about a

certain hospital. “I am a C2 [mid-level motor skills]. I was told that I would never move below my shoulder — and that was in 1995 — but I began to exercise, using electrical stimulation and I began to get back my motor and sensory abilities. No doctor can tell you what the future will be, because no one knows.”

“I would say that it is hard to become motivated, and it is hard to believe in the future, but it is something that I have believed ever since my injury,” Reeve says.

“Now, let me see if I can get this right: hacol efshari — everything is possible.”

To learn more about the Christopher Reeve Paralysis
Foundation, visit For more information on the Weizmann
Institute, visit .

Tom Tugend contributed to this report.

Mazel Tov?

Step aside, gentlemen. You will have no interest in this
column, I guarantee it.

Okay, girls. It’s about the wedding pages. Come on, admit it, how many of you turn to those pages in the Styles
section of The New York Times every Sunday morning? No matter what else is
going on in the world — and these days, Lord knows, there is plenty — it is the
first section I turn to every week. Even the most well-educated, sophisticated
and accomplished women I know — friends and professional colleagues — read
these pages religiously. Together, we can dish about some of the couples,
particularly those portrayed in the Vows feature, as if we knew them ourselves
and had just attended the wedding. “Can you believe she met him at a bar?”
“What was she thinking when she picked out that hideous dress?” “They got
married on a ski slope?” To quote the mother of one of the men featured in the
first gay commitment announcement, “Oy vey!”

A former colleague of mine referred to the wedding pages as
the “women’s sports pages.” The difference being, of course, that on the
wedding pages, everybody is a winner.

The pages are such a draw for women, and perhaps
particularly for Jewish women, that one of the ads that appears fairly
regularly on the main wedding page reads as follows: “WOMEN [in large, bold
print]. Are you feeling overwhelmed, underappreciated and unfulfilled? Is your
personal relationship less than you would like it to be?” And so on. “If the
answer is yes to any one of these questions, then the ‘Kabbalah for Women’
course at the Kabbalah Centre of New York is for you!” Clearly, stressed out,
neurotic and mystically challenged women constitute the wedding pages’ target

In an effort at full disclosure, I will admit that I placed
my own wedding announcement in The Times. But I got married at a time when The
Times’ wedding announcements were a much more low-key affair. There was no
Styles section, nor a designated spot where you could find the announcements
each week. I got married on Thanksgiving, which of course was a Thursday, and
so my announcement ran the next day, in an obscure part of the Metro section
where no one except me and my parents could find it. Why’d I do it? What can I
say? I’m a journalist; I’ve always wanted to make it into The New York Times.

But there’s no way I’d make the cut today. First of all, I
don’t have a glamorous enough picture, nor the right kind of pedigree to go
with it. And besides, I met my husband on a blind date. What kind of a story
would that make?

So what is it exactly that attracts me to these
announcements? It’s not as if I actually know any of these people, although
once in a while I’ll recognize the name of a former colleague or classmate.
Most of the time, the people on the pages are so ridiculously wealthy or overly
educated or their ancestors came over on the Mayflower, that there’s no way I
would ever cross paths with any of them.

Sure, there’s the element of sheer voyeurism. It’s a glimpse
into the lives of the rich and not-so-famous at one of their happiest moments.
It’s also like reading a series of romantic 19th-century novels in miniature —
as in Jane Austen, where the entire point of a woman’s existence was to get
married — and to marry well — and where everything always ends up happily ever
after. Or so it would seem. At least Austen had a sense of irony.

As I get older, I find myself reading the wedding pages much
the way my mother does. I look for the Jews. Yes, my eye goes straight to the
Jewish names in the headlines. Then I look to see if it’s two Jews marrying
each other. Then I look to see if a rabbi is officiating. I quietly bemoan
every mixed marriage, and every ceremony that a priest conducts with a rabbi
“participating” — or vice versa. Every week I get a thumbnail version of the
unbridled assimilation of American Jewry, especially among the upper echelons
of society, and it is sobering.

So with all the allure and sociological information that can
be gleaned from the wedding pages, why is it a universally acknowledged truth
that only women read them? Too much romance? Not enough competition? My husband
has a different theory. Men avoid these pages for the precise reason that women
read them. “It reminds us of our own wedding day,” said my husband, in one of
his more endearing moments.

So, my fellow females, keep enjoying the wedding pages, and
all the other narrishkayt (nonsense), that fills the Styles section. In a time
of impending war, a lousy economy and the constant threat of terrorism, what’s
wrong with a little escapism? So let’s break a glass, drink a l’chaim and let’s
pray for a time when who’s marrying whom really is all we have to worry about.  

Rifka Rosenwein is a writer based in Teaneck, N.J,. and a regular columnist for the New York Jewish Week.

A Chanukah in the ‘People’s House’

The invitation to the White House was completely unexpected. It arrived in a caligraphied envelope, with a Chanukah stamp in the corner and a menorah showing through.

A Chanukah card, I thought, but I was wrong. There was a gold presidential seal at the top of the card and a few lines of black engraving: "President and Mrs. Bush request the pleasure of your company at a Hanukah reception to be held at the White House. Six o’clock. Wednesday, December 6. East Entrance."

Not bad from a man whom most of my friends thought I was crazy to vote for, because he was a member of the "religious right." (Then again, as it turns out, so am I.)

My wife and I spent most of the day speculating as to what the event would be like. How long would it last? Would President Bush’s involvement be perfunctory or meaningful?

After all, the most powerful man in the world has better things to do than stand around and eat latkes all night. I have learned that if you don’t expect too much in life, you will never be disappointed.

We arrived at the White House gate a little early and were immediately admitted (this president is noted for his punctuality). We walked down a grand hallway.

Coming around the next corner we heard a high school choir singing Chanukah songs next to a large, illuminated antique menorah that came from Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.

Moving up the stairs, we found ourselves literally in the center of the White House, in a grand foyer. The walls were adorned with portraits of past presidents; a military orchestra was playing festive music, and already 100-200 guests were milling about in their finest party clothes.

To the right, was a grand hall that turned out to be the State Dining Room. This was where the kosher table was set up — a full bar (the wine was Hagafen) and an assortment of food. The mirror image room to the left was the East Room, which contained the nonkosher — though not overtly treif — spread of food.

By this time, a fairly lengthy receiving line was already forming in the East Room, as people waited for a chance to meet the president and first lady. We recognized and chatted with several other Los Angeles residents, including several prominent rabbis of all denominations: Marvin Hier, Abraham Cooper, Steven Weil and Mark Diamond.

When our turn finally came, one of the military ushers formally announced our name and escorted us to the president and first lady. We exchanged cheek kisses between the mutual spouses and chatted for a minute or two both before and after our photo was taken.

We spoke briefly about our children, and if the president didn’t actually remember them ("you have a beautiful family, if I recall"), then he certainly pretended to very well. We thanked both the president and first lady for all they were doing for us and for having us to their house.

"This is the people’s house," the president replied.

Following this exchange, we had dinner and visited with some of the guests and luminaries in attendance. Ben Stein was there, as were Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) and Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council. We also had a chance to speak at length with Josh Bolton, deputy White House chief of staff (Jewish), and briefly with Andrew Card, White House chief of staff (not Jewish).

At around 8:30 p.m., after the Bushes finished receiving their guests, they emerged one last time, personally thanked orchestra members, waved a final goodbye to the crowd and ascended the stairs to the private residence. Remarkable, I thought, for a man who reportedly rises every day at 5 a.m.

What came to mind was the Passover refrain Dayenu, it would have been enough. It would have been enough if we had just received the engraved invitation; it would have been enough if several hundred Jews had just taken over the White House for a Chanukah party that night; it would have been enough if they had set up a nonkosher table in the East Room and a kosher table in the State Dining Room.

It would have been enough if the president had just lit the menorah in the private residence with a few friends in attendance (notably, he is the first president ever to have done this — last year); it would have been enough if the president had just come down and mingled a bit, made a speech and then gone upstairs to relax.

But no, instead, the most powerful man on the planet spent well over two and one-half hours standing on his feet and greeting each and every guest personally.

So my friends, when you count your blessings this Chanukah season take heart in two things: Not only do we Jews have a great friend in the White House, but we have a real mensch there as well.

Dr. Joel Geiderman is co-chair of the emergency medicine department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a presidential appointee to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council.

The Big Fake Guy

Bruce. Bruce Goldman.

On my machine, he sounded like a cross between Super Fly and Tony the Tiger. Infusing “This is B.G.” and “What’s the d-low?” with a closing trilled, “Have a grrrrreat day.”

I wondered, did he mean “hope you had a grrrrreat day” or “have a grrrrreat day, tomorrow”? This would haunt me through the last trowel of the pooper-scooper that evening, and make me yearn for bygone days of Frosted Flakes and no frets about dating.

B.G. was a bit hefty, goateed, with a cell phone appendage. Within moments, he displayed the continuous habit of pulling his black, cotton, untucked, button-down shirt away from his body, to a place where it would snap back against his mild corpulence in a wave-like motion. He was sticky — sticky as thigh flesh against vinyl boothing on a hot summer day. Shortly, “what’s the d-low” was uttered live by The Beeg (“B.G.” I deduced, was assigned to others, while “The Beeg” was his own term of endearment — to himself).

“Is d-low in any way related to J.Lo?” I asked in my sweetest aren’t-I-funny-and-not-at-all-condescending voice.

“J.Lo. Man, I like ‘er,” he said, the drool nearly escaping the side of his now slightly intoxicated grin.

“Yes,” I said, “she is beautiful.”

He got this wild, beady-eyed, smirky look of a 4-year-old on Ritalin and replied, “I totally want to do ‘er.”

Concealing revulsion, I aimed to seamlessly mesh “big whoop, you just said that you inappropriate freak” with “anyway, while Jenny from the block may be beautiful, she is morally reprehensible — what with being practically naked all the time and having dated a felon,” which came out: “It’s pretty tacky that she had a gigantic, elaborate second wedding when her gigantic, elaborate first wedding was, like, only a few years ago. And now she’s getting divorced again. Jeez.”

“Are you angry about that?”

Why would I be angry about J.Lo’s weddings, divorces or that she was recently on the cover of GQ in the same ruffled panties my 1-year-old niece wears as part of a Baby Gap romper set? Him asking me if I was angry made me angry. Angry to the extent that I wanted to tell him that his vulgar verbal desecration of females, in the presence of a female — a female he did not even know — was a sure sign that he was a self-loathing goat.

B.G. turned to me, “So, what’s the most important thing to you in a relationship?”

Huh? This is the segue? Did this interminable shlub really feel so displaced in the modern world, so baffled as to his role, so consumed with impression management, that he traveled the extreme regions of conversation like a castaway trying desperately to reach civilization?

Has all the political correctness of our age left men at one moment straining toward a belligerent and contentious version of machismo and at another tapping into their yin and endeavoring to emulate female bonding through profound discourse?

I wanted to scream, “Gadzooks! Don’t verbally regurgitate! Don’t feed me this tuna casserole of a guy you’ve concocted! Absorb your actual surroundings and respond accordingly, instead of performing some rehearsed nonsense.”

He went on. “It’s really important, I mean totally, totally important, the most important thing that someone is spiritual. If they’re not spiritual, forget it. They have to be totally spiritual.”

You slay, Bruce.

In case any doubt remained, I now knew for sure that this B.G., this Beeg, was totally vapid. The word “spiritual” had found its place as my most hated irrelevant groovy spew. The word has been so truly diluted — signifying anything from davening every morning, to practicing yoga during Tuesday and Thursday lunch, to worshipping at the 3 p.m. “Temple of Oprah.” It’s used so frivolously that it almost has ceased to have any meaning at all.

So I wanted to tell him, that while I understood that characterizing yourself as “spiritual” is truly hip, most often it is used as a catchall phrase used by those who want to appear evolved, but are not the least bit interested in actually defining their belief system — for fear it will be discovered they really don’t have one.

But before I was forced, by a power greater than myself, to go there, his cell phone rang. He gave me the finger — as in the index “hold tight while I take this” finger.

At the same time it occurred to me that the phrase “one date, you never know” had become “staying still in the presence of lunacy.”

So before his Motorola had flipped shut, I had flipped outta there.

Kate Axelrod is the story editor on HBO’s “The Mind of the Married Man.”

Mourning an Alcoholic Father

According to myth, Jews don’t drink. This is false.

According to the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful. This is true. Otherwise, why would my father choose to move in 1991 to Portland, Oregon, to live alone with his Dalmatian and begin drinking after 18 years of sobriety?

Yes, my father chose booze over me. Even more distressing, he chose booze over my four sons, whom he barely knew.

And on Feb. 6 of this year, alcohol killed my father, at 78.

“Dad died,” my sister informed me by telephone.

“How?” I asked.

But I already knew. I knew with the specially tuned antennae of a child who has grown up with an alcoholic — always watching for that slurred word or that lock of hair curled on the forehead that presaged an evening of hateful insults and humiliation, an evening that could escalate into ear-piercing screaming, an evening that invariably ended in tears, in wishing life were different, in a legacy of lifelong shame.

I knew with the certainty that alcoholism is a progressive disease that inevitably leads to insanity or death. Or “multi-organ failure,” as the doctor euphemistically said.

And so, on Feb. 6, I began officially mourning for a man for whom I had been grieving a good part of my life.

I mourned for a man with the soul of a poet. A man full of charm and curiosity and humor, who appreciated life’s intricacies and oddities. Who loved writers Albert Camus and Bernard Malamud. And poets Maya Angelou, Constantine Cavafy and Karl Shapiro. Who composed his own poems. Who once dreamed of becoming an English professor.

I mourned for a man with the heart of an idealist. An idealist whose nearsightedness would have disqualified him from joining the United States Army during World War II. Instead, in 1942, at age 20, he stole and memorized an eye chart, ensuring induction. He was stationed in the Far East where, as a radio operator, he flew an incredible 105 missions over the Himalayas, between India and China. He returned home a decorated war hero, a “golden boy,” my mother said.

This same idealist moved our entire family from Davenport, Iowa, to Israel in 1962. Just as the Zionists dreamed of building a successful and solid Jewish state, so my father dreamed of providing his family with a life chock-full of substance and adventure.

And I mourned for a man who was disconnected from his family, his religion and himself. Who lived in secrecy and sarcasm. Who drank himself to death.

The writer Sylvia Fraser said, “All of us are born into the second act of a tragedy-in-progress. We then spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out what went wrong in the first act.”

I know the external facts of my father’s childhood, but will never know the internal dynamics and personal pain.

And I’ll never know whether alcoholism was the cause or the result of my father’s troubles.

I do know that the Shechina, God’s very presence, went out of my father as clearly as if departed from the Temple in Jerusalem when it was destroyed in 70 C.E.

The Talmud says, “As long as a person breathes, that person should not lose hope.”

I believe my father lost hope a long time ago.

But in spite of the fact that my father and I had a strained and sometimes estranged relationship, I never gave up hope that he might change. I’d seen it happen before, in 1974, when he quit drinking and worked a strong Alcoholics Anonymous program. For over two years, he was an affectionate father and comforting confidante. But he moved away from his AA group and lived a white-knuckled sobriety, as a dry alcoholic, until his cravings consumed him — and compelled him to resume drinking.

Underneath my father’s iconoclastic and often cavalier facade, however, I remembered a patient and loving man who taught me how to ice skate and throw a softball. A man who was my adored companion at the annual Girl Scout Dad-Daughter Date Night. A generous man who wholeheartedly believed that you would never go broke taking someone out to dinner — or sending his daughter to summer camp or college.

Alcoholism is a disease of denial, a characteristic especially prevalent in the Jewish community, where we hide our shandas, our embarrassing family secrets, from friends, neighbors and even our own relatives. This is perhaps why people say there are no Jewish alcoholics.

But according to Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, who runs a program for Jews in recovery in the Los Angeles area, 10 percent of all Jews have an alcohol or drug problem. This is the same percentage as in the general population. And alcoholic Jews run the gamut — from ultra-Orthodox to self-hating and secular.

Alcoholics, according to the founders and sober members of AA, are powerless over their disease. That’s why, in Step Three of this 12-step program, they make a decision to turn their life and their will over to the care of God.

As the daughter of an alcoholic, I was also powerless. I could no more make my father stop drinking than I could make the Messiah materialize.

My father once wrote:


Past is

Guilt and the

Future is fear

“Now” is all I have

But in the “now”

To dwell is

Mostly Hell!

My father has been released from his pain — and I from my hope.

At the memorial service a week after my father’s death, lead by Cantor Jay Frailich of University Synagogue, I performed keriah, the symbolic ripping of my clothing. And I recited the words, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, the True Judge.”

Jane Ulman writes a bimonthly column for The Jewish Journal. She lives in Encino with her husband and four sons.

Ticket to Enlightenment

Ever since I moved to Los Angeles, I’ve been completely lost.

No, I don’t mean spiritually or emotionally. I mean literally. I’ve been lost for pretty much two straight years.

What is the Thomas Guide to me but the Book of Babel? I have a hard enough time just knowing where I am in relation to the water. I have come to accept this about myself, although, as you can imagine, it has led to some pretty hairy driving moments. I’m always that loser who ends up trying to cross four lanes in a nanosecond to make my freeway exit. More than once, I’ve ended up hovering on one of those little freeway-exit islands, cars honking and fists shaking in my direction.

It doesn’t help that I’m easily distracted, prone to drinking coffee and reading my mail while driving lost, which is what I was doing when an officer of the law pulled me over a couple months ago. It seems I didn’t come to a complete stop at an intersection. “Hollywood stop,” they call it.

Oh sure, I put my head on the steering wheel and cried, but Johnny Law was unmoved. He wrote me out a ticket before I could say, “Officer, I think I’m the second coming of Job.”

And that’s how I ended up at comedy traffic school, which seemed to be the best of my options. I eyed the “Free Pizza” traffic schools, but pizza is gone in an instant and traffic school is eight long hours of my life.

And in a shocking turn of events, it turned out to be a great experience.

New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Disneyland — not fun. Traffic school — fun. Go figure. In my mind, a pleasant day at traffic school was my karmic comeuppance, payback for all the things that should have been fun but never were.

It didn’t get off to an auspicious beginning. The freshly cleaned stage emanated a sickening smell of bleach. The instructor came in, donning orange sneakers and a stupid baseball hat, and I kept wondering why it is that people seem to think wacky hats equal comedy.

“Welcome violators!” she said, clapping her hands together. Oh god, I thought, let the yuks begin. This is a hostage crisis, and I’m the hostage. Where’s my yellow ribbon? Call Jesse Jackson.

The instructor launched into her comedy opening, sprinkled with a lot of “hey, people” and “that’s all I’m saying, folks.”

It was in those early traffic school moments that something dawned on me. They’ve got you for a day, but that’s still a day of your life, a day you’ll never get back if you don’t make the most of it. As a sort of spiritual experiment, I willed myself to appreciate the day however I could.

It worked. All of a sudden, the instructor got funnier. She regaled us with stories of her years living in Tonga as part of the Peace Corps. She shared her encyclopedic knowledge of traffic.

The rules of the road became fascinating to me. I never knew you had to stop for a full three seconds at a stop sign, or that you can’t make a U-turn in a business district. The drunken driving lesson was particularly interesting, as I learned that one little glass of wine could cost me thousands of dollars in legal fees, not to mention the possibility of hurting myself and others. I had no idea it took so little to be legally intoxicated.

The instructor was so emphatic, so obviously sincere in her desire to impart proper driving techniques, that I became touched by her earnestness. She wasn’t just an out-of-work comic trying to make a buck; she really cared. And I was grateful for that.

Lunch time found me eating a falafel with a paint salesmen, a window washer and a student, people I might never ordinarily meet in the course of my daily life. We shared a bond as violators, caught in this weird nether world where our lives were put on hold for that all-important completion certificate and where we were stuck with each other, like some kind of “Breakfast Club” for grown-ups.

That completion certificate meant more to me than saving a few bucks on my insurance. What I had completed was a self-taught crash course on personal enjoyment management. Instead of cursing my fate, I chose to pull my negative outlook over to the side of the road and pull a fully legal U-ey.

Life isn’t always lemon drops and Julia Roberts movies and fresh-baked bread and dusky walks through the park with a loved one. Sometimes, it’s traffic school, and if you can make the most of that, you’re a little closer to cruising through life on the high road.

I drove home from traffic school, seat belt buckled and carefully stopping for three seconds at every stop sign, feeling fully apprised of the rules of the road and just a little less lost.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.