Homeless on Pico—Natalie Levine: Day 2 update

After we posted the video clip yesterday on Natalie Levine, a lot of people asked me: How can we help? What can we do? I felt a twinge of guilt that I told a very sad story without much hope. So this morning I decided to go back and see if I can find her. My heart sank when I saw that she wasn’t there. Because she had told me she “likes Jews,” I figured she was still in the neighborhood. So I drove around, very slowly, looking at sidewalks. Finally, I saw something from far that looked like it could be a homeless person sleeping. It was on the same side of Pico Boulevard where Natalie and I first met. I parked my car and walked over. It was hard to see her face, but as I got closer I realized it was her. She almost had a heart attack after I said her name.

“It’s David,” I said. “We met yesterday.”

“Oh hi,” she replied.

“A lot of people want to help you, Natalie. I posted that film we did yesterday and people want to help.”

She didn’t say much. She just gave me an easy smile and said, “Oh OK.”

But she had a very emotional reaction—a mix of excitement and tears– when I told her that her old Hebrew day school in Connecticut had seen the story and reached out to me. It was as if her childhood had come rushing back into her consciousness, cutting through the pain of the present.

I realized at that point that helping a homeless person takes tactical skill. So, first, I made her promise that she would not leave the spot for a few hours. I gave her water, 20 bucks and my cell number, and told her, “I’ll see you in a bit.”

The first thing was to find a safe place for the night. Actually, no, the very first thing was to clean her up. My amazing friend, Aliza Wiseman, offered to take her to her home until I found a place. She also went to Ross to buy some clean clothes. So, while Natalie was taking a hot shower, getting into new clothes and eating an omelette, I called around looking for motels that would take her. I made several calls, but had no luck until my friend Elaine Courtney, who saw the story on Facebook, suggested a place.

I called. A woman named Lucy answered. She said they had one room left, but it would be more expensive because it had a separate bathroom.

I booked the room. $70 a night, cash only.

As you can see in the photo above, Natalie is now in her room.

Meanwhile, my daughter Mia is setting up a crowdfunding page to give people a chance to help.

Next update on Monday.

Shabbat shalom.

Sunday’s protestors sought kaporot concessions

With chants of “Shonda,” and “Shame,” a group of around 75 protestors demonstrated on Sept. 8 in front of two sites on Pico Blvd where kaporot ceremonies were taking place.

Kaporot, which means “Atonement,” is a 1,000 year old custom observed by some Orthodox Jews between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that consists of an individual swinging a live chicken over his head three times and a saying a prayer— in effect ritually transferring his sins to the chicken.

Afterward, the chicken is kosher slaughtered and customarily is either prepared and eaten by the kaporot observer, or given to the poor, though an article in The Journal reported that last year nearly 10 tons of kaporot chickens may have been  thrown away.

The protest was led by Rabbi Jonathan Klein, co-founder of Faith Action for Animals, an organization that supports the well-being of animals.

To demonstrate an alternative to using chickens, “Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, led the group, many of whom were animals rights activists, in a kaporot ceremony using money,” Klein said.

“People pulled coins out of their pockets and put them into plastic bags and waved them around their heads three times, and read the formula,” Klein added.

The protest, which was monitored by LAPD officers, at times grew loud, and heated with protestors leaning up against the enclosure where the kaporot was taking place and chanting and shouting into it in both English and Farsi.  “Genocide is wrong whether against Jews or Against chickens,” read a sign held by one protestor, “Kapporot not in the Torah,” read another.

Other protestors gave water to the chickens kept ready in cages nearby.

“I’m trying to keep kids off drugs, and they are calling me a murderer,” said Rabbi Moshe Nourollah, whose Jewish outreach organization Bait Aaron organized the kaporot ceremony behind Young Israel of Beverly Hills, from whom they rent the space. According to Rabbi Nourollah, the money collected—a fee is asked for each chicken—is used to help fund his organization.

“They were screaming at little kids,” said Meir Nourollah, the rabbi’s son, a schochet who traveled from Israel to ritually slaughter the kaporot chickens for Bait Aaron.

“It’s not surprising that people became so emotional,” Klein said. “They saw the blood spurting out and on the ground,” he said.

At one point during the demonstration, a blue City of Los Angeles Department of Sanitation truck stood idling a few blocks from the demonstration.

“I am here for a dead animal pick up at 8701 Pico Blvd.,” the truck’s driver sadi when asked by a Jewish Journal reporter. The address is where the kaparot ceremony was taking place. After an LAPD officer spoke to the driver, the truck pulled away.

After the protestor walked a few blocks east to Ohel Moshe, where kaporot ceremonies also were being held, Klein, in view of the group, and accompanied by the an LAPD officer met with a synagogue official, to see if some agreement could be made concerning the chickens.

“Absolutely no progress was made,” he announced after rejoining the group on the sidewalk.

However, later in the day, Nehemia Shoob, a Beit Aaron representative offered as many as three chickens per day to be rescued, if the group would refrain from loud protesting of the kaporot ceremonies.

“It was some small measure of opening,” said Klein, who said he would offer the saved chickens to rescue farms and households equipped to keep chickens.

There was another opening as well.

Around the kaporot site, posted flyers announced that the “Chickens used for Sapporo at Young Israel of Beverly Hills are being donated in (sic) The Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.”

When reached for confirmation, Ted Landreth, a founder of the Coalition confirmed that chickens for kaporot were coming to the coalition and had been donated the previous year as well.

The day after the protest, when Rabbi Nourollah was asked if the dead kaporot chickens were trashed, he said, “We give all of them away,” and showed a receipt for the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles indicating that several dozen chickens had been donated.

Several other chickens that had been slaughtered and butchered were shown in a barrel with ice.

“There would have been chickens,” said Rabbi Nourollah, “But the protestors drove people away,” he said.

“We will be taking the matter to health officials,” Klein said.

Chai time for a new location

For the past eight years, the Chai Center has been holding High Holy Days services at the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Theater in Beverly Hills. This year, however, just weeks before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz received a call from the WGA indicating that, because of construction, the theater space would not be available. 

Scrambling for a space large enough to hold all the attendees, Schwartz enlisted help. “I had three people making multiple calls for weeks — we came up with nothing,” he said. “Finally, in the final hour, I ‘bumped’ into a location just two blocks from my home.”

Hi Point Studios, a sound stage on Pico near Fairfax, is an 18,000-square-foot facility that will become The Chai Center’s new locale for High Holy Days services. “My solution was not to give up, lest our … members not have a location to pray this year,” he said. “The benefit is that we are still in the heart of the city with plenty of space in their large studio room, which can seat 700 people.”

Transforming the venue requires renting a stage, seats and a white top tent and table to hold the center’s annual free New Year’s Eve Singles Party following services. “Many people just show up for the party,” Schwartz said. “Got to love our Jews.” 

As it turned out, rental of the new location costs less than the WGA, and half of the center’s holiday budget is underwritten by Stanley Black, a former Chai Center honoree. “Our friend and supporter was happy to hear that we found a location for this year,” Schwartz said. “He was optimistic about our new location and has continued to underwrite half our High Holy Days budget — the rest comes from individual donors and the attendees that mail in a donation.”

The Chasidic Reform services—all the prayers are in English with traditional Chasidic songs—will be led by Schwartz, and the post-service party will offer up 10 cases of wine, 700 apples with honey and seven sheet cakes. 

“With, thank God, 16,000 Chai Center subscribers, our staff is busy, at full throttle during the holiday season.” Schwartz said. “It’s like Christmas for Santa Claus right now—mucho busy now.”

Hundreds of missionaries targeting Jewish neighborhoods

Wednesday afternoon I answered my door in Pico Robertson to discover three young people, ranging from 18 to 22 years old. They wanted to talk to me about “Israel Restoration.” For a moment I thought they were talking about rebuilding Israeli forests. However, the moment I saw their literature, I knew they were Christian missionaries.

I welcomed them into my home and proceeded to give them a two-hour lesson about the spiritual beauty and integrity of Judaism. I also answered their questions, including who I thought Jesus was.

I left them with some things to ponder and they left me with a DVD Testimonial of their “boss,” Tom Cantor, and a Hebrew-English New Testament.

It turns out that Cantor is a multi-millionaire Jewish businessman who converted to and became part of the 70-million-strong evangelical Christian movement. He produced the DVD about his conversion to Christianity and hired 200 young Christians to spread the Gospel in Jewish neighborhoods including Encino, Westwood, Beverly Hills and Hancock Park.

My encounter was cordial and respectful; however, the average individual would not be as prepared as I was for such an encounter. I, in fact, would not mind having a face-to-face discussion with Tom Cantor himself, if for no other reason than to dispel the negative Jewish stereotypes on his DVD as well as some of his glaring theological mistakes.

There is a good chance you or your children will encounter missionaries. More than 85% of high school and college students report they have been approached. This may happen in person; however, the internet has become the more popular and effective arena for proselytizing, giving missionaries easy access into homes and dormitory rooms.

To prepare you for an encounter, whether in person or online, I have a few suggestions. Firstly, be aware that the best response may be to politely and firmly say, “No thank you.” If you do choose to engage in dialogue, don’t assume the missionaries are correct simply because you don’t have answers to their questions, and don’t feel pressured to give an answer on the spot. There are always two sides to every argument. If you apply good Critical Thinking skills you will take time to research your replies.

Secondly, turn to your rabbi for answers or visit the JewsForJudaism.org website, which has an extensive library and free literature for download.

Finally, be aware that many missionaries give away free Bibles that are replete with misleading and incorrect translations of the Hebrew original.

Unfortunately, 80% of today’s North American Jews are unable to read or understand Hebrew. An accurate and trustworthy English translation of the entire Jewish Scriptures is vital to making an informed study of Judaism, and now there is a new and important tool that meets this need.

ArtScroll Publications has released a new English translation of the complete Jewish Bible, and I was one of several consultants who fine-tuned the commentary notes, using my specific expertise to provide insights into passages that have frequently been distorted or mistranslated in non-Jewish Bibles. 

This new Bible, “The ArtScroll English Tanach,” is a wonderful resource for the English-speaking Jewish community, and especially for unaffiliated Jews and students. The easily accessible knowledge it contains will certainly prove to be a valuable asset for those using vital Critical Thinking skills to evaluate the often cleverly deceptive claims of missionaries.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the Founder of Jews for Judaism international. He can be reached at 310-556-3344 or {encode=”LA@JewsforJudaism.org” title=”LA@JewsforJudaism.org”}.

Tikkunfest brings much-needed TLC to Pico-Robertson [VIDEO]

Volunteers spent five hours uprooting dead trees and planting new ones; setting up herb planters in front of stores; repainting curbs, poles and fire hydrants; sweeping mulch and dirt off the sidewalks; and lugging heavy garbage bags in the predominantly Orthodox neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in West Los Angeles.

The Jewish community needs a clean Pico-Robertson, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein said during Tikkunfest, an Oct. 24 community service event organized by his group, Jewlicious.

“This is the thriving heart of much of the Jewish community, a place with shuls and schools and restaurants and stores,” he said. “It really needs some TLC.” 

Between 100 and 150 volunteers worked on projects along 10 blocks of Pico Boulevard, between Doheny Drive and La Cienega Boulevard, organizers said.

Most volunteers cited a similar reason for participating: a desire to give of themselves to something bigger than themselves.

“I wanted to come because it’s a great way to give back to the Jewish community, to give to the community in general,” said Samantha Eddahabi, a Santa Monica College student, who knelt close to the ground on Pico Boulevard with traffic whizzing by as she repainted a curb’s red zone. “It’s a major mitzvah.”

Rabbi David Bluman of Kadima Day School in West Hills said he came “to give back to the community, to do some tzedakah [charity]. I live in the neighborhood, and it’s time to clean it up.”

In addition to cleanup and repair, volunteers also assisted seniors and collected clothing and food for the needy.

Event sponsors included The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and City Council member Paul Koretz’s office.

Koretz, whose District 5 seat includes Pico-Robertson, dropped by to show support for the clean-up.

“The Pico-Robertson area, I think, sometimes looks a little run down and needs to be cleaned up. This will give it a shiny new face and it’ll also give folks in the community a chance to participate,” Koretz said. “Especially in this era where government services are being cut and the city’s budget is hundreds of millions of dollars short, I think the community stepping up and helping out is critically important.”

Story continues after the jump.

Noah Bleich, founder of L.A. Green Mile Project, an environmental group that partnered with Jewlicious, said that Tikkunfest shows how small community groups can organize service events with cooperation from businesses and the city — a bottom-up approach to social change.

Bleich said he wants to “turn Pico Boulevard, from La Cienega to Beverly Drive, [into] a green mile, where, ecologically outside and ecologically inside, community and businesses and government work together.”

After hours of work, the volunteers returned to the event staging site — a parking lot near Pico and Robertson boulevards — for a concert featuring the band Cousin Junebug and Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz.

Despite organizers’ best outreach efforts, they were not able to attract enough people to fulfill Tikkunfest’s ultimate goal, which was to have volunteers work approximately 18 blocks of Pico-Robertson, Bleich said.

Bookstein said volunteers planned to gather again Oct. 31 to continue beautifying the area, and that his group will continue to make planters available to businesses in the neighborhood. 

Volunteer Neda Zarabi said she participated for the sake of “tikkun olam, [to] repair the world,” adding that people should not mistake the concept as merely a cliché. “It’s one of the foundations of Judaism. You have to make it real to not be a cliché; that’s how you make it tangible.”

For more information, send an e-mail to {encode=”tikkunfest@gmail.com” title=”tikkunfest@gmail.com”}.

Rabbis’ Ethics Initiative Evokes Cheers, Criticism

Rabbis’ Ethics Initiative Evokes Cheers, Criticism


Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s Restaurant and Catering, places the fair treatment of his employees high on his list of business priorities. In fact, he hopes soon to put a sign in the window of his popular Pico Boulevard establishment telling his customers as much.

Pat’s could become one of the first local businesses to sign onto a new initiative calling for ethical labor practices in Jewish workplaces in Los Angeles. Launched early this month, Peulat Sachir (“the worker’s wage”) is the brainchild of a group of local Modern Orthodox rabbis hoping to renew Jewish commitment to upholding labor laws in the wake of several national scandals during the past year.

“This initiative will make our community holier and more ethical, and will raise the level of commitment to labor laws and to Jewish law,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation. “It’s about putting the importance of complying with labor law on the radar of this religious community.”

Rabbis and attorneys involved in the movement are asking business owners to sign a statement pledging to treat employees according to state and federal labor laws. The “covenant” document, offered at no cost, focuses on six areas: minimum wage, overtime payment, workers compensation insurance, meal and rest periods, family and personal leave, and anti-discrimination policy.

Employers wishing to take part will agree to open their books to trained volunteers who will verify compliance with the laws in question. Business owners also will agree to undergo biannual site checks and attend seminars on employer obligations and employee rights.

In exchange, leaders of the initiative will encourage patronage of businesses involved and give them priority when choosing vendors for synagogue events.

Establishments with the Peulat Sachir pledge in their windows might also gain a competitive edge among consumers who care about labor issues, said Los Angeles labor attorney Craig Ackermann — the same way stores that promote a green image attract environmentally conscious shoppers.

The rabbis spearheading the movement — who also include Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Kehillat Yavneh, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob — are first targeting businesses in the Pico-Robertson area that they believe are already in compliance.

“For them, it will be a no-brainer,” Kanefsky said. “All they will be doing is receiving public acclamation for doing what they have always done. Businesses will have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”

A Jewish Issue?

But Peulat Sachir organizers are preparing for a wave of criticism nonetheless. Much of the debate over the initiative revolves around one question: Is labor ethics a Jewish issue?

Fine, the owner of Pat’s Restaurant and Catering, thinks it is.

“Rabbis should get involved in more than kashrut,” he said. “I think [the initiative] is important — the community would know that the businesses they support are cognizant of correct business practices.”

But businesses are mandated to uphold labor laws anyway, said Gagy Shagalow, owner of Munchies on Pico Boulevard. An initiative led by religious leaders would have no added benefit to the community, he said.

“This is up to the law — it’s not up to the rabbanim to get involved in legal issues,” Shagalow said. “Either you follow the law or you don’t. The state takes care of businesses that don’t follow the law. It’s not a Jewish issue.”

Muskin and the other rabbis involved disagree. They say Judaism should not be confined to the synagogue, and point out that traditional Jewish law extends to marketplace regulation.

Choshen Mishpat, a text that outlines business ethics, is a heavily studied section of halachah (Jewish law), Muskin said. Members of the Jewish community are required to obey the “laws of the land” (Choshen Mishpat, 369:11), and the Torah commands employers to pay workers promptly and accurately because their lives depend on it (Deuteronomy 24:15).

“We have an obligation, as Jews, to be a light unto the nations and to set an example of ethical and moral behavior in all walks of life,” Korobkin said. “We’re supposed to be as observant in our offices and our homes as we are in our synagogues. For an observant Jew, his observance should be manifest in the way that he runs his business — not just in whether or not he wears a kippah or eats kosher food.”

Restoring Communal Values

The initiative was conceived in October in response to allegations of routine worker mistreatment at the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant last spring, and has taken on new significance since Wall Street money manager Bernard Madoff’s December arrest on charges of running a $50 billion investment fraud.

News of rampant labor violations at the AgriProcessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa — including more than 9,000 child labor charges and workers’ claims of long hours, shorted pay and sexual harassment — shook the community in the wake of a federal immigration raid on the plant last May. Former manager Sholom Rubashkin was arrested Oct. 30, 2008, on allegations of knowingly hiring undocumented workers and covering up their illegal status with false identification.

“There were a number of stories in the news where Jews were portrayed in a bad light that I felt we, as a community, needed to address,” Korobkin said.

As kosher consumers reeled, the rabbis sought to counter the bad press with an educational initiative to bring ethical standards back to the forefront of community consciousness.

Bringing on labor lawyers and lay business leaders to flesh out the plan, the group first pursued the idea of certifying that local businesses were in compliance with labor laws through a seal of approval. But a seal might imply that they were providing rabbinic supervision over businesses, the group felt, which they lacked the resources to do. Also, if the initiative grew beyond the Jewish community, the rabbis didn’t want restaurant patrons to confuse a certificate of kosher business practices with one of kosher food.

Settling on a covenant-style agreement instead, the rabbis decided they would ask employers to sign a voluntary statement of intent to uphold labor laws, which the group would back through spot checks of participating businesses.

The nonprofit Bema’aglei Tzedek launched a similar measure in Israel in 2004 that recognizes restaurants pledging to treat its cooks and servers by ethical labor standards. That program has now grown to more than 300 restaurants.

In Los Angeles, the rabbis felt starting small and locally would be an effective way to bring the lessons of AgriProcessors home.

“This would be something that people would literally see on a daily basis, and they would have to make choices on a daily basis,” Kanefsky said. “It’s very real and very immediate; it’s not in Iowa — it’s on Pico Boulevard.”

Not a Witch Hunt

Businesses that apply for the covenant and are found to be in violation of labor laws, however, won’t be penalized, the rabbis say.

“We are not here to condemn, or to single out, or to expose any businesses that are not in compliance,” Korobkin said. “We are just here to heap praise and promotion on businesses that are.”

Peulat Sachir representatives will be bound by a confidentiality clause in which they agree not to publicize what they find on-site, said Ackermann, the labor lawyer who helped craft the initiative. “[Employers] might be concerned about, ‘Are you going to hand this over to the labor commissioner?’ That’s not going to happen,” he said.

In some cases, he added, business owners might simply be unaware of certain labor laws — such as that workers in California are entitled to a 30-minute meal break on shifts longer than five hours, or that employees on the clock for more than eight hours must be paid 1 1/2 times their regular rate in overtime.

At businesses found to be lagging, owners might have to spend a bit more to shore up old policies. Employers who feel they can’t afford to make changes in the current economic climate won’t be forced to sign on, Korobkin said. “Any business that feels that it’s not economically feasible to sign onto the covenant won’t be pressured to do so.”

Still, Ackermann said, “labor laws are not voluntary to begin with” and businesses that disregard them leave themselves open to government investigation and penalties.

The initiative does not address the issue of undocumented workers, which Ackermann said is “too complicated, too controversial” for such a small group. But the wage and break laws outlined in the covenant apply to documented and undocumented workers alike.

Another concern is that businesses might see the initiative as an “unnecessary headache” that might be too intrusive or time-consuming. Site testers will visit each business twice a year to check a random sampling of employee records — a process that might take, at most, an hour or two, Ackermann said. The site testers will be labor lawyers and trained volunteers, similar to the mashgiachs who monitor the kosher status of restaurants.

Any business with employees is eligible for the covenant, including synagogues, schools, restaurants, supermarkets, medical practices and dry cleaners.

The ultimate goal is not to regulate businesses, Korobkin said, but rather to boost the profile of labor laws on the Jewish communal agenda: “Our whole objective is to raise awareness in the community that these things are important to Jews.”

For more information, call Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at (310) 276-9269, or e-mail

Neighbors oppose Chabad expansion on Pico

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, head of Chabad of California, has a dream — a block-long, five-story “village” on Pico Boulevard that would provide a girls day school and boarding school along with affordable, safe housing for Holocaust survivors and other elderly people and for teachers with large families.

On the ground floor, retail stores — such as “milchig” and “fleishig” commissaries, a pharmacy and a clothing store selling inexpensive, modest but fashionable clothing — would serve the residents as well as the community. Beneath the proposed almost 108,000 square-foot building, 80 feet in height, would be two levels of subterranean parking.

“It will make lives easier for people, including the people down the block,” Cunin said.

But for neighbors living in the vicinity of this one-block area on the north side of Pico Boulevard, bordered by Wetherly and Crest drives as well as a back alley, the project represents anything but a dream. They envision a nightmare — a structure too massive for the 28,000-square-foot parcel of land that they believe is certain to bring more noise, traffic and trash into an already congested area.

“I don’t want a monster built right behind my back yard. It destroys my privacy. It’s outrageous,” said Mike Rafi, who lives on Wetherly Drive, one house away from the alley behind the Chabad property.

The Master Use Permit Application that Chabad of California filed on Aug. 7, 2007, for property located from 9001 to 9041 W. Pico Blvd. calls for the four buildings currently occupying that block, which is owned by Chabad, to be demolished. The proposed mixed-use development complex would include seven retail stores on the ground level; a junior high school accommodating 225 girls and high school for 200 girls on the second floor; 25 dormitory rooms housing 100 girls on the third floor; and 31 residential condominiums, one to three bedrooms, on the third, fourth and fifth floors.

View larger map

Neighbors and community advocates brought their objections before the Land Use and Economic Development Committee of the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council at meetings held on Aug. 5 and Sept. 2. The neighborhood councils, created in 1999 by the new Los Angeles City Charter, serve as advisory bodies to city council members and the mayor but have no regulatory power.

Opponents focused on the scope of the project, claiming their point was illustrated by the number of variances that Chabad is seeking, including exemptions to zoning and building requirements stipulated by the Los Angeles Municipal Code and the West Los Angeles Community Plan.

These include Chabad’s request to build to a height of 80 feet instead of the mandated height of 45 feet. The organization is also asking for a floor-to-area ratio of 3.84 to 1 in lieu of the established 1.5 to 1, which pertains to the building’s total floor area in relation to lot size.

Additionally, Chabad wants approval to provide 71 parking spaces instead of the required 168 and also wants the mandated loading space to be waived.

Chabad attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, maintained that the variances are necessary because of the limitations the commercial zones impose on a building’s square footage.

“L.A. was designed and built as a commuter city where all the major boulevards — Pico, Olympic — have shallow lots that don’t lend themselves to the ability to create a mixed-use village,” he said.

He added that the limitations concern traffic and that the impact, with students who are not allowed cars and with many elderly residents who don’t drive, will be controlled.

South Robertson Neighborhoods Council’s Land Use Committee members proposed that both sides appoint representatives to meet and attempt to work out some compromises regarding size. Meanwhile, because the project is currently undergoing review by the Los Angeles City Department of Planning, with the environmental impact report expected to be released in the next week or two, the committee also proposed sending a letter to City Planning stating its opposition to the requested variances.

The motion passed unanimously at the Sept. 10 South Robertson Neighborhoods Council board meeting, held at Hamilton High School’s cafeteria.

Four community members have been selected to participate in talks with Chabad, according to community advocate Lorrie Stone, and are waiting for the next step. Cunin also confirmed that Chabad staff members will take part.

Meanwhile, Stone expressed concern by many residents dating back to 2001, when Chabad’s variance requests were approved to build the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Bais Chaya Mushka School in the block immediately west of the proposed project.

“The zoning code exists to give us livable neighborhoods,” Stone said, adding that Chabad is not enforcing conditions that were imposed on Bais Chaya Mushka.

“All drop off and pick up is supposed to be on school grounds, but parents are totally parking on neighborhood streets,” Stone said. “They bring snacks for their children and change diapers, leaving the trash and diapers on the sidewalks.”

Cunin has recently hired a full-time professional security guard to prevent any violations. At the same time, he suggested that the diapers could also be from a neighborhood daycare facility.

Attorney Joubin Nasseri, who has volunteered to serve on the mediation committee as a community member, hopes that the two visions — that of Chabad and that of the neighbors — can be resolved.

“The bottom line is that Chabad is going to build. The question is to what degree,” Nasseri said.

Meat packing raid stirs larger ethical and economic concerns

While some Los Angeles kosher supervisors and suppliers see the crackdown on illegal immigrants at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, as a temporary setback, others are concerned with larger economic and ethical implications that reach beyond this particular case.

“They don’t have a lot of things,” said Albert Zadeh, owner of kosher supermarket Pico Glatt, of Agriprocessors. “If you order five cases of meat, you might get two cases.” Chicken is a particular problem, he said.

Most customers — 80 percent, he said — are not aware of the problem, so their shopping habits have remained the same. Zadeh said he’s not planning to raise prices on meat and poultry.

“Prices are high enough,” he said.

Zadeh said that Kehilla, the kosher supervisory agency that oversees his market and receives meat from the Agriprocessors Postville plant, is addressing the issue of obtaining supply.

Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, Kehilla’s rabbinic administrator, believes the effects of the raid will be short term.

“As far as I understand, this is a temporary situation,” he said, noting that Agriprocessors is trying to address the labor issue. And while there are other kosher meat suppliers, “I don’t think anyone can ramp up production to cover the shortfall.”

But it’s not a crisis, he emphasized — especially at this time of year; “It’s the Omer [the period between Passover and Shavuot when many religious Jews do not eat meat], and generally after Pesach, there is a reduction in spending.”

Teichman stressed that this situation has nothing to do with kashrut (dietary law).

“This is an immigration, legal and labor issue — if they could not maintain the kashrut standard, they would not produce,” he said.

But what about the ethical issues pertaining to the use of illegal immigrants as a labor force at a kosher facility? Are kashrut supervisors concerned with issues of Jewish observance beyond the technicalities of the slaughtering process?

Teichman believes the company was not aware of the illegal immigrants who were using fraudulent paperwork.

“We support all legal activities,” he said of Kehilla.

Rabbi Yakov Vann agrees. “We do deal with ethical issues,” said Vann, director of kashrut services at the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the other main kosher supervisory agency here. Although he would not comment on the Agriprocessors case or on immigration violation, he said the RCC is very concerned with “work practice issues and the way you treat your employees.”

Coincidentally, the RCC is about to begin importing meat from a new plant in Wichita, Kan., under the label California Delight.

“We have been working on this for a year and a half,” he said. The important thing for meat, he said, is “never to rely on one source.”

That’s what Kosher Club owner Daryl Schwartz does: use more than one source. “It’s not affecting me at all,” he said.

The ethical issues of “Mitzvot ben Adam L’Chaveiro” — commandments between human beings (as opposed to those between God and man) — has prompted some local Orthodox rabbis to consider taking action.

On Sunday, May 18, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City met to discuss creating a hechsher (kosher certification) for ethical issues.

Although the discussions are “way too premature” to know specifics, Muskin said that in general, “we want to make sure that kashrut is not only a ritual issue but a human issue — that the human interrelationship between proprietor and worker is also according to halacha, or Jewish law.”

In fact, he said, the issues of whether workers are being treated well, whether they are getting paid minimum wage, whether they are being paid on time — and for overtime — and if the work conditions are sufficient, these are all issues covered in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish law.

The rabbis don’t yet know how this new oversight would take place but know that “we have to be sensitive to these issues,” Muskin said. “If we haven’t been in the past, we must now be extra sensitive. This is part of halacha, and it can’t be ignored.”

Briefs: Sderot kids share their experiences with local students, Pico business owners protest traffi

Sderot Teens Open Their Hearts to L.A. Students

Ten high school students from Sderot, a small city that has been bombarded by rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip, traveled to Los Angeles this week to share their heartrending stories at college and high school campuses. They were brought here by numerous Jewish and pro-Israel organizations. More than 60 attendees listened intently at USC Hillel Monday as the Israeli teens spoke about life under constant attack. Among the crowd were students representing pro-Israel groups from USC, UCLA, CSUN, Santa Monica College and UC Irvine.

After showing a video clip titled, “Everyone Deserves to Live in Peace,” Tabby Davoodi, director of academic affairs at the consulate general of Israel in Los Angeles, introduced the young students, asking if they were alarmed by the loud sirens in the video. Most of them, looking a bit shell-shocked, nodded their heads.

USC was one of three stops that day on the “The Children of Sderot: In Their Own Words” tour, which also included visits to Beverly Hills High School and Taft High School. At the high schools, the teens spoke to crowds comprised of Latinos, African Americans, non-Jews and others from varying faiths and nationalities. “It is important for the mainstream population to know the plight of Sderot. We want to highlight the celebration of Israel at 60 to the larger community,” said Esther Renzer, national president of StandWithUs, noting that the group recently donated a bomb shelter to the rocket-battered city.

For seven years the city has been under siege, and more than 4,000 Qassam rockets have hit Sderot since 2005, according to Roz Rothstein, founder of StandWithUS, a co-sponsor of the event. Between 75 percent and 94 percent of children in Sderot display symptoms of post-traumatic stress, according to the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War (NATAL), Haaretz has reported.

A few of the teen speakers discussed an incident when a 10-year-old boy, Yossi Haimov, was playing with his little sister in the courtyard of their apartment building and was struck by shrapnel, almost losing his arm. “All we want is to live normal lives like everyone else,” said Sapir Homel, 15, whose 4-year-old cousin was fatally injured by a Qassam rocket. “Conditions in Sderot are very hard,” Homel said. “We won’t leave, but it is dangerous. We don’t want Qassam rockets, but peace.”

At the event, Adi Amzaleg, was presented with a cake to celebrate her 15th birthday. “Despite everything, we stay to live our life in Sderot,” she said in broken English.

“We hear Qassam rockets every morning and night. If we don’t get hurt, someone we know will get hurt. We have no solution to the security problem. We want to live a normal life,” said Yarin Peretz, 15.

“We will be standing with you through this until it is done,” Rothstein assured the teens. “We are with you right there and are coming to visit this summer,” she said after awarding the youngsters envelopes filled with money.

In the question-and-answer segment of the event one audience member asked, “Would you want to grow up in Sderot and live there as an adult?”

“I was born in Sderot and will die in Sderot,” responded Oshar Hen, 15.

Before leaving the room, the crowd and Sderot group burst into song, singing “Shalom, Salem.”

For more information on “Live for Sderot” visit http://israelileadership.com/Live4Sderot/.

— Celia Soudry, Contributing Writer

Pico Business Owners Protest Proposed Traffic Changes

A group representing business owners along Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles is filing for a temporary restraining order this week to protest the mayor’s Olympic-West, Pico-East Traffic Initiative.

The three-tiered traffic plan, which would limit parking on Pico and Olympic boulevards during rush hours, synchronize the traffic lights and eventually change the directions of the lanes (three west on Olympic, three east on Pico) is slated to begin implementation as early as March 8 despite a Feb. 13 Department of Transportation meeting on the initiative, which had recommended postponing action on the plan. The mayor ordered the DOT to begin implementation, saying the DOT has no jurisdiction.

Pico-Olympic Solutions, which claims to represent thousands of business owners and residents along the Pico-Olympic corridor, said this week they have retained a lawyer to file a restraining order against the initiative. “Don’t force Pico/Olympic on us,” said Brandon Silverman, leader of the opposition group. Owners fear their businesses will be adversely affected by the plan, which calls for restricted parking from 7-9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m. along Pico Boulevard from Centinela to Fairfax avenues. (The original proposal had continued to La Brea.)

“For a project like this, they need to verify what kind of losses would occur, what the financial and environmental impacts are and to get the community input on the solution,” Silverman said. “We want the opportunity to be heard.”

City Councilman Jack Weiss, who was instrumental with the mayor in pushing the plan, said the initiative would improve traffic in the area, one of the main concerns for his constituents. “We’re trying to do something immediate about it that could benefit hundreds of thousands of people,” Weiss said. “It would be a shame if someone tries to block that from happening.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Angels and Interfaith Discussion

“What is the role of angels in Judaism? It’s ambivalent,” said Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom. Shulweis will be one of the panelists at the fifth annual Interfaith Symposium of Theology, Art and Music on March 9, along with Jeremy Glatstein, an art historian at the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Right Rev. Alexei Smith, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and the Rev. Dr. David Worth, senior pastor at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, will moderate.

“There are some times angels themselves are considered to be emissaries of good news, and there are some times when the angels themselves are considered to be very jealous of human beings,” Schulweis said. “In general, it seems to me that angels play a very minor role in Jewish thinking: They’re there, but they’re there as manifestations as some aspect of godliness,” he said. What is interesting, he said, about this series — now in its fifth year — “is that you begin to see the commonalities and divisions in each tradition.” Discussions are accompanied by an art exhibit and followed by a concert featuring the Choral Society of Southern California, the L.A. Zimriyah Chorale and the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir.

Angels and Interfaith

The Fifth Annual Interfaith Symposium of Theology, Art & Music workshop will be held on March 9 at 3 pm at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church, 505 N. Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills. Symposium: $25, advanced reservations required (includes dinner and concert); Concert: $10. For more information call (818) 623-1000.

— AK

Chasids in the Hood (or Not)

It’s one of the quirks of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. There’s a movement that owns a huge block on Pico Boulevard right in the middle of the hood, runs a preschool,elementary, middle and high school for girls on that same block, has official or unofficial connections with six shuls in the area, has one of the higher-profile brand names in the Jewish world and yet, strangely, you walk around the hood and you don’t really feel their presence.

I’m talking about Chabad-Lubavitch.

They have two shuls on Robertson Boulevard, both south of Pico. The one closest to Pico — commonly called the Yemini shul, after its founder and leader Rabbi Amitai Yemini — has been in the area the longest. The other shul, farther south, is a small minyan called Chabad of Beverlywood.

On Pico, you’ll find one minyan officially connected to Chabad — a tiny weekly minyan in their Bais Rebbe building — and three independents: a Persian Chabad near Cresta Drive; a shul near Beverwil Drive recently opened by Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy, who used to run a branch of Chabad’s Jewish Learning Institute, and finally, near Robertson is Bais Bezalel, the biggest Lubavitch synagogue on Pico, also known as the Rabbi Lisbon shul.

So with all this presence, how come Chabad is so, er, quiet around here?

In a way, it’s an easy answer: Chabad doesn’t make a lot of noise in areas where people put on tefillin.

They thrive in nonobservant communities, where their unconditional love for every Jew, and their flair for promoting mitzvahs, make them highly visible. For more than 50 years, Chabad has taken this outreach model throughout the world and has lit up thousands of communities with a tireless, single-minded focus on “giving you” a mitzvah.

The problem is that here in the hood, most of the mitzvahs are already taken. The soul of the hood is clearly Modern Orthodox, with the majority of Jews already observant and affiliated with one or more congregations, which cater mostly to their members. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if there isn’t a market in the hood for Chabad-style outreach.

Of course, I had to meet a rabbi who thinks all this is baloney.

He’s a chabadnik who lives in the hood and who believes that there is, in fact, a market for outreach in this part of town. He doesn’t just believe it, he lives it.

In truth, he does outreach all over Los Angeles — with an emphasis on the Westside — but he has a special place in his heart for the hood, maybe because he lives and hangs out here. He’s like a gold prospector. He loves, for example, those buildings on Bedford and Wooster avenues, where he has discovered plenty of single, unaffiliated Jews who are now on his mailing list and come to his outreach events.

He recognizes that the hood is more of a post-outreach neighborhood, where Jews come to pursue their Judaism after their Jewish spark has been lit, usually elsewhere. But that doesn’t faze him. He thinks there’s a fair amount of unaffiliated Jews in the hood, but they are hidden (I think some of them are hiding). Either way, he says that even if there’s a tiny amount, he wants to reach them all.

His name is Rabbi Mendel Schwartz, and for the past few years he has been running the outreach organization called Chai, started 20 years ago by his father and former Chabad emissary Shlomo Schwartz (I’ve rarely met a Jew in L.A. who hasn’t heard of “Schwartzie”; I go to a lot of events, and he or a look-alike is at all of them). Chai, like the other independents, does not fall under the official Chabad umbrella, and it is neither a shul nor a location.

Rather, it’s a nimble guerrilla outreach operation that uses cool events to bring Jews to Judaism. A Purim party at a comedy club; a haimish Shabbat “dinner for 30 strangers” at Schwartzie and Olivia’s (his wife and partner); High Holiday services at the Writer’s Guild; a Chanukah lighting party in a minimansion. Because they move between venues, they supplement the work of other shuls. Their outreach feeds the shuls for inreach.

But while Chai may be eclectic and independent, their inspiration is classic Lubavitch: using mitzvahs to light Jewish sparks.

This, for me, is the Chabad genius: a knack on the deed, not the talk. They don’t get turned on by grand debates that lead to more grand debates. While the Jewish world agonizes over “profoundly important” issues, Chabad agonizes over getting to Kinko’s on time to get their flyers out for their Chanukah event.

And at Chanukah time, all Chabads make noise. Here in the hood, the Yemini shul had their big outdoor bash at the Wells Fargo parking lot on Saturday night, with the hot band, 8th Day (major sound system). Across the hood, many Lubavitchers have placed large portable menorahs on their cars (they were part of a Chabad citywide parade Monday night) and a giant menorah billboard is on the wall of their Bais Rebbe building, to go along with the actual menorah in front of the building.

There’s no doubt: Hood or no hood, outreach or inreach, Chabad salivates for Chanukah.

It’s the holiday that embodies, through one simple icon, what the Lubavitch movement yearns for all year long: a chance to make observant Judaism shine. With thousands of public menorah lightings around the world, they proudly shine a light on the Jewish faith, on the freedom to practice that faith, and on the value of doing another mitzvah.

They are the Nikes of the Jewish world: They believe that if you just do it, the mystical power of the mitzvah will win you over, and your heart and mind will inevitably follow. And if you live in Los Angeles, where might that lead you?

I’m guessing right back here in the hood, to look for a house.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

In the ‘hood, the treat is no trick

If you’re one of those people that took the kids out on Halloween, there’s a good chance you avoided Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods like Pico-Robertson.

Because believe me, they don’t trick or treat in the hood.

This is not a polite refusal to partake in something foreign, like, say, some ultra-Orthodox might respectfully abstain from celebrating Thanksgiving. No, this is an assertive, purposeful rejection. Halloween is seen as the crowning achievement of secular emptiness. You celebrate, glorify, trivialize and idolize something as deep and holy as death, and in return, your kids get to gorge on KitKats and day-glow jawbreakers.

In the same way that the hustle and bustle on the day before Shabbat gives you a good sense of what the hood is about, the eerie silence on the night of Halloween tells you just as much. There might be a wild Mardis Gras-type carnival happening a mile up on Santa Monica Boulevard, but in the hood, the only costumes you’ll see are on the Chasids coming out of Chabad.

In fact, several of my neighbors use Halloween to get a good deal on Purim costumes. Apparently, Halloween has become, in retail terms, bigger than Christmas. So on the day after Halloween, you can get some real bargains on costumes, even some that you can use a few months later on Purim.

The analogy with Purim is instructive. On the surface, they share a certain symmetry: Lots of silly fun around crazy costumes. But you don’t need to dig too deep to see that in many ways, they are polar opposites. While Halloween itself has a religious ancestry — a day certain Christian groups would celebrate “all the saints” — today it is devoid of any spirituality, and has evolved (devolved?) into an occasion to celebrate ghosts, goblins, witches, skeletons and other symbols of evil and death.

Because American commerce can mainstream just about anything, by the time it filters down to our children, Halloween becomes a commercial extravaganza where parents can “bond” with their kids while picking out a $49 costume at Kmart, and then go trick or treating for simple carbs on local streets. In America, even the ghoulish can be made to appear wholesome.

Purim is harder to trivialize, because the rituals themselves are so connected to the religious component. The bad guy is not a spooky mystery — he’s got a name (Haman). The religious text that we read on Purim (the Megillah), tells us to turn the tables on our enemies after our victory, so we put on costumes to look like them. We put on great parties because the text also instructs us to partake in “feasting and gladness.” And to top it off, even the candy and the munchies (mishloach manot) that we exchange with each other and donate to the poor have a direct connection to the holy texts.

In other words, while Halloween revels in the fear and symbols of death, Purim celebrates the holiness and glory of survival. Is it any wonder, then, that observant Jews would rather wait for Purim to have a costume party with their kids?

My problem is that until I moved to the hood a few months ago, my family and I were living in what could be called the Halloween capital of the world (West Hollywood). So naturally, a few weeks ago the kids started asking about our trick or treating plans for this year. It wasn’t easy to give them an answer.

I must admit, though, that I’m conflicted on this subject. As a grown up, I find the Halloween rituals empty and idiotic, not to mention unhealthy. But there’s the problem of this little voice that reminds me of how much I loved it when I was a kid — how my brother and I would spend weeks preparing our Batman and Robin costumes, and how we got such a kick walking with my father (an Orthodox Jew) in the neighborhood instead of doing our homework, and then getting free candy!

So what do I tell the kids? Real Jews don’t trick or treat? Wait until Purim? I know you did it last year but now we’re in a new neighborhood?

I talked with some perfectly coiffed frum supermoms of the hood, and just as I suspected, they all said pretty much the same thing: Halloween is a non-issue. Nobody tricks or treats around here; it’s a vile, dumb holiday. (Hey, who am I to argue?)

A few days before Halloween, though, I got an inkling that my new neighborhood might still, somehow, come to my rescue.

Lately my kids have been spending a lot of time with new friends they have made on our block. On the Shabbat before Halloween, I overheard one of my kids bring up the subject of trick or treating with these new observant friends, and I saw how they got virtually no reaction. I think this might have had an effect, since the subject didn’t come up for the next 24 hours — but I was certainly not out of the woods.

So I conspired with a supermom who is helping me plan a Halloween Seduction Prevention program for the big night. First, a weeknight play date (that’s a big deal), not too much fuss on the homework (also a big deal), roasting kosher marshmellows from Pico Glatt in the backyard (memories of summer, a really big deal), and, for the piece de resistance, TV watching on a weeknight! And if things get desperate, maybe we’ll do an art project and make some scary masks.

By the time you read this, the big night of ghosts and goblins will have come and gone, and I will know if the kids bought my Halloween hood alternative.

Either way, I can’t wait for Purim.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Life in the ‘hood: Gino Tortorella, hairdresser to the Jews

After 30 days of spiritual feasting, repenting, praying and partying, I think this is a good time to head into the hood and meet my buddy Gino Tortorella.

I love Gino because he’s entertaining in a Martin Scorsese sort of way — he looks like a cross between Joe Pesci and Danny Devito, with that thick New Joisey accent — and because he’s a Catholic who’s had the chutzpah to spend most of his adult life surrounded by Jews. You see, Gino and his hair salon have been a fixture in the heart of the Pico strip (a few doors down from Pat’s restaurant) since the time Richard Nixon was president (1971), so you can imagine that this man has a few things to say.

And, thank God, he does love to talk.Gino TortorellaToday, he’s looking across the street, where Hymie’s Fish Market used to be, and he’s reminiscing. Apparently, Hymie’s used to be a real hot joint back in the late ’70s. According to Gino, the food was so good (alas, it included shrimp and lobster), and the Jewish owner/hostess (“Mama” Elaine) was so well liked, that “all the stars would show up,” even big Jewish stars like Barbra Streisand and Milton Berle.

There’s no question that Gino’s got a thing for Jews. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that for the better part of 40 years, Jewish women have accounted for 90 percent to 95 percent of his hairdressing business.

He didn’t always cut hair. After being raised in a Catholic orphanage on New York’s Lower East Side, where he was shining shoes on Delancey Street at the age of 8, he lucked into a cook’s job at an Italian restaurant when he was 15. As he recalls it: “I was a bus boy; the chef dropped dead one day, and they gave me the job because the head nun at the orphanage had taught me how to cook.”

But cooking was not to be his calling, because he wanted a “more normal life.” So at 19, he learned the art of hairdressing, and has never looked back.

For several years, Gino was one of Manhattan’s hairdressers par excellence, with salons uptown and downtown, and a wealthy Jewish clientele (“Jewish women like to look good”). But his first wife, a Chinese American from whom he recently divorced, wanted to move to Los Angeles with their daughter. So to “keep the peace” and stay close to his daughter, he followed along and moved to a place he knew nothing about.

Since he didn’t yet have his California hairdresser’s license when he arrived in 1971, he started off by cutting hair on a federal Army base in El Segundo. But one question kept nagging at him: Where are all the Jews?

A buddy from New York told him to “go look in Beverly Hills,” but he found the rents there too high. So one thing led to another, and next thing you know Gino’s on the phone with the owner of a tiny building on West Pico, an Orthodox Jew who ended up becoming his friend and landlord — for 35 years and counting.

A lot has changed in his neighborhood and for Gino over the years. In his heyday, when he used to advertise his salon in the local Jewish paper as “The Boys From New York,” he would have “seven cutters, three shampoo girls and three managers working all the time.”

He attributes his successful years to a discriminating clientele (“I gave them Beverly Hills service without the stuffiness”) and to an obsession with cleanliness (“My customers never walk on hair”).

He felt close enough to his Jewish clientele that he even remembers going on Friday nights to hear the sermons of Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who was related to one of his clients. Although this was a far cry from his working with Sister Rose Maria of Thousand Oaks to help with her Christian missionary work in Africa, he recalls fondly the rabbi’s universal message that “we should all get along.”

Today, it’s just Gino and his second wife, a Japanese American named Kay, who run the salon, where relics of his heyday — a mini disco ball, 1,000 pictures (including one of Pope John Paul II), tchotckies and an old TV — are everywhere. When you consider how quiet the business is these days, you wonder how Gino stays so upbeat. He realizes that the neighborhood has changed; he calls it more “ethnic,” but when pressed, he elaborates and says it’s “more religious.”

Obviously, the trend toward wigs among the newly religious has not been good for business. When I ask him why he thinks the business is down, he admits that it might have to do with him not getting any younger; that it’s not like the old days, when he could attract the hottest talent in town. But the “r” words (retirement and relocation) are both out of the question. In fact, having recovered from a recent stroke, the fit and trim Gino has been doing some strategizing.

A couple of hot-shot religious hairdressers recently approached him and told him that they would be willing to work there, and bring their clients with them, if he would close on Shabbat. This notion intrigues him, and as he walks past the empty hairdresser chairs to offer me another coffee, you can tell that he’s feeling an old fire light up.

When I tell him that I must leave because it’s almost Shabbat, he smiles, the kind of smile that must wonder what it would be like to not have to work on the hairdressers’ busiest day of the week, for someone who’s never had a Saturday off in his life.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Live from the ‘hood: we’re gonna party like it’s 5667

I love Judaism. It’s got answers for everything. If something bothers me, I just ask a million questions; I dig a little and, voila, I’m enlightened.
One thing that bothers me is how so many Jews go bonkers on Simchat Torah. If you’re not sure what I mean, come visit my Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the eighth night of Sukkot. It’s not quite Mardi Gras or Rio’s Carnival, but you get the picture. This is the night when Grey Goose and Johnny Walker own the Pico strip.
As Torah scrolls are paraded inside the many shuls, a wild and crazy euphoria sweeps the strip. You’ll see Talmudic types rediscovering their rowdy inner selves, and Orthodox teenagers carousing in posse formation. There are even tourists from the Valley coming to check out the action. This is not a party, it’s the mother of all parties.
And please don’t think that I’m trying to coolly exclude myself from this holy balagan. My vocal chords will probably never forgive me for what I have done to them during a few Simchat Torahs past, some of which I can only faintly recollect.
Still, I do remember a little voice inside of me asking some uncomfortable questions, such as: How Jewish is all this rowdiness? Where is the depth and dignity so prevalent in other holidays? Can hard partying really be an expression of Torah joy?
I can see going a little nuts on Purim, when we celebrate a seminal victory that saved the Jewish people, but going bananas on a day of Torah?
So I decided to do some digging.
The first thing I uncovered is the special significance of the number eight. In our mystical tradition, just as the number seven alludes to time and to the cycle of nature, the number eight transcends time. It represents the day beyond days, when normal rhythms and boundaries do not apply. Simchat Torah, which falls on the eighth night of Sukkot, and celebrates something that itself transcends time (Torah), is ideally suited to break ordinary boundaries. Now stay with me; the plot thickens.
The explosion of joy on Simchat Torah is also the climax of a remarkable cycle of Jewish holidays that links the Torah with the liberation of our bodies and souls, by way of our emotions (I warned you). At Passover, our bodies are liberated from slavery and bondage, but this liberation is not complete until the holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the gift that gives purpose to our liberation: the Torah. This revelation is so mind-blowing that we learn the fear of God.
Six months later, a similar holiday pas de deux completes the cycle. The holiday of Sukkot liberates not our bodies but our souls, by freeing us from the bondage of materialism. This liberation, again, is not complete until we embrace the Torah, this time courtesy of Simchat Torah. By now, the Torah has earned our trust, so it inspires not fear but love for God’s eternal gift. There’s no fear without love, and no love without fear. Thanks to Simchat Torah, this holy cycle of liberation is now complete, and we can go party.
Is it any wonder, then, that we go a little over the top on Simchat Torah? On a day that transcends time, when we’ve liberated our souls, our love of Torah and our single malts, how could we not have a celebration to end all celebrations?How could we not get even a little rowdy?
It’s as if God is throwing us a party and picking up the tab, telling us that if we’re so madly in love, it’s OK to get a little carried away. Come to think of it, God must be pretty happy with us. Really, could you think of another people that reserves its most joyous day of the year to celebrate … a book! And raises it really high like a professional athlete raises a championship trophy?
You can bet that in my new neighborhood, this book will be raised really high.
Nothing Jewish is done halfway here. If Simchat Torah takes the joy of Judaism to another level, then I must live in the Simchat Torah of neighborhoods.
On the big night, I’ll probably start by watching grown men dance on tables at the Pinto shul, and then meander my way to the B’nai David parking lot, where Chabad usually throws its annual bash. With one of my kids on my shoulders, and the others ready for their annual Torah song and dance, I’ll then face an embarrassment of riches: killer celebrations at Aish, Beth Jacob, YICC (Young Israel of Century City), Mogen David and many more.
Wherever we end up, though, I don’t think I’ll be too bothered if people get rowdy, as long as their souls are liberated.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Pico’s Familiar Slice

The balabus is back.

Howard Weiss, who opened Los Angeles’s first kosher pizza shop in the mid 1970s, has reopened his famed Kosher Nostra, and he’s looking to reclaim the glory days of over-sized slices and relentless puns that made the first Kosher Nostra a community institution.

The new Nostra is a tiny storefront on Pico Boulevard east of La Cienega Boulevard, just a block or two outside the beaten path of kosher establishments on Pico.

Since he opened a couple months ago, Weiss said, he’s been living in something of a time warp. The kids whose fingers he used to slap off the counters come in with their own little ones. Teenagers who bore the brunt of Weiss’ temper when they piled into the place after a Saturday night YULA basketball game now come in as staid 30-somethings, awash in nostalgia (and with more money in their wallets).

But Weiss will need more than nostalgia to succeed in today’s kosher market.

When he opened 25 years ago, there were maybe five or six kosher restaurants around, including Pico Kosher Deli (est. 1968), Nosh N’ Rye and a couple of others, according to the Southern California Jewish Historical Society. By 1982, there were 15 kosher restaurants, marking the beginning of the growth spurt that would bring us to close 100 kosher eateries in Los Angeles and the Valley today.

At 71, Weiss, a Tevye lookalike with tired blue eyes and a bushy beard encroaching on his face, says he’s ready to work hard to compete, but the heavy sigh and the slow shrug that accompany his determination say otherwise.

His decade in Israel in the 1990’s hasn’t fully erased the pain of the collapse of his original kosher empire, which included Peking Tam, Pepe Tam and China on Rye, with branches in the city and the Valley. That expansion and an accompanying partnership went sour in 1990. The site of the old Kosher Nostra at Fairfax Avenue near Third Street became Pizza World, owned by Darren Melamed, Weiss’ longtime manager.

The new locale is decidedly more cramped, and Weiss is still working on the décor, but some things haven’t changed. As always, Weiss has staked out a corner table where he does crosswords and assaults diners with deadpan humor, although he’s taken "Marijuana Pizza: $45" off the new menu. Above him hangs the beaten-copper miniature storefront with the "Mikveh in Rear" sign and just to the right of the counter hangs Weiss’ own answers to FAQs — the original framed poster which he printed not on a computer long before there was such a thing as FAQs (and before the words "Kosher Nostra" Googled up an anti-Semitic email-propagated rumor).

It’s too early to say whether he’ll make it. This incarnation of Kosher Nostra might turn out to be just a historical hiccup. But in a kosher community that after 25 years of growth is just now reaching an age of maturity, there might be room for a bit of nostalgia, a bad Jewish mother joke and a slice of pizza that, even with all the competition, still holds its own.