Scarlett O’Hara on the Galilee — A Yishuv Pioneer


Over the past 10 years, Toby Press, a small trade house, has become one of the leading American publishers of Israeli fiction. While some of Israel’s major writers — David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua — have long been published by big American houses, Toby Press, founded by Matthew Miller, is making it possible for English speakers to get a richer sense of the whole spectrum of Hebrew writing today. Toby’s list includes classics of Israeli literature, like Bialik and Agnon, as well as new writers like Amir Gutfreund; it also publishes Jewish writers from around the world, like the young Argentinean novelist Marcelo Birmajer. At a time when American publishers translate fewer and fewer books, this commitment to internationalism has made Toby Press an important and hopeful presence.

“Valley of Strength,” by Shulamit Lapid, is the latest Israeli title to appear from Toby Press, in a clear and elegant translation by Philip Simpson. While few American readers have heard of it, the book has become a kind of Israeli classic since it appeared in 1982, and no wonder: it is a quite deliberate exercise in national mythmaking. Lapid, a prolific and acclaimed writer born in Tel Aviv in 1934, sets out to dramatize the early years of Zionist settlement in unapologetically heroic and sentimental terms. Indeed, Fania Mandelstam, the heroine of “Valley of Strength,” is a kind of Israeli Scarlett O’Hara. Like her American cousin, she is a dauntless, beautiful young woman who suffers through all her nation’s trials but manages to survive them thanks to her courage and spirit. At one moment, Fania even vows that she’ll never go hungry again:

“No more! Nothing would ever scare her again and nothing divert her from her purpose. Not the east wind, not the snakes nor the hunger, nor the hard work. She was the monument to the slaughtered members of her family, and she had one objective in life: To survive. To go on living. In any way possible.”

Such a woman clearly carries her own “valley of strength” inside her; but the title of the novel is not just a metaphor. Gai Oni, the Hebrew name translated by the title phrase, is an actual place — a tiny, struggling settlement in the Galilee where Fania turns up at the beginning of the novel. Yet she is no Zionist pioneer, by conviction or training. She is, in fact, a rather spoiled bourgeois girl brought up in a well-to-do, Russophile family in Elizavetgrad. But in 1881, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, a pogrom breaks out in the town, shattering the dream of assimilation in which she has lived. Fania’s parents are murdered; her brother, Lulik, is driven mad; and she herself is raped. By the time the novel opens, she has made her way to Jaffa with her brother, uncle and baby daughter searching for refuge and a new life.

She finds one, though not quite the one she expected, thanks to Yehiel Silas, the strong and silent farmer who spots her in Jaffa and quickly convinces her to join him at Gai Oni. Technically, the couple are married — Silas is a young widower with two children, and he needs a woman around the house — but Fania is still too traumatized to become intimate with any man. She even conceals the truth about her baby, telling Yehiel that she is a widow rather than a rape victim.

It does not take much readerly foresight to guess that, in time, Fania will be healed by Yehiel’s patient, manly attentions, and that her mistrust will blossom into passionate love. Much of the plot of “Valley of Strength” takes the form of roadblocks to that consummation, which Lapid postpones so that it will be all the sweeter when it comes. Yehiel is baffled by his young bride’s resistance to his sexual advances. He becomes jealous when she makes friends with another man, the poet Naphtali Herz Imber; then Fania becomes jealous when Rivka, the sister of Yehiel’s first wife, starts insinuating herself into their household. Yet Fania virtuously resists the other men who throw themselves at her, seduced by her bronze curls and dark eyes — not to mention her ability to play Chopin and read Tolstoy, rare graces in the Galilee. Finally, all the misunderstandings are cleared up, and in a passage that one can imagine Israeli adolescents dog-earing, Fania and Yehiel are united: “They now let the desire flow between them, guiding them tentatively towards the rapids.”

The love story in “Valley of Strength,” then, is conventional. What is surprising is that many of Fania’s other trials, too, sound familiar, even though there have been few novels about the ordeals of Jewish farmers in the Ottoman empire. That is because, the reader discovers, the life of a pioneer woman is much the same whether she is in the Galilee or Nebraska. Like the heroine of many a Western, Fania must learn to cook and clean, to work in the fields and tend the animals, to nurse the children when they are sick, even to deal with hostile nomads (Bedouins, in this case, rather than Indians). When she finally transforms herself into a self-sufficient Palestinian woman, she marks the change by swapping her fancy old clothes for a Bedouin’s native costume: “The sooner [I become] like one of the Bedouin women, so much the better. These are the clothes that suit this country. I’m not a Russian high school student any more, I’m a Jewish Bedouin.”

Lilly Friedman

What makes “Valley of Strength” an interesting and even educational book, despite its formulaic plot and characters, is the way Lapid translates this coming-of-age story to a Zionist context. She sets Fania in a meticulously researched historical setting, making her the reader’s guide through the social and physical landscape of 1880s Palestine. A number of real people make appearances in the book — Naphtali Herz Imber, for instance, was the Hebrew poet who wrote the lyrics to “Hatikvah.” More important, Lapid shows the reader the bitter ideological and economic rivalries that made the first Yishuv such a minefield. Fania meets the idealistic, impractical young pioneers of BILU, one of the earliest Russian Zionist groups (one of the men makes a pass at her); she gets rocks thrown at her by the Orthodox Jews of Safed, who see the farmers of Gai Oni as heretics; she negotiates with Jewish philanthropists like Rothschild and Hirsch, whose largesse always comes with strings attached.

Indeed, from the perspective of modern Israeli politics (the book was first published in 1982), it is noteworthy how Lapid emphasizes the tensions among Jews and downplays the tensions between Jews and Arabs. Yehiel is a native of Palestine, a Sephardic Jew who is at ease with his Arab neighbors. (Gai Oni, in fact, is just the Hebrew name for the Arab village of Jaoni.) The Jewish and Arab farmers make common cause against their real enemies, the marauding Bedouins and the rapacious Turkish government. The only people Yehiel really hates are the Jews of Safed, who live on donations from pious Jews in Europe and who see the Zionist settlers as a threat to their entitlements. The Jewish overseer in charge of distributing charitable funds to the farmers of Gai Oni is represented as a tyrant and a womanizer (he, too, throws himself at Fania).

It is not until a boatload of Romanian Jewish settlers arrives and renames the village Rosh Pinnah that the destinies of Gai Oni’s Jews and Arabs begin to diverge. When Yehiel urges one of the Romanians to hire Arab workers to help build his house, the newcomer arrogantly refuses: “They’re going to have to leave the place. This land belongs to us now, and the village is ours too. They’ve already proved what they’re capable of. We’re going to turn this place into a fertile garden.”

Yet “Valley of Strength” is not finally a novel about the ambiguities of the Zionist project. It is a hymn to the strength and self-sacrifice of pioneers like Yehiel, who redeemed the land with their blood, and it is a paean to early feminists like Fania, who held their own in a world run by men. Any reader who is alive to the drama and grandeur of Zionism will be moved, at times against his will, by Lapid’s lush pageant of a novel.

Adam Kirsch is the author of “Benjamin Disraeli,” a new biography in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.

Writer discovers California ‘Gold’ in banking ancestor Isaias Hellman


“Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” by Frances Dinkelspiel (St. Martin’s Press, $29.95)

Searching for ways to deal with the current economic crisis, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson could take a cue from Isaias Hellman, banker, capitalist and California visionary. More than once during financial panics in the 19th century, when bank runs were a too-frequent and devastating occurrence, Hellman resorted to a dramatic ploy to restore calm and confidence. He stacked massive towers of gold coins on the counter of his Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles.

Half a million dollars in plain view “was a tonic,” his great-great-granddaughter Frances Dinkelspiel writes in “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” (St. Martin’s Press). It was a sight that stopped withdrawals cold and even attracted deposits. Everyone, customers and competitors, seemed to trust Hellman’s faith that better times were ahead.

A grand gesture, his towers of gold represented not only Hellman’s keen sense of the public psyche when hard times arose but his own confidence in the opportunities and resources of California. Hellman was an essential part, according to Dinkelspiel, of the generation that built the economic engines and defined the social institutions of California. In that role and company, Hellman was arguably the single most powerful and influential Jew in the United States from the last quarter of the 19th century until his death in 1920.

A fifth-generation Californian and Bay Area journalist, Dinkelspiel grew up with little knowledge of her illustrious ancestor. She discovered in the Hellman papers at the California Historical Society “every reporter’s dream: an unknown story about a critical chapter in the country’s history.”

Sifting through extensive correspondence, ledgers, newspaper clippings and diaries, she realized that Hellman was a titan of his time, “California’s premier financier” when the state shed its isolation and became an economic force.

She soon was on a seven-year quest to re-insert Hellman into California history and expand the record of Jewish immigrant success beyond Levi Strauss (who was just one of several pioneer co-religionists helped by Hellman to build unimaginable fortunes).

Hellman arrived in Los Angeles from Bavaria in 1859, a few months shy of his 17th birthday. Still more Mexican than American and with a population of less than 5,000, Los Angeles was home to maybe 150 Jews, almost all merchants who belonged to a handful of extended families. Accompanied by his younger brother, Herman, and with less than $100 between them, Hellman went to work as a clerk in a cousin’s store.

Within a few years, Hellman was buying his own store, developing commercial property in the center of Los Angeles and going into business with men “who considered themselves the problem solvers” of the region. Men such as John G. Downey, an Irish immigrant and former governor of California, were eager to capitalize on the sterling reputation and business acumen of the 29-year-old when Hellman invited them to become shareholders in the Farmers and Merchants Bank.

Farmers and Merchants proved to be the city’s first successful financial institution. It also became Hellman’s springboard to a West Coast banking empire that by 1915 had resources totaling more than $100 million. The crown jewel in that empire was the Wells Fargo Nevada Bank.

In 1890, Hellman was tapped to save the Nevada Bank, a San Francisco firm that counted the Southern Pacific Railroad among its biggest customers. When capitalist E.H. Harriman decided to spin off the banking business of Wells Fargo, he approached Hellman to take charge of merging two of the state’s oldest establishments and creating one of the West’s largest financial institutions.

While Hellman had family ties to New York and European capitalists (his brother-in-law was Meyer Lehman of the Lehman Brothers commodity house), the roots of Hellman’s success were in his local connections. He persistently partnered with friends and neighbors, Jews and non-Jews, first in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco. As his success grew, he promoted California investment opportunities to Lehman Brothers and other prominent Jewish firms in the East and increased the wealth on both coasts.

As an investor, adviser and leader, Hellman extended his success and influence over several other major industries in California. He partnered with Collis and Henry E. Huntington to develop railroads and trolley lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He loaned Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny $500 to purchase the land where they sunk the first free-flowing oil well in Los Angeles.

Hellman was the largest shareholder in the Los Angeles Water Co., a private firm that developed the city’s water system in the 19th century, and personally sold a $14.5 million bond issue for the Spring Valley Water Co. that supplied San Francisco. Having early in his career invested in vineyards, in 1901 Hellman took control of the California wine industry, standardizing the product and elevating the reputation of the industry around the world. In addition, he developed land all over Los Angeles County, owned property in San Francisco and built a vacation retreat at Lake Tahoe that eventually became a state park.

Hellman’s influence on Los Angeles is still evident today. In an instance where capitalism and philanthropy met, Jewish Hellman, Protestant Ozro Childs and Catholic Downey donated 110 acres to the Methodist founders of USC. The land was in the center of the partners’ subdivision at the southwest edge of the city. They also extended the trolley line they owned from downtown to the new campus.

Their generosity gave potential land buyers a destination and a convenient way to get there. The city had a university, and the partners saw their land triple in value.

Hellman helped create another L.A. institution when he advised Harrison Gray Otis to buy out his partner in the Los Angeles Times and then provided the $18,000 loan required to put the paper in Otis’ hands. Otis’ descendants, the Chandler family, sold the massive media company that evolved for $8 billion in 2000.

Hellman’s leadership went beyond the world of finance and business. When Los Angeles’ first synagogue was built in 1872, he was president of Congregation B’nai B’rith, now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He served as a regent of the University of California for more than 30 years and endowed a scholarship fund still supporting students. He took a leading role in the recovery of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Beneficiaries of his philanthropy ranged from Catholic orphans to World War I Jewish European refugees.

While unquestionably Hellman achieved the immigrant’s dream of success and acceptance in America, there were times when he was the target of anti-Jewish sentiments and anti-Semitic behavior. He and his companies also were subject to the wrath of unionists and socialists, progressive reformers and even betrayal by family members. His wealth, influence and fame brought both friends and enemies.

In its plain sense, the biography of Hellman is a story of nearly unfettered opportunity to apply one’s skills and realize one’s ambition. The openness of the American frontier stood in stark contrast to the restrictions on livelihood and residency most Jewish Europeans left behind. At a deeper level, Hellman’s story is a reminder that it took skill, ambition and connections to transform that frontier into part of the United States and create a state that today has a gross domestic product larger than all but eight countries in the world.

Jews were notably among the diverse contributors of those necessary ingredients, as they have continued to be, for example, the Stern, Haas and Goldman families in San Francisco and the Factor, Taper, Casden and Lowy families in Los Angeles.

To her credit, Dinkelspiel presents a well-developed and even-handed portrayal of Hellman and his extended family. The biography maintains a solid historical context in which to understand the perspectives, philosophy and values of a gilded-age capitalist. His German-American-Jewish sense of responsibility to family, community, customers, investors, competitors and the future comes through clearly. Through the vehicle of one man and his networks of family, friends and associates, the foundational place in California history of Jewish immigrants generally is illuminated, as well.

Well-researched and highly readable, “Towers of Gold” makes an important contribution to both the history of the Golden State and the history of Jews in America. It is a very strong case for the veracity of the volume’s subtitle — “How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” — demonstrating the key role of Hellman in the urban and economic development of California.

It also adds a fresh perspective on the Jewish immigrants from Central Europe who in the mid-19th century joined in the continental expansion of the United States and set down roots in emerging communities. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, frontier California was influenced by “Jewish values and sensibility” in ways unprecedented anywhere else in the nation.

Hellman’s life and accomplishments illustrated that influence, and this biography brings attention to its still-unfolding consequences.

Karen S. Wilson is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA and curator for the upcoming Autry National Center exhibition on the history of Jews in Los Angeles.

Feminist cantor retires from long-term post


In 1980, five years into her cantorate, Aviva Rosenbloom, then in her early 30s, stood before her Reform congregation at Temple Israel of Hollywood and stretched the boundaries of her role as singer and teacher to ask her congregation a difficult question: “Are women in Judaism equal?”

It was an appropriate setting for the query — the first “feminist Shabbat” at the synagogue, a service Rosenbloom not only helped create, but nurtured into the spotlight. The groundbreaking event marked the first time a group of women stood on the temple’s bimah together to lead the congregation in prayer — and the only time Rosenbloom publicly used her voice to deliver a sermon. She had sketched out her thoughts on 19 pages of handwritten notes, protesting the inequality of women in Judaism and calling it a “patriarchal religion.” That radical address still resonated 28 years later, when part of it was played during a musical celebration honoring her retirement at TIOH last May, titled, “Erev Aviva.”

“Women feel like second-class citizens in Jewish life,” Rosenbloom said in the speech. “We don’t feel like we’re really Jews, and I think that attitude should change.”

Rosenbloom’s voice, with all its mellifluous harmony, became a harbinger of change. Yet almost three decades later, her message was no less poignant; it was a reminder of how much her early vision has changed the status of women in Judaism.

The culmination of her career-long effort took place when hundreds of Rosenbloom’s fans gathered in the TIOH sanctuary at “Erev Aviva” to celebrate an artistic voice with a political impact. Friends, colleagues and fellow clergy praised her as a “champion of women,” a “trailblazer” and someone of “grace, humor, wit and passion”; the choir sang songs she had written; TIOH Senior Rabbi John L. Rosove dedicated a Torah in her honor, and Rosenbloom sat quietly in the front row as the community celebrated her 32-year legacy.

A few weeks later, Rosenbloom, 60, now Cantor emerita, reflected on her career from her new office in the temple’s former choir loft. (Chazzan Danny Maseng is now the temple’s cantor and music director, making him the temple’s third full-time cantor in its 82-year history.) When asked about the evolution of Jewish life in Los Angeles, Rosenbloom struggled for the right words; she pondered for a moment, then covered her eyes trying to focus.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin to say how Jewish L.A. has changed. There’s just too much, and it’s too huge,” she said.

If words don’t come easily to Rosenbloom, it’s because she has spent most of her life singing. As early as age 4, she jumped up on a coffee table at home and sang an Israeli folk song for her mother and father. It was the ultimate gesture from young Rosenbloom, who identified with both parents — her mother both sang and taught Hebrew and her father was a cantor — though her mother’s unexpected death when she was 10 forced her to look to her father as a mentor.

“I didn’t grow up with the advice and companionship and modeling of a mother,” Rosenbloom said. “My parental role model was my father, and my vision was more like what my father did. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an opera singer on the moon.”

Nevertheless, after majoring in sociology at Brandeis University and becoming active in the ’60s counterculture, the anti-war activist and civil rights proponent had no idea what she wanted to do with her life — so she went to Israel.

“I felt more American in Israel than I felt Jewish, because what differentiated me from everybody else wasn’t that I was Jewish, but that I was an American Jew,” Rosenbloom said. The trip changed her life. “Israel wound up showing me who I was other than the Jewish component — mainly, that I was a singer; that my calling was music.”

“Everywhere I went they were asking me to sing,” she said.

Rosenbloom never dared to dream she could become a cantor, a role that at that time was held only by men. But Rabbi Haskell Bernat, whom she met first when she was at Brandeis and then worked with at a synagogue in Massachusetts, believed in her talent, and when he became Temple Israel’s rabbi he invited her — despite her lack of formal training — to come to Hollywood as a cantor.

“I knew I had a lot of work to do to step up to this, but somehow I knew that I could do it,” she said. “I had this sense that I belonged on the bimah.”

Rosenbloom delved into her studies and soon became the first female cantor in Los Angeles to gain full-time employment.

“There were people who were horrified,” she recalled. “I didn’t so much feel people were opposed to the fact that I wasn’t invested; they were opposed to the fact that I was young, I was a woman and I was playing the guitar.”

The move toward a more participatory worship service led by a woman was a significant shift in the style and culture of the synagogue. When she first arrived, Rosenbloom was not allowed to lead High Holy Day services in the main sanctuary because it was thought she might upset the older, more prominent members of the synagogue. And it wasn’t until that seminal feminist service in 1980 that other women began appearing on the bimah.

Since then, Rosenbloom says women’s contributions at Temple Israel and elsewhere have made worship more personal and creative and have integrated new ritual practices that reflect a woman’s experience, including annual feminist Passover seders. Part of that change also meant acknowledging that along with her demanding professional life, Rosenbloom and husband, Ben, would raise their son, Eitan, in the midst of synagogue life.

“It was difficult because whenever I was here, I wished I was with my son, and whenever I was with my son, I wished I was at the temple.”

With her retirement, she leaves behind an adoring community, as well as what she sees as a changing era in the cantorate, in which the role of a cantor as soloist is diminishing. Although she helped usher in the change to a more participatory service — or what some feel is a return to more traditional modes of davening — she regrets that it means many cantors are now doing less of the artistic performance they love.

Fortunately for her, she will now have the time and space to return to her art.

“I need to see who I am when I am not cantor of Temple Israel of Hollywood,” she said. “I need to refocus on what feeds my soul — singing and music.”

VIDEO: Joan Nathan, the real Sara Lee and America’s favorite cheesecake


The namesake of the famous company Sara Lee discusses her father’s early expeierments with cheesecake and how he decided to name the company he founded after her. From Jewish Cooking In America with Joan Nathan.  Nathan is a big fan of Langer’s pastrami.

It’s Pat — South African queen of kosher cuisine


Smoked duck with papaya salsa. Wild mushroom turnovers. Chicken roulade with sun-dried tomatoes and spinach. Sushi.
Hungry yet? Good.

You keep kosher? Not a problem.

These are just a few of the elegantly presented gourmet dishes created by Pat Fine, of Pat’s Restaurant and Pat’s Catering.
In the nearly three decades since Fine started serving up her dishes in the Southland, the kosher dining landscape has changed dramatically. As David Kamp chronicles in his book, “The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation,” Americans of all stripes have been tutored in fine dining by a string of successful chefs, food critics, cookbook writers and restaurateurs over the last 30 years. This phenomenon has raised the bar for kosher cooking as well, creating demand for chic kosher dining.

Fine has been — and remains — a kosher cuisine pioneer in Los Angeles. Perhaps Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and frequent Pat’s customer, sums it up best: “She’s the queen of kosher catering, absolutely top of the line.”

Raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Fine was one of four daughters. Her mother had very little interest in cooking, so Fine and her sisters were given free reign in the kitchen. Her father, a man who loved to eat, proved an enthusiastic recipient of his daughters’ culinary adventures.

Although had she expressed a desire to become a professional cook, Fine is convinced that her mother “would have freaked.” Cooking was thought of as “such an ordinary job, one that simply wasn’t OK for nice Jewish girls,” Fine said.
As a concession to her parents, Fine went on to university to train and work as a pharmacist.

“I was misguided,” she said. “Someone should have said to me ‘Why don’t you go to chefs school?’ I would have loved to go to Cordon Bleu or somewhere like that. But I didn’t, and I regret that.”

Continuing to live and work in Johannesburg, Fine met her husband, Errol. They married in 1970 and soon started their own family. While Fine’s parents were traditional Jews — they lit candles on Friday nights and celebrated the holidays — her in-laws were more observant.

“They kept kosher, so of course when I married I began to [keep kosher] as well,” Fine said.

As massive riots broke out in Soweto near Johannesburg in 1976, the Fines left South Africa with their three sons to start anew in California.

“I had never left the country until we emigrated; I didn’t even have a passport,” Fine said.

The Fines settled in Los Angeles, where Errol was the financial controller for a chain of men’s clothing stores. Pat was busy at home with their children, but still loved learning about food and creating new recipes, so she spent a lot of time “reading and experimenting on my own.”

Over time, more and more of Fine’s friends asked her to prepare food for celebrations and events.

“I was cooking out of my house. I was doing everything myself — the shopping, cooking, delivery, serving. It became too much,” she said.

Since large trucks were prohibited from frequenting her residential neighborhood, Fine would sometimes send deliveries to her children’s school and then transport items with her own car.

Fine expanded her catering with the purchase of a deli on Pico Boulevard in 1982, which she named Elite Cuisine. She soon opened a second Elite Cuisine deli on Beverly Boulevard near Hancock Park. (Although Fine has since sold both delis, the new owner of the Hancock Park location has kept the name.)

As Fine remembers, “When we started out, there were just places like Nosh and Rye. There was nothing else — just some falafel places, kosher hot dogs, deli food. I would tell people that we’ve got pasta salad and they’d say ‘macaroni salad?’ because that was all they knew.”

When she sold the last of her delis about 15 years ago, Fine consolidated her business, opened the fleishig (meat) Pat’s Restaurant on Pico Boulevard near Doheny Drive and expanded the catering operations. Around the same time, Fine said, she offered her accountant husband a job.

With Errol Fine running the business side — from managing 50 employees to handling details for events as far away as in San Francisco — Pat Fine is free to spend her time focused on food.

“He has a lot of charisma, so he meets with people. I prefer to be in the kitchen,” she said.

“It’s a very good partnership,” she added.

As kosher cooking has become increasingly sophisticated and customer’s palettes have become more refined, Fine said she endeavors to stay ahead of the curve. Inspired by her customers’ knowledge and by other creative chefs, Fine said, “Whatever they’re doing out there, say at Spago’s, we’re doing, but kosher.”

Despite her ongoing love for fine food, one shouldn’t expect an invitation for a home-cooked meal at the Fine residence any time soon. At the end of the workday, her home kitchen is the last place Pat Fine wants to be.

She warned, “If you ask me to make coffee at home it’s a big deal — you’re on your own. The most you’ll get in my house is a bagel and cottage cheese.”

Dassa Connects a Step-Kick at a Time


By the age of 4, Dani Dassa knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“I remember going to the synagogue on Simchat Torah and watching the adults jumping up and down with the Torah,” he says. “Even then, I knew there was something to that kind of dancing.”

Some 73 years later, Dassa’s priorities have not changed. He remains singularly devoted to the practice and transmission of Israeli folk dance. In Israeli folk dance circles both locally and internationally, his name is synonymous with words like legend and pioneer.

“Dani has a magical way of bringing you into his own spiritual high,” says Ruth Goodman, a popular New York-based Israeli folk dance teacher, director of the Israeli Dance Institute and Dassa’s longtime colleague. “He absolutely deserves the status of a legend because he has influenced so many people’s lives. When he dances and teaches, he makes Israel and the Bible come to life.”

Yet, for someone who’s choreographed around 70 dances, taught all over the world and made Los Angeles a vital center for Israeli folk dance, Dassa maintains a relatively low profile. He has never carried a business card, for example, and tends to steer clear of press interviews. “I don’t have the ego for self-promotion,” he says.

Seated at his kitchen table with Judy Dassa, his wife and business manager of 49 years, Dassa tries to pinpoint the secret to his success. “I’ve always shared all that I have, physically and spiritually,” he says.

Dassa has also possessed an unwavering faith in his abilities. Arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1950s with $800 in his pocket, he persisted in trying to do the only work he loved. He managed to secure an interview with Shlomo Bardin, founder of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“He asked me, ‘Can you really make better Jews out of dancing?’ I said, ‘That’s exactly what I do,’ and I got the job,” recalls Dassa. “That was my lucky break.”

Born in Jerusalem to traditional Jewish parents, Dassa grew up dancing in youth groups. Early on, he mastered the art of moving in a circle and how to dance with a girl not by holding hands but by interlocking elbows.

“Of all body-motion activities, dance was my first love,” he says. “Also, the Israeli landscape, the Bible stories … these were not fiction to me. They were my reality, and the only way for me to express that reality was through dance.”

After graduating from Israel’s Wingate Institute with a degree in physical education, Dassa studied modern dance, first in Israel and then in New York, where he learned from famous choreographers like Martha Graham and Louis Horst. Though sought after as a dancer in New York, Dassa knew his calling lay elsewhere.

“I studied modern dance only for the technique,” he says. “The music and ideas of this kind of dance never touched me.”

As a choreographer, Dassa always sought a direct connection among the stories of the Bible, the land of Israel and the movements he generates.

“The words dictate the movement; the music enhances the words,” he says. “If I’m making a dance about praying for rain, we are really going to do that. The dance is not about the steps, it’s about reliving an experience.”

“My father doesn’t just teach dance, he connects people to Judaism through dance,” says Dassa’s son, David, a highly sought-after Israeli folk dance teacher in Los Angeles, who “literally” followed in his father’s footsteps. “I am definitely carrying on his legacy, because when I teach, the actual physical learning of the dance is secondary. It’s about connecting people Jewishly.”

Genie Benson feels the same way. Now the executive director of the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble, Benson had been a ballet dancer until she started to study with Dassa at Camp Alonim and later at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“He changed my life,” she says. “He would sit on the grass with us and tell us Bible stories or about the pioneers in Israel. He encouraged us to choreograph our own dances. He went far beyond being an ordinary dance teacher.”

“I started out by teaching 10 basic dances everywhere,” he says. “The idea was that people from all over the world could communicate with each other through these dances.”

In 1966, Dassa launched his crowning entrepreneurial achievement: Café Danssa, the folk dance club that still operates in its original West Los Angeles location. The Dassas only owned the club for about seven years, but maintained a presence there for decades.

In the 1970s, “you’d find hundreds of people in that room, there would be a line out the door,” Dani Dassa says. “People from Israel would get off the plane and head straight to Café Danssa.”

“So many people met, married and divorced at Café Danssa,” Judy Dassa recalls. “You knew about everyone’s life because for those people, Café Danssa was their life.”

Though he no longer choreographs, Dani Dassa still teaches workshops all over the world, including every year at the Rikud Dance Camp that he founded at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.

“Get me dancing in a workshop, and I feel like I’m 21 years old again,” he says. “There’s no question I will be dancing until my grave.”

Singles – Out of the Wilderness


Generally speaking, Ventura County is a lovely place. It has beautiful weather, decent air quality, low crime and renowned surfing spots.

It’s a nice place to look for antiques or raise a family.

It’s not so hot for Jewish singles.

I found myself moving there in 2002 for professional reasons related to my career as an editorial cartoonist.

To put it another way: There are more jobs playing pro football in the NFL than there are jobs in my field. And given that I’m lousy at football, I seized an opportunity to combine graphics and cartooning at the Ventura County Star in Ventura. I picked Camarillo as a compromise residence: close enough to commute; a tad closer to Los Angeles.

I soon learned that the heart of Ventura County — Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura — is nothing like Los Angeles, and does not really associate itself with Southern California. Local radio ads promote their locations on the “Central Coast” or in the “Tri-Counties.” Huh?

(A hint: Los Angeles is not one of the three.)

There’s no Jewish Community Center, no Judaica stores and only one sort of “real” deli, though it would never be confused with Art’s. The Jewish Journal doesn’t even distribute here.

Venturing into the local Jewish singles world, I learned … well, that there wasn’t one. No Israeli folkdance, no SpeedDating, no singles groups. Even basic aspects of dating Jews seemed challenging.

I discovered that the Conejo Grade — that long, engine-straining climb between the 23 Freeway and the Camarillo outlet mall — was more like the Berlin Wall for dating. East of it, Thousand Oaks (part of Ventura County) was still extended suburbia, still part of Los Angeles’ Jewish Federation. A few MTA buses go there, and its ZIP codes begin with “913” — almost like the Valley.

But down the hill on the other side, it’s a different story. Ventura’s Jewish Federation is tiny. The buses all seem to go to Santa Barbara; ZIP codes begin with “930,” and agricultural fields abound.

The handful of synagogues seem mostly full of soccer moms or older retirees, with almost nothing in between. But while my 30-to 50-mile treks to the Valley or Los Angeles for singles events led me to eligible women, they also led to the ultimate slam: geographic undesirability. As in: “Whoa, you’re way too far away. Sorry.”

In the play “Jewtopia” is a scene where one guy encourages his friend to expand his JDate searches beyond area codes 310 and 818 to include area code 805, eliciting a scream, “No way! I am not going to Thousand Oaks!”

I laughed, but thought, “And that’s merely the near side of Ventura County!”

My own JDate searches weren’t dissimilar. I was too far away to be worthwhile for any “818-er,” and there were few compatible “805-ers.”

A Ventura County Jewish Singles group bravely took life, but died after several months, caught between low turnout and a lack of volunteers. In this group, as well as with a small Santa Barbara one, it felt as though the same people came to every event.

But now, things have changed for me. One JDater has worked out, wonderfully, all the way to the altar. Even so, Roberta and I have just moved eastward, to Westlake Village (straddling the Ventura-L.A. County line), a move made possible by the upcoming relocation of my office.

And suddenly, a haimish world of possibilities has opened up. There’s Roxy’s Famous Deli to the west and Agoura Deli to the east. Not only is there a Gelson’s, but they actually carry The Jewish Journal, as does Whole Foods (neither of which exist on the flats of the Oxnard Plain). You can actually find Chanukah candles! They’ve heard of hamantaschen. There are homes nearby with mezuzahs. And the shlep to my family in the Valley or to my preferred shul, Makom Ohr Shalom in Encino, finally has become reasonable.

At the closing of escrow on the townhouse we’d just bought, the seller’s agent revealed a secret he’d been waiting to share, spoken in reverent tones: a new branch of Brent’s Deli will open soon … right here in Westlake Village!

Ohmigosh.

OK. I guess I’m a lousy pioneer. I failed to conquer new territory for Jewish singles. I gave up on the outer boonies — though I’m sure those climes make for lovely homes for many Jewish families.

For that matter, I’ve given up on singlehood, too.

At last, the years of wandering in the wilderness, geographically and dating-wise, are over. I’ve made it to the Promised Land. And I’m not just talking about a good pastrami on rye.

Steve Greenberg contributes editorial cartoons, art and occasional writing to The Journal. His email address is steve@greenberg-art.com.

 

Rabbi Alfred Wolf


Rabbi Alfred Wolf, who pioneered Jewish summer camps and the interfaith movement on the West Coast, died Aug. 1 at the age of 88.

Throughout his life, he strove for his self-described goal "to serve as a catalyst in bringing people together, despite personal and ideological differences."

Wolf served as rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the oldest Reform congregation in Los Angeles, for 36 years, from 1949 to 1985.

After his retirement, he started a new career as founding director of the Skirball Institute on American Values, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

As founding president of the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California, Wolf brought together the region’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders. During the 1984 Olympic Games, he and the council organized inter-religious services and lobbied for placement of a mosque at the Olympic venue.

Wolf was born in Eberbach, Germany in 1915. The only Jewish student in his public school grade, he characteristically led his Christian classmates on a field trip to a synagogue for a discussion of Jewish beliefs and customs.

"I felt that the main reason for Hitler’s success in Germany was that people didn’t know anything about Jews," he later observed.

He started his religious studies at Berlin’s Institute for Jewish Studies in 1935 and said he owed his life to accepting an offer to become an exchange student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati.

Wolf’s first job on the West Coast was as regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. During his three-year tenure, he established Reform congregations in 12 Southern California communities, among them Temple Isaiah and Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles and Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal a decade ago, he described this feat as "the most unlikely accomplishment of my life."

An avid hiker and swimmer, Wolf opened his temple’s Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu in 1952, which became the prototype for the American Jewish youth camping movement.

In 1965, Wolf was president of L.A. County Commission on Human Relations during the devastating Watts riots, and always felt that the loss of life and property could have been averted if the city’s police chief had accepted the commission’s earlier recommendations. In 1993, he co-chaired the first Nationwide Conference for Catholic, Jewish and Protestant Seminaries.

Wolf taught at USC, HUC-JIR, Chapman College, Loyola University and Cal State L.A. and was the co-author of two books.

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr of La Mirada served as Wolf’s rabbinical colleague at Wilshire Boulevard Temple during the 1970s, under the legendary Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin.

Although overshadowed in the community by Magnin, informally known as "The Chief Rabbi of California," Wolf was fiercely loyal to his senior rabbi and declined many offers to become the spiritual leader at other congregations, Goldmark said.

"Rabbi Wolf was an intensely creative person and he convinced a skeptical Rabbi Magnin to establish Camp Hess Kramer and the Gindling Hilltop Center," Goldmark recalled.

A handy craftsman, Wolf personally helped build the camp’s amphitheater.

Wolf is survived by his wife of 64 years, Miriam; sons, Dan and David; and four grandchildren. A daughter, Judy Wolf Lee, died of cancer in 1987.

Services were held Wednesday at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Ramon Memorialized Across America


The groundswell of emotion in response to Ilan Ramon’s death
has not only been a great inspiration for American Jews, it also has helped
strengthen the bond Americans feel for Israel.

“It’s a state of mourning for the whole nation. Our
school is no different,” said Joseph “J.P.” Schwarcz, 18, a Yeshiva University freshmanin
New York.

At the same time, Schwarcz was quick to note the distinct
status of Israel’s representative on board, Ramon, as a role model for Jews.

“Throughout the whole week, our deans have come into our
class and discussed with us how we should be just like Ilan Ramon,” he said.

In mourning the tragic flight of the whole Columbia crew,
Jews across America are especially touched by the loss of Ramon. Whether Jews
saw him as pioneer or peacemaker, most saw him as the best of the Jewish
people.

That sentiment is evident across the country from memorial
services, e-mail and written messages to Ramon’s family, and actions taken
after the disaster.

In a televised conversation with Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon from space, Ramon had said, “I call upon every Jew in the world to
plant a tree in the land of Israel during the coming year.”

Now, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is coordinating a
massive effort to fulfill Ramon’s request. The JNF received some 1,000 calls
for about 3,000 trees on Monday alone, an all-time record of unsolicited calls,
according to the group’s CEO, Russell Robinson.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has set up a
fund in memory of the space shuttle Columbia astronauts. The fund will be used
to encourage the study of math and science in Los Angeles and Israeli schools
(for information, contact (323) 761-8000).

U.S. Rep Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader,
reinforced the view that the tragedy is bringing Americans closer to Israel
when he addressed a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) in Boca
Raton, Fla., on Saturday night.

“I can think of no two nations that are so connected by so
many timeless truths. We are kindred nations and tonight we are siblings in
mourning,” said the lawmaker, who returned to the RJC event after flying home
to Houston after the shuttle disaster.

At the Yeshiva University memorial, a slide show
presentation laced with music from the movie “Apollo 13” and a tearful Jewish
ballad, underscored the American-Israeli connection.

David Weinberg, 21, the Yeshiva junior who created it,
imposed his words over images of George Bush and the exploded shuttle: “This
mission saw the dreams and hopes of two nations fuse together.”