“Cook, Pray, Eat Kosher” is the best of both worlds

Mia Adler Ozair’s new cookbook isn’t just about kosher recipes. It also details the spiritual meaning behind Jewish food and how it can be incorporated into everyday family life.

“Cook, Pray, Eat Kosher: The Essential Kosher Cookbook for the Jewish Soul” (Oakhurst Publishing; Feldheim Publishers) includes Ashkenazic and Sephardic recipes — some of which are appropriate for Passover — as well as explanations of connections between food and the neshamah (soul). There are sections on why blessings are said before and after eating, the spiritual nature of the holidays, the mitzvah of making challah, and quotes from tzadikim (righteous people) and Jewish writings. 

Jewish parent power tools can help kids cope with the tragedy at Sandy Hook and beyond

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about what to say to children about the massacre at Sandy Hook.  A steady stream of experts attempting to provide some sort of parental protocol for addressing this unimaginable tragedy with our kids: Find out what our child knows before divulging too many details. Limit our kids’ exposure to scary news reports. Reassure them that they are safe and that the adults in their lives know how to keep them from harm’s way. But even the best advice seems to fall short in this case as it’s ultimately impossible for anyone – our children or ourselves – to make sense of that which doesn’t. 

Thankfully, our rich Jewish tradition offers a unique set of resources to help us find our way over this most daunting of parental hurdles.  The following Jewish Parent Power Tools – when embraced for all their worth – can help our children cope with the harsh realities of Sandy Hook while gearing them with strength, courage and compassion for the uncertain road ahead.

The Shema.  “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” The Shema is considered the most important prayer in the Jewish religion as it perfectly and succinctly reaffirms of our faith and connection with God twice a day. The news out of Newtown that our kids might have seen on the TV, Internet, and social media can make their world feel frightening and out of control.  By saying the Shema, this sense of powerless is replaced by spirituality and belief in a higher power that will help guide and sustain them through good times and bad.

The Haggadah.  The word haggadah means a storytelling.  Sharing tales of overcoming hardship is part of our religion by design.  The Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL) at Emory University has shown this premise on a more scientific level.  A long-term study by MARIAL’s found that children whose parents told family stories at the dinner table had significantly better coping skills than those whose parents did not.  From Passover to Purim and everything in between, our Jewish narrative reassures our children of the power of perseverance and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).  Senseless acts of violence like that which occurred in Newtown confirm that our world is indeed in need of repair.  Joining forces with our children to pick up litter in a park, volunteer in a soup kitchen, or doing other acts of Tikkun Olam can feel like our own little triumph over evil – a tiny step toward restoring that which was broken and tilting the balance scales toward good.

Tzedakah and Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Loving Kindness).   There’s no doubt that the school shootings in Newtown shake us to the core.  But rather than focusing on the horror of what’s transpired, we should encourage our children (and ourselves) to channel our energies into feeling compassion for the families that were affected by this tragedies. Collecting Tzedakah or making cards for the students at Sandy Hook school can help facilitate this cognitive shift from fear to a much healthier compassion.

Jewish Courage.  There is a beautiful Hebrew song based on the sage words of Rav Nachman of Breslov. Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’fahed klal.  The world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear. “Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the overcoming of fear,” writes Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World.  This is not to suggest that we encourage our kids to throw caution to the wind altogether.  They should, of course, be sensible and vigilant. But then it’s time to move forward: Skipping into their classrooms, laughing with friends on the schoolyard, walking that inevitably narrow bridge with a zest for life and faith in the world’s ultimate goodness.  Enjoy the journey together.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an award-winning educator and author of “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?” (Random House). Her parenting articles appear in over 100 publications including Parents, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Huffington Post and the Jerusalem Post. Her four children give her an endless supply of parenting fodder.

For downtown’s Persian Jews, work plus worship equals success

Fast-paced techno dance music blasts through Chikas, a retail clothing store off Santee Street in the heart of downtown Los Angeles’ Fashion District, which many call the Garment District. Robert Mahgerefteh, the store’s owner, helps the dozen or so young women looking for great deals on the latest fashions.

“Many of us from the Iranian-Jewish community working in the Garment District have a very hard work ethic, sometimes working six or seven days a week,” he said. “People like myself grew up seeing our dads and uncles put the time and effort into making their businesses a success, so we’re following in their footsteps.”

Mahgerefteh, 29, is among the more than 300 Iranian Jews who work as retailers, wholesalers or importers of clothing, fabrics and fashion accessories in downtown’s Fashion District. Over the last 30 years, their businesses and Iranian-Jewish investment in downtown real estate have helped transform the district into one of the major business hubs in Southern California.

In addition to improving the area, Iranian-Jewish businessmen have brought their faith and practice with them, establishing synagogues in the area and supporting several downtown kosher restaurants. Rabbis even travel to the Fashion District to teach Torah and other topics during lunch-and-learn sessions.

And while the flood of cheaper clothing and fabrics from China has driven some Iranian Jews out of the business, others have remained downtown, finding their niche in the new marketplace.

Following their immigration to Los Angeles from Iran, hundreds of Iranian Jews flocked to the Fashion District in the late 1970s and early 1980s, either because of their familiarity with the garment trade or because it seemed the easiest way to earn a living.

Iranian-Jewish real estate developer Behrooz Neman, who has owned properties in downtown’s Fashion District since the mid-1980s, said the area was in dire economic conditions when Iranian Jews first arrived.

“It looked like South Central with only old buildings and empty warehouses,” Neman said. “I can honestly say that if the Iranian Jews had never come to Los Angeles, there would be no Garment District as you see it today.”

Those Iranian Jews who first worked the Fashion District didn’t have the higher overhead costs of the larger American fabric companies, said Amir “Aby” Emrani, co-owner of Emday Fabrics.

“And, we also gave ourselves smaller commissions,” he said.

Today, Emday Fabrics and a handful of other Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses are among downtown’s largest and most successful fabrics importers, selling to both a national and international clientele.

“In the early days, we worked very hard and long hours — it was just myself, my brother and my father. … Little by little, the hard work and our ability to give much lower pricing to our customers allowed us to grow,” Emrani said.

Among the businesses that found a niche early was Donna Vinci, a division of Brasseur Inc., which specializes in plus-size women’s suits, among its other high-end women’s clothing.

“It was very successful for us, and we have continued over the years to build on that idea with many different designs and brands for the same customers,” said Danny Golshan, Donna Vinci’s co-owner. “Our focus is on being unique and bringing up-to-date clothing to our customers.”

With Hollywood not too far away, Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses such as the Italian Fashion Group have also supported the needs of costume designers for major television shows and films. The company, run by three Iranian- Jewish siblings, has become a top manufacturer of high-end, custom-made Italian suits that attract entertainment industry designers and celebrities such as Al Pacino, Terrence Howard and James Belushi.

“Our custom line of suits, Di Stefano, has become the pearl of our company,” said Shahrouz Stefano Kalepari, co-owner of the Italian Fashion Group, adding that their suits have appeared on such televisions shows as “The Mentalist,” “Castle,” “Law & Order: Los Angeles” and “The Defenders.”

“Our suits and shirts are 100 percent hand made and the patterns are designed from scratch for each individual order, to create a very personalized and custom fit for our customers. We use the most precious accessories such as horsehair canvas inside our suits, pure silk linings and mother-of-pearl buttons,” Kalepari said.

But with cheaper labor and raw material in China and the Far East flooding the Fashion District, Iranian-Jewish businesses have found it increasingly difficult to compete with Chinese goods.

Businessmen like Kalepari say they have had to be more aggressive in marketing their products and educating their customers about the higher quality of their clothing in order to survive.

“Unfair competition with China, combined with the lack of knowledge from some customers, makes it very frustrating at times,” Kalepari said. “But in the end, a high-quality product speaks for itself, and when a famous designer of top-quality clothes in Beverly Hills uses our company’s line for his own personal use, this gives us the utmost satisfaction that we have done the right thing and can survive in this market.”

Aside from the district’s retail and wholesale businesses, nearly 40 Iranian-Jewish real estate developers have purchased or constructed buildings and other properties over the years to further solidify the community’s influence in the area.

These Iranian-Jewish developers have not only upgraded the appearance of the stores and buildings in the area, but were pivotal in the creation and growth of the widely popular “alley” shopping area within the heart of the district — a nearly three-block stretch along Santee Street that resembles a Middle Eastern-style open bazaar.

“In the early 1980s, there was no alley in existence,” Neman said. “The idea to use the space in the alley area came from mostly Iranian Jewish developers who wanted to get the maximum use of their properties in the area by making these smaller spaces behind their buildings available for retailers.”

Not only have Iranian-Jewish businesses thrived and prospered in the fabrics and clothing industry, but city officials have praised the community’s entrepreneurial efforts during the last three decades of the Fashion District’s revitalization.

“The Persian community has helped to reshape the district by partnering with stakeholders in the area to form business development districts to keep the area safe and clean for business to thrive,” L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel said. “This community has been at the forefront of growth in the Garment District, and I am confident that the future will bring greater prosperity as downtown continues its transformation.”

The financial growth over the last 25 years alone in Southern California’s garment business speaks for itself.

“In 1984, California Mart in downtown’s Garment District did about $50 million in sales annually, which was for all the U.S. sales of garments on the West Coast,” Neman said. “Today the annual sales for the garment business in Southern California alone is $150 billion — and without a doubt it is because of the hard work of Iranian-Jewish- and Korean-owned businesses in downtown.”

Many local Iranian Jews also credit Ezat Delijani, one of the community’s most prominent real estate developers, who died in late August, for having transformed the area by pioneering mixed-use developments in downtown Los Angeles as well as for purchasing and renovating four historic theaters on Broadway near the Fashion District.

“The investment Ezat Delijani made in the historic area of Broadway brought new life to an area that was stricken with graffiti and blight,” said David Rahimian, a former special assistant to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “The Delijani family led a preservation effort that brought the theater back to life, not only making it a jewel on Broadway but a proud site for all Angelenos to enjoy.”

With all of their financial success, Iranian- Jewish businessmen in the area have still maintained their strong Jewish bonds in the district, even establishing three synagogues in the area.

Ohr HaShalom, also called the Downtown Synagogue, is perhaps the most popular synagogue in the Fashion District. Located inside a 300-square-foot storefront, it attracts up to 30 Iranian-Jewish businessmen for daily prayers.

“It’s more convenient for businessmen from our community to come to the synagogue that is close to their businesses in the area in order to do their early morning prayers or to say the Kaddish prayers on the anniversary of the deaths of their loved ones,” said Abner Cohen, a fabrics businessman and co-founder of Ohr HaShalom.

The other two synagogues in the area are located within the offices of Iranian-Jewish businesses, housing Torahs as well as other prayer books. Yet the business owners operating these office synagogues would not grant The Jewish Journal entry out of concern that the publicity could attract unwanted security challenges.

In addition to the synagogues, a handful of local rabbis frequent the different Iranian-Jewish-owned businesses in the Fashion District, providing free lunchtime classes on Torah and religious practices.

“We love teaching Judaism, and we offer these businessmen insights on how they could benefit from Torah in their everyday lives to become better fathers, better partners and better community members,” said Rabbi Yosef Shemtov, executive director of the Yachad Outreach Center, which is affiliated with the Pico-Robertson-based Torat Hayim synagogue.

Over the course of each week, Shemtov and two other Iranian Jewish rabbis from his group visit more than 50 Iranian-Jewish businesses in downtown’s fashion and jewelry districts. Their group began the teaching program for Iranian Jews working in downtown Los Angeles eight years ago and, Shemtov said, it has gradually grown in popularity.

Kosher restaurants in recent years have also popped up the Fashion District, including Snack 26 deli, offering sandwiches to Iranian-Jewish businessmen on the run, and Afshan Restaurant, providing customers with kosher chicken and beef kebabs as well as popular Persian stews and rice dishes. Both eateries also deliver to their clients downtown.

With all of the ups and downs in their businesses, Iranian Jews working in the Fashion District said their strong sense of spirituality and Jewish values have enabled them to continue working hard to achieve success in the fashion industry.

Shervin Arastoozad, an Iranian-Jewish designer and owner of Cut n’ Paste Handbags, says the one thing he’s learned about business is that you must build a foundation to get anywhere.

“One very important foundation for me has been Judaism and the morality it brings into [my] business and everyday life,” he said.

For more interviews with Iranian-Jewish businessmen in downtown’s Fashion District, visit Karmel Melamed’s blog at jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

Post-Gaza: A Time for Israelis to Reunite

The disengagement or expulsion has ended. But is this also the end of religious Zionism? Are there lessons we can and must learn that may enable us to emerge stronger from this most difficult period?

The first lesson we learned is that we are indeed one nation. There was no real violence, and there was even majestic fortitude and an exaltation of spirit displayed by many Gush Katif settlers and leaders.

On the other side of the barricades, only a small number of soldiers refused to carry out military evacuation orders, despite the charge to do so from major rabbinic voices; the soldiers and police behaved with incredible sensitivity and restraint.

It was heart wrenching but uplifting, a period in which I was both tear-filled and pride-filled to be an Israeli Jew.

Is this the end of religious Zionism? Only if the definition of religious Zionism is greater Israel, and only if “we want the Messiah now” has become not merely a future wish but the description of our present historical reality.

Remember that Maimonides developed a position of “normative messianism,” teaching “no one ought imagine that the normal course of events will be transformed during the messianic era, or that there will be a change in the order of creation; the world will continue in its normal course….”

From this perspective, no one had the right to declare, for example, that God would never allow Gush Katif to be dismantled, as some religious leaders did. Or that if we all prayed together at the Western Wall, our prayers would have to be answered. The only guarantees the Torah gives is that the Jewish people will never be completely destroyed, and that there will eventually be world peace emanating from Jerusalem.

As far as everything else is concerned, pray and work to achieve the best, but prepare for and be ready to accept the worst. The Talmud teaches “even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.” But, our sages declare, “It is forbidden to rely on miracles.”

Achieving the best means living a life of dialogue and engagement with our secular brothers and sisters.

It also may mean returning to the understanding of religious Zionism that predominated until the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. This Zionism was based on compromise regarding land, on our acceptance of a partition plan, which required our withdrawal from Sinai in 1956.

We held the modest belief that our era was merely “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption,” which would be a lengthy process fraught with advances and regressions, achievements and setbacks. It was this attitude of compromise that prevented us from a no-exit collision course with Palestinian fundamentalists screaming “not one grain of sand” on one side and our nationalists insisting “not one inch” on the other.

This spirit of compromise has fostered our constant presence in the government, even at times in rabidly secular governments, as an expression of our willingness to continue dialogue, even when we may vehemently disagree about issues of state. Only such a spirit of compromise will enable us to live together in a democratic state, and prevent our self-destruction in a fire of internal enmity, which destroyed the Second Commonwealth, even before the Romans touched the holy Temple.

It was after the agonizingly belated victory in the Yom Kippur War that car stickers began advertising “Israel has confidence in God.” At that point, a significant portion of religious Israel began to feel that the Messianic Age had already arrived, that greater Israel was an unstoppable phenomenon and that we must build settlements throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It was as though the Almighty entered into a covenant with our generation: We were to build the settlements, and God would guarantee their permanence.

And so we did. But in the process, we left the rest of the nation behind. Most of our settlements had screening committees — mainly religious conditions. During the last three decades, more and more national religionists have chosen to live in separatist communities apart from their secular siblings. Two nations were beginning to emerge — two nations that rarely interacted.

We also created magnificent schools, from day care centers for 6-month-olds to different strokes for different folks-type yeshiva high schools — running the gamut from Talmud intensive to music and art intensive. But these schools were all religious and inward reflecting in orientation. We did not take seriously many social problems plaguing Israeli society: forced prostitution, exorbitant bank interest rates, corruption in the highest places and the ever-climbing poverty graph. And although we were deeply involved in our own education, we seemed totally disinterested in secular educational institutions.

This disconnect was not all of our own making. Even though some of our founding fathers enjoyed bacon and eggs for breakfast, they were a far cry from Yossi Beilin, who wrote that his grandfather made a mistake for preferring Israel to Uganda in the Zionist Congress. And there’s Shimon Peres, who would have us join the Arab League and treat Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Couples as unimportant pieces of real estate.

No wonder we have drifted so far apart.

The main lessons of this disengagement must be our return to normative messianism, and the critical necessity of establishing a common language between the religious and secular based on Jewish culture — for the entire populace. One that must permeate our music, art and theater; our matnasim (Jewish centers) and our schools; our TV and radio.

And there must be more mixed neighborhoods and opportunities for interpersonal dialogue. We must resurrect the initial flag of religious Zionism, our tripod ideals of land, Torah culture and people. We must never again forget the majority of our people in our enthusiasm for land and Torah.

By so doing, we will learn to respect each other. And we may even create the kind of shared culture and values that will transform our state from a mini-New York to a light unto the nations, from a mirror of a decadent Western society to a model for a world of peace and mutual respect.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion, Israel, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, an educational network serving students from all religious backgrounds. He will be the scholar-in-residence at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills the Shabbat of Sept. 10. For more information, call (310) 278-1911.


A Thanksgiving to Fill the Spirit

On the evening before Thanksgiving, my synagogue, Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo, always gets together with a neighboring church, Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist, for an interfaith service. What is remarkable about this joint venture, and other pre-Thanksgiving services like it throughout the United States, is the fact that Jews and Christians can pray together under one roof.

My parents entered a church only for a neighbor’s wedding, funeral or other life-cycle event. On those rare occasions, they were invited guests, not participants.

My grandparents probably never entered a church. When they needed to pass by one, they would usually spit on the ground, and make sure to walk on the opposite side of the street.

My grandparents believed that entering a Christian house of worship contaminated them with bad luck. In addition to their superstition, they feared for their physical well-being. My grandparents knew that they could easily be harmed by church members, who erroneously learned in weekly sermons and in Sunday school lessons that "the Jews killed Christ."

Now, every year, on the evening before the national harvest festival, I take part in an event that my ancestors could never imagine happening: an interfaith service where prayers of friendship and thanksgiving are offered by both Jews and Christians, together as equal participants.

The event joyfully begins when Jewish congregants welcome their Christian neighbors, and sing, in Hebrew, Psalm 133: Hinay mah tov u’mah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad ("How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in harmony"). Church members respond, singing words from their hymn, "We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing…."

The service then proceeds with worshippers reading in unison a number of passages taken from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Talmud (the sacred literature of each faith’s tradition).

A clergy member brings the service to a close with a sermon. This year, when the service takes place at the church, the rabbi will deliver a message. Next year, when the service returns to the synagogue, the pastor will speak.

Many synagogue and church members feel this annual experience is esthetically the most beautiful worship service of the year. On no other occasion, including all of the other national holidays, are the values of democracy, freedom and pluralism more clearly expressed and represented. The service brings spiritual meaning to these values and the holiday, in general, that parades, football games, turkey dinners and even family gatherings do not capture.

The transcendence of history, though, particularly after Sept. 11, is the most impressive feature of the evening. What was a utopian or Messianic idea for my ancestors to contemplate has now become a yearly common occurrence. That transcendence, and the consequent hope it instills for the future, is perhaps the true blessing of Thanksgiving that we should appreciate.

Support for IsraelElementary to Watson

She may not know the word shteibel, but she knows what’s going on.

"I represented [them] before, you know, in the ’80s when I was a state senator," said Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), referring to the Jews of Hancock Park. "They wanted to pray, to have a temple in a house. I helped them get the permits."

When Watson runs for reelection this November, she’ll face some disadvantages not usually encountered by an incumbent politician. For one, she will have only represented her constituents for 18 months. She had won the House seat in a special election last year to replace the late Julian Dixon.

Another disadvantage is redistricting, which has changed the shape of her congressional district and added new voters groups that she has never represented in Congress before. Those new constituents include the active Jewish community of Hancock Park.

"I’m very pleased to have Hancock Park back," said Watson, whose redrawn 33rd District will retain her base in Culver City, Ladera Heights and South Los Angeles, at the same time adding Hancock Park and parts of the Hollywood and Silverlake areas. Watson represented much of the same area, including part of Hancock Park, when she became the first African American woman elected to state Senate in 1978, serving five terms.

In 1976, she became the first African American woman on the Los Angeles School Board. Before returning to elected office last year to fill Dixon’s congressional seat, Watson served two years as ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia.

As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Watson is aware of the tensions between African American and Jewish leaders that have grown during this election cycle, particularly the primary defeats of African American incumbents Earl Hilliard in Alabama and Cynthia McKinney in Georgia. Both incumbents were defeated with the help of Jewish organizations and individuals, largely from outside their House districts, concerned over their anti-Israel voting records.

In contrast to the two defeated House members, Watson has regularly supported Israel in Congress. She even met with Agudath Israel of America’s 2002 National Leadership Mission to Washington.

Watson, who sits of the House International Relations Committee, was quick to emphasize that the addition of the Jewish community in Hancock Park to her district does not add many Jewish voters to her constituency. The congresswoman explained that she lost Jewish voters in Cheviot Hills, the Pico-Robertson area and other parts of West Los Angeles in the same redistricting.

Her well-documented support for Israel, she said, is the result of her "long relationship with Israel, going back to the ’60s." In that decade, during a teaching stint in France, Watson made a side trip on her own to the Holy Land. "I’m a Catholic by the way, so the Via Dolorosa was an important place to visit."

In the 1980s, already familiar with the issues of the region and the importance of a strong Israel, Watson made an official trip to the country with a delegation from the state Legislature. During the visit, Watson conceived and later helped bring to Tel Aviv a statue honoring [African-American] Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, who helped negotiate the end of Israel’s War of Independence.

In November 2001, she delivered the keynote address at the "All Eyes on Israel" conference of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee on Campus (AIPAC), where she said that United States has no greater friend than Israel. "I just think we need to be there for Israel," she told The Journal, "and we certainly are."

Watson’s voting record reflects her visits to Israel and her public statements in support of the country. In December 2001, she voted for a House resolution urging action against Palestinian terrorism. In March of this year, she signed a letter to President Bush urging the addition of the Palestinian groups Tanzim, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Force 417 to the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

Watson has also voted in favor of the congressional resolution expressing solidarity with Israel in the fight against terrorism, and in favor of a strong foreign aid package for Israel. Elliot Brandt, AIPAC western regional director, called Watson "stellar in her support of Israel."

Watson is expected to easily win reelection in the heavily Democratic district. The California Public Policy Foundation predicted a "slam dunk" for the Democrat in its California Political Review newsletter.

The prediction, based on Democrats making up 69 percent of registered voters in the district, questioned only whether Republican challenger Andrew Kim will be able to match Bush’s 13 percent showing in the district 2000 election.

In a district which she called "hugely diverse," Watson represents approximately one-third African American voters, one-third Hispanics and one-third "everybody, everybody." The district includes Little Armenia, Thai Town, Koreatown and a Greek community. Luckily, Watson said, in foreign policy and her home district alike, "I’m a negotiator, not a pugilist."

‘Talking to God’

Several months ago, Carol Taubman called her longtime friend, Rabbi Naomi Levy, and asked her to teach her how to pray.

"Although I have a strong Jewish upbringing, with 11 years of day school and a traditional, observant home, I am not a person who ever prayed or who ever understood my relationship to God," said Taubman, a mother of two who works in real estate. "Temple was meaningless for me."

Levy told Taubman to repeat what she had just said to her about feeling disconnected from God and not knowing how to communicate with God — but this time to address those thoughts to God — and that in itself would be a prayer.

"Maybe I needed permission to understand that even though I don’t pray in a formal, traditional environment, I do pray, and I have a relationship with God," Taubman said. "It made me feel much more connected."

It is a scenario that Levy hopes will repeat itself as more and more people pick up her new book, "Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration" (Knopf).

In the book Levy writes honest, succinct and poetic prayers specific to different issues or times. She has daily prayers blessing God for food or for bodily functions, prayers asking God for patience and wisdom in dealing with children and a prayer for the ability to pray.

The book is poignant and probing, at once bringing out the deepest emotions and also the most complex thoughts, as readers must consider each component of their lives.

"I try to show people ways to address God and talk to God in plain English, and to have dialogue with God all the time," said Levy, who served seven years as rabbi at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and is married to Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman.

For many Jews, difficulty with prayer is most pronounced on the High Holidays, the time of year when more Jews pray than at any other period. Yet, the prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with their language of kingship and omnipotence, can often serve to distance Jews from God.

"I personally feel that God is very approachable and near, and unfortunately, I think on the High Holidays God may not seem so near to people, even though that is when God is supposed to be nearest," Levy said.

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills said Levy deals successfully, in a contemporary way, with a problem the Talmud acknowledges with prayer: the conflict between having set prayers at set times, and the need to express oneself honestly to God.

Vogel added, "Too often, even as rabbis, we are dealing with prayers that have been composed hundreds of years ago and can’t by the very nature of historical context deal with the issues that we confront today…. People think there is some magic formula to offering prayers, and [Levy’s book] tells people you can also write your own prayers."

Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise Temple said he would like to see Levy’s book in synagogues alongside the traditional Siddur or Machzor.

"This book is [a] wonderful companion to a prayer book — maybe most particularly during the Days of Awe — because people come to services with their own joys and their own sorrows and their own hopes and dreams, and often they don’t know how to express them. Naomi’s book, because of her depth of experience and her sensitivity, will help people give expression to those hopes and dreams."

Herscher is not worried that the book will replace traditional prayers. "I love nothing more than the traditional siddur, and I see this as a wonderful drash [explication] on the siddur," he said. "The two meet complementary needs: the need to be rooted in the tradition and the need to find new ways of expressing what is in our soul."

For Taubman, incorporating the prayers in Levy’s book and composing her own supplications made her closer to God, she said, making traditional prayers and her experiences in synagogue more meaningful. "I feel liberated to really personalize the prayers, and much more in control of my own experience," she explained.

Levy includes prayers for specific moments in life — a prayer to say on an anniversary or to bring back the spark in a marriage, one for healing when a marriage has dissolved or when one has been unfaithful. She provides blessings to recite over children, parents and loved ones.

There are also prayers for when a child moves out, a prayer to recite before a job interview, one to end procrastination and another to abstain from gossip. In addition, she has healing prayers for illness, addiction or disability. She includes a chapter covering pregnancy, childbirth, infertility, adoption and tragedies associated with pregnancy.

Levy began to write prayers when she was pregnant with her son nine years ago. When she wrote her book "To Begin Again," she instinctively included prayers at the end of every chapter for her own peace of mind, but planned to delete them before publication. Instead, she left them in, and the prayers became one of the most remarked upon elements of the book.

Like her first book, "Talking to God" is written and packaged to appeal to people of all faiths. Members of the Christian clergy have told her they have begun to utilize her book.

The book’s attraction goes beyond the prayers themselves. Many of the anecdotes Levy uses to carry the reader through chapters are amusing. In one, she recounts the time she saved a marriage after her phone number was mistakenly listed under a photo of "Islandgirl" on an X-rated Web site. The caller, intending to reach a prostitute, ended up speaking with a rabbi. But the stories also let readers know that they are not alone in whatever troubles they face.

In her conclusion, Levy encourages readers to become more active participants in the relationship they are already in — whether they know it or not — with God.

"God is here," she writes. "God is watching over us and hoping for us. God is waiting for us to notice the beauty in every breath we take, the potential in every encounter, the extraordinary possibilities of every ordinary day."

The Chief of Staff


Abraham Joshua Heschel said that he prayed for one thing: the giftof wonder. He prayed for astonishment, for the capacity to besurprised. As he wrote, “I try not to be stale. I try to remainyoung. I have one talent, and that is the capacity to be tremendouslysurprised at life and at ideas. This is to me the supreme Chassidicimperative.”

Heschel asked for surprise, and he gave surprise to the world. Hesurprised his faculty peers at the Jewish Theological Seminary; hesurprised his students and his friends.

What in the world was this man, named after his grandfatherAbraham Joshua Heschel, the Apter Rav, the last great rebbe ofMezvisch in the province of Podolia, Ukraine, doing, marching inSelma alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. RalphAbernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young?

What in the world was this Jew from Warsaw, whose life was sodeeply immersed in Chassidism and whose last two volumes, written inYiddish, on the life and thought of Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, doingin a march from Selma to Montgomery on behalf of the civil rights forAfrican-Americans?

What was this Jewish scholar, immersed in kabbalah, doing, leadinga delegation of 800 people into FBI headquarters in New York? Whatwas this bearded rabbi, surrounded by 60 police officers, doing,presenting a petition of protest against the brutality of the policein the South?

What was this pietist doing, heading a national Committee ofClergy and Laity Against the Vietnam War?

Dr. Robert McAfee Brown, the distinguished Protestant clergyman,told me how important Heschel’s anti-Vietnam War protests were andhow his theological views impacted Catholics and Protestants alike,including the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, who referred to Heschel as”Father Abraham.”

Heschel was severely criticized by Jewish leaders because anobsessive President Johnson had not too subtly threatened Jewishleaders that opposition to his war on Vietnam would adversely affectthe cordial relations between his administration and the State ofIsrael.

What was Heschel, whose father was buried next to the Baal ShemTov, doing, flying repeatedly to Rome during the deliberations ofVatican II, negotiating with Cardinal Bea, urging the elimination ofits mission to convert Jews? What was he doing, trying to affect theschema on the Jews and the mythic charge of deicide — the murder ofChrist by Jews?

Here again, Jewish leaders criticized him. They told him that itwas not dignified for him to fly back and forth to Rome. They saidthat they did not believe he would be successful. Heschel’s response:”What right have you not to believe and, therefore, not to attempt?”Heschel tried and succeeded. Heschel is the only Jewish thinkerquoted by a pope in this century. The pope was Paul II. AfterHeschel’s death, the Catholic publication “America” devoted an entireissue to his memory.

Heschel the Jew knew his place. His place was alongside King andwith the hounded marchers who were surrounded by the furious whitemobs.

Heschel the rabbi knew his place. After the march, he wrote, “WhenI marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” And with characteristichonesty, he added: “I felt again, as I have been thinking about foryears, that Jewish religious institutions have again missed a greatopportunity: namely, to interpret a civil rights movement in terms ofJudaism. The majority of Jews participating actively in it aretotally unaware of what this movement means in terms of the prophetictradition.” That was an important critique. Judaism is not areligious faith that can stand idly by as history passes. Judaism hassomething to say today to America and to the world, just as it did tothe Canaanite and Moabite and Amorite in the times of the Bible.”

The single deepest influence upon Heschel was the Jewish prophet.The prophet was his doctoral dissertation. The prophet drove his lifeand teaching. It was as a Jewish prophet that he addressed theConference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963. Before anaudience of blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, he started inthis manner: “The first conference on religion and race took place inEgypt. The main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses said,’Thus saith the God of Israel, “Let My people go.”‘ And Pharaohanswered, ‘Who is the Lord that I should heed His word? I will notlet them go.’

“The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end.Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but it is farfrom being complete. It was easier for the children of Israel tocross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain universitycampuses.”To understand Heschel, one has to understand his prophetictheology. Heschel’s God was not like the conventional God of thephilosophers or the theologians, including those of Judaism, such asPhilo or Moses Maimonides. Their philosophic conception of God waslogical, analytic and refined. Their God was modeled after Greekphilosophy, after the likeness of the God of Aristotle and Plato.

The God of the philosophers is perfect, by which they mean that Heis immutable and unchangeable — omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent.God has it all. God has no needs — no need for human affection, noneed for sacrifice or prayer.

This Hellenistic philosophy converges with much of Hindu andBuddhist viewpoints. The Hindu doctrine of karma, the law ofconsequences, operates inexorably, automatically. The deepestspiritual wisdom of karma counsels us to escape this wretched world,full of struggling and endless craving. Its wisdom counsels us toblow out the candle. Extinguish the self. Tear out the roots ofdesire.

Heschel sees God differently.

He sees God and human suffering through the eyes of the Jewishprophets. Judaism loves life and appreciates the desires of the heartand celebrates its Joy. It does not deny that there is suffering, butit does not remedy its pain by escaping from this world: Yes, thereis suffering, and we have an obligation to relieve suffering, tospread balm upon the wounds of the human being, to use science andcompassion, and to beautify life here in this world.

Unlike the Indian philosopher, the prophet declares: Do not blowout the candle of desire. Do not paralyze yourself with theanesthetic of nirvana. Recognize the pains and trials of life. But donot deny or abandon its reality. Transform it. Repair it. Mend it.While you emphasize the transmigrations of your past life, youforsake the holiness of opportunities in the present here and now.

Contrary to the Hellenistic theological point of view, Heschelsees God as anything but neutral or indifferent, cool or remote.Heschel understands God as caring, as being concerned, as needingfriends, as needing people, as entering into covenants with Israeland with humanity.

We are raised with the God of the philosopher. But this impassiveGod Heschel denies. God did not create the universe and humanity andthen resign from the world and from man. Heschel, deeply influencedby the Jewish mystical tradition, contends that God needs man, Godneeds allies, God needs help. Heschel’s God is marked by pathos,rachmonis. God feels; the prophet feels. The God of the prophets isangry at justice. The God of the prophets is moved to tears by theoppression of the weak. He is outraged by the humiliation of theweak.

For the classical theologians, God is concerned with eternalessence, with definitions and proofs. But the Jewish prophet’s God isconcerned about widows, and orphans, and poor people, and pariahs,and strangers, and aliens, and the submerged and the beaten. TheJewish prophet’s God is angry at the corruption by kings, priests andunscrupulous entrepreneurs. God is not aloof. God cannot standslavery, humiliation, oppression. He condemns it whether it comesfrom Jews or non-Jews.

The prophet is not the philosopher. The prophet feels fiercely.Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony of voice,to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. TheJewish prophet is not tranquil. He is no Zen master beyond humanstress and tears. He is filled with agitation and
anguish, andrefuses to acquiesce and accept. The prophet cannot sleep, and hegives no sleep to those he addresses.

The Jewish prophet hates bribery and ritual deceit. God will notbe fooled by sacrifices and incense. Listen to the voice of Jeremiah:”Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incenseto bow and go after other gods that you have not known and then comestand before Me in this house which is called by My name and say, ‘Weare delivered.'”

So, what was this man, this rabbi, this Jew, doing in Selma and inRome and in Vietnam? He was there because he was a serious Jew whotook the prophets seriously. He was in Selma, Rome and Vietnam, justas Abraham was at Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet refuses to be mute.

Heschel’s critics have derided his theology as filled withanthropomorphisms, images that are taken from human beings. Thecritics may be right: Heschel’s God is morally all too human. Butthere is something that is deeply persuasive in Heschel’s God ofmoral pathos. He may not be right about how God feels or reacts, butis he not right about the attributes of God that are revealed in theconscience of the prophet? We may have philosophic quarrels aboutHeschel’s conception of God, but not with his morality. The propheticexperience of God as a Being filled with pathos, must be behaved byhuman beings. Men and women who believe in God behaviorally cannot beindifferent. For, as Heschel writes, “the opposite of good is notevil but apathy.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), Ralph Bunche,Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Abernathy in 1965 on the Selma toMontgomery march.

How did such a friendship develop between Martin Luther King Jr.and Abraham Joshua Heschel? How is it that on the occasion of the60th birthday of King, Heschel said, “The whole future of Americawill depend upon the influence of Dr. King.”

And it is King who described Heschel as “one of the great men ofour day…a truly great prophet…. All too often, I have seenreligious leaders amid the social injustices that pervade our societymouthing pious irrelevancies. But Rabbi Heschel is one of those whorefuses to remain silent behind the safe security of stained-glasswindows. He has been with us in many struggles. I remember marchingfrom Selma to Montgomery, how he stood by my side.”

Heschel knew where his place was as a Jew.

Heschel marched because it is not only important to protest but todo so in public, in the sight of men and women.

Heschel was able to reach out to non-Jews, to Christians of allcolors and of all creeds, because he understood that, while we maypray in different languages, our tears are the same. That profound,deep, Jewish theological humanism and universalism is needed todaymore than ever.

“What do we need to attain a sense of significant being?” Heschelasked. He answered, “Three things: God, a soul and a moment.” Thesethree are always here. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live isholy.

Saluting Heschel

Celebrate the life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. at these events:

Jan. 16

* Temple Israel of Hollywood

7300 Hollywood Blvd.

(213) 876-8330

Excerpts of Heschel’s theology (Part 1) at the Family ShabbatService, 7:30 p.m.

* Kol Tikvah Congregation

20400 Ventura Blvd.

Woodland Hills

(818) 348-0670

Rabbi Steven Jacobs and Dr. Clinton A. Benton of the CalvaryBaptist Church of South Central Los Angeles will hold a jointcelebration of Heschel and King at the Sabbath services, beginning at7:30 p.m. Cantor Caren Glasser and the Calvary Sanctuary Choir willparticipate. The service is open to everyone.

Jan. 17

* Excerpts of Heschel’s theology (Part 2) at Temple Israel’sShabbat Service, 10:00 a.m.

Jan. 18

* Temple Israel’s Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh teaches a class onHeschel’s theology

* Rabbi Laura Geller will teach three seminars on Heschel and Kingat the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Yom Limud at Taft High School.For times and information, call (818)587-3250.

Jan. 23

* Temple Emanuel

Beverly Hills

(310) 288-3742

The seventh- and eighth-graders of the temple’s day school willlead a special Erev Shabbat service honoring Heschel and King at 8p.m. Guest speaker will be Genethia Hayes, executive director of theSouthern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California and aleading African-American educator.


Highlights from a Life

Jan. 11, 1907: Born in Poland to distinguished Chassidicfamily. Educated at the University of Berlin and in Talmud andkabbalah.

1937: Appointed by Martin Buber as his successor at aJewish college in Frankfort am Main.

1938: Deported to Poland by Nazis, then immigrated toLondon, where he created the Institute for Jewish Learning. Hismother and several other family members are killed by Nazis.

1940-45: Professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.He marries Sylvia Straus.

1945: Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary.

1963: Heschel meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago.

1965: Marches beside King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

1965: Co-founds Clergy and Laymen Concerned to oppose theVietnam War.

1966: Meets with Pope Paul VI and becomes involved inSecond Vatican Council.

Dec. 23, 1972: Dies in his sleep in New York City.

Major Works:

“Man Is Not Alone” (1950)

“The Sabbath” (1955)

“God In Search of Man” (1955)

“Israel: An Echo of Eternity” (1969)

“The Prophets” (1962)

Source: “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays ofAbraham Joshua Heschel,” edited by Susannah Heschel (Farrar StrausGiroux) *